Our History

Visitors to the campsite in 1947 could never have imagined that they were the pioneers of a legacy which continues to this day.

RPC Summer Photos

The Beginning

The First Camp

The man responsible for the university’s long running connection with Coniston is Max Madders, who lectured at Birmingham for the Physical Education course in the 1940s.

In the 1930s, he went on a camping trip in Coniston, recalling that in those days, campers would sleep under “household quilts rather than in sleeping bags” and pay sixpence per person to the farmer who owned the land.

He then suggested the site when, in 1947, the PE department considered making outdoor activities part of the recreation scheme for their first year students. 

During the first camp, the staff and students camped for 10 days. Only 1 or 2 staff owned cars and the majority of students hitchhiked up for the camp. As there was no motorway, the journey generally took 7 or 8 hours. All the equipment was sent up by rail and the farmer would help unload it all and tow it with his tractor to the site.

In 1948, the camp was held down south to allow the students to attend the 1948 Olympics in London.

In 1949, the department decided that these camps should become part of the instruction for the PE students. They therefore purchased more equipment to allow for larger groups, and hired 2 marquees from Liverpool to serve as a lecture theatre and kitchen, which were also sent up by rail.

The camps took 3-4 days to set up, and the priority was the large marquee which provided the only shelter during the building period – which, considering the changeable nature of weather in England was often a problem!

Groceries were landed from the boat house, or brought down from the farm house by wheelbarrow. Eventually the department purchased a vehicle which made securing provisions much easier.

Family Camps

Family camps for University of Birmingham staff first began at the site in 1970, and continue to this day.

From 1956, students of the university would camp for 2 weeks, and the following 2 weeks, ex-students of the university would bring school groups to camp. In 1970, these school camps ended and were replaced by family camps.

In those days, camping was limited to 42 consecutive days on unlicensed sites, hence the organisation of the school camps immediately after.

Max Madders recalls that family camps had a full programme of fell-walking, canoeing, climbing, and sailing, with older students acting as instructors. Up to 80 people could attend, with some bringing pets such as hamsters and white mice.

In 1953, permanent storage was built on the site to allow for some of the equipment to be kept there, with the land being leased from the farmer. The hut stood for more than 25 years and provided both storage and shelter in pouring rain when the tents could not withstand it.

The hut also allowed for more permanent equipment to be utilised – Max recalls that enough money was donated for 4 dinghies to be built. They were named "Trial, Error, Endeavour, and Success, in the order of building".

If you are interested in finding out more about family camps, please email the RPC team at rpcconiston@contacts.bham.ac.uk 

The Viking Feast

In 1972, it was proposed that a Viking Feast be held to celebrate 25 years of camping at the site.

A committee was formed who wished the feast to be as Viking-esque as possible. They initially proposed that it should last for 7 days and nights, have venison, plenty of mead, and a Viking ship which was to be set on fire

Max Madders stated in 'The Coniston Saga' that "We found that our resolve was not as strong as that of the Vikings was reputed to be". and thus the feast took place on 1st and 2nd July 1972, with 80 guests. The 10 gallons of mead had been fermented in the university’s Biochemistry department especially for the occasion. A Viking Ship was set alight to mark the occasion, although unfortunately it started to drift towards a forest. Max recalls that the copious amounts of mead and venison made it very difficult for attendees to tether and tow the burning ship. The village guests set off at 4am by boat, approximately 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Max recorded that 2 days passed before enquiries were made about their safe return.

Our Heritage on Campus

Orienteering

The PE Department first heard about Orienteering from a group of Norwegian students who came to study Engineering shortly after the war. Max Madders recalls that compasses at that time were "cheap and reasonably accurate to 5o" as they were left over as army surplus.

Courses were duly laid out around the shore of the lake and the surrounding woods, marking checkpoints with pieces of nylon cord. The courses began and finished at the lakeside marquee and were run in the evenings, with competitors running in pairs. Madders states that they took "about an hour to complete the course, except for those who went wildly astray and were never seen again". (A good example of the English tendency for hyperbole). On a few occasions, courses were laid zig-zagging across the lake so that canoes could be used. Madders recalls that "there was one occasion when a courting couple on the lake shore were deeply disturbed, and infuriated, by the inexplicable arrival of young people in pairs at five minute intervals. In those days orienteering was a totally unknown sport to courting couples and the general public alike".

The University of Birmingham is part of the territory of the Harlequins Orienteering Club, who most recently held an event on campus in June 2018.

Saunas

We have a group of Finnish students to thank for the continuing existence of a sauna here at the Birmingham campus.

Following the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, the PE students who had attended spoke rapturously of the sauna baths in Finland. The camp at Coniston provided at opportunity to experiment. Max Madders states that the "first attempt at a sauna in 1956 was to pitch two large ridge tents one over the other so as to leave an insulating gap between them. We then lit two Valour paraffin stoves inside the inner tent, with biscuit tins containing granite tops on top of each. After lacing up the tents and heating for an hour we managed to provide a temperature of 85o". Max does not mention how they all managed to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning so it must be assumed that luck was involved.

In 1961 a Finnish woman joined the PE Department staff and the matter of a sauna was revisited. Two American flame-proof canvas tents were utilised as before, with a trench fire being dug inside the tent and a large iron grid with granite stones on top being placed over it. The fire was lit and allowed to burn out, with smoke escaping through the cowl at the top. "From then on the construction of the sauna became more and more complicated" with the advice of the Finnish Consul in Birmingham being sought.

 Max recalls that "in the end the sauna cult... developed sufficiently to persuade the University Physical Education Committee to build two saunas, one for men and one for women, on campus in the Munrow Sports Centre". Although the Munrow was demolished in 2017, a replacement sauna was built in the UB Sport and Fitness building.

The Naming of the Centre

The Raymond Priestley Centre is named after one of the members of the Shackleton and Scott trips to the Antarctic.

Sir Raymond Priestley had reached the end of his second year studying Geology when he enlisted for Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition (1907–09) to Antarctica. 

He returned after being recruited for Scott's expedition (1910-1913)  when tSir Raymond Priestleyhe Terra Nova arrived in Sydney, where Priestley had been staying. Three weeks after landing at Cape Evans, Priestley and five others left in the Terra Nova to explore and carry out scientific work in King Edward VII land to the east. Unable to find a suitable landing site, they decided to explore the coastline of Victoria Land instead. Due to poor weather and their supplies being damaged, Priestley and his party spent 7 months in an ice shelter, surviving on their rations and seal and penguin meat. In September 1912 they walked for 5 weeks to return to their base, fortunately finding supplies that their western party had left on the way out. They arrived safely at Cape Evans in November 1912 to find that Scott and the entire Polar party had perished.

In the after-war years, Sir Raymond Priestley was the Vice-Chancellor of the university (1938-1952). He gave strong support to the PE Department and was particularly interested in the programme delivered in Coniston, even visiting the camps. He helped it become established as a yearly set of camps, and lived to see the permanent centre be named after him when it was completed in 1981.

In honour of his expedition, the classroom at the Raymond Priestley Centre is called the 'Terra Nova' classroom.

1982 - 2017

The plan to develop the Centre during the 1970s and 1980s was carried forward under the leadership of George Cooper. George was a member of staff in the University of Birmingham’s Physical Education Department and understood the vision and ethos for outdoor education which Max Madders had promoted.

In the late 1980s George and his wife Frances moved to the Lake District to take on the full-time management of the Centre and pioneered the use of the Centre as a year-round resource for student learning and development. To help with the instructional work they were joined by Steve Wilding. The full-time staff has now extended to a team of ten.

During the 1980s and 1990s the addition of offices, a staff room, a large jetty, a fully equipped teaching room and accommodation for visiting staff all served to extend the Centre’s resources. George and Frances retired in 1995 and Norman Beech was appointed as the new manager. Interestingly George was Norman’s tutor when he studied Physical Education at the University.

The Raymond Priestley Centre continues to provide a quality learning resource which supports undergraduate and postgraduate learning. PhD research projects which have collected data from groups using the Centre have been important in the world of outdoor education to validate the role outdoor learning has in student learning.

Throughout the Centre’s 70 years of work with students the surrounding natural environment has been a significant factor in making a visit to the Centre a special experience. To this end investment in facilities that are considerate of our location are important to us. Our reed bed processes waste water at the Centre and ‘Sally’ the Centre’s 26 foot electric boat is our eco-friendly mode of transport for groups on the lake.

70th Anniversary onwards

The Raymond Priestley Centre continues to be a valuable resource supporting student learning at the University of Birmingham and is part of the high-achieving UB Sport department. Students will frequently say they don’t want to go home at the end of their visit!

Come and see for yourself.