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Kench Hill: Kent centre that has welcomed thousands of Hackney schoolchildren turns 40

PUBLISHED: 12:14 18 September 2018

Kench Hill during the Second World War when it was a maternity hospital and officer's hospital. It is also where the War Ministry secretly sent unwed women serving in Armed Forces to have illegitimate babies, which were then adopted privately.

Kench Hill during the Second World War when it was a maternity hospital and officer's hospital. It is also where the War Ministry secretly sent unwed women serving in Armed Forces to have illegitimate babies, which were then adopted privately.

Archant

The name Kench Hill may not mean much to Hackney’s newcomers, but it might strike a chord with anyone who grew up here.

The official opening in 1979 with the mayor and mayoress of Tenterden Cllr and Mrs Robert Cruttenden; mayoress of Ashford Cllr Gillian Mills, Mayor of Hackney Cllr Betty Blomfield and centre warden Owen John. Picture: Kentish ExpressThe official opening in 1979 with the mayor and mayoress of Tenterden Cllr and Mrs Robert Cruttenden; mayoress of Ashford Cllr Gillian Mills, Mayor of Hackney Cllr Betty Blomfield and centre warden Owen John. Picture: Kentish Express

Over the last four decades, more than 40,000 youngsters from the borough’s schools have jumped on a coach with classmates and teachers and headed 55 miles down to Tenterden in Ashford, Kent, for a change of pace.

The 18th century red-brick building was bought by the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) for £52,000 in 1977 to offer inner-city schoolchildren the chance to experience life outside the capital.

There had been a house and farm on the land for centuries, and it was once gifted to King Henry VIII, who later passed it on to local royalists.

Later it was used to grow hops, and it is thought families from Hackney would have stayed there while visiting to pick hops.

Hackney pupils feeding the Kench Hill lamb in the 1990s.Hackney pupils feeding the Kench Hill lamb in the 1990s.

When ILEA bought the building its most recent use was as a nursing home and it cost another £50,000 to renovate it.

It was opened by then-Hackney mayor Cllr Betty Blomfield, who joined the mayor and mayoress of Tenterden and the mayoress of Ashford at the centre to cut the ribbon. It was then run by Owen John, who lived in the coach house, and the first school he welcomed was the Shoreditch School.

Earlier this month Kench Hill turned 40, and Stoke Newington’s Benthal Primary School – a longstanding affiliate – attended the party at the centre.

To mark the occasion the Gazette caught up with Sandi Bain, who has been manager for the last 14 years.

Staff from Benthal Primary School share the celebration at Kench HIllStaff from Benthal Primary School share the celebration at Kench HIll

“It’s been part of Hackney for a long time,” she said. “Originally it was mainly secondary schools coming and doing traditional stuff like geography and biology.

“They sold it, amid government cuts, to Hackney Council in about 1987.”

With the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988 secondary schools found it difficult to get away for a week, so the focus shifted to primary school kids, who would go down Monday to Friday during term time to take part in outdoor educational activities.

These days it is used to teach children how to grow, harvest and cook their own healthy food, as well as providing trips to the seaside for children with a range of special educational needs and disabilities.

Under ILEA it was fully funded and pupils didn’t have to pay a penny. Later Hackney Council funded children who were in receipt of benefits.

The town hall funding continued, though gradually declined, right up until April this year, when it was pulled due to crippling government cuts to its budget.

The centre is now run solely on private funding and donations made to operators Kench Hill Charity, which staff formed 10 years ago so they could generate their own income.

Sandi said: “The council is very productive in looking after the property and we have a lot of support. The former mayor Jules Pipe used to come here often.”

Trips are now being funded out of the charity’s reserves, but that is not sustainable.

In order to continue as a place for Hackney’s schoolchildren to experience a change of gear, it needs outside investment, and fast.

Even, Sandi says, if businesses or generous donors want to sponsor individual pupils.

“We hope to continue serving the people of Hackney for many years to come,” she said. “The centre is a wonderful venue for groups and for special events – school reunions and even wedding receptions.

“We are seeking sponsorship for bursaries to support pupils who cannot afford to pay the cost of a residential trip with their classmates.”

Annie Gammon, director of education and head of Hackney Learning Trust, said she too wanted to see as many Hackney children as possible having access to the countryside and space offered by the leafy Kench Hill Centre.

“It is a great facility for the young people in our community,” she added.

“I congratulate Kench Hill on their anniversary and look forward to seeing many more years of excellent provision.”

Did you go to Kench Hill as a child? What are your memories of the centre? Get in touch with the Gazette at sam.gelder@archant.co.uk or 020 7433 0104. Anyone wanting to donate or fund the charity’s work can contact Sandi on 01580 762073.

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