​NCS Work – Phase 1 as Wave Leader

I’ve worked on a lot of youth-orientated programmes, such as John Muir Award, DofE, Adventure Service Challenge, Scouts and Girl Guiding, so when I was looking at freelance work to cover the month of July I thought I’d give NCS a go.

Now, I’ve been on the National Citizenship Service (NCS) programmes for the past couple of weeks as an instructor but not a leader. It is a scheme that is a four phase programme designed to end with a social action project involving the participants’ local community. The first phase is the ‘Adventure phase’ where young people camp away from home and partake in adventurous, outdoor activities. The second is a residential at a university so they can experience what this will involve; the third is planning the social action and the forth is running the social action then the students will ‘graduate’ from the scheme.

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Campsite set up

So I have just completed the first phase with a Swindon, Weston and Bristol group as Wave Leader in the Brecon Beacons and it was eventful.

The views were lovely as we were camped by Llangorse lake and the site was at the multiactivity centre near the town. On-site they have a riding centre (which we didn’t use), high ropes and an indoor climbing/abseiling and caving area.

So, I mentioned it was an eventful week; during the midweek we had an overnight thunderstorm and heavy rain which kept a lot of the young people out of their tents at 2am trying to hide in the toilets – how did I know this? I was sat in the toilet block reception area bit with one participant waiting whilst their parent came to pick them up (the thunder etc was too much for them)!

The tents themselves weren’t the best, so rainwater did get in. This involved the mentors staying off activities the next day to put the sleeping bags and roll mats out to dry in the sun, whilst leaders keep things as normal and took the kids on activities – I was spending the day driving to the A&E and Minor Injuries Units to transport young people for various issues (of which, some of the trips weren’t even required!).

At this point, I had been awake for over 24 hours! I think I lasted a good 36 hours before things calmed down enough for me to sleep…

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View of the lake

It was interesting to work with team leaders and mentors of varying experiences – from the ones who had done this before, to the overly cautious ones who thought a lot of ‘bumps and scrapes’ meant a trip to A&E (unfortunately, it meant the mentors saw their share of the inside of a hospital!)… from the leaders who just managed things on their own to others who had to ask your permission for every little thing… and from the leaders who had to tell you everything they were doing to those that did things without consulting and causing more issues to deal with.

So I think I had fun. Working with such a variety of people required a lot of different leadership and management styles and my previous experience certainly helped in certain situations – the girl who suddenly got “worse” with her aliments when friends were nearby, organising the site after the storm, time management and dealing with incidents and the head office when it seemed like no one knew what was going on.

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The mountains from the lake.

Next week is phase 2, which will be in Bristol at student accommodation there. This is a three-week programme so phase 2 and 3 are combined in one week and I think they’ll enjoy it although, activities will be more classroom-based and they will have to cook their own meals and keep their rooms clean – for some, that might be a challenge!

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Rush hour in Wales

I have a lot more stories I could tell, but in this public social media platform, it wouldn’t be acceptable. Let’s just say, I hope next week goes as well as this one did (despite the rain…)

-Just Joanne 

Freelancing experience

I’ve finally found some time to catch up with myself and write for a little bit.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself back freelancing in Devon as walk leader for an NCS wave along the South West Coastal Path – I wrote a blog post about the previous time here. Given the nature of freelance work, you meet a lot of new people and outdoor leaders/educators etc to whom you will spend a short amount of time working, eating and conversing with. It’s a smaller world than one would imagine, as I discovered when I found out I share a mutual friend from North Wales with a freelancer down south, however, it is also a small community where reputation plays a big part.

It also a community where a vast range of people, either with little or lots of experience, with differing ideas and opinions, like to be in the outdoors as their common interest and this, for me is fascinating and I just love to meet new people and hear their stories.

So this week, the usual freelancers were moved to the on-site activities and three new freelancers were on the walking activity. (The site manager does this so regular freelancers won’t be bored with running the same activity for weeks at a time.)

 

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The campsite

 

What was intriguing about these new freelancers, as yes, I will be judgmental (it’s a normal human trait, get over it) but I only do so as I found their attitudes to outdoor learning somewhat disliking?

Now, the attraction to outdoor freelance is one of romantic Instagram-able beauty – working in wonderful coastal, mountainous, forested areas delivering developmental programmes for the uninitiated whilst also utilising a unique skill set that, if you’re not strong in, can result in a very unpleasant time for all. It’s desirable for many. It seems easy. It seems fun. It seems like it’s well paid (it depends) and most importantly, you’re outside and who wouldn’t want that?!

The three to join us, two were young – one living in a converted transit van and going around the country freelancing and the other had taken a Level 3 Outdoor Education course wanted this to be their source of income – and the other was an older person who had semi-retired and thought freelancing was an attractable source of income after years spent indoors. So you can see that freelancing does introduce you to people of varied backgrounds.

 

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Views from the coast in Combe Martin

 

What I hoped though, after spending a week with other freelancers passionate about outdoor education, was the same attitudes towards the walk they were placed on… it soon became apparent they did not.

First, was the issue around the required kit they were due to carry as part of the risk assessment. They all objected to the 20 man bothy bag (group sizes were 18 including adults) because of its size… and throughout the week wouldn’t shut up about it. Other freelancers and I asked them to consider, should anything bad happen and they didn’t have the required documented supplied kit, what would happen in court? Now this was an extreme consideration but it does happen, but apparently, them being able to carry a small bag was more important than group safety. Red flag one.

Second, each freelancer has a group and the walk is classed as a ‘local explore’. The young people with you are inner-city kids who, for many, have never been to the coast or walked further than an hour a day on anything other than concrete. Maybe it’s me, but ‘local explore’ means just that… going to points on the map to look at what’s there and educate the young people so they have a robust, enjoyable experience. For these guys it seemed walking into the coastal town as fast as possible was their aim so they could sit for longer there… they missed a lot of opportunities, which was either a) because they didn’t have any information about it (research people, come on!) or b) just weren’t interested in their groups. Red flag two.

Thirdly, attitudes towards the young people. Yes, some are unfit. Yes, some aren’t interested. Yes, some want to play their music to keep them going. Yes, some have issues around their social skills… I could go on, but what they all are, are technically “clients” looking for a memorable experience. As an outdoor leader/educator you have to be able to “read your group”, find out what they want to get out of it, adapt it to suit them and use a lot of your knowledge and experience throughout the day. To see a mass of 45 young people walking past a trig point, coastal views, a unique church etc because the leaders wanted to walk together (not leading mind you but rather at the back chatting together) is awful. Where is the safety and control going on? One leader even lost half her group on the walk in the woods because she wasn’t managing them, luckily they had followed others to the correct location – she hadn’t even known she’d lost them UNTIL they all turned up at the same location. Red flag three.

Lastly, I mentioned about the fitness of young people. Yes, fitness does turn an easy couple of hours walk into something a lot lot longer… six miles shouldn’t take five-six hours but it does with unfit people; that shouldn’t mean you should loudly and openly moan about it to your group and especially walking off and telling the ones at the back “you’re going too slow, hurry up” then proceeding not to stop and wait for them so they can catch up. I wanted to scream at them WE SHOULD BE ENCOURAGING THEM TO ENJOY THE OUTDOORS SO THEY WANT TO COME BACK LATER, NOT HATE IT. Red flag four.

I kept my group separate from the others. I wanted them to have an experience, learning about history, laugh on the route, bond as a team and find out about them. I stopped frequently, I let them set the pace, I reassured them that the route was manageable and encouraged along the way…

 

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We went Geocaching and found this guy!

 

When I got into the town and sent them for lunch, the Wave Leader who had been walking with me, after conversing with the other team leaders, told me that there had been a lot of tears, threats of quitting and hurting legs and feet from the other groups because the other freelancers hadn’t been stopping the groups on route, showing them anything local and being rude to the slower members. She was livid. She asked me about their experience and refused to talk directly to them. She wondered why they weren’t doing what we were doing. She wondered why they’d even bothered to do the work if they didn’t care for people. She wondered why they’d been employed in the first place.

After a chat, she asked me to lead all of the groups to ensure they would have a relaxing time.  She wondered if I could “teach” the other freelancers about group management etc…

Now, I’m not comfortable leading large groups in small, local areas; just because of the size really than anything else as it impacts on the public and environment, but I agreed to anyway as the team leaders threatening to leave calmed down when it was suggested and I took over.

So, placing one freelancer with me and two at the back we walked through the forest to the next stop, stopping frequently on the way (yes, the freelancers moaned that we were going too slow and about the “unnecessary” stops…) and generally allowing them time to take in their surroundings.

 

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Exmoor ponies again!

 

Learning to manage a group on a walk comes a lot from experience. You learn quickly about keeping control, the group together and the varying leadership styles to manage all this. When we reached the last major stop, a National Trust building, I knew the route would be switchbacking steeply uphill and for some, this would be a very big physical and mental challenge. At this point I didn’t have trust in the freelancers at the back – mainly because of their attitude and opinions on slow walkers – so I decided to swap the front leaders with the back… can you guess what happened next?

Yes, the front freelancers “ran off” as to be expected, with a struggling group trying to catch up as best they could panting and puffing – even our calls at the back to the front leader were ignored as the group ask him to slow down. Though it was infuriating, I didn’t mind too much as the route was simplistic enough to get back to the campsite and the group hadn’t exerted too much energy from the slowed-down walk they did before the stop, (plus they had topped up with water and food at the stop); I knew that issues usually occur at the back of the group, so felt it better that I was placed at the back to handle any incidences. Can you imagine any of these three dealing with issues? I dread to think about it.

Predicably slow at the back, we did have a big issue. A young girl, not from my group, who a year into her knee operation recovery, was clearly exhausted. I’d never seen iris’ go pale before in a lightheaded person! It was nerving, but, after a lot of rest, water, energy and reassurance we slowly paced up the hill (at this point the freelancer with me left quickly – I don’t think they wanted to help deal with any issues as the frightened look on her face suggested!). The wave leader, who had joined me at this point, and I stopped frequently to keep her rested and safe and when at the nearest road a call was made to pick her up to take back to the site. This must have taken about 30-45 minutes overall… I joined in with the ride home having realised the other freelancers hadn’t bothered to send one of them to return to check up on us… when we got back to the site, the group was already there!

 

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Sunset in Illfracombe.

 

***

I know this experience is not representative of the world of freelancers, that each person views outdoor activities from different perspectives etc but what resonated with me was the seemingly lack of care to make the experience memorable for the young people involved. Maybe it is because I’ve been working with young people for longer, enjoy exploring new areas deeply or I set a standard where I want to feel as if I’ve done a good job? Whatever it is/was/will be, this experience did surprise and frustrated me. These were inner-city kids who, for many, was their first introduction to a longer, coastal, hilly walk on the South Coast and for many, this experience sadly involved walk leaders who paid little attention to their welfare, didn’t want to involve them in the local area and felt that being rude and mean was the appropriate way to manage a group.

-Just Joanne

Mountain Leader Assessment

It’s been a long time coming, nearly four years in fact, for me to attend a Mountain Leader assessment course. I hadn’t intended to wait so long, I had made a couple of attempts to attend assessments but each time anxiety and nerves got the best of me and I cancelled. I think, if it wasn’t for this PGCE course and other occurrences, I probably would not have bothered really as it wasn’t needed in my previous employment and any hillwalking within Scouting was covered by another’s permit…

But, deep down, I wanted to pursue it. It was one of those nagging ‘wants’. I wanted the validation that I was at “that level” as other outdoor professionals.

I didn’t find my training particularly enthusing; I felt the bare minimum was delivered and it did leave me with more questions than answers sadly… Over the next year or so I went out, but honestly, I found the Quality Mountain Day conditions were taking the joy out of the experience – how can I extend that to five hours? Is a 500m peak significant enough? Have I navigated enough or just followed paths? Have I gone to the correct area?

I just wanted to go and walk some hills!

A few weeks ago I had a successful and enjoyable assessment so I thought I’d write a blog post about things that helped me through my training/consolidation period/assessment – it might help others!? Please note, this is a blog about the best books, where to go to practise nav… I think most of those have been covered by numerous amounts of other blogs out there!

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Horror stories

One thing anyone must be aware of is the amount of horror stories you will hear about ML assessments. Not everyone has a good time, not everyone had a nicer than nice assessor and yes, some people are challenged on their assessment and will disagree with their assessor choices and decisions! I let these stories worry me. I let the attitudes of others affect me (actual words: “you don’t walk fast so will fail an assessment”). I let my own mind run away with me. For you see, the ML assessment isn’t like a driving test in a known area, it’s rather learning the skills to drive then taking the test overseas!

So, one bit of advice I will give is to listen to the horror stories, then disregard them. People can exaggerate, their minds can change their memories, shit can happen, but that doesn’t mean the same thing will happen to you. I thoroughly enjoyed my ML assessment – it was full of laughs, interesting conversations, fun people, great learning opportunities and was relaxing as much as it could be. One of the better weekends in the hills!

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Feeling ready

I never felt ready, even right up to the night before I didn’t feel ready. I’d read the MTUK Hillwalking book from cover to cover, I’d read various weather books, flora and fauna books, synoptic charts, books on clouds… I still didn’t feel ready and I don’t think anyone can fully say that they will be because of the unexpectedness of it all. ML training teaches you that there are many variables and unexpected things to the outdoors – weather, people, situations. You can never be 100% sure of what you’re going to get or what can happen (and that’s the fun/challenge of it all!), you just have to go for it.

I will say though, having lots of varied group experiences thoroughly helped me. You are in an ‘unnatural’ group environment, with others of equal skill to yourself, so it all does feel artificial when it’s your turn to lead and manage them however, having that prior experience means you can spot the times when the group needs to stop to remove jackets as they’re overheating walking uphill, finding a toilet spot before you enter an area of bare hillside which you’ll be on for a while or finding an interesting thing to discuss to break the dull routine of walking -it all shows experience and knowledge to manage the wellbeing of a group. That’s the bit I loved the most, finding out why they want to go out on the hills, what they want to achieve and helping them to do that!

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Recommendations

My recommendation came unexpectedly. I didn’t want to go back to the people that provided my training as I didn’t feel they’d make my assessment personal because the training didn’t feel like it was, so I decided I wanted an independent self-employed person to assess me, but who would be good for this?

I decided to join a free Ordnance Survey Get Outside walk in Llanberis run by Jason Rawles as I was up in this area. Whilst on the walk up Snowdon by the Llanberis pass I got chatting to another Get Outside Champion, Eli Bishop, about her ML journey. She was there to gain group work experience and was a delight to speak to – she recommended Will Kilner, of AdventureswithWill. She knew about the anxiety assessments can cause and said that Will would put the group at ease – which, from day 1 he did! I never felt negatively judged, my mistakes were acknowledged but not made an issue, I felt comfortable enough to show my personality (I can be quiet and shy when I feel uncomfortable!) and the result was a better performance from me than I thought I would give!

So, go on recommendations. Listen to others and speak to your potential assessor beforehand. A good assessor will make time to speak to you and answer any queries; Will did with me and that made a huge difference!

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Go where you know

I love the Brecons. Always have, always will, so why I decided to suddenly take assessments in Snowdonia and the Lake District I’ll never know. Yes, the ML Award enables you to walk anywhere within the UK – even the rugged remote areas of Scotland – but feeling comfortable in an area you know well makes all the difference. That’s not to say I didn’t go to Snowdonia, I did, because I was on a split weekend assessment; on the first weekend, the micro nav and rope work days were around the Glyders and the second weekend, the expedition weekend was in the Brecons. I wanted to make my assessment memorable to me – there are a few providers who run the assessment on the Isle of Rum, Scotland.

So go where you know, where you’ll feel most comfortable. Where you’ll enjoy the memories you’ll make!

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Get Support

No one can go through this life alone and no one should go through their ML training/assessment without the support and encouragement of others. I was thankful to have a partner with the same interest, experience of group work with charity organisations, such as Scouts and DofE, and online communities; I was even thankful to have friends who helped to financially contribute to paying for the assessment (it can be costly for a student!) – that was both a positive to know others believed I could do it, also a good incentive to complete it!

I’m pleased to see the Mountain Training Association is running a mentoring scheme. I’d like to join this in the future and help others if I can towards their assessments and feeling confident. Had I had this years ago then maybe I would have completed mine sooner? I’d much rather prefer to speak to someone face to face than through the internet and think this mentoring scheme is a great idea.

So, find a community, a friend, join the mentoring scheme, any support to help you with it. Often, you’ll question if that day was really a Quality Mountain Day (a QMD), what to pack, what spare kit to take, where best to take a group etc; having support – a go-to person or people – will make a lot of difference!

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I hope, whether you’re contemplating starting the award or you’re currently working your way through it, that you have a good and interesting experience. These points above were ‘sticking points’ for me going through training; just stick at it, in your own time, at your own pace and most importantly, if it’s feeling like a chore… just go back to some good old fashioned hill walking and being outside. The mountains will always be there and they don’t care if you’ve walked more than 5 hours and included a ‘significant peak’ in the days planning that involves some navigation off route!

– Just Joanne

Contour Masterclass

I am in the ideal location to improve on my navigational and mountain walking skills although today I’m inside TRYING to continue with my action research project… or actively avoiding it by writing blog posts… anyhoo, I’m preparing and trying to improve on my knowledge and skills for the summer Mountain Leader assessment. One of the areas of improvement is interpreting contours on the hillside, so when a post within an Outdoor Course Facebook group announced an upcoming Contour Masterclass run by Paul Poole Mountaineering came up I had a decision to purchase new shoes or attend this (thanks to Terry for his financial and encouraging support with this). I made the best decision.

What s a contour line? On an Ordnance Survey map, they are the brown lines that cover the majority of the ground and they join points of equal height above or below sea level and indicate the shape and gradient of the ground. The navigator has to interpret their 2D shape into 3D to understand the ground they are standing on. Example:

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There is a lot you can learn from contours lines for safe travel across hills, moorlands and mountains and I find it all very fascinating; so I booked on to this course.

It started at Moel Siabod cafe where we met with Paul and discussed the day’s objectives. Paul has been involved with the outdoors for over 25 years and lived within North Wales for over 20 years – so he is very knowledgable about the area and mountain leading and when you meet him you’ll find his relaxed, easy manner reassuring. Terry, my other half, went on his Mountain Leader Training last year and returned home enthused and rated him, his staff and the course very highly, so I knew I’d learn a lot from this masterclass.

We walked up to the Clogwyn Mawr area behind the cafe and begun our training. Paul had an easy to remember the way of describing the basic contour shapes (which I will pass on to DofE students in the future as it’s that easy to remember!) and throughout the day would explain things very clearly and concisely. He has unique maps, which I’ve never seen before, where all the linear, area and spot features were removed and just the contours remaining.

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At first, this was difficult to interpret; I am someone who does rely on linear features a lot to navigate with (sometimes arriving at a destination and discovering that expected field boundary to no longer be there! That’s happened more than once…). To give you some context, below are two different map supplies and the typical information you will find on a map:

 

Firstly, Paul took us to a couple of ring contours and explained a few great tips to help us when trying to locate our area. I am not going to give much information, as this course is part of his business, but what I will say is that I wrote down so much throughout the day. He pointed at parts of contours which I would have not thought to consider when navigating – by adding in these points throughout the day it just made it all so much easier. You can see from my scribblings on his map I was keen to capture as much of this useful information as possible. I certainly learnt far more in this day’s session than I did on my ML training!

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At certain points, he gave us areas/spots to navigate towards as a group or individuals – he increased the level of challenge throughout the day, opportunities to practise techniques and apply the information we learnt and ask any questions we might have had.

At the end of the day we were all pleased with ourselves, what we’ve learnt and our progress. Paul was open and honest about the expectations on ML assessments and how contour interpretation in used within it, so we all felt reassured that it is not as scary as we’ve first thought.

To top this all off, we had a wonderful day outside in a fantastic area in the lovely sun shine.

 

I thoroughly felt the day was worth it one hundred percent. I never felt rushed, afraid to ask questions, misunderstood nor felt I couldn’t manage any of the tasks set. I’ve come away with more confidence in my navigational skills and great techniques that will help.

I would highly recommend this course if you are struggling with contour interpretation and applying map to the ground but also Paul. There are some big names in mountaineering and training in North Wales but I’ve been with some of those big names and didn’t feel as involved nor that the training was individualised and in-depth as this. A huge thanks to Paul, I will be considering his other courses in the future.

Now to get out and practice it all!

-Just Joanne

Snowdon/#GetOutside

I use social media a lot to find out what is happening locally to me and any latest updates to outdoor activities etc. I find it a useful, quick tool to keep up to date with content and events so when I found out about Ordnance Survey’s Get Outside campaign on the 30th September I checked out what was local and found a free walk happening in Llanberis on that day. It turned out to be a walk up the Llanberis path to the top of Snowdon– having never walked this way up the highest mountain in Wales before I thought I’d give it a go, the assignment could wait! I wanted to be outdoors (plus I got a free bright orange t-shirt! Woo)

A quick easy sign-up, I was sent details by our walk leader Jason Rawles, a Mountain leader local to Llanberis who is also an Ordnance Survey Get Outside Champion – an outdoorsy person chosen by Ordnance Survey to encourage others, young and old etc, to get outside and have fun.

I meet with several others at the Padarn Hotel in the morning. There were eleven of us, with 6 others expected who sadly didn’t show in the end- the wet weather forecast may have put them off?

 

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Photo by Jason Rawles

 

After introductions and safety talk etc. we were on our way, straight up the concrete road to the starting point marked by a stone.

Everyone I’ve ever spoken to about the Snowdon routes, especially the Llanberis path, have said the same thing each time- that this path is a looong slog and that I wouldn’t enjoy it.

Indeed it can be a slog, it just depends on how you view it. Stopping frequently, having a laugh and good conversations take away that mindset and guess what? That is what we had all the way up.

Our group was largely female but a mix of unique characters– from interesting women who have overcome (or still trying to) adversary or mental health issues to women using the outdoors to better themselves and help others to women who wanted to challenge themselves on this beautiful mountain. It was fascinating to talk to each of them and support each other on the long slog…

The route was busy that day, not surprisingly as the Llanberis path attracts over 250k+ each year and the last weekend in September generally has fair weather to walk up the mountain before the heavy rains begin and winter starts. We did encounter some rain, certainly cloud at the top, but we’re fortunate enough not to experience any heavy rain.

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“One step closer to heaven”

Several times the Snowdon diesel and steam trains passed us, which were lovely to see. I sent my other half Terry a video and he found out that we can get reduced rates due to our railway staff cards… So I took the hint and will wait until he can make it to North Wales and have a go on the trains then. Can you go up on the steam one and return by diesel? Shall have to enquire…

As we neared the top it got colder and windier. Forecast was in the minus numbers with winds of up to 25mph so we wrapped up and headed into the clouds to the trig point and visitor centre.

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Now, I have pet hates, we all do and the business of summits, any summit, is one of mine… So Snowdon, on par with a busy Pen y Fan or Helvellyn on a good summer’s day is frustrating to me. A huge effort is expended by a lot of people to get there and they deserve to stand at the trig for their photos etc. but some do spoil it for others by pushing, chucking litter and generally being a pest. Grrr.

The summit was busy, with the usual queue for the trig- we decided not to wait in the wind and rain and head to the centre to warm up a bit…

 

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The team at the top.

 

Coming back down was quick and enjoyable. The views of the clouds trailing across the pathway was spectacular… Then we looked around and saw the summit view – wow! Definitely a memory that will stick with me- Yr Wydda showed itself as it is meant to be – an emposingly impressively high mountain where the final battle of King Arthur was fought, the explorers of old used its slopes to practise for Everest and a giant, Rhitta, with a cloak of beards from his the men he killed was killed on its slopes. Yeah, it is a specular mountain full of rich history that is very admirable.

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Heading back down, the clouds cleared.
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Impressive view looking back at the summit

I really enjoyed this day for a variety of reasons, a good leader in Jason (and Eli Greenacre, another OS Champion who’s stomping grounds is the Brecon Beacons that I know all too well. I really enjoyed getting to know her and discuss Scouting), an fun interesting team, the beautiful views and basically just getting to be outside again.

 

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The team finishing walking the path.

 

I would recommend to anyone keen to explore the outdoors to attend these events as they are fun. Ordnance Survey is doing a great initiative here.

The next group event I hope to join is from LoveHerWild next weekend in Llangollen as I’ll be based closer to there, so I’m hoping that’ll be fun and enjoyable with good weather.

Jason made a video of the day which you an view here:

Just Joanne