A visit to the original Gilwell Park, the happy land where it all began

gilwell-visit-2Honestly, the original Gilwell Park in London looks no different from any other field. Sure, the grass is green, the trees towering and the air clean. But put a normal civilian here, and they won’t see anything special.

Wood Badgers, though, aren’t normal civilians. They know Gilwell is no ordinary park. Even though most haven’t visited this particular spot in England, they’ve been back to Gilwell time and again.

The U.K. Scout Association’s Gilwell Park is where the first Wood Badge course was held in September 1919, and every course since has created its own Gilwell as a gathering place for adult leaders getting trained.

Last week my dad, a former Wood Badge course director, and I, a former Wood Badge troop guide, visited Gilwell Park as part of a weeklong personal vacation to England. (Personal meaning I paid for it, not BSA.)

Yesterday I told you about my visit with an editor who works for the U.K. version of Scouting magazine. Today, join me as I visit the original Gilwell Park and see Baden-Powell’s Wood Badge beads (which I’m holding above) and kudu horn.

Photos and lots more after the jump.

The original Gilwell Park

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When I took my first steps onto the grass at the original Gilwell Park, I couldn’t help but think of the people who had walked here before me.

This is a Scouting landmark, as significant to Wood Badge history as Independence Hall is to the history of the United States.

Having recently finished and staffed a Wood Badge course, my head instinctively played the “Back to Gilwell” song as we absorbed the site’s magic.

We even saw the famous Gilwell Oak tree, seen below. Early Wood Badge beads were made from Gilwell oak trees like this one, and you can purchase beads made from genuine Gilwell oak trees at the U.K. Scout Association’s online store.

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Elsewhere on the Gilwell grounds

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There’s more to see than just the field and tree. A free audio tour guided us around the U.K. Scout Association headquarters.

One stop was at a buffalo statue presented to U.K. Scouting by the Boy Scouts of America. It honors the Unknown British Scout who helped BSA founder W.D. Boyce, an American, find his way in the London fog. There’s a picture of it below.

The inscription reads: “Presented by the Boy Scouts of America to the Unknown Scout, whose faithfulness in the performance of his daily Good Turn to William D. Boyce in 1909, brought the Boy Scout movement to the United States of America.”

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Also at Gilwell Park you’ll find the White House, a 17th-century building that’s now home to 35 guest rooms and other meeting areas. The reason for the house’s name is obvious, and painters were even adding a fresh coat when my dad and I visited.

Anyone can stay there, and rates are good. Get details here.

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Another highlight: the Pigsty, a garden shed with a sagging roof where some of Gilwell Park’s founders slept in 1919. Read tons more history here.

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Inside the archives

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2015 update: Individual tours of the archives, like the one my dad and I were lucky enough to get, are no longer available to individuals. However, the team at the U.K. Scout Association will still open their doors to researchers and large groups wanting to get a tour.

The items belong in a museum, not on a shelf behind locked doors. That’s my one and only complaint from my visit to the U.K. Scout Association’s archives.

Behind those locked doors sit some fascinating pieces of Scouting history, including Baden-Powell’s Wood Badge beads.

I hope some day these items will find their way to a public space where Scouters and Scouts can see them. But Claire Woodforde, archivist for U.K. Scouting, knows that. The plan is for them to be on public display in the future.

Seeing B-P’s Wood Badge beads was incredible, and holding them was an even bigger thrill. Claire even told me to put them on, but I declined; I was afraid my extra-large head would stretch out the leather band and I’d be banned from Gilwell for good.

In the U.S., Wood Badgers who complete both parts of the course (the six-day training plus five ticket items) wear two beads. Staff members wear three, and course directors wear four. BSA pioneer William “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt wore five beads, an honor reserved for a Scout association’s official training representative.

But B-P, as he should, wore six. The only other person who may wear a sixth is the director of leader training at Gilwell Park.

Physically holding something that once belonged to B-P is pretty special, but Claire didn’t stop with the beads.

Next we saw the Kudu Horn, another symbol familiar to Wood Badgers. This one was used at the first Wood Badge course, Claire said.

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The virtual U.K. Scouting archives

Can’t make a trip to London any time soon?

All you need is a computer to peek into Scouting history. The Scout Association’s online archives take you back to the beginning, and Claire has curated online exhibitions that tell the astonishing story of Scouting.

As this year is the centenary of the beginning of World War I, this exhibition on Scouting during the first World War is especially relevant. Scouts provided ambulance service and even helped guard vital installations throughout Britain — unarmed, of course.

Elsewhere in London

Bits of Scouting popped up throughout our London visit. At the end of our self-guided tour through Westminster Abbey, we spotted a memorial to Lord Baden-Powell and his wife (they’re actually buried in Kenya). It was nice to see B-P honored alongside other great British figures.

A couple of days later, as we walked to the Natural History Museum, we came upon Baden-Powell House, seen below. This hostel and conference center in central London hosts Scouting and non-Scouting events. And it sells a few Scout-themed items.

A receptionist there told us the place is “a Scout magnet,” and they often get curious Scouters and Scouts entering to learn more.

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Thanks

Thanks to Claire, Matt Jones, and everyone at the U.K. Scout Association for letting us spend the day with them. Be sure to tell them I say hi if you make it to London.

And thanks to my dad for another great father-son Scouting experience. I hope we make it back to Gilwell some time soon!

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