Venturing with Vowlesy: Independent Hiking and Backpacking

As leader of the Stags, I used to face Roger Graville, nicknamed Sandy, at Flag Break and Flag Down. Sandy was leader of Panther Patrol, but he didn’t seem interested in anything other than Troop meetings and Chevin camps, so I went alone to a weekend course for Patrol Leaders. Some twenty of us rolled out our sleeping bags on the wooden boards of Pool Village Hall and learned what Scout leaders thought we should know about our role.

I don’t remember any direct benefit, but I enjoyed the afternoon in Creskeld Woods where we did some exciting pioneering projects. We lashed poles together to form A-frames for crossing ditches, and we climbed blindfolded over a horizontal bar fixed two metres high between two trees. There were, however, indirect benefits and a lot of consequent fun, because on this weekend I met Dave Vowles, otherwise known as Vowlesy.

Vowlesy was a member of the Salem Scouts. He was two years older than me and went to the same grammar school. He was a sallow youth with an abnormally fast-growing beard, and he lived on Weston Estate. When I mentioned his name to Mum she said, ‘Oh, that’ll be May Hanson’s lad. She married Jim Vowles.’

A couple of weeks after the patrol leaders’ course Vowlesy approached me at school and suggested a hike. The upshot of this was that a small gang, including me and Robert, joined up to follow his lead across the local terrain. I wonder now why he chose to recruit us, two years his junior. Maybe he didn’t hit it off with his classmates. Or maybe the Salem had suffered from the same recruitment gap in his age group as the 2nd Otley, because I don’t remember many lads his age in that Troop.

Vowlesy was a fan of Emile Ford who, in the late nineteen fifties, recorded numbers like ‘Slow Boat to China’. He played Emile Ford’s discs until he knew every note and word, and he sang the songs to us as we hiked. He could also recite a huge repertoire of Goon Show and Round The Horne extracts, presenting a one-man show and mimicking all the voices. His performances drove us to either hysterical laughter or depressive hysteria, sometimes both in the course of one walk, because Vowlesy could never shut up. (I later discovered that, even when asleep, his teeth were forever chattering.) When he wasn’t regaling us with Emile Ford or radio shows, he droned on about fishing, which I never engaged in and didn’t want to, and about his unfulfilled desire to go out with Paddy Spencer, his classmate and the younger sister of Neil, one of the Senior Scouts in his Troop.

In the next couple of years, I tramped all over the locality with Vowlesy. Robert and I were established at Grammar School and had drifted away from Michael, who was at the Secondary Modern. I rarely saw the Catholic lads unless we met on Scout activities, which were of declining interest to me. Dividing lines were being inked in.

One day Vowlesy said he’d like to repeat his First Class Hike and asked if I’d fancy doing it with him. We chewed it over and persuaded Guzzy and Robert to join us. We borrowed tents from the Scouts and rode by bus to Bolton Abbey then walked to High Skyreholme, northeast of Appletreewick. We camped by the stream, our two tents pitched a few feet apart. In the dark hours I awoke with freezing feet and an icy hip. As I stirred, Guzzy moved in his sleeping bag.

I said to him, ‘I’m cold.’
He said, ‘It’s raining,’ and turned over.

I then realised I wasn’t just cold, I was wet. We’d pitched our tent in a hollow, and my side was filling with water. I got out and shouted at Vowlesy and Robert to acquaint them with our situation. They answered, though not constructively, along the lines that there wasn’t much they could do about it.

I crept back in to spend the rest of the night wet and cold, until it was agreed we had no option but to get up and try lighting a fire. That proved a challenge too far in the prevailing conditions. After some sort of breakfast we decided that since we were already wet we might just as well press on with the hike, which was planned to end at Fewston in time to catch the bus back to Otley.

The clouds were low and the rain poured for every step we took across Pockstones Moor. It continued all the way down the Washburn valley, abating just before we arrived at Fewston, where Samuel Ledgard’s blue bus was the most welcome sight in the world. The old chariot noisily bounced back to Otley as we sat wordless on the top deck. We were wringing wet and mightily relieved, but despite the discomfort I felt a real sense of achievement, having come through the sleepless night and the long hike in foul weather.

Other backpacking expeditions with Vowlesy followed, the best being with Alec Marsden, when the three of us hiked around Littondale and Upper Wharfedale in astonishingly good weather, camping on farms and eking out our limited spending money. One unforgettable morning I crept early from the tent to find myself standing at the edge of a lake of mist that filled the valley and ended at my feet, while the sky above was cloudless and the sun warm on my back. Such moments made up for an awful lot of rain and snow.

This informal enjoyment of the countryside in the company of friends suited me. We who had met through Scouting increasingly drifted away from the movement. In winter we walked in search of the deepest snowdrifts, whilst in summer we hiked or cycled to a spot where we could swim in a stream or river. Our daftest plunge took place one Halloween at Knotford Nook, where the Washburn joins the Wharfe. For reasons of temperature, this was never repeated, and it turned out to be the last time Michael Hardy and I went hiking together.

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