HILL End has been part of the county for so long that it has almost become rooted into its beautiful landscape.
Originally established as an outdoor school for ‘delicate’ and disadvantaged children in the 1930s, for subsequent generations of schoolchildren the words Hill End are synonymous with lighting camp fires and telling ghost stories in dormitories during their first, unforgettable, school trip away from home.
A fairy ring toadstool in the 1960s
It’s a place where children are left to explore nature in its purest forms. To soak in the sun – and the rain – to truly connect and learn to work with nature.
It is also a place where the schoolchildren of the past now bring their own children, to try bushcraft, or to work as volunteers, helping to maintain its beauty for the schoolchildren of the future.
But behind its weathered, wooden buildings, its meadows and forest pathways between Oxford and Farmoor, Hill End also has an ancient and fascinating history, which on May 31, will be explored in a special exhibition.
Canadian teacher Donna Maiden teaches in 1980
Hill End’s development manager Selby Dickinson, 53, said: “Everyone knows Hill End, and everyone who has been here loves it. But never before have we really appreciated its wonderful history; how it came to be and why and why it is still so relevant today.”
He continued: “A huge number of people from Oxfordshire came here as a child – and for many it is their first time away from home.
“Last year, 9,500 children visited – our busiest year ever.
“The place has a sense of childhood and if you stand in the meadow, Oxford is only about three miles away as the crow flies, but you would never know it. It is a unique little piece of wilderness just waiting for people to explore.
A young visitor in 1953
“And that is why we are so excited about this May’s Past, Present and Future event, because we will not only be enabling people to come along and see what we have uncovered about Hill End, we will also be inviting them to share their own memories of the place.”
Kim Base, the deputy head of Faringdon Junior School has been taking all the school’s year five children to Hill End each May, for a three-day stay, for over 10 years.
“Every child (over 700 so far), has had a fantastic time.
“Hill End offers a safe environment where teachers can organise a range of activities which encourage children to learn outdoors. Children can explore the grounds and have adventures that are not usually possible at home.
“We have included activities from geography, science and history to literacy and maths. The most important one though is the Personal, Social and Health Education. The improved personal independence, confidence building and socialising with friends and teachers is something very special.”
The Hill End centre is set in 62 acres of chalk grassland, marshland, developing woodland, ponds and streams, where a settlement has been in place since the Domesday Book.
By the early years of the 20th Century the settlement, formerly known as La Hulle, had become Hill End, a farm on the Wytham Estate, owned by the 7th Earl of Abingdon.
But in the 1920s the estate was bought by Raymond Schumacher, an entrepreneur and would-be philanthropist who had made his fortune in diamond mining in South Africa.
Schumacher (who changed his name to his mother’s maiden name, ffennell his wife Hope, and their only child Hazel, settled at Wytham Abbey and as they grew accustomed to life in the open air through safari trips in Africa, set up a luxurious, all-mod-cons camp in the woods, where they spent long periods of the summer and winter.
Hazel, a gifted child, had pets including a meercat and a green chameleon known as the Green Dragon (now immortalised in a Hill End building of that name).
But Raymond ffennell was critical of the failure of some village landlords to provide community amenities and in 1926 he wrote a paper Town Planning in Oxford – Criticism and Suggestions in which he hit back at the council’s proposals to build on the green open flood meadows which he felt were vital spaces for the poor, many of whom lived in overcrowded squalor.
While ffennell clashed horns with officials, he had a very real affection for children, particularly in areas like St Ebbes and St Thomas where progress in slum clearance was very slow, and so he decided to set up a project in outdoor learning, offering the land and buildings at Hill End for use by children.
Chef Safal Gurung, 18, with Imogen Lewis, 19, Beauty Department - both from Oxford and Cherwell College help out at the first ffennel festival held in 2013 with pupils from Godford Hill School.
In 1926, Miss Lambourne, the then headmistress of West Oxford Infants School told how one day she: “Noticed an elderly gentleman strolling up and down outside the school. This gentleman introduced himself as Raymond ffennell and said that he would very much like to invite the children of West Oxford to walk and play and have a picnic.”
Miss Lambourne received permission from the school inspector and in July the top class went out to Wytham – an outing which turned into an annual event for four years.
Later ffennell set about establishing the Wytham Woods School at Hill End in 1931 and finally won the approval of the Education Committee for his plans with three local schools.
Four old agricultural buildings were converted into classrooms. Between 1931 and 1937, 12 more buildings were altered or constructed purposely scattered around the 65-acre site, each in its own field to give the children a feeling of space.
WORK EXPERIENCE OF A LIFETIME
Land management officer David Millin, 47, first came to Hill End on work experience, as a teenager from Wood Green School and has been working there full time, for the last 25 years.
Mr David Millin, pictured left with volunteers Paul Heron and Les Bishop
Mr Millin said: “I came here as a youngster and was captivated, so much so that casual work in my holidays became a traineeship and now Hill End is an important part of mine and my family’s life.”
He continued: “Hill End, for many children, is a formative part of their childhood and being part of that experience is a great responsibility, although working in these beautiful surroundings is very easy!
“I would say the place has changed very little in the 25 years I have been here – although we have become much more diverse in the way we work with the environment.
“We have around 25 very committed volunteers, a group of 10 of whom work here most days and in recent years the number of children we have hosted has grown – which is great because Hill End is at its best when it is full of children.
“I am also very lucky to live in staff accommodation on site with my wife Jane and our children Daisy, nine, and Tom, 13. So Hill End is like our garden and we are lucky to literally breathe it in every day.”
ffENNELL SERVED IN BRITISH ARMY
Hill End volunteers Mervyn Hughes and Christian Noerring are supervising the history project which will culminate in the Past, Present and Future event this May.
Mr Hughes, 63, from Headington, is a retired teacher and said: “It has been absolutely fascinating researching Raymond ffennell and what he has created here.
Mervyn Hughes, left, and Christian Noerring look through old records
“As a teacher at St Ebbe's Primary in Oxford, I saw how children flourished and built important memories and experiences here.
“During the research project I have been fascinated by information we have uncovered, such as learning that ffennell was born in London, not Germany as we thought. He studied at Harrow, served Britain in the second Boer War and was given permission to change his name by the King himself.”