by Sandy Francis
It was a cold, dark, late-winter evening on top of Exmoor. Mist would certainly have descended if only it weren’t blowing a Hooley. The ground would have been ice-hard under foot if only it hadn’t been pouring with rain all week and the silhouettes of bare, blackened trees might have looked mysterious, even magical if only one could look up and see them without being stung in the eyeballs by Jack Frost.
As I drove my little car to Exford a few freezing Fridays ago with my heater on full blast and my windscreen wipers barely managing to keep up with the lashing sleet, all I could think about was staying in, snuggling under the duvet and watching television. Driving up into the hills to a colder, damper, more miserable climate seemed completely insane.
As I turned into the ‘track by the church’ crossly muttering under my breath that this surely could not be right, I spied a welcoming light in the middle distance. The glimmer of hope brought me to a place where the narrow track widened into almost a clearing with a few parked cars and a random scattering of small people all headed in the same direction. This was right. I had reached my destination and the event was really happening, at night, in the rain, the dark and the cold. Exmoor Community Youth Club had not been cancelled due to lack of interest as the bah-humbug monster inside me had considered. In fact, it was buzzing with activity.
I was instantly impressed, first by the number of children who were there (about 24 and it had only just turned 6pm – more came later) and then by the number of adults with rolled-up sleeves, smiles and energy. I instantly felt like a wimp. These people were flying in the face of the January blues, not longing to hibernate but determinedly defying nature and making sure that the young people on Exmoor have something to do, even, or especially, on harsh weather evenings.
The hut was warm, bright, light and full of enthusiastic chattering and laughing. It is the renovated cricket pavilion, semi-abandoned and very run down until five years ago when Exford’s former rector Keith Powell opened it to the young people of the village. It needed a lot of work by a band of dedicated volunteers who transformed it into a cheerful, comfortable meeting place with a long community room, a quiet corner and a separate kitchen and crafts room. There is a veranda out front, an addition to the hut that I could imagine being quite lovely in the summer but also essential in rainier seasons as a place to discard welly boots and wet coats without getting soaked. Beyond the veranda is a huge flat field, perfect for sports, games, picnics, etc.
One of the club’s five trustees, Cathy Nicholls, greeted me at the door, made coffee and introduced chairman and original trustee Robin Ashburner who had shared the vision of Keith Powell and was able to enlist the help of business and community contacts to get the club off the ground. Last summer a new group of trustees changed the name from Exford Youth Club to Exmoor Community Youth Club, or ECYC, to make the club inclusive to all children in and around the moor.
We sat on the sofa in the quiet corner and chatted about society and young people, about the fact that most Exmoor villages don’t have a youth club, that ECYC is a charity that receives no subsidies, relying on donations, grants and fundraising to keep going.
Robin is passionate about the youth club. He quoted the African proverb ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child’ and instantly reminded me of the comfort I used to feel knowing that every person in Roadwater and Withycombe, where I raised my own children, knew them, looked out for them and told me if they were ever up to no good! It was helpful to have so many other eyes watching over my family.
A mouse suddenly appeared from behind a beanbag and a group of children enlisted Robin’s help to capture it, offering a timely interruption; I could have talked to Robin for hours but was keen to meet the rest of the team and their charges. The noise level increased somewhat as everyone became involved in activities. There were boys and girls across the 6-16 age range playing pool and table football, making clay models and fashioning things out of beads.
I talked to the older cohort, a group of 15-year-olds, Mark from Exford and his two friends George and Dan from Brompton Regis. Dan was helping at the club to fulfil the community part of the Duke of Edinburgh Silver award. He said he comes anyway because it’s something to do and he gets to see his friends. George and Mark gave similar reasons for attending. They all agreed that the club provides an opportunity to socialise and see everyone outside school. They described an exciting new project to renovate the derelict hut next door (the even older Exford cricket pavilion), providing extra space and the opportunity to add a music section to the youth club.
We went out into the weather to have a look at the progress, armed with torches and adult supervision in the shape of parent and helper Bernard Webber, a talented builder who organised and carried out the majority of the work on the new venture. Significant amounts of time and effort have been spent and the place is all but finished. Bernard, modest about his own efforts, told me that the current rector, David Weir, had spent six hours that day helping to lay a new roof and that the money had come after 13-year-old member Molly Davidson applied for a grant from the Youth Opportunity and Youth Capital Fund.
No amount of wheedling would get Bernard to reveal how hard he works for the club, but it was clear that he, and everyone else involved, make up a highly motivated bunch. Back inside, there were hot sausage rolls from the oven and the chance to talk to youth workers Laura Tasker and Alison Bagley who showed photographs of a sunny camping trip organised by the youth club last summer, and a flyer encouraging the club members to have a go at drystone walling. In addition to Summer Camp there are fireworks on Guy Fawkes night, participation in the Night Walk Challenge on the Quantocks (the club’s own Exmoor Hamster Team came first last year as regular readers of this magazine may have seen) and a long list of further activities including rounders, football, cricket, cycling, glass painting, papier mâché, painting, cookery, drumming workshops and barbecues.
Laura and Alison mentioned how the project would not run without parents who at that moment were helping with everything from washing up to supervising table tennis and keeping an eye on the crazy few who had spotted a gap in the rain and gone out to play football. I stood on the veranda for a while and watched them. The field was now lit up well enough to pick out the ball, the goal posts and the players were plastered in mud and laughing. In the background 13-year-old Sami was doing a good job of being the only teenage girl in the place and standing up to the boys.
Georgia from Wheddon Cross was busy finishing her ‘hangy thing’ that she had made from the bead box, while Chantelle from Exford proudly displayed her clay face and two dads had joined their children on the table football. I wanted to play too – and not just table football. I have never felt more boring than I did at that moment. Hibernate? What is wrong with me? These grown-ups were not moaning about the cold and the weather, they were all having a great time whilst doing something that could be more useful than any of us will ever actually know.
We hear sad stories, frequently, about disenfranchised teenagers, neglected children, the ASBO generation and so on. Exford and many other rural communities have their share of social difficulties. To change things, make things better for our young people, and subsequently for all of us, takes people who care; the pro-active who don’t want to hide away under the duvet when the going gets tough but get up instead and get on with it
Exmoor Community Youth Club receives no government funding. It relies on the generosity of clubs, organisations and individuals to keep it going. It wouldn’t exist without its dedicated parents including stalwarts Mike Winzer and Angie Bright or the board of trustees: Sue Hayes, Jenny Acland, Juliet Edwardson, Mike Warner and Cathy. Founders Robin and Keith remain ever enthusiastic and Bernard and David the rector work tirelessly behind the scenes.
Please support this brilliant service by joining the Facebook page and keeping abreast of forthcoming fundraising events. Alternatively, contact trustee Cathy Nicholls on 01643 851430 if you have any ideas or would like to help. I leave the last word to George who, like lots of young people, has a gift for telling it like it is: “The really good thing about coming here is that it turns a boring, rainy night into something good, keeps us out of trouble and gets everyone together and away from the telly.”