Lakeside explorers

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
It was wet, it was cold, it was like a grim version of the Seven Dwarfs. So how come TES reporter Nic Barnard managed to avoid being Grumpy?

It's pitch black, the rain is driving, the ground underfoot is a muddy mulch, laced with trip wires of tree roots and broken by treacherously slippery rocks. A row of torches jiggles into the distance, like a grim version of the Seven Dwarfs hi-ho-ing off to work. The wind is too loud to hear anything but, as I catch them up, they turn out to be a gaggle of 14-year-olds in suprisingly good spirits.

Welcome to the Lake District in January. It's great fun. No, really, it is.

Four hours ago, these children were snug and warm in a Friday afternoon lesson at their school, Priestnall, in Stockport. Now they are in at the deep end for a weekend of intensive activity at Lakeside, the YMCA's national activity centre. They barely had time to dump their bags in the dormitories before heading out in groups of 12 to climb the nearest fell.

After two days, they will have scrambled over obstacle courses, balanced on muddy ropes, gone orienteering in the dark and flown down an aerial runway from a 50-foot tower. With luck, the rain might let up.

Lakeside, 400 acres of forest and fell bordering almost a mile of Lake Windermere shoreline, is one of the few outdoor centres to stay open all year. At the height of summer, as many as 600 youngsters are here each day. This weekend, Priestnall's 48 teenagers and eight teachers have it all to themselves.

Saturday is 14 hours of almost non-stop activity, including an improvised evening drama session. Teachers estimate the weekend is equivalent to 36 school lessons.

Steve Playford, the teacher who is in charge of the expedition and previously has climbed in the Himalayas, relishes seeing the qualities his pupils develop when they are against the elements.

The school has been coming here for about 10 years but only recently switched from early spring to mid-winter visits.

"At this time of year the kids really learn what cold and wet weather is," he says. "They suddenly realise the waterproofs they think are the latest trend aren't really that good."

It's Saturday morning and the pupils are trying to hold on to a rope and carry a bucket of water over barriers, across rope bridges, through rope tunnels and across arrowed walkways. The last challenge is to cross a muddy pond on narrow, slippery wooden planks. The teachers gleefully chuck in logs to try to put the kids off.A forlorn trainer in the mud is testament to an earlier expedition.

Throughout the weekend the pupils stay in the same groups of 12, each with a teacher and an instructor from the centre.

Everything is marked by pauses in the spitting rain to reflect on what they have just done and how they can apply what they learned to the next challenge.

By the afternoon, they are tackling a series of problems and earning points for teamwork to trade for equipment for the night's orienteering. The rain stops but, as the skies clear, it becomes bitterly cold.

Lakeside is a challenge for staff as much as pupils. They have to join in tackling the assault courses and flying down the aerial runway. As one female teacher is hauled unceremoniously over a wall by her pupils, Mr Playford says: "It's good to realise you can have this sort of relationship with kids, especially for new teachers.

"School gets a bit serious these days with league tables and everything. This brings you back to reality."

Kayaking is one of the few things dropped because of the weather. Pupils rope canoes together, making sturdy catamarans to row to the park's southern end.

Sunday morning brings the biggest challenge: the aerial runway. It's hardly an appealing prospect, climbing up a 50-foot ladder in the lashing rain in order to jump off the top and fly along a metal rope over the lake with only a harness to keep you from the water.

At the foot of the tower, Emma, aged 15, is waiting her turn with a group of friends. She has decided to go last but not because she's afraid. She has waited all weekend for this and she wants to savour it.

The children reflect on the weekend, how they've got to know each other better, trust each other, work together and beaten off the elements.

But hasn't the weather put some pupils off? "I don't mind it," says Emma simply. "It hasn't stopped us doing anything."

She turns and starts climbing.

YMCA National Centre, Lakeside, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 8BD.

Tel: 015395 31758; fax: 015395 30015; e-mail: Schools and youth co-ordinator: Gail Sheldrick.

Prices from pound;76 for weekend courses, September to April, to pound;239 for one-week courses in June, July. Includes accommodation, meals and activities. One free leader's place and one half-price leader's place for every 12 children. Discounts for early booking and winter activities. Activities can be tailored to participants and the national curriculum.

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