The short walk to Bellever that evening proved tough, fighting back the tears as we found the entrance to the enchanted forest. I was a jumble of emotions as we wandered through the wooded glade, only to discover that our leaders were waiting alongside our assessors. There were boulders through the river, which we were to cross to reach our camp on the other side, but with our backpacks heavy, we took the safer option and walked back to the road, taking a bridge to the other side.
The assessors gazed over us as we wrestled with wet tent sheets and a clattering of pegs. We pulled together to get it down, all aware we were being watched. It was a gorgeous spot to make base, minus the growing swarm of nats (midgets) that came forward later that night. A blinding golden light illuminated the footbridge and striking rays beamed down from between the trees. My mobile had died so I couldn’t capture that scene, but instead savoured that moment, a joyous thread in the weave of time.
It was late before I made food that night, the sun had all but vanished and the nats were out in force. I was damned to eat on the move to avoid the hovering nuisances. Sleep wasn’t great either, with a shallow dent in the grass below my tent I struggled to get comfortable, the blood rushed to my head and my nose bled. Blocked up I struggled to breathe, I had no charge in my phone and was forced to fumble for my survival bag to stop myself from shivering.
The tranquil setting had been punctured by my discomfort, but I awoke the following morning, determined to do better. It didn’t last long as my chest tightened dramatically on our first climb out of camp. I paused, scrambled for chocolate in my pocket, (which quickly crumbled) and took my time to get to the top. I struggled to keep up and tried to remain calm. Luckily this scary spell of pain passed almost as fast as it had occurred and we ploughed on over the hill and down the road to a hidden dirt track.
After initially missing our turning, we doubled-back and found it, before pushing down through bush and bramble, trying not to trip over half-exposed rocks. At the tail end of this long and rather treacherous trail was a cute bend of a dozen plus steeping stones, which I flew over, much ahead the rest. You can turn the child into an adult, but there is always a child within! We only travelled the length of a field before reaching a second smaller set of stepping stones, before continuing over further tors. By-passing working farms and intimidating fields of grazing cows, we really pushed through the rising heat to meet our leaders by Princetown.
When eventually our paths met, we sat and rested, observing the cute scene of a mother and her foal cwtching by a neighbouring gate. We were fairly weather-beaten and due to safety concerns we were pulled aside and fully rehydrated before marching on over the moors and down towards the welcome shade of a thick forest. Wandering down the gravel path, I gazed up to find myself confronted by the most mesmerising scene. It was like one of those dreamy photographs on Pinterest. Contained tight by lines of firs either side, the path meandered onward, towards the great rising spectacle of an ominous standing tor before us. It was really one of those scenes you though you could only find in America or the vast wilderness of Canada, but no, this was the captivating scenery of Dartmoor, England. Undoubtedly another of those, I wished I’d taken a photo, but the scene for too enchanting not to witness solely in that moment instead.
The final slog took guts and real effort, to push upward on a virtually empty stomach ,whilst desperate for the loo. The views were delightful, as we bypassed a lone camper and his dog, lounging by a canal, continental sounds drifting playfully from his van. Following the waterway we drew out of the forest and up a further hill to reach the road once more.
Reaching the base of Leedon Tor we were quizzed by our assessors on first aid scenarios and the Countryside Code. This would be the penultimate passing between us and the finish line the next day. The sun had already fallen as we pitched on the tor that night, windy nearly sweeping our tents away on the unprotected plain. I stayed up long enough to watch the sun turn red and bed itself behind the clouds.
Though I went to bed flat out, with sparse food and the fear of being trampled in my sleep by the roaming herd of cows, I still awoke at 5.30am the following morning with optimism present. That was until our 6.30am start-off became 8am, which begrudgingly annoyed me, up on time and raring to go. Setting off as such slightly dishevelled, we traipsed over tor after tor, ploughing through the bi-polar weather, until we reached an ideal resting place for lunch, beside a cairn.
There was very little left of the trek, but we made time for one last group photo before the finish to document our time. We questioned paths and stared down further cows, improvised to cross barbed-wire fences and lost our leader on the final tor. But in time we etched toward the road once more, this time we homeward bound.
Copyright: Menna Hanford
By this stage you could visualise the finish, but even now it proved hard to push on. Slowly we picked up the pace, back aching, legs shaking, heads spinning we mustered on. I tried for a sprint finish, but my body reckoned it was seriously going to faint or take a stoke if I pushed it anymore and so I steadily made toward the mini-bus in sight. Those final moments are a true compilation of emotions rising to the boil and I crossed that line beaming! The thrill and joy and relief accumulates, you can’t help but smile. It doesn’t hit you straight away just what you’ve truly accomplished, as you’re rushed off to be reviewed by the assessors. You’re on tender hook until they claim that you’ve passed and you’re pleased undoubtedly, but it still hasn’t really sunk in.
Copyright: Scott Thomas
Looking back a week on from that finish line I can wholeheartedly say it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever partaken in or achieved. It was more than just the Gold Award, there were so many small personal accomplishments, I learnt a lot about myself and tested my limits, it’s a challenge for a reason and I’m glad I didn’t give up!
Dartmoor National Park is an outstanding area of natural beauty, which I would thoroughly recommend you visit for peace and solitude, it’s a place to escape the modern world. Do respect the Countryside Code when visiting, we want to keep it just a nice for future generations too. For more information on the Duke of Edinburgh Award, look at the official website or search around your local area for the nearest participating centre.