March Wild Swim – Share Centre in Fermanagh
My Microadventure Challenge
In the latest chapter of my Wild Swim Microadventure Challenge, I thought I’d write a little bit about a recent school trip I attended with the P7s in my school, to the Share Centre. March is the ninth month in a row I’ve been swimming outside in some form or another, and I’m nearing the end of my year-long challenge! This month I was away with 90 P7s, aged 10 and 11, who were attending their residential trip to the Share Centre in Fermanagh, NI.
Residential and outdoor learning experiences in primary schools provide a massive opportunity to develop all sorts of important skills. Every child will experience something challenging. For some it will be dealing with the cold in a canoe, for others it will be being away from home for four days. It might be having to pack their own bag for a day’s activities or even having to make and strip their own bed, but everyone will experience something new! These trips give children the opportunity to grow into themselves and become more independent, more resilient whilst providing them with real formative memories and being a load of good fun too!
The Share Centre is the largest outdoor activity centre on the island of Ireland, located near Lisnaskea in the very beautiful and very wet County Fermanagh. It provides a range of land and water-based activities. I’ve actually been several times before as a Cub Scout leader, with other primary schools I’ve worked with and, I couldn’t forget, I was there for my own P7 trip around 18 years ago! It’s on a 60 acre site on the shores of Upper Lough Erne, part of the largest inland waterway in Europe. So there’s loads to do and see!
On this residential, we had five main activity sessions across the four days; mountain biking, archery, canoeing, gorge walking and bushcraft. We also had three evening sessions and a couple of activities on our last day. In this post I wanted to focus on the gorge walking because it fits with the wild swimming theme. Although my group did do a bit of pier jumping after the canoeing, despite the near-freezing temperatures!
The Gorge Walk
I know it’s March and we’re in the beginnings of spring, but it’s still cold enough. The weekends before and after our week in the Share Centre both had snow. We arrived in Fermanagh on the Tuesday to a beautiful sunny day but Wednesday was an absolute wash-out. The groups that did the gorge walking on Wednesday definitely had a tough time of it, the wet and the cold was a bit too much for some of our 10 and 11 year olds.
Luckily, we were walking the gorge on Thursday. Only a little bit rainy! We arrived at our meeting point 20 minutes before the other groups had to meet because we had to catch a bus. It was the instructors, 17 P7s and me. At first I was a little melted about the prospect of the 25 minute bus journey to Florence Court Forest Park but it actually gave me a great opportunity to talk to the P7s who had heard the horror stories from the day before!
The main thing they were worried about was the fact that it was going to be cold. So, I got that out of the way quickly. “It’s going to be cold,” I told them matter of factly. “Be ready for the cold and don’t let that surprise you”. They seemed to take that on board. Next, I tried to get them psyched up with some shouting, chanting, joking and helmet slapping. We were buzzing when arrived!
We had a short walk through the forest to reach a bridge over the stream. A group of girls and I stumbled across a giant dead fox which the children in front of us managed to miss! We ignored that as an omen! A little bit further along we came to a nondescript bridge. This was the first time we saw the gorge we were going to climb. It was a short descent down a very steep, muddy slope to get to the river. It was so slippy even an instructor fell. Maybe the children were right to be apprehensive!
No surprise, the stream was cold! I swam throughout the winter, often with snow and rain but it’s always been in the sea. I haven’t swum in a river since my September Wild Swim at Bloody Bridge! I think it’s pretty well known that the sea holds its warmth over the winter but streams and rivers are much colder. The cold even caught me off guard and I was only shin deep! Although the cold water was a struggle from the start, the children took it well. We were mentally prepared for it after all! If anyone complained at this stage they were quickly reminded, “Sure, you knew it was going to be cold!” They were happy with that. We made a joke of it, I knew I was being watched. Some of the confident girls in my group wouldn’t dare let me see them complain! So I couldn’t let them see that it was hard enough for me too! We all managed to put on a brave face. I tried to make it fun by keeping it noisy, of course they were delighted when I fell right at the beginning. That was me totally soaked!
We made our way up the gorge and passed a variety of obstacles such as small waterfalls and fallen trees. The Share Centre staff were excellent I must say, they were so patient as we made our way up this big stream. The children impressed me more though. I was the last person in group, so I was often at the back as we waited for the young people ahead to cross obstacles. Their ability to keep smiling was inspiring. For me, ‘cheerfulness in the face of difficulty’ is a trait that will do them well for the rest of their lives.
Anyone who knows children of this age, will be more than aware of what ‘the floss’ is. I think I can confidently say, that I am the first person ever to learn how to do ‘the floss’ whilst standing in a Baltic river waiting to climb a waterfall.
We made our way through a very dense patch of fallen forest, over and under these perfectly straight birch trees. The Scout Leader in me couldn’t help but think that they would make perfect spars for pioneering projects. The children just saw a stretch of difficult terrain they had to traverse.
To be honest I lost track of time, I estimate we were in the river for around an hour by the time we made it to the top of the gorge. The last section required us to crawl, submerged, to get under a fence. That was scary for lots my kids. But everyone made it.
I have never seen a river source quite like this. The river was literally just coming out of a cave. I shouldn’t have been surprised, we were less than five miles from the world-famous Marble Arch Caves. The Share Centre instructors took us in small groups into the cave and showed us stalactites and some fossils in the rock. As a Geography graduate, I found this fascinating and I honestly think the children did too. Show a child a picture of a stalactite in a classroom and they will think it’s mildly interesting but take a pupil, put a helmet on them and make them crawl in to a cave to see one, that’s proper cool and much more memorable.
Every single child in my group crawled into the dark cave up to their waist in water and heads touching the top. We were given options on how to get out. The dry way (the way we went in) or the wet way, following the river through a 40cm high tunnel. The number of children who chose the wet way was incredible. They had to lie down and let the water carry them through the tunnel though they kept their heads dry. I had to go fully underwater, face first and downhill to squeeze my helmet through. That was my challenge for the day!
Again, the Share Centre instructors showed their quality here. While small groups were taken in and out of the cave, the rest might have cooled down and become bored. But my children were waiting in the side-lines with hot juice and biscuits. They were a little shivery but still cheerful and proud of their accomplishments so far!
The rest of the activity was a bit of hike to the top of the hill and a very slippery walk down to the path and happily, back to the bus. We drank in the views overlooking the forest park but they weren’t as good as seeing the children beaming with pride and exertion. Every one of them happy that they had tried something new and came out on top. Watching children slip and fall in the muddy ground was pretty funny too!
I mentioned at the start that residential trips are great for this age group because they help develop so many skills and put children into situations where they are exposed to controlled risk. This activity was the perfect example of this. Every single child found this difficult in one way or another. The challenges were plenty, even for those comfortable with water. Climbing up the waterfalls, dealing with the cold, crawling under the fence, getting to the top of the muddy hill and getting in and out of the claustrophobic cave. I was so proud of the 13 girls and four boys I climbed that gorge with. Every single one of them pushed themselves beyond their comfort zone. They all tried to remain positive in the face of great personal challenge and we had no tears.
In Scouting Ireland, we often talk about developing the SPICES. By that we mean children’s Social, Physical, Intellectual, Character, Emotional and Spiritual education. It is easy to see how a residential trip such as our P7 trip to the Share Centre in Fermanagh will help a child grow holistically and I’ve only described one activity! As children spend less and less time outdoors, trips like these are so important for their education.