It was only a few weeks ago, at an impromptu Tuesday drinking session now set in the Outlook calendar as a recurring meeting called “Boozeday Tuesday”, that someone brought up the Duke of Edinburgh Award. The general consensus from three men who did their bronze twenty years before (the fourth had a silver, which meant he was some upper echelon of human for the next two hours), was that it was a wonderful experience, the kind of memory that makes you look into the distance at some long-lost halcyon days, sighing at how perfect the world once was – I’ll be honest, I just remembered it as a camping trip. I was pretty unfit as a kid though, so maybe I repressed a few memories of it.
The Duke of Edinburgh Award is, to those who have no idea what I’m talking about, a charity that helps to give young people access to skills and experiences that’ll help them in later life. As well as camping expeditions and physical activities, it offers the chance to learn life skills and volunteer for worthy causes. It’s pretty cool in fact, the only problem is that you have to be a young person to take part in it. Well, that was the case.
A few days after my pub discussion on the subject, I received an email from The Duke of Edinburgh Award about a new initiative they’re running, specifically for adults. A fateful opportunity that would let me rekindle the memories we all had and see if it was as fun as everyone said.
Like the youth version, there are two elements to the DofE Challenge. The first is the challenge itself, this could be anything from baking cakes to skydiving (as done by a grandma as part of the campaign). Basically you just choose something, get sponsorship and carry it out. The second, and this was the bit I was interested in, is the DofE Adventure; a two-day hike across the Peak District with camping overnight. Perfect.
The event started at 8am in the morning at the village of Bamford in Derbyshire. The first thing to note about this, as a Londoner without a car, is that there’s train station right near the start. I’ve been invited on loads of events in the past where I’d have to somehow get to places in the middle of nowhere, the only option being to either rent a car or pay for a taxi. Neither I particularly like doing. So we were already off to a good start.
After a bit of admin and safety chat, we all set off in our waves. There were two route options for the weekend. The first a signposted route that would take us 50km across the Peak district, stopping overnight at the village of Hope. The second was a self guided option where people would need to take on map reading skills to find the route without any help. I took the first option. And yes, I know part of the DofE is all about the map reading, but firstly, I’d planned to do the walk alone – I didn’t fancy getting lost in the middle of the Peak District with very limited ordinance survey skills, and secondly, I really wanted to catch the train before 4pm on the Sunday. Something I’d have no chance doing if I was reading my own map.
I’d only ever been to the Peak District once before to take part in the Red Bull Steeplechase, a gruelling race that would see us going up and down some of the highest peaks in the area. It was because of that which I knew the event may be a bit harder than the 25km a day distance might suggest. Although after spending a few days in the Lake District the month before, I did have it in my head that I was perfectly prepared. I wasn’t, it was really tough. I’d also, wrongly, assumed that a lot of the walking would be through the valleys, no idea why. Wishful thinking probably.
Day one was a pretty heavy day of walking, largely because it rained for the majority. Not only did this mean being completely covered in water, but also the ground was waterlogged at certain points. This meant for some fairly wet, muddy shoes as well as making the legs a bit more tired than they would normally be.
As walking goes, even in constant rain, the Peak District is one hell of a beautiful place. The rolling clouds and grey skies in some ways probably make it more visibly appealing than if it was a beautiful summers day, especially from the point of view of someone stopping ever five minutes to take photos.
The organisers, against my previous beliefs, had decided not to make this a nice leisurely walk. Instead the 25km route wound its way up and down some pretty damn steep climbs. There was even one point where I saw one in the distance and said to a chap walking next to me “imagine if we had to walk up that” jokingly. An hour later we did, and it was even harder than it looked.
By about 5pm on the first day I’d made my way to the campsite at Hope. At that point I was completely drenched and, although the sight of a pre-made tent was a lot nicer than the prospect of having to make one for myself, I wasn’t that keen on clambering inside. Instead I had a wander around the events area, complete with cooked food, beer, free smoothies and a live stage ready for the evening’s entertainment. Yep, you don’t get all that on the normal DofE.
To be honest though, I was at the event for the hiking, not for the entertainment, so instead of hanging around to watch the live show I decided to have a shower then explore the village. I ended up finding a nice little pub and sat down for a couple of hours drinking beer and drying off my clothes, before heading back to get an early night. My plan the next day was to leave as early as possible and power through in order to catch a train that meant I would get back to London early enough to have a bit of the evening left.
Everyone there seemed to be having a great time though. It was a bit like a mini festival, with people singing and laughing as the band played various cover tunes. It appeared the most of the people who took part in the event came as part of a group, so were probably looking forward to the entertainment more than I was.
I woke up at about 6am on the second day, quickly packed my stuff, grabbed a wash, then set off before anyone else. Although my sleep in the tent wasn’t too bad, the fact I haven’t used one for a large chunk of my adult life hadn’t adequately prepared me for it. Add to that the close proximity to other sleepers, some of them snoring, and I was desperate to make some distance. I’d also promised myself a Pizza when I got to Nottingham, so I had some heavy walking to do.
Day two was actually a bit easier than the first, largely because it wasn’t raining but also the fact the hills seemed to be a bit less dramatic. Without the need for a map I had absolutely no idea of the actual route we were taking around the Peak District, but after running through it on the train back to London it appeared we made a sort of winding circle around the two villages.
The highlight for me on this second day was walking through Castleton, a beautiful little village which marks the start of an amazing pass that appears like a chasm in the mountain, before heading out onto the high ridge behind it.
Aside from a few tricky climbs covered in mud, I managed to make my way to the finish line long before the 4pm train I’d planned to get on. By 1.30pm I’d already had a nice chat to the event staff at the Bamford and made my way to the train station. The promise of pizza can have an incredible effect on amount of effort I put in.
As events go, it’s a lovely way to spend a weekend. The signposted route, although the easier option, was still pretty challenging as walking routes go. I have absolutely no idea how long it would have taken me with a map, but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have been able to get the train back. Maybe next year.
Event organisation and planning was spot on. Not once did I miss a signpost or worry that I might be doing something wrong. Food and drinks stops are conveniently placed throughout the route each day, with friendly marshals on hand for a chat. The fact that they put up the tents for you is a massive bonus, literally, they put up hundreds of the things, from a couple of miles in the distance I thought it was some sort of solar energy filed.
If you’re completely new to walking then it’s the perfect opportunity to see what it’s like, safe in the knowledge that you have a load of people there to help along the way if you’re struggling. The range of abilities across the day was enormous.
2017 marks the first year for the event, but you can register your interest for both the challenge and the adventure elements for 2018. Click here to find out more.