Aristocrats offer war veterans sanctuary
A group of former soldiers has found a unique way to rebuild their lives. Jonathan Rendall joins them in Surrey
Sunday 05 June 2011
It is going to be their worst nightmare, surely. As the men of the Combat Stress Angling Society watch their floats, a military helicopter heaves into view above them. The men are veterans of conflicts from the Falklands to Iraq. Each has the imprint of war on their lives in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Only in fishing together – just them, no one else – can they find temporary solace from the flashbacks.
The only taboo subjects among them are details of combat and death.
Now the calm of the small lake near Farnham in Surrey is about to be shattered by that most chilling reminder of warfare: an attack helicopter.
As the thump of rotor blades becomes audible, only Mad Dog, otherwise known as John, a veteran of the Falklands and the first Gulf War, bothers looking up. "Apache," observes Pete the Painter, adding, "Yeah, I suppose there's a large part of each of us that hasn't left the military." In his late forties, a few years older than Mad Dog, he could pass for a suburban accountant but for his eyes, which flicker with a manic alertness.
The group's founder is Frank, 60, a grizzled former paratrooper who served in Northern Ireland. Thirty other men have joined since he formed the club with Bones, aka Alan, a medic on HMS Sheffield, sunk during the Falklands conflict. Both were receiving help from Combat Stress, the veterans' mental health charity.
Frank takes new recruits to the lake because of its seclusion. Until diagnosed, many PTSD sufferers become reclusive. "It's ideal because it's quiet, and I know they'll catch fish, but the important thing is the lads feel safe," he says. "We look out for each other here. Bones calls fishing here 'therapy for the soul'. A lot are in denial. They won't admit their PTSD problem."
At first, Frank made fishing rods himself with odd bits of tackle from car-boot sales. As numbers swelled, he solicited local tackle shops. He decided to make the club official. "We wanted to register ourselves as 'Fine', but they said it was an inappropriate name." Why? "Because it stands for Fucking Incapable of Normal Expression."
This small group has just been granted free access to fishing at more than 50 stately homes, including Blenheim Palace. A therapist at Combat Stress brought them to the attention of a philanthropic aristocrat, Lady Victoria Leatham.
Lady Leatham, a keen salmon fisherman and former honorary colonel of the Royal Anglians, says modestly that facilitating such venues was not difficult. "All you have to do is ask. My problem has been trying to get in touch with the soldiers, and some people's attitudes. People say, 'Oh well, they got through the First and Second World Wars all right'. But look at the number of these men who are living on the street. A backfiring car can set them back."
William Montgomery, whose family has lived at Grey Abbey in County Down, Northern Ireland, since 1606, said: "Lady Victoria rang us, and I know her of old, so I said 'yes', subject to the approval of the angling club that rents my waters. The club said overwhelmingly they'd be delighted to host them."
Peter Sinclair, of the 1,500-strong Historic Homes Association, said: "It's a great cause and I hope it's something that can grow. Most members have very large estates with some fishing. We encouraged them to sign up. Victoria must take the credit. She gets things done."
Combat Stress has 30 beds at Tyrwhitt House treatment centre in Leatherhead, not far from the lake. It has 4,500 patients on its books, some still from the Second World War.
Pete the Painter first came to the lake just to paint. When two rods had bites at once, he took one over. Pete reeled in the biggest fish of the day. "I was hooked, so to speak," he says. "The main thing about fishing is the same as painting. The rest of the world goes away."
His paintings reveal his talent. Of one, a series of disturbing, transparent images, he says: "That was my PTSD painting. There was a solid figure in the back, and every image in front was see-through. It was looking through at your former self, trying to get it back." He didn't display it. "I put my boot through it, threw it away."
Today, no fish are landed until Pete reels in a small carp and then another. Each is held tenderly before being returned to the water. He is an incompetent, if lucky, fisherman, he insists. "I've caught every tree round this lake, and brollies, I even caught a rod from my bag once and cast that out."
So far, they have fished only Burghley of the stately homes, after a personal tour with Lady Leatham. "She said she would set up a fund for us, but we said we just want somewhere where there's not a lot of general public."
Later, inside Tyrwhitt House, Bones admits: "I was struggling a bit. I don't mind if I catch nothing. It's safety in numbers. Safety as a unit."
HMS Sheffield's sinking by an Exocet missile in May 1982 killed 24 and seriously wounded 20 more. TV footage of the event horrified Britain. "The incident was three hours long. But in that time I saw more than 30 incidents,'' he recalls.
Before diagnosis with PTSD he was bewildered. His wife left him. "She'd had enough of being with a hand-grenade with the pin pulled out. You feel ashamed. You were highly motivated, highly trained; everything you did was with gusto. You go from that to having your brain broken. At reunions, it's 'There's Bones, he's lost the sodding plot'."
He now regards his stints at Tyrwhitt House as necessary. The angling society is equally important. A year ago Bones, so called because he is 6ft 6in and "lanky", was intent on suicide. Mad Dog talked him out of it.
"I've got this constant video in my head," Bones admits. "When you've seen the horrors of war and you're sat by a place like that lake, the beauty calms you, it turns the sound down. It really does soothe the soul."
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