The purpose of camping in Guiding was to put into effect the skills which the Guides had learned in theory at meetings during the year. So all that theoretical study and indoor practice on learning knots, nature study, campcraft, cookery etc. which units carried out for 51 weeks of the year - would be put to practical use in a 1-week camp where the girls would learn to be self-reliant, cooking their own meals, maintaining their own tents and learning about the countryside around them. They made their own entertainment and tackled activities of their choice, and it was the ideal chance to pass some of the clauses in Second and First class. Day hikes, wide games, swimming, signalling and tracking nature. For many it was their first time away from their family, for some it was their first ever holiday, or first ever sight of the countryside or seaside. And having saved up all year, they were able to travel by train, charabanc, or haul their trek cart to a field in the country. The handbooks implied that every Guide would get the opportunity to go to camp every year. And most did.
In due course indoor holidays were introduced for Brownies. As we know, from it’s inception the entire purpose and aim of the Brownie section was – to prepare girls to become Guides. In a similar way to Guide camp, Brownie holiday utilised the skills they had been learning all year as they helped to look after the house, and themselves. And again, they were for a minimum of 5 days, but usually for a full week. It was the culmination of the Brownie year, where the Brownies took over a house and did their own thing in it, doing as much as possible for themselves. Besides this, there would be healthy outdoor games and picnics, and educational visits to places of interest – and always the chance to work on progress badges. Of course there were some Leaders who claimed that Brownie Holidays ‘spoiled’ camping for Guides, but the evidence tended to be to the contrary – that the girl who had been on Brownie holiday looked forward to taking the next step.
As decades passed, so gradually more and more Leaders found it hard to run the traditional week-long camp or holiday. At first because fewer had household staff, and so had to run the household and look after the children by themselves, then in due course many went out to work part-time or full-time, until it eventually reached a stage where week-long camps or holidays were impossible to staff for many units, and by the early 1980s the weekend residential was starting to become more common than the week. Many of the same activities were attempted, they were simply crammed into the much-shorter time-frame as best they could. Hence the girls tended to go home more tired than they arrived (unless the Leaders managed things very carefully), as everything was so tightly timetabled. The thing that was lost was the time to “stand and stare”, go off on hikes, or appreciate nature. Every minute spent had to be justifiable.
Soon more opportunities started to be opened up – for Guides to do weekend indoor holidays, for Brownies to do weekend camps, and for all sections to do sleepovers – and shorter events of this sort became commonplace, with the week-long camp tending to be found only at larger events such as international camps (other than for those lucky few units where Leaders could still muster enough annual leave to run longer events). Nevertheless, despite the evidence, the claims that Rainbow and Brownie residentials would put girls off attending Guide residentials persisted. Still with no more evidence than before.
Then commercial companies started to take a big interest in us. Sure, there had been packaged international trips for many years, but in the last 10 years or so there have been an explosion of firms chasing the youth group market in the UK. They had the holiday centres sitting under-used, and the staff who could run a range of ‘adventurous activities’ – and they could offer their standard-issue package holidays to groups just as easily as to individuals. No longer would the busy Unit Leader need to plan menus, buy food, organise programmes of activities (or ideally, get her PLs to do most of it) – she could now get a professional company to do it all for her (for a price, natch).
But the price wasn’t in significantly higher fees alone – for those who used these packaged holidays could select only from those activities the company chose to lay on, following the company’s choice of timetable. There wasn’t the option of an impromptu hike, a wide game, or tackling badgework, even if that was what the girls really wanted to do. Just going out into the woodland to light a fire and cook lunch wasn’t possible, you were to eat the food provided in the dining room between the set hours. Midnight hikes or sunrise Promise ceremonies were impossible when you still had to report to the canoe pond at 9.30 sharp . . . and many of the activities were the same old ones the girls had already done several times over at school ‘outdoor ed’, the kids club at the holiday resort, etc, like canoeing, climbing wall, archery. So although billed as ‘adventurous’, and perhaps assumed to be so by the Unit Leaders – in reality they weren’t adventurous after all, just the same thing over again.
I wonder if there will be a backlash? I wonder if there will be a realisation in Guiding that these package holidays are offering the girls – little more than what a family holiday in many European resorts already offer? Will there be a realisation that it isn’t really a ‘Guiding’ residential at all, the fact that the people attending happen to all be Guides is of no consequence to the organisers, as they have no interest in attempting to adjust their programmes in order to incorporate a Guiding ethos, or develop Guiding skills. Will the Guides clamour for the chance to do shelter building, backwoods cooking, campfires, wide games, supper hikes and all the other unstructured fun which Guide camps normally have, but which these companies don’t normally offer, as things which would be genuinely adventurous? The Guides can only clamour for them if they know that such adventure exists . . . otherwise they’ll do the beginner archery session again - for the umpteenth time.
Oh yes. I do know how much work there is in planning and running camps and holidays in Guiding - I do it every year for both my units in amongst all my other commitments. I can fully understand the temptation to say ‘hang the expense’ and use the professional companies, especially if it seems like it’s a that-or-nothing position. But I have seen the difference between residential events where the Guide ethos is a built-in part of the programme, and ones where it only happens by accident if it happens at all. At a traditional Guiding camp or indoor holiday the girls get the chance to do things they don’t get to do anywhere else, and which are thus really adventurous. They get a genuine choice over the programme and activities they want to have, some of which are brand new and adventurous to them, not just a ‘pick 3 from 5’. They learn skills that the package holiday doesn’t teach.
I’m not saying ban-them-all. But amongst the temptation to pay someone else to do all the organising rather than do your own thing, I think we should make our choices with an awareness of the cons, and try to make sure that package holidays are an occasional treat just for a change, not the default option.