The High Birks, in the Duddon Valley is near the tiny village of Seathwaite in the southern part of the Lake District. It is an old working farmhouse dating back many years and enjoys idyllic peace and seclusion coupled with magnificent views and outstanding walking and hiking opportunities directly from the doorstep.
The property was owned by the Forestry Commission and occupied by a tenant farmer until the late 1950s or early 1960s. It was first rented by the Grove School in 1967 and utilised as a field studies and “outward bound” centre until 1985. At that time the Forestry Commission decided that they wished to sell the property rather than renew the lease.
The Birks proved to be such an outstanding asset for the school that in 1985 the PTA took up the opportunity offered to them by the Forestry Commission to purchase the freehold of the property at an advantageous price that reflected the significant improvements that the school had carried out whilst holding the tenancy.
Over these early years of the school’s involvement with The Birks hundreds of Grove School students and many members of staff had gained significant benefits from spending a week or so there. These benefits included not only the academic opportunities provided by the Birks location but also, and perhaps even more importantly, an opportunity to develop social skills, learn to work as part of a team and establish the sort of friendships that last a lifetime.
For many of the students a trip to the Birks was their first stay away from home and it was clear that ‘the Birks experience’ helped to develop a very positive working relationship between the students and the members of staff who led the residential groups – a significant benefit which lasted for the remainder of the pupils’ time at the Grove school.
Having resolved to purchase the property the PTA managed to raise the agreed price of £35,000, mainly from small covenants entered into by numerous people, most of whom had seen and experienced the benefits the school and the way in which its students gained from having the Birks as a remote school site. The fund raising was so successful that a small surplus was generated above the asking price, which was used to carry out some larger scale improvements that had not been appropriate or affordable while the school was just a tenant.
These major improvements were carried out by local professional builders. In contrast, almost all the other essential but more routine maintenance and improvement projects over the 40 years of the school’s involvement with the Birks have always been carried out by informal ‘working parties’ made up of members of staff and other ‘Friends of the Birks’. These generous people, with a huge range of practical skills and abilities, have donated many weeks of their free time to looking after the property and doing their best to ensure it is in a suitable condition for school groups to use.
However, the time has now come, with changing expectations of users and ever-improving standards of health and safety that the Birks again requires a significant investment of both time and money to make it fit for the 21st Century.
A number of options are currently being considered, all of which have the overall objective of ensuring the Birks continues to be a major asset for the Grove School and its students for many years to come.