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

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."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test