YHA Summer Camps are an experience for anyone taking part whether they are the hostel staff, volunteer team leaders or the young people themselves the camps are intended for. I recently did a week at YHA St Briavel’s Castle hostel which played host to an Action Adventure camp for three weeks, I was on the last.
Now they say that St Briavel’s Castle is haunted. 800 years old and probably with just as many ghost stories to go with it. A beautiful castle with a moat running around the perimeter. Large old doors welcome you into the castle; you can still see the slots where the portcullis would drop from.
To the left is the East Tower. The East Tower holds 3 rooms, the Chaplains, The Constables and The Oubliette. Now I’m not sure what the stories behind the first two rooms are but the Oubliette, now that’s a good one. Oubliette – French for ‘To forget’ – is where the dungeon is. On entering the 6 bed room nothing seems out of the ordinary, the wooden floor has a rug slap bang in the middle of it which is good as it covers up the trap door! Walking into a room with a trapdoor in the middle of the floor would probably freak some people out – hence the rug. If you ask nicely the hostel staff will unlock the trap door and let you have a look. Underneath the solid wood door is a 20ft drop – which used to be deeper. At the bottom is a plastic skeleton (although a lot of kids thought it was real!) to emphasis the story. The oubliette is where people we dropped to be forgotten about. If they were lucky they’d die on impact, if not they’d suffer in pain for days until they finally go.
To the right is the rest of the castle. As you enter the hostel reception is straight in front of you. Turn right and you have the self catering kitchen for the hostel, the old kitchen which has been turned into a lounge area, the Porter’s Lodge – the only bedroom on the ground floor. Turn left and walk down the corridor there is the hostel kitchen where the staff prepare meals for guests and the dining hall. Going upstairs there is the King John’s Lounge and the Chapel – both now social rooms for hostel guest but previous a lavish lounge for King John’s visit and his private chapel. Along the corridor are the bedrooms. Isobel’s Room; The State Apartments and the Prison and then up one more flight of stairs is the final bedroom – The Hanging Room. All rooms have their stories to tell –the Hanging Room lives up to its name. It’s where they got persuaded out of the top floor window with a rope around their neck. The prison – well it’s a prison. If you ever go there request this room, the etchings on the wall are intriguing and real history right there in front of you and finally The State Apartments. The King’s old stone throne is in here – it’s advised not to sit on the history but everybody seems to do it anyway – another story in a room.
Well that’s enough about the Castle. I loved staying there. I’m not sure if the ghost stories are real – one of my manager’s swears they are – but I reckon the 32 loud children probably scared them off! Let’s get back to the camp. YHA has an aim, a goal if you like to reach out to 1 million young people regardless of race, gender or disability. They are a charity and have a fund called ‘Breaks for Kids’ that help young people of limited means experience things they would otherwise be unable to from a single night away with school on a Victorian quest in the Ironbridge Gorge to a week away on Summer Camps doing canoeing, climbing and caving.
YHA Camps, unlike others, are not for profit. Anyone can come and everyone does; young carers, foster children, children with disabilities and everyone in between. Now, with the ‘not for profit’ part of the deal Summer Camps couldn’t run without their Volunteer Team Leaders (VTLs). These 3 words were printed on our uniform for the week – very fetching green tee shirts. Now I’ve been a scout leader so I’m well aware what the ‘Volunteer’ part of the title meant. Working for free – well 3 meals a day and a bed so not without benefits! The team part – also pretty simple – working with other VTLs (my room mates Louise (wearing the fetching orange overalls above) and Rosie (the climber below) and Cara, Jess and Louisa (who I don’t have pictures off); our camp manger (who will moan at me if I don’t write how awesome she was – Happy now Camille??, you were the greatest camp manager than ever lived), hostel staff and even the kids themselves to form a great week for everyone, to make sure everyone has fun and everyone gets the most out of the week. The leader part was a little more complicated. Being a leader isn’t just about wearing the green tee-shirt. Anybody can be a leader. I may have had the green tee shirt but out on activities some of the kids should have had their own.
At Symonds Yak one rainy morning I went climbing with Group 1. We had 3 groups on camp, and group 1 were the younger kids. Kitted out in harnesses and helmets we made our way down to the rocks we were about to climb. Now there were ten in the group but two girls caught my eyes. Encouraging everybody on both the climbing and the abseiling, helping people with where they should put the feet and their hands in order to scale the crag. One of the other VTLs took a go and both these girls were ‘leading’ her up the wall. One was belaying the other shouting up to where she should put her feet.
Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and I saw so many develop over the week. Some children were obvious leaders; others came out of their shells as the week progressed. This is what YHA Summer Camps do, they bring children out of their shells, have them out of their comfort zone trying new things, developing new skills, making new friends and learning to be the leader in their life.
It wasn’t just climbing and abseiling we did on the Action Adventure camp. There was caving, canoeing, archery and mountain biking as well. I stayed well clear of Mountain Biking – I don’t have the best track record with bikes but enjoyed the thrills of the other sessions
Camp didn’t just see the young people developed, I saw myself develop. I learnt new skills, I freshened up old ones and I made new friends. YHA Summer Camp isn’t just for the young people it’s for the VTLs as well. I know of one VTL who impressed YHA hostel staff so much he has just become their newest team member. Summer Camps can be a life changing experience for everybody and anybody.
I would encourage anybody who is thinking about doing a summer camp as a VTL or sending their kids on one to stop thinking and just do it, as for me, I’m just waiting for the applications to come out for next year.