ONE HOUR A WEEK
From as far back as I can remember I have known Scouts, and then when my children became Scouts I become a Scouter, which is now thirty-four years ago.
My parents owned a small farm in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, where since the late 1940s Scout Groups had camped.
I was born in 1954 so my first memories were from about 1958 being taken along to campfires by my parents. One Group that visited every year, sometimes twice a year, was the 20th Cardiff – who I think in recent years merged with another Group, but is now closed? I still keep in touch with one of its leaders. At one campfire they awarded my dad the 'Thanks Badge' - see picture.
They would arrive early on the Saturday with vans, and sometimes lorries, of their equipment down the very bumpy, long forest track to our farm. All the youth looked amazingly smart in their uniform.
I would watch as they all helped unload, sort and erect their tents. The leaders with the senior patrol leaders setting up HQs while the Scouts in their patrols set up their areas. Wet pits and toilet pits would be cut, the turf would be stacked and watered throughout the week, to be replaced on breaking camp at the end of the week. Everyone in the patrol knew what their task was and got on with it. Wood was collected, a fire lit, and a meal was cooked.
This was Baden-Powell Youth Shaped Scouting at its very best - a wonder to watch.
During the week they would be off on patrol hikes, playing wide games, making and sleeping over in shelters up in the woods. Many of their structures would last from one year to the next. They would be collecting and grading wood and much, much more!
They would often offer to help with tasks on the farm, my dad setting them at one time to help me hand weed a field of potatoes, bale haul, hand milk cows - Scouts always do their best, and they certainly did - we all had great fun. I 'fell in love' with several Scouts over the years, one I remember came from Canton, Cardiff, and one made me a woggle – see picture.
Some years later, at the age of 19, I married Harry who had been a Cub, Scout, then Assistant Leader with Grove Scouts, then Berkshire. He rejoined Scouting as an Assistant Cub Scout Leader when our oldest son asked to be a Cub, and I then joined too! Harry died in September 2013 just as we had been married for forty years; during this time Harry always did his best to live his Scout Promise, and believed, as I do, in Scouting as a wonderful thing for youth, and adults, to be a part of.
Pat Dixon AACBS/AASec
Reflections of Patrol Camping Past and Present
So, my Scout patrol of 6, The 'Hurricanes' ( 1st Andover was an Air Scout Group) were given a whole half a pound (226 grm) of tea leaves in a muslin bag at the start of our week-long camp in the overgrown ruins of Battle Abbey in Sussex. The bag would be lowered for a few seconds into a billy of boiling water until it went brown and drinkable as tea. Over the duration of our Summer Camp we did this two or three times a day. Between meals the bag would hang dripping on our stave dresser alongside the ex-army cooking pots and an enamel washing bowl. By Friday the bag of sad weary leaves would be left to boil for over 10 minutes to produce a decent brew.
This was 1954 and apart from not knowing any scouts who drink tea in 2021, the Patrol Camps I have run for the last fifty years have been very much the same: six children aged eleven to fifteen live as a 'family' for a week with sleeping tent/s, dining shelter, cooking area, chopping area, dresser made of staves and a table around a central fire, usually an altar fire raised off the ground. They have a Patrol Leader aged fourteen+ who shaves or has babies, an APL and a Quarter Master. Everyone else collects wood and water, and hope to rise in seniority through chopping wood and cooking to being the PL themselves one day. They also needed to be ready for all night hikes, over-night bivvies, pioneering, crazy challenges and the endless preparation and cooking of meals. All in their patrols, driven on by the quest for points and the ranting of their PL who cannot bear the thought of them coming last. Another thing I remember as a kid was 'having an adult leader eat with us'; it must have been the shortest straw to have to eat with Hurricanes but this system which we continue today ensures that the children's food is at least edible!
The Highlight of my Year
Running a three or four patrol week-long Summer Camp has been the highlight of every year of my time in Scouting, and generations of PLs say it was one of the best things they ever did in their young lives. The responsibility on a teenager is immense, they are suddenly the 'parent' to five children 24/7, of course they were APL last year and QM the year before after endless wood collecting, so they were well ready for it! And in truth we were all ready for it because the whole of our troop nights from Easter to Summer were, in truth, skill training for summer patrol camps. Practising using a hand axe safely and consistently carefully even for eleven year olds took place week after week until we could rely on their skill not to hurt themselves and to strictly supervise each other, while keeping a cooking fire going for hours a day. And in my years of camp leading I believe it was not luck that preserved all my scouts' fingers as beautiful working digits. It was frequent practising of tent pitching, dresser building, campsite lay-out through the springtime evenings and working together in the same patrols for five years that bore fruit in great troop summer camps.
Yes, things have changed; mixed patrols simply meant two smaller sleeping tents for patrols. I designed a more solid steel altar fire, the store tent became plastic boxes, we added a gas double burner to help patrols produce a small breakfast meal more quickly or get last-minute hot water. I was always pleased to see them rarely being used but there if the PL needed it. We bought an ex-army oven which stood on the altar fire and moved between the patrols when it was their turn to do a full roast and cakes. Yes, as a scout I had been made to cook in a mud covered biscuit tin over a fire, but we are now asking very young children to produce a well-cooked roast dinner for seven to eat on a table, decorated with flowers, not sitting cross-legged chewing on a bone!
The sad demise of the week long summer camp is largely due to the reluctance of leaders to commit a week of their summer leave to Scouting. When I started Scouting I had fourteen days leave, which was a week summer camp and the rest in Easter and half term camps. Many leaders took their families as their summer holiday. Soon both children and adults preferred the attraction of foreign sunshine holidays and who is to blame them? A week in a wet forest or wind-swept field which sees all of your burning wood blown from under your cooking pots and halfway to the next town in a shower of dust and sparks is not much fun. But another rival to the Patrol Camp is the 'adventure campsite' with leaders reduced to producing hot grub three times a day to get their little darlings off to their next adventure appointment on time. Too often leaders pack the whole of their days with climbing walls, zip wire, crate challenge, days out, visits and theme parks, leaving little time to building, let alone using, their patrol camp-sites.
Turn your Programme on its Head
To be honest you need to turn your camp programme on its head; not seeing what time you have between activities to do patrol stuff, but to see 'patrol life' and cooking together as a major, valid and enjoyable activity. Perhaps ration yourselves to one or two 'paid activities a day'. To cook two decent meals at camp a day takes a lot of preparation time. Quick meals - rolls, salad, sausage sandwiches, burgers, eggy bread could be prepared and eaten in an hour but to prepare and cook a decent casserole, curry, pasta bolognaise, steamed pudding three or four hours should be allotted. For a patrol to sit around a table peeling, chopping, mixing, chatting, laughing is a really valuable social and learning activity and a mountain of wood needs to be chopped and stacked in readiness. Please don't rely on fast burning pallet wood, do your preparation and find a local timber yard to deliver a load of hardwood logs for long slow cooking for all the patrols. It may be expensive, but so is gas.
My final contribution to planning a Summer Patrol Camp for two to four patrols (and I nearly always had three) is the 'Rotating 24-hour Programme'. All the patrol sites are totally built and a meal cooked in them by Saturday night. Starting Sunday mid-day you plan three x 24-hour patrol activities which includes a night off-site (hike-tents at a local farmer's field site, bivouac, hammocks etc.) Then a visit to a major off-site activity, perhaps using the local bus, train with leaders tracking at a distance. Thirdly, a day on-site for the patrol to have an oven and cook a major evening meal, perhaps shopping for it, with starters and pudding etc. Perhaps have one patrol to be on site but eating quick stuff and doing on-site activities. The value of this is that the patrols do not see each other for three or four days, and you just have the same programme to repeat day after day until they all meet-up and you have a huge barbie together!
One of my last camps had our patrols camping quite close to a Sea Scout Troop where a huge circle of tents had been pitched by adults in advance and food was dispensed by an adult team from a large marquee canteen. Scouts spent the whole day doing activities, washing-up and having free-time. I eventually went to speak to their leader who had invited us to their campfire. He started badly calling us 'Dirt Scouts'. He said that this was normal banter among Sea Scouts. Then he said how he had pointed to our patrols chopping wood and told his kids that if they didn't behave, they would be made to do this!
Part One in a series of articles on my years in Scouting
Life before it became hectic
I really started in Scouting when I met my current (just to keep her on her toes) wife. She was an Akela in a local Scout Group (note the capitals - this means they are important - I need to remember this). At the time, the Group (still important) was having troubles - their Executive committee was not functioning - probably because it didn’t really exist - and the leaders were (to be blunt) mostly old fogies who should have retired years ago.
At an AGM that I attended, Norma (for it is she who is my wife - also very important, thus starts with a capital N) asked for volunteers to help. One post was that of Chairman. And I was hastily volunteered for the post by one Andy, who used to be my friend before he did that. As there were no other nominations I thought I ought to be seen to be supportive, so I accepted the role. Thus was the start of my Scouting life.
For the next few years, I was very happy bumbling along being a Chairman. I had to attend meetings 3 times a year, go to the AGM and say a few words and generally be a figurehead if needed. This was fine - I could do this. So what’s all the big fuss about Scouting? It’s easy if you are a Chairman.
But over time, I came to realise that my job was easy because Norma (remember her?) was actually doing the Akela job (running a Cub pack), the GSL job (managing the Group and the leaders) and also making sure the Exec. ran properly - which I think was supposed to be my job. Oops. Maybe I should think about doing a bit more. So, I did. I started to take an interest in what was going on in the Group and then came the first fatal mistake!
"Norma, what else is going on outside the Group?"
"Well, could you attend a County Media evening at County HQ?"
"Of course I can. Umm - what’s a County and where is County HQ?" (Thus, displaying an incredible lack of knowledge.)
Once I’d been educated as to the Scouting structure I attended this course and came back enthused. (No, seriously, I was most impressed with what was going on.) And then came my second fatal mistake.
"Okay - I’ve done that - so how else can I help?"
"Did you know there’s a vacancy for a District Commissioner? How about you applying?"
"Oh, okay. Umm - What’s a District Commissioner?" And so came to pass the second phase of my Scouting career.
Interlude - where I came from
I haven’t always been a Scout. In fact, I’ve never been a Scout. I did spend three weeks when I was eight as a cub but as I couldn’t do my knots I quickly gave that idea up. After that I joined an alternative organisation called Woodcraft which didn’t require me to do knots or say the Lord’s Prayer so that was alright. That lasted until I was about thirteen.
My teen years were dominated by badminton (I was quite good), motorcycles once I got to be sixteen and girls. So no time for schoolwork or anything to do with Scouts. Sorry but there were some of us who didn’t see the advantages of sleeping in a muddy field.
I did the normal things that most lads growing up do - played hard, nearly failed my A-levels, went to some sort of higher education (in my day, it was called a Polytechnic) and then got a job. No such thing as unemployment in the early 70s. I had no idea that Scouts even existed, never mind that it was a worldwide organisation. Occasionally I might hear about a "Jamboree" but it didn’t register that it was anything important. Girlfriends, wives and children were the way forward for me. (Okay, I had one wife and one child followed closely by one divorce and a few more girlfriends.)
Growing up lessons over, I met my current wife Norma as we were both working at the same place for a while and we seemed to hit it off well. She, of course, had been in Scouting all her life and was just returning to the North to take up a position as an Akela from her Mum who wanted to retire. Norma’s enthusiasm was infectious and I began to get an inkling of a completely new lifestyle - that of helping children become good citizens which does seem to be a good thing and I did wonder why no-one had told me before. And so, back to the story.
The Interview Process
Not knowing anything about this, I just assumed I would volunteer for this position (which had been vacant for some time) and start "doing things." Ha ha ha ha. Silly me.
Of course there was a formal interview process which I had to 'pass' so some planning was in order. Given my background as a reasonably efficient professional, this wasn’t too much of a burden. I asked around, had a couple of chats with the County Commissioner and started to write up what I hoped to achieve as a DC. (And was I naïve or what?) Remember from before, when I said I knew nothing about districts? Well that ignorance passed straight onto paper. But the CC was impressed that I’d actually written something down.
The day of the interview approached. Was I nervous? No, not really. I can, if given the opportunity, talk the hind legs off a donkey so I was just worried that too much of what came out would be classed as rubbish - but not that concerned.
The interview itself seemed okay. I was "interrogated" by three people who had been sent the write up. I must have impressed them because I walked out feeling that I had held myself together. In hindsight, once I had got to know everyone, the three who interviewed me were all very nice people - but at the time, they were the gods who held my future existence in their hands.
A week later I heard I’d got the job - and the next phase was up and running.
Starting off as a District Commissioner.
I think this phase is known as "Drop you in the deep end and see if you can swim."
My first official engagement was a district GSL meeting.
Now, a GSL is a Group Scout Leader (I knew that). These people run each of the Scout Groups and are generally very busy sorting out all sorts of issues that they would love to offload onto someone else - like a newly appointed District Commissioner.
I was not asked to chair the meeting but I was asked to make a decision. You would think that it would be something which materially affected the lives and work of our GSLs but no. What was it?
"Now that we are one district, are we still allowed to wear our old township badges and, if so, where should they be on the uniform?" Huh? Is that really important? But before I go into my answer, you, my dear reader, need some background.
Our newly formed district was made up of three old districts, each a separate township in the borough of Rochdale, each of which hated the other. I’ll just call them D1, D2 and D3 to preserve their anonymity. D1 knew they were the best and didn’t really see why they needed to merge with D2 and D3. D2 thought D1 was full of rebels and old fogeys who had no idea what scouting was all about. D3 relished their independence and didn’t want to talk to D1 or D2. Of course, merging the three district accounts and choosing a DC was fraught with political danger and anything you can imagine ended up three times worse.
So that’s where we came from. Three completely dysfunctional old districts merged into one larger dysfunctional district with members who really didn’t want to recognise the new district. I could see this was going to be fun. And my decision (see the question above - the most important thing a new DC could decide). Well as far as I was concerned, what badge you had on your uniform was so minor it was untrue so I let them have their township badges and they could wear it below the new district badge, but only for those who already had a township badge. It seemed to keep them happy.
First meeting over and a DC had MADE A DECISION! Something unheard of in past times. And for now, that will do for this article.
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