Outward bound for the past

Deedee Cuddihy visits an outdoor residential centre that introduces pupils to activities in an industrial heritage setting.

It doesn't look like everyone's idea of a typical outdoor education centre, this late Victorian building with a stumpy kind of steeple on top. The setting isn't inspiring, unless you like the Ayrshire countryside in its drab, mid-winter colours.

Kaimes Outdoor Education Centre is a short walk away from the rather dilapidated village of Muirkirk. It's run by South Lanarkshire Council and based in a former community hall, which served the 1,500 folk who flocked to the area from the 1780s onwards to work in the local iron, limestone and mining industries.

The landscape may be bleak but inside the centre it's warm, cosy and remarkably clean with a group of 30 Primary 7 children from Hunter Primary School in East Kilbride bustling about in slippers or thick socks, preparing for the day's outing.

Some are being "briefed" about a two-hour mountain-biking expedition which will shortly get under way; others are taking part in an orienteering and map reading exercise before heading for the hills. It's Wednesday morning and the children are half-way through their Monday-to-Friday stay at Kaimes. Since Day One there's been a lot to do with beds to be made, staff to meet and outdoor equipment to try on (hats, gloves, boots, waterproofs and even backpacks are all provided), followed by a "get to know you" walk around the area.

Ken Martin, principal of the centre, went to the school some weeks beforehand to talk to staff and parents about the children's visit and what they can expect. Trained as a maths teacher but with previous experience in the aircraft industry, Mr Martin was brought up in Perthshire and has been involved in outdoor pursuits all his life. He worked with the Outward Bound Trust and since the 1980s has been in charge at Kaimes, where the staff includes four instructors, five cleaners and the all-important cookhousekeeper, Margaret England.

Mr Martin describes the residential experience as a "vehicle for child development", where achievements such as learning to ride a bike or even overcoming home-sickness can have profound.

What's unique about the Kaimes centre is that it provides an introduction to a range of low-risk outdoor activities - ones that can be developed at home - in an industrial heritage setting. If the weather is bad enough to keep the children off the hills (there is direct access to the Southern Uplands), they can always explore an old graveyard where local workers were buried or examine the site of Ayrshire-born road engineer John McAdam's famous tar kilns.

In addition, there are trips to the seaside at Culzean Castle, a Thursday night disco and a short but compulsory dramatic presentation, on a "Kaimesian" theme, by each of the dorms. Plus, the opportunity to sit down outside and "experience the silence".

Residents are also expected to keep the dorms, shower rooms and games corner tidy; clear tables in the dining room and make up their own packed lunches (under supervision). The children seem to thrive on it. A "finds" table in the general purposes room is full of the animal bones, fossils and shells they've collected on their outings; the walls are decorated with art work and thank-you letters and the P7s from Hunter Primary are enjoying the experience with comments ranging from, "There's always something to do" and "I went down a really steep hill on my bike" to "It's chicken curry for tea tonight" and "Three of us saw a ghost in the dorm".

With outdoor education centres in the former Strathclyde Region now down from 16 to a mere handful, demand for places at Kaimes far outstrips capacity.

"We have to prioritise," says Ken Martin, "so the majority of places go to Lanarkshire primary schools which have a high clothing grant uptake.

"That means about 50 per cent of the 1,500 children, from some 60 schools, who stay at the centre every year come for free, as do all children from special schools. The rest pay Pounds 79 for the week." There is also a Friday to Sunday option which costs Pounds 36 per child and is used by community education groups and schools.

However, with local authorities finding it difficult to avoid painful cuts and closures, Mr Martin is aware that the future for non-statutory provision such as his does not look good. "I hesitate to describe outdoor education centres as a dying breed," he says, "but they're certainly an endangered species."

Kaimes Outdoor Education Centre, tel 01290 661443

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