The Colditz Night Exercise in 2019

No-one will remember, in years to come, the fact that this year’s Colditz Night Exercise was in fact cancelled due to flooding on some of the country lanes where the hike was due to take place. But already at the point of cancellation I could see that COVID-19 was going to rear its ugly head. No-one would have batted an eyelid had I cancelled the hike due to the Coronavirus.

The Colditz Night Exercise is not unique; any number of similar events take place each year in Scouting up and down the country. When I lived in Derby, there was something called the “Fez Night Hike”, named not for a Turkish hat but for the first names of the three Explorers that started it. The arrangements may differ – but the principle is the same. Young people in Scouts and Explorers gather in teams to conduct some form of initiative hike during the hours of darkness, then sleep on the floor of a hall or Scout hut, have breakfast, followed by a brief award ceremony.

We’re all stuck indoors now: so I looked back in my diary and found a brief account of the 2019 hike, to cheer us up.

I‘m very tired this Sunday afternoon after Colditz. Outside there is an attractive long and slanting summer light, dust-filled and orange, fading to evening as I sit here. Just now there was a brief and somewhat indistinct thunderstorm…This was my third Colditz as District Commissioner. I fretted and worried beforehand. I always do. I organised and administrated my way through the preparations in the weeks beforehand and I had my deep concerns. But it was alright on the night. It all went well. All my concerns were unneedful in the face of the unstinting efforts and tireless contributions of my colleagues and fellow Scouters. A few people stood out; I’ll name them not on a public blog. But everyone contributed something; All played their part – the drivers, the caterers, the spotters, the adult walkers themselves.

We recce’ed the course. In the grey afternoon we put out all the signage at the checkpoints. In the evening we gathered at the school gym. The young people and their elders arrived to the usual organised chaos – an empty hall soon disappeared under a sea of roll mats and sleeping bags. We watched in dismay as the weather deteriorated. The first teams were delivered to the start of their hikes around 9 p.m, in lashing rain and gusting high winds. The rain beat on the tarmac, thundered on the roof of the minibus. Flooded roads, gouts of white water spraying up from the bus.

The last teams got “on the hill” as it were (or onto the North Downs country lanes) at 22:11 – about eleven minutes behind the ambitious and detailed plan created by my ADC (Scouts). So far so good. On events like these there then follows a quiet time. One recalls previous Colditz Night Hikes. Driving along a road sometime after 2a.m through patches of mist. A team of girl Scouts sat in the minibus on the way to their drop-off, singing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” at the top of their lungs. The time the Surrey police called out their helicopter because a suspicious householder thought they’d seen armed men in the woods. Or perhaps it was just Scouts with sticks? The time a group of Explorers went the wrong way through the woods – and found and rescued an old man who’d fallen over on his way home.

A few minor hiccups emerge: a checkpoint at such and such a location has fallen over and can’t be seen – drive out there and fix it. A youngster is poorly and needs pulling out and escorting home. Then, not long before 1 a.m, the fastest team – group of Explorers – calls in to say they have finished. How did we do this before mobile phones? The weather starts to clear, and by 2 a.m it is a cold and bright moonlit night. Up on the North Downs, where this year’s routes are, the temperature starts to fall.

I pop up to the refreshments base at Botley Hill to see how things are going. Everyone is standing around shivering, adults and youngsters. Soup and hot chocolate are flying off the shelf. While I was there, two Saturday night idiots, one of them in a red sports car, arrive and start to show off, drifting and skidding their cars round the tiny Botley Hill roundabout. Scouts and leaders look at this display, shaking their heads. Everyone is somewhat bemused by how crass and stupid it is. These people are supposed to be grown men! What did Shania Twain sing? “OK. So you’ve got a car”.

In deepening cold the last teams were extracted from up near Chelsham Common at the quite late time of 4a.m. But they finished! A big shout out to all for their efforts put in. It really is true to say that it is the taking part that matters, not the winning. A distinctive of these slower teams was that little or no navigational assistance was offered to the young people by their leaders. That is certainly not true of all the teams, whatever the leaders may say…

Running back with the last team, I experienced a deep, almost physically nauseating wave of weariness. Anyone who ever stayed up overnight will understand this – tiredness comes in waves. But you may be sure it was most unwelcome while driving a minibus full of Scouts. Only by a supreme effort of will and opening the driver’s window, did I avoid putting the bus onto the grass verge.

Back at base at the Oxted school gym, I needed a break and a cup of sweet tea. While I was “resting” two of us laboriously cleaned one of the minbuses, removing the protective plastic sheeting we’d installed on the seats earlier in the evening. These buses were rented to us by St Bede’s School in Redhill, and they were almost brand new. They even had that “new car” smell. A shame to let them get dirty, even if they are there to be used. Even the best behaved teenagers are in general very hard on the interior of minibuses.

The Scouts slowly settled to some sleep. The ADC (Scouts) laboured over the sums – who was going to win? A hero (again unnamed) drove round all the routes and removed the signposts at the checkpoints. In the cold blue light of early dawn, a colleague and I drove through to Redhill so I could drop off the cleaned minibus, and he gave me a lift back. A trip from Oxted to Redhill and back – twenty miles round trip – in less than fifty minutes. All but impossible in the day time. Back at base, an hours kip. Then, it’s bacon buttie time and the awards!

Who did win? It doesn’t matter – every youngster who ever took part in a Colditz Night Hike has won. How many people do you know have escaped from Colditz right here in rural East Surrey? How many people do you know have hiked through the night in pouring rain, dove into ditches hiding from cars, enjoyed that camaradie of tiredness, and finally fell asleep in the company of others, on a cold hard floor? #iscout #skillsforlife.