Reporter LAURA LEA swapped her notepad for sticks and stones as she joined activity instructors at the Govilon Activity Centre.
Before I begin I think it’s worth noting I’m not someone who would necessarily be described as ‘outdoorsy’ or anything similar and most definitely would not be anyone’s first choice to be stuck in a forest with. But after a day with a pair of qualified instructors I hoped this may change.
Situated just two miles outside Abergavenny, the Govilon centre’s location serves as the backdrop to all the activities it can offer.
The list of activities are endless - from canoeing and climbing, to raft building and caving. But on my visit I was to follow associate instructor, Joe Waters on his bushcraft course.
All activities are led by competent, qualified and highly experienced instructors, so to say I was starting on the back foot is an understatement.
So on a rainy afternoon we headed out to a woodland area and got down to making fire.
We used steel and flint to create the spark, but the next step was the tinder - a material used to ignite fire, not the mobile dating app.
“What do you have on your person, you could use as flammable material?” he asked. I looked cautiously from my clothes to my long plait.
“Hair yes but also belly-button fluff.” said Mr Waters. He then produced a tub of fluff which was thankfully from a tumble dryer and not a personal stock. Other tinder included cotton wool and charred cloth.
After being shown various techniques, I created a spark and eventually a fire- with a lot of encouragement from Mr Waters.
“It’s very damp, which makes it much harder,” he said reassuringly. Although when he demonstrated, he makes it look very easy. Once the spark lit the tinder, it was up to me to gently blow it until a flame appeared big enough to add to the pile of kindling ready for the fire.
“I love it,” said Mr Waters who started out years ago in scouts and now works every week. Mr Waters admits the popularity of Bear Grylls and Ray Mears has brought bushcraft back into the mainstream culture.
The centre say they aim to get young people to challenge themselves and reach goals they could not imagine possible. This I can relate to - as I hadn’t expected to be able to actually do any of the things I was tasked with.
This element of challenge is important for the satisfaction that follows. There are no quick results as people of our generation are so used to, but real and tangible results after careful perseverance.
“It’s about patience,” said Mr Waters.
The centre often work with children known to misbehave or young offenders.
“They get a lot out of it. Give these kids a knife and they won’t misbehave with it.”
Nick Fitzgerald, operational manager at the centre, said: “You get children who come along and teachers say: ‘you have to watch out for that one’ and then they are fine. You get different outcomes outside when they are not in the classroom.”
There is still a wholesomeness of being in the outdoors and Mr Waters said after the fires are lit, the groups will often sit around and toast marshmallows.
The centre has a long and somewhat unusual history, as it is actually sustained by an English grammar school foundation in Northamptonshire.
The Govilon Field Centre, as it was known, opened in May 1971, but it wasn’t until 1990 that Kettering Old Grammar School Foundation purchased the freehold to the property.
“We get young people who come down from Kettering a spend a few days or a week here,” explained Mr Fitzgerald.
Mr Fitzgerald first came to the centre in 1995 and has been operational manager since 2005.
“I was a freelance instructor for outdoor activities in the area, working here on a freelance basis.”
In the time he has been at the centre, he has seen some big changes. Three years ago, the place was gutted for rewiring and for central heating to be installed, making it a lot more comfortable for those who come to stay.
The day I arrived, the centre was a hive of activity with the smell of fresh paint and new wood as beds were being built as part of further improvements.
Mr Fitzgerald said: “The standard of accommodation was poor. It was very basic and it really did get very cold. Now, we can market it better.”
The courses offered are for youth groups, schools, (who make up 70 per cent of visits) clubs, corporate groups or even just groups of families and friends. Rather than selling set packages, each course is tailored to suit the group.
Mr Fitzgerald said: “The development programmes offer a selection of activities. We are very flexible.”
Not satisfied with the natural wonders on their doorstep, the centre make sure visitors see even more of what Wales has to offer, taking them to Big Pit, castles or down to the Gower.
Mr Fitzgerlad said his favourite part of the job is the variety of it and from my day of just one activity, it’s not hard to see why. While I won’t be leaving my lighter at home in a hurry, a tinderbox will most definitely be making its way into my camping kit.
For more information, go to www.govilon.org.uk