Fishing out the real 'Big Society' in Britain

Despite the Government’s best efforts to sugar coat the harsh reality of the country’s financial situation, the idea that the ‘Big Society’ will offer a meaningful solution is proving a bitter pill to swallow for many people. Only time will tell whether phrases such as “the Big Society - a smoke screen masking impending deep cuts” materialise into anything other than cynical commentary – let’s hope not. But against a backdrop of scepticism a little gem of a fishing club, just outside of Birmingham, proves that if the ‘Big Society’ is – as the Government seek to reassure us - only a new label given to the work of charities and individuals delivering community benefits, and not a replacement of essential services, then there is nothing to fear.

Barnt Green Fishing and Sailing Club manage the recreational activities on the Bittell reservoirs, located on the south west fringe of Birmingham. Given its proximity to England’s second largest city it is a restorative little haven away from the stresses of modern life, and on 10th August was the setting for the annual ‘Fishy Facts and Water Worlds Great Outdoors Day’ – a children’s outdoor learning initiative. The event was set up in 2008 by The Countryside Alliance Foundation (TCAF) and Barnt Green Fishing Club, who donate its facilities and member’s free time, to teach children about the hydrology, history and ecology of local area, as well as giving them the chance to try their hand at fishing, falconry and ferret racing.

Unlike many other ‘outdoor’ education days that involve children as bystanders, Clare Rowson, Regional Director of TCAF, promises real interaction: ‘the philosophy of the day is for the children to learn by doing and there is no such thing as bad weather only inappropriate clothing’. Such attitudes mark a refreshing change from the usual health and safety paranoia that often stifles children being allowed to have fun getting a little muddy or wet.

This year 27 children took part. While the club would like to increase capacity, keeping the day small means all children get to participate in and get one to one tuition across the activities. But the demand for outdoor learning is growing according to Clare: ‘The first year we ran the event I was struggling for numbers, now I have to turn people away which I don’t like doing. We conducted research among 2000 school age children and found that 85 per cent wanted to take part in fishing and falconry through school – so it’s great we can offer these activities in the school holidays. The fishing club is immensely generous and I can’t thank them enough, hopefully in the future I can find other clubs who want to help out so we can get more children into the outdoors.’

John Tate, the Chairman of the Barnt Green Fishing Club, introduced the day. He is an encyclopaedia of local knowledge and a passionate angler who enthusiastically delivered the only theoretical session of the day. He held the attention of the group long enough to tell them about the construction of the Bittell reservoirs for the local canals, the benefits and drawbacks of the industrial revolution on the local environment and economy and types of wildlife that live in the area today. After noticing a few glazed
expressions John pointed out a stuffed pike on the wall and barked: ‘So children, who wants to catch one of these?’ A roar of enthusiasm followed and children were sent on their way with group leaders to begin their activities.

Our group had coarse and fly fishing sessions to complete before lunch and with five excitable children in tow we met our expert volunteer fishermen on the water’s edge. With children assigned to their personal instructors I dashed between their squeals of joy taking photos of them with different sizes of perch, roach and bream. However, that cheeky pike the children were so interested in proved rather elusive, as was the mastery of the perfect fly cast.

The patience of Ken Giles, a distinguished competition angler who captained the Shakespeare Professional Angling Team, was perfect antidote to furrowed brows of frustration. His team helped the children with the subtle movements required for fly casting, bolstering confidence when their
flies ‘hit’ various fish shaped targets, and good willingly waded in to retrieve stuck and tangled lines. The coarse fish may have elicited whoops and yelps, but after practice fly casting brought out equal enthusiasm, just in the form of persistence and concentration. The onset on tummy rumblings marked the end of the morning’s activities.

Fly tying was the perfect start to the post lunch activities. In front of a vice each child began the journey of turning a bare fish hook into a credible fly capable luring a fish begins. Norman Clowes gently lead the group through the meticulous process of winding thin cotton thread around the shaft of the hook to create the ‘body’ of the fly. Stage two was a fiddly process, involved placing a short section of thick white cotton thread on the shaft while winding the thin yarn around it, tying a few knots and creating a tail. Needless to say my spare pair of hands was in great demand and I too shared the children’s relief when our efforts were congratulated and we were allow to use the microscopes to view the types of bugs we tried to imitate.

High octane activities were also on the timetable and Bob Edwards, a falconry expert from Warwickshire, fired up the group. ‘Who wants to go ferret racing?’ he shouted. ‘Me, me, me, me’. Grabbing a huddle of confused looking ferrets from their beds he makes his way to the start of the racing lanes and pops the ferrets in their holding boxes. With each child given a gate and an instruction to lift on command the ferrets are ready to run. ‘Three, two, one, go!’ yells Bob. The ferrets scuttle their way toward the encouraging squeals. ‘My one has won’ yells Thomas, but according to racing rules all of the ferret’s body must emerge to qualify as the winner and Manny’s ferret scrapes through as the winner. After a few rounds of racing Bob flies his birds of prey for the children and lets them hold Richard and Bomber the friendly Harris hawks.

The day drew to a close with a nature walk and pond dipping session, and during this session I got the chance to talk to some of the volunteers and staff. Judy, the gentle spirited ex club secretary explained why she volunteers: ‘I have been coming here since I was a teenager and it is so important to me that we encourage more young people to enjoy and understand this beautiful place – a few hours of my time is the least I can offer.’ Fred Rollins the bailiff employed by the club added: ‘Days like these are vital because the kids will go home and talk to their mates and teachers which we hope filter through to get more people using the outdoors as playground or classroom.’ Let’s hope so, given that only 47 per cent of children went on trip to the countryside with their school in 2008 according the TCAF research.

The final highlight of the day came when Colin Booth, who
unbeknownst to everyone had spent the afternoon patiently fishing, asked the children if they’d like to see something really cool. At the water’s edge Colin pulled from his net a monster from the deep. OK it was a 10 pound pike but the reaction was impressive and to be fair so was the fish. After numerous trophy photos and a few team ones the children disbanded with their parents, shiny new fishing rods, courtesy of Leeda Fishing Tackle, and a library of tall tales.

Reluctantly I head back to London but not before John turns to me and winks: ‘so we’ll see you tomorrow then?’ This was news to me, was there another education day? ‘That pike you saw, that’s a tiddler. They come much bigger than that you know’, he said. No doubt he’s right and it’s good to know that whatever size society we are promised this year there will always be, thanks to
organisations like Barnt Green Fishing Club and TCAF, next year to help more children catch the big one that got away.

Want to know more about The Countryside Alliance Foundation?

The Countryside Alliance Foundation is an exciting new charity whose aims include increasing understanding about the countryside and its conservation, and promoting access to it. We believe an entitlement to
outdoor learning should be created within the National Curriculum so all children can access the considerable health, personal development and education benefits it offers.

The Countryside Alliance Foundation currently funds two programmes to facilitate greater use of the outdoors. Fishing for Schools – a nationally accredited course for special educational needs children to learn
about fishing and river ecology is a safe and positive environment - and The Countryside Investigators – an online curriculum linked resource for pupils to access balanced information about the countryside,

For more information about The Foundation please

or to find out about our outdoor education campaign please visit:

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