The Girlguiding activity centre at Glenbrook is a familiar sight to anyone who regularly drives along the busy road snaking through the Hope Valley in Derbyshire. The Toblerone form of the centre’s purpose-built dormitory block has become something of a local landmark.
The five activity centres across the country are historic sites that have been part of the Girl Guides movement for more than a century. They are also available for hire by the public and other organisations. Glenbrook itself is extremely popular as a base for those doing a Duke of Edinburgh expedition.
Thousands of girls and young women have made memories and friends at the centres, as well as developing leadership, teamwork and community skills. The closures will affect the range of activities that can be offered by Girlguiding and is a particular blow for those girls who missed out on activities during the pandemic.
The Guide Association was founded in Britain in 1909. Its focus is what drives, challenges and excites girls. Its slogan: “We help all girls know they can do anything.”
For the hundred and fourteen years of its existence, the organisation has navigated – generally successfully – the often treacherous line between the traditional and the modern. This term, my daughter has explored Chinese culture, earned her Zero Waste badge and thrown a Coronation tea party for us parents. The Guide promise now encompasses those of all faiths and even those who have no faith while, on Remembrance Sunday, the uniformed girls stand respectfully by the local War Memorial to listen to The Last Post.
The weekly meetings nurture the crucial but often undervalued skills of teamwork, mutual respect and the joy of community participation.
Twenty million pounds
The organisation says that, over the last decade, only 10% of all Girl Guides have used the centres, as leaders, girls and parents increasingly choose experiences closer to home.
It also says that the centres suffer from chronic underinvestment and would require £20m to refurbish them to an adequate standard. That is £20m that Girlguiding says it does not have and cannot afford.
Girlguiding reasserts that, “Adventure […] remains a priority for us. We will keep giving girls opportunities to experience adventure within their units, near their home, and in other locations and facilities.”
Proceeds from the sale will go into an investment fund to support Girlguiding activities, adventure for girls across the UK, and to protect the future of the organisation.
A closer look
On closer inspection, the announcement doesn’t quite add up. There is no doubt that the pandemic must have dealt a significant financial blow to Girlguiding UK, as it did to so many organisations. Neither will the entrenched cost of living crisis be making things any easier.
However, Girlguiding’s annual statement for 2021 reveals that their finances are holding up; they are in a better state than in 2020.
It is also possible to question the statement that only 10% of Girl Guides have used the centres in the last decade. That decade includes two years when activity was significantly curtailed by Covid and two years when local groups have been suffering under the hardest cost of living crisis on record. Is it therefore sensible to use recent history as a prediction of future activity?
Members have expressed their dismay at the lack of transparency and member involvement. They are also concerned that other approaches do not seem to have been considered. Why not, for example, sell off just one centre to finance the refurbishment of the other four?
I put these questions to the organisation. Their only response so far has been to reiterate the announcement already on the website.
Focus on Glenbrook
At Glenbrook, the reasons put forward for its closure make little sense.
For Girl Guides – and indeed Boy Scouts and Duke of Edinburgh hopefuls – the centre is the best option in the area for an affordable field trip. It also has accessible facilities and is relatively flat so it works for wheelchair users where many other places don’t. As well as weekend camps, it is used a lot for daytime and evening activities such as bushcraft and pioneering.
I spoke to Charlotte Farrell, a Green Party borough councillor for the Hope Valley. She told me that the centre is booked out every weekend in the year. From Easter to October, it gets booked up throughout the week too. Many of the young people who come to Glenbrook live in the nearby towns and cities that encircle the Peak Park. The centre is their gateway to the Peak District and for some, it provides their first chance to immerse themselves in the beauty and the benefits of nature.
Neither has Glenbrook suffered from chronic underinvestment. The drainage for the site and the toilet facilities in the camping block have all been significantly upgraded. If the site is closed, that investment is just money wasted.
Staff at the centre are now at risk of redundancy. For the manager, it is worse than that. She lives on site and will be losing not only her job but her home.
Sign the petition
Supporters all over the country are backing a campaign to save the centres. A national petition launched on ChangeUK has so far attracted nearly 27,000 signatures. Girlguiding leaders and prominent local people are speaking out. As one supporter expressed it on social media, “we will not go down without a fight.”
You can sign the petition here.