Steve Knowles
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Steve Knowles - Ullswater, The Lake District, 1976

Ullswater Outward Bound Course U210
July 1976

It's quite how funny the memory works. I have just passed my 61st birthday and it's only in the last few months that I've been looking back at life. Nothing morbid and certainly not an autopsy in what's gone wrong in life, but most of my life I've been concerned about the here and now and as retirement looms in the distance and life slows down, I start thinking about the past.
One of those memories I look back at with a big smile was my time at the Outward Bound School at Ullswater.
Forty five years ago, I was a young lad, having only just turned sixteen, sitting on a train travelling from Lincoln to Penrith – the first time I'd ever travelled alone. I had travelled a lot previously, coming from a military family and have had numerous school trips, but this was the first time away from the safety of the family or school.
My first memories are getting picked up at Penrith station by the school’s minibuses, taken to the OB school and shown to our dorms. I forget, what my group was called and I have forgotten most of the people in my dorm and I don't think anyone kept in touch (I have seen it mentioned elsewhere – would it have different in this age, with social media being what it is now?). The only people that come to mind is that there were two lads from Belfast – one from each side of the divide and one of those had a guitar with him, three army junior leaders, a lad who almost seemed to be constantly covered in calamine lotion and one chap who was a lifeguard from Bradford on Avon. There are others, but 45 years have, sadly, taken toll on the memories, but I do seem to think our dorm was at front of the building and there were wooden bunks and I seem to remember having the bottom bunk. Sadly, I cannot remember the names of our instructors, two great lads, who I could pick out of a group photograph. We were told that whilst at the school, tobacco and alcohol were totally banned and sadly we were told that two lads, from another group, were sent home early because they had been caught smoking.
My memories seem to fall into 2 categories – “snapshot” memories, these are those ones that just seem to be like a polaroid picture or are just memories, i.e. I know that I have done an activity, but just seem to have a single memory. The other type of memory seems to be like a movie, no doubt that these are just “snapshots” that my brain has just stitched together.
Snapshot memories include early morning dips into Ullswater off the end of the jetty, queuing up in the corridor to see matron for a health check, the schools own flapjacks and Kendal Mint cake (both in blue and red wrappers) and the aerial ropes course in the woods behind the school. I also remember doing what was a “community service”, where we spent a day with a local Patterdale farmer, helping on the farm. I remember that our task was to load hay from trailers into a barn. This was on a hot sticky day and for those of us in the barn, we could hardly breathe, got covered in hay and had a great time. I also remember being “on duty” to assist with the local mountain rescue team. We had spent a day with the local mountain rescue team, learning how to stretcher off a casualty of a mountain and that included lowering the victim, sorry I meant casualty, over a rock face! This we did practice – one of our group was strapped into the stretcher (a metal frame with a cage at the top to protect the casualties head and face) and the smallest of the group was “voted” to be the “jockey”. The jockey would be at the head of the stretcher and would guide the stretcher down the rock face. The rest of us would belay the stretcher/jockey combination down the rock face. I sort of remember, lying in bed wondering whether we would get called out, part of me hoping we would, but the other half thinking that the activities for the next day would be cancelled. We never were, but I know another group were called out at night for a missing walker.
The first of my more vivid, longer memories, was that of being dumped, alone, on the fells, to see if we could survive isolation for 24 hours. OK, it was not that bad. One of our instructors led us up on the fells above the school and left us. We were supplied with a canvas for a bivvy, some eggs, some bacon, bread, a stove and utensils. The spot I was allocated was idyllic – on a hillside with a high drystone wall running down the hill, a stream running a few yards away and a wooded copse the other side of the stream. I put up the canvas as a sort of lean-to bivvy, settled down with a book I’d bought a Crewe station and considering it was the summer of ’76, it was heaven.
The other activities I remember are:
Potholing: This we didn’t really do much of. I seem to remember being taken to, what I seem to think, was a giant piece of rock that had cleft from a rock face and filled with debris and choc stones. This enabled us to twist and contort around the inside of the “potholes” in our overalls and helmets. I have since looked online, but I cannot find where this was.
Canoeing: I really enjoyed this, but I had issues! I could not, for the life of me, paddle in a straight line! We should have done some white-water canoeing, but all the rivers in the area had dried up! The highlight was a day on Ullswater, with a paddle to the opposite bank, where we got out the stoves and sandwiches and had our lunch, before completing the day on Ullswater.
The next two activities are two that I have continued after the course and for most of my life there after – climbing and walking.
I’ll start with climbing. I have three memories of climbing “expeditions”. Our first was on an outcrop not far from the school. This is one that a lot of climbers would consider a “bouldering problem”, but it was high enough to get our first taste of climbing with ropes and practice belaying. We would climb in our walking boots, the rope was twisted nylon with no give at all and this was attached to the climber who would be wearing a climbing belt! We would first belay with the rope around our body (we would be wearing our canvas smocks) and then we learned to use a figure 8. Our next expedition was to Shepherds Crags in Borrowdale. These were single pitch climbs, feeling quite exposed as there was a small climb to the crag, making it seem even higher – but with stunning views up and down the Borrowdale valley and over Derwent Water. Our third expedition was to Eagle Crag further down Borrowdale, just beyond Stonethwaite. This was the final climb and for us, the big one. It was a multi pitch climb and our largest yet. The advice we were given was to not look down and concentrate on what you are doing! Great bit of advice – not! You would look down; you couldn’t help it and the ground was a long way off! The whole group got through it unscathed and nobody got rock fast! I continued climbing outdoors until about 10 years ago and still climb occasionally indoors at the local indoor climbing wall or at one of the climbing centres in Sheffield. In those far off days we would climb in our walking boots, now I climb in 5.10 Anasazi pinks, the rope is no longer the twisted nylon, but a strands of nylon with an external protecting sheaf and has a certain amount of give. Replace the climbing belt with a harness, mine is a very snazzy green Mammut harness and belay devices, replace the figure 8 with an ATC or Grigri. I say I have three climbing memories, but we may have had more than one trip to that local crag or to Shepherds Crag.
Finally, onto the activity we did most of – walking! We did the OB course during “that” summer of ’76, when most the time the skies were solid blue and the temperatures were baking. We did see the yellow rescue helicopter on a regular basis and we were told that a lot of the rescues were picking walkers of the mountains with severe heat stroke.
Our first expeditions were one day walks, the first one I remember was going up Helvellyn and it was probably a map and compass exercise, more so, as it was one of the few days in which we did have low cloud. We did all right, even with the warnings of being weary of taking bearings on distant rocks, then only to find that they are of the woolly kind and move around! Our second one day expedition was up Scafell Pike from the Borrowdale Valley. The high light of the day, apart from topping out on Scafell Pike, was a little thing that didn’t mean anything at the time. We were all on a steep section of pathway, when our instructors told us to keep back off the track. The next thing we saw was a wiry chap, in vest and shorts, bombing up the mountainside. “It’s only Joss Naylor” said one of the instructors. As I said, didn’t mean a thing at the time. It was only later, once I’d got home, that I found out that Joss Naylor (MBE) is one of the greatest fell and long-distance runners Britain has ever known.
I remember the next expeditions were over a couple of days, the first, we were dropped off at Hartsop and we did basically a tour of High Street circuit with an overnight stop at one of the tarns above Haweswater. This introduced us to single skinned Vango tents and Trangia meths burners. With the tents, the idea was that if the tent skin got wet, the rain would just run off the outside. The only rule of thumb is do not let any piece of equipment touch the side, i.e., rucksacks (or yourselves), or you will get soaked. The Trangier stove was another matter. I can’t remember whether we all carried one or just a couple of “volunteers”, but we all carried a metal cylinder full of meths. The operation of the Trangia deadly. You filled the tank of the stove with the meths, ensured the tap was off and pump like there’s no tomorrow. Turn tap on and apply flame. The lucky ones got away with their eyebrows! Expedition food was basic, I just seemed remember dried mash potato and dried vegetables, which we would usually mix together as a sloppy veggie mash. The High Street expedition terminated on day two by getting to a jetty opposite the OB school at a certain time to meet the boat that took us back to the school.
It was on one of these expeditions that I had my only “I want to go home” moment. This was our final expedition and if I remember correctly, consisted of being out for 4 nights. This expedition was to start and finish at the school and be planned all by ourselves, including the overnight stops and we decided to get 3 notable peaks in, which if memory serves me, were Helvellyn, Skiddaw and Scafell Pike. I remember being sat at a big table with the rest of the group, map and compasses out and doing all the calculations according to Naismiths Rule (whether we stuck to it, I doubt it). It was on this expedition, despite it being the Summer ’76, we did have some miserable days though and on one of these days, we had just walked up the Honister Pass and climbed above the mine to meet an old tramway and at this point the weather really came in. We walked the tramway to a bridge and then made a course to Windy Gap between Green Gable and Great Gable. The heavens opened up and I got soaked, despite waterproofs, my boots squelched, I was tired, hungry, cold and wet. I would rather be anywhere else than there. I trudged on, eventually made it to camp, had some food and climbed into the sleeping bag and slept. By the time I woke in the morning, the sun was shining, and I was ready to go. I also remember that the last memory of this expedition was the yomp back to the school from the direction of Glenridding at dusk, my body and feet aching like I’ve never known before – I was totally Kn*****ed!
My final memory was getting picked up by the school’s bus on the last day and transported to Penrith station ready for the train home. I remember sitting down in the carriage and looking out of the window and as the train pulled away from Penrith station, I just welled up! Even though this was the first time I’d been away for any length of time – with a complete bunch of strangers, even though I was the youngest of our patrol and we did have a few “strong” characters in our group, despite the fact that I’d been challenged like I’d never been challenged before – I loved every bl***y minute of my time at Ullswater.
What did I get from my Outward Bound experience? I think that is the 64-million-dollar question and the answer people will give will vary from person to person. For me, it gave me a love and respect of the great outdoors and the love of the British countryside. I still carried on climbing until just over 10 years ago and I still walk all over, although due to failing health, the walking has become “gentler”.