By Shahab Mossavat – 8th April
My first impressions upon waking are about how golden the early morning light is, and how much my body aches. I feel I am discovering (and experiencing) muscle groups and ligaments I previously hadn’t known existed.
After a first day that was described as a ‘gentle introduction’ to what Outward Bound has to offer, I am genuinely struck with fear at the prospect of what lies ahead: A one-mile canoe, followed by a five mile hike with full packs to an overnight camp. However, the thought of the young people from Phoenix and how much more daunted they must be feeling by these new surroundings, helps me take a more sober perspective. I decide, I must show no sense of foreboding.
Once, on the water and with some instruction behind us, I soon forget my physical discomfort; the pleasure of being on Ullswater takes over. We paddle sometimes gently, sometimes with gusto. My partner is Mohamediid, who is a brilliant young man with an ever-ready smile. Mohamediid is also very driven. Several times on our journey across the water he asks me if we can win. Gauging my own inexperience and inability to put too much in, I temper my comments, by counselling him on the virtues of being patient, and picking your battles. Finally, just before we reach our destination – the quaintly named Kailpot Bay – (quite by accident) I discover the proper paddling technique, and Mohamediid and I are able to reach the beach first; a fact that makes the statuesque young man feel six feet tall. After a packed lunch, we leave our canoes on the sands. They will be collected later by Muir (the other group from Phoenix High), who are on a different circuit this morning, and moving in the opposite direction from our group – Arkless.
Now we are heading up steep hills and slipping down wet sheer slopes, and sometimes walking in lush green fields, always punctuated by the dead and drying bracken and gorse on top. The air is fresh, but not cold, and I feel my breaths coming hard and fast. I am intensely alive and happy. As an adolescent I was in the Scouts, and later I joined the Territorial Army. Being here reminds me of days that seemed far behind me.
At about 3pm we cross paths with Muir, and I see Craig. Craig is not well. He has a stomach complaint, a symptom of an illness he brought back with him from Africa, last week. It has flared up again, and he is feeling quite a lot of pain. He asks me how far we are from the OB centre. He is shocked by the news that Howtown is at least two hours away.
Arkless press on. We pass through Hallinhag Wood: The surviving remnant of the last naturally-seeded oak wood in Britain. We learn about how invasive species like the copper beech have been introduced and slowly suffocated native species like the slow-growing oak and Scots’ Pine. Just as the larger, more aggressive Grey Squirrel has done much to see off the indigenous Red Squirrel species. Now, though naturalists are fighting back and helping native species to reclaim their natural heritage. Once again, fauna and flora that our ancient forebears would recognise are being given a chance to reassert their claims. On our path, we see a dead bough that now serves as a woodpecker’s dwelling, and carvings on a silver birch 1915, suggest tales of forlorn lovers being ripped apart by a soldier’s departure for war. In these woods these stories are kept alive and retold, by trees that grow tall.
In the late afternoon, we pass the village of Sandwick, which our very experienced instructor Henry (pronounced in the French style – Henri – for our amusement) informs us is enunciated: Sann-ick. I think of as many idiosyncratically spelled English family names, as I can, to tease and test; the best of which has to be Featherstonehaugh; I think I’ll leave that one for you to work out.
At the bridge just outside Sandwick we play Pooh Sticks, and Uisdean proves how competitive he is. He spends a good five minutes selecting the right wooden branch, and his meticulous preparation is rewarded with a landslide (or should that be waterslide) victory; his stick is more like a barge, sailing elegantly through, as everyone else’s crude crafts bobble incongruously from side-to-side.
The walk to camp is all uphill, and the packs begin to weigh us down. As we struggle on our ascent, Kyah, one of the two girls in Arkless has an asthma attack. It is amazing to see how cohesive a group we have become, as everyone goes into auto-mode to look after her. A dose of her steroid spray helps Kyah recover her composure, but taking no risks, we decide to distribute the heavier items from her pack between us.
A further hour’s tramping brings us to Scalehow Beck at the foot of a hill and about a mile from our ultimate campsite on Scalehow, itself.
I have always loved camping and it doesn’t take me long to pitch my tent, a very bijoux one-man job. What I like most about being in the outdoors is the realisation of how tenuous our grip on the modern world is. Ironically, having abandoned my mobile phone two days ago, it is is here (at the heart of the wilderness) that I give in to the urge to reach back into the unnatural world of the city, where my wife and baby son are trapped, far away.
We collect water from the nearby stream; light the meths-fuelled camp stoves; and prepare our boil-in-the bag field rations. Seldom have I eaten a vegetable korma that tasted better. I can’t be sure if it’s the culinary brilliance of the kitchen from which this mighty meal came or just the hunger that has built up over the day, but for the experience it is as good as dining at Le Gavroche.
Now, we are walking up the hill towards an old abandoned slate mine; previously a source of great employment in the area, it is just another symptom of the industrial decline that is helping the area’s nature (slowly) reassert itself.
We continue on our ‘nightwalk’, although dusk hasn’t fallen yet. There is a distinct dewy chill in the wind, and rain can’t be far away. Climbing the steep slopes of High Dodd we reach several ridges, and now the summit. The world is ours; a table cloth pattern laid out beneath us, accentuated by the green-black gloam falling fast and spreading out from the lake. We lie back and peer into the sky. I crave silence, but for the youngsters this natural high gives them an energy that is irrepressible. They feel the need for the world to hear their voices and their life-affirming laughter.
On the descent down now, and I am talking to Denilson. His family are of Albanian origin, and Denilson tells me of the many challenges of being a youngster in a new country, growing up; the issues of identity; of respect; of making choices and selecting a path through life. Beneath his quiet, almost shy demeanour, I find Denilson to be a sensitive and reflective young person. He gives me a lot of hope. More and more as the day has gone on it is this optimism which marks my experience of being here.
As a company Gapuma decided to sponsor this school and these young people in particular, because by our judgement they would put to best use the opportunity. As I settle down in my tent, and with the rain starting to fall quite hard on the canopy, I think we chose well.