Just sixteen miles from the centre of London lies a landlocked oasis. In 1907 Lord Baden-Powell held the first Scout camp on Brownsea Island and Scouting was born. What quickly became apparent was that despite the manual BP wrote there was a fast-growing need to train the Leaders. He set the task of finding some land to accommodate this to a man he trusted, who was heavily invested in Scouting and the good that it was already doing.
Finally, in February 1929, 66 acres of land was signed over to the Scout Association (or actually the Boy Scouts of London), who had purchased the land.The land was initially owned by Lord Lubbock, and the cottage was lived in by his gamekeeper.
Charles Darwin lived along the road at Down House and undertook his famous worm experiments on at least two areas of the site. He also rode regularly through the valley, and the family picnicked there too. It is also recorded that he spoke to the gamekeeper about the flora and fauna that grew in the woodlands. In a short time, adult leader training courses were in full swing (hence the training ground), and BP would call in when he was passing to have his photo taken with those on the courses.
BP encouraged Scouts from the East End of London to camp at Downe. He felt that it was imperative that the boys had the chance to experience life in the countryside, and all that it could give them. With this in mind, he decided that the boys should also have the opportunity to learn to swim. He approached Ralph Reader, a Rover Scout, and asked him to write a Scout based variety show, which he did. It ran at the Scala theatre in London in Oct 1932 and raised enough funds to build the pool at Downe.
Subsequent Gang Shows raised funds for other campsites as they were purchased around the country. Gang Shows have been performed around the world ever since, often producing some of our best-known household named performers.
Additional land was purchased, Birdhouse Wood, making Downe the largest campsite owned by the association until Gilwell eventually expanded. The site was supported by a committee of the great and good, one of whom was Sir Jeremiah Coleman. He and his wife donated the money to build the provider (reception building) as their golden wedding gift. They also donated the clock from their stable block, following a fire, and paid for the tower to house it. The site was actively supported by a huge number of volunteers, which has continued throughout its almost 92 years.
Apart from being mothballed during the war (when it was used by the home guard as a training centre), the site has welcomed Scouts, Guides, Schools and Youth Groups to activity days, camps and indoor breaks. The Bishop of Rochester was a huge supported of the site and would spend his summer break camping in the woods. He arranged for the chapel to be built and provided the cassock, linen, hymn books and silverware for communion. When the ship Discovery was brought into the Thames it was given to Sea Scouts to use as a training ship. Items not needed in the ship were given to the HQ owned campsites and Downe was given a desk (believed to be Shackleton’s) among other items.BP donated many items to Downe, among which it is believed are the set of Kudu horns.
For a period of time, Downe was run by the local Scout County, South East London. In 2001 Steve was appointed as Manager. He took over a Centre that had had little investment and had barely any money left in the coffers. With the help and support of well over 120 volunteers, he turned the Centre around and made it a thriving activity centre. The Centre returned to the umbrella of the Scout Association and continued to grow and develop. In 2014, following a restructuring, Steve was appointed as Manager of three National Centres and moved to live at Youlbury. Just eighteen months later another restructure saw Steve, and other key staff, being made redundant (and homeless).
For fifteen years Downe was such an important part of our lives. The friends we made there became family. We welcomed our summer staff from around the globe. They spent seven months with us, learnt new skills, and grew into amazing young people. All of them have gone on to carve amazing careers for themselves. We welcomed people from around the world every year, just to visit, or to fully immerse themselves in our special, ten-day, Campdowne’s. The relief of driving down Birdhouse Lane was something that I could never explain. It felt like I had literally come home. My shoulders would lift and I would feel safe. The history and new memories being made were all a part and parcel of life there. We would frequently have people turning up to whom Downe had special meaning. It is hard to describe what being a part of Downe meant. It got under your skin, it was part of you. It was hard work, it was relentless. We were on duty 24/7, every day of the year.I started off helping out and finally was employed full time as Guest Services Co-ordinator. It was also the most amazing place ever. My heart is broken that the Association has failed to invest in it, and keep enough reserves to keep it going. The Second World War didn’t close it, and despite bomb damage, it reopened with the support of the volunteers. So many youngsters came to us from London, having never slept in complete darkness, on the ground floor of a building, and never having seen a squirrel, rabbit, deer, fox or badger in real life. Some had never experienced walking in a muddy puddle, and a group of private school lads rolled in stinging nettles….they had never come across them before as they had gardeners at home. We have so many incredible memories, I am just so gutted that others will now not have the chance to make amazing Downe memories to carry them through life.
Does anyone have a couple of million to spare?