Michael Pitcher
Back to alumni stories

Michael Pitcher - Aberdovey, Wales, 1949

ABERDOVEY, Course No. 88

Dear Sir,

As you have probably noticed I am resident in Australia and have been now for forty-two years. The Bristol newspapers arrive at my home after a somewhat circuitous route covering many miles and households. Which explains why it is only now that I am able to reply to your letter published in the Bristol Times of May 17th 2010.

It was with great excitement that I attended the Outward Bound Sea School (as it was then) at Aberdovey in North Wales for four weeks commencing on the 1st October 1949.
I was fifteen years of age at the time of my arrival but I would celebrate my sixteenth birthday just two weeks later on the 16th October. Much of the journey to north Wales is lost in the mists of time but I do know that my parents saw me off at the Ashley Down railway station which serviced south Wales and was not far from where we lived in Bristol. With the sound, smell and smoke of the mighty steam engine my excitement would have heightened as we approached the long tunnel under the River Severn, always an adventure for young teenagers in those days and a good start to the four weeks of adventure ahead of me. I probably alighted at Cardiff but from there on is a mystery.

Soon after our arrival at Aberdovey we were required to present ourselves, individually, for a medical inspection by a nurse. I might add that it was all boys in those days, I think it has changed in recent times. She was very kind, very thorough and very experienced. It was this nurse that picked up on a slight heart irregularity at that time and told me to report to her should I feel in any way unwell. I was very fit in those days, there were no problems but her words have always lingered in the back of my mind. Dozens of medical checks in the intervening years have never picked up on any heart problem until I had a 'funny' turn a couple of years ago. The medical examination showed that I have a very slow beating heart, apparently referred to as an 'athlete's heart'. That nurse had noticed the symptom all those years ago.

We were divided up into two teams called Port and Starboard Watch. I'm not sure that the temperature in north Wales ever gets very far above freezing but in October 1949 only the locals could say they enjoyed the weather. I discovered that we had to arise at 06.00, trot down the road to the village and immerse ourselves in the icy cold waters of Cardigan Bay. It was a shock to the system and was replaced at the end of the first week with a trot to some outdoor cold showers but this too was stopped later when the water pipes froze up. Even now I fail to understand how that sort of activity can improve one's character.
I was fit, strong and athletic and the physical challenges imposed upon us was very much to my liking as was the competition between the two watches. There were boys from all walks of life and all parts of the country with accents that were quite unfamiliar and at first, difficult to understand but by the end of the course we were all great mates. Apart from swimming, which was cancelled, the weather had little affect on any other activity. There was a half mile, two mile and five mile walk culminating in a twenty five mile walk toward the end of the course. All of which was timed and carried out in the spirit of competitiveness. We also tackled the heights of Cadir Idris. All of which gave us ample opportunity to witness the beauty of north Wales.

The school operated two, very old, timber, auxiliary sailing ketches at that time, the 'Warspite' and the 'Garibaldi'. I believe that in their working days they had been used to bring onions from France across the English Channel to the UK. Each watch spent four days on one of these sailing ketches. I was sent to the Garibaldi. I remember being quite disappointed as the Master of the Warspite was none other than that well known mariner, Capt. Alan Villiers. I had already read some of his books and during that month of October his latest book, 'The Set of the Sails' was published and put on sale in the tiny port village of Aberdovey. I bought a copy and duly asked the famous mariner to sign it for me. To my great regret, this book and several other treasured items were stolen in transit from the UK to Australia in 1968 but that's another story. We sailed in and around the bays and inlets of Cardigan Bay and anchored up in some safe roadstead overnight. We kept watches day and night and learned about ropes and sails, steering by compass and plotting a course on a chart. We also learned how to pump the bilges with an antiquated old bilge pump with two horizontally opposed handles, one boy to each handle. It seemed that the bilges needed pumping for most of the daylight hours but for some reason or another she never seemed to take water at night. During the night hours on watch I would imagine myself pacing the deck in some far distant land, Master of my own ship. Such are the dreams of youth.

On the quayside in the village was a large, heavy, wooden life-boat suspended on rope tackles and hand operated davits. Both watches were drilled in the operation of launching and retrieving this vessel and we raced against the clock and each other to be the fastest to complete the operation. Great fun. Somewhere along the coast was a pill-box or small gun emplacement overlooking the Bay left over from the second world war. About three or four of us at a time were required to spend a night manning this concrete bunker supposedly on Coast Watch. I seem to remember my experience of it as being a long, cold and uneventful night. Other activities included, high and long jump, javelin, shot put and one hundred yard sprint. Merits were awarded in terms of Honour, Gold, Silver and Bronze. Honours were as rare as hen's teeth and when awarded the individuals name was placed in gold lettering on an Honour Board in the large dining room. I achieved Honours in the Shot Put with a throw of 30.6ft. I wonder if my name is on that board. The final event was a twenty five mile cross country run across the beautiful but rugged Welsh countryside. When told of this event at the start of the course few of us townies thought that we would be fit enough to complete it, but in fact, such was the training that few, if any, failed. Winning was not the all important issue, just to complete it was an overwhelming achievement and we assisted each other along the way. Due to the cold weather the swimming competitions were called off and to qualify for an achievement badge it was necessary to obtain a Life Saving certificate when we returned home. This I did at the Bristol North Baths and a little later I received my Silver badge from Outward Bound. I still have it, safe in the original box that it was sent to me.

My month with Outward Bound had been a great adventure and experience. I arrived home proud and excited, bursting to tell anyone who would listen of my achievements. At this time in my life I had left school and had been trying without success to obtain a cadetship with a shipping company in the Merchant Navy. Six weeks later I was offered an apprenticeship with Charles Hill, Bristol Shipping Line and on the 1st January 1950 I joined my first ship the 'Wells City' in Avonmouth dock for a voyage to the USA.

The last three months of 1949 had been a most eventful period in this teenagers life and I like to think that my experience with Outward Bound had helped me to achieve my goal at that time.

Michael Pitcher.