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Crosby Hall - just the place for free range children

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 September 2013

Crosby Hall was built in 1609 but Blundells have lived in this area since the 1200s

Crosby Hall was built in 1609 but Blundells have lived in this area since the 1200s

Archant

Tell a group of small children they are banned from using their mobiles for the weekend and you can expect a reaction similar to a net full of codfish plucked from the briny. Gasps, bulging eyes and a lot of desperate wriggling.

Tell them the ban extends to their television and computer screens and you better know a good lawyer, well-versed in the European Human Rights Acts.

That’s the popular perception, anyway. But it’s not the reality at Crosby Hall, which is home to one of Lancashire’s more unusual centres of learning.

CHET – the Crosby Hall Educational Trust – is a residential centre where children can roam free and have the sort of fun we all enjoyed before the nation decided it was best to wrap kids in cotton wool.

The driving force behind it is Mark Blundell, a man who is relaxed about being called the squire of Little Crosby - mainly because that’s what he is.

According to the principal, Wil Sloane, who runs CHET for Mark, losing some of the trappings of the 21st century isn’t an issue for the 2,500 children who come here each year. ‘There is no TV, no mobiles and no internet but, amazingly, I’ve never had a child even mention it to me,’ he says. ‘They don’t miss it at all – they’re too busy telling stories around the camp fire.’

In fact, the only TV is in the quarters allocated to the teachers and they don’t seem to use it that much.

CHET is all about letting children loose in a rural environment where they can leave urban cares behind them and have some fun while learning what some might refer to as ‘life skills.’ They’ve even been known to have bushcraft lessons where they can light a fire. Before health and safety squads raid the place, we should point out they are closely supervised.

Mark Blundell would probably express it more elegantly, but you get the impression from talking to him that he is conscious of the fact he has so much – a stunning, historic home in 120 acres of parkland and a substantial estate – while just eight miles away, in the centre of Liverpool, there are children with little or nothing. Consequently, he wants to share some of what he has, not in a Squire Bountiful sort of way, but because something tells him it’s the right thing to do. He expresses a determination that the house and its ancient estate should not become isolated from the outside world. That’s why these grand surrounding ring to the laughter of children.

And the work that Wil and his team do at Crosby Hall can have a deep and lasting impact on many of the children who arrive here burdened by the pressures of home life and leave more confident, outgoing and communicative.

The lovely 17th century stable complex has been transformed into an area for sleep, play, relaxation and education.

Fun comes in many guises – bushcraft, raft-building and canoeing in the old estate claypits, archery, orienteering, zip-wires, shelter building, drama, dance, music, art and some horse-riding.

Teachers arrive with their young charges – there are only ever children from one school on site – and they can stay for anything up to a week, although a shorter break is more usual.

There is a also a centre for disabled children and there is a bursary fund so many children can go to CHET at minimum cost. ‘We did discover that one mum had gone to a loan shark to get the money to send her son here,’ says Wil. ‘We soon sorted that out.’

Mark and his supporters started fundraising in 1988 and after a long slog and some successful grant applications, £1million transformed the stables, which were given to the trust on a long lease. Princess Margaret opened the centre in 1991. It takes 45 children at a time and many come from schools in Merseyside. ‘It started off with the older children at junior school but we now take younger boys and girls because it’s such a safe environment,’ says Mark, the chairman of the trustees. ‘We wanted it to be safe, cosy and homely. The teachers are responsible but our staff are there to support them.

‘The activities concentrate on two elements - the physical and the pastoral. A child who is not very successful in the classroom really can thrive here.

‘We do have children who enjoy themselves so much they don’t want to leave, even though for many this is the first time they have been away from home.’

Much of Wil Sloane’s career has been spent working with the psychologically damaged so he is well-versed in the advantages of this type of break from the routine of everyday life.

‘Children often come away from their familiar environment and get to know a teacher, who they thought was an old so-and-so but discover they are quite nice. The same happens with teachers who you will hear saying things like: “I didn’t know that child would be capable of doing that.”

‘It’s all about ability and confidence. We recently had a boy with Down’s Syndrome who was in shell, very withdrawn and barely making contact with anyone around him. By the time he left he’d made friends and you could see his confidence growing. We want children to come here and achieve great things.’

A very long line

There have been Blundells in the Little Crosby area since the 1200s, but their power and influence grew in the 14th century when they married into the wealthy Molyneux family.

However, it was rarely a peaceful existence. The Blundells have always been devote Catholics and as prominent recusants they were persecuted for refusing to accept laws that demanded they abandoned their faith.

Despite chivalrous family members supporting the Jacobite cause and William ‘The Cavalier’ Blundell fighting on the side of the king during the Civil War, they managed, against the odds, to keep the manor of Little Crosby within the family. The estate still retains more than 60 cottages, two farms, shops and several rural businesses.

Crosby Hall has been occupied by the Blundells since it was built in 1609. In the 1780s it was transformed in the Georgian style and Mark’s parents had two-thirds of it pulled down in the 1950s.

Today, Mark – who had a successful legal career in London before returning home as the eldest son – and his wife, Suzanne, and their daughters, husbands and grand-children occupy parts of this remarkable private house.

One of its treasures can be found at the top of the staircase - an enormous and slightly unnerving head and antlers of a prehistoric elk found in one of the claypits.

The house gives up smaller secrets, too, such as the recently re-discovered golden rosary, believed to be one of the oldest in existence in this country. This item will form the centre-piece of a small exhibition about the history of the Blundell family at the British Museum later this year.

Find out more

CHET hosts a number of fundraising activities throughout the year. These events, to boost the trust’s bursary fund for deprived children, include an open garden day at Crosby Hall, an annual art fair, a series of Sunday concerts, outdoor plays and carol concerts. You can find out more about these events and how to support CHET via www.chetcentre.co.uk.

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