Sixteen years after I first took up backpacking, I decided to start keeping a written record of all of the trips to Snowdonia I made for this purpose, before the memories became too distant and the number of trips caused confusion. My expectation was that reading the accounts again in the future would enable me to relive some of the pleasures, and almost certainly some of the pains.
Looking back, what inspired me in the first place to take up this strenuous and initially expensive (for the seldom-used specialist equipment) pastime near the end of my thirties? I have always been tall and rather weedy, and I have never been any good at sports. My grammar school PE master used to make us work really hard, although I sort of enjoyed the cross-country running around the wild common near the school; this I guess helped build up my stamina. I was initiated into the art of camping with the Scouts around the age of 12, and although I cannot say I enjoyed those early experiences immensely, for I was not a confident youth, and I used to suffer terrible homesickness, it was definitely not “all mod cons” camping; we had to do literally everything ourselves, such as digging the latrines for example, and it taught a measure of self-sufficiency. The experience must have been useful when, after the age of 19, I gained confidence and friends whilst hitchhiking around the country as a “weekend beatnik”, carrying no more than a sleeping bag and a toothbrush, and sleeping on beaches and in other strange places. I graduated from that to spending a few months of thumbing lifts and living rough in France and Switzerland in 1962, one memory of which relates in a way to this account, which was when I spent two whole days walking westwards along the N7 main road between Frejus and Aix-en-Provence.
Marrying at the end of the 1960s, my wife and I enjoyed camping holidays through the 1970s and 1980s before switching to European studios and hotels, although we continued with camping weekends in Britain for many more years. When blessed with two sons in the 1970s we upgraded to larger and larger tents as they grew up. At the same time, I started what became 28 years of employment as a field service engineer, when I was initially required to travel around the delightful semi-rural parts of southwest Hertfordshire. From this was born the desire to learn more about the natural history that surrounded me (something that had interested me in my school years), for I found it frustrating not knowing the identification of the birds, butterflies, trees and flowers that I saw daily. So, at the end of the 1970s I enrolled in what was to be the first of a succession of evening courses on the subject, and during the first field trips I noticed some of the other participants came attired in vibram-soled walking boots and other associated wear. This gave me the idea of extracting my old pair of boots, bought for a holiday in Scotland, out of the loft, and I started going for walks in the Chiltern Hills that are between ten and thirty-five miles from my suburban home. I found these walks most pleasurable, seeing a lot of natural history interest and, hopefully, improving my fitness at the same time.
It was not long before the interests of camping and walking became combined. I wanted to walk in wild places, particularly the mountains, I wanted to recapture the feeling of sleeping on Sussex beaches, I wanted to escape civilisation including the daily dealings with the public that my job entailed, I wanted to be totally self-reliant, and I wanted to improve my heart and lungs. Greatly inspired by books such as Peter Lumley’s “Teach Yourself Backpacking”, Derrick Booth’s “Backpacker’s Handbook” and Showell Styles’ “Backpacking in Wales” – see Book List – I set off in early October 1981 on my first solo camping trip. I had no real plan, other than a desire to travel somewhere a good way off, to see some new countryside, and a wish to visit Hay-on-Wye (collecting books was another interest formed in those years). It was not a backpacking trip in any sense, it was more a bit of an adventure which included camping and a long walk, while it was barely in South Wales, let alone in Snowdonia in North Wales, but I feel it is important to relate as it was the start of everything that has followed since.
I pitched our old cotton Canadienne ridge tent, retained since its purchase in 1969, on a campsite in the Powys village of Clyro, former home of the diarist Francis Kilvert. The site contained three or four static caravans and a motorhome, apart from which I had the place to myself, which is not surprising considering it was Monday 5th October. The facilities were somewhat limited; I recall little more than toilets, and hand basins with only cold water. The view out of the washroom door was enlivened by glimpses of members of a family of fluffy kittens that constantly sprang up, as if by magic, from the grass that otherwise hid them.
The walk that I embarked upon was merely a series of footpaths on the O.S. 1:50,000 map that I linked together to make a circuit. It was made more memorable by the fact that near the start of my walk two dogs, a Border Collie and a Jack Russell, rushed barking at me from a farmhouse. I felt safe, however, for I could see that their tails were wagging too. The sheepdog soon lost interest and returned to its home, but the terrier happily trotted along with me, pausing now and again to sniff at a rabbit hole or something more obscure, but all the while keeping up with me. My requests, subsequently commands, for it to return home fell on deaf ears, and after a couple of miles I began to feel responsible for the animal, particularly when we encountered a bull standing on a rise on the footpath; this caused me to detour around three outer edges of a large field, where rabbit wire in the fences made it necessary for me to lift the little dog over each one. It was a few hours later that the two of us, both tired, dishevelled and muddy, re-passed the farmhouse, where the Jack Russell hobbled back to his home. I have often thought since then, was he missed? Did the owners wonder how he came to be so wet and bedraggled? I have never owned a dog, but that day I came close to experiencing it.
The following morning was dark, wet and cold. The sodden tent was dumped in the back of my van, and off I set to tour the bookshops in Hay, following which I not too reluctantly headed for home. But the seed had been sown!
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