Oh, the joys of cold water and exercise

The Outward Bound Trust will celebrate its 70th anniversary by asking former students to share their experiences. Jonathan Brown took his own journey into the unknown
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The Independent Online

It had been a challenging night for the girls of Flixton High School long before they were to set off on the snowcapped fells and ice-crusted lakes.

The sighting of a ghost wandering the long corridors of the spooky former hotel where they were staying on the banks of Ullswater had sent frissons of excitement and terror through the dormitories. Restful sleep had proved elusive. At least one girl had passed the evening tearfully battling homesickness.

But despite the allure, or otherwise, of the Hogwarts-style setting, the real adventure was yet to begin. I joined a team of 12-year-olds from the Manchester comprehensive for a day's character-building as they lined up in the morning chill. The Outward Bound instructor, Liz Farthing, was busy telling them that despite the thrills of the night before, the way they had left their dormitories was a disgrace. Failure to clean them would result in the withholding of the evening meal, a threat greeted with mumbles of shocked disbelief from the youngsters.

With that chore looming, our mission, one we had no choice but to accept, was to canoe across the lake, then ascend the mist-shrouded summit of Hallin Fell brooding menacingly on the distant shore and then returning by rowing-boat, hopefully before nightfall. For a group more intimately acquainted with the retail delights of the Trafford Centre than the windswept Cumbrian hillsides, it was truly a journey into the unknown.

More than one million young people have passed through The Outward Bound Trust since the first centre was established in 1941. To mark its 70th anniversary next year, the chief executive, Nick Barrett, is launching a campaign for former students to share their experiences, to tell a "million stories of personal growth, adventure and fulfillment".

The trust was founded by the educationalist Kurt Hahn and shipping-line owner Lawrence Holt during the Second World War to help young seamen cope with the trauma of shipwreck. The first senior warden was Capt JF "Freddy" Fuller, a veteran of two torpedo attacks and 35 days aboard a life-raft in the Atlantic.

Hahn's theories have drifted in and out of fashion since but today many believe they are more relevant than ever. The former private secretary to the last Imperial Chancellor of Germany – and headmaster of Prince Philip's alma mater, the Schule Schloss Salem – left Nazi Germany to found Gordonstoun school in Scotland where three generations of the British Royal Family, including the Prince of Wales, have been educated.

The Outward Bound (motto: To Serve, To Strive and Not To Yield) shares many of the same muscular Platonic principles, as well as a Spartan belief in the powers of cold water and exercise. Today's youth, of course, face challenges not in the shape of Nazi U-boats but in a burgeoning obesity epidemic brought on by a sedentary lifestyle and a fear of the outdoors.

Flixton art teacher Natalie Cole was impressed. "At school, the girls have to be very competitive for the teacher's time but here they have time and space to appreciate things," she said. "To survive they have to rely on each other, and the environment allows them to work together and be kind to each other. It is really bringing the quieter ones out of themselves."

As we pushed out onto the frigid lake, it seemed our combined boating experience amounted to little more than a spin on a pedalo at a Haven holiday park. At first, our course was unsteady but soon a rhythm of sorts emerged and we made it to the shore to the strains of "Nelly the Elephant" lustily sung. But the slopes of Hallin Fell were to present a challenge of a different order. The melting snow had made the grass extremely slippery and after a few metres' climb the girls in their red waterproofs were going down like nine-pins. Although we worried we were only inching forward at an almost imperceptible rate, we eventually reached flatter terrain. Pausing over a healthy lunch – five pieces of fruit a day ranking alongside the joys of making a bivouac – the girls were treated to a short environmental talk on the threat of invasive bracken.

Catherine Sturrock, who gave up a job at investment bank Schroders two years ago to work for the trust, said youngsters could undergo profound changes in their new setting. "You get inner-city kids with their mobile phones, their make-up and their 'whatever' attitudes," she said. "They will say, 'I don't want to do this' but three days later they don't want to go home."

Memories of Outward Bound adventures can last a lifetime. Take Andy Pedrick, who attended an Outward Bound course in 1978 as a 21-year-old Barclays bank clerk. "It was the worst March in 40 years: it rained and snowed constantly," he recalled with glee. "But it was also the best thing that I have ever done. I can still remember the bust-ups that we had in out team and an argument we had about tent poles. But I enjoyed the teamwork and leadership."

For us in 2010, the coldest winter in 30-odd years, by the time we had reached the summit and weaved our way back down to the lake-shore, our small party if not quite a well-oiled fighting machine was certainly a team. As we relaxed over hot chocolate brewed on environmentally sound wood-burning kettles the girls seemed impressed by the experience, albeit in a suitably pre-teenage way.

"I think I'd rather go abroad on holiday because it is hotter," said Sally Dulson. "And the jog and dip when we had to get into the lake was evil; it was pure pain. But I'd rather be in the lake and freezing cold than doing maths at school."

For Ellie Rowe making new friends had been the highlight, and chatting until 2 o'clock the previous morning. "We are closer now because of the team-building," she said. "If I had kids I'd make them do it. It's good not to be scared.". Instructor Julie Paquette, a former youth worker from Montreal, encouraging and cajoling her "ladies" with unflappable patience throughout the day, was pleased.

"They have done brilliantly," she said. "There was no whining and they could have got demotivated very early on but didn't. They put their heads down and kept their spirits up throughout the day. It is about giving them a challenge but pitching it at a level they can achieve."

The girls returned in fading light with rain driving hard off Helvellyn. Activities, including compulsory room-tidying, were to continue until 8.30pm. Only then could the ghost stories begin again.

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