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Outdoor education centre celebrates 30 years of inspiring young people

PUBLISHED: 15:40 22 January 2019 | UPDATED: 15:43 22 January 2019

Former PE teacher Martin Read, who founded Hilltop Outdoor Activity Centre on the site of Sheringham Zoo 30 years ago.
Photo: KAREN BETHELL

Former PE teacher Martin Read, who founded Hilltop Outdoor Activity Centre on the site of Sheringham Zoo 30 years ago. Photo: KAREN BETHELL

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A pioneering Norfolk outdoor education founded by a former high school PE teacher is celebrating thirty years of providing top class residential trips to school groups from all over the country.

Sue Read and her daughter-in-law Helen on the super swing at Hilltop, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Picture: Ian BurtSue Read and her daughter-in-law Helen on the super swing at Hilltop, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Picture: Ian Burt

Hilltop, which was built on the site of the former Sheringham Zoo in 1989, was the idea of Martin Read, who, in his job as head of PE at Blyth Jex School, Norwich, noticed the positive impact that learning outdoors had on children, particularly those who were failing academically.

“A lot of my time was spent on pastoral care and, taking a group of around 15 of the more disadvantaged children on field trips, I began seeing the effect a few days away could have,” he explained.

The 16-metre-high Air Jump at Hilltop, Sheringham.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYThe 16-metre-high Air Jump at Hilltop, Sheringham. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Keen to give more youngsters similar opportunities, in 1988, he hit on the idea of opening a residential centre and teamed up with his wife Sue and two of his five brothers to buy a 10 acre site consisting only of a three-bedroomed house surrounded by grassland, woodland and a clay-covered waste tip.

Over the following eight months, the brothers set to work transforming the land, adding a swimming pool, building an annexe with bedrooms, games room, toilets and showers and creating attractions including a zip wire, an assault course and an archery area.

The climbing wall at Hilltop Outdoor Activity Centre, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
PHOTO: ANTONY KELLYThe climbing wall at Hilltop Outdoor Activity Centre, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

The centre finally opened in April 1989, with a group of nuns bringing around 15 youngsters from Ipswich School for Girls.

Over the following years, the Read family embarked on a major expansion programme, buying a further 16 acres of land and adding lodges, a gym, and activities ranging from a tree top trail and a double zip wire, to a climbing maze, a giant swing and a 16-metre-high ‘air jump’ tower.

Archery at Hilltop Outdoor Activity Centre, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
Photo: Bill SmithArchery at Hilltop Outdoor Activity Centre, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Photo: Bill Smith

Now able to accommodate nearly 200 people, the centre, which last year saw the completion of a £250,000 investment programme, has 50 staff and prides itself on being a family-run business with an emphasis on learning through activity.

Since handing over the Hilltop reins to son Oliver and daughter-in-law Helen six years ago, Mr Read, 68, has continued to work at the centre in an advisory role.

“I am incredibly proud of what we do here,” he said. “It is a family business that has given me a lifetime of interest, I know that every child who comes to Hilltop takes something positive away and I am delighted to be able to leave that for the future.”

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