Sam Farmer’s Hope Project takes its first group of young Merseysiders for a week of outdoor challenges, after arsonists caused £75,000 damage. John Appleby reports.
It is fair to say that for Liverpool-born Sam Farmer and his family, the year is winding down relatively peacefully, compared to how it began.
Sam, who is 46, represents something of a rarity in the world of UK rock climbing: black man in what is still,overwhelmingly a white middle class activity.
Born into large mixed race family in Liverpool 8, better known to the wider world as Toxteth, he was one of 15 children in the household. It was a tough grounding for a young black man growing up in one of the country’s most deprived communities; a community which would explode into civil unrest in 1982.
At 15, Sam left home with all his worldly goods, which essentially consisted of his collection of vinyl soul records and a record player, in a shopping trolly and lived for a while in the bushes at Otterspool Promenade overlooking the Mersey. After setting up with a local biking fraternity for a while, his youthful wilderness years began to move in a positive direction when he discovered a love of the great outdoors. It proved an interest which prompted him to enrol on a self-funded training course as an instructor in mountain activities based in north Wales.
As a qualified instructor his career came full circle in 2007 when he bought a plot of land with a dilapidated workshop at St Agnes on the north Cornwall coast and founded ‘The Hope Project’. This is an outdoor activities charity aimed at allowing youngsters from similar inner city backgrounds to experience a variety of activities which included rock-climbing, kayaking, coasteering and horse riding.
After introducing hundreds of youngsters into the great outdoors, most of whom were referred by youth and charity groups back home in Liverpool, Farmer found things taking a sinister twist. Some locals in Cornwall objected to inner city youngsters spoiling their Doc Marten-esque white rural idyll and Sam and his artist partner Carla, began to suffer racist abuse and physical attacks. In one, a horse they owned was blinded; another involved rocks being hurled at the couple.
The level of abuse intensified over two years until it culminated in what Sam Farmer believes was a racially-motivated arson attack, the second within two months, which destroyed £70,000 worth of outdoor equipment and his partner’s art work. It is an incident which is still on the unsolved crimes books of Devon and Cornwall police. Shortly after the attack Sam went on record to say:
The fire has been a huge setback for us. My partner has suffered panic attacks and is unable to visit the site. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to run the project this summer but we are determined to get back on track. I’ve worked hard to provide deprived youngsters with recreational and aspirational activities.
Commenting on the positive impact his outdoor courses had had on its young inner city participants he added:
It’s a revelation when you have a youngster who’s at the end of a rope abseiling down a windy cliff and the force of nature is upon them. They’ll put their trust in you because you’re showing them something different. Now we’re living under a cloud and it’s important for me to continue to stand up for what I believe in.
After the case was publicised in the climbing community, the initial outrage and disgust was replaced by a huge groundswell of support and goodwill. An appeal was set up which generated much needed financial support; leading outdoor companies including Wild Country, Annapurna and Marmot, weighed in with equipment donations and top UK climber Johnny Dawes visited the site to offer his services.
With Sam and partner Carla rebuilding their dream literally brick by brick, their Hope Project took a significant step forward this week when it welcomed it’s first visitors since the arson attack. A Liverpool youth group came down and while staying in tepees and tents above the dramatic north Cornwall coast, had what was for the overwhelming majority of them, a first taste of the great outdoors.
For Sam Farmer, the experience was ‘a total blast’ He was not even perturbed when the temporary kitchen roof blew off in a gale as the volunteers cooked breakfast one morning.
As things stand, plans have now been submitted by the charity to build a stable block for horse and llama-trekking with changing rooms and a gallery within the structure. Provided planning permission is granted, most of the work will be carried out by volunteers who have been moved by the story.
For Sam Farmer, the road from Toxteth to Truro has offered as many peaks and troughs as the Snowdonia mountains where he gained his outdoor experience. For the time being, the Liverpool youngsters who visited the Hope Project this week have left him ‘frazzled but elated’. The journey continues.
John Appleby is a Liverpool-born artist and outdoor writer based in north Wales. He writes on art, rock climbing and conservation for the Footless Crow blogazine.
Photographs courtesy Sam Farmer.