Gateway To The Alps

Photo 2 - Grenoble across the river


In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
My diary entry

Thursday 23rd August 1984

Rained all day! Tent soaked. Had crisps and bread for breakfast. Packed all the stuff so that we could move to a bar and write up the project. Waved goodbye to the English family and Parisian girl with them. Walked to café in rain, found Shaun and James already there. We worked and I played pool with James. We both lost to a crap table.

Shaun found Pete Berwick and Rich Bussell and they came to the bar too. Still pouring down. I went to get bread, cheese and wine and the pigs finished it all off. Returned into the rain to get more bread. Walked around Crest and chatted while we waited for Pete to pick us up. When Pete arrived we chatted about our expeditions on the minibus. Returned and found wet empty tent to sleep in. Cleaned it out. Andy and I slept there and tried to keep dry. Got to bed at 12:00

On this day:

  • Birth of Glen Johnson – England footballer
  • TOTP presented by Mike Read & Tommy Vance featuring Spandau Ballet & Tracey Ullman

Looking back on our diet it’s a miracle we made it at all. When you are young you can fuel up on anything. When I see kids today loading on carbs and energy drinks I might not like it but I have to remember what I was like at that age.

We had been very lucky with the weather. Yes it had been too hot much of the time but by dodging rain during our walk we avoided having to carry heavy wet tent fabric around.

One of the spectacular roads to Grenoble

Crest was the pick-up point for several walking parties and we all had stories to tell. In the space of 10 days I had opened my mind to many new experiences, gained confidence and an increase sense of independence. Notably I had developed the ability to not be travel sick again on the hairpin roads back to base camp in Grenoble.


The return to base camp represented a change in pace. It was damp and largely deserted as most of the other chaps were away mountaineering or white water canoeing. I had reluctantly signed up for canoeing because another activity was expected of me. I wasn’t really confident on fast moving water as my experience was limited to gentle rivers and swimming pools.

We had some high calibre canoeists in the unit. They returned by minibus from an outing and three of the craft had suffered catastrophic damage to their fibreglass hulls. I listened to tales of battle amidst the powerful mountain falls and of the lethal rocks that had slain the vessels and some protective headgear. Afterwards I made my excuses and didn’t get into a canoe for the rest of the expedition! Did I even get in a canoe again?

The next 6 days were occupied playing football with French kids, throwing Frisbee (somebody’s plastic camping plate) with other guys from the unit, exploring Grenoble and generally pitching in around the camp. In short, having fun in the alpine sun.

Photo 1 - View over Grenoble from the Bastille
Photo 1 – View over Grenoble from the Bastille

There isn’t that much to recall of the campsite itself but Grenoble – gateway to the Alps – sticks in my mind for the mountains, river and most of all the first cable car I had seen in real life. As it happens the first alpine style cable car to operate in Britain opened at the Heights of Abraham in Matlock Bath in 1984. After I left university I drove under it every day on the way to work for 2 years. I still haven’t been on it.

Photo 2 - Grenoble across the river
Photo 2 – Grenoble across the river
Cable car today in Grenoble…
Modern re-creation in street view

I only took one other photo in the city.

Photo 3 - Place St Andre
Photo 3 – Place St Andre
Pretty Place St Andre looking the same today
Modern re-creation in street view

On Thursday 30th August I left Grenoble with a sizeable contingent to spend a couple of nights in Paris after which we returned to derby via the overnight ferry from Dieppe to Newhaven ending three magical weeks of adventure.

Photo 1 Photo 1 – View over Grenoble from the Bastille
Photo 2 Street view of Photo 2 – Grenoble across the river
Photo 3 Street view of Photo 2 – Place St Andre

Destination Base Camp

Ready for the off
In 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I embarked on a 10 day Explorer Belt hike around the alpine region of South France. In this series of blog posts I revisit my diaries and retrace those footsteps…
Diary entry 11/08

Saturday 11th August 1984

Got up at 10am and slowly started packing stuff for France. Was monotonous, boring but energetic running up and down stairs. Finished packing at 4pm. Mum took photo of me in uniform carrying rucksack. It weighed 35lb! Left Derby station at 5pm with 20 others. Reached London St Pancras at just past 7pm. Caught underground and got to Victoria station where we waited for an hour.

Bought expensive can and walked around station. Took train to Newhaven where we boarded the Sealink ferry Senlac after half an hour wait. Left at 10:45pm and reached Dieppe 5 sleepless hours later.

On this day:

  • Bare footed Zola Budd disqualified & then reinstated after favourite Mary Decker falls out of the Olympic 3000m final
  • Carl Lewis wins his 4th medal of the LA Olympics in the 4x100m final

Looking back…

In the build up to leaving my attention was divided between packing and all the drama of the 1984 LA Olympics. Daley Thompson was ripping up the decathlon and I was ripping up my Atari console joystick playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon!

We were required to wear scout uniform while travelling as you can see from the photo from that morning. This rather wonderful Karrimor rucksack was purchased for the trip and I then used it 3 years running when InterRailing. It subsequently spent most of the intervening years in the roof before I brought it back into action when I visited the wilds of Knoydart and it has recently provided sterling service on a number of walks including the Cleveland Way (2013) and Norfolk Coast Path (2014).

If I look like I have too much gear it’s because I had too much gear
If I look like I have too much gear it’s because I had too much gear

An advance party had set off in the three unit transit vans the previous day loaded to the gunnels with gear and towing trailers full of tents and kayaks. They would establish base camp in the foothills of the Alps in readiness for the arrival of my train party. I was getting the easy option.

According to google the much-loved Senlac in which we crossed the channel was only decommissioned in 2010

The sense of excitement amongst us would have been overwhelming. It’s no wonder we didn’t sleep! The adventure was about to unfold.

Diary entry 12/08

Sunday 12th August 1984

Train left Dieppe and I managed to get an hour and a half of sleep. Left train at outskirts of Paris at around 5am. Used underground (metro) and missed 8am train by one minute. Took photo of another one. Caught train at noon. Arrived in Lyon and next train took us to Grenoble where we met Pete after a 35 minute wait.

Camped next to Grenoble at campsite. Pitched Force 10 Mk4 where me and Andy slept after food and unpacking the stuff we were leaving at base camp.

On this day:

  • 23rd Olympic games closes in LA
  • Taking for film Romancing The Stone featuring Michael Douglas & Kathleen Turner reach $74m at the US box office

Looking back…

At the time this modern French TGV looked like a spaceship compared to the creaking British engines. It still does.

This is the age of the train
This is the age of the train

This was my first trip to Paris and my first encounter with the Metro. We must have been very tired by the time we arrived at base camp, especially after the train delay. It was the height of a particularly hot summer but with daylight late into the evening we would have been grateful to pitch our tent in cooler conditions.

In desperate need of sleep
In desperate need of sleep

The modern brand of serious outdoor tent was relatively new to me since I was used to the ancient but classic wooden pole canvas variety. Before long I became very proficient with them to the extent that I won a non-too-serious tent pitching competition the next year. The Force 10 mk4 was lightweight for its time but would probably seem unwieldy by today’s standards.

Where was our base camp? A unit newsletter dated May proclaims that with just 3 months to go no base camp had been identified. In this pre-internet age the process must have entailed tirelessly sifting through camping journals and making phone enquiries.

I have scoured an area around Grenoble but can’t find a campsite that looks familiar or viable. A lot can change in 30 years,

It’s curious how underwhelming my diary entry was regarding arrival at the frenetically busy campsite in the shadow of the alps. This could be due to travel fatigue, or more likely being a teenager. Either way I was going to need to catch up on sleep. The walk starts tomorrow.