RIVER DART COUNTRY PARK – OVERCOME THE FEAR
Sometimes in life, all you need to do is venture a short distance off the beaten track and it is amazing what wonders you can find. By way of an example, just a mile or so off of the A38 between Exeter and Plymouth, near the quaint town of Ashburton, lies the award-winning River Dart Country Park. Nestled within ninety acres of stunning Dartmoor parkland, it is one of Devon’s most loved tourist attractions and campsites – packed full of activities and experiences for people of all ages.
One morning, earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to find myself there having been invited to meet their General Manager, Roger Sell. Little did I know, but I was about to meet not only a real character but a thoroughly nice chap.
Originally from Dorset, Roger was born in Bournemouth and lived in Weymouth for much of his childhood. After leaving College, he decided that he wanted to be a Search and Rescue Helicopter Diver, working in the Royal Navy. However, within months of Roger choosing this career path, the closure of the Navy base in Portland was announced and he had a difficult decision to make – either move away to continue his Royal Navy training or stay in Weymouth where he had grown up and where his friendships and support network were based.
After much rumination, Roger decided to stay in Weymouth and he enrolled in a one-year GNVQ Intermediate course in Outdoor Leisure at a college in nearby Dorchester. This course helped Roger to utilise his love for the outdoors whilst also acting as somewhat of a stop-gap whilst he considered his future.
Not surprisingly, he enjoyed both the physical and educational elements of the course and one of his fellow students recommended another similar course at Duchy College in Cornwall. So, Roger attended a selection weekend there, cancelling a climbing expedition on Mont Blanc in order to be able to attend. Even at relatively young ages, there are momentous decisions that we all make which have a bearing on our future direction and purpose. This proved to be one such decision for Roger.
He was selected to attend the college and achieved an NVQ Level 2 in Outdoor Activity Leadership, a course which included work experience at a huge kids outdoor activity centre on the Isle of Wight called Superchoice (more recently renamed to PGL). Roger worked there for a Summer, completed his course and, in the process, fell more in love with the outdoors and the tourist industry than ever before. To put it simply, Roger was a happy camper!
With a desire to continue learning and to get a well-rounded knowledge and experience of the industry, Roger then moved to Pembrokeshire and worked a season at Sealyham Activity Centre. Here, he continued to fan into flames his love for the outdoors, and the ability to use those outdoor environments for educational and developmental purposes. This particular placement also gave Roger the opportunity to start learning the ropes of the business side of this industry. He commented,
“At Sealyham, I learned how to deliver excellent outcomes for the people using our services, whilst also looking after the bottom line too. It is surprisingly hard to do both. A great experience and a great business don’t always go hand in hand, so I learned to think as both an Outdoor Activities Instructor and businessman.”
By this point, Roger had met and married his wife Clare who also had forged a career in Outdoor Activities. They moved away to Nottingham and found temporary work to tide themselves over, Roger ending up working in a chemical factory which handled harmful chemicals and then supplied large companies such as Sony with them for use in the manufacture of TVs. He worked his way up within the company quickly and eventually became a driver for them, transporting important global delegates from the nearby East Midlands Airport directly to the nearby Sony factory where he would give them a personal guided tour.
One day, Roger got home from a particularly long day at work and said to himself, “What am I doing? I’ve headed down a completely different career path and this isn’t what I want to do with my life at all!”. So, after seeing a job advert for seasonal instructors at River Dart Country Park, Roger and Clare relocated one final time to Devon and haven’t looked back since.
They embarked on yet more training, to continue their professional development and progress in their careers but, due to seismic changes in legislation around outdoor activities, insurance premiums started to sky-rocket for providers like River Dart Country Park. So, Mark Simpson (owner of the business) decided that there was a need to consolidate and focus on their core business – mainly the campsite. This decision also meant the closure of the outdoor activities side of the business for a short time, which lead to the redundancies of Roger and some of the other staff associated with that side of the operation.
Roger took stock of his situation but couldn’t turn his back on the career in outdoor activities and education that he had worked hard at. So, he started his own business called CRS Adventures which he planned to turn into a specialist outdoor education business, particularly focusing on canoeing and kayaking trips in the local area.
In a turn of fate, one of the school residentials who had been booked with River Dart Country Park slipped through the net, so to speak, and weren’t notified of the closure of the outdoor activities part of the business. So, with just three weeks’ notice, Mark asked Roger if CRS would be willing to carry out the residential activities as a one-off if River Dart Country Park could look after the accommodation and food side of things. This essentially gave Roger and Clare three weeks to set up a business – something that they managed to do, calling in just about every favour they could from friends and family. It was a close-run thing, but they just about managed.
At the end of the residential, Mark and Roger looked at each other and said. “Well, that actually went really well! Perhaps we could work together on a more permanent basis?”. As such, the relationship between CRS and River Dart Country Park was born – operating as two independent companies but working together.
After three successful years working like that, Mark approached Roger and suggested that, bearing in mind the quality of their working relationship and the success of their partnership, that Roger come and help run River Dart Country Park too. He gladly accepted and, after another couple of successful years, took on the full General Manager role in 2010. Roger expanded,
“Those two years before becoming General Manager were vital really. I still had a lot to learn, and that period of time acted as a great training ground for me to fill in the gaps that I had in my experience and become a much more well-rounded GM.”
Such has been the success and growth of River Dart Country Park since, that Roger now requires assistance from an excellent management team to run what is a complex and impressive business. Offering over twenty safe and fun outdoor activities for young children, all the way up to ‘Dare Devil Activities’ for older children and adults, such as High Ropes and Water Zorbing (basically climbing into an inflated ball, floating on a lake and trying to stay stood up!) River Dart Country Park really does have an activity for everyone. And that isn’t even mentioning the variety of offsite Adventure Days, including Caving, Rock Climbing, Canoeing and Kayaking – all carried out in the nearby Dartmoor National Park.
At this point in our conversation, I paused and commented to Roger how rare it must be for someone to have been made redundant and then been re-hired and promoted to the very top role in that very same organisation. With a look of both thankfulness and humility, Roger replied,
“Yep! It’s been quite the journey Joff and I’m loving it even more now than I did on that first day when I walked through the doors!”
To complement the outdoor activity business at River Dart Country Park, Roger told me about their thriving Campsite, Weddings and Corporate offering. He explained,
“The variety that we offer here is almost unheard of in this part of the country. Where else is delivering a week-long corporate adventure residential one minute, dealing with a family camping holiday the next and then switching into wedding-mode the next? It does mean that I have to think quickly on my feet and be very organised, but I also rely heavily on my amazing team… I couldn’t do it without them!”
“One of the most special and rewarding things about doing what we do, is that we are all about making memories. We cater for people from all over the country, from many different backgrounds and walks of life and a week away in the beautiful surroundings that we are able to offer will form important and memorable experiences for some. Add on top of that the fact that many of the activities we offer require people to deal with their fears and limits and it isn’t often that people come to River Dart Country Park and forget their visit in a hurry!”
And, in a world where there are increasing pressures on our mental health and wellbeing, activities which provide chances to grow in confidence, develop resilience, work with others and overcome fears are worth their weight in gold. Sure, it might not always feel positive in the moment when you are dangling off of a zip wire and screaming for your Mummy to come and rescue you, but you survive, you grow and you move on. It is all part of developing and becoming self-sufficient as a person and there are few better feelings than conquering one’s own fears.
“It has been scientifically proven that humans are born with only two innate fears – loud noises and falling. Everything else is conditioned and learned as we grow up. So, one of the world’s most common fears – the fear of heights – isn’t actually an innate fear. It is the fear of falling from that height that is innate. There are very common fears that come up doing what we do…the night time, dark spaces, new types of food, heights or water. They all feel very real, but they aren’t! Of course, as instructors, our job is to be empathetic and understanding of customers’ fears, but it is also our job to push them out of their comfort zone and try to work out ways of navigating around their fears.”
I asked Roger what he was scared of in life and, after thinking for a minute, he replied,
“Being really honest, I’m scared of failure. But, I’ve learned that I am able to put that fear to the back of my mind and, if I try 100% and give it everything, I’m able to push through and achieve my goals time and time again.”
Regulated by Adventure Activities Licensing Service, River Dart Country Park takes safety very seriously. Roger’s mantra (which he drills into his teams) is, “To make activities safe, fun and educational.” Roger continued, “Once safety and fun are established, the pathway to learning is open.”
Outside of his busy work life, Roger is father to three young daughters and sport plays a vital role in their family life. Whether football, badminton, cricket, white-water kayaking or mountain biking, the Sell family are usually up to some sort of physical activity or other.
As our time together came to a close, I left feeling inspired and motivated to tackle the things that make me anxious or cause me to feel fearful. From the hopes and dreams that I have for my children to my creative and professional goals, I came away feeling challenged to stare my fears straight in the face and tell them who is boss. Moreover, my time with Roger left a lasting impression on me to get out into the beautiful natural surroundings on my doorstep more often, take my kids with me and help them to grow in confidence, bravery and positivity.
Thank you Roger. That is a real gift to me and my family.
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