Tony Cowling
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Tony Cowling - Aberdovey, Wales, 1969

While at secondary school in Buckinghamshire I had the opportunity to apply to go on an outward bound course, there were three sponsored places available in county, two for boys 17 or 18 years old and one for boys 15 to 16 but that one was also available for the older boys too. I was one of 1500 applicants and I was selected for an interview. I remember that our car broke down on the way to the interview and my mum got a taxi to take us the rest of the way to Aylesbury for it. I didn’t realise at the time but it would be 25 years before my next ride in a taxi. I can’t recall much about the interview but do remember that I enjoyed it. The panel asked a lot of questions including ones about my job in a plant nursery. When they asked about my renumeration I said that I was ‘paid a pittance’ which caused some hilarity but when they asked how much I was paid which was just two shillings an hour (10p in today’s money) they agreed that it was indeed a pittance, my parents had referred to my pay as a pittance which is why I described it that way. Consequently they didn’t forget me.

A few days later I was called into the deputy headmaster’s office and was told that I had been successful and would be going in January/February 1969 to the Aberdovey Sea School on the mid Wales coast on an Outward Bound Course - wow!

The course was four weeks long and was very like basic armed forces training. Up at 6:00am, 5k run, physical jerks for 20 mins, cold shower. A lad in our watch from Liverpool hated the cold showers so much that he would wet his hair using a wash basin and stand in the dry unseen round beside the entrance trying to look like he had had a shower (Larky was his nickname), we all had to be in the showers together before we were allowed out, he always got caught and had to shower properly so we took to dragging him in with us by locking arms with him and when all of us were in we called the superintendent to let us back out again. Cold showers are tough in winter.

Breakfast was at 7:30 followed by ablutions and dormitory/kit tidy and inspection, this was followed by our morning assembly that by the day’s activities. These included; canoeing, sailing, gig rowing, rock climbing, abseiling, map reading, mountaineering, craft, high ropes and low ropes, assault course, twelve foot wall, football/sports, orienteering and many other activities that have now faded in my memory,

I loved all the activities, for me it was a fabulous holiday for the vast majority of the time. I steered a lifeboat, learned how to sail a clinker built ketch with the need to lower and dip the main sail every time we tacked, effectively moving the yardarm from one side of the mast to the other without completely taking the sail down. Rowing a gig was great fun and warmer than sailing, we all learned how to be the coxswain.

We had a real life rescue with the lifeboat whose lifeboat station was being repaired and so it was moored on our outward bound jetty, this was when one of the sailing boats capsized in the very cold water. Later on in the course the lifeboat broke one of its moorings during a storm and this was reported by a local in the early hours of the morning. Our watch had to go and resecure it, we tried throwing lines onto it but it proved impossible to get them looped round anything secure and in the end our officer decided that he would have to jump onto it, this was a very hazardous idea as it was bobbing about and crashing into the jetty as well as parting company from it all the time pitching and rolling violently. He watched for ages to learn the waves and eventually timed his insane leap to perfection taking a line with him and we were able to re secure the lifeboat. In the morning assembly he was commended for his bravery. I recall that his surname name was Carter.

We did rock climbing on sea cliffs and learned several different methods of abseiling including running face forward down the rocks! The most fun was free abseiling after coming down the cliffs above the mouth of a cave. At the site there was a massive Scots pine tree rigged up with a huge free abseil for which we wore thick gloves to stop the rope burning our hands, it did however leave permanent marks on my Parker coat probably as a result of the speed of the repelle.

Part of the course involved a three day expedition in the mountains, one night was spent camping and one night in a mountain hut. We had to carry everything we needed, 25kg packs were tough to get on and not nice to carry all day. The first night we had to dig a hole in the snow for our tents which were state of the art at the time outward bound tents, these did not have sewn-in groundsheets, they had six guy ropes, two each end and one in the middle of each flank. We had four poles each with a spike one end and a bevel the other end. It took us ages to work out how the poles worked, I was expecting a ridge pole, but they slid into pockets two at each end, spike went downwards and the bevels met at the apex, the tents were great but there was still snow round the edge of the groundsheet inside the tent in the morning and all our water had frozen to solid ice by that time too so we melted snow in a saucepan to make our hot drinks and the porridge.

After a full day hiking on the snowy mountains where I remember watching some fence posts beside us disappear into a snow drift until they were at ankle height and I was wondering what we were walking on we eventually arrived at the mountain hut where we took our rucksacks off we were made to walk a further 50 yards without them, it was completely amazing as it felt as if we were walking on air as we were no longer weighed down by our packs.

I made a slate ashtray in craft and enjoyed all the sports activities. I cut my finger trying to get over the twelve foot wall, we formed a pyramid to get the first few of us on to the top of it and I was left to last and let the penultimate lad stand on my shoulders. I then had to run up the wall and grab a dangling belt which I did but it’s buckle clipped into my little finger causing a nasty cut. We did all get over the wall on that occasion though on our third and final attempt.

Commando crawling on a rope over a ravine was easy except when we had to hang under the rope and do a ‘regain’ to reacquire our position on top of the rope, lots of the boys couldn’t do that manoeuvre but I could do it reasonably easily after having been trained in the art of how to do it. It was scary at height and without a safety line.

We did some swimming, and learned drown-proofing. The final test was to complete six hours in the pool, some did it and became members of the seal club and were awarded a seal club tie, I only managed 20 mins.

As part of the course we each had to prepare a little monologue about a subject of our own choosing to present at one of our midweek evening gatherings. I had never done a presentation on any subject and was a bit nervous about doing it. Some boys stalled, crashed and burned or completely clammed up. The audience comprised all the other boys and they were not that kind. I chose to talk about ‘electricity’ and what a wonderful thing it was and where we would be without it. It went down very well. I was congratulated by our watch officer which was nice and I believe that I got the top score that was possible for it.

They called the course ‘leadership training’ and it wasn’t until much later in life that I realised my leadership style was to help others to expand in their roles or better utilise their talents and to help them achieve their full potential. I did use various methods to encourage them and had a range of differing incentives. I always led by example, frequently doing the horrible jobs myself, I encouraged participation in all team work activities ensuring quieter people had the opportunity to contribute and facilitating a culture of working together, I tend to lead by example rather than by imposition. One of my basic philosophies has become “always make life easy for the next person. (Those that follow even if you don’t know who they are).

Having failed my 11+ and been transferred from a secondary modern school at 13 to the grammar school I went on to become school rugby captain, won the reading prize and got the best science A- level results in the school. I studied Chemistry at Reading University for six years gaining two degrees then became a successful businessman. I have been on three overseas missions, one to Zimbabwe helping to build a school and Bible school, one for three months to Borneo helping with an orphanage, school, toilet block, kitchens and some staff accommodation, and the most recent one to Malawi which focused on AIDS, education resources, eyesight and electrical work. I retired aged fifty two to concentrate on voluntary charity work helping a range of local charities including a debt advice agency and also working with many green community organisations, one offering free solar PV, helping Reading Hydro Community Energy Project, youth clubs, a women’s Refuge building, am involved with a drugs rehab, mentoring students as well doing as international student work. I was invited to be part of a knowledge transfer programme to Eritrea which focused on solar PV and more generally on renewable energy. During that programme I had the privilege of meeting the president! I am an active member of a local church and still play badminton and bridge regularly and generally enjoy life!

Thank you Outward Bound - I wish I could go again!