It is early on a crisp Saturday morning in March, and the school grounds are quiet. Dressed in regulation sports kit, with clipboard and pencils in hand, a band of eager Year 5’s are waiting for the whistle. They have a map, a compass and they’re wearing wellies. They are here to orienteer.
Orienteering, or as some would have it, ‘competitive-navigation-on-foot-in-unknown-terrain-using-a-map-and-compass,’ is a wonderful way for children to keep fit and spend time outdoors. It sharpens the senses, awakens innate navigation skills, and involves a healthy dose of cut-throat competition. What more could any 9 year old ask for?
We take a bearing to establish that the athletics shed lies on a bearing of 270 degrees from the flag pole, where we are currently gathered. Having a compass around your neck is an empowering thing. They exert a sort of magnetic pull (I’m terribly sorry) on children’s attention.
The children are very interested in the idea of North. Just to confuse matters, there are actually three types of North to get to grips with this morning. True North, being the North axis of the planet earth as it turns. Grid North is straight up, following the gridlines on an OS map. And good old Magnetic North is where the needle on your compass points. This particular North doesn’t stay still, however, and wanders around the North Pole like a polar bear who can’t remember where he parked his car.
The object of this morning’s session is to find and stamp seven ‘controls’ in a certain order, and then return the completed sheet in the shortest time. A control is a small block of wood with a unique pattern of tiny pins attached, marked with red and white triangles. They are hidden cunningly around the school grounds, nailed onto trees and on gates and buildings.
Clues can be in the form of riddles, mathematical problems, or written in other languages or codes. Some include distances to be measured with a trundle wheel, others a compass bearing to be followed.
As each group is released to a staggered start, the orienteers scan the first instruction in haste. ‘Quick, run!’ they shout as they jump off the library steps. ‘The north-east corner of the hockey pitch!’
All pairs manage to follow the correct bearing and race to the hockey pitch, where they hunt for their first control. The clock is ticking, and I retire to my vantage point outside the library and wait for the first orienteers to return.
A slight breeze rustles the branches of the nearby chestnut tree, and I notice a buzzard circling high overhead. She flies gracefully and effortlessly with no need of a compass. A jet-setting migratory globetrotter, she is led home by the sun and the stars. How small and scurrying we must seem to those who ride the winds and fly across entire continents.
Closer to earth, I notice a pair of orienteers moving off in the direction of the dining room, where the second control awaits. Another pair is hot on their heels. One unfortunate group has already struck off in entirely the wrong direction. Should I intervene, and save them a wasted quarter of an hour retracing their steps? Or allow them to learn a valuable lesson in reading the directions carefully?
Alas, it is too late. They have disappeared from view.
Sadly, so has the buzzard.