Some time ago, I was in conversation with an ex-sixth former who had just spent his first year at university. Let us call him ‘Joe’. I asked him the usual trite and predictable questions. In the course of his equally predictable answers, he mentioned an incident that had occurred in one of his (also predictable) freshers’ meetings. As usual, they introduced themselves to each other by reciting their name, their school, and the course they had embarked upon.
At the mention of ‘West Buckland’, one young man’s eyes narrowed, and a gleam of recognition shone forth.
“Oh, yes,’ he said. You’re the school that has that run, aren’t you?’”
Joe had to admit that he had felt a slight surge of pride as he admitted that it was. West Buckland, it appeared, wasn’t particularly well known for anything really stunning like exam results or the number of internationals it produced or the fashionable clientele it attracted, but it wasn’t half famous for a run.
A run! It sounds a bit like being famous for having mahogany cricket stumps on the first eleven square, or a lawn mower that had been manufactured before the First World War.
But this was, and is, no ordinary run. Estimates about its length can be anything from nine miles to twelve; nearly half a marathon. Nobody to my knowledge has gone out with tape measures and sextants and whatever it is that surveyors play with, so the school is left to enjoy its yearly boast that the ‘Exmoor’ is the oldest, longest, roughest, toughest, scheduled, compulsory school cross-country run in the length and breadth of the land. No other school, again to my knowledge, has ever seen fit to descend on us with a bevy of mathematicians and geographers to challenge this claim, so West Buckland can continue in its chest-beating pretentions. It does no harm to anybody, and it does West Buckland a great deal of good.
For the school is very proud of it. Look at Joe’s surge of pride when he heard what that young man said at the freshers’ meeting.
And it is not just the length. It is not just the run either if it comes to that. The senior boys have to walk
almost seven to the start. Seven miles! All right, so they have a shorter course for senior girls, junior boys and junior girls, which is only common sense. But the girls are just as ‘up for it’ as the boys. Indeed, we had one gifted girl who took on the boys’ course – and came fourth.
It is not your average cross-country course either, with carefully roped off tracks and paths, and starts and finishes in civilised, built-up avenues of houses. It starts on a prehistoric burial mound over 1,500 feet above sea level. In the course of the runners’ downhill return to the school, they have to deal with mud, rainfall, cow pats, fences, rabbit warrens, and a river crossing. Mist is common company. In 2002, the two leaders of the race got lost, and, when they arrived back at the finish, had no idea whether they had run a longer or a shorter race. Nevertheless, they both refused to accept their cups.
Near the end is a murderous section, known universally as ‘the Cleave’, which actually goes uphill
. As may a breathless, heart-pounding survivor will tell you, “It’s the Cleave that crucifies you.”
The surprise is that this event is the most cherished tradition in the school’s history. It has been run since 1859, with only two cancellations – in 2001, because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, and in the awful winter of 1947, when the River Taw froze.
There is a story that, a few decades ago, there was a ‘movement’ to stop the ‘Exmoor’, because it was too tough. A politically correct reformer today would refer to it as ‘child abuse’. Opinions were canvassed throughout the school, and the vote was overwhelming not only to keep it, but to keep it compulsory.
Stories stick to the ‘Exmoor’ like glue; the course markers who supply themselves on their long vigil with camp stoves, sausages, cider, and cigarettes, for example. The TV camera team who arrived to film it, and got tangled up with a flock of sheep, and of course, the immortal, phantom chicken-stranglers of Heasley Mill. One could go on.
Like the ‘Exmoor’, it goes on, for its seven mile walk out, and its nine mile (or ten mile, or twelve mile) run back. And it will be going on again in March 2014. The whole school will shut down once again, and a crowd of thirsty spectators and runners will descend upon the Poltimore Arms half a mile from the start up on Five Barrows, to fortify themselves in their respective ways, for ‘that run’.Berwick CoatesSchool Archivist
About the author...
Berwick Coates was educated at Kingston Grammar School, and read History at Cambridge. Since then, he has been at various times an Army officer, writer, artist, lecturer, careers adviser, games coach, and teacher of History, English, Latin, and Swahili. He has published nine books, ranging from A-Level History and popular history to memoirs, humour, cartoons, and light verse.
He has taught every age and every ability from primary remedial to Oxbridge entrance. He has lectured to audiences of all ages and backgrounds, on subjects ranging from Alexander the Great and Hannibal, through medieval and early modern history, to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
His latest book is a collection of fifty views of Christmas (illustrated by himself), entitled 'The Perfect Christmas Present'. He has also written four historical novels and one modern one. He is at present finishing a book of teaching memoirs.
A range of Berwick's books are available to purchase on Amazon