Earlier this year I wrote a post about one of my secondary school teachers, a woman called Mabel Pighills. She had been given copies of my first two books by her daughter and read them not knowing that she had once taught their author. When I returned to live in West Yorkshire and spent a few months working in the same school where I had studied and she had taught – The Brooksbank School in Elland – I was given a letter by her grandson, who was himself now a teacher at the school. In that letter, Mrs Pighills thanked me for writing the books and reflected upon her own travels.
Sadly, Mabel died in February and that prompted me to write a piece for CyclingEurope.org:
Two things have happened since I wrote that original post.
First of all, the school published a piece in their termly magazine about Mabel Pighills. It focussed especially on her enthusiasm for the annual first year camp to Wales. They had even found a few photographs from the early 1980s of life at ‘camp’:
Some of the faces in the large photograph in the bottom right-hand corner looked familiar; very familiar. And so they should as the photograph was taken in the summer of 1981 at a place called Benllech on the island of Anglesey. Somewhere in that crowd is me, although I have yet to identify myself…
If you have read Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie – my most recent book about the cycle from the southernmost point of Europe at Tarifa to the northernmost point at Norway – you may remember that I make reference to this first year school camp as it was the first time I had ever spent a night in a tent. I was reflecting upon the subject of tents and this is what I wrote:
Tents must rank as one of the oldest forms of human habitation, just a few rungs up the ladder of longevity from the cave. They were not invented with forty-something men on recreational career breaks in mind; they were, of course, created out of necessity. At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are the physiological requirements without which any human couldn’t survive: water, food and oxygen. But let’s face it, it’s also nice to wear clothes and have some form of shelter before we start to worry about such trivialities as safety, love and belonging. And this was just as true for the first humans as it is for their modern-day descendants. It seems a reasonable assumption that if you didn’t have a handy cave to sleep in but you did have a few animals that you were in the habit of killing for their meat, one day you would string an animal’s skin over a branch to keep out the rain at night. The tent had been invented.
Scroll forward in time to the summer of 1981 and a large field near Benllech on the island of Anglesey, just off the north coast of Wales. A long line of canvas tents had been erected and in each tent were four 11-year-old children trying desperately to stay warm at night. In the morning they would spend several minutes flicking earwigs from their sleeping bags and several more minutes wondering why it had ever seemed like a good idea to sign up for first year school camp. I was one of those children and I was experiencing my first ever week in a tent.
In the several tens of thousands of years between its invention and my trip to Wales, the tent hadn’t fundamentally changed. It was still a large expanse of thick material lifted above the ground by a wooden pole. I dare say my tent in Anglesey was just as draughty, just as insect-ridden, just as heavy and just as difficult to dry as the tents of early man.
But look what has happened in the last 30 years. Should I be so inclined, I can drive to my local outdoor shop and, within half an hour, have purchased the kind of tent about which Edmund Hillary (and I in 1980) could have only dreamt. For a couple of hundred pounds I can buy a hydrostatic (waterproof to you and me), lightweight (under 3 kg) and fire retardant tunnel tent (with a porch no less) designed with a double skin and manufactured from a mixture of breathable polyester and siliconised nylon all supported by alloy DAC (not quite sure what that stands for) anodised poles and it will come complete with an earwig-resistant groundsheet (i.e. no gaping holes through which they can crawl). Should I have a friend (or get lucky on my travels), it will comfortably sleep two and the whole thing can be packed into a bag that’s only 41 cm long.
A couple of years ago, I did feel so inclined and the description above is that of the tent I bought and have been using ever since. As with everything ‘outdoor’, many of its specifications were wasted on a casual adventurer such as myself, but it was good to know that the innovations were there should I ever decide to go commando. The fact that it would stay erect in winds of up to 150km/hr – that’s off the Beaufort Scale by some way – was reassuring the next time it got a bit breezy.
“A long line of canvas tents had been erected and in each tent were four 11-year-old children trying desperately to stay warm at night.“
Well, there are the very tents I was referring to in the book, just as I remember them. You can see that every morning we were required to roll up the sides of the tents and put our camping beds outside, presumably ‘to air’. I wonder who we were listening to in the picture and I wonder what he was telling us…
The second thing to happen is that Ben Mounsey, Mabel Pighills’ grandson and the colleague who gave me her original letter, has once again been in contact. He has been going through his grandmother’s things and has come across another letter, addressed to me but one that she never managed to send:
Dear Mr Sykes,
You’ve done it again! Another blockbuster!
I intended hanging on to your coat-tails, but you didn’t have any. Your lycra shorts were so tight a flea couldn’t hide so I travelled in your slip stream re-visiting the many countries my son and I camped in years ago.
What a pity you did not land on the arctic circle monument, perhaps shuffled your feet where my footsteps had been. Rested Reggie against it. He would have smiled.
There’s always a fly in the ointment. Those dammed degrees are all mumbo-jumbo to me. (Bet Reggie would agree.)
Where next? I don’t like the tropics – too hot and sticky but I could enjoy relaxing on a boomerang following you across NZ!
All the best for the future,
Mabel W Pighills
It’s curious, but touching, that she insisted on referring to me as ‘Mr Sykes’. Her reference to the Arctic Circle is because I sailed across the circle on a ferry rather than crossed it on land. I managed to see the monument she refers to but not actually stand beside it. Her dislike of the ‘degrees’ is in reference to the structure of the book with each of the chapters being the story of how I crossed each line of latitude as I cycled south to north. There were 35 of them in all. The original title for the book was going to be ‘The 35 Degrees‘ until the publishers decided otherwise. She would probably have approved of their decision.
I wonder what Mabel was thinking when she read the section of the book quoted above where I reflected back upon my experiences of being at school camp. Did she realise that she was reading about the very same camp where she was in charge? We will never know…