First year students on the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme took part in our annual adventurous training week at Coniston in the Lake District from Monday 8 to Thursday 11 June 2015.

Launching a raft

The University of Birmingham is lucky to have its very own outdoor activity centre, the Raymond Priestley Centre, on the western shore of Coniston Water. The Centre had its beginnings in the annual summer camps that the University of Birmingham set up at Coniston Water in the post-war years, and grew to comprise permanent accommodation and facilities. Today, the Raymond Priestley Centre offers students and staff the opportunity to take part in team-development and leadership courses, field-studies courses and training in sports and pursuits like sailing, canoeing, orienteering and climbing.

The centre is named after Professor Sir Raymond Priestley (1886 – 1974) who was geologist on Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic in 1907–9 and Scott’s ill-fated expedition in 1910–13. He later became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham (1938 to 1952) and was a strong supporter of the educational benefit of adventure and exploration.

A dog joins the discussion

Our group left Birmingham early (if not so bright) on Monday morning and arrived at the Priestley Centre in time for lunch. After a briefing and introduction to the centre, it was time for the first activities, with an afternoon devoted to problem-solving and team-working exercises at the centre’s ingenious obstacle courses. Students had to scratch their heads to solve problems such as crossing a ‘gorge’ using only team work and three short planks, finding their way blindfolded, and passing eight team members through a ‘spider’s web’ without touching.

Group of students

All good fun and, along the way, everyone learned a bit more about communicating and what role they best play in teams. Everyone was tired on Monday night, but we got a camp fire going and chatted until dark. On Tuesday morning we went canoeing (a first time for some) and held a raft building competition. Two of the rafts made it around the course safely… and the third group swam out in some style.  The afternoon saw us take on the centre’s dedicated ‘high ropes’ and ‘low ropes’ courses. Teamwork was crucial in getting everyone safely around the high ropes course (pretty high) and keeping them out of the mud besetting the low ropes course.

Obstacle course

On the Wednesday, students took part in an all day project, working in teams, which involved map reading and orienteering, raft building and canoeing. The tasks required individual ingenuity and teamwork, plus the ability to acknowledge that different members of the group had different strengths which would each come into play in different situations. They spent the late afternoon working on their group reflective presentations for the Thursday morning — everyone took this seriously, and one group in particular put considerable creative effort into planning their presentation (set to the music of Bohemian Rhapsody). In the evening many of them went to the pub but all were back in the Centre in good time and in a reasonable state to return to work on Thursday morning!

A collapsing raft

On the Thursday morning, students were surprised at having one more physical task to perform. In their groups they were each issued with a length of guttering and a tennis ball and had to manoeuvre the ball down the hill towards the lake without it dropping to the ground. Two of the three groups did this ok, one group did it eventually – with a little help from their friends as it were. Again it was a task about teamwork, leadership and esprit de corps…but maybe 8.30am was a little early in the day for some of the students. After the presentations the groups cleaned up their quarters and headed up the hill to catch the coach back to Birmingham. After the trip, all were agreed that Coniston was brilliant. Students came to know one another much better and say they felt much closer.

Ben Kotzee and Stewart Brown