Between a rock and a hard place

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Scrabbling over crevices, hanging from a harness, and edging along narrow ledges... just the stuff for team-building skills. Kevin Berry braces himself

Wander around Brimham Rocks and you could be on a distant planet, or perhaps in a Clint Eastwood western. These rocks are curious, weird and endlessly fascinating. They make for a mysterious landscape. There are similar rock formations elsewhere in Europe but nowhere in such profusion and in such variety. Birds, animals and grotesque faces are easily imagined in their outlines.

There are "anvils" and "tables", "coffins" and a "druid's skull", and the inevitable "lovers' leap". Some of the rocks defy description. Some balance on others and can be gently rocked. The 200-ton Idol Rock rests on a stem that is just 12 inches wide.

Brimham Rocks jut out of 50 acres of high moorland in Nidderdale, North Yorkshire. They are stacks of millstone grit shaped by ice and wind. A wooden platform at the highest point gives long distance views of the Vale of York. The huge power stations at Drax and Ferrybridge are on the horizon and, nearer, the spooky white globes of the United States's communications station at Menworth Hill.

The site is little more than an hour's walk from Bewerley Park, an outdoor education centre near Pateley Bridge. Some Year 9 students from Ripon grammar school have walked to Brimham from the centre. They are on the third day of a five-day residence, and are trying some basic rock climbing known as bouldering. They will work through half a dozen graded challenges, each with a specific climbing term.

"We bring everyone here because there is such a variety of challenges," says Kate Crawford, an instructor at Bewerley Park. "We start with Year Ones and we bring any age group. With the junior schools, we would scramble through gaps and over rocks. We can cater for people in wheelchairs and we have tasks for people with learning and physical disabilities. We get world-class climbers coming to Brimham."

Elizabeth Sparey, head of history at Ripon grammar, appreciates the benefits of outdoor education. "We bring our students here to boost their confidence," she says. "These tasks get them working as a team, going outside the comfort zone. I have talked to them about the importance of listening. My group are quite bad listeners. We are focusing on that today."

"They have to push themselves out here. With a walk, such as the one they've just completed, they can't give up halfway. On the school playing field, if you're running the 1,500-metres, you can't stop halfway and go back to the changing room."

The students jump across gaps and scramble up rocky gradients. They tackle each obstacle with studied curiosity, giving support and advice. Clinton Lowe has just edged around a rock on a narrow ledge and then crawled through an extremely low tunnel. He looks relieved. "It was cramped under there. I couldn't turn my head," he says. "Yes, I know that I said 'I'm not doing that again', but that was to impress my friends."

Christine Whincup wavers on the wet surface and decides to drop, quite safely, from the ledge. "I'm not built for this sort of thing," she says.

Gamely, she goes back to the starting point and waits her turn. She is grinning. She tries again and gets round on the ledge and then through the tunnel. Moments later, she is encouraging a friend. "Once you get hold of something, you're okay," she explains. "Then the confidence comes. It's a brilliant feeling."

Kate and her assistant Dan Metcalfe are not too far away, with experienced eyes and advice on where to put hands and feet. By now everyone is moving smoothly and easily. Kate and Dan have been gently insisting on correct use of the feet and not using elbows and knees. We move on - a harder climb awaits. Everyone dons safety harnesses and listens to instructions.

They are on top of a big outcrop of rock and drop ropes down. The youngsters wait for the commands and, when their turn comes, up they go.

The challenge is personal but no one feels alone or left out. This is a team effort.

Brimham Rocks is a National Trust property 10 miles northwest of Harrogate, off the B6165. Tel: 01423 780688;; email: Entry is free, but there is a charge for coaches. There is wheelchair access. Bewerley Park Outdoor Education Centre is near Pateley Bridge, Nidderdale

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