Bolton School Former Pupils

Trek Camp - memories of the latter years

The astonishing unique event that was Trek Camp might have been moribund when I arrived, fresh-faced and new to the profession, to teach A-level Economics in 1974.  Modern teenage jargon would no doubt label CHI a legend – to which epithet he would have a better claim than most, given his colossal range and depth of knowledge of all matters classical – but Clifford was, by then, very much at the end of his monumental Bolton School career and only part-time; my first would be his last trek to Italy, Greece and Turkey.  I was up for much in those early years.  Be it in class or over a glass or two, the likes of Upper Sixth trek regulars Paul Sweeney, Jed Livingstone and Dave Foden dropped hints of travel adventures and misadventures, of classical sites and comical sights; this seemed like the marvellous undergraduate Summer sojourns of recent memory but on a larger scale – AMP, too, used his charms to get me to join the small band of staff and, of course, trek did not die – Clifford came on only two more but Alan took over.  CHI had been running foreign treks for nigh on three decades, but AMP went on to lead over twenty and I was his lieutenant throughout. 

Bolton School Trek, by this time, was a misnomer as it did not involve walking across natural terrain enjoying open air and natural scenery as the term might suggest and, indeed, some similar schools were still involved in such expeditions.  The 70s trips lasted for over three weeks and, whilst this shrank to around 20 days by the turn of the century, trek had a further quarter century of post-CHI life until finally, in 2002, my illness and AMP’s retirement were enough to lay to rest a unique entity.  We always aimed for 4 or 5 scheduled stops, often, it seemed, using as many means of transport as appropriate – or occasionally highly inappropriate (a favourite photo involves me speeding through the outskirts of Tangiers sitting on top of a mound of rucksacks and boxes on the back of an overloaded truck with whose driver we had somehow come to an agreement over getting kit, if not people, to our campsite – heaven knows who took the photo and where he was perched!).  Despite certain views to the contrary, every trek’s itinerary was designed to include the range of culture that was not readily available to teenage Northern day school boys … admittedly less so in the latter days, as family and even independent travel caught up with trek, but major sites of ancient and modern history and architecture plus natural historical phenomena were our guide.   

Given the events of that 1975 trip, that I, indeed trek itself, continued is perhaps surprising.  Via coach, boat, train, vaporetto and foot, first stop was Venice.  We were to cook over wood so, once tents were erected and boxes and the crate positioned, the enthusiasm of youth led to my leading the first wood fag.  All was going well … or so we thought.  We dragged variously-sized branches and saplings from what appeared to be common land, but the carabinieri (Italian military police!) soon appeared and I quickly learnt some Italian – or rather the gist of what gun-toting bare-chested Italian police were saying – we got away with returning it all and back-up gas bottles were used for the first stop’s cooking.  The passage of time now allows us to admit that this was hardly the last time in those many years we had contact with the law, but boys and, indeed, staff learnt diplomacy and communication skills on every trip!  We travelled on, on what was still then known as the Orient Express.  There was none of the finery of the original or the more recently revamped version and for this, and many further trips, we’d be cramped eight to a carriage, or six on couchettes, never seen in the UK, of course, with boxes and rucksacks in compartments or stacked by the doors – more reason for the boys to attempt communication skills with confused and/or irate railway employees … or, more likely, the ubiquitous pointing our way with cries of 'chef de groupe'.  AMP’s grasp of foreign languages is famously limited; remarkable numbers of European railway clerks are called Jack/Jacques.  Showing the group ticket, withdrawn from the green bag, (almost) always worked and the offer of a boiled sweet rarely failed.  Back to 1975, in Istanbul we poured out into the hullabaloo of the main station and the quayside of the Golden Horn – and soon discovered we were to camp in the gardens of the ruined former consulate on the banks of the Bosphorus, having picked up the keys from one of CHI's many contacts, who was based in a magnificent mansion – the former embassy one of CHI's many contacts!  Breakfasting on local Turkish bread with views of Asia Minor was quite something for the mid-70s teenage Boltonians and me – as, indeed, were the disturbingly easy-to-find scorpions.  Whilst few places would be as exotic, Casablanca and Tangiers would push it close in subsequent years.  I suppose we slept in upwards of a hundred places over those next 27 years: Malia was an isolated Cretan village when we arrived one year following a night on Piraeus harbour and another on a very old island hopping ferry; the local Greeks used donkeys; it was well before quad bikes.  Naples was unnervingly vibrant, especially as the campsite was at Pozzuoli – not quite Pompeii or Herculaneum, but we experienced earth tremors nonetheless!  Over the years, Trek went where few such school trips would ever dare go.  Right to the end, I would claim trek was a unique three weeks’ holiday adventure for a school to undertake.  AWW was very generous in the latter stages over risk assessments and health and safety – it was impossible to do pre-visits – too many stops and an itinerary never set in stone.  So, on subsequent visits to Istanbul we used a campsite, the embassy contact having been lost.  Some years on, AMP had had no reply from this previously used site to confirm the booking – but this often happened, so he told us – pas de problème!  There was one of those Prince kilometre walks from the metro station – his judgement of metric distance seemed almost as limited as his linguistic skills.  These were always tiring beyond belief especially when carrying boxes after a two-day train trip as on this occasion; a number of comments were passed on the surprising new skyscrapers that had clearly recently been built.  All too recently, for when we arrived, dishevelled, mid-afternoon at the campsite, it wasn’t – it was a 20-storey apartment block.  I don’t recall how we explained our predicament or how many dozing post-prandial hungover Turkish taxi drivers we used to find another site, but we did!  Character-building was a favourite educational cliché, but how it applied to all trekkers! 

Life was lived to the full – we saw plenty of local culture, immersed ourselves in local custom and, it has finally to be admitted in print, drank plenty of local beer.  There was The Spirits Ban – not even the staff followed this in the end, I fear.  On that first return trip, Martin Aspinall was very ill.  He would have liver problems all his life and sadly he passed away aged around 50, but arriving at Belgrade (still then in Tito’s Yugoslavia) clearly he couldn't continue.  In the short time the train was due to be there, dinars were acquired somehow; Upper Sixth Former John Statham (a Russianist I recall) agreed to stay with Martin and me and we waved goodbye to the rest of the trekkers.  Aged only 56 between the three of us, this was quite daunting!  Using my A level French and German (but not John’s Russian, which was highly disliked by the Yugoslavs!!), we got Aspy to hospital – The Centre for Communicable Diseases … they clearly thought he had caught something foul in Turkey, and there we left him for the night.  As night approached rapidly, we were directed to a campsite … well, so we thought, but we counted wrong, turned too early and were challenged in the dusk by two of the most highly armed soldiers I’ve ever seen.  We turned, fled, found a hotel, slept wonderfully – the first bed for three weeks.  We went next day to the embassy; in those days they did help sort out three plane tickets home!  I signed a waiver and withdrew Aspy from hospital and we were home within an hour of the main group.  I have never returned to Belgrade.   

And after all this, we came back for more.  Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Gibraltar, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, France, Austria were all scheduled stops, as well as many returns to the big three of Italy, Greece and Turkey, that featured over the next quarter century.  That hospital was also one of many – dehydration, sunburn blistering, football sprains and worse, go-kart induced ankle damage … this last eventually required another flight home, but this time RCJW rejoined us in Albufeira, having taken Gareth Firth plus bestickered crutches back from Granada.  Ian Murray’s Sardinian football knock meant he went home by himself – at least we all saw him off from Rome, but not enough staff to accompany him!

Back to those brushes with 'The Law'… my first stop experience proved far from unique over the years.  The staff knew of some clashes – we found out about more on return, often years later (and I’m pretty sure there were some of which, even now, we remain blissfully ignorant).  The Acropolis Affair and The Incident at Villa Real are surely names of long lost Agatha Christie stories and not the two most nerve-racking and near disastrous escapades that trekkers inflicted on us staff.  Greek National paper editorials and the immortal line ‘They escaped by climbing out of the police station toilet window’ confirm reality not fiction ... well, maybe surreality. 

The lost passports … the A level results … immersion into local ways (nightclubs and bars included, of course), featured highly, but the raison d’être of trek was undoubtedly the range of places visited.  The ruins of Troy, Epidavros, Pompeii, Knossos; the splendour of the Blue Mosque, the Charles Bridge, the Alhambra, Dubrovnik Old Town; Budapest or Istanbul for steam baths; Tangiers for camels and haggling; the stark realities of Auschwitz or Berchtesgarten; then there are the less well-known such as Evora, Postojna, Salzburg, Balaton – less well-known but still memorable.  Islands were a particular personal favourite – possibly because of the concomitant sea trips, which were always fascinating.  Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Elba, Korcula, Corfu, Crete, Santorini, Rhodes, Samos all had their idiosyncrasies; some, though by no means all, even had hot running water in recognisable campsites.

It was always more than just a holiday or one of the other envious epithets it gained in some quarters – it built friendships, instilled leadership, created character.  For example, you're 17; you are assigned to a fag party; the adjutant and your fag leader direct you and four or five others in cooking a meal for your fellow trekkers; you buy the fresh ingredients yourselves in local market or shop to go with the dried ingredients and the burners, dixies and even gas bottles you have carried half way round Europe, likely in one of the unique trek boxes; you might strike lucky and there’s a campsite kitchen, but equally you may be battling a torrential storm – in Tito's Dubrovnik that tomato soup never thickened despite boiling due to the ever increasing volume from above; finding no gas supplies, you may even be persuading the hungry mob that salad was a nice change, or the slaw was intended and not a way to use up cabbage mistakenly purchased; ridiculously, you could be on cooking duty on the platform of the main railway station in Munich or Casablanca!

There were times when things were less than enjoyable.  I can't recall how often I threatened that this would be my last trek – be it due to irate campsite owners unhappy with late night revels, the entanglements with the law in Portugal and Athens in particular, or missed connections.  An early such horror was when the first scheduled stop was Madrid, but getting 70 mostly first-time trekkers, who had greatly enjoyed the hospitality of the cross channel ferry, across Paris from Gare du Nord to Gare d'Austerlitz with boxes via the Metro proved too much for most of us to make the connection.  AMP plus 12 experienced fellows did make it; MPW, three Old Boys and around 50 did not and had to catch up on a subsequent unbooked train without the group ticket – hairily we made it by the Spanish border!

Time may be adding a rose-coloured hue, but trek gave me and approaching 1,000 others, over a quarter of a century, life-enhancing experiences and memories.  The view from the Florence campsite; the smells and noises of Istanbul and Tangiers; Venetian arrivals and departures be it by train or ferry; volcanic black sand as a bed on Santorini; in one Krakovian stop, the contrasts of the unimaginable horrors experienced on the visit to Auschwitz and the jollity of traditional Polish beer cellars; the camaraderie of AMP, DMD, RCJW, KGB and generations of Boltonians who probably learnt more from trek than any of my classroom lessons – not least how to orchestrate filling every visible opening of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and performing Heads and Shoulders, Knees and Toes!

Martin Wadsworth, Summer 2014