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. The best part is you don’t have to be a magazine editor or blogger to see these pieces of Scouting history.

Photos and lots more after the jump.

The original Gilwell Park


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.


Elsewhere on the Gilwell grounds


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.”


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.


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.


Inside the archives


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.

In the meantime, she’s happy to take anyone into the archives as long as they give her a few days notice. An archives visit isn’t a privilege reserved for BSA professionals. Contact her at claire.woodforde@scouts.org.uk, and you’ll see she has a passion for Scouting history that she’s eager share.

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.


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 out more.



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!



32 thoughts on “A visit to the original Gilwell Park, the happy land where it all began

  1. Anyone interested in seeing “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt’s five-bead Wood Badge necklace can find them at the 2015 Centennial National Order of the Arrow Conference at Michigan State University. They will be on display at the GEO (the NOAC museum) together with an incredible exhibit of OA and Scouting memorabilia.

  2. I’m going for Wood Badge this summer. This was a great article. I hope to make it over there some day to see it all first hand with my Son.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Bryan. I had similar feeling when we vacationed in Kenya and visited Baden Powell’s gravesite, the museum at the cemetary, and Powell’s home at the Outspan in Nyeri. I too, had to think of all those that had gone before me. The home is a scouting museum which is free if you wear your scout uniform (which we did). Both the home and gravesite has worldwide visitors. Yes, I too, took lots of pictures.

  4. I had the joy of visiting Gilwell a few years ago with my wife when we went to London. Claire was awesome and walked us around on a private tour. We saw older scouts try and float on two different style boats they had lashed together. (One group got very wet!) The little “lake” had been created by one of Hitler’s bombs in WWII. We got to tour the museum and see all the artifacts there as well. One shock was that BP was a very accomplished water color painter and has several pictures around the white house. An amazing man. An amazing legacy. It was a priviledge to walk the trail to Gilwell.

    John – NE IV-75-38, Good Old Bear

  5. I encourage Scouters who find themselves in London to visit Baden Powell House and to travel out to Gilwell. My wife and I usually stay a couple of nights at BP House (great location with easy access to transportation). And, our two visits to Gilwell have been memorable.

  6. I was there a week before you and like you, I had a great time. I wish I had known about Claire and the archives, but there was still plenty to see.

  7. My set of four beads is from the Gilwell Oak. They were presented to me last summer on the night before my course began which also coincided with my birthday. My husband (QM for the course) had been working for quite a while to pull off such a meaningful surprise!

  8. Your description of the storage arrangements for a few wooden beads at Gilwell Park perfectly describes the status of almost the entire archive/collection at the National Scouting Museum in Irving, Texas. “On a shelf behind locked doors” perfectly describes our BSA archive. Do you not see the brazen hypocricy in the exhibit suggestion that you made to Claire Woodforde of the Scout Associaton in Great Britain?

    • The National Scouting Museum does have more in its archives than it could ever display for the public, but the difference is they do have things on display that anyone can see.

  9. Reblogged this on The Scoutmaster Minute and commented:
    Fantastic post from Bryan from the Scouting Magazine Blog. For those of us that love Scouting and the Wood Badge experience, we can follow along with Bryan as he takes to Scouting’s Mecca.
    Great article Bryan, thanks for sharing.
    Have a Great Scouting Day!

  10. Spend a couple of nights in the B-P house-hostel in 2011. It was very well located and a “great price” for a place to stay in London, if you can accept the hostel format. It is use by many school groups for overnight stays while touring London. As a 3 beader, I relished in the connection to BP.

  11. Wondering how The Hunger Games happened to use the Scout Sign as its hand symbol. Glad to see it, especially if it gives Scouting a boost. But I’m wondering if Scouting granted permission to use it—unless the Scout sign is public domain.

  12. Bryan – thanks for relating your trip to the origin of Wood Badge. I’m an Antelope [SR-1009] in Sugar Land, Texas. People who haven’t taken WB just don’t understand, but while reading your post, you get goosebumps (if you are a Woodbadger).

    Now, since the MacLaren tartan is legitimately accessible to you (you can actually become a Wood Badge member of the Clan MacLaren Society of North America (CMSNA) [ http://www.clanmaclarenna.org/ ]) when are you going to do an article on the appropriate kilt to wear to Wood Badge ceremonies?

  13. Great story Bryan. I was just there Feb 27 myself, in London on business and not sure when I went if I would have the free time to make the trip out there (tube, train, then cab and return). Needless to say, I was quite the envy of my wife (she is a fellow Beaver and completed Jack Furst’s course at Philmont) and many other WB Alumni from our troop (which has many). I didn’t know until that morning I would be able to go, so I turned up in dress shoes, slacks, and a sport coat. So not only did I return home with some Gilwell SWAG and some “backup beads” for both my wife and I, I brought back some Gilwell mud on my shoes too!

  14. I visited Gilwell last summer, while in London on a business trip. Didn’t get the behind the scenes archive tour, but there is still plenty to see.

    I found it interesting listening to BP’s grandson in the audio, and how he pronounces the name a bit differently than we usually hear American’s pronounce it. More like Pole.

    I just have one ticket goal left to finish between now and the end of August.


  15. My wife and I are going to going to London in September and I am already excited to visit Gilwell. I am a Beaver and two time course staffer. I will definetly be getting in toouch with Claire and a chance to see the archives. I am alsoa Scouting Heritage MB counselor and this experience will add considerably to my ability to inspire interest in our history. Thanks for the info Bryan.

  16. One of my most treasured memories and a highlight of a lifetime of Scouting was taking Wood Badge at Gilwell Park in 1969. I was age 20, attending Stanford-in-Germany for 6 months, and had a 3 week break between quarters. I had petitioned the National Office in New Brunswick for permission to attend Gilwell, and just days before I was to leave for London I got a call from Gilwell welcoming me. I camped with Scout leaders from England, Ireland and Scotland as well as Kenya and Hungary (where Scouting had just been able to re-imerge). The orienteering hike that ended at the local pub was unusual for this American Scouter. The others even enjoyed my American cooking. My beads were presented the following summer at a campfire at Camp Oljato (Stanford Area Council) where I was the program director.

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