Feature: Derwent Hill

Alison Goulding spends a day at Derwent Hill
Alison Goulding spends a day at Derwent Hill
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For 50 years Sunderland schoolchildren have escaped urban life for a week of Swallows and Amazons-style adventure at Derwent Hill. Alison Goulding reports.

WITHIN 30 seconds of arriving at Derwent Hill, a small blonde child has taken it upon himself to tell me in detail the perils of the death swing.

I listen carefully, since I will be joining him and his pals in taking my turn on the death swing – which is actually a very high rope swing.

Actually dying, it seems, is a secondary concern to the “massive wedgie” I am guaranteed.

The threat of wedgies is deterring no one that day anyway.

They hop off that platform with an instinct akin to fledgling chicks under the watchful eye of instructor Neale Connolly.

Wordless and trusting they drop like stones before swinging out into the abyss, whooping with glee. It is a testament to the confidence and camraderie they have built through a week away from the classroom and out in the fresh air.

While I wait for my turn I observe the social dynamics at play. It turns out I should have more faith in children. They are extraordinarily nice to each other.

One girl, who seems very shy, hesitates on the platform.

The chorus of rallying cries below grows to a crescendo of inventive coaxing: “Do it for your sister!” “Do it for your mum!” “You’ll love it!”

After what seems like hours, but is actually seconds, she gathers the courage to step off.

Back on terra firma she is bursting with excitement.

The teacher and I are practically weeping. It is a very Stand By Me moment. Neale, a Sunderland lad who visited Derwent Hill while a pupil at Southmoor School, is an old-hand at talking them through it.

One boy hesitates and I hear him say, “You’re no different to anyone else here and you can do it if you want to.”

When it is my turn Neale views my ashen face with a compassionate disconcern and edges me into conversation so I don’t have time to think about what I’m about to do.

I know as soon as I step off I’ll be fine but it is quite literally a leap of faith. I go for it in a blur of adrenalin, motivated mainly by an intense wish for it to be over.

A second later and I am propelling out into the space faced with a view of mountains, blue water and trees.

Once I’ve been extracted from the swing the small blonde child wanders over to ask if I’m going to have another go.

While I think about it I ask what his favourite part of the week has been.

No hesitation: “This” he says, grinning proudly, “Definitely.”

For half a century Derwent Hill, in the heart of Keswick, has been an outdoor education centre for Sunderland schoolchildren – children who might not otherwise get the chance to gorge walk, canoe, climb, kayak and explore in beautiful surroundings.

Around 4,000 visit every year and making their beds and dorm inspections are considered just as important as the daily activities.

Janice Weatherill is deputy centre director and has been at Derwent Hill for 20 years.

She said: “My passion for outdoor education comes from a belief that it really can make a difference to a young person.

“The experience challenges their view of the world; it opens their eyes to what they can achieve, especially with support from their friends. This is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

“Fifty years of outdoor education at Derwent Hill is an amazing legacy created by the people of Sunderland. We have been under financial threat many times but thanks to the support of the council and the people of Sunderland we have kept going and now we are in a much more sustainable situation.

“Their continued support and participation means that three generations have enjoyed the experience.

“If we have raised the aspirations of only a few of those children it would be worthwhile but we believe the impact of Derwent Hill goes far beyond that.”

After I’ve recovered from the death swing, and the wedgie I was promised, we head out onto the water for a spot of canoeing, with Neale and the group from that morning, a mixture of 10 and 11-year-olds from Ryhope and Mill Hill Primary Schools. The spring sunshine is beating down as the children are dispatched into canoes strapped in pairs to avoid capsizing.

Janice and I paddle about in our own canoe while Neale gets the children singing Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes and jumping up and down in the sturdy vessels.

Back at the pier the kids take it in turn to jump into the water amidst a lot of theatrical splashing and yelling.

It is brilliant – and long may it last – another 50 years, and hopefully more.

To find out more go to www.derwenthill.co.uk

- The Friends of Derwent Hill are fund raising to build new self-catering accommodation at the centre. To find out more go to www.friendsofderwenthill.org

- E-mail your memories and photos of Derwent Hill to alison.goulding@northeast-press.co.uk – Alternatively, post them to Alison Goulding, Sunderland Echo, Echo House, Pennywell, Sunderland SR4 9ER. The best will appear in the Echo.