Gwyllt am Gymru (Wild about Wales)

Published: 14th June 2016

From the rugged peaks of Snowdonia to its often spectacular coastline, Wales is a land full of natural and cultural riches.

And the Trust has helped people get under the skin of the country for rather longer than you might imagine, as Phil Stubbington explains...

When people think of Wales, it may conjure images of sheep-strewn valleys, the dark relics of a past industrial heritage, or even the tourist train chugging up to the summit of Wales’ highest peak. However, working for the John Muir Trust in Wales, I have a very different picture. I see forests, hedgerows and school grounds discovered and surveyed by all manner of folk; bird and bat boxes, bug hotels and tree planting; wildlife habitats created and nurtured. And on a daily basis, I encounter people with a thirst for learning and adventure in wild places – all by virtue of participating in the John Muir Award.

Since the Award was launched 18 years ago, the John Muir Trust has forged extensive relationships with more than 140 organisations in Wales, each of which support our vision that wild land be protected and enhanced, and that wild places are valued by all sectors of society.

This network of engagement spans the length and breadth of Wales, including partnerships with organisations such as The Outward Bound Trust and the National Trust, plus the involvement of a host of schools, outdoor centres, adult groups, families and individuals. From a whole school year group of 200 pupils, to a 100-year-old participant completing Award activity in the centenary of Muir’s death, the diversity of Award participation is as rich as the Welsh landscape itself.

Snowdonia 20 xl

Image of Ogwen Valley, Snowdonia National Park, courtesy of Garry Smith in support of 2016 Year of Adventure Wales.  

And the experiences can be as mild or wild as participants like. “The John Muir Award provided a fantastic opportunity to get out of the classroom and explore wild places right on our doorstep – they might not have been at the top of a mountain, but they were certainly wild to us!” comments Kate Olsen, a teacher at Tynewydd Primary School, Newport. “The Award also helped forge a relationship with our local RSPB reserve that will have our children returning year after year.”

Powerful partnerships

The depth of these relationships is evident in recent 10-year partnership milestones with Arthog Outdoor Education Centre near Dolgellau, Snowdonia, and the National Trust at Stackpole on the Pembrokeshire coast, both of which work almost exclusively with school groups. Between them, the two organisations have supported more than 17,000 individuals to achieve John Muir Awards since 2004. 

“It’s a clear fit for what we offer our visitors at Stackpole,” comments Ack Moore, head of centre at National Trust Stackpole. “The Award offers such a robust, yet flexible scheme that adds so much value to the experience we already offer our participants. It helps us deliver environmental and educational messages in a context that young people, and those working with them, can relate to.”

Both Stackpole and Arthog have built on their Award activity to not only enhance the opportunities and experiences they provide, but also provide a consistent thread for the many schools that they work with (the bulk of which return year after year).

From organisations delivering hundreds of Awards each year to small groups and individual participation, the John Muir Award continues to go from strength to strength in Wales. And nowhere is that more apparent than in its three national parks – Snowdonia, Brecon Beacons and Pembrokeshire Coast – with 85% of participants completing at least some of their Award activity within national park boundaries.

It’s a natural coming together, with the John Muir Trust offering a complementary role in supporting national parks to meet key statutory aims in terms of enabling people to understand, enjoy and care for their special qualities.  And with over 12 million visitors each year, the Award provides a fantastic opportunity to work closely with all three Welsh national parks, supporting them to use and promote the Award as a sustainable framework for environmental and educational engagement. 

However, the Award is just as relevant to residents of national parks as those who visit. The John Muir Trust works closely with Pembrokeshire Coast’s Your Park project and the Brecon Beacons’ School Ambassadors programme – initiatives that look to engage with local residents, organisations and schools, encouraging them to connect more closely with each area and feel an ownership and greater sense of place.

Cultural heritage

Of course, no two Award experiences are the same. Whether it involves scouring on hands and knees for the treasured Snowdon Lily, exploring the beaches of the Gower peninsula, or gazing at the wildness of the Brecon Beacons International Dark Sky reserve, each experience is unique to individual participants. But what each Award does have in common, however, is the opportunity to delve into the rich natural and cultural history that Wales has to offer.

And, often, it is the cultural heritage of Wales that is as much of a draw as its breath-taking landscape. The Welsh language, in particular, is a huge part of the national identity; with 20% of the population Welsh speakers, the John Muir Trust has made a continued provision of Welsh language resources and training to support Award activity through the medium of Welsh over the past decade.

And celebrating 10 years of Welsh language Award activity in 2014 is a milestone that has been widely appreciated. “It has been great to see the commitment of the John Muir Trust towards the Welsh language with their Welsh resources, certificates and training opportunities,” comments Gwydion Tomos at Urdd Gobaith Cymru, the country’s largest Welsh language youth organisation.

“The John Muir Award provides a fantastic framework for participants to develop their Welsh language vocabulary; speaking with others and writing creatively on a variety of topics around nature, the environment and how they feel in wild places,” adds Bethan Jones, head teacher, Ysgol Y Gwernant in Llangollen. “The framework of the Award and the availability of Welsh language resources have given my teachers the confidence to get outside and use nature as a platform for teaching all of the national curriculum subjects.”

On a political level, the John Muir Trust has also offered inputs to Welsh Government consultations on education and the national curriculum, working closely alongside the Urdd and the Real World Learning Partnership.  The outcomes of these consultations will not only shape the future of the national curriculum for both English and Welsh speakers, but also the wider scope of environmental and outdoor learning in Wales.

The John Muir Trust is delighted that the Award is already so actively embraced across Wales, including its six cities, three national parks, many outdoor centres, schools, a quarter of all colleges, plus of course through volunteers, adult groups and families.  These organisations and individuals are more than just Award providers; they are a network of supporters with a joint passion at their heart – wild places.

As the John Muir Trust continues to plant its feet ever more firmly in the Welsh landscape, it does so not as a stranger to these parts, but as an active, long-standing member of the Welsh community.

About the Author

Phil Stubbington is the John Muir Award England and Wales Manager for the John Muir Trust. He can be contacted at phil.stubbington@johnmuirtrust.org

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This article first appeared in the Trust members' Journal. Inspired and not already a member of the Trust? Find out more about becoming a member.