Family Travel: Group Bookings

AN OCCASIONAL SERIES ABOUT TRAVELS WITH YOUTH GROUPS
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Indy Lifestyle Online
EVERY FRIDAY night between 1979 and 1983, my two brothers and I went along to the Woodcraft Folk's Bushey branch. My enduring memory is of playing some fantastic games: wink murder, British Bulldog (all the more exciting because it was banned at my junior school on the grounds that it was too dangerous), and a contest that involved linking arms and getting one another to kick over a milk bottle. Fan-dabby-dozey, as I would have said at the time.

Every so often we'd go on little excursions at the weekends, piled into other people's parents' Renault Fours, or - if it was a big trip - a coach. En route, we'd sing hippy folk songs - "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "If I Had a Hammer". These journeys were totally different from school trips. My classmates all seemed to be Brownies or Cubs and I vividly recall gold-fishing to their unfamiliar songs - "Ging Gang Gooli" and "My Hat, It Has Three Corners". My fellow pupils responded with sneering incomprehension when I feebly tried to rouse a chorus of that old Woodcraft Folk favourite We shall Overcome.

The food we shared on coach trips was different too. On school excursions, you could generally rely on blagging a Monstermunch or two, or even a dab of someone's sherbet fountain. But with the Woodcraft Folk, other people's packed lunches always seemed to be the same as mine - carrot sticks, home-made parkin and a Quaker Harvest Crunch Bar.

I went on two Woodcraft Folk camping trips. One, to nearby Sarratt, was a complete wash-out. Within three hours of arriving, we'd retreated to the local church hall to play British Bulldog and to wait for all the parents to take us home again (Baden-Powell's disdain for the "tenderfoot" didn't really apply in the Woodcraft Folk). The other camping trip lasted a couple of nights. The food, as I recall, was rather strange. It was there that I had my first and, I hope, last encounter with a rissole. Clearly some kids were eager to get the taste out of their mouths: my brother Simon vows to this day that he saw one of his tent-mates consume an entire tube of Colgate Blue Minty Gel during the rest-hour after lunch.

On the same camping trip, I took part in a three-legged race that got slightly out of hand. My partner Kate and I couldn't untie the rope around our legs. When one of the Venturers tried to burn it off with a cigarette lighter, Kate became terrified that it would set fire to her jeans. Screaming, she tried to run away across the field, dragging me with her. At times like that, I secretly wished I was in the Scouts, where I'd have been sure to have learned how to tie a spliced reef hitch, or whatever knot is best suited to three-legged -race situations.

The closest that we in the Woodcraft Folk came to learning such useful skills was the night that we were taught how to wrap a parcel securely. This involved tying layers of newspaper around old hairbrushes and bits of crockery from the jumble box, and then chucking the parcels around violently. After this simulation of the supposed rough treatment meted out by the Royal Mail, we'd open the packages and check for breakages.

I also went on several day excursions with Woodcraft Folk friends. One Easter, I vividly recall coming back from a Friday evening meeting and asking my parents if I could go on the big CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) march in London. They seemed quite impressed that their eight-year-old knew what the "CND" stood for. After a few questions to ascertain my grasp of concepts such as the Cold War and the international arms race, my Dad said he'd dig out his 1960s CND badge and join me. Looking back, I think I had a remarkably thorough understanding of the issues involved and I am certain that the decision to take part was entirely mine. Having said that, a day out in London with my Dad all to myself was quite a treat.

I loved the sense of occasion: we'd travel in a convoy of double decker buses from Watford Junction, banners streaming from the windows, the drivers sounding their horns as they passed similarly decorated cars and coaches on the M1. I particularly liked the fact that - for the purposes of the bus-fare - I was not regarded as a "child" but as someone who was "unwaged".

The demo itself was also incredibly exciting: there was chanting and singing and street stalls selling stickers, badges and hilarious Ronald Reagan face masks. Oakey, as the woman who ran my branch of the Woodcraft Folk was known, was the daughter of the veteran peace campaigner Lord Fenner Brockway (or "Fennel Broccoli" as I thought of him). One year, she arranged for my Dad and me to gain admittance to the VIP marquee during the rally in Hyde Park. I found this rather boring but, for years afterwards, my Dad delighted in telling anyone who'd listen how I'd shaken hands with Michael Foot.

Another Woodcraft Folk outing was the annual gathering of the region's branches at a huge leisure centre in Luton. It was on these occasions that I became aware that Bushey Woodcraft Folk were a unique breed (not something eight-year-olds generally aspire to). Bushey is comfortable commuterville - an overgrown village on Hertfordshire's green belt with more than its fair share of antique shops and estate agents. It's probably not the first place you'd look if you were after a hotbed of international socialism.

Looking back however, the Bushey branch of the Woodcraft Folk was run on particularly radical lines. For a start, Oakey clearly didn't believe in the uniform. The only shirts available in our branch were frayed and faded second-hand ones, and many of us just wore any old T-shirt. At Luton, the other children wore crisp, dark green shirts, the sleeves barely visible beneath layers of badges. None of us had more than one badge each: Oakey, I suspect, didn't believe in them.

Luton wasn't simply an opportunity for playing massed British Bulldog, there was competitive singing, country dancing and drama too. Groups from places such as Hemel Hempstead had clearly rehearsed Strip the Willow for months on end, but Oakey was less enthusiastic. We learnt the basic steps in 10 minutes the night before and didn't get round to rehearsing our song until the coach journey there. I was fiercely ambitious (the sort of girl who was asked to sit-out musical bumps at birthday parties to give the other children a chance). But year after year, we returned from Luton to Bushey without a trophy to our name. The certificates we got for participating just rubbed it in.

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