On the 18th Feb. I eagerly(?) anticipated the arrival of 60 French teenagers and their teachers in the car park to Crickhowell High School, our meeting point for a two and a half to three hour walk up Table Mountain. It had been a lovely bright morning in the Black Mountains but as I waited heavy clouds gathered over Pen Cerrig-calch and there was a chill in the increasing wind. It was a good job I arrived at the meeting point early, only because I wanted to check out the exit from the school to Everest Drive, our planned route to the start of the walk. As I returned to the school the longest coach I have ever seen drove into the car park with a driver still recovering from having driven it over the extremely narrow Crickhowell Bridge. At least he was still smiling as his paintwork was unscathed.
What we should have realised is that the students would all need to use the toilets after their journey from Cardiff. This meant walking them through Crickhowell, crossing the busy A40 outside Webbs, to take them to the toilets attached to CRIC. I had visions of traffic alerts on Radio 2 warning drivers of severe delays on the A40 in Crickhowell while 60 children and their teachers cross the road. Delays compounded by the fact that we had to do it again, twice, post toilet visit, in order to get to the start of the walk! The half hour we had gained by them arriving early was now lost.
The route took us up Cwm Cumbeth, along the Beacons Way, a mixture of pasture land with friendly donkeys and the linear woodland of Cumbeth Brook. With such a large group the distance between the front and the back of the line grew quickly and it was soon apparent that one or two of the students were not going to make it. Roger, a local guide we had persuaded to join us, found himself heading back with a couple of students and a member of the French staff. Things were not going quite as planned. While those at the back were struggling those at the front were getting chilled having to wait for them. In the end I had to keep them moving in order to keep warm and hope that those at the back could make it with David looking after them.
The children had very limited English but it was not hard to understand that they appreciated the countryside. They come from Pas de Calais Department, their nearest town being Arras. It is a few years since I have driven through the area but it is not renowned for its beautiful countryside, so it is easy to understand their appreciation of the Black Mountains. They were clicking away with their cameras and mobile phones, and those tuned into their music seemed to be distracted by their surroundings.
When walking with such a big group things never really work out as you planned. It was my intention to give the group some background information about the Iron Age Fort but everything conspired against me doing that. Then we had a twisted knee. One of the boys sat a couple of hundred yards from the summit complaining of a painful knee. David strapped it up and we decided to get him down by the shortest route, using my poles for support, where we could call upon somebody to run him to the surgery for a check up. This now took David away and a second member of the French staff team. No sooner had they gone when a girl twisted her ankle. I strapped her up and gave her a helping hand down the, often steep, slope towards Crickhowell. David caught up, having despatched the boy and his teacher to the surgery and we managed to get them all back to their bus by 5.00pm, each given a certificate of achievement.
As I pointed out, it did not necessarily go as planned, but we delivered what they wanted, a walk in the Brecon Beacons/Black Mountains. What I was wanting to achieve was added value, more than just a walk but an insight into the history and culture of the area. Injurious distractions, a very chilly wind and children not best equipped for it, and a tight time schedule meant I could not deliver everything as I would have liked.
However, a text message in the evening assured me that the children had had a good time and that as far as the school was concerned it had been a successful outing for them. We certainly learnt from the experience, learning that we shall take into French Invasion (2) on March 11th!