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I have just returned from a PGL Schools Adventure Holiday.
No, I did not lie about my age; I went in lieu of a teacher at my wife’s school who decided that she was somewhat “too pregnant” to carry it through.
Not being pregnant myself, having some experience dealing with kids in an outdoor activity role, and having no work last week clinched it; I was “volunteered” in a manner of speaking.
Actually, I was blackmailed; you know the kind of thing “You’re our last hope. If you don’t go, the kids can’t go, and they’ll all have to be given their money back yada yada yada”
SO WHO OR WHAT IS PGL?
PGL is an organisation affectionately known as “Piggle” to those that have heard of them. The initials are those of its founder, Peter Gordon Lawrence (I think). It is a sort of cross between an mildly “Outward Bound” course and an American-style summer camp.
Generally speaking, PGL handle group bookings from schools during term-time, and group or individual bookings during school holidays, hence the reference to summer camps.
What follows is a description of my recent experience whilst it’s still fresh in my mind.
Monday 13th May – The children were asked to come to school late (now there’s a hardship!) so that we didn’t have to entertain 45 “hyper” darlings for more time than necessary. The coach arrives at 11 a.m., chartered by PGL themselves.
Our destination is Boreatton Park, a previous manor house with 256 acres of parkland west of Shrewsbury. As we are starting from west London, this should take about 4 hours (and amazingly, it did).
We have one half-way stop, which was our first strategic error – allowing the children to eat their packed lunches INSIDE the coach – bloody hell, what a mess! An omen perhaps?
Our arrival sees the driver muttering about “bloody London kids” or something, especially after he finds three of the seat back ashtrays “deconstructed” on the floor. (And one of them was from the seat row in front of my own position so the potential safecracker obviously worked quietly!).
After settling the kids into their dormitories, with all the usual bitching about who gets a top bunk and who doesn’t want to be near who, we take them down for an early tea, which consists of all those “nutritious” items that kids love.
Rather than diary each activity as they happened, which was interesting for me, but probably not for you the reader, I’ll expand on them later.
Activities are slotted into either side of breakfast – yes, they even have to get up early and DO something before getting fed! This is the same for the evening meal, with an afternoon activity period and a pre-bedtime activity. A packed lunch comes “sandwiched” in between (pardon my pun), the orders for which are taken at breakfast.
WHERE DO TEACHERS FIT IN?
The teachers, or in my case “adult helpers”, were not expected to turn up and take part for ALL of these, but the PGL group leader/instructor would give clear indications of where we were expected next – very useful. In general, if there was a queue to supervise, as with Abseiling, where the children must be kept well clear of a safety hazard zone, then a teacher was needed. Swimming, for example, was entirely left in the hands of PGL staff.
Despite this the teacher’s role was pretty damned gruelling, leading to about 12 hours of daily “contact time”, which if the NUT are correct, is about 2.5 days worth when at school!
Having said that, the PGL staff worked even harder, and, one would assume for not very much pay either!
A daily pattern of who does what goes something like this.
7 a.m., PGL people wake the kids up, and with teacher’s help get them all assembled for a first activity. Teacher may or may not then be needed at the first activity.
Then PGL staff and teachers supervise and join kids for breakfast at around 8.20 a.m.
With breakfast over, the next activity (or two, if they are of a short time-span) commences. Even if not needed, I tended to tag along, as you could get pretty bored if you didn’t!
Packed lunch for the kids is eaten at their assembly point and supervised by PGL. Teachers (at last) get to the front of the lunch queue in the canteen to sample the stodgily alliterative delights of pasties, pasta, pies, potatoes, peas and puddings in isolated splendour and relative silence, which as the week develops becomes a valuable commodity!
Being a park, there is usually a fair old walk between one activity site and another, and the march is made as much fun as possible with the PGL leader kicking off with military style marching chants………….”We are kids and we have the means! Don’t get too close, we’ve eaten beans!” - that kind of thing.
The evening meal is taken with the kids also, after which they all rush (quite literally) to the Tuck Shop to spend their daily pocket money quota of £1 on tooth-ruining ingredients.
A final activity takes us up to about 8.20 p.m. Then begins the task of getting the little so…..darlings to bed. This is also a combined PGL/Teacher effort, with teachers being solely responsible for the 9.00 to 9.30 countdown to “lights-out”. It’s at this point that you come to realise that there is an outbreak of Juvenile Incontinence, if the number of (mainly) girls needing extra visits to the washrooms is anything to go by!
Then, oh bliss of blisses, comes a two-hour free period, usually spent at The Crazy Moose bar trying to down as much well priced Grolsch lager as possible. The Moose is a well-fitted clubhouse for PGL staff and teachers, boasting loads of space, large screen TV, a pool table, and best of all, NO KIDS!
Then with a somewhat rosier outlook on life, we return to our rooms, which are strategically placed in between dormitories, whilst the PGL night-staff give us the low-down on any troublemakers, or “The Usual Suspects” as they become known!
To be fair, the daily level of activity does tend to have the desired effect on most children, as for some, this is the most effort they have ever expended in one day, and all achieved without a Game Boy or Play Station 2 in sight! We only experienced two isolated incidences of “naughtiness” in the small hours. We also discovered a huddle of boys camping out in the corridor to escape the snoring/farting etc on the other side of the dorm door. That’ll teach them to go for the baked beans every time!
Before I go on, let me stress that no one is FORCED to do any activity. However, the peer-group pressure of not wanting to appear a “scaredy-cat” does spur many on to do things that normally they would shun. I know it worked for me – how would it be if one of the adults refused to abseil in front of 12 10-year-olds?
What follows is not an exhaustive list of all that PGL supply, but merely what could be slotted into our particular “3 whole- and two half-days” slot.
Abseiling – This gets its name from the German “ab” (down) and “seil” (rope), i.e. going down a rope.
As I understand it, a true abseil involves lowering yourself down a rope, using a clever but simple braking mechanism built into your safety harness to control the rate of descent. Obviously, first-timers couldn’t be trusted to gauge this, so you are advised to leave this alone whilst you are lowered to the ground on the end of an extra safety line, with an expert instructor at the top controlling descent. The main object of this exercise, for me at least, is overcoming a fear of being atop tall open structures and any qualms you had about leaning backwards off a 20-metre drop with only two ropes for company! Safety is a key issue, and adult staff MUST be present to supervise the restless queue at the bottom whilst the PGL people man (or is it woman?) the tower, and helmets are worn at all times within the confines of the tower. All of the kids in my group, except one boy, went through with it (as did I!)
Orienteering – A somewhat gentler pursuit, this one, taking advantage of the generous grounds at Boreatton Park. After a quick exercise to check if all kids grasp the principle of finding a location by its RELATIVE position to a know landmark, groups are sent off to all corners of the woods tasked with finding three locations and to come back with proof that they have there. Much like the treasure-trail kind of car rally, they are given a means of getting cards punched at each point of the course. The major advantage for the kids was the opportunity to “gel” as a team – we purposely kept changing teams around to halt incipient cronyism and bitching within the groups. For me, the major advantage was that it was scheduled as an evening activity and helped tire the little b*****s out!
Assault Course (with optional mud) – The centre has two courses, one “dryer” than the other. The kids are all kitted out in their “Piggle”, the yellow or orange PGL waterproof coat that they are exhorted to guard with their lives, and a good job too! The PGL staff conduct the whole activity as if breaking in rookie recruits to the US Marine Corps with lots of banter and “Yessir, Saarjint, SIR!” stuff.
These courses really do get them filthy, with tunnels full of muddy water, and puddles for them to take the “Timotei Challenge” in. This involves getting them to submerge their hair in mud and then fling it to one side, “Timotei-style”. Back at base, we literally hose them down fully dressed in warm water, as a precursor to them taking a shower and changing into their “dry-bag” clothes. Incidentally, all kids are told to bring old clothes, because even if they don’t, they’ll be “old” by the time they get home!
Kayaking - I now hold the record for the least time spent in a canoe. One minute after launching, I was just getting to grips with the concept of paddling, when a child in a similar state of readiness rammed me, the upshot of which was I found out the hard way what escaping from a capsized kayak was like. As with abseiling, we all wore helmets, and in this case, buoyancy aids too. Although I’m a strong swimmer, including underwater, the safety boat was over to me in seconds, just in case. The lake is in fact only about a metre deep, so I waded back, only to stand around for two hours in soaking wet clothes. (this was the only one adult-sized kayak, and my wife went out in it instead)
A few of the kids fell in also, but by this stage were also sufficiently skilled to get back in, with a little help from the instructors. The only real advantage of being on shore first was to see the faces of some of the children as they came ashore. Some of them didn’t stop smiling for an hour! I’m not sure if they were just proud of themselves or laughing at me, though!
Pony Trekking - I can’t speak too highly of this. I’d never been on a horse before, and this was a lovely introduction into the activity. After a kitting-out session and a short introduction to where the “steering, brakes, clutch and accelerator” are, we are ushered each to our pony/horse, depending on our weight and height. Then we all headed out, for one circuit of the paddock just to make sure that we knew a rein from a stirrup, and off to the woods we went, like one long train of horseflesh.
My mount, a sizeable mare, tended to walk faster than the mere pony in front, or she would have done if he hadn’t been there, so speed control wasn’t problem – the pony in front farting non-stop was!
I must admit that I came away vowing to include trekking in a holiday somewhere, sometime. Most of the kids thought it was great too, even those “Where’s My Gameboy?” types.
Quad Biking - Boy am I sore about this one. They USED to have an adult-sized quad-bike but, wait for it……. “the teachers BROKE it”, presumably making a Steve McQueenesque dash for the fence. So “Muggins” had to supervise the queue with no prospect of a “go” himself.
Here again, safety is paramount. Everyone dresses as if for motorcycling with a dash of skateboarding thrown in, if the amount of helmets, gloves, elbow-pads, knee- pads etc. is anything to go by. Initially, the kids are allowed around the circuit on a tether, which cuts the engine if they get too frisky and dash off. Once it becomes apparent that they can all steer (and don’t take that for granted, believe me!), they are allowed a few more circuits each.
Raft Building – This is a real opportunity to dampen the ardour of the most unpopular child in the group. All you have to do is make sure that he/she is put in the most clueless team, and watch them fall one by one into the (meter-deep) lake fully-clothed. Joking apart, this activity really brought out some of the more timid ones, since the prospect of a cold ducking is enough to make anyone take over the supervision of the building stage. One little girl, who had hardly said “Boo” all week was suddenly heard to shout “No, we’ve GOT to get the ropes TIGHTER, otherwise it won’t hold together - look I’ll show you, like THIS!!”
The children are given some rudimentary rope-craft (knots), four oil drums, two logs and enough rope to hang themselves with. Then they are given a fixed period to build and launch their raft. The object is to get the whole team aboard and paddle to the other side of the lake. The Dunkirk spirit is not dead, I’m glad to say. If I have one image that I have carried away with me, it’s of a lone girl wading neck-deep in muddy water, towing a stricken and fast disintegrating raft to the shore so that her sister and friends won’t get wet. All say “Aaaaah!”
Swimming - After getting wet AND muddy, this must have seemed quite tame. They didn’t need me so I didn’t go, being happy to get away from high-pitched voices for a while. The centre’s pool is indoors with all the usual safety features and changing facilities.
Zip-Wire Ride – If I’m honest, this probably has an equal “buttock-clench” rating to the abseiling. It involves climbing a 15-metre wooden tower, getting attached to two safety lines and shooting horizontally out into thin air from the platform, suspended from the world’s most minimal cable railway, i.e. just a cable and some wheels. The initial sag of the cable leads to a heart-rending plunge for a split second, especially if you’re my weight!
This was another “character-forming” activity for those scared of heights. One girl (the same one who towed the raft) was nearly in tears at the top, having made the cardinal error of looking down. Amidst much derision from down below, she finally launched herself with an almighty “OH, MY G-O-O-O-O-D!”
I turned to the assembled rabble and said, “Well she’s BRAVER than you lot, she did it even though she was scared” – that shut them up for a few minutes!
Other Activities – These include various woodland activities and games, like bivouac construction, following a “night-line” whilst blindfolded, defending a flag (a bit like paint-ball without the paint), a camp-fire sing-song, and initiative tests requiring team-work and a variety of indoor sports events including several interesting alternative uses for a parachute (?), and novelty relay races.
WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?
If you’d asked me that during the week in question, I’d probably have said no. We all felt that more care in excluding some of the kids should have been taken by the school – one of our number was actually the Head and even he agreed for future reference! One or two proved to be VERY naughty, bordering on being a safety risk which meant that they needed constant supervision, which is no way to run a holiday, especially if you are forced to escort them home mid-week (which can happen).
Given a fresh batch of kids next year, YES, I would do it again – I’ve been dining out on anecdotes from it all week!
WOULD I SEND MY OWN KIDS ON A PGL SCHOOL TRIP?
Most emphatically YES! Without wishing to sound twee and fuddy-duddy, it is so character building whilst remaining fun at the heart of it. The combination of the need for courage in a controlled environment is beneficial to all, almost without exception, and my wife has begun to get favourable comments and thanks from parents, who have noticed the difference already.
WOULD I WORK AT PGL?
Well of course, my age rules me out, but as an introduction to working with children in, say, a gap year, then PGL would be superb. At least at the end of it, you’d know whether you could shout or not! There were even some teachers there, having a year off from mainstream education. I’ve no doubt whatsoever that the pay is lousy, but in a way, this made it even more heartening that this amazing bunch of guys and gals were giving it their all – not a “jobs-worth” amongst them!
p.s We actually stayed in the main house, but there isn't a category for that below. The site does also have tents and chalets at slightly lower prices I assume. Each of our kids paid about £158 including transport.