Gold DofE Training in the Shropshire Hills

I do a fair amount of work for Ellesmere College. Most of this is related to the CCF (Combined Cadet Force) where I’m involved in the Army Section. During one of my weekly visits to the College, I was approached by a group of Sixth Formers that were interested in doing their Gold DofE, and wondering if I would be able to run an expedition training package for them. Given that DofE (particularly at Gold level) encourages young people to take ownership of their award programme, I was delighted to be approached by them rather than the school on their behalf.

During the course of the last few months, we’ve had a couple of short meetings to sort out dates, and logistics and settled agreed to run it over three days of half term.To help keep the costs down, Ellesmere College offered to lend me a minibus for the training, and helped to supply the students with a few items of kit from their CCF stores, which was a fantastic help.

Standing united - a great team
Standing united - a great team

We got together on Wednesday morning and made our way down to the Shropshire Hills, where we spent the day looking at basic navigational techniques using linear features and recognising large geographical features. It was one of those days where you just don’t know what to wear. It kept changing from bright sunshine to pouring rain and back again.

We spent the night at Brow Farm camp site in Ratlinghope. This is a very popular site for DofE groups as there are so many different options in terms of routes from here. As we got settled, the cloud did the same, and we ended up having a pretty wet night.

As we drove up to the Shooting Box car park the following morning, it didn’t take long to enter an strange world of isolation in the clouds and rain with visibility right down to 5-10m. The whole day was like this, which certainly didn’t provide the ideal environment for a pleasant day in the hills, but it made the students switch on and appreciate the importance of being able to use a compass accurately. At own stage, we walked a leg of about 1km through featureless heather on a bearing and managed to come out exactly where we wanted to be. It was a very productive day for practicing contour interpretation and pacing as well as compass work.

When we returned to Brow Farm for the second night, we where the only people to have decided to brave the conditions. The farmer was quite surprised to see us again, but more than happy to take our money! To start with, there were a few feeble attempts from all of us to avoid putting up tents and cooking in the rain, but it soon became apparent that it just wasn’t going to happen. However, I was quite pleased to see everyone pitch their tents on high ground to avoid waking up in a puddle!

Heading out on their own
Heading out on their own

My original plan for the today had been to head into Snowdonia, to give the group experience of a full mountain day. However, after a look at the weather forecast suggesting that it would be similar except for strong winds as well, it became apparent that it would be of little educational value. The conditions would have meant that I would have led them around the mountains for the day, rather than them doing the decision making. Consequently, we changed plan and spent a third day in the Shropshire Hills, but with the students heading out on their own with me simply manning checkpoints. Although not quite the experience I had hope for them, it was good for them to prove to themselves that they can navigate through poor conditions on their own – a valuable confidence boost.

To give them something to aim for, I planned for the route to finish at the visitors’ centre in Carding Mill Valley and promised to by them all a hot chocolate, which proved a popular decision.

Introducing people to the outdoors, you always want them to see the best side of this fantastic environment. It doesn’t always work out like that, and this was one such case. However, they will have learnt a huge amount from the experience which will stand them in good stead for any future venture into the hills.

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