Venturing out on the wettest weekend since records began in 1891, WHS’ resilient adventurers braved the elements of Storm Alex to complete their Duke of Edinburgh expeditions.
Our Silver DofE expedition couldn’t have started out more dissimilar to our practise. Instead of a cheery blue sky, we were left threatened by grey clouds and blustery winds, the rain quickly arriving at Dunstable Downs soon after we did. After a swift scramble to the relative safety next to the visitor centre, thus began the lengthy process of route planning. The pens that had worked perfectly well previously took offence to the weather and we were forced to source some toilet paper to dry the maps sufficiently. Once the coordinates had been plotted, bearings taken and escape plans written, we set off, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed!
The first half kilometre went by without a hitch, a straight section of path leading into the shelter of the woods. We quickly came to the conclusion that rain really is a nuisance at best, however. Paths that were tricky to traverse at the best of times were doing their best impressions of streams and creeks. I made the unfortunate discovery that my left boot was most definitely not waterproof, but, as some puddles were a good five inches deep and then some, there were points at which the muddied water simply flooded in the top of our boots anyway and I was grateful for the drainage.
A few navigational slip-ups occurred, but nothing too disastrous, often only a turning missed here or there and a slightly longer route taken. At some point after lunch, we encountered the Bermuda Triangle of DofE expeditioners – a golf course. Despite some hesitation and a few trips back and forth, we made it through with relatively little issue, continuing on to Bridgewater Monument. The toilets were a surprisingly appreciated luxury and the inscription on the monument rather apt: ‘In Honour of Francis, Third Duke of Bridgewater, “Father of Inland Navigation”’.
Soon after, we were faced with the challenge of climbing Ivinghoe Beacon, a large hill upon top of which are the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, among other archaeological remains. The uphill walk was bearable, the track increasing at a reasonable rate. The journey down the other side was significantly more difficult, however, a treacherously slippy and narrow path on a sharp decline, but, after reaching the bottom, we were only a hop, skip and a jump away from our campsite at Town Farm (although, rest assured, no one was hopping, skipping or jumping at that point).
Whilst I and another member of my group started boiling the pasta, the others started the still arduous task of route planning, saving us the trouble for the following day. Our dinners were wolfed down as the sun began to set, and we gathered ourselves ready to head home by torchlight, elated we were not one of the later groups still cooking.
On the second day, we started two hours earlier, having to rise before the sun to reach Town Farm in time. We were greeted by higher winds and heavier rains than the previous day, and the dawning realisation we would have to brave the climb back up Ivinghoe Beacon, this time with gravity competing against us. Water rivulets were running down the path and over our toes, and I ended up resorting to hands and feet at certain points, but we made good time and reached the top faster than expected. We were much more exposed there, however. Storm Alex had arrived in its entirety and we were subjected to a sideways sleet, the sort that soaks you before you even realise you were wet and stung your face with each new lash. Each of us were wrapped up tightly, hoods and hats pulled down low on our brows; this arrangement kept us relatively dry, but I found that it came with the distinct disadvantage of walking straight into straying branches. I did appear to be the only one quite so afflicted however.
The rain was a mighty inconvenience, rubbing our neatly drawn arrows from our maps and turning the paper soggy, but we kept moving. It was too cold to stop for more than a quarter of an hour at any one time. I managed to avoid stepping directly into any deep puddles, both feet remaining relatively dry to begin with. By midmorning, however, the rainwater had seeped through my leaky left boot and each stride was accompanied by a slosh and a squelch. There was little to be done about it out in the fields, so I trudged on, thankful my boots fit me well enough that they didn’t rub even when wet. One of the girls had been responsible for carrying dish soap and the container had leaked the day prior. To our group’s amusement, the wetness now caused the soap soaked into the bottom of her bag to bubble up, suds running down her waterproof trousers. It somehow spread to all of us at some point or another and, upon pausing for a break, we also noticed soap on a nearby tree.
Despite the horrendous weather, we passed a remarkable number of people, many shouting words of encouragement from behind large hoods – two large walking groups numbering perhaps fifteen each, a spaniel dragging along its less than enthusiastic family, several horses and their riders, a pair of Irish wolfhounds and a DofE group from another school, among others. We came across our first stile of many to follow and struggled over it with our unwieldy backpacks, balancing maps and walking poles. I discovered that the others were more afraid of livestock than perhaps rational, exacerbated by an incident with an overly curious cow who followed us through her field. For the less exciting moments, we entertained ourselves by inventing stories, combining the Woman in Black with Macbeth and Pride & Prejudice in an awful tale that would truly horrify our English teachers, and adapting nursery rhymes, the most notable being ‘the trains on the track go chogga, chogga, chogga’.
The day was fairly relaxed overall, despite the difficulty of the weather. The navigation was easy enough as we simply followed the Ridgeway trail before transferring across to the Chiltern Way. It was the final hurdle we stumbled at, missing a turning off onto a footpath leading to the campsite, instead tramping along a churned mud track several times before noticing the gap in the forest edge. We did notice it eventually, arriving at camp with an hour to spare.
Our dinner consisted of the same pasta and tomato sauce as the night before and we began cooking soon after arriving. The camp came equipped with only a single usable toilet, but there was hot water and I was able to thaw my hands before pulling on the pair of gloves I’d decided to leave in the dry of my bag. We made it through the pot inspection at a fair pace, Trangias scrubbed within an inch of their lives, and then started on the route planning for the next day. As we’d made it into camp so early, we were given permission to power up our phones and beg parents to arrive an hour earlier to cart us and our bags away. Soon enough, I had a Thermos of tea and the welcome warmth of a car heater, the promise of home imminent.
Upon arriving on the third day, slightly sore and stiff, the sun and warmer temperature seemed too good to be true. Three of my group had managed to finish the route planning between my departure and theirs, so we quickly copied the route across onto the second marginally drier map before heading off. We had to walk four kilometres less and, given the speed at which we covered the distances on the previous days, we were firmly told to take more breaks and walk slower, which, due to the sun, we were by no means opposed to. At midmorning, we worried that one of our number may not be able to finish the expedition. She complained of a headache and severe fatigue, but was persuaded to continue by our instructor, whom we reached after much difficulty regarding phone signal. After some water, chocolate and ibuprofen, she recovered quickly enough, fortunately.
The day only grew warmer and sunnier, to the point where I removed my hat and shucked off a layer, not trusting the weather quite enough to take off my waterproof. By the time we stopped for lunch, we decided to find a thickly-leafed tree to eat in the relative coolness of its shadow and tucked into our sweets and slightly melted chocolate. An hour or so after setting off once more, we encountered a particularly friendly horse, a large chestnut thoroughbred, whom I gave a quick scratch under the chin whilst the others rushed to and over the stile. This flurry of action was followed by several nondescript fields, but we soon reached a ploughed field we had to walk through the middle of. We’d already discovered that wet ploughed soil was very soft and sucked your feet in, and this field was no different, the morning sun being far from hot enough to evaporate all of the rain that fell in the preceding days and nights. I attempted to struggle across slowly, placing my feet carefully to try and distribute my weight and avoid sinking in. The others tried to run across, on the basis it gave the soil underfoot no time to pull in their boots, but the clay stuck to their soles and their feet were soon too heavy to run or even walk easily. Upon stumbling onto the lane opposite, we tucked ourselves out of the way and spent a good five minutes scraping sticky mud from our feet, some complaining they’d kicked clods up into their boots when running.
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful and we were stopped by our instructor a little way before reaching the endpoint to hold our debrief. Our aim over the expedition was to take photos to document our journey, a task I had been entrusted with, and we talked through each of the photographs, as I realised I’d taken an inordinate number of cows and sheep. After regaling the events of the weekend, we made it to the endpoint and gathered our group equipment to hand in, cleaning off the maps and route cards with nail varnish remover and cotton wool. Perhaps it was the exhilaration of reaching the end, perhaps it was pure exhaustion, but phones were unearthed, and the various songs composed and stories created were filmed and posted on group chats as future blackmail material, parents watching on in confusion.
The expedition was hard work and very taxing both physically and mentally, but it’s safe to say everyone came away with at least a few good memories! Everybody passed the expedition (you have to do something very drastic to not), leaving only the other sections to complete, for which we have had an extension. Although it was not in its complete form, we were fortunate to be able to participate in any semblance of the expedition, so a thank you is in order to all the instructors who were so brilliant and the teachers who gave up their weekends to make the expedition possible.