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Les Talbot - Aberdovey, Wales, 1960

Raleigh Watch OBSS 1960
Les Talbot Course 199 7th May to 2nd June 1960 August 2019

It is 59 years since I spent that memorable month at Aberdovey, the memory is as vivid today as though it happened only yesterday. I came to hear about Outward Bound as result of watching a dramatized documentary on BBC television circa 1958/9 called “The Challenge” which was about a group of boys on an Outward Bound course in the Lake District. I believe the actors had to complete the course while filming and acting at the same time. I had already started the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and was interested in the outdoors as I had been in the Boy Scouts. I also lived by the sea and all these things put together sparked my interest in Outward Bound.

At that time, I lived in Gorleston near Great Yarmouth and the local education committee had a youth officer who was very much for promoting young people in the town and I discovered that they sent one boy and one girl on an Outward Bound course every year. I had to apply through the Headmaster of my school and then went through several interviews to assess my suitability. The criteria were that you had to be actively involved in the community at school, church, scouts which I was, as a prerequisite. On reflection I would not have agreed with that method of selection. The entire process took months. When it was finally agreed I could go there were no junior courses (14-16yrs) available which didn’t clash with school exams, so they bent the rules slightly and allowed me on a senior course (15 ½ to 19 ½) for which I was a month under age. The education committee paid the fee which was 30 guineas (£33) probably relatively about the same cost that it is today, and my parents had to pay for my travel expenses.

In 1960 the school was run very much on military lines; several staff were from the armed forces or Merchant Navy. You were called by your surname and all instructors were addressed as “sir”. The morning started with rigorous PT followed initially by a cold shower. Even early morning cold showers were carried out with military precision. The shower room comprised of a dozen or so large shower roses and a pull chain tap. We all stood to attention under the showers and on the word of command the chains had to be pulled and held on while the instructor timed the period with his watch. It seemed like a lifetime, it was killing, and we must have presented an amusing spectacle. However, once dried off you did feel better for the experience. After the first week it was considered warm enough to have the dip in the estuary in lieu of showers. I can’t say I noticed any temperature difference!! Forgetting one’s swimming trunks was no excuse, offenders were debagged and you either got into the water quick before the Cambrian Express came puffing down the railway track giving the passengers an excellent view of you in the altogether, an instant cure for amnesia!

There was something like 120 boys on the course divided into Watches as they were known as comprised of about 12 boys. There were standard activities which all Watches had to do, e.g. cutter rowing and sailing, athletics, first aid, the school’s duty watch, 4 days at sea in the Ketch and former MFV “Golden Valley” and a 5 day expedition into the mountains; you had also been allocated to a Watch for your chosen specialist activity. We were a canoe Watch, others specialised in dingy sailing, horse riding, rock climbing and so on. Each day one Watch would stay behind at the school all day known as Duty One, more about that later.

Each morning following PT your Watch billets had to cleaned and floors polished, beds made exactly. Some boys would have to do outside duties cleaning the outside toilet block (long since gone). Breakfast followed then back to cleaning for inspection by the Warden Captain Fuller and the instructor Officer of the day. Your watch Captain brought you to attention while the inspection took place and points were lost for defaults! This was followed by morning parade, breaking the ensign, captains to report their watches, weather forecast, a summary of the news (we were not allowed radios), activity allocation for the day and dismissal to those activities. No transport, you marched everywhere even returning from water activities wet!

I think one of the most exciting activities for me was sailing the cutters. The ex-naval cutter was a wooden clinker-built rowing/sailing boat with two masts. The mizzen carried a fixed lug sail and main a dipping lug sail. The boat had eight oars some 14ft long and the boat weighed over two tons. Every member of the watch had to learn to skipper the boat at the helm both under oar and sail. The sails were canvas and often became wet in choppy weather and consequently heavier. The Dovey estuary is quite hazardous with numerous sandbanks and with a fast-flowing tide particularly on the ebb. When tacking considerable judgement was required to know when to put the boat about, the main sail had to be lowered down the mast until it was possible to move the top spar from one side of the mast to the other and the sail pulled back up again. In difficult conditions could require four men. If the helmsman misjudged the timing, the wind and the crew too slow the boat would broach and ended up broadside on a sand bank. Volunteers were “allocated” by the instructor to jump in and push her off. In view of the boats weight it took considerable effort to get her back into deep water again and of course you stayed wet for the rest to of the day!

It is surprising to note how skilful we became in a very short space of time. When I visited the school in 1988 the cutters were towed away from the wharf by motor launch. No such luck in 1960. We learned the elements of rowing and oar tossing while moored to the wharf. After a couple of hour’s training we cast off, well what a shambles, oars all over the place and they were heavy. You could not relieve your frustration by swearing as that was punishable by twenty press ups once back on shore, however we were frequently sworn at! By the end of the day you had achieved an element of order, come the end of the course I don’t think there was one boy who could not skipper the boat under oar or sail with confidence.

Watches took turns to do what was known as Duty 1 which was remaining in the school for the day to do the washing up after meals, helping to build the school chapel which I had the pleasure of doing (mixing concrete!), orienteering, monkey ropes/commando circuits, smooth wall climbing and nets. The school had a former Merioneth fire Brigade large van with a trailered Meadows Fire pump. Teams of four had to rig up the pump for firefighting against the clock. There were three lengths of coiled canvas hose with brass fittings to run out and were very heavy, it was exhausting but great fun. At the end of the course there was an inter watch competition to see who could set it up the quickest. We, Raleigh Watch, won! Other firefighting training included jumping out of the upper window of a building into a fireman’s mat. One had to have lot of confidence in the boys holding the mat! I understand that the local fire brigade could call on the school’s unit crewed by the boys to assist them with fighting forest fires if required. It would certainly not be allowed today.

I think probably the hardest part of the course for me was the 5 day trip into the mountains. The weather was particularly warm which can bring its own problems as severe cold. At times I found it particularly hard to keep up with the others. Our back packs were wooden frames to which you lashed a kit bag. Apart from your own kit all the food had to be carried to our base camp at High Beech log cabin deep in the Dovey forest some 25 miles from Aberdovey. Care was needed to arrange packing to give a comfortable balance, nevertheless they were very heavy, and the straps cut into your shoulders. When you took them off you felt as though you were walking on air!

Once at High Beech I thought things would be easier, not so. One night was spent in a bivouac which we each had to be constructed from what the forest had to offer and without the use of a tool of any kind, out of sight and ear shot of the others. I think mine was reasonably weatherproof, but the darkness was inpenetratable and the silence deafening except for the odd cracking twig. I remember closing my eyes not daring to open them for what I might see or imagine! It was long night I can tell you nevertheless I was still in one piece in the morning!

There was one light expedition to climb Arran Mawddwy 2790 ft I believe it was a 30 mile round trip. We walked and climbed almost continuously from dawn until dusk. The weather was particularly humid and one or two of the lads began to suffer from dehydration. We were not allowed to drink water from streams below the sheep line due to possible contamination from the winter. For some reason we did not carry water with us. When we did find a suitable stream, I have never tasted water quite like it. By the time we returned to the log cabin we could not have walked another yard. The next day was spent recovering working with Forestry Commission staff learning about what they do. Other days were spent on small group expeditions etc. then the long walk back to the school, lots of blisters for some, I was ok.

One particularly amusing episode I can call to mind, the loo was a crude affair in the forest. It comprised of a long trench straddled by two logs. The toilet roll was on a small branch adjacent. Mr Strudwick, our expedition leader, always went at a specific time. One morning we moved the toilet roll to a branch 6ft above his head height. Mr S went at his appointed time and we all listened. Well the expletives were deafening. When he returned, we thought we would be for it, remember as I said earlier it was a very military regime, he was an officer and you did not take the mick, at least not until the last day. We needn’t have worried he came back with a smile on his face and said it was the first time he climbed a tree with his trousers down.

In complete contrast from this was the 3-day trip to sea in the school’s Ketch “Golden Valley” Apart from the last day of the trip it was totally windless and we did very little under sail mostly under power. I was awarded an Honours grade for the trip I never really knew why. I acted as engineer together with another lad but he was sea sick most of the time even though it was flat calm! So I assume the grading was for not been sea sick. It was trip of events the engine kept over heating due seaweed clogging the cooling water intake, while entering Bardsey Island sound somebody forgot to pull in the log and it wrapped itself round the propeller. The first officer Mr Keith had to go over the side with a knife in his teeth to cut it away. We went aground on the sand bar at the entrance to Pwelli harbour in the middle of the night but we managed to free it after a lot to-ing and fro-ing! On arriving back at Aberdovey early afternoon wacked out all finished, not so, we were ordered to do circuits of the commando ropes and walls!

Free time was given on Saturday afternoon and evening so you could go into Aberdovey or the cinema in Towyn or whatever you wanted to do. Sunday there were some activities or lectures on first aid or firefighting with some time off, there was still PT you could avoid this by going to church, I went to church! Some time off was given for writing letters and doing washing etc. We had two church parades when then entire school marched to the parish church in full uniform.

What I have written is a mere tip of the iceberg. So much was crammed into those 26 days that I could write a ream on this blog. Of course, the courses are very different today attitudes have change and safety legislation has had a hand in things as many of those activities could not operate today as they were then, but the basic idea of character development under duress is still the same. Most of the boys were sent by their firms or police college and to a lesser extent by local education authorities as I was, some approved school and Borstal inmates and little or no privately financed placements. While I was there only one boy was sent there by his parents, it was no holiday and not designed as such. It was an experience I would never forget. For me the course was not beyond my capabilities although at times it all I could do to keep up. My view is that the fitness ability between a 15yr old and 19yr old could be quite wide on average. On the other hand, I had a genetic heart condition which would affect my ability which would not be discovered for another 50years! Nevertheless, I achieved things I would not have considered myself capable of or even thought possible and I learned to work alongside my watch mates as a team. There was not a single cross word passed between any of us throughout the course in fact we became a close nit team. When we departed, we promised ourselves we would arrange a reunion but no doubt the demands of our lives and that communication is not what it is today, it never materialised

I returned to Outward Bound Aberdovey on a number of occasions, in 1968 while holidaying in Aberdovey, again in 1988 on a family holiday, the 60th anniversary open day in 2001, collecting my grandson he having completed a Classic Course in 2006. In January 2015 I attended an Outward Bound Discovery Day meeting in London. Finally, in July 2015 I met up after 55yrs an ex member of my Watch John Taylor who had traced me through Outward Bound generations some years earlier, although we exchanged cards and updates at Christmas we had never met until then. What more can I say an incredible experience. I will be at Aberdovey in October for the Alumni get together.