Is it possible to have a great weekend even though a zillion things go wrong? Apparently the answer is yes, as I found out this weekend.
Way back about a year ago, when school first mooted the idea of an enrichment programme every Friday afternoon to give our students, many of whom are from a disadvantaged background, a bit of, well, enrichment in their lives I jumped at the idea of getting involved with a Duke of Edinburgh Award group. We had over 80 students interested, as well as several members of staff. It was a logistical nightmare, but bit by bit, we got everyone registered, sorted out activities, arranged funding, got parental permission slips signed and gathered relevant medical information. I tried to organise a series of archery lessons for one group of students, but we ended up going climbing instead. They did this over 6 months and all got their level 1 and 2 NICAS awards.
School then decided that the whole idea of enrichment was way too expensive (I suppose I can see their point) and pulled it. Of course, Duke of Edinburgh is not just a one term only activity and some of these kids had made a serious commitment to see it through. They were getting a lot out of it and were devastated at the thought of not being able to continue. The lightweights dropped out and we were left with a (hard) core of 40+ students who really wanted to carry on.
Enrichment was pulled at the February half term which is halfway through the school year. During the first half of the year we’d concentrated on activities which would count towards the skill, physical and volunteering sections of the award. We’d planned from February onwards to run a series of first aid courses, and then focus on expedition skills e.g. navigation, camping skills, route planning, and so on. We also planned to get some Friday afternoon walks in to give them some actual walking experience. A couple of Saturday or Sunday walks out in the Peaks wouldn’t have gone a amiss either. As we no longer had Friday afternoons for enrichment, staff and students were all assigned other lessons. This meant anything to do with the Duke of Edinburgh had to take place after school during the week. This is usually how it would be run anyway, but as we hadn’t planned it this way, it threw everything into disarray and we didn’t get half of what we wanted to do done.
We split our students up into 2 rather uneven groups. The silver students are the older ones who had completed their bronze awards over the last year or two and had wanted to continue. There are only 8 of them. The other 30 odd of them are bronze award candidates who signed up when they had to choose an enrichment activity last year. We also have a few younger students (you have to be 14 or about to turn 14 to do the Duke of Edinburgh) who wanted to get involved. We thought it would be great for them to have a taster so they’d know what to expect when they’re a bit older and come to do the real thing, and so created a special school award that runs along the same lines but is a little easier.
This weekend was the first of our expedition weekends. We decided to take the silver group out first as we have to fit the practice and assessed weekends around their GCSEs. Also as it was our first expedition, having a smaller group of experienced students made a lot of sense.
So what are all the things that went wrong? Apart from us not being nearly prepared enough in the first place?
1) It snowed when we were supposed to recce the route and we weren’t able to rearrange it, so we were heading out on un-recced routes. Not ideal, but we didn’t anticipate any major problems.
2) We found out that we needed a BELA person at all times (BELA stands for basic expedition leader’s award) and not many staff have this particular qualification. I’m starting the course for it in September and my colleague, who has done most of the work for this expedition, won’t be doing her course until next month. So we had to go all out with our powers of persuasion, to powerfully persuade enough relevant people to ‘volunteer’ so we’d be covered all weekend. Job done. We had the people.
3) Two days before the expedition one of our BELA people dropped out. We flung a panic-stricken net far and wide to try to recruit anybody, ANYBODY, who could replace the missing person. Friends of friends of friends, passing acquaintances, anyone we thought might just happen to have a BELA qualification. No luck. Being bank holiday weekend, most outdoorsy, BELAy type people already had plans to be outdoors.
4) Two days before the expedition, but a bit later, another one of our BELA people was in hospital having surgery. We really didn’t want to cancel the expedition as, it being the GCSE season, we wouldn’t be able to rearrange it and our students would completely miss out. Cue massive hair-pulling, hand-wringing, head banging against wall session.
5) One day before the expedition our one remaining BELA person changed her time with us to cover both Friday and Saturday, and the hospitalised member said he’d be out and fit enough to cover Sunday. Big PHEWs all round.
6) On the day of the expedition, both my colleague and I were given covers to do during our free lessons. We were hoping to get away straight after period 3 at the start of lunch. As we’d lost our frees all the last minute getting together of gear and paperwork, getting ourselves changed, loading the minibus and Landrover, etc, just didn’t happen. So we ended up an hour late leaving.
7) Just before we left, my colleague thought she’d better double-check we really were insured to drive the Landrover which had been lent to us by the local authority Duke of Edinburgh people. Er, no. We’re not. As our school is an Academy, we are no longer covered by anything to do with the local authority. We couldn’t put all the luggage in the minibus with the students as there are safety requirements we have to abide by like not blocking the aisle or burying the students under mounds of backpacks. Isn’t it lucky I bought a van last year? So we transferred all the bags from the Landrover into my van.
8) I then had to go and get fuel which made me later at the rendezvous point than the minibus and so they’d all had to sit around waiting for me.
9) It was getting so late by this time that we decided to start the day’s walk 2 hours in and so drove to a layby where we could park my van and myself, my BELA colleague and the students started walking. The other two staff members took the minibus to the campsite.
10) Once we arrived at the campsite I had to get a lift back to my van to collect it. We were going to pick up a takeaway on the way back (for the staff; the students have to be self-sufficient and carry and cook all their own food). It took us quite a long time to get back to the van and we were finally on the way to Bakewell to get our takeaway when we got a tired and despondent phone call from our students. Their tents were up, they were unpacked, they were tired and hungry and ready to cook. But the meths for their camp stoves was on my van (as a safety precaution the fuel is the one thing we carry for them and just give them the amount they need when they are cooking). So we had to turn around and head back to the campsite so they could have a very late, but well-earned dinner.
11) The next day, started off rainy, but by the time we set off walking it had brightened up. I didn’t start the walk as we decided to take my van to the next campsite and leave it there and get us checked in at the same time. This would mean the students could go straight to our allocated sites and pitch their tents when they arrived rather than hanging about waiting for us to get them checked in. As we arrived there was a big notice at the front of the campsite saying no arrivals before 1pm. Then another notice saying ‘do not enter this campsite before the 1pm check-in’. So we entered and went to check in. We left the minibus part-way up the track and I drove down to the reception area to park up and deal with checking in and paying. The young guy behind reception was quite happy to get us checked in and for me to leave my van, despite the 1pm rule.
12) So far, so good. He opened his bookings book, checked his computer and … no sign of our booking. Thank goodness we’d come early. He was able to create a new booking for us and showed us where we could pitch our tents later on when we all officially arrived.
13) My colleague drove me out on the minibus to meet up with the walkers so I could walk with them for the rest of the day. For the final part of the walk we decided to let them walk on their own as this is what they will have to do the entire time on their assessed expedition. We drove round to a point where we knew they would have to cross the road and waited to see them. We waited and then waited a bit longer. It really shouldn’t take them this long. We finally spotted them walking along the road. They’d missed the turnoff for the footpath and so walked the long way round by the road. Minus a few points for missing the footpath, but full points for figuring out exactly where they were and working out an alternative route to get them where they needed to be.
14) That evening I came to put my stove on for only the second time ever. It’s a super-trendy stove bought for me as a present last year by my brother. As it was the end of the camping season when I got it, apart from checking it was working okay, this trip is the first time it’s been used. When I boiled water in the morning it was fine. It has an ignition switch that just needs pressing when the gas is on and it ignites automatically. No need for matches or a lighter. Great idea. I came to put it on in the evening and the ignition wouldn’t work. It just wouldn’t press in at all. Closer inspection showed the plastic switch had melted. So it was back to using a lighter. I’m not at all impressed as it was quite an expensive stove. I can feel a strongly worded email coming on. The area near the switch does get quite hot which is probably the problem. My brother has used one of these stoves for a long time and never had a problem with the ignition so this is probably just a faulty one. Hopefully Primus will do the decent thing and replace it for me.
15) Our students came to put their stoves on to cook their evening meal and asked for the meths. The meths had gone home with the teacher who’d been picked up by her husband an hour of two earlier. We broke the rules (it’s only a practice after all) and once the replacement teacher arrived, took them all into Bakewell so they could go to the chip shop.
16) By Sunday, our third day, the students were suffering. The lack of training was having an effect. We cut the route and part way through let them leave their backpacks in the minibus so they could finish it. This is something we won’t be able to do on the assessed expedition, so is a bit of a worry.
17) We climbed up to Monsal Head and met the minibus. The last part of the walk was along the Monsal Trail into Bakewell. We decided I’d get taken back to the campsite in the minibus to pick up my van and we’d meet the students at one of the disused train stations along the route to check they were still ok to finish the walk. They were fine and seemed a lot more cheerful now they were near the end. I came to reverse my van out of its parking space so I could drive to Bakewell, but nothing happened. After an awful lot of trying I finally got it to reverse. I then had a bit of a hair-raising drive into Bakewell in which, for some of the time, I was driving in neutral down a hill because I couldn’t get it to go into any gear. I followed the minibus into the car park in Bakewell and my gears went completely on me.
18) I had all the students’ backpacks and other miscellaneous camping gear in my van and so we really needed to get it back to school. Especially as it’s a bank holiday and so it will be Tuesday before I see them again and if my van is in the garage being fixed it could be even later than that before I can get their stuff to them. I called Greenflag and they said someone should be with me within the hour. We needed to get the students back so we unloaded the van and they took everything they thought they’d need into the minibus with them. It was probably too much to be strictly legal but not as piled high as it could have been.
19) The Greenflag man arrived at the car park well within the hour but then took about another half hour to get to me. It’s a massive car park and was chocca with stationery vehicles (and I don’t mean the parked ones) trying to get out. Bakewell is busy at the best of times, so on a bank holiday and with a funfair just up the road it was a nightmare.
20) The Greenflag man was very nice and soon figured out the problem. He wasn’t able to do a proper repair as it needs a part, but he said he would try to do a ‘bodge job’ (his words) so I could get home safely. If he had to tow me it would have cost around 100 quid. Cable ties came to the rescue and he spent over an hour securely tying numerous of them onto my dodgy gear linkage to hold it in place so I could drive again. As I drove home the gears actually felt better than they had done before, so thank you very, very much Warren for your bodge job. He’s also told me the part should only cost about £15 and take about an hour’s labour to fix. As I had visions of £100 towing fee plus a new gear box, you can imagine how relieved I was to hear this.
21) Once home, a lot later than expected, I had to empty the van into my house. I can’t leave anything in it overnight as one of the problems of living in a dodgy area is car thieves will break into a car if there’s a much as an old carrier bag left in it. My living room now contains, amongst other things, enough tents to start my own branch of Go Outdoors, several packets of teabags, some random socks and two guitars.
So was it a successful weekend? I think so, as despite all the obstacles and problems we overcame them and still managed to enjoy ourselves and fit in plenty of laughter. I’m looking forward to the next three expedition weekends and to doing my BELA. Once I’ve done that, I’ll feel a lot more confident to start working towards my actual walking group leader’s qualification.