Boys in the wood

30th August 1996 at 01:00
The Kent countryside was always a haven for East Enders. The tradition continues, this time courtesy of a landed philanthropist. He's a sprightly 70-year-old, messing about in boats with a gaggle of kids. "I enjoy being with them," he says, between the constant calls for attention and catching the sweet wrappers that the wind picks up as fast as they're dropped. "In my next incarnation, I'll be a teacher."

Lord Northbourne, old Etonian and otherwise known as "Skip", and the Bangladeshi boys from east London, are messing about in boats which belong to his estate near Sandwich. For a week the Spitalfields boys will go camping, courtesy of the landed philanthropist, doing things they've never done before.

This isn't the Wiltshire village of Jeremy Paxman where some locals have been angry about an invasion of deprived city kids. Lord Northbourne owns this place and besides, Kent has a long tradition of Londoners coming for a breath of fresh air, to pick hops, to be beside the seaside.

Even so, if it weren't for this particularly humanitarian member of the landed gentry and the Stepney Children's Fund, these children would not be exposed to the countryside, let alone be learning how to pitch tents, build campfires, swing from trees and row boats, all of it going towards achieving Duke of Edinburgh Awards.

Their first bronze will be a long time coming. The 10 and 11-year-olds are learning the rudiments, step by step. Divided into patrols, each with their own camp, the regime is organised along scouting lines, with the emphasis on cooking, domestic tidiness, tying knots and learning survival skills. But this is scouting with a difference, because the Bangladeshi boys have no experience at all of the outdoors. Poverty and fear of racism keeps their families from venturing too far from home.

Which doesn't mean that they are not consummate inventors in this natural, outdoor environment. Anything but. At the entrance to the general camp area, a wooden sign nailed to a tree says "welcome" in English and Bengali. Walking around the self-named Good Fellas patrol, signs of their ingenuity and wit are everywhere. A broken clay pot with a stick connected to it hangs from the branch of a tree, inviting the visitor to "Please Ring". Further in, alongside the neat-as-a-pin tents, are home-made camping accessories that verge on art forms - a shoe rack made of sticks, a "changing room" with walls made out of a black bin bag, a dustpan and brush with twigs for the brush and a cornflake box for the pan.

By day they go shrimping, rowing and crabbing ("oi, don't touch that bit, " says one boy on the beach another poking gingerly at a newly-caught crab, "that's its bum!"). They take long hikes and climb trees and have races and do the sorts of things that all campers do. Rare for a campsite though, are the special facilities for Muslims - a prayer room as dictated by the Koran and a menu which while not strictly halal, definitely has no pork.

In the evening there is a big campfire and communal singing, then smaller fires for each patrol to return to. Some have problems getting used to sleeping in a tent. "We got really scared when we heard noises in the night," said 10-year-old Foysol, after his first night at camp. "There were lots of creepy crawlies," added 11-year-old Shan with a certain degree of drama. But both seemed unperturbed at the prospect of the night ahead.

The fund, which organises the camps, is run by the children's department (chaired by Lord Northbourne) of Toynbee Hall, the East End community centre and charity set up by Lord Toynbee. It depends on donations and is helped considerably by board members such as Lord Northbourne, John Profumo and Lord and Lady Westbury.

Five summer camps have run annually for the past 10 years: one for Bangladeshi boys, one for Bangladeshi girls, and three for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties, most of whom come from two EBD schools run by Tower Hamlets. Asians and non-Asians generally do not meet at camp, except for some of the voluntary youth leaders who are former campers from the EBD schools.

Bob le Vaillant, the indefatigable head of Toynbee Hall's children's department and the originator of the Stepney Children's Fund and camping programme, says that, for the moment, the groups must remain separate. "We're trying to integrate things through the young leaders, by having white volunteers working with the Asian camps and vice versa. But apart from one boy, other Asians who have been invited to come on the non-Asian camp haven't responded. They're frightened. The EBD children we have on the camps are violent, often abused kids. If they knew they were using sleeping bags that Bangladeshi kids had used the week before, they'd throw them in the fire. "

Le Vaillant, a former special school boy, abused child and young offender turned soldier, JP and now passionate advocate for EBD children's rights, believes that having all the groups working towards the Duke of Edinburgh awards may bring the campers together. He is adamant, though, that the fund's prime purpose is to offer new, outdoor experiences to Bangladeshi children and to EBD boys from one of the most deprived areas of the country.

The EBD children are a very different story from the ordered enthusiasm of the Bangladeshis. "You should see the camps they make," laughs le Vaillant. "They look like Biafra."

But that they get a lot out of their week a year in the countryside is beyond doubt, as far as he is concerned. "Being at camp permits them to be kids, to re-live a childhood that they barely have. You see boys who've stolen 20 cars sitting around the campfire singing stupid songs like 'A Dog Named Bingo. ' They go on 15-mile hikes with an overnight camp - kids who ordinarily will only walk as far as the bus stop.

"Here, the environment allows them to put aside all the defences they're dependent on in the city. There are always tears on the bus going back. It's so sad to see them slowly putting the armour back on as the bus gets to the Blackwall Tunnel, like little bloody centurions."

If the week-long camps are life-changing for the campers, so they are for the volunteer leaders - a mix of former EBD and Bangladeshi campers, students and professionals in their 20s. Rahul Kibria Ayazi, 18, came as a camper for six years before becoming a patrol leader, then a young leader. He is now at the top rung of the volunteer hierarchy, an adult leader - the first Bengali to have gone through all the stages. "The first time I came was the first time I'd ever been to the countryside. In Tower Hamlets, there are so many racial divisions and turf tensions. Here, we just get down to giving these inner city boys the experience of the countryside."

Patrol leader Milly Davies is one of eight volunteers from Balliol College and has come to the camp for the second year running. "I'm not a saint. But I wanted to do something slightly less artificial than studying at Oxford for three years. I went to visit Tower Hamlets and found it intimidating that everyone was behind closed doors. It's not a great place for kids to grow up. Here, I'm able to help them learn to cooperate with each other and take part in activities that they wouldn't ordinarily do."

For Lord Northbourne, having an active role in the camps is a way of, in his words, "giving something back to more deprived children". The cross-bench peer is also deputy chair of governors at Weaversfield, an EBD school that comes on the camps.

Since his involvement, he has become active in the children and education lobbies in the House of Lords. "It helps me to talk a little less rubbish than I ordinarily would and gains me a certain amount of respect, because one knows what one's talking about. Ten years ago, I knew little of the deprivation in inner cities in this country. " He has learned a great deal and is inspired by the "tremendous enthusiasm" of young Bangladeshis. "I believe they can make an enormous contribution to this country."

His interest led him to set up an all-party parliamentary group on parenting, and last year he launched the Parenting Forum, an umbrella group of 300 organisations supporting parents around the country "trying to break the cycle of deprivation". While the camps are a small contribution, they are important in getting children out of ghettoes, real and psychological. By allowing them to experience success and get to know nature, the camps could be life-changing.

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