It wasn’t really a week as Monday was a bank holiday spent investigating forests with the lovely Sharon and the little man who took the form of a very animated rucksack that kept going “baa badaa badaa badaa”, and “doyi doyi doyi doyi”.
Tuesday morning found me standing watching the island of Ailsa Craig forming in the mist with the smell of sea and diesel fumes around me and the percussion of an Irish ferry below my feet. A minibus was packed to the gills and we all headed for the Cumbrian Mountains in anticipation and apprehension of the expedition to come.
The first day of the expedition found the groups weary and slow on their feet. At this point I began to worry that their route selection did not meet their fitness. The instructor and I wandered by the paths to meet the groups and, once I discovered that he was a wilderness survival expert, I bombarded him with questions; “what’s this?” “and this?” “can I eat this?” We nibbled sorrel that still had the remnant of its spring apple skin flavour and he taught me how to taste the leaf tentatively in case I might make the deadly mistake of picking the leaf of a lords and ladies.
In the evening the sky was clear and I found a lonely student bivvying beside, instead of inside, his tent. Soon we were joined by the whole group and, when they should have been tired, they were learning to spot the big dipper, the pole star, Pleiades and the moons of Jupiter (with the help of my binoculars). The questions slowly turned from science, to religion, to philosophy and then back to the stars again. With all our heads swollen with difficult thoughts I drifted off down the path to my tent. I crawled into my bag and zipped up the tent before I realised my stupidity. Why spend the night under canvas when I could stare at the stars until sleep took hold. I lay with my head outside and watched some shooting stars and a few satellites as the sky turned. Eventually I fell asleep with a chilled face, then woke and retreated into my shell a few hours after that.
On the second day the groups seemed to find their mountain legs and speeded up a little. Near the end of the day, before leaving the group for a wild camp in a remote valley, the instructor encouraged me to join him in a run down the mountain. In fairness, it took little encouragement. With a steep gradient of a bracken coated valley below us I needed very little in the way of coercion. We ran, and I was reminded of the joy and fear of running in the mountains. A certain momentum is achieved and it felt like a kind of surfing of gravity and earth. As it was over a year since I had done any kind of running in the mountains there was a price to pay. The next day the pain began, and increased on the next, and the next, and the next. For days I walked normally uphill and on the flat, but hobbled like a cripple on even the most gentle of downhill gradients. Stairs required a steady grip on the hand rail and a measure of decorum to maintain a straight face.
The groups carried on their epic journey. I am not being flippant when I say that the expedition will have been the hardest thing they have ever done and will probably remain so for some time. On the third day they excelled themselves in terms of endurance and they encountered horrible grim weather in the morning and still summer sunshine in the evening.
On the final day we made them take the shorter foul weather route due to gusts coming from a risky direction. The groups did not get upset but instead whooped with joy at a few tiny kilometres being sliced off the total.
Just after lunch they arrived at the end. Exhausted, battle weary and in bits and pieces. They threw off their packs as they were curses and collapsed in the sunshine. In the morning they had dismal weather and they took on the appearance of drowned rats.
The next day I once again found myself on the Irish ferry passing Ailsa Craig. This time we were all tired and looking forward to home and civilisation. When we docked, we all shuffled down into the hull to fill the minibus for the final leg home. The door slid open and everybody drew back. It is hard to describe the smell of a minibus occupied by damp and dirty rucksacks and boots, and previously occupied with sixteen people for a very long journey. All I can say is that we all made a shocked noise in unison that we all understood without the need for any kind of language.
I poured myself through the front door on Sunday evening and the lovely Sharon fed me stew that my father had made and I had just enough time to hold, feed, and put to bed, the little man. The week had been a busy one and a difficult one. Not the walking, the camping, or the sleeping on a one inch thick mattress that seemed to float on a bed of mud. No, the hard part was being away from home and missing the little man and I told him this as he fell asleep and muttered “doyi doyi doyi doyi”.