Saturday mornings are for bacon sandwiches, nursing hangovers, weekend papers, and, as I recently discovered, Duke of Edinburgh practise expeditions.
You are likely to be familiar with the scheme, created in 1956 as a character building exercise “for boys”, requiring them to participate in activities neatly categorised into ‘skill’, ‘service’ and ‘sport’. Sure enough, the girls put themselves into the picture a few years later, all with the support of the Duke of Edinburgh himself.
Once participants are well rehearsed in yoga, tree felling and exotic pet care (or whatever combination of skills, services and sports we had chosen) it is time for the expedition, for which there is a practise and then the real deal. Anyone from 14-24 can enter themselves for the award, either through their school, youth club or through the Guiding and Scouting associations. I was in the latest batch of 3rd Hinchley Wood Guides Bronze Award recruits, so on a frosty November morning, my parents abandoned all plans of bacon fuelled paper reading hangover recovery (well, perhaps not the last part) and shipped us to the Surrey Hills so we could cover around 23km of ground, climbing a lot of metres and fend for ourselves under canvas for the night.
With lashings of enthusiasm, plenty of warm clothing and a trusty portable radio we set off on our first kilometre with all due pomp and circumstance.
The next 11km or so were a blur of blisters and bramble gashes until we finally arrived at our home for the night: Bentley Copse. We whipped out the gas cooker (Trangia, actually) for coffee and pitched our tent. It was beginning to get dark by this point, which obviously meant it was time for a meal, so we dug into our boil-in-the-bag rice, and an artificial, cylindrical, vegetarian ‘protein’. Perhaps best not to ask.
We huddled around the gas cooker for warmth, listening to Radio One’s Saturday night dance floor tracks in the November drizzle, before calling it a day and attempting to catch some sleep before the day ahead.
We awoke to carnage in the porch of our tent. The tent had leaked, and a small woodland mammal (a not-so-small badger the prime suspect) had visited, and ripped open our porridge packets, taken our emergency rations and left an awful mess. The Famous Five never had to deal with this.
Our sympathetic supervisor donated us her breakfast, after which we collapsed the tent in the pouring rain. Forgot to mention the torrential downpour in all the excitement over the badger. By the time we’d consumed our supervisor’s breakfast, a waterfall had begun to cascade over the edge of the car park and meander its way across the lower part of the site. Good news! We’d camped on the higher slope! Wet tent disassembled and strapped in its constituent parts to our soggy rucksacks, feeling rather chilly and a little worse for wear, we set off again on the wet Surrey Hills for our final 13km. We waded through mud and searched the horizon for footpath signs, meeting dog walkers and fellow hikers, asking us if “the Duke would be proud?”
Finally, before the sun set (and after asking directions at a Post Office, but let’s keep that one quiet) we reached our final checkpoint and collapsed into our parents’ cars, disturbing their Sunday afternoon plans of re-reading Saturday’s papers, using up the bacon and popping a few Aspirin.
Would the Duke be proud? Well, yes. I think he would.
If you’re interested in participating the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, you can visit the Award's website at www.dofe.org
Or, if you’d like to get involved through a local Guide or Scout group, look out for publications in your local area.