As promised in our last issue, here is an account of a local support project that grew out of the miners’ strike of 1984/85. The project was born (as all good ideas are) out of conversations in the bar at the Gregson Institute. Why not do something practical locally to help the miners, something that would get wide support? Out of this came the idea for a summer camp for miners’ kids. A strange collection of folk became involved: University lecturers, teachers, students, left-wing politicos, and dedicated barflies. Somehow a semi-formal structure and a conscious strategy emerged. The kids would come from Blyth in Northumberland, from where miners were picketing Glasson Dock trying to prevent strike-breaking coal imports. There would be 75 of them (fifteen a week for five weeks in late July and August and we’d need at least £2000 to feed and entertain them. We would take them to Silverdale, where someone knew of a good cheap campsite at Gibraltar Farm. They would get lots of healthy outdoor activities, with the odd evening at Morecambe funfair if funds permitted, and we would supply a good balanced diet to make up for months of paltry rations because of the strike.
There was no shortage of organisers and adult volunteers. Money was more of a problem. We started strongly with large donations from the Students Union at St. Martin’s College and several University JCRs, and built on this base with begging letters to local political parties, the Co-op, trade unions and churches, as well as a very lucrative circular to every member of academic staff at the University. We had an overwhelming response, apart from the Duke of Westminster (the richest man in Britain), who informed us that he did not give to charity. Busking by Paramount Islanders and a concert by the local group Sound Investment raised almost £300. The University Community Action Group helped us contact volunteers and the District Education Office arranged the loan of cagoules, boots, rucksacks and cooking equipment. The University hiking club lent us four large and quite invaluable tents.
On a very sunny Sunday afternoon the first fifteen kids arrived. The campsite was at a particularly beautiful and secluded area only a few hundred yards from the beach. We kept rules to a minimum, making the safety of the kids the paramount reason for having a rule. They took part in activities they had never experienced before – rock climbing, abseiling, canoeing, sailing, pot-holing – and it is to the credit of the volunteers who supervised them that there was not a single accident in the five weeks of the camp. Every day saw a different experience for the kids. One of the most popular was the swimming and water games session held every morning at Carnforth Pool. The pool staff volunteered to come in an hour early so that we could have the pool to ourselves. We found this positive, helpful attitude was widespread. Marineland in Morecambe gave free tickets every week for the dolphin show, Morecambe funfair and Spaceskate in Lancaster gave big reductions for the kids, youth workers at Scotch Quarry organised games, the Georgian Club provided crisps and lemonade whenever the kids visited Lancaster, and when we needed refuge in wet weather and freezer space for food, the sisters at St. John of God Hospice were glad to oblige. The Heysham Dockers donated their tuck shop and members of Morecambe Labour Party provided high tea every week. And there were people who would turn up at the camp with homemade cakes, biscuits and jams, boxes of books and games, sweets and crisps. On one occasion, a group of anglers arrived at the camp with baskets overflowing with freshly-caught flounders. It was fish supper that night.
Each group of children was accompanied by women from the Blyth Womens’ Support Group who perhaps did most to ensure that the kids had a good time (and behaved themselves!). The camp also became a venue for rest and recuperation from picketing duty for miners, some of whom had had a hard time of it at the hands of the police. They too contributed greatly to the success of the camp, and to the political education of the volunteers.
Every week finished with a two-day stay at an old miners’ cottage at Kentmere, in the Lake District, where outdoor pursuits specialists ensured the kids had a busy but enjoyable time. We were very lucky in having exceptionally good weather for most of that summer, so that outdoor activities could be enjoyed to the full. There were the usual problems arising from clashes of temperament and differences of opinion with both adults and kids, but these were rare and were resolved through discussion and compromise. The general atmosphere was relaxed and good humoured. New friends were made and strong bonds of mutual respect and affection were formed between adults and kids alike. Looking back on the experience, it is remarkable, given the backdrop to the strike and the unrelenting hostility of the media, just how generous people were. It gave us all a glimpse of what could be possible.