Cymru Culture

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Steve Lamb - The sponsored walk

(September 01, 2016)

The sponsored walk

Towards the end of my career I chaired a number of public consultation meetings when the local authority was proposing to close primary schools that were judged to be redundant. These meetings were highly charged and reflected the affection parents, grandparents and ex-pupils had for their local schools even if they were half empty. This angry opposition to change did not occur in the seventies when secondary modern schools were closed and comprehensive schools developed around the county’s grammar schools. Those who had benefited from the status of grammar school education regretted its passing but consultation was non-existent and opposition was weak. In the local authority where I worked, nearly 40 secondary schools disappeared without organised opposition. It is said that change management is the most difficult of leadership tasks yet significant changes in the education of our young people were secured.

At the time that these strategic changes were taking place I was an English teacher in a community where two 300/400 pupil secondary modern schools were closing and the grammar school was being extended and remodelled as a comprehensive school for up to 1500 pupils. For the families of one valley it meant that for the first time in its history all of its children had to commute to another valley for secondary education. Given the pride in locality that is so typical of south Wales, it is even more surprising that the revolution passed peacefully.

At the chalk face, as we used to say when a stick of chalk was the essential tool for every teacher, we were worried about how pupils would get on when the new school opened in September 1973. Children from schools which were currently rivals might not mix productively and peacefully when they were in classes and playgrounds together. We debated what could be done to help break down traditional animosities. The phrase team building was not used in those days but it was exactly what was needed. I don't remember who came up with the idea of a sponsored walk but it was a flash of brilliance. We were working in an area of natural beauty. We had easy and safe access to miles of rights of way that would easily give a circular walk of 10 miles with sensible check points and refreshment stops.

A combination of PE, geography and woodwork teachers formed the working party and by September in the opening term for the new school we were ready to walk the hills. We left the school fields at the Gangers’ Gate and followed the old railway track for half a mile before cutting across the car park of an isolated pub and starting the climb to the ridgeway. There was a bridge over what had been a colliery railway line and the headteacher stood there astonished. Over a thousand laughing and gossiping children were advancing from as far as could be seen. The start had been staggered and pupils were leaving the school in order of reverse seniority. Already the youngest were being overtaken and ambitious older boys and girls were running hoping to impress future pupils by setting an unbeatable school record.

The steep climb up to the first of the hill farms sorted out the overcrowded footpath and soon a straggly single file stretched across the hillside. From the farm we headed south along a rutted path which was completely under water in two places. In this area the land was never completely dry. When we came to the ruined church we had to turn left and head towards the forestry, passing the rocks with the carved message ‘Duw Cariad Yw’. This was where the first checkpoint had been set up and walkers had to have names ticked on form lists. At all of these landmarks there were teachers and prefects directing and encouraging, although at this point walkers were in good spirits and needed little encouragement. Skirting the western side of the extensive forestry we could see over to the Bristol Channel and to the coast of Devon. That first sponsored walk day took place in glorious September. Not all years were the same.

Eventually we were directed into the forestry and we walked the flinty trails until we came to a clearing where refreshments and first aid and an opportunity to rest were welcomed by all. Some of the children had never walked so far and they were just half way round the course. Others, far more in those days than now, thought of the hills as their playground and were used to exploring and roaming this territory throughout the long days of school holidays. These boys and girls had to be watched because they were liable to take off from the set course as they knew alternative ways back to school. We were checking all pupils carefully every few miles to ensure we knew where our charges were.

Following a break and with blisters taped and thirsts quenched we started back. After leaving the gloomy forest trails we rejoined our original path and re-traced our route for a mile or so and then turned north well before the old church with its abandoned graves. From this check point we took a direct route across country on green lanes that were like tunnels through a woody landscape to a different hill farm. Here we were directed to follow a steep and narrow way that suddenly ejected us opposite the Gangers’ Gate back at the top rugby pitch of the school. We had completed the walk and pupils had made new friends and seen so much of their area that had previously been unknown to many.

When the teachers manning checkpoints confirmed that all pupils were safe and the sweepers arrived back at school chivvying the stragglers before them then the day was judged to be a success. At the time we took this a little bit for granted. Looking back now I see it as a great triumph for the youngsters, the staff of the school and for the landscape where we were privileged to live and work. The sponsored walk continued in this form for over 25 years until new roads and concerns about safety limited the event to a number of laps of the perimeter of the school. But you can’t stand beneath an assurance that God loves you while looking across the broad estuary of the Severn to sun kissed green hills in Devon from inside the perimeter fence of the comprehensive school.

Steve Lamb, September 2016

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy Steve's previous stories:

     A typical day, June 2016
The school eisteddfod, March 2016
The school play, December 2015

Corridor duty, September 2015
End of an era, June 2015
Teacher training, March 2015
"... the best thing that happened to me in school", December 2014
The punishment, September 2014
The interview, June 2014

Steve Lamb is a retired teacher who lives in south Wales. In a career spanning more than forty years he worked as a teacher, local authority school improvement officer and inspector of education services for children and young people.


Steve Lamb - 2014 Steve Lamb - 1972
Steve Lamb ... now  ... and then (1972)


cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan:
Caregos Cyf., 2016


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