The abominable weather that has been buffeting the Two Moors Festival’s front door these past few weeks, you really wouldn’t blame anybody for deciding to bunker down with a hot water bottle strapped to their tummy, their feet tucked up in big fluffy slippers and a hot toddy clutched firmly in their grasp.
What you wouldn’t really expect is for them to don their gym knickers, pull on their trainers and go for a nine-mile run up hill and down dale across the North Devon countryside. Which is what the (some may say, abjectly cruel!) organisers of The Exmoor – West Buckland School’s annual cross-country run, and the longest in England – made their poor students do earlier last week.
I’m a former pupil of West Buckland and can tell you for a fact that, apart from a few hardcore fans, The Exmoor – which has been going strong for 150 years – is one of the most dreaded dates on the entire school calendar. From the moment classes begin in September, everyone’s busy trying to think up believable excuses to get out of it, but since it involves the whole school and if everyone called in sick it would look a bit suspicious, you somehow find yourself at the starting line every year, freezing in your house singlet and wishing you went to school in the Sahara.
It’s only the lucky few who don’t find themselves running (or, let’s face it, strolling) The Exmoor year in, year out. I recall one friend of mine successfully got out of it when, after walking the six miles to the starting line, one of the teachers drove over his foot with the school bus! The worst bits are undoubtedly running through the river (do not envy them, having had to do so this year!) and trying to scale The Cleave – a notoriously steep bit of hillside.
Tough The Exmoor certainly is – and I really didn’t relish the prospect of doing it every year. But there’s really nothing quite like crossing that finish line after nine miles of hell on earth and knowing that you’ve survived one of the toughest, longest and most excruciating runs going. Like a lot of things at school, you hate ’em at the time but come to appreciate them later (sometimes much, much later) down the line. I’m very grateful that by the time I got to West Buckland School, they’d reduced the number of cross-country runs from 15 to one but I still smile with pride when I think of the year I came ninth!