Wensleydale outdoor centre facing closure due to pandemic

Not hopeful - Terry Hailwood, head of Low Mill, says he fears for its future.

By Betsy Everett

The Low Mill outdoor centre in Askrigg, which has given thousands of young people the chance to explore the challenges of the Yorkshire Dales for more than 40 years, is facing closure because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Terry Hailwood, head of the centre for 12 years, says it and the whole of the sector has been “left in the lurch” by the government.

Forced to close its doors on lockdown in March, Low Mill, which caters for schools and special needs groups all over the north of England and parts of Scotland, had expected to restart in September when children returned to school.

“We knew we could survive until September, with a number of generous grants and all the staff being furloughed.

“That is what we expected. We were shocked to be told that despite the government emphasis on the importance of outdoor learning to children’s mental health and resilience, Public Health England and the Department of Education prohibited residential visits.

“We had bookings right through to next spring from primary and secondary schools, and charities, including Cancer Care UK. At a stroke they were all completely wiped out,” said Mr Hailwood.

“This is the worst crisis we have faced, even worse than foot and mouth, and I honestly don’t know if we are going to recover from it.”

He says that despite extensive lobbying from the whole outdoor education sector the guidance prohibiting residential courses has not been lifted. Low Mill will almost certainly remain closed to residential groups until spring 2021, and may never reopen.

“We are told to expect another announcement in November, when maybe the guidance will change with a view to the following spring. But that will not help us because we have to plan so far ahead,” he added.

The centre is still offering day visits to local and regional schools with activities including abseiling, sailing, canoeing, gorge-walking, caving and archery, but apart from two groups attending this week, they are not being taken up.

Mr Hailwood believes that a lack of confidence among school heads, governors and parents could sound the death knell for such institutions.

“People are seeing what is happening with the resurgence of the virus, they are seeing the problems in universities, and they are just very cautious for the children in their care. At a time of uncertainty they do not want to commit, and I can understand that.”

Since the start of lockdown the Low Mill centre has received grants of £5,000 from Richmondshire District Council and £10,000 from Sport England’s community emergency fund, but with running costs at £3,500 a month without staff costs, the future is uncertain.

They employ 11 staff onm total, all local.

“The latest government support packages help a little but they do not bring in enough to compensate for not allowing residential groups, which are our main income generators. Insurance companies have found loopholes to not pay back on business interruption  cover, so we no have relief there either,” said Mr Hailwood.

“Without groups being allowed to stay for the rest of this academic year and without access to funds or compensation for loss of earnings I can’t see Low Mill being here this time next year.”

He estimates over 6,000 jobs are at risk in the sector nationwide and says the UK stands to lose more than a third of its outdoor education facilities.

“Outdoor Education is a vital part of the British education system. Without it, schools, children and communities will permanently lose important, formative, educational experiences and assets. We cannot let such valuable cultural, community and educational assets die.

“Our building still needs to be maintained and bills paid and without help we face having to close a charity that has been helping young people for nearly 50 years.”

A ‘bounce back’ crowd-funding campaign has been launched at https://www.givey.com/lowmill with the aim of raising £50,000.

“It would be a sticking plaster over a gaping wound but it might get us through the winter,” he added.

Wet, wild and adventurous – but Low Mill may have seen the last of groups like this.