Category Archives: 50 things

Swallows and Amazons 2.0

Seeing all of the posters promoting the new ‘Swallows and Amazons’ film made me think how much the ability of children to roam free will have changed since the book was published in 1930.

December 023

Kids need their nature time and once they get a taste for it they are hooked

Barely a week goes by without new stats being published about kids spending less time outdoors than ever before and the impact that this will have on their well-being and the skills needed for life. If Arthur Ransome were alive today would his equivalent book be all about a group of kids marooned in their bedroom playing minecraft for weeks on end with little or no connection with the outside world.

You could argue that Ransome’s vision of a ideal summer spent mucking about on an island in a beautiful lake in Cumbria is a Utopian vision that never really existed. However, reams of research shows that children’s connection with the natural world and spent time outdoors has diminished drastically in the last couple of generations.

I spent alot of time outdoors when growing up. Every time I went out to play my Mum would ask me to make sure that I was home by tea time. I disappeared off into the countryside and had amazing adventures with my friends. This was only in the 1980s and yet it feels very different today. There are a plethora of barriers that have led to children becoming almost invisible playing outdoors or in local parks.

And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Why shouldn’t every child have a right to the kinds of experience that the children in Swallows and Amazons had, where ever they live in the UK, and that millions of Britons had when they were growing up? I don’t want to be part of the last really free-range generation.

The brilliant thing is that once kids get a sniff of the outdoors they’re hooked. Children have that deeply natural sense of adventure and thirst for learning (something that seems to be educated out of many people). The boom of the Forest School movement and the rise of campaign’s by charities such as the National Trust and Wildlife Trust is making a difference. Places on den-building days or adventure courses will often sell-out as quickly as tickets for Glastonbury.

I know from my two children that they love nothing better than wandering through a wood, playing in a stream or hunting for crabs in a rock pool. We need to unleash that inner wild child in every kid and let them discover the simple joy of being outside.

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wild time 365

As the length of daylight hours begin to shorten and the weather starts to turn, for some parents the struggle to get their kids outdoors becomes one battle too many. The lure of cosy days in, watching films or playing on the X-box becomes very strong for lots of children.

December 023

Kids need their nature time, what ever time of year it is, and once they get a taste for it they are hooked

 

When it’s wet, increasingly cold and dark it might feel that the great outdoors isn’t that tempting. Getting soaked through on a walk in the countryside or the prospect of washing basket full of dirty laundry piling up at home can feel a bit too much.

And yet the outdoors is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Yes the nature of our landscapes can look very different but the winter months can throw up a real sense of adventure and excitement. Living on an island in the Atlantic means that we should be use the fickleness of the weather. Nature does grind to a half as the clocks change and we head towards winter.

It’s so important that if we are to live in a country where every child is wild, that they have an experience of nature all year round and not just on the sunny days. There is something exciting about wrapping up, putting  on you boots, filling the flask with hot chocolate and setting off for a day at the coast or countryside. The natural wildness of windswept days, crashing waves and tumbling leaves makes you feel alive.

Jumping in puddles is one of the memories that many of us will have as kids. Those carefree moments of running up, jumping and hitting the water and soaking your parents; followed by laughter and the desire to do it time and time again is what wild time is all about.

For kids to flourish and grow there is a real sense of avoiding a sanitised world where the cold, wet and windy is absent from their every day lives. Feeling the full force of elements will often lead to the days that children will remember more than any other as they grow up.

Living in a country where every child is wild

I grew up as a pretty free-range child. Like most of my friends I’d spend as much time outdoors as possible, whether on my bike or having a kick about in the local park. When I was growing up I wouldn’t say that I was deeply engaged with nature but was totally aware of it and it was the backdrop to my life.

A tiny little crab found in a rock pool on Bigbury beach in south Devon

A tiny little crab found in a rock pool on Bigbury beach in south Devon

Once upon a time this would have been the norm but in pretty much one generation things have changed pretty radically. It was when working on the National Trust’s seminal Natural Childhood report, published in spring 2012, that the stark evidence of children losing touch with nature became all too clear. The statistical and anecdotal evidence pointed to a real problem. Kids were become more sedentary, screen time was on the rise and there were lots of barriers to children spending time in the outdoors – traffic, health and safety, stranger danger.

It felt as though childhood was changing. Children need freedom to roam, to explore, to play and to let their imagination run wild. Limiting this is bad for their health and well-being and detrimental to their personal development. The outdoors is where we build our social skills and the confidence to take on the challenges that life throws at us. Sometimes it feels as though, as a society, we’re becoming less tolerant of children having fun.

Kids love walking through mud in their wellies and this lovely little walk around Bath City Farm keeps them going

Kids love walking through mud in their wellies and this lovely little walk around Bath City Farm keeps them going

That is why the launch of #everychildwild by the Wildlife Trusts plus the ongoing work of the Wild Network around the concept of #wildtime is so important. We need to celebrate our own personal love of nature and encourage schools, parents and society to accept muddy knees, kids climbing trees and think about what the restrictions of too many cars on our streets and the loss of green spaces mean for children in primary and junior schools means.

One of life’s real pleasures for me is spending time with my two kids in the outdoors. Splashing in the puddles on a wet and windy day in a park, trying to catch the leaves as they tumble out of the tree or standing rooted to the spot as a sparrowhawk hovers gracefully in the sky looking for lunch.

I want my two kids to have the opportunities to explore and discover that I had. And I can clearly see the sense of wonder and joy that they get from looking for tadpoles in a pond or collecting apples from a tree on a sunny autumn day. When my daughter set up her own nature club at school it became an instant hit with her class-mates.

There is a danger, however, that a technology dominated childhood with a plethora of educational targets and tests takes the childhood out of our children and forces them to grow up too fast. That is why we need to make nature part of all children’s lives and make it easy for them to discover the joy of the natural world. I want to live in a country where every child is wild!

Wandering along Bath’s skyline

Bath is a pretty hilly place, which means that it has the advantage that if you get into the right spot you can catch some amazing views of this world-famous Georgian gem.

The lie of the land also means that while one minute you can be in the heart of  the city, in what feels like just a few footsteps you’re then deep in the countryside.

The Bath Skyline walk is a six mile circular route to the south of the river
Avon. It hugs the contours of the land, climbing high into places that
you feel like people have never been before. While I’ve walked the skyline
many times, it sometimes feels like this is a secret route only familiar to
Bath residents. Yet it has proved to have enduring appeal for thousands
of ramblers who have kept it top of the National Trust downloadable
walks poll year after year.

The great thing about a walk like the Skyline is that it can be divided
into sections that are manageable for families. Taking my two children,
aged 5 and 8, around the whole route would be a good day out.

You’d need plenty of stops and a rucksack full of snacks and lunch.
There are certainly plenty of things to keep the kids interested en
route from amazing ant hills to follies and the fantastic new natural play
area in Rainbow Wood. The sections where you climb out of the city
might be testing but nothing that a jelly baby-inspired quiz wouldn’t
solve. So it’s worth planning ahead and thinking about where you start
the walk or whether you maybe aim to complete it in sections.

In the autumn Bath looks spectacular. That golden glow of the low afternoon sun and the changing of the leaves as they turn red, yellow or brown is pretty special. There is also the promise of some blackberry picking along the walk.

Starting somewhere near to Bathwick Hill always seems the best option for walking the whole route, plus it has the advantage of getting the big climb out of the way first.

As you pass Smallcombe Farm you really do feel a world away from a busy city and that you’re in the heart of the Cotswolds. Walking up the hills, it’s worth remembering to simply stop every now and then and take in the fantastic views. I always find that a treasure hunt or encouraging children to take pictures as they go keeps up the momentum for trickier parts.

As you reach the flatlands above Bath you’re just to the east of Prior Park. This landscape would look very different today if it wasn’t in Trust hands as it had been eyed as a location for development in the 1960s.

The undisputed highlight of the Skyline walk is getting nearer. In the last few years the creation of a natural playground in Rainbow Woods has been a big hit with families. Before you get to the old quarry, check out the lovely little
fairy doors trail and then the energy levels of the children will rise as they spot the den-building area, rope swing and assault course.

This is a great spot for some lunch and about half way around the walk. If you have younger kids then it’s probably best to plot a shorter walk based around the natural play area. For families walking the whole route I’d definitely recommend some sort of quiz and treasure hunt.

Leaving Rainbow Woods you pass near to the Bath Cats and Dogs home, round  the back of the University and through an old quarry before emerging with
fantastic views of Solsbury Hill.

It’s all downhill now past Sham Castle, which is worth a detour, and through a patchwork of small meadows. In the autumn some of the walk can be pretty muddy so walking boots or wellies are the order of the day.

The Bath Skyline is for me one of those walks which can become part of a family memory bank. You can give parts of the route family names and as the children grow they will start to spot the richness of the landscape and get to know a lovely
city and its green and pleasant land.

This blog first appeared in the September/October edition of The Bath and Wiltshire Parent Magazine

A tale of leaf catching…

On face value catching leaves as they tumble out of the trees should be pretty easy. Just stand near a tree, wait for a gust of wind and you’ll be able to pluck a leaf or two out of the air before they hit the ground. Job done.

Surely nothing could be simpler. If only. I remember a few years back visiting Lanhydrock in Cornwall and watching closely as family took on the leaf-catching challenge. The Mum and Dad stood rooted to the spot waiting for the leaves to come to them, remaining cool and calm. While the two boys jumped about and leaped from side to side, a bit like goal-keepers. Its an image that will stay in mind for a long time. A simple pleasure and a family having fun.

With so many distractions in life leaf catching might not appear to be the most exciting activity on the planet. But once you start you become addicted; determined to rule the roost and not be beaten by leaves as they gently float out of the sky avoiding your clutches. This is one addiction that is definitely good for you.

There I was with my son and daughter in a local park. Just waiting for the leaves of all shapes and sizes to descend. A strong gust of wind rattled the tree and down they came like a short sharp shower. Our hands cupped and ready resulted in zero leaves. Our tactics were found wanting. The leaves just weren’t playing ball. Then we changed our game-plan: charging at leaves scooping them up before they settled on the grass. This worked to some extent. Next we identified target leaves from high up as they descended and worked together to get the job done.

The family leaf-catching tally was slowly starting to mount up. We were rosy cheeked from leaping about and had that nice feeling of satisfaction of building up a steady bank of leaves. Still they came down and just when you thought that you’d got your leaf bounty they would take a sharp turn and you were left clutching at thin air.

Like collecting conkers, leaf-catching is a very seasonal wild time activity. It can be a team game or more of a solo pursuit. For me its something that brings out our personality and above all its free and fun.

Rock pool heaven

“Dad, I’ve caught a crab, I’ve caught one, come quickly”. The sound of my excited 8 year-old daughter rock pooling on Bantham beach in south Devon as the first crab of the day is scooped up and popped into a bucket.

A tiny little crab found in a rock pool on Bigbury beach in south Devon

A tiny little crab found in a rock pool on Bigbury beach in south Devon

There is something magical and timeless about rock pooling. As the tide drifts out a secret and accessible marine world is revealed, firing the imagination and creating a real sense of adventure. All sorts of creatures are trapped in little watery bolt holes. The coming and going of the tides sculpturing the rocks into perfect little places for sea water to get trapped for a few hours until the next tide comes in.

I’ve always loved looking in rock pools. They can evoke powerful memories of days spent at the seaside.  You can get lost in the hunt for crabs, small fish and lovely little shells, vacated by their residents. And with the unpredictability of the British weather its one of those activities that you can do, come rain or shine.

Armed with a bucket, spade and ideally a net you can have hours of fun exploring these little watery worlds along the coastline. Kids and their parents clamber and climb over the rocks looking in little shallow pools or deeper water where you have to compete with seaweed to find anything.

For me the architecture of rock pools is fascinating. From the steep sided rock pools of north Cornwall at places such as Godrevy or Porthmeor in St Ives to some of the low-lying pools in south Devon at South Milton sands. Becoming an honorary marine biologist for a few hours you’ll need some patience and a good dose of luck. I love the sitting and watching part, looking for the slightest movement from beneath a stone or behind some seaweed.

It was great watching kids fanning out along the rock pools, collecting their temporary treasures that will be returned to the sea, and then sharing their finds with other children; comparing notes of where they’d found things or heading off in little groups to search for more. You can never really get enough of rock pooling and every place that you visit is different enough to reveal something different.

Life’s a beach

This week Trip Advisor released a list of the best twenty five beaches in the UK. We are spoilt for choice on these beautiful islands with some of the best beaches anywhere in the world.

Rhossili on Gower is a must for anyone that loves a beach

Rhossili on Gower is a must for anyone that loves a beach

Four of the beaches on the list are places I know well – three of them owned by the National Trust (Godrevy, Rhossili and Barafundle). They’re all pretty different but resonate in terms of what makes a good beach.

Top of my pops would be Barafundle in Pembrokeshire (number 14 on the list). We spent a day on this beautiful beach last summer. My memory from that day is swimming in the cold August water and feeling so alive and refreshed; an experience you can’t put into words. And the kids loved the sand dunes slipping and sliding over them. This beach could be in the south of France and I remember taking a relative from Australia there and she was blown away by it.

Then there is Porthminster in St Ives (number 5 on the list). One of four beaches in this wonderful Cornish town. What a beach. Not that big but a great spot. We spent many an hour body boarding and jumping into waves last summer. On the penultimate day before we left for week two in Wales, we were on the beach alone before 9am as the cold morning air swept in. Hot chocolates were the order of the day.

Across the bay from Porthminster is Godrevy (number 22 on the list). A classic Cornish beach, ideal for surfing and where the tide races in. The rock pools are great and the low beach is a great atmospheric place what ever the weather. Its a beach to blow away the cobwebs and feel the full force of the Atlantic: magical.

And last but not least is the majestic Rhossili on Gower (number 3 on the list). What a beach. Every time I visit it I’m blown away. Three miles of pure golden sand, steep downland and a sense of total connection with seas. Standing on the footpath to Worms Head and looking along the beach has to be one of the best views in Western Europe!

All of these beaches reflect something really deep for us Brits: that strong and lifelong connection with the sea. We need the sea and the feeling of the sand between our toes. Its what defines us and has shaped our identify.

They are places to dream, they are places to switch off and they are places to play and have fun.