Reporter 448, 6 March 2000


Fifty years of bringing the city's children to the wilderness

A golden anniversary takes place this Easter, linking the University with the community, urban Leeds with the scenic Lake District and the steam age with the new Millennium.


Base camp: outdoor activities group members Terry Nolan, John Hyde, Brian Blake and John Scarth at Dale Head


Starting a tradition: Brian Blake with two Morley High School pupils

For 50 years, the Mountain Hut at Dale Head has been a popular spot for University staff and friends to explore Scafell, the Old Man of Coniston, Grey Friar and the other spectacular hills of South Lakeland. And for 50 years University students and staff have invited pupils from Leeds schools, notably Morley High School, to join them.


The hut as it looks today


Taking a break: Terry Nolan and John Scarth


Men of mountaints: Tim Rowlands and Brian Blake on a snowy traverse

Leased from its owners the National Trust since 1949, Dale Head, in the Duddon Valley, is made available to University members at break-even cost.


High in the hills: pupils from Morley High School, Leeds, during their visit to Dale Head at Easter 1999

Accommodation is on a par with the more basic of youth hostels, but in spite of its spartan surroundings, the simple life is still a big draw for students and school pupils.

Half a century ago the University’s first school guests described their week-long visit - in a freezing March - as ‘the time of their lives’ in spite of having to take their morning wash in an ice-covered stream. The benefits of outdoor activity were not the only gains for the dozen or so pupils from grimy, industrial Leeds. Undergraduate hosts - who took turns as expedition leaders, cooks and housekeepers - talked to them each evening about their experiences in the countryside that day, and there were discussions on everything from botany to literature.


At the summit: PGCE students on Scafell Pike in September 1989

The programme - said to be the first of its type in the country - was initiated by Ronnie Morgan, University physical education director from 1945 to 1973. The "mentoring" students were drawn from his outdoor activities group.

The group’s syllabus included rock climbing and mountain skills. And what began as a training camp for student teachers - to give them practice in leading outdoor extra-curricular activities - has now evolved into a PGCE assessment course, held annually in March.

Some 110 miles from Leeds, Dale Head remains remote. But 50 years ago, when cars were a rarity, even getting there was a task in itself.

John Hyde was a Leeds University student from 1947 to 1951 and a member of that first group to officially use Dale Head in 1950. He remembers arriving at Coniston station via Carnforth by steam train, and then walking the seven-mile trail the rest of the way. Even some of the first school pupils had to walk the last three miles from Seathwaite to the hut - in the dark.

"We were certainly the guinea pigs for the outdoor activities group," said Mr Hyde "The course comprised mountaineering, in the broadest sense, with rock-climbing techniques, canoeing, camping and working with young people.

"Visiting Dale Head gave me valuable experience in taking out my own parties later on when I moved to a school in Bradford which had its own mountain hut in Wales."

Dale Head has become an institution for more than just the sports science department. Demand from students and staff groups and societies across the University ensures it is solidly booked for well over half the year. More than a hut, Dale Head is actually a traditional, Lakeland farmhouse.

Its wooden construction and historic value mean it is a strictly no-smoking area. It sleeps up to 36 in sleeping-bag bunks. The facilities are rudimentary, but thanks to a volunteer work party in 1974 they now include a septic-tank sewage-disposal system. The hut relies on volunteers undertaking maintenance and decoration to keep costs low. Ever-loyal Morley High School is currently leading a 50th anniversary fund-raising campaign for improvements by appealing to past and present users to chip in.

Rather than arriving in picturesque style by steam train, most users today travel by car or minibus. But some things do not change. Heating is by coke stove in common and drying rooms. Cooking and water heating is by bottled gas and there is electric lighting, but there are no power points - so there is no television. Which is good news for serious students of the outdoor life.

Dale Head is administered by Will Patterson through the physical education service and bookings are made through the secretary (0113 233 5080). Further details at www.leeds.ac.uk/sports_science/courses/ssoa.html

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