A lesson in adventure

1st July 2011 at 01:00
Banchory Academy's summer activities week sees pupils hike across Scotland, learn to surf, or build remote-control cars. Jean McLeish reports on the benefits of such a scheme for children.

Taking young teenagers on a 320-kilometre journey across Scotland on foot, by bike, and in canoes was always going to be a challenge, and some unforgiving Scottish weather added an extra dimension to the task. But with the end of the nine-day trip in sight, the group's teachers are impressed with what their pupils have achieved.

It is nearly the end of term, and this trek is part of Banchory Academy's activities week. This week, 500 pupils from S1-3 are out of their classes - some are surfing in Newquay, climbing in France, horse riding in Scotland or enjoying themselves nearer home.

This group on the River Spey are really testing themselves - their physical strength and their stamina. It is the penultimate day of an extraordinary adventure in which 11 children and four teachers have walked and biked across hills and glens, paddled across Loch Rannoch and now 100 kilometres down the River Spey.

On the first two days of their journey, in gale force winds and rain, they had to abandon plans to camp and took shelter in village halls along their route.

It is the third year Banchory Academy pupils and teachers have completed their marathon trek "Across Scotland" and this year's route is the longest journey and presented the most difficult weather.

But it is not just an outdoor adventure - last year their efforts raised over pound;10,000 for charity. This year they have decided to honour the memory of one of the adventurers' dads by raising money for Chest, Heart amp; Stroke Scotland.

The pupils are in S1-3 - nine boys and two girls - and several are just 13 years old. Team leader and deputy rector Colin Nicoll is making them pancakes for breakfast by the River Spey this morning, as tents are packed ready for the next stage of their journey to the sea.

Their route will have taken them from Loch Etive near Oban on the west coast to Spey Bay on the north-east coast of Scotland.

"It has been like November to summer in four days," says Mr Nicoll. "The first weekend was pretty horrendous, but the children were great - they stuck at it. Hail on Rannoch Moor and driving winds and pouring rain and then 28 degrees yesterday."

After being taken by boat up Loch Etive, they bike through Glen Etive, walk across Rannoch Moor and canoe across Loch Rannoch. Then they mountain bike and walk from Kinloch Rannoch to Aviemore via Glen Tilt and Glen Feshie.

That fifth day is the toughest, with a 25km walk and a 30km cycle to Aviemore, before picking up their canoes for the four-day 100km journey down the River Spey to the sea. They have blisters and are looking forward to their own beds - but some don't want this journey to end.

Ewan McMillan, 13, is the youngest from S1: "It has been great - I love it," he says. "I'm generally quite active and do lots of running. The day we did the 25km walk and the 30km cycle - when we got back to the bunkhouse it was just great to get the weight off your feet. I would definitely do it again."

Eleanor Beeley, 14, says: "It has been really, really good - the mountain biking and canoeing were great. There were some really good rapids. It was good fun to have your heart racing. I hadn't done canoeing before and I hadn't done cycling like that, going down tracks before, so it was a different experience," she says.

Two instructors from Aberfeldy-based company Beyond Adventure are accompanying them down the Spey. "It is pretty tough," says Richard Turner, one of their instructors. "This has to be the best canoe-touring river in the country - the whole of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales."

"This is the best bit today in terms of white water on the river. So today's journey is going to be thrilling, going through the Knockando rapids," he says.

Thirteen-year-old Iain Hay-Higgins is helping pack up the tents: "It has been quite physically draining. It is a good group of people. I have enjoyed the canoeing and day five was a really long day. It was really tiring, but it felt amazing at the end." Iain's dad died in 2009, and Iain has raised almost pound;1,000 this week towards the Chest, Heart amp; Stroke Scotland charity.

Yesterday the group came through the aptly-named "washing machine" and today the Banchory adventurers can't contain themselves at the thought of yet more rushing water.

Teachers Lynn Middleton, Carol Brimble and Lesley Bett are very impressed with the children's stamina. "Their energy is brilliant," says Ms Middleton, who teaches PE and guidance.

Personal luggage is stowed in watertight barrels on board the two-man canoes as they journey down the river. Guidance and chemistry teacher Carol Brimble is packing the last of her things into a barrel. "No one has capsized, but we have jumped out to manoeuvre round things," she says, as the final tents are packed away from their riverside base.

It is the third time she and Lesley Bett have made this "Across Scotland" journey with Colin Nicoll. There are not many shower facilities along this route, but they have become accustomed to the routine of camping in the wild. "We haven't a clue what is going on in the outside world," says Lesley, a guidance and PE teacher.

Back at Banchory Academy, her husband Graham Bett, a deputy rector, is masterminding activities week. He will be relieved when the adventurers return safely from all over Europe.

Pupils have 18 trips with a range of activities from which they can choose this week - including water sports on the Costa Brava, a London trip with West End theatre visits or sailing with the Ocean Youth Trust.

But parents don't have to spend a fortune; children who prefer to stay at home can choose to be based in or near school with excursions like climbing up a local hill or on a nature trail at nearby Crathes Castle. And there is financial support available for families who might struggle to afford some of the more expensive options.

"The ethos is to try and build more responsibility into the youngsters, to get them involved in the planning and the way the trip goes," says Mr Bett, showing some of the activities available in an unusually quiet Banchory Academy.

"Hopefully once they are out in the field, they start to build friendships and respect for each other and look at strengths and weaknesses between teams, allowing them to come back to school and use some of these skills."

You don't have to be facing the rapids during activities week, though: former pupil Donna Park is now a dance teacher who has returned to school to lead dance workshops. This morning a Bollywood session is in full swing and down the corridor, another group is in an arts and crafts session making jewellery and painting beautiful work on to silk screens.

Outside is one of Mr Bett's personal favourites - smokin' wheels, where nearly 30 boys and a couple of girls are racing and building radio- controlled cars. It is run by the school's support services co-ordinator, John Vickers.

"Last year we did road-racing cars, this year we have gone for off-road buggies," says Mr Bett. The buggies are about 18 inches long and the week of building and training ends with a Grand Prix. "This week they design their track with jumps and obstacles, working with the technical department," he continues. "We order a spare body shell for them, so they design their own car and livery. We have a spray paint compressor and they can spray the car in their own colours."

It is clear this week's activities couldn't happen without the willingness of school staff to share their passions and skills with young people. They are the kind of activities children don't usually learn in school and perhaps wouldn't get the opportunity to do with their families.

At the front of the school, geography teacher Billy Bilsland and English teacher Sally Pease are organising pupils into a minibus to head off on a session called "thrills amp; spills".

"We are off to Ballater to do some mountain biking for the day with 15 pupils. On Monday we were open canoeing down the River Dee, which was great fun. On Tuesday we were coasteering round from Cove - jumping into the North Sea off rocks.

"Yesterday, the kids were surfing and doing a bit of scrambling and a bit of rock climbing and abseiling," says Mr Bilsland. "Tomorrow, hopefully, the weather will stay as good as this and we will be gorge walking at the Linn of Dee."


Activities week at Banchory Academy takes a year to plan with residential trips here and abroad and home-based options for those who prefer their own bed.

Deputy rector Graham Bett heads up a committee of six teachers who help to co-ordinate locally-based activities and residential trips, which are run by individual teachers who act as group leaders.

Teachers are invited to suggest trips they would be willing to run and a group leader is nominated to take charge. Adventure Scotland staff act as consultants, helping with risk assessments and providing advice.

Other UK-based residential trips include a week's riding at the Scottish Equestrian Hotel. Costs range from pound;400 to pound;500.

Overseas, there is an S1 trip to PGL Chateau du Tertre in Normandy for activities and sight-seeing, and a team-building and activities week with Delphi Adventure Company in County Galway, Ireland.

There is also a football development programme run at Villarreal Football Club in Spain and a water sports week at the Costa Brava, run by PGL Travel. Overseas trips cost from pound;380 to pound;600.

Home-based activities include golf, tennis, football, arts and crafts and dance, thrills amp; spills and smokin' wheels and cost anything from pound;30 to pound;200.

Pictures by Simon Price

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