FRA Navigation Course, 2008

Shaun Roberts, Tom Reeves and Nigel Heppell

Several club members had done the FRA navigation course before, and recommended it, so Tom, Nigel and I booked ourselves onto it, and for the benefit of anyone thinking of doing the same, here is our report of how it went:

Friday:

We got down to Kettlewell about 6:30 to get checked in before heading off to the King's Head. In previous years, I've found this to be the best pub in the village, but this time around the current landlords are on the verge of selling up, and so the place had the air of Doom about it. No food, and the beer wasn't much cop. Quick pint, and down the road to the Bluebell - excellent range of Skipton's Copper Dragon ales to choose from, and from the look of the huge plates being carried about we weren't going to go hungry. Between us, we can recommend the Lamb's Liver (with vast amounts of veg) and the Ham & Eggs. OK, OK we'll get on to some running soon ...

Back to the hostel for a session on how to use a compass - it quickly became apparent that this was a very mixed ability audience, which I mention to encourage anyone who might be a bit hesitant about booking in - by the end of the course every single person attending had learned, and practiced, a lot. The chap running the course was a no-nonsense Yorkshireman from the Skyrac club, Leeds who set just the right tone - we'd learn a lot, and get lots of practice but no exams and we wouldn't get lost!

Tom: He had a very impressive compass although not easy to slip into a map case.

Back to the pub for a couple more pints and quite the duffest band it's been the pleasure to hear in a long time - like a Dublin pub band from the 60s. I know Kettlewell's out in the sticks, but I didn't think it was this far ... Tom: Back to the pub for more food and some interesting renditions of old classics by the local rock band although rock may be putting it a bit strongly. The combined age of this band would put the Striders to shame. The lead guitarist was particularly impressive as he sat in his armchair kicking out the hot licks on his axe.

To bed, but not alas to sleep. Sadly, the beer took its toll, as did the new bed, the bright lighting, and the unnatural proximity of four other blokes within farting distance. I got about an hour's kip, only to be told on waking that I was snoring loudly! You can't win ... Nigel: on the other hand, NH's bedroom buddies complimented each other on having no bad nighttime habits.

Saturday:

The itinerary listed an "optional - of course not" run for 6:45, and for some reason the whole place seemed alive with chatter from 6:00, which seemed a tad unnecessary. Up, kit on, downstairs and then up onto the fells for an 850' climb up to Hag Dyke, a hostel on the side of Whernside where I stayed with the scouts, and indeed cubs, in my youth, as it happens. It was a pain walking up there then, and lo, it was a pain running up there this time around! Coming down, though, was pretty exhilarating, and definitely got you in the mood for quite a substantial breakfast (details on application).

Tom: Here was a really quite impressive turn out for the Saturday morning romp up the hill I suspect everyone was just trying to impress the teacher! Once the initial steep climb was over the ground levelled off more or less and it was a really nice run along the side of the valley. There was also a rather nice view of some young ladies striding out in front)

We were then put into groups, on the basis of the rather skimpy information we'd supplied on our application forms. Tom and I were put together in a group of three with an instructor, Ray, who said it appeared we'd claimed a degree of expertise! We reckon we might possibly have said we knew what a compass was and what the metal thingy in the middle did, but not a lot more. At this point, I should mention that this course had quite the best instructor to pupil ratio I've experienced in a long time - about eight intructors between 30 or so pupils? Nigel: I heard it was 6 among 24 but didn't bother to count. Excellent. Ray certainly knew his stuff, and soon he took us out on the western hillside, where we were to practice all the skills until 2:30 or so. I won't go into all the navigation stuff here (aiming-off, cutoffs, bearings, pacing, ...) - suffice it to say that we were all given lots of practice in all these, after having been given the opportunity to chip in with suggestions on routes. The weather wasn't bad, but it was a bit cold when we stopped, especially for lunch (surrounded by a hundred multi-coloured hungry sheep). Tom and I kept suggesting we run sections, mainly to keep warm, and Ray later admitted he hadn't run so much on one of these sessions for ages!

Tom: It's an interesting experience running and reading a map which is not free from the occasional tumble which our other navigator Bev would attest to as I recall she fell over a number of times as she guided us to the first of many re-entrants. The weather was changeable which gave us the chance to try different elements of navigating. We stopped for lunch and were immediately surrounded by sheep who seemed to be particularly attracted to Shaun or was that the other way round? Hmm...

Nigel: I was sent off with a young district nurse (could be useful) and a carrot farmer (not useful, but competitive) along with a fell running instructor from the flatlands of Chelmsford - but, being a surveyor, he did know his maps.

In the early afternoon, we had the chance to test out what we learned on a small hillside navigation course, and all of us managed quite well, if we say so ourselves ;-) Nigel: well put it this way: we were first back into the showers!

Back to the hostel to warm up, shower, etc before catching up on the rugby and having an excellent evening meal (details on application, but it was really quite good). Another good session on planning a route, this time more in the context of a mountain marathon, which was very useful, and we, err, covered a lot of ground. Then when it was pitch black outside we were set off in pairs to do another small course in the dark. Tom and I were again put together for some reason [Nigel: cheating, I call it], and we legged it to the first checkpoints (lit up like Christmas trees with early runners' headtorches!), and we worked our way through the field - results on application, but were quite satisfactory ;-) We got back first, and waited for Nigel and his partner, who had been more than somewhat handicapped by a duff map, and so took a while to come in!

Nigel: my bosom pal Stella and me were the last ones to start so we took our time to let everyone else clear off otherwise it was too easy just to follow the headtorches in front and we wouldn't have put our navigating skills to the test. Theory was put into practise with great success for the first checkpoint but then completely b******s'd up trying to find No.2 'cos we'd been given a wrongly marked map that should have been destroyed but wasn't. After usefully trying all the techniques for finding something you can't see, confirming where you are, square spiralling, pace counting, etc, etc, and then debating with the marshall who loomed out of the gloom, we were pointed in the right direction but it still didn't correspond with the map. As a result of time spent here, we were very late and I guess the organisers were keen to get us off the hill and back to safety - or the pub - so we then suffered the 'Barnes Wallis Effect': every time we began to get close to a checkpoint half a dozen torch beams clicked on and focussed on the marker from different directions, along with the cry of 'Can you bring that flag back down with you'. All good fun and a useful exercise on what to do when things go wrong - believe the map and the compass, but not necessarily what someone has scribbled on it.

Tom: Was it the map which slowed Nigel down or was it the chance to spend time on a dark hillside with a young lady?)

Down to the Bluebell again - no band this time, thankfully - for quite a sociable session with half the course and instructors down there.

Tom: Shaun kindly told all who would listen that it was my birthday on Sunday which I had hoped to keep quiet given my shy and retiring nature. It was really nice to get chatting with people off the course as much of the time through the day was spent in small groups.

Sunday:

After a better night's sleep - well it couldn't have been any worse - the dawn broke on Tom's 42nd Birthday! And was he keen to get up for another "very optional" run up the hill? He was not. But he did run it, as did Nigel, me and most of the company - the same run as before, but for some reason it seemed even harder to get up the hill this time. Nigel: the reason was a chuffin' gale blowing right down the hillside into our faces!

Tom: As our room mates got up for the run I had talked myself into another hour in bed. I was then startled by Shaun's sudden appearance at my bed asking if I was going for a run. I wasn't keen but got up and actually enjoyed the wind assisted run back down for breakfast. By the way the food was really very good and loads of it.

We had a session on the FRA, that to be honest was a bit dry to start with, but warmed up and we covered some useful ground. Quite a few questions on how best to get into fell running properly, choice of races and so on. Nigel: livened up by Shaun telling us why it was a good idea not to leave your compass dangling from its wrist strap whilst going to the toilet! Then the big event! A decent-sized course (10K or so) up on the western hillside, covering similar territory to the day before, so it wasn't entirely unknown to us, all to be done individually. Some of the assembled company were a bit wary about this, as a couple had been about the night exercise earlier, but the instructors were very encouraging ("There'll be someone behind every blade of grass - you can't get lost!")

All weekend, we'd been using the phrase "It's not competitive, but...", so of course all three of us wanted to put in a good time. Nigel: I saw the glint in Tom and Shaun's eyes - it wasn't just 'a good time' - 'first' would do nicely. We were set off a minute apart, and we legged it to the hill. I ended up arriving at checkpoints with Nigel and another girl, usually from different directions, which was a good thing - didn't want to follow each other round. Nigel: Shaun overtook me at checkpoint 2 but I was catching up with him on a lovely fast long downhill stretch between checkpoints 4 and 5 when, glancing up from my map, I saw someone trying out high-speed bog-snorkelling, yes, Shaun had gone full length with just his two legs sticking up in the air - its hard to run and laugh at the same time! Shaun left checkpoint 5 ahead of me, and a little further on I noticed a compass lying on the ground. I recognised the distinctive coloured strap as belonging to Shaun but was reluctant to pick it up in light of earlier comments. Shaun said he had one on his wrist just like that when I caught him again at No6! We all did a pretty good job of mopping up the checkpoints, and arrived back at the hostel pretty close together. Nigel: first in the shower again! Nigel and I hadn't seen Tom until near the end, but over lunch, later, the organiser Margaret announced that the birthday boy himself had done the fastest time, which was only fitting.

Tom: My run didn't get off to the best of starts when after quarter of a mile I realised I'd left my rucksack back at the youth hostel. I had to run back red faced past all the others and explain to the instructors why I was back so soon!! Once I got up the initial pull onto the fell side I really enjoyed my bimble round. It was really interesting to see all the different routes people took and it took some discipline not to follow. But I kept to my original route plan and found that on most occasions I got to the checkpoints at least as quickly as others. I caught up with Shaun and Nigel at the final checkpoint and got back to the youth hostel seconds after them. Interestingly I never used my compass once on the whole run relying instead on the map and using the contours and landmarks.

We had a quick debrief, before Nigel headed off to Sheffield and Tom and I drove up to Durham to catch up on how the Weardale Way Relay was going.

All in all, a damned good weekend - four runs on Saturday, two on Sunday, 25 miles in all and brilliant value for money at sixty quid all in.

Tom: I can honestly say that I have learned loads about using maps and feel so much more confident in my navigation skills I can't wait to get out on the hills with my map. It doesn't matter what your ability is I'm sure you would get something out of this course.

Anyone wanting to find out more about both of the navigation courses (there's another one in the Lakes in the Autumn) should email Margaret Batley of the FRA.