A couple of days after Prince Philip died, I received an email from the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award asking me to contribute any memories I had of completing the award to an online forum.
Thinking back, the expeditions immediately stood out to me as the most memorable part of my D of E experience.
For those who don’t know, the D of E is an award created by Prince Philip and is designed to help young people develop skills that will benefit them in their adult life.
As part of completing each level of the award (Bronze, Silver and Gold), participants are required to go on an expedition.
This expedition takes the form of a multi-day hike and is designed to help participants develop resilience and self-reliance by taking them out of their comfort zone.
During the day, you walk through the countryside in a group of 4-6 people, carrying your cooking and sleeping equipment with you, and, at night, you set up your tents and camp.
Now, this may sound like quite a fun experience; an opportunity to make new friends and immerse yourself in nature. And it could well be if it weren’t for the fact that the majority of D of E expeditions are conducted in some of the wettest, most windswept locations in the UK, such as the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands.
Camping in the Lake District is less about roasting marshmallows under the stars and more about trying desperately to get your tiny stove to light under a massive pissing rain cloud.
As a result of the weather, you tend to spend the majority of your time on a D of E expedition in a state of perpetual dampness.
It is virtually impossible to keep all your stuff dry.
Even if you don’t have the misfortune of full-on falling into a river, the rain find will most likely find a way of seeping into your backpack, even if you’ve triple lined it with bin bags.
Setting up a tent in the rain without getting the inner lining wet is also extremely tricky.
If it happens to be windy as well, the canvas will flap about all over the place, sometimes attempting to fly away from you, sometimes blowing directly into you and smothering you whilst you walk around like some soggy tent zombie trying to free yourself.
Of course, trying to build a tent in freezing cold sideways rain is far from ideal. However, pointing this out to your expedition supervisor is basically an exercise in futility.
If you do happen to complain about the situation to a teacher, they will most likely look down at you from the warmth of their heated minibus and say something along the lines of:
After this, they will probably leave you to your own devices, saying that they’re going to get an ‘early night’ which, for those uninitiated with the D of E, is teacher code for ‘going down the pub’.
Because of the high levels of rain, the ground that you walk on during a D of E expedition tends to be quite soggy and uneven.
Occasionally, you get the luxury of walking along a well-defined path but more often you end up having to navigate open fields, rocky hillsides and full-on bogs.
In addition, to this you are also carrying a heavy backpack with all your stuff in which really messes with your centre of gravity.
I discovered this on my very first Bronze practice expedition when my group were walking across a boggy field.
Around a quarter of the way across the field, I put my foot down, assuming that the ground below it was solid, only to feel my leg suddenly sink into a concealed pool of muddy water.
I pitched forward and landed face first in the bog.
Under normal circumstances, I would have been able to get back up again quite easily.
However, because I had all my belongings for the weekend strapped to my back, I found myself pinned down with my cheek pressed into the bog, unable to move.
In a dubious display of D of E team-working spirit, the rest of my group laughed hysterically at me for at least a minute before helping me up.
The fact that the majority of D of E expeditions are based in the British countryside also means that participants tend to come face to face with some of the UK’s most dangerous animals, including sheep, horses, midges and, the most fearsome of all, cows.
Before starting my D of E, I was not particularly afraid of cows. However, before starting our Bronze expedition, we were all given a lecture on the dangers of cows by a gruff CCF man who was supervising our trip.
At this point, some of the boys burst into laughter. Meanwhile, I was sat a few metres away, imagining a cow moving in for the kill whilst the Jaws music played ominously in the background.
Two days later, I encountered some cows in the flesh. They were standing in a field that my group needed to walk across to stay on route. We decided to walk around the edge of the field in order to keep distance between us and the cows.
Initially, this tactic worked quite well. The cows barely noticed our presence until one of the straps on my backpack became snagged on a tree branch.
I reached around and tugged at the strap in order to release it. When it came loose, the tree branch snapped backwards loudly, drawing the attention of the cow closest to me in my direction.
I turned around the cow’s gaze met mine.
I’m not sure if my life flashed before my eyes but, if it did, I was too scared to notice.
There I was, participating in an award that was supposed to help me develop skills that would set me up for the rest of my life and now it seemed the rest of my life was going to be non-existent because I was going to get sat on by a cow.
The last thing I was going to see before I died was a cow’s arse.
Needless to say, I panicked. I tried to throw myself over the stone wall that lined the field but the weight of the bag on my back meant that I did not get as much height as I had originally intended.
As a result, I ended up doing some weird chest bump with the wall before falling backwards onto my backpack. After spending a few moments waving my limbs about like some sort of upended tortoise, I managed to roll over and get back on my feet.
The cow watched all of this nonchalantly and then, obviously deciding that I was too much of an idiot to be a threat, it went back to chewing grass whilst I hurried to catch up with the rest of the group.
That night I lay wide-eyed in my tent, hyper-alert to every noise that sounded outside the tent, convinced Cowzilla was out on the prowl.
Contrary to expectations, coming face to face with a cow was not the scariest experience I endured on my D of E award.
Instead, this award goes to an incident involving a bit of dodgy map reading and an encounter with Mountain Rescue. But that’s a story for another time… (and by ‘another time’, I mean whenever I get round to writing a post about it).
I’m not sure exactly what I was supposed to take away from my Duke of Edinburgh expeditions. I think Prince Philip intended for young people to develop as people by taking part in them and, if developing a lifelong phobia of cows counts as character growth, I guess it’s mission accomplished.