A Centenary of Outdoor Education

The Wytham Estate 100 Logo

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Wytham Estate - a joint celebration of the University of Oxford’s Wytham Woods and the Hill End Outdoor Education Centre.

A special programme of events across the Wytham Estate will celebrate the rich history of these much-loved places, whilst looking forward to a future of inspirational outdoor education for new generations of learners.

Raymond ffennell bought the Wytham Estate from the Earls of Abingdon in 1920, and for the next five years, while there were sitting tenants in Wytham Abbey, the ffennell family commuted from their London home for long summer vacations. The ffennells had previously lived in South Africa, where they were accustomed to open air life, and so lavish marquees were erected in a natural clearing above the High Woods. In 1925 the Chalet was built at the same site.

One of Raymond and Hope ffennell’s chief concerns was the matter of educating their daughter, Hazel. They rejected formal, classical schooling and instead favoured the development of the whole person.

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) had opened the first ‘Waldorf School’ in Stuttgart in 1919. Steiner thought schools should develop pupils’ intellectual and practical skills in an integrated way, and a central focus of his educational philosophy was the encouragement of imagination and creativity. Certainly a lot of the education of Hazel ffennell was this type of education.

‘Waldorf’ education was introduced to Britain at the ‘Oxford Conference’, held in Manchester College (now Harris Manchester) and Keble College, during the summer of 1922 – two years after the Wytham estate was bought by the ffennells, and it is likely that Raymond and Hope attended the conference. Steiner spoke every morning and probably helped Raymond transfer the philosophy to the outdoor education centre that he was starting to plan.

Raymond ffennell’s two key interests were: living in the open air; and outdoor education. The health and wellbeing of poorer children was a particular concern. He started recruiting children as early as 1926, and at the same time he purchased Hinksey Fields, South Park, Headington Hill Park and Godstow Ruins, safeguarding them for the future.

At Raymond’s death the Deed of Agreement with the University left the control of education on the estate with Hope ffennell, until her death in 1956. At this time the City Council took over the lease for Hill End, which passed to the County Council in 1974.

The Chalet was leased to a number of tenants until 2016.  It underwent a full programme of refurbishment in 2019 to transform it into a research hub and a base for visiting groups to the Woods.

The need to engage young people with nature and the environment has never been more pressing, and the Estate is committed to developing the ffennell legacy for future generations. This year will see new fundraising activities and new partnerships to secure the work of the Estate for the future.

Anniversary events started on 22 January 2020 when the Estate planted the first of 100 new trees to form an avenue marking the ffennell centenary. This avenue will create a new woodland wildlife corridor between the two sides of the Estate and demonstrate a lasting commitment to our partnership. We will be encouraging visiting schools to get involved in the tree-planting project, but will rely upon donations from the local community and beyond in order to make the avenue a reality.

This year also sees a new joint ffennell Ranger initiative, with an apprentice trained on both sites, learning practical woodland and countryside management skills, in addition to working with volunteers, schools and the public. This joint venture encapsulates the past, present and future of the Estate, and is dedicated to developing joint land management across the estate and promoting outdoor skills in young people.

If future generations are inspired to gaze in wonder at a butterfly, simply sit under a tree and meditate, or buy an organic apple from a local orchard, then the Wytham Estate has achieved its aims - Nigel Fisher, Conservator of Wytham Woods
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