Exmoor. 267 square miles of rolling hills and clifftop coastline spread like a patchwork quilt over Somerset and Devon. Famous for its red deer, grazing ponies and literary heavyweights Coleridge and Lorna Doone, it is also the setting for the annual Exmoor Youth Challenge, in which over 600 children compete in teams of four to navigate a 16-mile course armed with map and compass.
Intrepid hikers from over 70 local schools brave the elements and attempt to finish the course, reaching checkpoints at scheduled times along the way. This year we return to the moor as defenders of the title, having won the mixed-team category last year. I can’t wait to see what the moor has to throw at us this year…
I remember leaving school on a Friday afternoon last year with a minibus full of excited 11 and 12 year-olds in tow. Only a few of our expeditionary force had heeded our advice to pack lightly, while others had decided that six changes of clothes and multiple pillows were essential items of kit. We arrived at our campsite just as enormous black clouds came scudding across the sky. Tents were up just before the rain began to fall, and once it had started it didn’t let up for the entire weekend.
Exmoor certainly lived up to its reputation for wild weather. Children awoke in the middle of the night to find themselves inside a whirl of billowing canvas and guy ropes. It was a relief to count our tents in the morning and find that no-one had been blown away or carried downstream in a flash flood. After a hearty breakfast, each group armed themselves with the requisite maps, compass, first-aid kit and emergency rations before heading to Dulverton Primary School to start. Nobody needed reminding to pack their waterproofs.
Spirits were high as our first team was called. Entrants must submit to a kit check from the Exmoor Rotary before being allowed to set off. Do you know how to use this compass? What is this emergency blanket for? Why have you already eaten your emergency rations? And so on…
We kept our fingers crossed as we waited for them to emerge from the interrogation. Disaster struck as our first team returned, having fallen at the first hurdle. They needed an entry form. In the morning’s excitement, I had forgotten to give them out. We sent them back in with the necessary paperwork and then cheered as we saw them emerge on the other side. Possibly not the most auspicious of starts, but at least they were off! Our other teams followed suit, ready to take on all that the moor might throw at them.
We didn’t see them again until the first checkpoint. They swaggered off and followed the gentle contours of Burridge Wood towards Northmoor Common. Piece of cake, sir!
By the time they had arrived at the third checkpoint up on the highlands of Hawkridge, the waterlogged terrain and hill climbs had started to take their toll. Once-joyous smiles had become more of a grimace, frozen in place by the lashing rain and fierce wind. Still they walked on, digging deep and encouraging each other to keep going. Teachers returned to the buses and encouraged each other to have another cream tea.
We stood with assembled parents and supporters at Tarr Steps and cheered as each team crossed the ancient clapper bridge, noting the impending exhaustion on several faces. Nobody was smiling at this point, the novelty of hiking across miles of muddy scrubland having clearly worn off by this point. Their aspect had begun to take on the bearing of beleaguered hobbits, trudging towards Mount Doom with grim determination.
All four teams picked up the pace somewhat on the downhill stretch back into Dulverton, as they reached journey’s end and proudly donned their coveted finisher medals. Our mixed team managed to cross the line with such gusto that a bystander could only gasp that ‘they looked like a team of Greek gods!’
Along the way participants must reach seven checkpoints on time, if they are to avoid deadly penalty points for being early or late. One team adopted the high-risk strategy of running much of the course, then waiting just before each checkpoint for exactly the right time to emerge. Certainly not for everyone, but it seemed to pay off for the boys, who might have won their category if only they had remembered to write their names on their quiz sheet that needs to be completed en route.
As it happened, they came second in their category. The other Hazlegrove teams all managed to remember to name their quiz sheets. One of our mixed teams even succeeded in coming first in the mixed category, proving the validity of the ancient teacher’s mantra: ‘Don’t forget to write your name on it before handing it in.’
I am incredibly proud of the success we achieved last year, and keen to defend our title, but mostly I am so proud of the way the children showed such grit and determination to make it round the course. The experience of navigating across Exmoor, with only your wits and a map and compass bearing to guide your steps, is one that I’m sure will stay with the children for the rest of their lives.
There are so many questions we now know the answers to, such as: Does it ever stop raining on Exmoor? (No.) How waterproof is our tent? (It depends if you zipped it up.) What happens if I don’t eat anything all the way around this 16-mile course? (You’ll probably regret it.) And… how important is it to put our names on this quiz sheet? (Very!)
But the easiest question to answer of all is whether it is worth putting yourself through the long months of training, the inevitable blisters, and the relentless wind and rain to compete in the Exmoor Challenge. The look of joy and achievement on everyone’s faces as they crossed the finish line told its own story.
There is no question at all.