Ian Hughes
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Ian Hughes - Aberdovey, Wales, 1954

Course 141 Aberdovey 1954
I was in my penultimate year at my South London Grammar School when my father chanced to meet a neighbour who sat on the local council. I had spent the war years in rural Buckinghamshire and did not like London; I hankered after the open-air life I had enjoyed as an evacuee. My parents could not afford summer holidays and I usually spent at least four weeks at a school harvest camp, a relic of the war, working on farms in Hampshire. It paid for my first suit and a sports jacket and was where I expected to spend the summer of 1954.
The neighbour hold Dad that the London County Council had voted money to send deserving boys to the Outward Bound School but there appeared to be little interest in it. Try as they might they couldn't get boys to go. However if I were interested the neighbour would recommend me. I was very keen in boats and sailing of all kinds but London was a long way from the sea so my interest remained thwarted. When I learned there was a possibility to spend four solid weeks in Aberdovey I couldn't wait to apply. It was as if all the Arthur Ransom books I had ever read had suddenly come true! Amazingly the LCC paid, not only the fees, but even the rail fare to Aberdovey. When Brian, a school friend and keen scout, heard about it, he could hardly wait for the application forms. This was a time before package holidays, when comparatively few families took holidays for granted. By the time Brian had sent off his forms Aberdovey was fully subscribed so he went to Ullswater instead.
Aberdovey was a dream of a place for anyone more accustomed to bombsites. I found myself in Rodney watch and somehow was elected Watch Leader. At that time everything was organised in a very naval way; I suspect some things have become less rigorous. We had to assemble daily at seven o'clock and, depending on the state of the tide, either run down to the river for a dip, or when the tide was out, take a cold shower. I gather this is still the case but I note that, whereas we had to go everywhere at the double, the boys nowadays get bussed to and from the Quay. (Perhaps this is due to the fact that courses are shorter and time is of the essence, or, maybe, the traffic now represents a danger).
As Watch Leader it was my responsibility to ensure we arrived everywhere on time - and at the double, as well as to organise group activity. Needless to say this required considerable diplomacy since the Watch Leader could be voted out by his watch-mates at the end of each week. At the same time there was a daily competition between each watch based on the day's performance, the winning watch having its flag hoisted to the top of the flagstaff. Behaviour in the town on our way to and from activities was an important factor; being caught walking, being late, or meandering about, involved immediate point deductions. I seem to remember we had our flag hoisted up the flag-pole at least once, if not more, though how I managed not to be voted off I'll never know, especially since a recent visit to the school revealed a draft of my final report that suggested a tendency to 'bossyness', a comment I'm glad was redacted from the final report.
In those days the course included an option to join the school fire brigade. This meant training in the use of a mobile fire pump. Normally it might have been a rather tame experience but the school received great praise that summer when a lone yachtsman became stranded on a sandbar. His yacht was in grave danger of becoming waterlogged on the next tide before it regained sufficient buoyancy to float - in other words it would have been lost. The school fire brigade was summoned in the middle of the night and the pump was duly loaded into a boat. They pumped out the boat in complete darkness until it could be floated off and brought ashore.
A canoe course running simultaneously with ours achieved less welcome publicity. Lifeboats had to be launched when a number of boys found themselves being swept out to sea on a strong ebb tide. I think local media reported both incidents and I was quite proud to be there even if I took no part in either of them.
A highlight of the course was the final expedition - a thirty-five mile trek that included three peaks. None of us believed we would make it when it was announced on the opening day. We were assured that by the last week we would have built up sufficient stamina and, sure enough, we did. There was too a two day trek, staying at a mountain lodge, which took in Cadir Idris. It may have been summer but I can assure anyone not acquainted with Snowdonia that it can rain there like nowhere else - I include West Africa. Frequently the easiest way down a mountain was simply to walk down the stream. Army surplus boots were standard attire and no match for mountain bogs. No boots were waterproof in those days.
It wasn't all hard work. Once a week the watch was allotted the task of manning a lifeguard station on the beech for the benefit of holidaymakers. We seemed blessed with very good weather on these days and were, of course, much admired by the local talent. I remember that two girl campers from the West Midlands actually returned the following week on their bikes but I was very inexperienced and, anyway, dared not flout school rules by arranging meetings after hours which hardly allowed any leisure anyway. There was more or less a lockdown after evening lessons.
Without doubt my greatest thrill was work in the boats. Whenever the wind was inadequate for sailing we rowed the cutters across the estuary, making no headway whatsoever against the strong Dovey tides, and not infrequently running aground hundreds of metres from shore. So accustomed were we to the drill, which entailed one of our number jumping over the bow to push us off, that on more than one occasion an over-eager boy jumped over the wrong side and disappeared beneath the waves accompanied by hoots of laughter from the rest of us. Did I mention that the course was all male? I wonder how we would have coped in a mixed group.
I was fortunate enough to be there at a time when the school had a ketch named the Golden Valley. She was, as I remember it, a converted fishing boat and used to take each watch, in turn, on a two-day voyage down the coast. It can only ever have rained when we were in the hills because our voyage across Cardigan Bay was made in glorious sunshine. I read in my report that the weather was light to moderate, which necessitated use of the engine for some of the trip. It was the first time I ever saw dolphins, (they may have been Porpoises), accompanying us across the waves. A magical experience! Best of all, while almost out of sight of land, we swam in the bluest and warmest water I can remember off the British Isles. Diving off the cabin roof will never be forgotten. Health and Safety? It never inhibited us but would they do it now?
Somewhere I have a faded miniature print, taken with someone else's Kodak camera, of three of us standing beside a mountain stream. Few of us could afford cameras then. It measures no more than two by two inches and is my only tangible record of what was a truly wonderful experience. I played a lot of rugby in those days and reckoned myself pretty fit. The athletics were not a problem, the exception being high jump, my performance in which robbed me of an honours badge. The first attempt at road walking reduced most of us to hoots of laughter since it was new to everyone, but at the end of the course, a second attempt produced better, if unimpressive, efforts.
I returned home to complete my last year at school thoroughly uplifted. Having caused something of a stir by refusing to join the school cadet corps, (supposedly compulsory) I accepted the rules and discipline of Outward Bound without any question because, unlike the cadet corps, there was a point to it all and there was no bullshit. And how I loved it! When, a year later I joined the army to do National Service, I applied for, and eventually got a commission, something my school's colonel ensured me I would never get without Cert A. I'm pretty sure my OB experience played a major part in this. It certainly helped in job interviews later on. Every boy I met at Outward Bound accepted the rigours and rules with only the minimum of complaints, even though few of us were used to the tough demands made of us. For my part I learned lessons of teamwork, leadership and endurance that have stayed with me and held me in good stead throughout the last sixty years. Also I also rubbed shoulders with chaps from parts of the country, which then were quite strange to me -exotic places like Liverpool -, and foreigners like the French lad in our watch!
Fifteen years later, when living and working in Stockholm, I became friends with a family of three boys, then in their teens. Their father Toivo Sibirzeff became a very good friend and listened to my tales of Outward Bound with much approval. So impressed was he that later, after I had returned to England, he asked me how he could put his two younger sons Tom and Peter, through the same course. It must have been the late seventies when they stayed with my wife and I on their way to and from Ullswater. The younger one, Peter, barely fourteen at the time, found it tough. The food was certainly not to his Swedish taste - how he devoured Swedish knäckerbröd when he returned to our house in Newcastle on his way home! He must have learned something though because, by the time he was thirty, he had achieved two of Hemmingway's three great challenges. He had run with the bulls in Pamplona and climbed the Matterhorn, for which he trained by running up and down stairs of skyscrapers in Manhattan where he was then working. As far as I know he never crossed the Andes, the third Hemmingway challenge. I'm not recommending this as the ultimate test of an Outward Bound education, but it does show what Outward Bound can bring out in some of us.
How many local councils can afford now offer even a two-week course of this quality? Despite my travels round the world since then, which have included living in Scandinavia and West Africa, and travels to the USA, Nepal and Burma, as well as military service in Cyprus, few experiences can exceed the Outward Bound for pure unalloyed fun and adventure. And, who knows, without OB I might never have dared seek the wealth of experiences I have since had.
I wonder whether the local councillor realised what an impact on me his chance conversation with my father would have that day in the spring of 1954. I really was truly fortunate.

Ian Hughes

Thursday, 8 November 12