Arthog: Conquering fears in the name of fun - with video and pictures
The screams and squeals say it all – the laughter is intoxicating.
A group of children, aged 10 and 11, gingerly climb the face of the gorge in the foothills of Cader Idris.
Step by step, they help one another up the hillside, holding tightly onto an orange rope, watched closely by instructors Ben Griffiths and Libby Fowles.
But the best bit comes when they have reached the peak of their ascent. One after the other, they slide on their backsides down the waterfall, riding the surf of the foaming River Caletwr. The look of joy on their faces is a sight to behold.
“At first I didn’t want to go in,” says 10-year-old Rhianna Llewellyn, a pupil from Newdale Primary School in Telford.
“But then I thought, ‘I’m not going to get an opportunity like that again’, so I decided to give it a go. It was a bit scary at first, but once you’re in the water it’s great fun, it feels really fresh.”
We’re at the Arthog Outdoor Education Centre in North Wales, just across the estuary from Barmouth.
Owned and run by Telford & Wrekin Council, the centre faced an uncertain future a few years ago with talk of budget cuts. But now, thanks to a £250,000 investment by the authority, it’s back in rude health – and looking to increase the number of users.
Rhianna’s schoolmate, Max Cartwright, also 10, is beaming with joy after completing his slide down the gorge.
“This was the best bit,” he says. “You get to explore the outside. Yesterday we went on a hill walk, and I felt very proud of myself when I got to the top. It’s about being able to do things you wouldn’t normally do.”
Libby, 31, has been an instructor at Arthog for two-and-a-half years, and says the gorge-walking activity is always one of the most popular. “They always love gorge walking, they get really wet,” she said. “They have to work together and support one another on the ascent.”
Jo Barnett, outdoor education manager at Telford & Wrekin Council, says Arthog was dear to the hearts of the people of Shropshire, having hosted thousands of children over the decades. The site began life as a camping area run by the former Shropshire County Council in the late 50s and gradually expanded into the 100-bed residential centre it is today through a number of extensions.
“That is part of its character, the way it has evolved and grown over the years,” she adds.
“So many people have been to Arthog over the years, or their children have. So many people have memories of how they went there as a child.” Assistant headteacher at Newdale Primary, Jenny Thomas, says the school brings a group to Arthog every year, and says it is the instructors who make the experience special.
“As teachers, we feel it helps to build up resilience, and teaches them how to work as a team,” she says.
The latest investment has seen the redesign of the dormitories, installation of interactive display screens, and a new canteen and kitchen. A resident night attendant is also employed, and new equipment includes seven canoes, brand new surf boards and an expanded fleet of minibuses. It comes on top of a previous set of improvements in 2015 which led to the construction of a new storage building and a modern central heating system.
The centre now employs 22 full-time staff and 30 freelance instructors.
Centre manager Mark Youd says the new heating system has made a huge difference. “It comes into its own during the colder months, when the children come in with their wet clothes,” he says.
“Before that it was storage heaters, which can be a bit hit and miss.” Also spending a week at Arthog are children from John Randall School in Madeley.
Teacher Sarah Wust says one of the most rewarding things is seeing how the children thrive during their time at Arthog, particularly the ones who might initially lack confidence.
One such pupil was Tyler, aged 10, who admits he was reluctant to get into a canoe on Lake Jericho.
“I wasn’t very keen at first, I thought the boat was going to tip over,” he says.
“But once I got in, I found the boats are very hard to tip over, they are very stable. After a bit I was able to stand up and paddle, I think I was quite good at it.”
Also overcoming his fears was 10-year-old Ryan.
“Yesterday we did rock-climbing,” he says. “I was a bit nervous at first, as I’m scared of heights, but I climbed a lot higher than I thought I would be able to.”
Mrs Wust adds: “They get real experience of an outdoor environment, they get this opportunity to discover and experience nature, and to challenge themselves.” She says the experience also brings academic benefits that are felt long after the children return to Shropshire.
“If the children are having difficulty in, say, English, we can relate back to what we did at Arthog to help them work their way through it,” she says.
“It builds up their confidence and self-esteem, they become more engaged, and more willing to take risks. You get to see them in a different light, you get to see what they are like in a different situation, and what their interests are.”
The man who has been teaching the John Randall pupils to canoe is 47-year-old instructor Jay Cooper, who has been at Arthog for 21 years.
“The best part of the job is working with the children,” he says.
"For me personally, the most rewarding thing is working with children who think they are going to struggle, and then overcoming their struggles and doing their activities. They have to learn to work as a team and depend on each other.
“When they are climbing, for example, they are responsible for holding each other’s rope, and looking after each other.”
And the council’s Mrs Barnett says running Arthog is an expensive business, but the enrichment it provides to children’s lives is huge.
She says most Telford schools will have used the centre in the past 18 months, as well as a large number from the Shropshire Council area. Schools in the immediate North Wales area also make use of the centre. “Just because you live by the sea, that doesn’t always mean you have the chance to go canoeing for example, as you might not have the equipment,” she says.
The centre is also used for teacher training and by the National Citizen’s Service for young people, although Mr Youd says he is keen to encourage schools from other West Midlands authorities to make use of the facilities.
Mrs Barnett adds that for many children Arthog might be their only opportunity to visit the seaside, and the educational benefits can be huge.
“Arthog really can be life changing,” she says. “How can you ask the children to write about the sea, if they have never seen the sea? How can you ask a child what it’s like underground if they have never been outside Telford?”
Adventures I’ll never forget
Arthog was life-changing for Heather Large. Many years on, she still fondly remembers the whole experience.
A week of rock climbing, abseiling, gorge scrambling, orienteering and camping – it certainly beat being stuck in the classroom.
Not only were we escaping school but it also the first time many of us Year 7s at Oldbury Wells School in Bridgnorth had been away from home and our parents for more than a couple of nights.
Before we left, we had to check everything off on our extensive kit list to ensure we had the right waterproof and warm clothing. You can never have too many pairs of thick socks.
It was an action-packed week of activities and new experiences but one of the best was the camping trip which saw us spending a night in a traditional bothy.
We had to fend for ourselves by making our own tea – and before we left the hostel we had to choose what we were going to eat from the items in the store cupboard.
It was nothing complicated, heating up tins of spaghetti bolognaise and macaroni cheese was about as gourmet as it got. But it wasn’t really about the food, more the satisfaction of cooking our own meal.
I do remember us complaining about being hungry as it took a very long time for pasta dishes to reach the right temperature on the cooking stove.
I visited again in Year 9, having enjoyed it so much the first time. I remember gorge scrambling being my favourite activity. It was a lot of fun climbing over the rocks and trying not to end up in the water.
We had an eventful night-time walk by the Mawddach estuary where my group of friends and I helped to free a sheep stuck in a barbed wire fence. It certainly didn’t appear grateful for its freedom but it felt good to have helped it on its way.
I also ended up in hospital for X-rays, which was definitely not on the planned list of activities, after colliding with the rock face while abseiling. Thankfully my arm wasn’t broken and it was just another story to tell from a good trip.
My friends and I still talked about our time at Arthog for many years and it was definitely a highlight of my school years.