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

Peak District Explorers Adventure

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I’ve just returned from a fun few days in the Peak District with Phoenix Archer Explorer Scouts and thought I’d do a quick blog about what we got up to!

We’ve been to Gradbach Scout Camp before; having wanted to give the young people a bunkhouse experience we found what we were looking for in the Peak District years ago and decided to return again this year.

Motivating young people, especially from an urban population such as Swindon, into hill walking can be hard at times. Although we have the Ridgeway a short ride away not many of them use the green spaces or go beyond the entertainment areas but, being Scouts, they do get out and about and we like to offer them different opportunities away from the town; so twelve young people joined us on the adventure!

The bunkhouse has bunks that they loved. Ideally, they sleep eight per room but they all managed to bunk in together in one…

I wasn’t present for the first days activities, I was on the train from Swindon to Macclesfield… the fourth national park I’ve managed to travel to via train and one of the easiest – Swindon to Reading to Macclesfield (then 20 mins by vehicle to the site) and in the same amount of time it would take to drive there. Simples.

For the second day they decided to have a small walk in the morning and explore Buxton in the afternoon, so we started off at Speedwell Cavern car park, up to Hollins Cross, along the ridge to Mam Tor then a walk down Winnat’s Pass to the minibus (which, started to roll down the hill due to the weight of all the Explorers sat on it! THAT was a moment of panic and having to get them to exit the bus quickly!)

 

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James making clouds again.

The next day, I’d planned a route which involved a grade 1+ scramble up Red Brook to Kinder Low area. We had some Explorers who had been to the Peaks with us before, so had to change things up for them as well as planning a route to keep newer participants interested!

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The weather was on our side and the scramble was great. At first, it was just a bog slog to get to the lower parts but once on it, it was a lot of fun!

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Off route walking to our destination!
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Looking up at Red Brook from the valley below
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Arriving at the top of the scramble

Will definitely be coming back here to do that again! It did take a while to get to it but certainly was more exciting than walking along the top of Kinder Scout…

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Walkign along the top of Kinder Scout. I love the views.

To break up the boredum, the Explorers did their usual “how many can we get on the boulder?” moments…

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Standing on the boulder!

There were a lot of tired faces and sore feet when we got back. Overall it was easily 25K on the route, a welcomed evening of Spaghetti Bolognese and sleep was needed!

I can’t say more than just that I had a fantastic time, I think the Explorers did as well. They’ve decided they want to do a lot more scrambling in the future and more exploratory routes on harder ground. Once certificate comes through, a Scouting hillwalking permit is next and we can start planning to go elsewhere and further with them!

More photos can be seen on the Phoenix Archer ESU Facebook Page 

– 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

Busy, busy

“But don’t you get lonely?”

That’s often the first question people ask when they find I’m dwelling in my van, 160+miles away from family and friends, and to be honest, the answer is always “sometimes”. Everyone gets lonely at some point, but I don’t feel as if I any get lonelier than others? I keep myself busy. I’ve just been hearing this question a lot more recently as visiting members of school staff are informed that there is someone staying in a van on site. Many are fascinated by the thought of it but are then confused when they expect to see some Instagram worthy beaut and see my little monster instead. Haha.

Speaking of monsters, my van has been a pain recently with the heating cable. It has decided that the cable must be in the most awkward and delicate position before it will spew out any heat via the fan. A challenge I was willing to undertake at first but no matter how I try to fix the cabling it slowly decides to shift itself and I’m left with having to pull up along the roadside to ‘fix’ it again. When my patience gets better I will take a serious look at it.

I’m still getting out and about it in and stopping at some wonderful places. The weather is getting warmer so I’ve been able to sleep within additional clothing and front window condensation has been dramatically reduced. Summer is coming!

I’ve been very humbled these past few weeks by the generosity of others in providing me with shelter, food, conversation and warmth – the lower level of my hierarchy of needs are being supported by their good will and I am grateful for this. My higher needs are being steadily fulfilled within the placement. I’ve done so much and at the end of the week, I am tired but happy tired. It has been interesting so far, especially experiencing the longer activities during the day and the energy young children seem to possess (more so after they’ve eaten their body weight in food!).

So I’ve been mining, gorge walking, a mini via-ferrata, hill walking, on low/high ropes, orienteering and beach exploration!

Just a few photos below of the activities:

Fisherman’s Walk and low ropes:

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Cwm Idwal and Conwy Mountain:

Both were equally fun. We looked at a lot of the geology, rock formations, history and flora and fauna of both areas. The only difference being with Conwy Mountain was the hill fort at the top and being able to discuss slingshots and use the rocks to create routes for the teams to navigate with!

I’ve also been taking one too many pictures of the curious sheep within this area:

These are Lleyn (pronounced ‘Kleen‘) sheep (named about the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales) and are identified by the lack of wool on the legs and face, their white faces with black noses and lack of horns. These sheep almost became extinct in the ’70s! Their use today is their fine wool and meat. They are curious and will approach you until you make any sudden unexpected movements. Still not as lovely as the Herdwick.

One day I will own a sheep. Or maybe several. I might just Sheep Trek instead…!!

I just wanted to add in these photos from Anglesey. I’ve never seen such iridescent waters as we did on this day. The sea was in a swathe of blue hues and it just looked so unnatural but equally mesmerizing. The camera did not capture its beauty and I doubt I’ll ever see anything like this again.

These few weeks have been busy and have passed quickly. I only have seven teaching weeks left within this placement, an action research project to complete, a couple of outdoor course assessments, a couple of weeks at university then it’s all over! In the meantime, I shall be heading back home, the Isle of Wight, Peak District and some caving and I still have no idea what I’m doing this summer or beyond! Fun times.

-Just Joanne