Replacing the legendary trip to the Pyrenees was a big task, but with some amazing places only a couple of hours away, South Wales did not disappoint. Most importantly our leavers rose to the challenges that were set them. A kind parent e-mailed in a few hours after our return to say her son had enjoyed “ the time of his life”. Certainly many children experienced new activities and they loved every one of them.
Day One saw an easy two hour journey to Porthcawl where we were kitted out with wetsuits. We then travelled another 30 minutes past Neath to Pontneddfechan on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. What a place! Gorge walking was a new experience for most and one I am sure that everyone would want to repeat. The valley was stunning with amazing rock formations, waterfalls, caves and a river. At times we scrambled, climbed, traversed, squeezed through holes and most importantly jumped in! The jumps were epic into cold, deep water. Our wetsuits kept us surprisingly warm, our hearts raced with adrenalin and the children screamed with exhilaration. In the words of the Teletubbies, “again, again”. We travelled on to our accommodation, had supper and just got the TV working in time to watch England in the World Cup. We had a quick quiz which I had prepared just in case of inclement weather, easily won by 8AG. An episode of silly ‘Miranda’ , which Edie almost quoted verbatim, and it was time for bed.
I had promised everyone a stunning view from our hillside lodge, but the cloud remained firmly down on Tuesday and the persistent drizzle endured. However, spirits were not dampened as we headed to Aberavon beach, only 20 minutes away. I say 20 but AG’s Australian satnav had clearly had a couple of tinnies and certainly did not think the grey morning merited some surf. The Headmaster, who had joined us for the day, was slightly indignant that he had travelled from Wiltshire and had been on time! I must admit to have never really understood the appeal of surfing. I do now. Our wetsuits were again brilliant. The water was surprisingly warm, the waves quite big and certainly powerful and when you actually caught one, you flew into the shore. Standing up was almost impossible for the beginners in just one session, but our more experienced surfers were amazingly balanced. Everyone also had a chance to boogie board and hilariously try the six person giant surfboard, which came with its own instructor. Laughter was constant with massive wipe-outs ! On the promenade Mr and Mrs Hoyland were inspired in buying chips for everyone to supplement our packed lunch. The hot salty potato was central heating before we headed back to the relative warmth of the water for the afternoon. A hastily arranged game of Ten Pin in nearby Swansea finished the day. I say nearby ….. Our return journey saw the blue bus of Benbow/Downe bustle to the front of our flotilla, clearly frustrated by the geographical incompetence of others and the inability of Siebert to get out of third gear. Such fun! The Hoylands returned to Pinewood after supper, the view still grey cloud. Table tennis, giant Jenga and Wii Dance completed our evening. If bedtime on Monday was unsurprisingly less than smooth, the children were contentedly out like lights for the rest of the week.
Wednesday arrived with the mizzle now becoming boring. Our guides were still happy to ascend Pen Y Fan so with clothes aplenty, rainwear and food, up we went. AW finally managed to get somewhere without needing to turn round! The children had to endure a difficult two hours. The views were non-existent, the wind howling at our backs and the rain persistent, if not heavy. Resilience is a word that is banded around in education speak and our 41 boys and girls displayed it in abundance. Our guides were hugely impressed by their fitness and spirit. Some could easily have done more, but having reached the summit of 2807 ft, we quickly descended to the car park, ate lunch and returned to base to find some dry clothes. On our return to Bryn Bettws, the cloud had begun to lift, the view was emerging. We returned to Swansea, the boys in blue seemingly leading the way and disappearing in a cloud of dust down the rough track to the bottom of the hill. We had booked to go swimming and a lazy 90 minutes was spent sliding, jumping (when the wave machine was finally turned on) and then in some beautiful hot showers. Vending machines emptied, the children were able to play outside without structure and finally admire the view.
Thursday had been long in the planning. AW, CAG and SD had all been down last year to recce the mountain bike trails of the Afan Forest Park. Split into two groups, we combined this with a return to Aberavon beach, now bathed in glorious sunshine. What a day!!! The morning bike group enjoyed the skills trail and the lower level trail. Our mountain bike hire company, Afan Valley Bike Shed, were simply outstanding and the quality of their equipment was amazing. We all met up for lunch, with the more experienced cyclists, who regularly go out with Mr Downe on a Thursday, poised for the challenge of the Blue Scar trail. They had the cycle of their lives. AG said it was his favourite activity of the week and the heroic Mr Downe was able to sit on the terrace that evening, take in the now stunning view and contemplate with pride what he had inspired the children to achieve. Meanwhile, on the now stunning beach of Aberavon, the morning cyclists played like little children, dug holes, built sandcastles, skipped, swam under the watchful gaze of the RNLI and doubled the takings of Remo’s restaurant. They had a menu, such was the breadth of ice cream flavours! EB did not talk for several minutes as he demolished Ferrero Rocher and Salted Caramel.
We packed up efficiently on Friday morning and left the stunning location of Bryn Bettws for the final time. The fun was not over as a day at the Adventures Wales centre near Porthcawl beckoned. The sun was now a permanent fixture in the sky as the children rotated between quad bikes, paint ball, climbing and a high ropes challenge. The pace of the day was perfect for the now weary children and staff. SD even had a sneaky kip before springing into life for the final paintball session. EB, CAG and AW all sneaked on a quad bike for quality control purposes. The M4 briefly threatened our return journey, but we were still 15 minutes early returning to base. Happy days!
Huge thanks must go to the children. They were praised everywhere they went for their manners and their fortitude. We had urged them to show a level of spirit, cooperation and teamwork that they had previously not displayed. Invigorated, motivated and with a big smile on their faces, they nailed it!
Finally, I must thank my colleagues profusely. I may have organised the finer details of the trip, but they were the ones that made it all work. Miss Parris had the unenviable task of surgery. Georgia had a satnav that actually worked, Mrs Hoyland calmly reassured at all times, Benbow kept spirits raised, Siebo has a future career in logistics, Mr Downe threw himself into everything and secretly wants to ditch Maths for cycling full time and Mr AG has been a sounding board throughout this whole process offering his wise counsel and unstinting support for whatever decisions were made.
Replacing the Pyrenees was quite a task. The Welsh dragon is breathing fire !