Last Saturday, I walked in the woods with friends. More than friends really. More than just trees too. Let me explain.
My father was a Royal Marine Commando. He was amongst the first to land on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. His time in the Commandos was hugely important to my dad. In many ways it defined him and his attitude to life. Shortly after the D-Day landings, he was captured and held in a Prisoner of War Camp. This was also a defining experience for him. On returning home after the war, Dad needed a way to replicate some of the positive aspects of his wartime experience in civilian life. He valued comradeship very highly. He craved an element of excitement and danger in his life. He was in no doubt as to the importance of being able to spend time freely in the outdoors. He hated spending too long indoors. He saw the value of service and was keen to help people in need. In particular, he felt strongly that it was important to do whatever he could to enable young people to see beyond their immediate circumstances and get the most out of life. He found his vehicle in the Scout Movement. He started a Scout troop in his home town of Dudley and later became Head Warden of Kinver Scout Camp.
Kinver Scout Camp is a magical place. 23 acres of mixed woodlands sprinkled with open glades for camping. It lies next door to Kinver Edge, a sandstone ridge and high heathland on the border between Staffordshire and Worcestershire. The edge is home to two Iron Age hill forts and the Rock Houses – houses carved out of the sandstone rock, inhabited until the 1960s and the last inhabited troglodyte dwellings in England. They are said to have been the inspiration for the Hobbit Holes in Tolkein’s books.
During my youth, my family lived in the urban sprawl of the West Midlands. My father worked as a printer in his home town. Dudley is part of an area known as the Black Country. The name originated because of the amount of pollution generated by the mining and industry in the area. Reputedly the inspiration for Mordor rather than the Shire.
But, every weekend, Dad would take us down to Kinver Camp. It was in those woods that I grew up.
Dad was a member of the BP Guild based at the Camp. BP stood for Baden Powell, the originator of the Scout Movement. The Guild was a group of ex-Scouts, now grown men with wives and families, who wanted to continue their association with the Movement, to give up some of their free time most weekends in order to help young people benefit from the experience of being Scouts.
So, every weekend, the fathers of the Guild would come down to the Camp to spend a day or two working to improve facilities at the camp. They built log cabins and toilet blocks. They organised Sponsored Walks and Fancy Dress Dances to raise money for the Camp and fund the building work. They worked hard. And, whilst they worked, their children, the “Guild Kids”, were left to amuse themselves in the woods.
It was a wonderful childhood. We were totally free-range. Left to explore together. Allowed to experience the woods on our own terms. Take risks. Make mistakes. Look after each other. Discover how to do things through trial and error. Teach each other how to do stuff. Pass on the knowledge of the best places for climbing, hiding, jumping. We climbed trees. We found the places where the ground sloped away and a tree limb hung at just the right angle. There we set up swings. A length of rope, a short sturdy stick as a handle and there was hours of fun to be had seeing who could swing the highest, dare to let go and fly the furthest. Yes, there were scratches and bruises, the occasional broken limb (at which point we had to involve the parents). But all the better to have scars and stories to tell.
Sometimes, the adults did intervene. Try to shape our experiences a little. But this (particularly if it involved my father) tended to just raise the level of danger involved. Adults erected an aerial runway. A zip wire. A length of thick metal rope harnessed at one end, high up on a sandstone bluff, around the trunk of a mighty scot’s pine. Reaching out across a small gorge to a sturdy oak on the crest of the opposing hill. There was a pulley that sat permanently upon the wire. From it dangled a rope with a simple stick handle. No harness. Nothing to secure you safely to the pulley mechanism. You simply had to hold on tight and not let go. Only your grip kept you from a painful fall to the sandy ground a good twenty feet below. Particularly painful if you fell on to the circle of rocks laid out for campfires which marked the halfway point. Neither was there anything to prevent you crashing into the trunk of the oak tree at the end of your descent. You had to time it so that you let go at just the right moment to drop to the earth as it began to rise, the change in angle absorbing the impact of your dismount. It was quite an art. We taught each other how to master it. It was scary but worth the fear to experience the rush of adrenalin as you hurtled through the air, knuckles white, smile wide.
Shared fear. Shared joy. Shared secrets. These are powerful experiences. They bound us Guild Kids together in a way that has endured. In a way, I think, we had the experience of growing up in a tribe. I felt like I grew up in a large extended family. I was not reliant on a single set of parents. I knew that any of the Guild parents would look after me like their own child. We went on camping trips and holidays with each other’s families and were left in the care of other parents as a matter of course. There was complete trust. A clear sense of shared community and purpose. I learned as much from the other Guild parents as from my own. I did not have just one model of how to be a parent, an adult. I had numerous. Yes, the Guild members shared some fundamental values but they were individuals and all had different ways and opinions, often strongly expressed. There were disagreements, differences of viewpoint openly spoken. There was frustration, criticism, condemnation. But the Guild continued. The tribe was stronger than the individual. They stuck by each other. So, I grew up knowing that my father’s way was not the only way. There were other options. I saw them up close. I learned that I could chose to follow his example if I so wished but that it was a choice. I learned the value of the tribe.
There was also something special about growing up Outdoors. The Camp woods are inspirational to walk around. I recall walking there with my father. “Here,” he said, “is my church.” He explained to me that it was in Nature, amongst the trees that he felt most connected to the Divine. Amongst the trees that he saw proof of the existence of God. His ashes are scattered in those woods. As are many of the Guild parents. My wife and I were married in those woods. Look up to the sky whilst standing in the heart of the woods where the trees are tallest and most dense. You realise that the great cathedrals were built to try to mimic that sensation. It is a humbling. A recognition that we are just a part of a much greater whole. A feeling of Connectedness. I think that this feeling of connectedness in Nature supports and strengthens a connectedness within the tribe.
So, connected as we are, we, the Guild Kids (now in middle age with kids of our own) meet up on one day each year. We are spread out over the country now. Our separate lives have taken us far and wide. Far apart. But, once a year, we meet up at the Camp. We take a walk over Kinver Edge. Share a meal in a cabin on the Camp. We talk. Catch up. Bring each other up to date on our lives. And we share. Share memories. Remember our childhoods. Honour our parents and the gift they gave us. And, each year, it is like we saw each other last just yesterday. Our separate lives fade in importance for a few hours and our connectedness takes centre stage. It is nourishing and healing. It makes me feel grounded. Once again, I know where my roots lie. From our roots we draw sustenance. The strength to go on when times are tough. Many of us have been having tough times lately. We can only be thankful that we have such strong roots.