It's hike father, hike son

Trekking over hills, bivouacking in the forest and canoeing over rapids were all part of the course that brought Roland Howard and his son together rcourse
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LIKE SOME ghastly episode of Viz magazine's "Modern Parents" cartoon, parenting courses are often seen as the domain of overwrought overachievers fretting about the development of their child's "inner child". In the good old days, older parents argue, child rearing was simply a question of instinct, common sense - and getting on with it.

But perhaps being a parent isn't as easy as it used to be. A recent report by Barnardo's has shown that the average father spends just five minutes a day with his children, and is more likely to watch television than he is to read them a bedtime story. Perhaps lack of time is to blame, perhaps lack of commitment - but parents, particularly fathers, who want a different relationship with their children have to make a special effort to achieve it.

It was with this in mind that I found myself with Sam, my eight-year- old (and second) son, at the wrong end of a lost valley in the Welsh mountains. We were on a four-day "Adventures in Parenting" course, an activity-based programme for fathers and sons aged eight to 14. The location was the Tynddol Challenge Centre, a hostel surrounded by disused lead-mines, spoil heaps, and harsh but beautiful mountains. In front of the centre is the Ystwyth River; overhead are sunshine and the graceful soaring and swooping of red kites.

The Adventures in Parenting programme is run by a charity, Care for the Family. Courses take place at many centres round the country, but this particular one for father and sons was organised, appropriately enough, by Robin and Cath Morris and their two adult sons, Mark and Simon. They are qualified to the hilt in outward-bound skills, canoeing and mountaineering. As we skim stones on the river, waiting for the course to begin, my expectations are vague: maybe a deepening of our relationship through spending time together. Sam's expectations are clearer: adventure.

The course starts with the eight fathers meeting to discuss their hopes for the course. What they generally want is "quality time" or "time out", something their busy lives don't usually allow. They are largely middle- class high-fliers - a consultant anaesthetist, a barrister, a projects manager and a technical author among them. It's hardly a representative cross-section, since all are clearly active, thoughtful, and involved with their sons already. Robin Morris promises that the course will take us out of our "comfort zone" and that this should bring fathers and sons together.

After several team-building games of the "You have two ropes and two planks, and you must cross the crocodile-infested river without touching it" variety, fathers are blindfolded and sons have to guide them along a rope on an obstacle course. The rope goes over barrels, through bushes, under tarpaulins, down the river bank within inches of a cold soaking, and you can see the fathers' gritted teeth as they inch forward, trying to trust their sons' instructions. "Come on, Sam, be more specific," I keep saying. The lesson is simple: fathers can learn from their sons. The relationship is better if it's two-way. As it says in the promotional literature: "All activities have been designed so you have to work together and learn to listen." It's a lesson that will be repeated in more challenging situations during the weekend.

The first full day is spent canoeing. After a thorough safety briefing, Sam and I team up with another father and son to share a large Canadian canoe. We head down the River Wye, learning how to steer, reverse and "read" the shallows to avoid grounding. It is a leisurely day, with sand martins and sunlight on the water, as Sam and I learn to paddle in sync. The high point is the challenge of the rapids at the end, but by then we are so confident that having "run" them, we take the canoe out of the river to have another go.

At a briefing that evening, just as I am congratulating myself on what a relaxed time I am having - and on the impossibility of leaving my comfort zone - I hear the dreaded word bivouac. "You will be given a tarpaulin, some ropes and a map and be sent into the woods together to make a bivouac," says Mark, the granite-faced leader. He pauses for a moment, grins, then says: "We'll pick you up at 7am the next morning."

My first reaction is that it's some sort of sadistic, military-style joke - along the lines of "up and down the mountain in 15 minutes". It's not. I look out of the window, and see the weather has turned to a windy drizzle. But Sam's face is glowing. Fortunately we have a day to wait for the weather to improve.

But next morning the clouds are still leaden and drizzle continues. Our mapping skills are tested as teams complete a timed orienteering exercise. It's quite competitive, and the time limit means we have to run most of the way. Sam and I find the markers, and as we return to base first, there's a sense of pride in one another. After dinner and time spent considering bivouac designs, we are driven away and dropped off. Our kit consists of a rucksack, sleeping-bags, a meths stove, two ropes, a large tarpaulin, a couple of slices of bread and a tin of sausages. The rest is up to us, making use of trees, leaves, mosses, logs and rocks.

We find the site about 25 minutes into the forest and it's on a slope and covered in protruding trees, roots and rocks. A rural wasteland. Others are due to arrive in the same area, so we find two trees with relatively flat ground in between them and start piling beech leaves between them. Sam makes some suggestions about the bivouac design, and despite all the bonding and mutuality, I decide it's time for me to take over. I don't mind Sam's help but, let's be clear, I have to sleep in this. We secure the tarpaulin into a tent shape, lug logs to anchor it, fetch leafy branches to cover the entrance - and at the end of an hour it looks surprisingly habitable. While we cook our dinner together on the meths stove, we notice the latecomers, whose campsite is a steep slope; their bivouacs resemble water slides. We fall asleep to the sound of the river, a vixen calling and owls hooting.

On the last day, in freezing rain, comes the abseiling. Again, father and son are briefed together and go down a 40ft rock face side by side. That's the theory. In fact, as we approach that stomach-lurching backward lean over the cliff, it becomes clear that Sam has more faith in the rope and the instructor than I do. He is completely unfazed by it, despite the fact that he finds himself at one point hanging upside 10ft above the ground. My descent is slower, and quite embarrassing. At the bottom, Sam encourages me to go back for more. It's the end of the course, and the roles have been reversed; Sam is taking the lead and I follow him up to the top of the rockface.

So what did we learn? Sam says: "It taught us how to make a simple bivouac quickly and how to paddle a canoe. I loved it." From my point of view, I didn't learn much - but I really enjoyed the experience of having time alone with Sam. I can't say that we know each other much better (we knew each other well to begin with) but we do have shared memories that are exclusive to us. Talking to other fathers at the end of the course, its main value seems to have been the time it allowed them together. The activities and the challenge did bring us together. I learnt to listen, and to appreciate Sam's tenacity, initiative and bravery.

While busy overworked fathers who don't get adequate time with their sons are well served by Adventures in Parenting, there are inadequate courses for mothers. Those that do exist sound irritatingly twee: "An opportunity for mother and daughter just to be together... a chance to experience some of the gentler delights of Letton Hall." The course co-ordinator, Stephen Williams, says outward-bound courses have been offered to mothers, but there is little demand for them. One such course exists, and there are several heavily subsidised events for single-parent families; these are made up predominantly of mothers and children.

"Whether it's stressed-out executives or struggling single parents," Mr Williams says, "we are committed to helping parent-child relationships succeed and grow. That's what Adventures in Parenting is about. We are keen that the appeal of our courses goes beyond enthusiastic and active parents, and draws in those who are less so."

So perhaps there is no mystique, after all, to the art of being a good parent. It might simply be a matter of spending more time with your child, and each enjoying the other's company. A question of common sense, some might say.

! Further information on parenting courses and holidays from Care for the Family, 53 Romney St, London SW1P 3RF. Tel 0171-233 1490.