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Bring Yer Wellies - a hands-on approach to education in Hoghton

PUBLISHED: 15:52 14 March 2016 | UPDATED: 16:40 13 January 2018

Cork boat racing down the brook

Cork boat racing down the brook

not Archant

A couple from Hoghton are helping children to develop a sense of adventure, writes Martin Pilkington

Team work to build dens Team work to build dens

Getting children to play outdoors and learn about the world once merely involved firm instructions to be back by teatime. The attractions of screens big and small, understandable parental concerns and a risk-averse culture have changed all that. Bring Yer Wellies in Hoghton, however, is turning back the tide.

‘As they arrive we often ask children “Who has a tablet computer?” and most put their hands up,’ says Melissa Peter, who runs the business with husband, Nigel. ‘Then we ask “Who’s built a den?” and hardly any will have.’ By the time they leave that’s one of many new experiences that will have challenged the youngsters.

The roots of the business go back to the 1950s when Nigel’s father established a small market garden on the site. That blossomed into a thriving nursery until cheap imports in the 1980s and the all-powerful supermarkets and chain stores in the 1990s blighted the trade.

A groundwork business, Nigel’s freelance engineering work, and higher-value sales like hanging baskets and topiary kept things ticking over until, with their son Fergus on the scene, they had a radical rethink. ‘We wondered what we could do to pay the bills to take us to retirement and Fergus to his 20s,’ explains Melissa. ‘We were very much into the outdoors and wanted to bring up our son like that – every newspaper contained something about kids not getting outside, childhood obesity, losing touch with nature, computer gaming addiction, even what the writer Richard Louv calls Nature Deficit Disorder.

Melissa, Nigel and son Fergus Melissa, Nigel and son Fergus

‘Fergus has a very outdoors life, he’s lucky, but what about other kids his age? Many kids now live in a virtual world. People asked about hosting birthday parties here, and we wondered if we could work with schools as well.’

Nigel adds: ‘Teachers told us there was a need, we’d read about parents keen to get their kids out and nearer to nature, but would it work?’

When they looked at planning issues even defining the nature of the site – part private dwelling, part study area, part commercial greenhouse - was problematic.

The conversion would require major investment in facilities such as a toilet block, wheelchair access throughout and toughened glass in the greenhouse. But in 2012 they received planning permission. ‘We got the news the same week that Melissa was made redundant from her job at Hoghton Tower, so we went from feeling sorry for ourselves to having a new goal,’ says Nigel.

In the 1990s Nigel had bought an adjoining stretch of land bordering a brook, with trees, a muddy field and steep grassy slope – a paradise for adventurous children. ‘At the time it was expensive, and not terribly useful, but now it’s great for the new business,’ he says.

The facilities were completed in June 2013. Birthday parties lined up to book, but cracking schools proved tougher. ‘Teachers are incredibly busy, it was easier for them to return to a place already risk assessed, and this is a bit different,’ says Melissa. ‘So eventually I made three-minute presentations to staff meetings to get the message across.’

It worked. ‘For 2015 we were fully booked with schools by April, and had to turn down 30 more. We’ve had them from as far as Lancaster, Salford, Worsley, Nelson, Blackpool... it’s taken off more than we could ever have hoped for,’ Melissa says.

No two events are the same, each tailored after discussions with teachers, but the general format is the chosen educational activity in the morning, a picnic lunch outside, then in the afternoon den building and play down in the field.

‘In the greenhouse, kids plant up herbs so they take something better than a pencil back to their parents,’ says Melissa. ‘It’s not just planting and growing, it’s about getting dirty hands too, and with the herbs it’s very sensory.’ Ecology is covered hands-on too, using an old bike to generate electricity, or pond-dipping, or observing the worms in decomposing horse-manure.

Classes studying ‘field to fork’ spend time in the vegetable gardens. ‘Kids get to dig up and pick vegetables like chard, sweetcorn, beetroot, spuds,’ says Melissa. ‘Some haven’t a clue food comes out of the ground.’

History plays its part too. The Great Fire of London comes alive when the children make houses from cardboard boxes, and Nigel sets them alight. The age of sail is evoked when model boats are raced on the brook. They can even carry out an archaeological dig in the purpose-built sandpits, unearthing genuine artefacts. ‘David Dickenson, who is Fergus’s godfather and the former local vicar, helps with that one,’ says Nigel. ‘He studied archaeology as well as theology, and was a schoolteacher too. He really enthuses the kids about the past, and how valuable and important the finds are.’

It’s working well as a business, but Melissa and Nigel intend it to be more than that. ‘This sort of experience lets kids evolve, develop, says Nigel. ‘If we don’t climb trees, play in mud, touch plants as children it has serious implications in later life.’ w

Bring Yer Wellies is based at Ricroft Nurseries, Quaker Brook Lane, Hoghton, PR5 OJA. To find out more go to www.bringyerwellies.co.uk

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