Inner-city London children learn life lessons from the Norfolk countryside
Archant Norfolk 2016
A group of London schoolchildren swapped the concrete jungle for the Norfolk countryside as part of a charitable project to reconnect inner city youngsters with the natural world.
For some of these inner-city children, it was their first escape from the confines of the concrete jungle.
But this was much more than a school field trip – the aim was to use the educational and therapeutic powers of the Norfolk countryside to broaden their horizons, and increase their understanding of the world outside the M25.
A group of 23 children, all aged 10 and 11, travelled from the London borough of Tower Hamlets for a residential visit organised by The Country Trust.
On their way into Norfolk they stopped at Snetterton to groom ponies at the World Horse Welfare centre, before making their home for the week at Hautbois Activity Centre near Coltishall, where they enjoyed activities such as kayaking, abseiling and vegetable gardening.
During their trip they also visited Thetford Forest, Sea Palling beach, and they were given a taste of the Broads at the Barton Turf Adventure Centre, near Stalham.
There, the youngsters used GPS devices to find geocaches, took a boat trip to go wildlife spotting, and learned how to light a fire – all under the tuition of Broads Authority officers.
One of their teachers Tom Cottom, from St Paul with St Luke school in Mile End, said it was a far cry from their familiar world of urban deprivation and high-rise flats.
“It is a very inner city area,” he said. “It is one of the most ethnically-diverse parts of the UK, but it is also quite a deprived borough. A lot of the kids are on free school meals and they grow up in concrete tower blocks, so for a lot of them it is their first time to the countryside.
“We have a small garden at the school with artificial grass and a small pond, so we wanted to give them an experience they would not get in London.
“We like to bring them for a week, because it is a week of firsts. It is the first time some have been to the beach, or the first time on a boat. And then there are the little things like the first time they change their pillow case, or brush their teeth without their mum telling them to.”
The Country Trust organises eight residential trips like this in Norfolk during a school year, 15 in Suffolk at the Blaxhall Youth Hostel near Woodbridge, and 12 to the Yorkshire Dales. In total, almost 1,000 children will be involved.
The charity funds the residential trip, and the school is responsible for organising the transport.
Catherine Leigh, residentials manager for the trust, said: “Some of these children have not had any experience of the countryside.
“It is just so important to show them what is out there in the rest of the country.
“It increases their confidence in the outdoors, and their independence. You see them running around in the reeds and they are so excited. It is that awe and wonder we are trying to inspire.
“It is life experience. These are the things that stay with you for a long time. Everybody remembers school trips so it just broadens your horizons in so many ways. You don’t have to travel to another country to feel like you are in a completely different landscape.”
Phil Hesmondhalgh, the trust’s head of communications, added: “There is the educational element as well. A lot of what they do will tie into the curriculum and then there’s also the wellbeing aspect in coming out into the countryside.
“If you are living in a flat in the middle of a large city, this is very different to what you would expect. But coming out to somewhere like Hautbois or Barton Turf and having the opportunity to do some of the things that people living in Norfolk might take for granted, like being in fields and going on boat trips or having a walk along the beach – we know there is enough evidence to suggest those simple pleasures can lift your wellbeing and tackle things like depression.
“It is about understanding what the countryside is like. Some of what The Country Trust does is visits to working farms and you would be surprised how many children turn up in flip-flops when they get off the coach and are surprised when they are confronted by mud and cows’ muck. It is a real revelation to see potatoes being grown in the ground, and to find out they don’t come in plastic bags in Asda or Sainsbury’s.”
Nick Sanderson is education officer for the Broads Authority, which has been working with The Country Trust for six years. He said: “The residential visits are all about self-confidence and self-awareness, and there are the outdoor learning opportunities too.
“When we asked some of the children what might be useful for them when they are outdoors, thinking that they might want a map and a compass for finding their way around, some suggested spare batteries for their GPS. It never occurred to them they could be somewhere that has no signal.
“It shows a reliance on technology, which is why geocaching is a really nice activity, as it does not divorce them from the world they know, but it gives them the dimension of exploring the outdoors.
“The benefits are enormous. These are some of the most special environments in the country and to have the opportunity work with kids from urban and deprived areas in a national park setting is a real privilege.”
What the children thought:
Among the young Londoners making the trip to Norfolk were Arafath Choudhury and Frankie Lee Wilson, both 10 years old.
Arafath said the highlights of his trip included spotting a deer at Barton Turf, but his favourite activity of the week was abseiling.
“I was scared when I was up at the top just looking down at the ground, but when you are doing it, it is fun,” he said. “It is good because you can get more experience and be more confident with things that you are afraid to do.”
Frankie said she lives in a high-rise flat with her parents and two brothers. “It is great, and it is quite tall,” she said. “We have a balcony, and when you look out it is just shops and busy roads and traffic lights. Where we live we have one park, but it is 10 minutes away.
“When I first came to Hautbois, I said: ‘Is this really where we are going to stay? It looks Victorian’. I just thought: ’Wow, it is really big and I would never see this in London’.”
But despite enjoying her rural experience, Frankie said she preferred city life.
“I am happy here, but I like it in London,” she said. “If you kept on going (to the countryside) every week, you wouldn’t want to go any more. It is like Christmas. You look forward to it every year, but if you did it every day it would be boring.”
About The Country Trust
The Country Trust’s roots date back to the 1970s when businessman and organic farmer Lance Coates decided he wanted to establish a charitable trust to promote sustainable, organic farming and to champion human health.
Today, The Country Trust works with around 25,000 children every year, from primary schools in deprived or disadvantaged urban areas, in order to broaden their horizons and ignite curiosity in food, farming and the countryside.
The charity does this through day visits to working farms, residential visits to the countryside, and year-long programmes exploring growing, cooking and nutrition in schools.
The Country Trust is active in eleven areas of England and North Wales including East Anglia, focusing on:
• Primary-age pupils from schools with an above-average percentage of children eligible for free school meals.
• Schools catering for children with Special Educational Needs and disabilities.
• “Looked after” children and Pupil Referral Units.
The Country Trust is a registered charity and relies on donations to deliver all its programmes of work, with support from its network of host farmers and other volunteers. For more information, or to make a donation, click here.