'What am I running away from?'

By the waterside, a group of veterans cast a line

Our weekend read is by Dani Cole, The Mill’s first staff member. You can follow Dani on Twitter here.

The surface of the Rochdale and District Angling Society pond betrays no sign of the fish in its waters. But they are there — there’s perch, the bronze-scaled carp, glittering roach, barbel, and the olive-bodied tench.

Along the old mill pond’s northern bank, a small group of anglers have settled at their pegs. To try and catch a fish, they’ll sit for long, uninterrupted periods — there is little else to do other than to gaze at the water. The rhythm of fishing is unhurried: check the line, adjust the rod. If the fish aren’t biting, they can be lured up from the brackish depths. A hand is scooped into a green plastic tub for a wriggling cluster of powdery red and white maggots and they are tossed into the water.

For some of the anglers, the net they use to land a fish will remain empty for the whole two hours they are here. But this isn’t competitive angling — everyone is here for the simple, restorative pleasure of being outdoors. It’s a beautiful, warm day and the location is picturesque. The mill ponds are in the green fringes of Castleton, the birdsong piercing through the dull roar of the M62.

Behind the group, there’s a small redbrick lodge and the wood surrounding it is running riot with bluebells, comfrey and luscious stands of garlic mustard. The fishing spot is canopied by sun-dappled hornbeams, small-keyed sycamores, and tall, white-crowned chestnuts.

All of the people here have at some point in their lives taken up arms for this country. The ex-servicemen and women have been brought here by Healthier Heroes, a Burnley-based charity whose mission is to untangle the psychological and emotional knots created by life in the armed forces.

The man leading the session is David Lyons, founder of Tackling Minds, a local charity that helps people with their mental health through fishing and is partnering with Healthier Heroes. He’s got an easy-going manner and jokes with everyone. As a teenager, he used to fish in the local ponds around Oldham and his favourite fish to land is the tench — difficult to catch but satisfying when they’re reeled in. “They give a really good fight when you hook one,” he says.

His job is to wander between the pegs, offering advice, helping with the equipment and chatting with the group. There’s a blue disgorger pushed under his cap. It’s a pencil-like piece of plastic that he uses to deftly unhook the fish if the barb has gone too far for him to reach with his fingers. Fishing venues change each week, and on a typical week he’ll take four groups from different backgrounds out.

Tackling Minds was established last November. David experienced anxiety and would use alcohol to self-medicate before the “physical addiction” took hold. There weren’t any specific triggers, but he thinks that years of social drinking had a knock-on effect. He returned to fishing after 15 years and found it was far more effective than the talking therapies and medications he was on. He lists the benefits fishing brings: the social interaction, learning a new skill, getting outside in the fresh air.

Over the years he’s gone through four detoxes and estimates his alcohol addiction spanned more than a decade. He tried escaping by travelling — he worked in construction and moved to Australia for a while, but couldn’t shake it off.

His most recent relapse was last year in Bali, just as the world was beginning to close off its borders because of the pandemic. He managed to get the last flight out, bound for home. During a stopover in Doha, where alcohol is banned, his body started to shut down as he went into withdrawal. “With addiction or mental health, it doesn’t discriminate,” he says. “It can happen to anyone.”

“It’s the shared respect,” John, 45, tells me, describing why he likes being here. He and David are talking openly about their treatment and recovery. John was a heroin user and was prescribed methadone, a synthetic opiate to taper off his addiction. He’d go to the pharmacy, which would have a quiet back room so he could take it without people watching.

Between 1994 and 1997, he served in the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. In 1996, 1st Battalion was sent to Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of the NATO-led multinational Implementation Force. “It was rough,” he says. He remembers children “who would do ‘owt for sweets.” They would “dive over” walls when the soldiers gave them out.

He’s spent the last three years in a psychiatric hospital after being sectioned for paranoid schizophrenia. He doesn’t feel like fishing today but is contentedly sitting by the water. What is it about angling that he enjoys? “You can hear the birds sing,” he says, “It’s not knowing what you can catch, watching the float go under and then striking at the right time.” John says you can watch the float for “hours and hours.”

Tackling Minds partnered with Healthier Heroes after David saw a news segment on TV about them. He respected their work and wanted to help. Another partnership is with the Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust, whose patients will be among the first in the country to be prescribed fishing as a form of treatment to improve mental health. This is so-called social prescribing, a practice where GPs can refer patients to non-clinical services, and it can involve activities such as gardening, arts and cookery.

A few pegs down, Jane, 51, is casting her line into the water. She grew up in Leeds and always wanted to be in the forces. The military had been a part of her family: both grandfathers had been in the army. “It was pretty much expected that I join up.”

She is transgender and transitioned to being a woman last year. “It was the worst year of my life,” she says. She first started dressing in women’s clothes aged five. When her father caught her doing it, he would beat her. It wasn’t until Caitlyn Jenner transitioned that Jane realised she was transgender. “I didn’t even know what I was feeling back then,” she says. Part of her motivation for joining the military was to “get away” from her inner turmoil. 

She served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps from 1990 to 1993, disarming World War II bombs. During the backend of her service, she was posted to Northern Ireland. On one occasion they were called out to an incident on the Falls Road in west Belfast. It was an IRA ambush. Three of her friends were shot and killed. “Had I not bent down to see if one of my mates was alright...” she says. “Long story short, I heard the bullet that was meant for me go past my ear.”

Her army career ended when she was diagnosed with spondylosis, degeneration of the vertebral column caused by years of carrying a 90kg bergen. Her knees and her back were painful. “There’s the door, and don’t let it hit you on your way out,” is how she describes the discharge from service. She left the army homeless.

For the past 28 years, she’s “bummed around.” Keeping a job down was difficult. She suffers from PTSD, anxiety and depression. She’s been homeless three times during her life and was referred to Healthier Heroes last month. “We’ve all got different stories,” she says, gesturing to her fellow anglers. “We all loved the army.”

Fishing with Tackling Minds, as well as the counselling and support she receives at Healthier Heroes has enabled her to make small, positive steps in her life. She is living in the charity’s accommodation, too. “They’ve been amazing,” she says. Together they are unpicking the damages of the past. “What am I running away from?” she asks, not expecting an answer.

She enjoys fishing, and “watching the river go by, putting bait on your hook and casting out and not thinking about anything apart from the fish biting.”

In 2010, the Community Benefits of Angling research project proposed that angling deserved greater recognition as a form of ecotherapy — the use of “green exercise” as a treatment option for mental distress. The healing power of fishing has been linked to the presence of water. On its website, Tackling Minds refers to “blue-green spaces,” — the marrying of lakes and rivers with meadows and woods. There’s just something mesmeric about watching the water.

Near the end of the session, a carp makes off with Jane’s rod, dragging it into the water — she reckons it was a 15-pounder and holds up her hands to show its size. David goes over to her peg to investigate, even though there’s no chance of retrieving it unless he feels like swimming. The excitement goes unheeded by one of the group. Lulled by the sounds of the water and warmed by the late-spring sunshine, he’s slipped into a comfortable doze.


Find out more about Tackling Minds here, and about Healthier Heroes here.

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