Our series of photographic portraits by Neill Menneer shows Bath people at work…
I came to Bath in August 2000 with my wife Rachel and our young boys, returning to her family home in Upper Swainswick, which is blessed with a large, beautiful garden which became our family playground. I had left a career in teaching in London and continued to teach supply, but I found I really enjoyed looking after my boys while Rachel worked part time in London. Memories of my younger days ensured we spent lots of time outdoors, especially on a bike and trailer.
I grew up with a wonderful communal garden through my garden gate in London in the 1970s, together with grandmothers in Kent and Hampshire where I had a very happy childhood, playing with cousins, climbing trees, discovering the hay stacks, the smell of straw bales and Cheddar sandwiches while sitting in long grass. In London, there were friends . . . you just went into their gardens to find them. Later on I spent hours exploring the city on my bike. (Rachel turned up to our second date on a bike, I was sold from then on).
I loved sailing my small boat at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, enjoying the freedom, the open sea, wind and the possibilities of sailing away around the island. I once took a boat and rowed out to collect my Dad who had finished his race (I was seven at the time).
Freedom for children to explore, unfettered, unadulterated, is really important. It is fairly impossible in our society unless you live on a small private island or up a happy cul-de-sac. For us, a catalyst for change came in 2002 when our third son was born. Rachel gave up her job and we had a time of thinking what to do next.
Friends had commented on our patience and novel parenting style and suggested we looked after their children too. In combination with looking after our young boys, we started to develop what we called Swainswick Explorers. We registered as childminders and qualified as playworkers. Our way was to offer children fun opportunities, risk, adventure, clear boundaries, time outside and to model caring and helpful behaviour. Trying different types of trips during the holidays we soon realised that the simplest was the best. A journey into the countryside, in a small group, with no agenda other than to have fun and enough time and provisions was a perfect recipe for a memorable adventure. A memory seed planted.
Now 16 years later Rachel and I have a great team of creative people and Garden-Swainswick has become a DIY paradise of children’s play. We can’t stop developing new opportunities for children, teenagers and adults to explore, play and learn. We now have three teenage boys, integral to the origins of Explorers. They, and others in their cohort, who grew up exploring with us, are now leading young people themselves as part of our Outdoor Adventures programme for 11 – 15 year olds.
To adventure further afield, we are developing a couple of holidays for young people, biking in Germany and a trekking experience in Greece for next year. This summer our boys are returning to a school in Uganda where they will be volunteering, decorating a new dormitory for which they’ve fundraised since their first visit. They are like ‘arrows in my quiver’, quoting from Proverbs in the Bible.
We love our work and have a great group of loyal parents and families who support us and entrust us with their children. I particularly enjoy building relationships, seeing people grow and making structures for the garden, the latest of these being a climbing gym and a hot bath. Look at our website for more information about outdoor play, our preschool, after school and holiday clubs, retreats for adults and craft bonanzas. Our next open day is in October. We love to learn, to learn to love!
To find out more about Swainswick Explorers, visit: playingoutdoors.org.