Branching out after 80 years of showing youngsters the great big muddy outdoors

Rachel Tilbrook with children Harry, four, Amelie-Rose, one, and Rowan, seven

Grace, three, and dad Harry Myring

Primrose Bannister

Corin Lawfull and niece Primrose Bannister

First published in News thisisoxfordshire: Photograph of the Author by

EIGHTY years after it was created to enable slum children to experience the great outdoors, the Hill End Centre near Oxford is branching out.

The Forest Tots toddler group is the Farmoor outdoor pursuits centre’s first ‘free-play’ session for toddlers, and has been designed so under-fives can embrace its founder’s idyll – of rolling down hills, building with sticks and cavorting in mud.

The Hill End estate was bought by the mining entrepreneur and would-be philanthropist Raymond Ffennell in 1920.

Mr Ffennell believed strongly that children should engage with nature and set up a project in outdoor learning, with dormitories and classrooms, which in the 1930s, he offered for use to local schools.

Hill End, off Eynsham Road, has gone on to host generations of schoolchildren during their first school trip away from home, becoming synonymous with campfires and adventure. The centre, now operated by Oxfordshire County Council, last year welcomed 9,500 children – its busiest year.

The idea for the new Forest Tots group came from The Oxfordshire Forest School Service team, based at Hill End.

Karen Cahill, forest school co-ordinator said: “The sessions are based around the Forest School approach, which believes the best kind of learning happens through a child’s own exploration, interests and play.

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“Toddlers were always welcomed at previous family events, but this is the first group of its kind at Hill End.

“There are lots of opportunities to explore the site with its willow maze, sound garden and natural areas.

“And the Explorers Garden is generally available which offers a mud kitchen, water play, climbing and sand pit.”

She added: “We are running the sessions every other Wednesday and those who have already come along have loved exploring the site, tackling the giant hill and finding a moment of calm in the natural surroundings.”

Mum-of-three Rachel Tilbrook, 34, from Cowley, Oxford, has attended the sessions with her youngest children Amelie-Rose, one and Harry, four.

She said: “The children love it.

“Harry ended up in the water and lost his wellies, which he loved, and they then found a magnifying glass and spent ages delving under a tree.”

  • On Saturday, May 31, Hill End’s fascinating history will be explored in a ‘Past, Present and Future’ event.
  • Drop in 11am-4pm. Entry and parking is free and visitors can explore the whole 65-acre site, learn about Hill End’s history in the Barn, book on to Bushcraft and Storytelling sessions, and submit their own memories and pictures.
  • Picnics are welcome.
  • For more information on the event or Forest Tots visit hillend-oec.co.uk or call 01865 863510.

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