Charities: A fund of holiday fun: Joanna Gibbon joins a group of city youngsters for a break in the country

'MISS, MISS, look at my picture.' 'Miss, miss, look at my letters,' shouted Big Dean, Little Dean, Stanley, Tyrone, Mark, Stewart, Danny, Aaron, Orlando, Stephen, Matthew, Craig and Rickie, in chorus, while tussling with felt tips, pieces of paper, envelopes, the grown-ups and each other. Noisy, happy, semi-orderly chaos reigned at last week's Briar Camp, at the village school in Leintwardine, Shropshire.

The camp is one of 40 being organised this summer by the Children's Country Holidays Fund, founded in 1884 by Canon Samuel Augustus Barnett and his wife, Dame Henrietta. Its aims were to give children under the age of 13, living in squalid London slums, a holiday in the country.

Even though times have changed considerably, there are still thousands of parents who face July and August, the school holiday months, with dread. For them a holiday is impossible: facing poverty, redundancy or chronic unemployment and poor living conditions, at this time of year they have the added stress of bored children demanding extra care.

Most of the children come from families on income support, although many make a contribution to the holiday. 'Many come from single-parent families living in bed and breakfast hotels, in appalling conditions. The children are neglected and sometimes emotionally, physically and sexually abused,' says Bob McKeown, director of CCHF. Some are so restricted, he explains, that they are likely to spend days on end in their flats, several floors up, if the lift is not working.

During the last century the fund has sent more than 2 million children for holidays - peaking in 1912 when 46,402 children went away - and now about 3,000 on average go away each year. Two- thirds are children up to the age of nine who are usually sent to stay with a family for 10 days; the other third are older children, who are more difficult to place in homes and usually benefit from camps.

'The war years were particularly busy - I don't know how they managed it because we have enough difficulties sending out a fraction of that figure,' explains Mr McKeown, who says the fund needs more volunteers.

Country-based families prepared to open their homes to little strangers badly in need of a holiday are in short supply. It takes special people, with lots of energy, to get involved. 'People don't have so much time to spare and are more reluctant to sacrifice their holiday time nowadays. We would be able to take more children if we had more help,' Mr McKeown admits.

In addition, the logistics of taking a child on holiday are complex: first, a child is recommended by one of various agencies in the health, education or social welfare fields. Volunteers are needed to visit children and their families; to ensure a child has a medical test; to meet the children at stations, check them in and to accompany groups on the train.

Briar Camp's supervisors - a team of young men and women from Operation Raleigh in Surrey - travelled with the children, all aged between 9 and 11 years old, from London to Shropshire. The children have insisted that they are teachers - hence the 'Miss' and 'Sir' - even though they have been told otherwise.

At the beginning of the week there was much excitement: the camp beds, lent by the Army, and the new surroundings prevented sleep. Discipline is more easy-going than at school - the children are on holiday, after all - but on Wednesday night disruption was so bad that Rob Rowe, the camp leader, had to read the riot act.

They found that putting the boys into four competitive teams - Warriors, Wild Cats, Mega-

Powers and Demolitions - which won points each day, encouraged better behaviour. The Wild Cats, the leaders last Friday, lost points for throwing paper out of the back of the minibus.

Behind the scenes Gillian Greenwood, the camp's fund- raiser, who until three years ago was the national director of the CCHF, galvanised the villagers of Leintwardine into action for a fourth year. As this is an area of high unemployment, the villagers' generosity is remarkable. Lunch and dinner were provided free by the pub, bread and cakes were donated by the bakery, a welcome hamper filled with toys and food was given by the WI, and there was a donation of last Sunday's church collection.

Mrs Greenwood feels that there is more understanding about the children's need for space to play. 'I give a slide show of the blocks of flats in Hackney and most people from here - who have either never been to London or who have just seen London's sights - are shocked,' she says.

As she rushes about collecting bread and begging pairs of extra pants, trunks, trousers and socks from an outfitters in Ludlow, Mrs Greenwood is in her element. 'I love the kids, they are very special. I brought my own children up as a single parent so I feel strongly about helping.' She maintains that the supervisors give them a lot of attention and often discover something, such as a child's ability to draw, which has not been noticed before. 'It can make an enormous difference to their life,' she says.

Judging by the display of cheekiness and energy, the holiday has been a success. A visit to a castle, an adventure playground, a farm museum, some rugby training, long walks in the hills - although they are not too fond of walking - swimming, a demonstration by the local fire station, a feast donated by what the boys described with wide eyes as a 'very posh' hotel, have all been squashed into six days.

As we walked up Nordy Bank for a picnic, there was much indignation and pride about the previous night's midnight walk. 'We were up until three o'clock,' say Tyrone, Aaron, Danny and Stephen together. In fact they got to bed just after midnight. The idea behind an after-dark walk was to familiarise the children with the countryside and the darkness - they were unused to the silence.

'The nettles were even higher than Sir,' explains Little Dean. 'I was frightened: it was creepy and someone fell into a hole the size of an elephant,' he said, wide-eyed. On further questioning the hole shrunk to the size of a baby elephant and then to that of a dog; no one was injured.

After much huffing and puffing, a bit of fussing about the flies and questions such as 'Where are the toilets, Sir?', we reached the top and looked down at a patchwork quilt of Shropshire and Herefordshire countryside. 'Where is the school?' 'Where does the sun rise?' Francis Tavernor, another helper who teaches at a local school, fielded the battery of questions.

He observes the gradual effect of the holiday: 'At the beginning of the week we took them up the Long Mynd, a hill, and several of them were upset, even in tears saying, 'Sir it is taller than a lamp post.' They were scared of the open spaces. Now here they are running on ahead. I have watched them unwind this week.' Other things change, too: 'The bad language has died down.'

Lunch was fairly random, with sandwiches gulped down on the trot. Four boys fed a tame sheep willing to try crisps, bread and bananas. Others played ball games, fought, rolled down the hillocks or wandered off. Aaron delicately placed discarded biscuit wrappers in the rubbish bag.

Back in the minibus, lent by a local school, we set off for the swimming pool at Leominster. There was much anticipated mirth about the thank-you party the children were holding for the villagers that evening. Would a certain young lady in the village come? Who would she dance with? Everyone went swimming except Stan, who forgot his trunks. He said he enjoyed the fire engine evening best because they soaked Mrs Greenwood.

Children's Country Holidays Fund, 42/43 Lower Marsh, London SE1 7RG, telephone 071-928 6522.

(Photograph omitted)

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