When it comes to brightening someone’s day, never underestimate the power of fishing. Miranda Thompson signs up for an afternoon with the Masonic Fishing Charity to find out how young people are finding companionship and catching the smile
Matthew’s smile is radiant as the sunlight glints off the scales of the mirror carp in his hands. It’s reflected in the face of George Brutnall, the Freemason fisherman who’s helped him land perch and roach, and is now pointing out the translucent dragonflies. On one of July’s rare sunny days, this is not your usual fishing expedition. Organised by the Northamptonshire branch of the Masonic Fishing Charity (MTSFC), a team of volunteers together with 20 disabled and disadvantaged children and adults have gathered for a day of coarse fishing.
The proceedings are brought alive by the volunteer fishermen, who smile as their companions spray feed into the water – good for getting the fish to nibble around the bait. They spring into action as the fluorescent floats disappear under the water, the tell-tale sign that they’ve hooked a fish. The group will fish throughout the day, only breaking for lunch, before a special prize-giving in which every participant will be rewarded for their efforts.
Inside the gazebo-cum-kitchen, burgers are already sizzling ahead of the barbecue lunch. Chief executive of the Masonic Fishing Charity Ken Haslar recalls how, under the leadership of Jim Webster, a group of six Middlesex and London Freemasons with a common interest in fishing first came up with the idea 12 years ago. ‘We ran a raffle to raise a bit of money for something where the prize was a day’s fishing. The winner wasn’t a fisherman and he was partially sighted, so he said, “Don’t take me, take some children.” He organised it with a school he was associated with and so we had our very first event at Syon Park in Brentford.’
Ken explains that the original intention was for the day to be a one-off event: ‘But when the school left saying, “When can we come again?” we realised that we’d started something that was worth pursuing.’ Now some 1,400 volunteers are involved in the 60 events that the Masonic Fishing Charity will be holding this year, welcoming around 1,000 children across the country to fly-fishing as well as the coarse fishing events. ‘At the moment we have 25 branches in 25 different provinces,’ Ken says. ‘And we’re always on the lookout for volunteers. People are vital to us and they don’t need to be masons – about 60 per cent of our volunteers are not.’
But what is it about fishing that makes the day work? ‘Teachers find that the children who will run riot in class will happily sit here and hold a rod. I’ve lost count of the number of times that teachers have said to me, “Can we bring them here again?”’ says Ken.
Today, little blonde-haired Izzy – known by her teachers for her non-stop ‘twiddling’ and fidgeting – has stunned them by becoming quietly absorbed in the activity. Further down the bank, Freemason Richard Cullinan sits in companionable silence with William, who will later go on to win ‘Most Patriotic Outfit’ for his England cap and Union Jack wellies. As William sprays a shower of sweetcorn onto the still water, Richard reflects on the experience. ‘It’s incredible how much it’s grown since it started,’ he says. ‘The very first time I attended was at Syon Park, with a little girl who was blind. We caught the largest trout that day.’ Why does he come back? ‘I just like being able to do something for the adults and the children.’
That sense of companionship is the crux of the project, explains Ken. ‘They sit next to their fishermen who will show them as much as they are able to do. We say to them that it’s not for you to prove how good you are, but to show them how good they can be,’ he says, adding that there are also charity days for young offenders. ‘The relationship that’s formed is just as important. For many of these children, it restores a confidence in adults that they maybe don’t get at home.’
The day has certainly captured the imagination of teacher Nikki Clark, who is here with children from the Corby Business Academy. Pointing to a young teen in a pink baseball cap, she says: ‘If you see Jessica with Howard, she’s been a real star today. She’s never been fishing before and yet caught 20 fish this morning. She’s learning new skills, mixing with people she doesn’t know and really improving her communication.’
Nikki’s days out with the Masonic Fishing Charity have inspired her to create an AQA (Awarding Body for A-levels, GCSEs and other exams) award that children can gain if they do a day’s coarse fishing experience – with an award for the slightly trickier fly-fishing also in the pipeline.
‘We have a list of six different outcomes for them to achieve, then it’s accredited by AQA and they receive a separate external certificate. Anyone who is signed up to the AQA unit award can sign up to the unit and then be accredited for it.’
For Ken, the AQA award is the icing on the cake. ‘It’s amazing,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘It means that any special needs child or young adult can achieve something. It never ceases to amaze me.’
BENEFICIAL TO ALL
VIP of the day Deputy Provincial Grand Master of Northants & Hunts Dr Viv Thomas is in charge of presenting the certificates. He believes that the charity benefits Freemasonry just as much as its participants. ‘It takes Freemasonry away from the masonic halls and gets us out in the community. It gives so many people opportunities to get away from another existence. The most important thing is the joy that people have on their faces.’ Ken has coined the phrase ‘Catch the Smile’ to capture the mood of these days spent by the water. ‘We’re catching fish, we’re catching smiles,’ he says. ‘Why do people come back? We are all volunteers and what started as a simple idea of taking a few disabled children fishing has turned into a major organisation that not only catches fish but delivers a whole lot more – that’s the number one reason for everything we do.’