It was twenty years ago today
I have been involved in the Woodcraft Folk for many years, as a volunteer working with children and young people between six and 18 years old. This nation-wide organisation was established in 1924, and was originally an off-shoot from the scouting movement which some people felt was too militaristic when the world was still recovering from the first world war. The Woodcraft Folk is based on the principles of co-operation and equality, and has a long history of bringing children and young people together from across the world, to camp, play and share experiences.
Twenty years ago when the Woodcraft Folk took on the lease for the Hamsterley Forest outdoor centre in County Durham, I joined the management committee and contributed to the collective effort needed to clean, paint, refurbish, administer lettings and line-manage the live-in warden who we appointed as demand for the centre’s facilities grew. I have spent many happy weekends with groups of children and young people staying in this small wooden building on stilts, set in the beautiful surroundings of Hamsterley Forest in the northern Pennines, often described as England’s last wilderness. Over the years we have paddled in the stream and played pooh sticks from the bridge, collected wood for our fires and mushrooms for our dinner, risen in the morning to another crop of mole-hills on the grass out front and taken midnight walks without the aid of torches, to wonder at the stars and watch for bats flying overhead. We worried our way through the foot and mouth outbreak, when the forest was closed and no visitors admitted, and dug ourselves out when the heavy snowfall once threatened to keep us there over Christmas.
Alas, the lease for the building runs out this year, and Forest Enterprise has a plan to re-site their car park and visitor centre where our elderly outdoor centre stands. This weekend, Woodcraft Folk who have enjoyed the centre and surrounding forest for the last twenty years are coming together there for the last time, to celebrate our luck in having access to this wonderful resource and to clear it out in preparation for demolition.
As plans for the weekend have come together, at group nights and on social media, the impact of these outdoor experiences on the lives of children who took part is becoming even more evident than it was at the time. Some are parents themselves now, and are posting messages to each other: ‘great memories of good times’ , ‘I can remember making paper boats then waterproofing them with crayons and sailing them in the stream when I was little’, ‘had many fun weekends there’, ‘Hamsterley was a wonderful part of my childhood. Without it I, and the countless other young people who stayed there, would not have enjoyed and learnt as much as we did.’ And I’m sure the adults who provided their time as volunteers on these trips over the years have as many warm memories of their visits to the forest.
So, while we will inevitably be sad that the centre is closing, we can rejoice round the camp fire this weekend in the knowledge that it gave the many hundreds of children and young people who stayed there a lot of fun and a lifetime of good memories.
Written by Lesli Godfrey, a long-time Woodcraft Folk volunteer and avid camper who works for SkillsActive, the sector skills council representing playwork. For more information on the Woodcraft Folk, visit www.woodcraft.org.uk and for information on SkillsActive, visit www.skillsactive.com