Jim’ll Thicket

Now then, now then, first things first.  An apology for the title of this post.  And an even bigger apology for the pun and tenuous association with the actual subject matter!

(Sir) Jimmy Saville who died this weekend was known for his brightly coloured shell suits and big chunky jewellery.  And his chair which seemed to have endless secret storage places out of which he’d magically produce the badge and sometimes other goodies too.  As children, I think we all wanted to go on the show, not so much to be on TV (which I’m sure would be people’s main motivation nowadays), but to have a once in a lifetime experience and, certainly in my case, to return home with huge armfuls of free stuff that the benefactor bestowed on me.  Indeed, the only reason I never wrote in to the show was that I couldn’t work out what to ask Jim to fix that would be likely to maximise my yield of goodies.

Back then, my only real insight into some of the exciting and interesting things that life had to offer came from that show, and I never expected to have access to many of them, if I’m honest with myself.  A sheltered childhood and then a career as an accountant beckoned.  But somehow since those days I’ve lived in a pub, been on TV, met one of my heroes (twice), discovered the mountains, been to the arctic and, of course, started this blog!

Something else I didn’t think I’d be doing at the weekends was running around a wood and thwacking my way through undergrowth on a cold autumn day for fun.  But that’s what I spent this Sunday morning doing.  Actually, this was my second go at orienteering, as at the start of October, after a couple of years of my wife and daughter doing it, for some reason I still don’t understand, I decided to go along and give it a try.

Why it took me so long, I don’t know.  You’d have thought that, well before now, I’d have been all over an outdoors activity that I can do when I can’t be in the hills, and requiring highly developed map reading skills.  And like Jimmy, I too could run around in brightly coloured shell suits.

The first event: Saturday 1 October 2011 – Latton Woods, Harlow

For my first foray into the thickets, I chose an Orange course.  Orienteering courses are graded White, Yellow, Orange, Red, Light Green, Green, Blue, Brown and Black in ascending order of difficulty and course length.  White and Yellow are really for kids, and Orange is targetted at the adult beginner.  Orange is also the course my wife usually does, so it seemed the logical choice.  But, as I intended to run, where she walks, and as I consider myself to be pretty handy with a map, I wanted to beat her, even though it was my first time.

It didn’t start well, with the whole family going astray on the way to the start, but we made it eventually.  The pressure was immediately on as I found myself starting first.  I picked up my map (below) and headed east(ish) along the path aiming to take a right at the first junction and then be on the right path to take me to the first control.  This worked but I couldn’t see a likely looking spot from the path and went too far.  For some reason I then turned right off the path, having seen a glimpse of someone else moving through the undergrowth.  In moments I was at a control, but it was the wrong one.  Back to the path I headed and retreated a little way before hacking through to where I thought the pond should be.

Orienteering course 1 October 2011
Orienteering course 1 October 2011

I’d used so much time doing this that I saw my wife coming down the path towards me, just as I spotted the depression where the pond ought to be.  This made it difficult to visit the control without giving the game away.  Or rather, the fact that I then paused at the control working out my route to the next one gave the game away.

For the second control I returned to the path and headed south-west to the junction with a bigger path then east until about the spot I judged that I would need to turn off to thwack my way through to the control, between two more ponds.  All logic departed me as I hunted in vain for the ponds and I found myself going in circles.  This wasted time, but I did, more through luck than judgement, find the control eventually.

Cursing myself for using trial and error rather than skill, I now faced a longer run to control 3, a seemingly straightforward jog along two paths to find a large pond in a clearing.  I got going, turned the corner onto the second path, and all of a sudden was falling, in s-l-ow m-o-t-i-o-n.  I could sense I was losing my balance but couldn’t do anything about it and hit the ground hard, banging my knee and then falling onto my ribs.  Winded, I rolled over and lay on my back for nearly a minute, while I worked out if I’d done serious damage.  Then I gingerly got up and as I could breathe ok, reasoned that I had probably escaped serious injury and probably just bruised myself.

I got going, walking at first then trotting, largely to see if I still could.  Up ahead I saw my wife crossing from left to right, clearly leaving control 3.  I wasn’t surprised that she was ahead of me, given my accident.  I quickly found the pond and now had to head north-east for an earth bank.  This happened without a hitch and as I left the control and turned the corner of the out of bounds area on the left, saw her ahead of me.

But Amanda’s tactic is usually to stick to paths and only leave them at the last minute.  I decided to head straight for the control cross-country and try to recover some time.  Just after a path junction and before the path did a curve to the right and back to its original course, I followed what looked like a track that according to my reading of the map would take me straight to the control.  Unfortunately, I didn’t read the legend at the foot of the map as the brown dotted line I thought I was following as a small path should actually have been a ditch.

Now I really lost loads of time as I struggled in vain to find the control and again found myself going in circles. Luckily, at one point I found myself close to the edge of the woods and from this was able to re-orientate myself.  I eventually found the control after 12 minutes of desperate scouring of the woods.

I was now over 8 minutes behind Amanda, but this was the last navigational difficulty I had and from here on it was plain sailing.  Number 6 was off-path, but a line formed by a change of thick tree cover to a more open area led straight to it.  7 was just off the same path, on the left in a thicket.  Done.  8 was the easiest of the lot – at a crossroads of two major paths.  And on the way to 8, as I couldn’t run the whole way (a combination of fitness and injury), I’d already worked out number 9.  At the control, I headed south west directly through the undergrowth and trees to number 9.  Then continued south-west to pick up a short stretch of path to take me back to the main one.  On the way, I saw Amanda heading towards me and number 9, suggesting that she’d probably gone wrong.  Now I had a chance.

On the path, a short sprint south, a turn west and the control was on the left where another path broke off south-east.  Then I played safe by returning to the main path and going round the edge of the woods to number 11, another path junction control.   12 was straightforward, following an intermittent path.  Then along the paths and a dive into the undergrowth brought me to 13, which I’d already been to, as it turned out, but which looked very different from this angle.  I sprinted down the path to the finish, where I found my son and daughter waiting.  I sat and waited for Amanda, hoping she’d be at least 5 minutes after me.

We saw her in the distance clearing heading between 12 and 13, but it seemed to take ages for her to come down the path to the finish.  When she did come, we compared notes.  She’d lost time massively on 9, 10 and 11 which I’d breezed through, and ended up with a time of 80:12 compared with my satisfying, under the circumstances, 55:53.

I got home and reviewed my performance.  I needed to learn the special map symbols more thoroughly – I’d been reading a ditch for a path, which lost me bags of time on number 5.  According to Amanda, this had been quite a hard orange course, and I made the decision pretty quickly that I’d move up to a harder course next time.  That’s assuming there would be a next time.  It’s a dangerous game.

The second event: Sunday 30 October – Thorndon Country Park (South), near Brentwood

A colder and greyer day for my second event.  I decided that I’d try something harder for two reasons.  First, Amanda had said that the previous one had been quite hard for an orange, and because I wanted to move up to a level where I could score more points in the local league.  To do this, I’d need to do a green, but I first wanted to make sure I was happy with the level of it, so chose a light green this time – a shorter course at the same level of difficulty as the full green course.

The car park was full, and there were kids milling about everywhere.  A couple of private schools had pupils taking part which caused some confusion at the start, but ultimately as they were doing yellow, didn’t delay me much.  The three of us all started at the same time as we were all doing different courses.  I jogged over to the box and picked up my map.

Orienteering Course 30 October 2011
Orienteering Course 30 October 2011

A few metres down the path I stopped and actually looked at the map.  And got my compass out.  There’s nothing quite so disorientating as orienteering as I found last time, having approached the same point several times during the course and it having looked completely different each time.

I needed to head south-west, so crossed through the trees and emerged onto open land which sloped gently downhill.  I struck off south-west, all the time feeling that it wasn’t quite right.   I spotted a west heading path into the trees again and took it, then cut left and found the control without too much difficulty.  Ok, maybe I was worrying over nothing.

Back to the path then diagonally north west from the next crossroads took me to number 2 in a gully.  Not too bad.  The path was just beyond this and I followed this northish to join a main path by a lake. With a choice of following a smaller path alongside the lake, or continuing on the main path, I kept to the main path, through a gate, a field and then another gate.  I ducked right into the trees to briefly join the lakeside path and then almost immediately struck off downhill to find number 3 by an earth wall next to a stream.  Ok, this isn’t going too bad I thought to myself, albeit clearly more demanding than my previous time.  I cut north up the side of the valley to being me to more open land and headed for the corner of the area to hopefully hit number 4 dead-on.

At least, that was the thinking.  I went astray and wasted 12 minutes finding it, going in circles and only finding the control when I used an electric fence as a “handrail” (not literally!!) to direct me to the small undergrowth filled depression where the control was.  I don’t think I will have been the only one to find this one difficult.  Now it was straightforward – through a gate, along a main path and then through the thicket on the left to number 6.  Back to the path then follow another east and another thicket to number 7.  Good.

I rejoined the path and followed it around, through a gate and crossed the head of a small valley.  Other competitors were here at the same time, not necessarily doing my course, although a couple I coincided with looked like they were.  They headed along the valley, while I took a slightly higher line, intending to cut down to the control a bit further on.  This seemed to work and I overtook them, then picked up the control in a small pit screened by a tree.  I crouched low as they went past on the other side of the valley.

Back to the path and number 9 was easy, simply located where a stream crossed the path.  Number 10 looked ok too on the map.  It should be easy to locate using all the path junctions and distances should be easily judged too.  I arrived at the approximate spot quickly and efficiently and headed into the trees to find the control.  Round in circles a couple of times and encountered someone else who clearly couldn’t find it either.  I realised I’d probably gone past it, and waded back through the thicket and found it in a small depression.  Costly in terms of time, but as I could see people wearing proper orienteering gear and club colours who couldn’t find number 10, that made me feel a whole lot better.

Although difficult, number 10 seemed to give me a boost and I sailed down the paths and through the trees directly to number 11.  Similarly for the next one, I took a direct line and found the path I’d originally entered the wood on at the start.  Downhill to find the control at a path junction behind some trees.  Now just a slog uphill to number 13 and the finish, and pleasingly my course was straight as an arrow.  Less pleasingly, I jogged to the finish and found I’d just gone over an hour with a time of 60:42.  But at 3.5km compared with last time’s 2.7km the time didn’t look at all bad.

And I got home and the results showed I’d made it into the top half. Good enough. I think I like this.  I have a new hobby, and one which will fit in well with my main passion for hill walking.

What does this all have to do with Jimmy, I hear you ask ?  Well, clearly not much, directly at least.  But his death reminded me of the days when I watched him on Saturday night TV, saw all the interesting and amazing things others were doing and I could only dream of.  I never realised then that it’s possible to make new and equally good things happen for yourself.  Jimmy may be gone, but it seems I never needed him to fix it for me anyway.

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