The Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme may have changed since I got my award, but in those far-off days gaining an award boiled down to:
- Being proficient at a skill, and
- Being proficient at an activity
For my Bronze Award my skill was technical and practical proficiency of at least one musical instrument. Easy.
My activity was orienteering (this being a jolly combination of map-reading, camping, cooking, and showing care and consideration for the wildlife in the countryside). Also easy.
I was about 14 when Mr Hamer approached me and asked if I’d like to take part in the scheme.
He didn’t explain the benefits too well, but, in retrospect, it is fairly clear that he had identified me as something of a wild child, and felt the scheme might benefit a young soul in need of some structure.
I flew through the technical and practical proficiency elements of my skill challenge, and over the next couple of weeks a few basic outdoorsy items were procured from Millets for my activity.
My orienteering team-mates were two other lads from school. Both quieter than me, the kind of people who wouldn’t readily volunteer for too many things.
Again, in retrospect, perhaps Mr Hamer felt they needed bringing out of their shell. Not something that could be said about me at that time.
The Friday morning arrived (this was a Good Thing about the scheme – a whole day out of school!), my orienteering colleagues and I reported, in our civvies and with our packed rucksacks, to Mr Hamer.
He ran us through his checklist one more time and then gave us a map and a bunch of map references with times against each.
The plan was that we would arrive, on time, at each map reference where Mr Hamer may (or may not) be waiting to mark our progress and check on our welfare.
The three of us went off to a table in the hall and with all the right tools we worked out the most logical route to each checkpoint.
I saw two things quite early on in the route planning stage.
The first thing we all noticed was that the timings were tight; and we would have to maintain a fast pace in order to hit every map reference on time.
The second thing that (only) I noticed was that most of Mr Hamer’s route ran straight through the 10sq miles of countryside that I lived in, and knew intimately.
I quickly redesigned the route into an illogical pattern that made use of every shortcut I knew.
So, for example, the first checkpoint was in Llanfoist. The second was in Penpergwm, a long way south east of the first and, very importantly, on the wrong side of the river.
So the only way to the second checkpoint would be to retrace our steps back into Abergavenny, cross the river on one of the road bridges, and then follow the country lane south-east to Penpergwm.
Except I knew a better route.
Similarly, the third checkpoint was back on the other side of the river, at Llanvair Cross, and the only logical way to get there was to trudge a lot of road miles to cross by the roadbridge.
And the fourth (and final checkpoint for day one) was a continuation from the third, a field in Nant-y-Derry where we were supposed to camp for the night.
Well with our redesigned route, we made all of our checkpoints on time. We even had enough intelligence to wait around the corner (snoozing in a field) until five minutes before we were due, and then speed-walking up to our rendezvous points, looking like we’d worked hard.
Reader, we hadn’t worked hard at all.
Instead of heading away from the Llanfoist checkpoint and going back into Abergaveny, I directed our little troupe through the back lane into Llanellen, then onto another back lane towards Llanover.
But you’re thinking that we’re on the wrong side of the river, and you’d be right.
However, opposite Llanover church, a few miles down that second lane, is a private footbridge across the river, for the use of fishermen only (it’s part of the Fisherman’s Cottage, which is rented out to anglers). You can clearly see the bridge here:
We quietly legged it across that footbridge and through the fields to our first checkpoint.
After making sure we weren’t footsore or too weary, Mr Hamer got in to his Rover 80 (P4) and we pretended to make the correct tracks.
When we were sure the coast was clear we walked down through the village of The Bryn and up the embankment onto the railway line.
The railway line (it really sees very little use) took us almost directly to Llanvair Cross, where we had a good long nap in one of the fields, and then arrived at our checkpoint looking like we’d earned some kind of reward.
When Mr Hamer’s car had disappeared into the afternoon sun, we legged it back on to the railway and, much quicker than walking the lanes, soon arrived at the field which was to be our night-stop.
We got our tents up, unrolled our sleeping bags and waited for our night-time visit.
When he’d gone, I took the lads to the back door of the Foxhunter Inn where we bought a flagon of cider and a couple of bottles of ale. We went back to our tents and got tipsy
The next morning, we cleared the debris from the night before and cooked sausage and bacon sandwiches. Mr Hamer joined us for breakfast.
We had just two checkpoints the next day, which we made in good time thanks to the generosity of a couple of motorists on the A4042 and the use of my right thumb.
I don’t feel that we cheated. No, I really don’t.
We used our ingenuity. The rules never said we had to travel by any proscribed route, just that we had to arrive at each checkpoint on time. Which we plainly achieved.
However, you should look at my Duke of Edinburgh Bronze award in this way: This exercise taught me a great deal about achieving the objective, using ingenuity, thinking outside the box, and keeping within a simple set of rules.
When I was undergoing my basic military training two years later, the section I was in charge of won our Survival Training by a significant margin, through using similar techniques. That was a great week and the celebrations went on for days.
A year later, the Flight I led won an Evade and Capture exercise against a bunch of Paras. We were equally cunning that week. Our CO gave us all a 72-hour pass for exemplary conduct.
So you see, I have fond thoughts of my Duke of Edinburgh Bronze award.
And of Mr Hamer.