Outdoor learning spot set for record year in 2021, if it can survive until then

Simon Dawson, head of the Wilderness Centre 2

Forest-of-Dean outdoor learning beauty spot The Wilderness Centre has announced plans to reopen in July and is set for a record year in 2021… if it can survive until then.

With the coronavirus crisis prompting fresh attitudes to the benefits of outdoor learning, the site perched on Plump Hill near Mitcheldean in the Forest of Dean is set to reap the benefits.

Next year stands to be a record year as schools, businesses, families and even a brass band have booked in advance for the spring and summer of 2021.

However its owners, who also run Wotton House International School in central Gloucester, face a battle to survive as this year’s peak summer season could be decimated by the Covid-19 outbreak.

Wilderness Centre 2 Despite receiving a welcome £25,000 grant from the Government, ongoing overhead costs of £4,000 per month for the upkeep of the house and grounds mean that, without funds generated by summer 2020, this winter stands to be a challenging time for the business.

But centre head Simon Dawson said his team were looking forward to being able to offer the public the most precious thing during this crisis… space.

“What we are now planning is to reopen in early July and do what we can, within government guidelines, to get people to The Wilderness,” said Mr Dawson.

“It’s the latest stage in a period which has been something of an adventure for us. We’ve gone through the whole rollercoaster of emotions and, while we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, there are some immediate and pressing challenges we need to overcome.

“We’ve had a really high number of enquiries for 2021 and very few outright cancellations from schools and other groups – most have rebooked for the autumn or next year.

Wilderness Centre“However we should be making money now to plough back into the development and upkeep of the centre – especially through the winter – and our lovely old house, which people often say is a home from home, needs to be looked after.

“As everyone knows there’s huge uncertainty about how and when schools and other groups are going to get back together – from this perspective 2021 can look like a long way away.

“What is exciting is that we can work with our sister organisation, Wotton House International School. Pupils there, who use our centre for outdoor learning on a weekly basis, will start coming here before the summer holidays begins.

“And this emerging emphasis on the benefits of the outdoors, brought about by Covid-19, serves to show that the Wotton House approach to being outdoors makes absolute sense.

“Indeed, there’s an ongoing national conversation about the importance of outdoor education and the role of the outdoors in rebalancing many areas of society.”

The Wilderness Centre was bought in 2015 by Daniel Sturdy and his family, who also own International Village Education, which in turn owns and runs Wotton House International School. School principal Dr Daniel Sturdy said that outdoor education was highly relevant in the modern climate and efforts should be made to preserve its potential.

“The Covid-19 outbreak hasn’t changed the fact that attitudes to education are moving forward,” he said. “If anything, this episode has drawn the importance of natural learning into sharper focus.

“Through the Wilderness Centre we offer an increased focus on holistic, inquiry-led programmes of learning which are progressive technologically but at the same time very rooted in nature.

“I believed this was highly relevant before the crisis broke and I believe it even more now. Outdoor learning is never going to dominate the education landscape but its importance, especially where a balance of physical and mental health is required, is undeniable.

“So I believe the Government should do everything it can to support centres like the Wilderness, and the many others around the UK which are struggling to remain afloat during this crisis.

“By saving the centres we would reap the benefits through a generation of enlightened, emotionally sound and productive young people – of that I have no doubt.”