Instructor Mike Raine bemoans the loss of dozens of outdoor centres to the pandemic – and asks what needs to happen next.

Main image: Marle Hall outdoor centre in North Wales, which closed in August. Photo: Mike Raine

I can still remember the full body tremble from being dragged up the climbing route President’s Progress at Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire. I can still remember the shock of the cold water in How Stean Gorge. I can still remember the dorms, the songs, the instructors, and the friends made. The bad weather was utterly irrelevant. Thank you, Bewereley Park Outdoor Education Centre, near Harrogate – you helped to make me who I am today. And I’ve still got the badge.

I am not the only one who can remember the details of my first outdoor education residential. Mine was in 1974. So many of us have these memories and when we mention we work in the outdoors, people will share theirs too. Clearly outdoor education makes a big impression on people. It helps them learn about themselves, the way they react under pressure, how they deal with challenges. It can show their role within a group and it’s no exaggeration to say that it can define people’s lives better.

So why are we closing down outdoor education centres, the places which have often hosted these formative experiences?

Young people’s future

Here, within just a few miles of my house, in Snowdonia are five closed centres. As an instructor, I have a fondness for the centres where I learned my trade, and two of those are now closed. One of these was the Kent Mountain Centre in Llanberis. From there we took youngsters up the Glyderau and over Tryfan; we kayaked on moving water and on the sea; we explored the underground world of slate caverns. I’ll always remember one young lad exclaiming “if my mother could see me now!” as we crossed Crib Goch.

The picture in North Wales is replicated across England and Wales. The Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres (AHOEC), estimates that around 10% of the 300 or so outdoor education centres that they represent have had to close permanently since the start of the pandemic. They closed their doors when covid hit and there just hasn’t been the funding to keep them operational.

Kent Mountain Centre near Llanberis, which has closed. Photo: Mike Raine

We know people need to be more active, to move more, to be outside more. We know employers look for teamworking, problem solving, resilience, caring and sharing. How do we enable these things? Outdoor education has a vital role to play, but too many councils have been forced towards closure as their funding is concentrated on their narrow statutory demands. Yet, to me at least, the future of our young people should be at the heart of their decision-making and should be better supported by central government funding.

Missing will

The facts here speak for themselves. The Scottish government granted £2 million to Scottish outdoor centres when the pandemic hit. No Scottish outdoor education centres have closed. Welsh centres did eventually get a grant too, but it was severely delayed, by which point many outdoor education centres were already in dire straits. In England, no specific funding at all was allocated to outdoor centres.

Each closed centre is a special place. They were staffed by brilliant, committed people and they were visited by thousands of youngsters. The buildings have been adapted to suit their primary purpose and will not be easy or cheap to convert to other uses. They sit empty, idle, deserted and abandoned. They are watched over by neighbours, they are mourned by a sector. I believe the relevant governments have the money to change this, but not the will.

Come together

Each centre has lobbied hard, has worked to break even, has political clout in its home county, but each one now sits empty. It seems like a battle lost.

Mike Raine: “It’s time for us to come together to work as a group”

The outdoor education world has to regroup, join together for a common purpose, present a united front and work hard, very hard, to demonstrate how we are part of the answer. We have leaders, we have dedicated and committed people, but somehow, we seem to need more.

One thing is for sure; if we carry on in parallel lines, the sector can only get weaker and less effective. It’s time for reflection, for humility, and above all, it’s time for us to come together to work as a group; something we are so fond of encouraging others to do.

I look at pictures of these closed centres and weep. I cannot believe this has happened. It needs to stop now.

Mike Raine is a Mountaineering Instructor working in North Wales and the author of Nature of Snowdonia