'We see flats, they see mountains'

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Urban kids learn rural lessons on a trip to Cumbria while local children are taught climbing crafts. Jessie Anderson reports

Over the years, thousands have enjoyed climbing and walking in the Lake District. Last year the British Mountaineering Council and the area's National Park Authority decided it was time to give something back.

So the Visitor Payback Initiative was launched. Langdale residents were asked what the climbing fraternity could do for the valley. The answer, perhaps surprisingly, was that their children should be helped to learn more about mountain craft.

"Although the Langdale youngsters live among mountains and crags, many of them don't have the chance to learn the skills and experience the delights that we as climbers and walkers enjoy," says Clare Bond, the council's access and conservation officer. It is also hoped that developing their interest in sports such as mountaineering will persuade local youngsters to remain in the Lake District.

Over the winter, local teenagers have been given instruction in climbing, scrambling and hill walking. Pupils from Langdale primary school in Ambleside, Cumbria, spent a day early in December when 24 of them - the total school roll - joined forces with a group of 30 students, mostly Year 6, from Medlock primary, an inner-city school in Manchester, who were spending an outdoor activities week at Ghyll Head outdoor education centre near Windermere.

It proved an eye-opening experience for both groups. Initially, the aim was to make the children of such different backgrounds aware of their differences and also of their similarities, said John Cresswell, an instructor at Ghyll Head.

That one of the Langdale children skis to school in snowy weather was received with open-mouthed astonishment by the Medlock youngsters. But they all love watching television and playing computer games.

"It's the wide open spaces that grab them," said Tony Schilling, assistant head at Medlock. This observation was confirmed by 11-year-old Robert, comparing the view from their respective schools. "We see blocks of flats, they see big mountains," he says.

Despite their different backgrounds, it soon became clear that the children were having no difficulty in getting on.

"When we first got them together they were very much two schools," said Mr Cresswell. "After half-an-hour they had really started to bond and to help each other along."

Co-operation became the principal theme of the day with the two schools divided into smaller groups of up to six. The morning was spent on outdoor activities at the centre with rope work, climbing, board walking and traversing an imaginary acid bath with the aid of dustbin lids, which became a firm favourite.

In the afternoon, each group went on different expeditions: ghyll and rock scrambling, exploring the "cathedral caverns" at an old slate quarry, and traversing the base of a limestone cliff at Morecambe Bay.

I accompanied a mixed-age group of eight to eleven-year-olds on a scramble up Stickle Ghyll. (Actually, the youngsters did the scrambling over rocks and fast-flowing water while I, cravenly, kept to the path alongside.) Under the guidance of expert instructors, the children negotiated quite a daunting course without a single complaint or the slightest show of reluctance. "Everybody is working together and mixing around," said Elizabeth happily.

"It was a bit slippy on the moss, but I liked the climbing, and people helping me up," said 10-year-old John from Medlock. And Robert admitted, "It was a bit scary with the pool on one side and rocks on the other."

"Has anybody got dry feet?," inquired John at the end of a couple of hours of splashing and scrambling. There was a joyous chorus of No, followed by one lone, guilty-sounding voice answering in the affirmative.

The day, judged a total success by youngsters and teachers alike, will not mark the end of links between the two schools. Before the event they had written to each other. "Those letters from Medlock have been read and re-read," said Mark Squires, head of Langdale.

Letters, emails and the exchange of photographs will continue, and Mr Squires is now considering a visit by his youngsters to Medlock.

The success of the Visitor Payback Initiative is good news for pupils in the area. "We will be looking at ways of expanding and developing the programme," says Barney Hill, the National Park access development adviser.

"I would like every school in the Lake District to be given the opportunity to take this up."

Funding came from the Countryside Agency, Cumbria Youth Alliance and the Access and Conservation Trust. Ghyll Head OEC, Ghyll Head, Windermere, Cumbria LA23 3LN. Tel: 01539 443 751; ghyll.head@kencomp.net

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