“Can you hang on a minute? I’m just cleaning out the Portaloo.”
That was pretty much the first thing Ann Myers said when she picked up the phone.
Ann Myers was clearly busy. Here was a level 2 angling coach who wasn’t sitting quietly at the waterside teaching community participants how to fish. Instead, she was making sure the basics were in place so that the Liverpool-based North West Angling Academy could fulfil its self-imposed commitment to ‘Angling for ALL’ and provide regional schools, colleges, homeless institutions, well-being and mental health organisations with appropriate angling opportunities for their charges.
Today, the coaching was left to the others. Ann Myers was shovelling… stuff.
As the mantra suggests, the NWAA offers angling as a community opportunity for literally everyone. If people in the north-west can’t afford to fish, are in need of company and a purpose or perhaps even a little love, the NWAA and Ann Myers are there.
“I think my responsibility is not to teach people to fish,” said Ann. “My responsibility is to give them confidence and patience. If they catch a fish, that’s a bonus.”
It feels like the mantra that all such organisations should follow when offering fishing as a socially inclusive activity. From very early on in our conversation, it’s abundantly clear that Ann believes it’s as much – if not more – about providing the beneficiaries of this volunteer service with respectable facilities and friends they can rely on. The physical act of fishing is a conduit for wider benefits.
“I used to volunteer for the Get Hooked on Fishing programme. To begin with I took my eldest son to a session. I’d never fished before, but my son is incredibly passionate about it and because he’s ADHD and Asperger’s I had to go with him. Within a week I was engrained in it.”
The snowball effect was rapid. After taking the Level 1 and Level 2 coaching courses and setting out to empower people from all sections of society to fish irrespective of background or circumstance, people started calling Ann for help. First it was a request to distribute tackle that was no longer wanted elsewhere. Then schools got in touch, as did others involved in recovery programmes and in the homeless sector.
“If I had to tell you when the NWAA properly started, I couldn’t,” said Ann. “It just sort of happened.
“All of a sudden, we were asked to deliver sessions and help people. A friend of mine has a fishery in Liverpool, so what started off as 10 rods, 10 reels, ten whips, ten chairs and ten maggot boxes, has turned into an office, a classroom, a kitchen, a reception and a really nice lake. And we do it all for free because our local authority doesn’t pay social prescribing for angling.”
Small, affordable payments, usually from the relevant organisation, are taken for the individual sessions, but it’s purely for tackle, bait and general upkeep. Ann Myers started the journey as a volunteer and that has never changed.
“We’ve adapted equipment for people with Cerebral Palsy and they love it. We have kids who don’t like mixing, so they have the same coach every time to give them consistency. They don’t just turn up and get anybody.
“We have a little lad called Josh who has Cerebral Visual Impairment, speech delay and learning difficulties and comes along on a regular basis. He fishes for five minutes and then says: ‘duck’ which is one of the few words he can say. So, we just go off and find ducks!
“On a more general basis, we don’t just sit with the young people who come to us and say, ‘ooh, that’s a carp. We try and extend it. In the coming weeks we’re putting QR codes around the lake and on the trees and plants so when they check out the codes with the tablet that we have, it’ll bring up the names of things and even tell them the depth of the water in a certain area. We try and bring technology into it as much as we can despite being outdoors.”
When it comes to adult participation there are other, sometimes more forbidding issues for organisations such as Ann’s to consider such as the potential complications when receiving people who are vulnerable and homeless. With a determination that seems unrelenting, the NWAA and Ann have confronted the potential problems by adopting pro-active solutions that promote positive interaction, confidence and trust. What has emerged is a programme of activity that fulfils both general standards and official compliance in equal measure and could easily serve as a template for others to follow.
“The homeless thing came out of the blue. We’re not social workers or mental health practitioners, even if we might feel like that at times. We go into hostels and make rigs and bait and when the residents come out with us again, they use their own rigs and bait and the sense of achievement is unbelievable. It all helps to break up their days because, however well they’re looked after, they can go stir crazy. They can get bored sitting in there and that’s when trouble can start between people with very different personalities.
Ann says the impact of a day’s angling is palpable. “There are people who didn’t become homeless because they used substances, they used substances because they became homeless. When you ask them why, they say it numbs the pain. So, some just come out fishing for something to eat because we provide food and company. Some come and ‘fish’ but don’t even put bait on the hook. They’ll say, ‘it’s a bit quiet today’ but they’ll just sit there for hours. We know they’re not fishing; they know they’re not fishing but to everyone else it looks like they are. They simply say going fishing makes them feel free.”
So now, the onward plan is for this to be a programme and an approach that, with the help of the Angling Trust and other authorities, could be extended beyond the north-west and into other regions across the country. The NWAA isn’t looking to run things, but it can be the standard-bearer for others to follow, tap into and learn from.
“We are hoping to finally become a CIC (Community Interest Company) soon. We wanted to make sure we had a suitable team in place first, but we now have the core and we want to extend the homeless sessions by installing kit into hostels and getting them bait. We also hope the Environment Agency will finalise some sort of corporate rod licence where we can sign-up registered homeless people to an umbrella membership which states they’re entitled to go fishing with us.
“There are Level 2 coaches across the country I know well and we’ve clearly all bought our moral compasses from the same shop. But there just needs to be more consistent regulation across the board and an umbrella process as a standard.”
So, the NWAA ‘snowball’ is still rolling and in the not too distant future, it may create enough momentum to support a national roll-out. Not even the lady who tends the Portaloo knows when – or where – the snowball will stop.