Walton Firs Foundation owns and operates Walton Firs Activity Centre in Cobham; a site for youth groups which dates back almost 80 years. The 36-acre outdoor activity and education centre provides a wide range of benefits to young people, with over 30,000 visitor days annually.
Andy Harvey, Chief Executive and retired Army Major, shares his thoughts on why getting young people outdoors and into the fresh air can only be a positive thing.
Walton Firs prides itself on providing affordable activities and accommodation for schools and all varieties of youth groups to experience the fun, challenge, adventure and excitement of outdoor education in a safe and controlled environment.
On site, there are a wide variety of both instructor-led and self-instructed outdoor activities for varying ages and abilities of visitors to participate in. By engaging in these activities young people can learn some essential life skills such as teamwork, self-confidence, leadership and communication skills. Not only is this excellent for personal growth, but it also helps get young people away from their screens and outside engaging with their peers. Research has shown that engagement in outdoor education not only improves both the physical and mental health of participants, but can also improve their emotional wellbeing. In these days of increasing anxiety and mental health issues amongst young people, getting outside and active with friends in a natural environment is a great way of stress-busting; a kind of woodland therapy.
However, it’s very important for us as a charity not to reach a point where returning visitors only ever experience the same facilities and activities. The openness of young minds to new experiences will be tarnished if we fail to keep developing the activities on offer, and so we strive to keep them continually evolving and improving. With this demand comes the need for funding to open and run new projects that will continue to excite and challenge the young people who visit us.
We are incredibly grateful to the Community Foundation for Surrey, who have this year provided us with two significant grants. The first being for two accommodation ‘pods’, which will provide sheltered accommodation for visiting groups, helping to get them closer to nature. Each accommodation pod will sleep 8 young people, and in addition to enhancing our sheltered accommodation capacity, will also help to extend the camping season as the pods are each fitted with underfloor heating. This will allow a much greater number of young people to participate in outdoor activities in the more unappealing weather conditions offered by long British winters.
Currently our accommodation buildings are heavily oversubscribed, which leads to us turning away large numbers of groups – and groups with large numbers – all looking for accommodation. Whilst we can accommodate a huge number of campers in tents, our buildings are being booked up 2-3 years in advance as not all youth groups comprise confident, capable campers. The new pods funded by CFS (and from some other sources) will extend our ‘mattress capacity’ from the 62 beds we currently have to a whopping 152 beds and offer a novel and fun solution to the accommodation issue. We’re very much looking forward to having them installed, up and running later this year.
We have also recently been incredibly fortunate to receive the Foundation’s largest ever grant for a High Ropes course that will help test and challenge our young visitors to the maximum! Having successfully opened our Low Ropes course activity last year, we are incredibly excited for this next project. Currently most of our on-site activities are currently best suited for ages 7-12, but the High Ropes are designed for wider age appeal, for ages 7-18+. This broader appeal is a tremendous thing and will offer something really demanding for all our young visitors. They want to be challenged and to learn new skills, and this project will be a fantastic way to help them to do just this.
Personally, this is my second job since retiring from the Army. Initially I commuted to Canary Wharf for work but have swapped that daily grind for the great outdoors. In doing so I have seen the impact that outdoor education can have on development. When I began this role just over 18 months ago I thought young people would be walking into trees, too busy on their phones to take notice of their surroundings, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Young people want to be outside, scraping their knees, getting muddy and having fun. At Walton Firs we want to let them do that as safely as possible and help them create some really positive memories which will hopefully endure for a lifetime. Overcoming challenges is a key part of personal development, and if you’ve ever seen the pride and jubilation on a young person’s face when they finally achieve something which they thought they couldn’t, then you’ll understand why real education is so much more than just sitting in a classroom. Outdoors is where we believe young people can develop their character.
We strive to keep the costs to our visitors as low as possible, but at the same time offer the best facilities we can. To achieve these dual aims we rely heavily on the help of both volunteers and supporter organisations, such as the Community Foundation for Surrey.
CFS provide a fabulous service to small charities such as ours. We’re hugely appreciative of their advice and support, and incredibly grateful for their process in matching potential donors with specific applications.