OXFORD, England (Reuters) - The whoosh and splosh of fishing lines break the silence of a sunny morning on the banks of an English reservoir as dozens of anglers cast their rods in search of trout, and a few precious hours of escape from the coronavirus crisis.
Days after Britain eased its lockdown restrictions, the bucolic scene at Farmoor Reservoir near Oxford, central England, is being played out all across the country as fisheries are allowed to reopen their gates for the first time in seven weeks.
“Today is just a lovely thing to be able to do just given the current state of everything,” said Patrick Quelch a 52-year old part-time primary school teacher.
“You obviously think about the whole COVID thing and how it’s affecting people ... But when you’re out here, it’s an escapism, isn’t it? It’s time to not think about other things. It’s time to just enjoy yourself if you can - you know, sort of stolen moments.”
Quelch was one of the first in a long, and socially distanced, line of anglers queuing to access the lake, with many arriving an hour before the gates opened. He rang up two days in advance to claim one of 50 available tickets.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the public to stay at home on March 23 as the spread of the coronavirus threatened to spiral out of control. On May 13, fishing was one of the few sports permitted to restart as Britain inched toward normality.
Since then, the phones haven’t stopped ringing for Will Barnard, fisheries manager at Thames Water which runs the 400-acre site. His team have been working flat out to set up a system that allows anglers to return safely to what, for many of them, is much more than just a hobby.
“Angling is an opportunity for mindfulness without being too idle,” Barnard said, standing at the water’s edge.
“You can see how vast it is ... It can affect you on many levels, you know, it can give you a bit of relief that there are things much bigger than what you’ve been stuck with for the last eight to 10 weeks with those four walls.”
Spaced out along the banks of the reservoir, anglers whirl their rods back and forth in a hypnotic casting motion, launching hooks that have been meticulously decorated to mimic hatching larvae in the hope of fooling a feeding fish.
“During lockdown I was just struggling with what to do ... I’ve really struggled, I’d say mentally as well,” said 44 year-old Mike Ward, who says he is not a fan of staying indoors or home improvement projects.
“Life is stressful and this just totally gets rid of all that.”
After nearly two months without seeing a hook, the trout are plentiful and easy to catch and within minutes of the first line hitting the water, a distant splash signifies one has taken the bait - the first of more than 800 caught in a single day.
Each angler can take home six fish to eat. While some wax lyrical about the taste, others plan to give them to friends and family, but there is wide agreement that the day out is about much more than hooking a big one.
“It’s nice to catch but if you don’t catch, there’s always another day,” said furloughed builder Trevor Harper.
Reporting by William James and Ben Makori; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise