The Daily Telegraph - Château de la Baudonnière

13 May 2014, 11:55


Long before first light and at a time when the night owl was still in full cry, the children staying at Château de la Baudonnière were filing through the woods, torches in hands. They followed the path of the rushing river, clambered up the shadowy banks and, finally, as darkness gave way to dawn, arrived back at the château for a feast of coffee, croissants and more besides. For 12 wide-eyed young boys, it was a typically enchanting start to a day at this sporting activity-cum-educational centre near the Normandy coast. Maidwell Hall’s second most senior class - 10 and 11-year-olds - were in residence at the time of our visit.

They were there for a week; The Daily Telegraph for two very wet days. Had this been home, parents would have had no guilt whatever in leaving their offspring comfortably crouched over their computer games. This, though, was the Château de la Baudonnière and Ian and Sarah-Jane Wood, managers known to the children and everyone else as Woody and Sas, were oblivious to the conditions. The same applied to Andrew Caverhill, the master in charge. When one lad asked, with feigned nonchalance, if the evening’s rugby practice would be going ahead, the trio, all of whom are ideally suited to their posts, gazed upon him with incredulity. Why ever not?

The idea is that visiting schools combine morning lessons with afternoon activities including rock climbing, mountain biking, orienteering and kayaking, and educational trips to such places as the Normandy beaches or a local cider farm.

Though Maidwell Hall were doing other classes besides, most schools stick to French. The lessons are taken by the two full-time teachers, known as Sophie 1 and Sophie 2. The “Sophies” are local ladies who lace their language with laughter. “The level and variety of French taught by the château staff was just right,” came the end-of-stay recommendation from St Albans High. In this environment, the children stretch themselves on all fronts. They do things they would never do at home. If, for instance, Henry Milnes-Bennett had advised his mother over breakfast, “I'm going canoeing in the rain and intend to capsize”, his mother would presumably have given him the modern equivalent of a cuff about the ears and told him not to be so stupid.

At the chateau, Henry did the canoeing and the deliberate capsizing, the latter being part and parcel of the training given by Woody. Like his wife, this former marine has every conceivable qualification for this type of work. Stories of mud and water are splattered everywhere in the diaries the children update each night. “Alter our French lesson.” wrote Dominic Bryan, “we went for a run in the woods and my shoes got stuck in the mud and I enjoyed getting muddy.”

There was also a heart-warming item from the pen of one not normally noted for his fleetness of foot... “We were running down the beach and after I had passed six people, I said to myself I am doing quite well.” There was a weekend ahead in which the children would be billeted out - for a second time - with French families to practice their French conversation and get more of a feel for the country.

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