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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…
Epilogue

In 1984 my Viking VSU walking partner Andy and I had planned and completed our Explorer Belt walk in the lowlands of the French Alps.

We made a few mistakes as was inevitable for such young inexperienced walkers. Our packing left something to be desired and we probably walked in heat we should have avoided, but we learned some lessons. We encountered setbacks such as the blisters that left us always playing catch-up, but we adapted and coped. In every important way we were successful and following completion of the August walk we handed in our project work.

On 22nd December Andy and I sat down for an EB interview with unit leader Pete. On 5th January 1985 leather Explorer Belts and paper Certificates were awarded to the teams at the Viking VSU Annual Awards Ceremony. Curiously the awards programme only lists 8 EB pairings compared to the 11 pairings referenced in the lead up to the expedition. Did three teams drop out?

Explorer Belt Certificate

Explorer Belt Certificate

The Explorer Belt Challenge is still going strong although the rules have moved on somewhat. Now you must be at least 16 years old, hitchhiking is specifically not allowed although the limited use of public transport is permissible, and “small teams” are now allowed (ie: more than just pairs)

It seems remarkable that this 15 year old teamed up with a 16 year old to plan and undertake such an expedition. It is more remarkable that we were allowed to. It’s hard to imagine that now. But I’m so glad that we did and credit must go to parents and particularly to our legendary VSU leader Pete for making it possible.

In 1984 I was an introverted self-absorbed teenager taking it all in my stride without perhaps fully appreciating the adventure at hand, but that’s the story of youth.

If I was undertaking the expedition today I would do a lot of things differently. There would be better planning and packing for sure but I would immerse myself wholeheartedly into the cultural aspects of the walk, take 1000 photos and blog in detail about the sights and experiences of the route. My diaries would reflect a much wider range of influences!

Photo observations:

  • Every single one of my photos was taken in portrait!
  • Only took 1 photo of me on entire trip! Pre-selfie era.
  • Routinely pointed camera at the wrong things partly due to complete lack of understanding of how photos will turn out once processed.
  • All of these shortcomings culminate in a paucity of visual material which actually add to the mystique of the trip. More is left to memory and imagination (although a few more/better photos would still have been nice!)

But my diaries and photos are as much about a 15 year old taking giant strides as about the miles, towns or people. In it’s own way the walk opened my mind to travel, adventure and independence. Without this I might not have travelled around Europe 3 times after university. I might not have walked the Cleveland Way. I might not be taking photos and writing about new experiences in my blog.

Realistically there was never much danger. There were no mobile phones and the world was a much larger place for everybody but we could look after ourselves and as strangers we were always treated with kindness and care by the people we met. I would prescribe a dose of adventure for all teenagers. Perceived if not actual danger is the key to opening up young minds and building self confidence in a world that has become overly protective.

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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.

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.

 Key:
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

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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

Wednesday 22nd August 1984
Got up at 7am. Quickly packed stuff because bloke was mowing park. Got refund on bottles, bought and scoffed crisps and walked 6km to Allex. Rested there writing notes and drawing maps. Walked 10km to Crest.

Got information from police station and syndicat d’initiative. Camped, ate and met British family on holiday. Went for a 5km walk around Crest, met up with one of the Brits and his French friends and chatted at a bar. He is an ex-scout. I met the boules champion of France and then we moved onto another bar. Back at midnight.

On this day:
Another quiet news day. Here are some of the notable events of 1984…

  • Torvill & Dean win ice skating gold at the Winter Olympics
  • The Dr Who baton passes from Peter Davison to Colin Baker
  • TV debuts for Thomas the Tank Engine, The Bill and Crimewatch

Looking Back

In the morning I opened the tent door to find that a man on a large sit-on mower had covered the entire park in an ever decreasing circle almost up to our tent! I’m sure he would have stopped before mowing us down but to be sure we unpitched and moved aside so that he could complete his work. Lessons learned from camping in a public park…

Photo 1 - Livron Park

Photo 1 – Livron Park

I’m particularly pleased to have tracked down a relevant street view image, Clearly there wasn’t going to be a like for like image from the park but using satellite view I was able to look for a large building next to a grassy expanse and that’s how I located the building in the background of my selfie.
Modern re-creation in street view

This was our final day of walking. Lord knows how many packets of crisps I got through – they were superior to those at home.

It seems odd to walk into the police station at Crest and ask for information for our project but that’s what we did. People were just so accepting and helpful. We would have been urgently attempting to get the project work completed.

Crest is a reasonable sized town and the hilltop castle can be seen from miles around. The tower you can actually see is just the castle keep as the surrounding castle walls and buildings were destroyed on the orders of Louis XIII. Ownership passed into the hands of the town 4 years after our visit and the tower is now open to tourists.

Photo 2 - Tour de Crest

Photo 2 – Tour de Crest

This is what the same view looks like today
Modern re-creation in street view

As far as I can remember we didn’t touch a beer until this final night in Crest. I probably set out to explore on my own and just got chatting. When I was introduced to the French boules champion I was naturally sceptical but days later I saw a poster in Grenoble of a man holding boules that looked the guy so I guess it was true.

In retrospect this was the pinnacle of independence for me – a 15 year old in a bar in south France chatting to French people late into the evening. All because I went to explore the town. There’s much that has changed about me in the last 30 years but the seeds of exploration, the need to be curious, turn one more corner and ask one more question were evident way back then. The proper word is “nosy”.

Map
In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 10.6 miles (17.0 km)

 Key:
Start Livron-sur-Drôme
Via Allex
End Crest
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 – Livron Park
Photo 2 Street view of Photo 2 – Tour de Crest

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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

Tuesday 21st August 1984
Got up at 7am as usual. Had ryvita and jam. Cat was the usual menace. Got stuff packed and asked family questions on school. Made notes. Left and we soon reached the hydro-electric station on river Rhone. After photos we walked about 10km to Le Pouzin. Bought yoghurt, bread and coke at shop. Drew maps etc.

Walked onto Loriol and Livron where we got police notes. Camped in a park. Mash peas and ravioli for food plus lemonade. Did yet more maps and stuck postcards onto paper. Got to bed at 10:30.

On this day:
In fact I can’t find reference to anything significant that happened on this exact day, but here are a couple of notable events from August 1984…

  • President Ronald Reagan, during a voice check for a radio broadcast remarks, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes”.
  • The Discovery space shuttle launches for the first time

If you didn’t grow up with Ronald Reagan it’s hard to appreciate just how valuable he was to satirists of the time.

Looking back…

How, I wonder, would the diary of our generous host read?

Took sympathy on two pale English boys. They looked malnourished and limped due to blisters. Provided first aid and fruit, which they wolfed down like savages. In the morning they asked about our local schools. Strange creatures these English

The 8 mile walk to the HEP station ran alongside the river through a forested area. The route was deserted and a mangy looking dog trailed behind us for miles raising concern because it was clearly not right and there were signs warning of rabies. I picked up a stick in case it got too close but it stopped trailing us near to La Coucourde.

I captured a picture of the hydro-electric station at Saulce-sur-Rhone…

Photo 1 - Hydroelectric Station

Photo 1 – Hydroelectric Station

…another easy image to trace in the present day…
Modern re-creation in street view

The walking today was easy as we followed the flat banks of the Rhone. The power station sticks in my mind and is one of a number of distinctive buildings I photographed on our journey that has been relatively simple to trace on latter day google street view.

Photo 2 - The Rhone

Photo 2 – The Rhone

My attempts to photograph rivers are almost always a waste of time. I was probably attempting to capture the sun falling in the west over the far bank of the river.

At the outset of our walk the notion of pitching our tent in a park would have seemed adventurous. It’s a measure of our increasing confidence that we did so. Did we gain permission? It was a public space after all. Andy was more laid back than I was and may have persuaded me that it would be OK!

Map
In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 14.4 miles (23.0 km)

 Key:
Start La Coucourde
Via Le Pouzin
Via Loriol-sur-Drôme
End Livron-sur-Drôme
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 – Hydroelectric Station
Overnight Camping location

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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

Monday 20th August 1984
Left Donzère after a wash in warm water and no food. By sheer fluke we met up with Shaun Ince and James Outram who were also doing their Explorer Belt. They were also going to Montelimar. We walked the 13km to Montelimar and got information on police and town plan from Tourist Info centre. Bought crisps and wrote more on projects.

Left and walked north. Stopped by cops who wanted to see passports to check we weren’t crooks! Completed the 10.5km to La Concourde and found house to stay at. Pitched tent and only ate 3 peaches and 1½ melons provided by family. Mischievous cat kept going under the tent. Wrote log, drew maps and I revised route. Got to bed at 10:19.

PS: Visited nougat factory

On this day:

  • The miners strike: A single miner is escorted to work by 1000 police at Gascoigne Wood
  • Donkey Kong 3 released on Nintendo
  • The class 47 diesel/electric locomotive number 47264 was renumbered to 47619

Everyone remembers where they were when that class 47 loco was re-numbered! Heady days…

Looking back…

Our northerly route closely followed the river Rhône for much of the way. This meant easy level walking at the cost of much of the dramatic scenery we had encountered so far. If I remember correctly we came across Shaun and James walking ahead of us. Did we then walk together to Montelimar?

Why I took this street photo in Montelimar is unclear as it’s rather featureless. I have unsurprisingly been unable to find a Google street view match.

Street in Montelimar

Street in Montelimar

I had heard of Montelimar due to its nougat associations. The long road into the town was lined with hoardings advertising the sugary treat and there were many kiosks selling nougat nearer the town centre.

The nougat factory visit mentioned in my diary is beyond my recall. Was this in association with our project work? It could well have been opportunistic.

Modern re-creation in street view

In my diaries I keep referring to the completion of project work. This was investigative activity that was to be completed as the cultural aspect of the Explorer Belt challenge. I don’t recall the precise subject matter but believe it involved finding out about towns, schools and churches. It’s a surprise to learn that we were doing this en-route as I had assumed we did pretty much nothing on this until the last day or so. Either way it’s likely that Andy took on the bulk of the work (sorry Andy!)

A kind lady let us camp in her field and we were delighted when she offered us her freshly harvested fruit. The melon tasted like nectar after our long hot trek and was mightily appreciated. In the photo Andy is attending to serious blisters while the pesty cat looks on.

Andy tending to feet in La Coucourde

Andy tending to feet in La Coucourde

After we had pitched the tent the damn thing kept burrowing its way under the ground sheet while we were inside. The moving bump was amusing for a while but it wouldn’t stop and in the end I had to peg down every part of the inner tent to prevent access.

The comment about the revised route is interesting. Maybe I was plotting a new shorter route in light of time lost to blisters.

Map
In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 16.3 miles (26.0 km)

 Key:
Start Donzère
Via Montélimar
End La Coucourde
Location Street view of typical Nougat shop

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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

Sunday 19th August 1984
Up at 7:30. Tent full of ants more than ever before. Killed them all. Rushed, had ryvita and paste, then left by 8:30. Passed through Grillon and stopped in Grignan, Took photo of castle, bought almond slices, coke and postcard. Continued for a long way stopping only at Valaurie for drink. Odd place. A great load of houses massed on a small hill but none on the surrounding plains. Looks weird from the distance.

Somehow made it to Donzere with feet worse for the mileage. Found rotten campsite (stony ground). Saw the Rhone. Had savoury risotto, mousse and orange. Wrote project work and sellotaped tent like Fort Knox for ant security. Got to bed at 10:01.

PS: Got photo of a hen pecking round site. Beautiful sunset over river Rhone.

On this day:

  • Serving president Ronald Reagan was re-nominated by the Republicans
  • Actor Simon Bird (Will from the Inbetweeners) born on this day

You can’t talk about Reagan without thinking of Spitting Image…

The president’s brain is missing

Looking back…

I seem to remember that we hitched the 5 miles from Valreas to Grignan because I recall hauling my rucksack out of the back seat of a Peugeot 305 in the shadow of the castle only to discover a wet patch on the car rear seat where my aluminium water bottle had leaked. I was mortified by this given the kindness of our driver.

Here is my 1984 photo of the castle…

Photo 1 - Chateau de Grignan

Photo 1 – Chateau de Grignan

Grignan was spectacular and worthy of much more focus. One day…
Modern re-creation in Google street view

It would be nice to think that our route passed through the fairy-tale castle town of Grignan by design but it is more likely that we struck lucky. Regardless I seemed to be too busy stuffing almond slices into my face to appreciate the architecture. However, I wasn’t the only glutton…

All members of our expedition unit left home with emergency rations, to be opened in the event of some unthinkable misfortune on a mountain path, stuck down a pothole or beached on some remote river bank. Such forward thinking was rewarded when, struck down by terrible munchies on the cross-channel ferry, most scouts devoured their emergency rations in order to stave off inevitable starvation. This before we had even made it to the French coast.

We were both suffering from blisters but Andy was most affected and we were gaining confidence in hitching rides. That said I think we did complete the 11 mile walk from Grignan to Donzere, which would have at least burnt off the calories from our diet of junk.

Here’s a photo I took on the approaches to Valaurie “Odd” and “weird” were clumsy descriptions to say the least.

Photo 2 - approach to Valaurie

Photo 2 – approach to Valaurie

I can’t be 100% certain about this modern view but if you imagine that the road has been widened resulting in the loss of the telegraph poles then it looks like a good match.
Modern re-creation in Google street view

How differently I saw the world as a 15 year old. It was all about food and mundane events involving hens (I’ll spare you that picture) and ants. I was genuinely taken with the landscape and people but at the end of the day these rarely made my diary, while my camera was usually pointing at the wrong things.

One day I would like to retrace the trek (by car?) to fully appreciate stop-offs like Valaurie that were poorly served my diary or camera the first time around.

Map
In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 17.3 miles (27.7 km)

 Key:
Start Valréas
Via Grillon
Via Grignan
Via Valaurie
End Donzère
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 – Chateau de Grignan
Photo 2 Street view of Photo 2 – Approach to Valaurie

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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

Saturday 18th August 1984
Got up at 7:15 and had wash. Nobody else up on site until we left (except for on tennis courts). Had ryvita. Walked several km to Roche-Saint-Secret-Beconne and had drink there. Continued over a hot tiring route along dead straight roads. Went near Taulignan and Mont Brison but ended up in Valréas in late afternoon. Very worn out.

Campsite is OK but ground is too unstable for tent pegs (like concrete). Still, it seems to be free so who cares. Lemonade, half a roll of bread, veg stew and rice pud for dinner. Wrote log and did some of Project 8. Walked around site and saw lizards clinging to garden walls in high street. Got to bed at 9:56.

On this day:

  • Blackadder released in Norway where it is known as “Den sorte orm”. Apparently that translates as “The black worm”
  • Van Halen play at Monsters of Rock in Castle Donnington along with Ozzy Osborne, Van Halen, and AC/DC

I was all over Van Halen’s aptly named 1984 album at the time. Less into the hair and spandex though.

Looking back…

If you have ever been camping you will understand those early starts. In the south of France that August the sun rose woke us early and there was a window of time to get walking before things hotted up. Might we also have been attempting to leave before anyone asked for the camping fee?!

Having lost a day in Beaufort due to blister recovery we were always behind schedule. It is 16 miles from Dieulfit to Valréas and I’m pretty sure we walked the 7 miles to Roche-St-Secret-Beconne (what a great name!) before hitching a lift to Valréas to spare our feet. I had never hitched before but it was a necessity if we wanted to get back on track.

Scenery witnessed on the D538 from Dieulefit to Roche-St-Secret-Beconne

Andy had the confidence to stick a thumb out and we must have cast an innocent sight – 2 young pack packers on hot deserted roads. Nowhere in my diary does it mention hitching. Was this a teenage oversight (like the failure to mention any scenery) or was it due to a misplaced sense of guilt for what would at the time have felt like cheating?

I captured this photo in Valreas and my notes at the time describe it as a “weird building”

Photo 1 - Chateau de Simiane

Photo 1 – Chateau de Simiane

In fact this grand building dates from 1446 and is now home to the town hall and an art exhibition that would undoubtedly failed to inspire or impress this 15 year old.
Modern re-creation in street view

What of Valréas? This medieval town was purchased by the pope in 1317, possibly because he want to get his hands on some Côtes-du-rhône wine? Our approach to Valréas marked a transition to the flat plains of the Rhone valley and an end to most of the climbs and descents of the previous days. A great location for vineyards then.

Wikipedia has this to say about the geology of the region:

The Massif Central being a centerpiece of the Variscan orogen has undergone a rather complex geological evolution. Since its (diachronous) exhumation it has experienced very strong erosive peneplanation uncovering the polymetamorphic crystalline basement. Supracrustal sequences of sedimentary origin are strongly underrepresented and mainly occur along the periphery

I have no idea what any of that means except to say that it most likely explains why camping on stony ground was a recurring feature of our expedition. This was a nuisance because our tent did require a minimum number of pegs. In the years to come I would travel Europe with a flexible poled dome tent that could be pitched without pegs – particularly useful when you want to erect it on the deck of a passenger ferry in the Adriatic.

Map
In the absence of our original maps I have deduced the following route…

Distance walked: 13.8 miles (22.0 km)

 Key:
Start Dieulefit
Via Roche-Saint-Secret-Béconne
End Valréas
Photo 1 Street view of Photo 1 – Chateau de Simiane
Overnight Suspected camping location

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