Author Ronnie Reed
X box Vs swifts. photos: Mawel and Scyrene
At the end of last week the education team down here at the Seven Sisters welcomed a school from Surrey who were on a residential trip staying at a local Youth Hostel. They had a three day break, two nights (quite long disturbed nights according to the staff who looked somewhat bleary eyed) at the smart new South Downs Youth Hostel at Itford a stoneís throw away from the River Ouse.
Listening to them it seemed they had a packed and varied itinerary; lots of new things to see and lots to do. There was the River Ouse to explore, gliding its way down from Lewes through lush green farm land towards Newhaven. They walked from the Youth Hostel up to the idyllic village of Southease, a typical Sussex village with grey flint church and picturesque old cottages sitting serenely on a perfect English village green. They visited the White Horse carved into the chalk downs above the gently meandering Cuckmere. They had an evening visit from a bygone smuggler who told his gruesome stories of the illicit trade that once thrived along the Sussex coast. There were lots of games and activities. On their last day they joined us for a walk down the Cuckmere Valley to the sea and then up over Seaford Head with its iconic view of the coastguard cottages and the Seven Sisters and finally met up with the coach that was to take them home to their waiting parents.
Although the children probably did not appreciate it, for three days they were immersed in the history, culture and wildlife of a complete different area from which they came; countryside instead of town, wildlife instead of streets, bird song instead of traffic noise.
As we were walking across the cliffs towards Seaford I got chatting to one of the boys in the group and I asked him if he had a good time. Yes, he agreed it had been good but added that he couldnít wait to get back to his Xbox. He had really missed it and the first thing he was going to do was plug it in and start playing again.
Over the bank holiday break I took a trip as well; up to Shropshire and we stayed in an amazing Youth Hostel, a Grade 1 listed Elizabethan manor house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by gently rolling hills and farmland. There were swifts nesting in the roof and as we took a gentle stroll after dinner the first evening just as the light was fading, they were screaming round the buildings. I was woken in the morning by the sound of a woodpecker drumming and a flock of noisy Canadian geese. No traffic noise and no light pollution and no television! We spent our days ëdoingí the touristy bit around Ironbridge, soaking up the industrial history of this area and walking through woods carpeted end to end with Wild Garlic along foot paths laced with Barren Strawberry. There was oak, coppiced hazel, lime and elm fresh with new growth, dappled sunlight falling through the trees and a deep silence broken only by the sound of birds singing.
As we packed to return home I wanted to stay with the swifts, the peace and the quiet. I had no burning desire to return to the noise of everyday life; the traffic, the sound of my mobile phone going off, the blare of the television, the wake up jingle of the computer logging on.
So what was the difference between me and the young lad (letís call him Sam) I had talked to as we climbed the cliffs above the coastguard cottages?
Age? Maybe, looking in the mirror is not my favourite pastime now.
Different backgrounds? I was a farmerís daughter; this young man had grown up in the town.
A different generation growing up in different worlds? Undoubtedly.
As a child my entertainment was outside; climbing trees, wading through streams, collecting conkers, building dens, collecting tadpoles, hunting for crickets, and dare I say it, catching butterflies (not in the interests of science but just for the sheer hell of it).
Young Samís entertainment is inside; it is his computer, his XBox, the television. They open a window onto an exciting surreal world full of adventure and daring which he can interact with.
My freedom as a child came from being out of school and being able to walk across the Downs. Samís freedom comes from being able to manipulate a world created inside a box in which he can play the hero, the one in control with skills he would never use outside this virtual world.
So why should I think my world is better? Why should I have felt so sad when Sam revealed his longing for his Xbox? Am I just being superior, judgemental, out of touch? Because I do think what I had (still have) is better. What I experienced as a child was real; I could bark my shins on a tree, feel the cold misery of the rain, watch the tadpoles swim. I was linked up to a world of experiences which didnít disappear when the machine was switched off. My childhood memories are vivid, if a little rose tinted, but will Sam remember the virtual games he played when he is my age?
Perhaps more importantly, that connection with the natural world that formed as I played in it has lasted right the way through so that even now the sound of swifts flying round as the sky darkens still makes my nerve ends tingle and brings a rush of joy.
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