More and more parents are sending their children on survival holidays to experience the wilderness on their own. Are they irresponsible, or wise?
A boy tries to light dry grass under a pyramid of twigs. Eventually, it catches and he lies on his side to blow the embers into crackling life. Tonight he and his friends will dine on a thin stew made of thistles and heather leaves, cooked over the fire. They will sleep in a makeshift bivouac on a bed of ferns. This is not a scene from Swallows and Amazons. It is an increasingly popular kind of educational holiday for children.
On this particular course, groups of children aged from nine upwards will be pretty much alone. They have a signalling system if in distress and adults will check on them during the night. But they will be entrusted with knives, matches and each other's safety.
To some that might seem irresponsible or shocking, but to others it's a ray of hope amid today's paranoid child-rearing; it is a rite of passage that will equip these children with a deeper sense of self-belief. In many parts of the country, it is difficult to let children roam free due to a lack of public land and social constraints. But there is a growing consensus that in holding our children too close, we risk damaging their ability to manage and live with risk.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents recently castigated Britain's municipal playgrounds as too safe. And the CBI leader, Digby Jones, warned that emerging generations of nations raised in greater freedom would be more able to cope with risk in business as well as in life.
Increasingly, too, the wilderness has powerful advocates. There is Ray Mears, the popular television survivalist; Brat Camp, the TV series in which difficult teens find themselves reluctantly in the great outdoors; and The Dangerous Book for Boys, by Conn and Hal Iggulden, which proclaims the need for 21st-century males to know how to hunt and kill rabbits, among other things.
The UK now leads the field, and has more bushcraft organisations than the US, according to the survival skills school Natural Pathways. The first magazine, Bushcraft UK, has just been launched and there is a web forum, BCUK. But for those who don't know how to make fire by friction with damp materials or who don't have the mountains on their doorstep, the solution seems to be to hand over the problem to the experts. The number of companies licensed to take unaccompanied children into the great outdoors and engage them in adventurous activities has risen from 800 at the beginning of the century to around 1,100 now.
Hannah Nicholls runs Natural Pathways, based in Kent. She teaches children and families to make fire with friction, make knives from flint, pull medicinal plants from hedgerows, and create shelters from leaf mould and dead wood. She also works with troubled young people for whom the woodland environment and sleeping under the stars in a makeshift hut can feel entirely alien. "I think being close to nature is healing. Children today spend a lot of time in an urban environment, playing on computers, watching TV. I am not saying my children don't do these things – but it can be damaging."
She also believes, controversially, that children need a relationship with fire. "The simple pleasure of sitting round a fire is satisfying. If children have a relationship with fire, they learn to respect it." Exposure to the natural world, learning about nature and sleeping under the night sky contribute to a sense of wholeness, she says. "I think our children's lives are too circumscribed and that is why they often break out when they are teenagers, because they have been so controlled, they haven't learned how to live in the natural world, they haven't got the sense of perspective that gives them."
For those who want to travel further into the wilds, there are residential wilderness courses in Wales, Scotland and Cumbria. Many courses take children without their parents from as young as eight and put families in touch so that youngsters can travel there without parental escort.
Jamie McWhirter, 11, has just returned form a residential survival holiday which he attended with his cousin, who is the same age. Jamie says: "It was great. We had so much freedom. We did climbing and kayaking. We also did an expedition where we spent the night on a little island. They had shown us what heather petals we could eat and how to boil limpets and how to make thistle stew, so we had to find our own food. It didn't taste the best ever. But the next morning they gave us a great breakfast with hot chocolate and pancakes and orange juice."
His mother, Christine McWhirter, grew up experiencing outdoor dangers without the need to be sent on a survival holiday. "I lived in the north of Scotland and had a pony. People weren't so safety conscious. We didn't wear hard hats, we just rode out and I don't remember my parents even asking where we were going. We were just expected to turn up at mealtimes. It wouldn't be possible to do that now."
This autumn her son will make the transition to secondary school, an important change for any child. "Jamie will have to go there by bus on his own and I felt it was the right time for him to develop a little bit of autonomy. I feel he has really got a lot of confidence from it. It was about him finding out what he was really capable of." She feels he was safe at all times on the course. "But he did come back with a lot of bumps and bruises and quite a nice gash on his leg from slipping on the rocks."
There are dangers inherent in this kind of activity. And with wealthy clients coming from Saudi Arabia and eastern Europe, and even royalty, some companies did not wish to be named in this article, nor to reveal their locations, for fear of putting their clients at risk.
More than a decade ago, four children died canoeing in Lyme Bay. In response, the Adventurous Activity Licensing Authority was set up. Activities like abseiling with children are covered, but making a fire and camping out without adults do not need a licence. Although it does not have the power to prosecute, its director, Marcus Bailie, believes the AALA has improved safety through spreading good management and best practice. "The biggest cause of accidents is inattention. We encourage companies to give the same instructor to the same group for children for the duration of the course, doing different activities. That helps to keep the instructors engaged."
Despite such measures, on average, one child a year still dies on an adventurous activity in the UK. Last week, Laura McDairmant, 15, from Carlisle, became the latest when she was killed on an activity holiday in Dumfries and Galloway organised by the Abernethy Trust. The AALA is investigating. Says Bailie: "At times like this it's tempting to think, should we scrap the whole thing? I think that would be an inappropriate response. It is more important than ever to maintain a sense of perspective. Our hearts go out to the McDairmant family. I suspect we would feel the same about the 700 families who lose children each year on the roads."
Effects of anxiety
Tony Newman, chief researcher into children's welfare for Barnardo's, says: "I think people are realising that a lot of the changes made in the name of safety are having unintended consequences on children's development. But it is very hard to go back once you have ratcheted up the anxiety and changed the behaviour." However, he points out that these courses, costing from £200 upwards for a week, are available only to middle-class families.
"What children want and need is more free play, to be left to their own devices without adults bothering them. Society is in such a panic about young people. People like to see them engaged in an activity under the instruction of an adult. Everything has to be a learning opportunity these days, there is no room for just hanging around."
His conclusions are supported by the findings of the Open Space unit at Edinburgh University, where Professor Catherine Ward Thompson argues that teenagers need to learn to manage risk. "If they don't have the scope to do that, then they may not cope very well when they do come into contact with it."
Steve Howe, deputy director of Outward Bound, the original adventure holiday provider for children, has seen many changes over 32 years with the company. "When I was boy, I knew the names of just about every star in the sky. I could light a fire, I could carry a knife safely, I could build a tree house, I could cross a stream. These were just things you knew, these were life skills. But they are mostly either illegal or unacceptable now."
He believes children's acceptance of and ability to deal with risk are much lower now. A challenge like crossing a shallow stream is seen as more difficult. "They tend to be less comfortable with risks, even small risks, like getting their feet wet or falling over." And young people today are constantly in contact with adults by mobile phone. "We are probably the last generation who knows what being lost feels like."
As a parent, he takes the view that risks need to be managed, not eliminated. "My children who are 10 and 13 quite often go to the back of our garden in Penrith and light a fire. I could shout at them to put it out or I could say what I do, which is good on you, don't make it too big and be careful or you might get burned."
There has never been more interest in the kind of experience that Outward Bound offers: the number of people doing its courses has more than tripled in 10 years to some 33,000 a year. The three-week course, says Howe, which ends with 16-year-olds going on an unaccompanied mountain expedition, involves real risk management. The young people clear their route with staff but then go unaccompanied. "By the end of that course, the young people are taking on quite real risks and responsibilities, planning their own unaccompanied expeditions and dealing with some potentially serious situations. That is amazing for them."
Another of Britain's longest-established adventure holidays, Cape Adventure, is run by the Ridgway family in Cape Wrath in the north-west Highlands. Rebecca Ridgway and her husband recently took over the 30-year-old business from her father, the explorer John Ridgway and his wife, Marie-Christine. Marie Christine says: "There was much less regulation when we started out. We would send them off with a pin as a fishhook and a bit of string. When they were doing survival, they would jump out of a boat and swim to an island to spend the night. It isn't quite like that any more."
Her daughter Rebecca Ridgway says, however, that a night's survival, bivouacking on an island with an instructor in the background to offer advice, is still an important part of their courses. "We have teenagers arriving who have lived very protected lives. Some don't even know what they have brought with them as they haven't done their own packing.
"A lot of people do still get in touch with my parents to say how helpful the skills they learned here have been, even years later. If they feel they learned to stay calm in a difficult situation, to think about their own safety, to be responsible and to work in a team, those skills have come back to them when they needed them."
Arthur Ransome, who wrote Swallows and Amazons, said it came from resonant childhood memory of holidays roaming the hills above Lake Coniston. In the 1930 author's note, he wrote: "No matter where I was, wandering around the world, I used, at night, to look for the North Star and in my mind's eye could see the beloved skyline of great hills beneath it."