Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Back to Britain Part 6: The Pembrokeshire Coast
The sixth form trip to the Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales promised to be a bit different. To be fair when the teacher taking the trip was Mr. L, known to everybody else as Moss Chops, due to his unkempt beard, it was bound to be a bit different.
To understand Moss Chops’ appearance, think Gimli in the Lord of the Rings; his personality was a different matter altogether. Also Moss Chops rather neatly escapsulated all of those teacher stereotypes from hell; corduroy jackets with arm patches, chunky cable knit sweaters and an after shave that was a pungent mix of body odor and stale coffee.
And this wasn’t a one day trip; here’s a castle; look at the arrow holes; let’s fill in a worksheet; sorted.
Nope this was a week of hard walking with backpacks, tents and a minimum of preparation.
So we jumped on a mini bus and before we knew it we were setting up tents under the dreaming spires of Milford Haven oil terminal. Moss Chops wanted to go to the pub and while we were all under age, he decided to handpick a few of us who looked like we were capable of growing facial hair to head to the local boozer. Moss Chops looked somewhat disenchanted when I ordered wine, so hastily I changed my order to beer.
The first day of walking, at least 10 miles over the cliffs, proved to be a shock to the system. Moss Chops had ordered some bulk surplus rucksacks that lacked waist belts and chafed at our shoulders. As the temperatures soared and the backpacks became heavier, we started to wonder if we would survive the experience at all, let along complete 110 miles.
We camped on some remote cliffs near St Anne’s head where there were no washrooms. We had an earth fight in which Moss Chops succeeded in hitting me on the head with a large stone.
As the days went by, I became more and more conscious that Moss Chops appeared to hate me. I can’t say I blamed him. At that stage I did a lot of wisecracking and acted in a precocious manner. I would have probably hurled a rock at my 16-year-old self.
But admiration for a Tornado bomber as it soared low over the cliffs, failed to endear me to him.
“Evil killing machine,” he muttered as he trudged down the path.
I earned his permanent enmity by suggesting his unwavering loyalty for the regimes of Eastern Europe might be misplaced and nobody wanted to live under Communism in gray tower blocks, driving around in rickety Trabants and waiting for four hours for a sausage on the days they weren’t arrested for thought crimes.
Moss Chops bad mouthed me to my pal Kevin, who he made clear he preferred, but at least he kept me on the drinking list, even after I described his friend’s pub as a “hovel.”
Of course there were other distractions; Eales, for example, was the captain of the school football team and an erstwhile all round athlete now fighting a losing battle against weight. Two days on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and he was whining about blisters and calling his mother. Eales went home.
But we trudged on, up cliffs and down into valleys. When we had the energy we lost ourselves in the seascape and the beauty of the place. But most days we struggled to survive.
I’ve never felt such a feeling of accomplishment as the day we walked down the main street of a small town somewhere near Cardigan. We had blisters but we were transformed. And there was something sad about the fact our fellowship seemed to be at an end.
That fellowship never extended to Moss Chops. When we got back to school, he called me into his office one day and gave me a lecture about being cynical.
Superficially, it appeared to be about his friend’s “hovel” in Newport. But I know he was really taking me to task for undermining his Stalinist dream and for showing enthusiasm for the supersonic jets of the Royal Air Force.