Four go well over the top

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark takes her family on an outdoor adventure holiday in Devon. Last week all four of us - Jeremy aged six, Robert aged 11, Thomas aged 13 and myself, let us say "mature" - abseiled down a 130-foot cliff. And it's true what they say: outdoor education develops your self-confidence, enhances well-being and fosters team spirit. We stood at the bottom hugging each other and giggling at the figure we cut in our cutaway climbing helmets. Then we gasped as Mark, a trim and fit 25, raced down the cliff forwards, lightly holding the abseiling rope in his fingers.

Then it was back to Skern Lodge in Appledore, north Devon, for tea and a quick crack at the archery butts before dinner and an evening's sailing on the beautiful Torridge estuary. It's hard to imagine any better way to spend your summer holidays.

Skern Lodge was set up in 1983 by two chums from Loughborough College of Physical Education. From an initial four groups in 12 months it has grown to accommodate 6,000 residential places a year and many more day-time clients. Yet it has not lost its friendliness and professionalism, the ethos which, as co-founder Martin Robinson says, means "We like people to learn things, to develop socially and to enjoy their surroundings. To do that, we need instructors who can empathise."

For our family group, the positive coaxing of Mark and the jokey, but intense, perfectionism of Lee Woodward (28) was the perfect introduction to a whole world of outdoor sports.

As I stood quaking at the top of the cliff at Beam Quarry, watching the nervous grins on the faces of my precious children as they descended the sheerish face of the cliff, I was aware of two strands of thought. One: OK, they say the rope can hold a weight equivalent to two blue whales but do whales ever go abseiling? Two: should I have gone on the gourmet cookery course? It was only my desire not to appear a wimp before my six-year-old which forced me backwards over the edge of the cliff.

But once over and steadily descending, I started to understand why Robert had started to do little jumps and hand waves as he progressed down, metamorphosing from scared little boy reciting poems to keep his spirits up to apprentice SAS daredevil. "I never thought I would do it," I said to Martin Robinson. He beamed. "There you are. That's the whole thing."

Skern Lodge takes all sorts of clients, from school parties in the summer term to corporate and college bookings in the winter months. But over the summer holidays it is open to individuals and families for day sessions, weekends or whole weeks. Children, adults and families can be booked in separately to activities, or groups above six or eight in number can have a special programme led by a specific instructor.

Some special days, such as the Gladiator, which includes pool canoe, assault course, orienteering, archery, swim and snorkel, or the Hartland Day which includes an abseil and coastal traverse along the rocky splendour of Hartland Point, are pre-set combinations of activities; others offer focused training on such skills as canoeing. We tasted a full programme of assault course, pool canoe, canoe, abseil, high ropes course, archery, sailing and swimming.

There are those who hate heights - and I am one of them - and those who hate getting their faces wet - and I am one of those too. As we sat on the edge of the pool to practise capsizing I felt as sick with nerves as I did before failing my driving test. In went Thomas with no fear of water. Stay under water, count to three to prevent the canoe waterlogging, then bang three times on the side and release yourself from the canoe. Simple, eh? Simple as drowning.

Come on Victoria," said Lee in a brisk tone. I got in the boat. I held my breath. I went under. I banged on the boat. I escaped and surfaced. I was still alive. I had done it. The children were rolling around laughing. "Oh Mum, " gasped Robert. "Your face! You looked as if you thought you were going to die!" "What's so funny? That's just how I felt," I replied grumpily, shaking the water from my wet suit. Lee intervened. "You did fine," he reassured me.

Later, out on the wide reaches of the estuary we learned to glide and paddle and float and use the current to our advantage. For Jeremy, who was not well, the co-ordination needed for using right hand to go left and left hand to go right, was too much. Without a word of blame, Mark brought us ashore so that the older boys could continue their session. He said canoeing is rarely attempted by those under eight years old.

Similarly, while the older two raced around the assault course and swung on daring trapeze ropes on the High Ropes course (12 metres high), we enjoyed the beauty of the hills and shore and the pretty port of Appledore. But we all got together to sail the longboat over the rippling sea and to splash merrily in the pool.

Archery is a sport at which even those who are no good at physical education can excel according to Anthony Milne, co-founder of Skern Lodge. So it proved an ideal way to pass the evening hours, with all its antique language and feelings of bygone gallantry.

Oh, and just before we left I put my head in the water four times and didn't feel as if I was going to die, not even a little bit.

Skern Lodge, Appledore, Bideford, North Devon, EX39 1NG. Tel: 01237-475992.Prices per person from Pounds 12 for half-day, Pounds 20 for day, Pounds 225 for five-day residential course. Booking essential

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