As part of National Novel Writing Month, (#NaNoWriMo) I've set myself the goal of writing a 50,000 word novel (1700 words a day), consisting of short stories about my memories of primary school. Just so that you know, all names of people have been changed unless they are publically known. Each story is based on my own memory, so may not be an exact representation of events, especially since I am writing this over 40 years after things happened! But I hope you will enjoy each story all the same, and that perhaps it will spark your own memories of life at primary school.
On the way home from my PGL adventure, dad suggested that we pay a visit to the Dan- yr-Ogof show caves which were just across the border in a country called Wales. He and mum seemed happier and calmer than I had ever remembered and it was unusual for us to have time together as dad was usually away or late home with his work, and mum was normally busy with my baby brother. Today we just felt like a normal family and it gave me a warm feeling in my tummy.
I had never been to a cave before, not until the one we went to on my PGL holiday, but now we were going to an even bigger cave and I had butterflies in my tummy from the excitement as we walked from the car to the entrance, and along the noisy and bubbling River Llynfell. I had never felt an energy or power like it, all that strength from something as simple as water. You could feel the cold air above the water, sat in the gorge as you looked over the edge of the pathway. I had never been anywhere like this before.
I had no idea what to expect from a show cave and we seemed to have forgotten our helmets, caving suits, and torches. We were just in our regular clothes, me in my shorts and t-shirt and I hoped that we wouldn't get too cold, especially without tall wellies to keep the water from soaking my little toes.
'But what about our caving gear? I've only got my sandals on'. I shouted to dad over the loud rumbling of the water in the gorge below us.
'Oh you won't need any of that, dad said'. Dad was very, very tall compared to me, and I had to tip my head all the way back as I gave him one of my quizzical looks. Sometimes it was hard to tell if dad was joking or being serious so I had to look at his face for clues.
Dad wasn't always the most prepared for outdoor things, though I always trusted him completely and never felt in any danger because he was so strong and able to solve any problem at all.
You could spot my dad a mile off, not just because he was tall and serious looking, but because he always wore denim jeans, a t-shirt, and boots. He was the skinniest person I had met, but his skin was always dark from being out in the sun, he had well defined muscles on his scrawny arms, and dark hairs on his arms that would stand on end, especially when it was cold outside.
Dad's hands were much bigger than mine, and I would spend any cuddle time with him, just exploring his palms, wrapping my fingers around his. My skin was soft and my hands were always pale, but dad's hands were covered in big callouses, and he always seemed to have a big bruise under a fingernail, or had lost a nail and now it was just tough old skin.
'What happened to your finger?' I would ask, certain that there was an adventurous story to be had. I loved dad's tales about work and life. I listened more closely to dad's words than to any of my teachers at school!
'Oh I whacked it with a hammer at work'. or 'oh I just caught it in a door'.
Dad was so fearless, nothing seemed to hurt him. Best of all, I would love to snuggle into his chest and listen to the beat of his heart, so steady and regular, and I loved it when he spoke as you could hear the vibrations of his deep voice as the sound passed through his chest. It was surreal. I felt a connection. I felt like I belonged, and like were joined somehow, I was a part of him, his blood ran through me and gave me a sense of who I was. Something I never felt with my mum, and we certainly never hugged or kissed or held hands, and if I stood even the slightest bit too close to her, she would shrug her shoulder or push me away and tell me off for crowding her. But with my baby brother she was different, the way she looked at him, and spoke to him, and cooed and gurgled as he smiled back up at her. Mum had a very difficult time after I was born, and it took a long time for her to get pregnant with my brother and our lives were different by the time my brother was born. Not just because we had a better house and more money, but because the world was changing fast around us, and all the new technology was making the life of mums and dads much easier. They were toys to entertain the children, and things like freezers and microwaves and tv dinners were starting to become popular. Dad was earning enough money now that mum didn't have to worry as much about going out to work or finding a childminder for him, so she was home more, and all of her time was spent with my brother whilst I was at school.
Dad and I had been on some amazing adventures together. Once when I was about three or four years old, he had gone paragliding with a friend, and strapped me to his back. Dad had to hold onto a metal bar and run towards the edge of the cliff. We were flying. Just like birds, only we had a big kite over our heads. It was wonderful and very exciting to see things from above for the first time.
The world looked amazing from up here, everything seemed so small below us, and I loved the sensation as the wind hit my face. Sometimes it would catch my face in such a way, that I wouldn't be able to get my breath. So I ducked a little just enough to get some shelter behind dad's shoulder so I could get my breath, and then I would stick my head up again.
We went round and round in circles, until eventually we landed on the ground below, and then dad carried me and the kite back up to the top of the hill. I was ever so good on these kinds of adventures and I always did exactly as dad told me, and I didn't wriggle or fidget or complain, because adventures with dad were the best things in the world and I wanted to savour every second of them.
It was easy to know with dad. He was one of the few people that I never struggled to understand. Other people thought him serious or rude but I liked the way that he spoke clearly. You didn't have to guess at what he really meant, 'reading between the lines' dad called it.
Sometimes dad needed me to be quiet and still so that he could concentrate, and other times I would be free to babble on and on as I walked behind him trying to put my little feet into his giant footsteps on the ground, especially if the ground was soft or sandy.
One day my feet would be as big as his I hoped, and then I would be a real explorer going off on my own adventures. Dad told me lots of stories about his favourite explorers and around the same time as we had our adventures together between 1979 and 1982, a man called Sir Ranulph Fiennes was off on his real life adventures. He went from a place called Greenwich on the River Thames in London all the way to the North Pole in the Arctic, and then came back to Greenwich before going off to the South Pole in Antarctica. He got a Guinness World Record for it and Dad would tell me about what he had seen on the television and papers about the journey. I pretended that me and dad were on expedition with Ran especially in the winter time when it snowed or we were walking along some empty windswept beach with the sand blowing in our faces and stinging our skin.
One time, we had been walking on the beach, when the tide suddenly came in, so dad decided to take a short cut, and scrambled up the cliff face with me on his back. I never needed to question him, because he was always straight with me, and that meant that I never had to worry about what he wasn't telling me, or be worried that he might be hiding something like other grown ups seemed to do all the time.
'The tide is coming in Sar, so I'm going to put you on my back and climb up here onto the path, can you see it?'.
'OK' I said, as if I were an astronaut on a top secret space mission about to save the planet from doom.
Once dad even saved me from a kind of poisonous snake called an 'adder' when we were walking on the Dorset coast. I was chatting away to him about everything that happened at school, and Dad suddenly put his arm out and told me to stop.
'Look there' he said.
'What?' I didn't see anything at first.
'Just there. An adder. You almost stepped on it'. Dad was so matter of fact. No drama. He was the coolest person ever. He had just saved my life and he brushed it off.
'Oh' said I trying to put on a cool exterior but bursting with excitement inside. I didn't care what anyone said about my dad, especially my granny and mum, to be he was my hero. The best dad in the world. We never spoke about real feelings together. Whatever happened in our lives, we just got on with it like it was nothing and continued walking as if nothing important had happened at all.
But today here at the show caves in Wales, we were on a different adventure. Me, mum, and dad. It was very strange because mum was with us too, and she never joined us on our adventures and I wondered whether dad would be as adventurous as he usually was and whether mum would enjoy the adventures too. These days mum was usually busy with my new baby brother, or else busy with her sewing and making clothes for us.
'Have you been here before? I asked my mum. I felt a bit odd trying to start up a conversation with her as I usually did my best to be invisible around her and not get in her way but it seemed rude not to at least speak with her now my brother wasn't taking up all her attention with his snotty nose and stinky nappies.
'No, but I used to do a lot of caving with your grandad when I was little. In fact that is how he met your gran, because they both used to cycle to Ingleborough in Yorkshire, stay at the campsite or the Youth Hostel and then go caving and potholing together. They used to take me a lot when I was a child. Grandad even invented a special backpack for me to sit in so he could carry me. They didn't have a car when I was small, so grandad sat on the motorbike, and granny and me sat in the sidecar'.
I was very impressed but surprised that no one had ever mentioned this important bit of information before. So, I was actually from a family of cavers and explorers but I never knew it.
We had arrived at the caves now, and it was the serious business of paying to get in, and grown ups doing grown up things so I was quiet and well behaved and just did as I was told.
We had to go through a little turnstile that clicked and it was all really noisy and exciting and lots of other people there, but no other children that I could see. I remembered that I was missing school because of our special holiday, so maybe all the children were sat in maths class or something like that, not out like grown ups as we were.
I held onto dad's hand, just in case he might wander off and get lost and get worried where we were. His hand felt so big compared to mine and it always fascinated me. Would mine grow as big as his hands I wondered? My nan's hands were big too, like dad's, only much softer and her nails were always clean and tidy whereas dad's were always dirty, even though he washed them and scrubbed them with a really sharp scrubbing brush when he got home from work. Dad's hands had loads of lines on them and the dirt seemed to get stuck between the lines even when he scrubbed them before tea. His hands always smelt like creosote but nan's always smelt like vaseline and her favourite violet perfume and Pears soap. Dad's hands were never as warm as mine so I think he didn't mind holding my hand too much. I felt sure that I must be related to an eskimo because the colder the weather was, the warmer my hands became. I took that as a sign for me being a natural explorer, destined to go on journeys like Ranulph Fiennes when I was a grown up. But I would never tell anyone my plans. They would think them childish and silly.
We had to walk along a damp, gravel track, with little puddles once we got inside the cave, and my toes would sometimes get wet and the puddle would splash up the back of my warm leg whenever I accidentally stepped into a puddle. I held dad's hand to keep him warm, and because I was so happy to see him and have time with him.
The cave was much more colourful than the PGL one, and it had really steep edges that you wouldn't want to fall down, so someone had very thoughtfully put a rope around the edge. The man guiding us told us that the cave had been explored in the 1900s and that it was really old. I felt sure there must be dinosaurs living here, or alien creatures still to be discovered in the water below us. Someone had even put spot lights inside the cave, but they must have been really brave to walk around there on their own in the dark. I liked the dark but even I might have got the willies as I explored those dark corners of the cave on my own!
We came to a rope bridge that went all the way across a huge cavern that was only partially lit by the spotlights, and in the pool of water far below us was a lone boat that looked very thin and like it would tip over, some oars, and passages that seemed to go for miles into the darkness. The water looked green and murky and it smelt a little bit like the water I fell in when we visited dad's orchid friend, only the air was not warm and tropical here, it was cold, and the water below looked even colder.
The guide told us about two brothers called Tommy and Jeff Morgan and explained that in 1912 they had been exploring this cave without any map and only candles for light. And then he turned off the spotlights and showed us what it would look like with just a candle.
It was really, really dark, and for a moment it seemed like you could easily forget which way the path went, and you had to rely on the echo and sounds to work out how close or far you were from the rocks or space below. It was very exciting and I imagined what it must have felt like for them. That down there was their boat and it was called a coracle, it was made from the skin of an animal.
Behind the boat, on the rock face I noticed a ladder made from ropes, and as I followed each rung, I realised that it went up for a very long way.
'That is what the brothers used to get from one cavern to the next' said the guide. I imagined how exciting it would be to live and work as an explorer. But exploring was something that only happened in history, not today, after all everything must have been explored by now already, even Fiennes had got the record for the North and South Poles so how would I ever be able to go somewhere no-one had been to before. Unless of course I went to space, but that really would be impossible.
The best bit was that we got to walk across the rope bridge, over the cave and water below, and when we got the middle dad let me stop and look around. All the people in our group walked over the bridge as fast as they could because they didn't like heights and were a bit scared, but me and dad just stopped and looked around us.
The rocks were the most colourful rocks possible, but not as colourful as the rock dad had brought be back from Morocco, but these ones were millions of years old. One rock looked like an angel, and another one looked just like a rasher of bacon.
A bit further along the cave, through another passageway I imagined that we must be in some kind of church, because the stalagmite and stalactite columns and pillars looked just like the big wax candles you see in church. They didn't look like rock at all because they were so smooth and flat.
The guide told us a story when we got to a different part of the cave.
'This bit was called the 'long crawl' because it was over 16km long and had been discovered by a lady in the 1960s who crawled all the way along it until she popped out right here where we were standing'.
I wondered how someone could discover such a thing, how was it possible? Did you just go for a walk one day, see a hole, and crawl along it? How did you know which way to go? Wasn't it very silly to go off on your own like that and not tell anyone. My mum and dad would be so angry if I went under the ground like the two brothers did, with just a candle. Grown ups were always telling us how dangerous everything was, but then here we were and everyone thought they were so amazing because they made these discoveries. Which was it to be, was it good or bad to go off exploring on your own? It was all very confusing.
We came into another space, only this time the walkway was built from concrete and the rails were made from metal. It was much wetter here because a waterfall came down one of the rock faces and sprayed people as they walked by.
Everyone walked past the wet bit very fast, apart from me, because I wanted to see what the waterfall looked like from here. I had never seen an underground waterfall before and I wondered what the rock must look like and if there were any plants or animals living there.
The cave had so many interesting corners that I wanted to live underground for the rest of my life and explore all the places for myself. Some sections, like in the Cathedral Cave, there were barriers across the entrance and signs hanging up that said 'cavers only'. Well I wasn't like the other people in our group who were tourists, because I was a caver. I had been in a cave with a proper helmet and torch and caving suit just a few days ago, and my granny and grandad had been not just cavers, but potholers and that meant that they used to abseil down ropes from the top of the cave, right inside it.
I spoke loudly to dad in the hopes of establishing my status as a caver. I might be only 5 or 6 years old, but I was a caver you know. Of course I would be allowed down that tunnel, if only I had my caving gear on me, I would just have to come back another day.
I was perhaps a little less brave and was certainly less vocal about my caving prowess, as we entered the next chamber, and I 'adjusted the position' of my grip on dad's hand in such a way as to show that I wasn't afraid, but that I just needed to alter the position of my hand in his, for good measure.
We had entered a dark hole called the 'bone cave'. A smaller chamber that contained the bones of humans, sabre toothed tigers, red deer, Bronze Age people, Romans, hyenas, bears, and wolves. They were 3000 years old and some were even older, around 7000 years old and there was actual treasure, like jewellery and trinkets too.
Right in front of us, almost within touching distance were the dead bodies of 42 people, men, women, and children, you could even see the skulls.
I had no idea that there were bears in Great Britain or tigers living underground. Maybe that was why granny and grandad had stopped caving these days, and maybe grandad hadn't hurt his leg in the war playing football, maybe he had actually been injured by a bear but didn't want me to be scared?
Of course there are no bears in Britain anymore, only in the zoos, but thousands of years ago the humans and the bears, tigers, wolves, and hyenas would have all wanted to live inside the caves because they were warmer than living outside where it rained a lot, and where there was the Ice Age too.