Route 66 children and staff at the end of the walk

A Miscellany of Memories – Part 11

The story of the Primary 6 Pentland Hills expedition which I finished with in the June Newsletter, took place on a wet and windy day and I was very impressed by how well the children coped, many of them walking for over 10 hours. As a direct result, I decided to challenge the Primary 7 children to a much longer walk, for which they could raise sponsorship money for charity.

In 2014 I planned a two-day walk along the Forth and Clyde Canal from The Kelpies to Bowling near Dumbarton, a total of 41 miles over two days with an overnight hotel stop. Over 70 children applied for places and all were interviewed in groups as part of the recruitment process – they explained their motivation, told me how they would train to make sure they were fit enough to cope and what they thought they would bring to the group. It was very difficult to decide who should be offered places, however,  as it was important to limit the numbers, 12 girls and 12 boys were eventually selected. They began to train with the help of their families and at the same time they started raising sponsorship money.

Eventually the big day arrived, we were transported by minibus to The Kelpies and started to walk. Several bemused passers-by on the canal towpath suggested we were mad to expect young children to walk 41 miles. Of course they all managed and, although there were moments when individual children ‘hit the wall’, their own determination and the support of their friends got them through and by the time we reached the Firth of Clyde in a downpour, most of them were happily running and splashing. They were very proud of themselves and I was very proud of them, as were their teachers who volunteered to join me by walking with them. Particular thanks should go to Mairi Grant and Mark Anderson as they enjoyed themselves so much that they continued to volunteer as the walks became longer! 

Having decided that 41 miles was not too much of a challenge I next planned a two-day 49 mile walk in 2015 from Torness Power Station, east of Dunbar, to Musselburgh along the John Muir Way. Once again 24 children successfully completed this longer challenge which included an overnight stay in the lodges attached to Craigielaw Golf Club at Aberlady. The weather was kind to us on the first day but after a good night’s sleep we were faced with a 25-mile struggle directly into a gale as we resumed our walk at North Berwick. The path seemed to go on forever but the children were great, albeit a few who needed some extra encouragement from their friends when we reached the outskirts of Musselburgh, soon realising we still had almost 4 miles to go circumnavigating the seemingly endless perimeter of the Racecourse! We were all exhausted from the buffeting we had received all day from the wind by the time we met up with the children’s parents for a celebratory meal. Once again, the children excelled themselves by the huge amount they had raised for charity. 

Children training for Route 66 whilst at P7 camp

Having announced that I would be retiring from my post as Vice Principal and Headmaster of the Junior School at the end of the 2015/16 session, I decided that I would like to finish on a high with an even longer walk which would combine physical challenge with the opportunity for children to show in a practical way that they understood and embodied our nine school values. Our first two long-distance walks had proven very challenging but ultimately extremely rewarding and unforgettable so, given that I would be reaching my 66th birthday in the year I was retiring, I wondered about a Route 66 expedition! Realising that an 800-mile walk along an American highway was not really a practical proposition, I consulted Google and discovered that walking from west to east along the Forth and Clyde Canal, before branching off at the Falkirk Wheel onto the Union Canal and then on to Edinburgh, was a walk of exactly 66 miles. Splitting the walk over three days would mean three very long consecutive days covering approximately 22 miles each day – was it reasonable to invite 11- and 12-year-old children to join me (and of course Mairi and Mark with lots of back up arrangements in place)? I knew the children would need to prepare themselves physically and emotionally for the challenge and I also knew that the school values would need to be on display. I had no doubt we would all reach Edinburgh! 

As I had been invited to assume the part-time role of Director of Development following my retiral, it seemed a very straightforward decision, if we went ahead with the Route 66 challenge, to raise funds for Access to Excellence. That clinched it for me, so once again I offered Primary 7 children the opportunity to apply for a place on a 66 mile, cross-Scotland walk over three days.  

Very large numbers applied. I went through the same procedure as before which included letters of application highlighting which of the values the children thought would be most helpful as they walked and finally, we had our 12 girls and 12 boys. Our adventure took place over three mostly sunny days and proved to be one of the most magical experiences of my career. The children were quite amazing as they walked for 10 hours each day with short breaks every hour. They laughed, they chatted, they formed friendships which will last for a very long time but, perhaps most important of all, they learned a lot about themselves which they will carry with them, all of it based around the nine values. They had to be very enthusiastic and committed, they had to take responsibility for their own progress and to be confident that they could cope with tiredness, aches and pains and the prospect of another 10 hours the next day. Even more importantly, they displayed incredible kindness to each other and a deep appreciation of each other’s kindness. If a child was struggling, and each of them (and us!) did endure moments when they thought they were too tired to continue, there were always others who walked alongside them, started chatting with them, shared chocolate, told them jokes and offered to carry their rucksacks.  

Route 66 children and staff at selection and the start of training

After the initial excitement of the first morning, we settled down at a steady pace and reached our destination near Kilsyth in the early evening. Our most ‘exciting’ stop on the first day was an unlikely one as we enjoyed ice-creams on a bandstand in the middle of Clydebank Shopping Centre through which the canal runs. This was just about the only time we were surrounded by buildings until we reached Linlithgow more than 24 hours later and then as we finally approached the outskirts of Edinburgh at the very end of our walk.

The morning of the second day seemed to pass very slowly as we trudged east. The sun was hot and, away from the canal, the surrounding countryside was flat and featureless as we slowly headed across open land for mile after mile. The reward was lunch and ice-cream when we eventually reached the Falkirk Wheel and I was able to tell the children we had reached the half-way point. One of the girls seemed less impressed than I would have hoped and told everyone that meant we had another 33 miles to walk! Still, spirits remained high as we climbed up above the Wheel and started along the Union Canal.

Some hours later we turned a corner and were confronted with the sight of an amazing picnic which had been prepared and beautifully laid out for us at the side of the canal by a very kind and generous school family. We ate and drank far too much and forgot for a moment that we still had several more miles to walk before our second overnight stop. We eventually persuaded aching limbs to trudge on again towards Linlithgow and were delighted to be welcomed to the Canal Centre by other school families who had hung supportive banners on bridges over the canal to greet us.

A short video of the children at the start of the last day of Route 66 is available here:

After lots of pizza and ice-cream everyone slept very well before our early breakfast and the final 22 miles which started from the Canal Centre and would finish at Union Quay. The weather had turned and it was raining, which was somewhat of a relief after two days of constant sun. My colleagues and I bandaged some blistered feet, there were a few tears of tiredness and anticipation but soon the realisation we were starting the final day hit home, spirits lifted and off we set. As we began to move through West Lothian, children started to recognise familiar landmarks and the pace quickened as muscles stopped screaming defiance (and that was just me!). The sun returned and in the late morning we passed the Ratho Climbing Centre, rounded a bend and saw The Ratho Inn in the distance. We had planned to meet with the children’s families for lunch and, as we approached, it became clear that there was a very large welcoming party on the bridge and outside the Inn. Hugs were exchanged, lunch was eaten and we set off on the final 9 miles. There was no more talk of blisters as we began to walk towards the Edinburgh suburbs. We stopped for a final time about a mile from the end of the walk and my colleagues and I told the children how incredibly proud we were of them, and how incredibly proud they should be of themselves for having proved that walking 66 miles in 3 days was a challenge which they could achieve.

We decided to form one tight group for the last few minutes and eventually we came round the final bend where the children caught sight of what seemed like hundreds of family members and friends applauding and cheering as we reached the end. We all gathered for a final pizza at the end of an amazing three days and, by the time all the sponsorship income had been added up, I was delighted that yet again the children had more than exceeded my expectations and raised a total of over £30,000 for Access to Excellence.

That was my final walk, however I am delighted that the tradition continues although the route has changed to an annual 55-mile walk along part of the West Highland Way.

One thought on “2016 “Route 66” Expedition

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