I've just got back from a weekend residential course at Northern College: the course was 'navigation for walkers.' The college is based at Wentworth Castle, an impressive eighteenth century stately home just a few miles to the south west of Barnsley. It's surrounded by extensive grounds and gardens which incorporate a tall obelisk, a rotunda, and a Greek temple in their design... and a fairytale ruined castle built that way as a folly; all dating from the same period as the house itself.
It's a two-hourly bus service out to the college and the timing meant that I arrived at 1:15 for a three o'clock induction. This gave me plenty of time to settle in and take some photographs of the house, grounds, and gardens.
I was accommodated in a very nice single room in the Stables Block; sharing the toilet, kitchen and shower along the corridor with only one other person.
I left my bags secure in my room and headed straight for the 'castle' at the top of the hill, passing the obelisk on the way. I eagerly climbed all the way up the spiral staircase to the top of the main tower; being careful not to provoke the dragon.
There was another tower which I didn't climb up though.
The induction tour lasted for ninety minutes; Rachel, the woman who did it was totally unique, wearing a skin-tone 1960s-style air stewardess' uniform with what looked like tightly-folded matching napkins positioned as epaulettes-cum-shoulder-pads, metal chains hanging from every pocket, large chunky shiny metallic bangles and random pieces of ripped shoe leather clinging to her arms and wrists...and a combined tea cosy/ coiled first aid bandage sitting precariously on her head, ready to pounce - all the time speaking in a broad Barnsley accent and perching on six-inch-high leopard skin design platform shoes. Amazing...once seen, never forgotten.
After the evening meal we had a two hours classroom session covering map and compass work. This was practical and very good, mainly finding out what the symbols on a map mean, and then moving on to grid references and compass bearings.
On Saturday morning I woke up to find a grey squirrel running across the grass outside my bedroom window...and my camera battery flat; so, unfortunately I was unable to take any photographs on Saturday and Sunday.
After breakfast we returned to the classroom to discuss other issues. We had to pay for lunch; breakfast and the evening meal are included in the cost of £39 [which I didn't have to pay because I'm unemployed/disabled] - it was only £2.50 though for a main course, pudding, and cup of tea.
We had a bit of time to get changed into our walking clothes, and started the walk at about 1:30.
The walk was about four miles long, in some lovely countryside surrounding the college; basically the eastern foothills of the Pennines. In pairs, we all got the opportunity to lead the group; navigating the course using map and compass. The weather was a bit cloudy and cool to begin with, but soon improved. Overall, the walk went well; one woman who seemed to be rather unwell struggled a bit though, but even she finished in good spirits. The pacing exercises were good fun; and we even saw some deer in the deer park located in front of the house.
There was no evening class on Saturday; we were set some 'homework' instead - completing our workbooks; all 29 questions...however, resting an OS map on a single bed isn't the most accurate way of checking grid references and compass bearings though.
On Sunday morning we had fun doing a short orienteering course, taking in all the interesting sights in the grounds and gardens. At the end of the navigation course I didn't have to hang around waiting for the bus; I was offered a lift back to Doncaster.
My overall impressions: A lovely location and surroundings, adequate accommodation and decent meals; and a really challenging and enjoyable course.
However, I think the subject matter covered tended to be a bit too academic and classroom-focussed, and the skills, knowledge and techniques learned would not be of much practical use when out walking on the moors. It might be straight-forward and easy to take a bearing or check map co-ordinates in the classroom, when the map is fully open and laid flat on the table, however it's almost impossible when it's cold, wet, and windy in some of the wilder parts of the Peak District.
I would have appreciated some time being devoted to navigating when you're only able to realistically use your compass to locate north, learning the points of the compass and their relationship to bearings, and using a few practical geographical and geological terms to describe a route or location.
To be honest I already know most of what we did on this course, but it's re-assuring to confirm what facts and techniques I do know...and therefore assess what I'm capable of achieving in any particular situation and make the correct, safe decision.