Celtic Illumination, part 286, Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
I had been asked to lead an expedition into North Welsh Wales for the air cadet squadron that I was with. Andy would not be with us so I would be in charge of the thirty six cadets and ten adult staff. Normally the squadron would use the youth hostel at Rhydtalog but I was determined to get back to some of my favourite spots, not just for me, but for my own two boys and then the cadets of course. I got hold of a Ministry Of Defence map that showed all MOD, owned, approved and sponsored camp sites in North Welsh Wales. I was so happy to see that the camp site at Capil Curig, my first ever camp site with Mountain Rescue, was available. I explained that as some of the cadets were following the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme they needed to be under canvas, therefore we were going camping.
I was able to sign out enough tents and equipment, from the local Territorial Army stores, to fully equip the squadron. I was told that the coach was fuel of fuel and ready to go, and, to make a good situation even better, two of the male adult staff were qualified coach drivers. In my own little way I planned the whole exercise and was quite excited to get right back in to the heart of North Welsh Wales. I knew it would rain, in fact I hoped it would rain, for there’s nothing better, or more relaxing, I find, than lying in a tent listening to the rain splatter on the canvas. It was only about a two hour drive so I made sure that we would arrive well before dusk. The first two thirds of the journey were on motorway which ran along the North Welsh coast.
It was lovely seeing old buildings and tunnels and bridges that I had seen and crossed so many times before. At one point two young cadets came up to me and asked “Sir, sir, is that a mountain?” It was a slag heap, but after a quick chat with the two cadets I realised that they had never been outside Skelmersdale before. It just made everything that much better watching the excitement on their faces as we drove deeper and deeper into the wilds. We only had one unplanned stop, because it started to rain, quite heavily in fact. I suppose you wonder why a modern coach would have to stop because rain has started to fall and some of you may compare this to British trains not being able to run because of leaves on the line. Not in the least. It was because the windshield wipers wouldn’t work and the driver couldn’t see where he was going.
I know rain patterns differ throughout the world, so if you wish to imagine rain in North Welsh Wales, have someone throw a bucket of water in your face, that would be known as a light shower. So, these are the days well before mobile telephones. You are on a narrow, winding, road in the middle of nowhere, it’s raining, you have thirty six young cadets, getting bored very quickly, and ten adult members of staff looking at you for a solution. Now I have often said that the most basic tools in the air force were the GFH and the GFS, the great fecking hammer and a great fecking screwdriver. However for a complete and comprehensive tool kit you would add bodge tape, sometimes known as Gaffa tape, and parachute cord. With these four items you could fix anything and Irene still takes the mickey out of me about the many instant repairs I have employed.
I fixed the slight problem of having no windshield wipers and continued on our way as I wanted to reach base camp before dusk. I suppose you want to know how I fixed them. Imagine if you will a slave galley ship being rowed along. This was the scene in the coach, well; at the front of the coach, for I had tied the two windshield wipers together with parachute cord, with a leading edge coming off each wiper blade and back into the coach on either side. Each length of parachute cord coming into the coach was held by two cadets, standing behind the coach driver, who pulled, alternately, like loggers with a saw, so that the windshield wipers swept right, then left, thus allowing the driver to continue on his way. My only concern was how to explain this away to any police who might see us.
Thankfully there were no more incidents along the way and we arrived at base camp well before dark. The cadets were used to the youth hostel accommodation at Rhydtalog but now they had a sort of mini assault course to complete, while carrying all the kit. I expected them to complain but I knew they would secretly enjoy it. First obstacle was a five bar metal gate, then a straight run across a wide bridge, on to a rough road for about twenty yards and then over a small fence, through a light copse and we were there. I allowed the adult staff to supervise the unloading and transfer of the kit while I oversaw the operation, which basically meant sitting on the bridge enjoying a few cigarettes and remembering my days there as a trialist, when I had to do all the donkey work .
There is a military training camp very near Capel Curig where we had arranged to park the coach overnight. The drivers had brought a bicycle so that once the coach was parked and secured; they could cycle back to base camp. It didn’t take long for base camp to get set up. Some of the staff were already busy in the cook shack getting the evening meal ready. I made sure that my tent was erected securely and the tent for my two boys. I set out all our clothes and equipment and then went around making sure that the cadet’s tents were going to stay the night. The adults could look after themselves. Even though there were almost fifty people in this tiny corner of a field, I was so happy and could only think back to my mountain rescue days and wondered if I dare show the cadets the mountain rescue method of crossing a river the following day.
Dusk was falling and so was the rain, it was perfect, the yellow light of the Tilly lamps, the fresh air and the deep black of the mountains as night drew itself over us. Linda had established herself as head cook and produced a wonderful simple hot meal which everyone enjoyed. I was well away from the camp site sitting on a rock enjoying a cup of tea and a cigarette. I really was very happy. Through the half-darkness I could see Linda coming towards me, there were three fellows following her. “These gentlemen want to have a word with you sir,” she said. The three men came closer. Yes I know, with me having the most loveliest legs in all of Ireland I often get approached by strange men, but this felt a little different. I hadn’t been in North Welsh Wales very long and my legs had remained covered at all times. Neither had they come from the east bearing gifts, they didn’t look very wise and I wasn’t convinced that I was Jesus, again.
“Are you in charge?” asked one of the men. “I am” says I. “What are you doing here?” he asked. Being ex-forces, one would normally tend to use a lot of expletives in a reply to this sort of question, as thirty tents in a field might give a slight hint as to what we were up to. “Camping,” I said, in an expletive free sort of way, adding. “I have some air cadets on expedition.” “Not on here you’re not!” said the wise man, who had up to now being doing all the talking. “We are from the Plas y Brenin centre,” he said. I knew it well and had even completed some rock climbing courses there. “We own this site and you should not be here.” “Sorry,” I said. “But this is a Ministry of Defence site and I have permission to be here.” “No you don’t,” said the wise man, who was now getting right up my nose. “We bought this land from the Ministry of Defence. We own the land and you do not have permission to be here. You will have to break camp and move.”
It was eight o clock on a wet Friday night, it was dark, the only transport I had was a bicycle and they expected me to break camp there and then and move on somewhere. I brought them over to the cook shack and showed them the written permission I had received from the Ministry of Defence to be on that camp site. They poo pooed my paperwork and demanded I leave. In an expletive free statement I explained that I wasn’t moving that evening. I would move first thing in the morning, to which they said that if I didn’t move within the following hour they would call the police and make me move. Something had gone wrong somewhere along the line. I knew it wasn’t my fault and there was no point in concerning myself with who did or didn’t do what they should have.
I now had to find a new camp site for fifty people first thing the following morning. Moral was going to be low as all the tents were wet, no problem if you are just sleeping in them, but if you have to take them down and then re-erect them it becomes a difficult and messy business. My ten adult staff were busy worrying out loud about what we should do. I let them get on with it and went to Cobdens Hotel which was only about one mile away. It’s where we always ended up when camped there and I have some really good memories of sing songs in the climbers bar, out the back of the hotel. But I wasn’t going for a beer; I needed to use the public telephone box. One or two of the adult staff had come along with me and were enjoying a beer in the climbers bar. I telephoned Andy, I wasn’t calling him to complain, I needed help and not a new camp site, I would sort that out the following morning. If the Plas y Brenin staff were calling in the Welsh riot squad I needed them heading off at the pass, I was hoping that Andy would be rolling up his trouser leg and practising his funny handshake with a Welsh accent.