It is fifteen years since I gave up leading the Sunday School. Every year, about this time, we would take about 100 kids, aged 5 to 11, on the Sunday School Outing. Sadly, the word 'outing' now has a different meaning and taking so many kids to the beach or the country would mean that each of the leaders would have to be cleared by the police for any pedophile tendencies and we would, no doubt, have to pay a hefty insurance premium.
It used to be a day full of innocent fun. On alternate years we would take them to Studland beach and Linford Bottom. Studland beach is at the start of the Heritage Coastline which now has some sort of United Nations fame. "The World Heritage Site covers the 95 miles of cliffs and foreshore between Exmouth in East Devon and the southern end of Studland Bay in Dorset... The cliffs and foreshore contain a near complete record through 185 million years of the Earth's history in just 95 miles of coast. This is the best place in the World to see a complete sequence of rocks from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods of geological time."
The area is famous for Mary Anning "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew." Anning is credited with finding the first specimen of Ichthyosaurus acknowledged by the Geological Society in London. She also discovered the first nearly complete example of the Plesiosaurus; the first British Pterodactylus macronyx, a fossil flying reptile; the Squaloraja fossil fish, a transitional link between sharks and rays; and finally the Plesiosaurus macrocephalus.
But it wasn't for this that we went to Studland; there are large sandy beaches with safe bathing and plentiful dunes for playing hide and seek. Alas, part of the beach has now been given over to nudists - not exactly the place to take Sunday School children.
Our other destination, Linford Bottom, has nothing to do with nudists. It is a site in the New Forest where a small brook meanders through what is largely grassland on the edge of an enclosure of trees. There, we would fish for tiddlers with a toy net on a piece of bamboo, start a continuous pick-up soccer match with coats as goal posts, take part in a treasure hunt in the undergrowth and eat hot dogs for tea.
Diane and I decided to try and find it again yesterday.
There is an easy way that the coach used to take, but I always used to drive there carrying food, primus stove, balls and hoops in my car. The way I took was shorter, but involved narrow country lanes, steep hills, blind corners and the occasional tractor. After one or two detours we found our way.
It was a warm and sultry day with an overcast sky. We walked for about an hour and a half, following the stream. There was much evidence of neglect. The banks of the stream had been eroded so that the path disappeared and in places the stream had taken an entirely different course. At one stage we left the stream and crossed into the forest. The style was impassable as it had been overgrown with brambles. An old oak had fallen and decayed with no attempt by the park rangers to clear up the mess. Everywhere the sward was encroached upon by fern, holly and bramble.
We used to walk up to a small wooden footbridge that crossed the brook and then we would walk back on the other side. We found it again, but the bridge now spanned a dry stream bed. The new brook was fifty yards to the right of the bridge.
We walked back by a slightly different route keeping to our side of the stream. The trees were mainly oak and holly. Although it hasn't rained here for ten days, there were deep puddles and mud churned up by mountain bikes, motor bikes, quad bikes and galloping horses. We felt that the place had lost the sparkle that we remembered. Perhaps without the children it had became a dead, decaying wasteland. Then in one tangled thicket a rabbit scooted across our path and we found ourselves in a dark clearing surrounded by the most fantastic and grotesque trees. One particular holly had so many different stems, twined and twisted around each other, like one of those metal puzzles we used to get in Christmas stockings. An old oak had sent out dead, grey arms, bare of leaves at the height of our heads, but growing briskly above us. Here we felt the trees were a conscious, ominous and sinister presence, like glowering Ents, angry at being disturbed. There was no welcome here, but a chilling hostility.
In the distance a smear of pink and we hurried towards it. Caught up in a holly bush was a dog rose, simple, single rose flowers, then another, then a whole dog rose tree; suddenly there were wild flowers everywhere - daisies, buttercups, celandine, violets and then a small bright blue flower that we did not recognise. (At home we thought it resembled 'Alkanet' when we looked it up.) From death into life: our mood was instantly raised.
There were several other cars parked next to ours when we returned, but still no children. You can never go back.