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23 May 2014

Friday 23 May

With Outdoor Adventure Week starting on 24 May, Head of Development Gareth Price writes about his experience of walking Offa’s Dyke and the importance of outdoor education in young people’s development.

As many of you will know, this year London Youth celebrates 50 years of learning outside the classroom at Hindleap Warren, our outdoor education centre on the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex. I’m lucky enough to lead the development team at Hindleap. The most important part of our job is to try and ensure as many young people as possible, from all backgrounds, get the opportunity to benefit from all aspects of the Hindleap experience – more on that in a minute.

I’m actually writing this on the train into London for the first time after a two week break. Up and down the carriage people are staring into their smartphones and idly flicking through their free papers. I imagine for a moment my story making the news – ‘man goes for a walk and reconnects with nature!’ and how it might read…

For 11 days this month I left my office, my emails and my professional responsibilities behind and walked down Wales with a friend. We ‘did’ Offa’s Dyke Path – 177 miles from Prestatyn to Chepstow – something we’d been talking about for two decades. The experience was so much more than mere numbers though – as well as the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition, the immersion in nature was also a revelation.

In the first few days work stayed near the top of my mind and I kept taking the occasional look at my emails walking along a wood or beside a canal. But after a while, spending all day outside, experiencing the UK countryside in all its spring glory at two miles an hour started to have an impact. We saw a lamb being born, a stoat scampering away and a red kite close up. Birdsong started to suggest individual personalities and I noticed the way the millions of tiny flowers we walked past turned towards the sun.

Then on the seventh day we crested somewhere called Hawthorn Hill and suddenly, for the first time in days, had a completely new view to the south. An uninterrupted, sweeping vista of rolling hills and unpeopled valleys as far as the eye could see. I felt a strong sense of well being, peace and groundedness and this stayed with me for the rest of the walk. Trying to rationalise it my friend spoke of epiphanies and magic moments. But with the benefit of a few days of perspective I think what I mainly felt on that hill and on the latter part of the walk was that I had ‘reconnected’ with nature, that I’d had the chance to let the landscape in and that this had had a significant impact on my well-being.

This made me reflect about Hindleap as more than ‘just’ an outdoor centre. We quite rightly focus on the adventure and teamwork that young people experience there but it is also 300 acres of priceless green space, environmental real estate stewarded by London Youth over five decades so that young people can enjoy the same benefits I felt on my walk. According to research from Natural England, less than 10% of children now play in natural places. Common sense suggests that being in the natural environment has health benefits, and research backs this up: the natural environment does reduce stress levels and improves well-being. Additionally since 2011, 95% of all council-run outdoor education centres have had their funding cut, with one in three centres facing closure.

Many schools now ask parents to cover the full cost of an outdoor education residential and this is exacerbating an already proven inequality in the provision of residential trips – the greater the level of disadvantage young people face, the less out of school activities they are likely to be able to afford to access. Young people from all backgrounds have simply got to be able to continue to access this sort of opportunity. These are some of the reasons why in a few weeks time, London Youth are launching My Hindleap – a £1 million appeal to ensure 100,000 young people benefit from gold standard outdoor education at Hindleap over the next decade.

Back on my train, I’m typing these words on the tiny screen of my iPhone, focused on capturing this stream of consciousness without too many typos, but a big chunk of my attention is still on Hawthorn Hill. And, I’m thinking about how I can channel the emotions I felt there into doing my day job as effectively as possible. I want young people to continue to be able to access and benefit from the outdoor environment and to experience what I felt while I was walking Offa’s Dyke.