SI Vault
Subterfuge on a Sylvan Rally
Clive Gammon
January 13, 1969
You still have an hour of light left," said Fred Travis, snapping out a hairy, muscular wrist and consulting the complex of dials held there by a steel-link strap.
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January 13, 1969

Subterfuge On A Sylvan Rally

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"But of course you wouldn't be interested in that. No, the one you want is up in West Cumberland. A lot of the lads will be going up for that. It's going to be great fun!"

"Right you are, then!" I tried to match his jolly, extroverted tone. The last time I had run competitively was 25 years previously in the Swansea Grammar School cross-country run. It had not been a happy experience, since I had been caught alighting from the truck on which I had thumbed a ride and was then expertly beaten up by G. Satchell and S. Peters, two seniors who had a highly developed idea of what was sporting, but only a rough sense of justice. Watch out, Peters and Satchell, I'm still on your trail.

Once committed to the Cumberland event, I sat back and thought. The navigation bit, first of all. I could get a Silva compass and read up on all that stuff ("Why has it got to be a silver compass?" asked my wife. "Werewolves," I told her). But the fitness thing was something else again. Disley recommends a program starting off with 30 minutes a day jogging, through interval running a la Emil Zatopek, to continuous running on a six-mile course, all of which, he says, develops the "capillarization" of the musculature, whatever that is. Well, clearly, with three days to go, I was going to have to do without all that. An entirely different crash-training routine was called for.

It wasn't long before the solution hit me. When you exert energy what do you use up? Answer: calories. What do you need a lot of, then? Calories. Where do calories come from? Food. Lots of good, rich food was the answer. I immediately set about making arrangements for my training program, replacing Disley's masochistic volume on the bookshelf and consulting an altogether different work.

The Good Food Guide has a deservedly high reputation in England. Unsubsidized by advertisers, it lists in its pages only the best eating places in the country. A high standard is needed to gain even a mention. But over and above this, it bestows a final accolade, the Good Food Award for High Distinction in Cuisine. Six establishments in London are so honored. In the rest of the country, only 10. Carefully I compared my route map with the guide. There it was, placed at a convenient halfway stage on my journey to Cumberland. The Elms Hotel, Abberley, an 18th century Queen Anne house outside a village in Worcestershire. "We have praised it continuously since 1954," said the guide. "Helpings are, if anything, too large...." It slavered on about peaches in cream, curry sauce, stuffed pheasant, veal with Madeira sauce, ginger snow.... It was clear that I had found my training camp, even if it was only an overnight stop.

With no aid from my Silva compass I homed in on Abberley and The Elms Hotel, a haven of peace and rest among lawns and rose gardens. Upstairs, I unpacked my track suit, my new sneakers (recommended wear for orienteers) and my long woolen stockings ("protect the front of the lower leg against damage"—Disley), and put them all out of sight. Training my way was a civilized, gracious proceeding. Thoughtfully, I placed a paperback mystery on my bedside table. Complete relaxation of mind would also be necessary if I were to be satisfactorily cocooned in an aura of utter concentration later on. In any case, I was going to bed early. Meanwhile I showered and put on my best suit, ready for the training session.

Loosening up must come first, I reckoned. I walked downstairs and was guided to the appropriate sector of the training ground by a neon sign that said, elegantly and simply, BAR. There was no sense, clearly, in rushing things. Two very dry T�o Pepe sherries spaced out over half an hour would make a gentle introduction. I sat discreetly at the end of the bar and tried to relax, but before very long my musing was interrupted by a man in tails with a menu. Evidently my coach had arrived. Together we thought out my program. As in all the best places to eat, The Elms offered only a very limited choice of main dishes. From it my coach and I selected roast squab � l'italienne (with tomatoes, garlic and a wine sauce). We flanked it with grapefruit baked in sherry and brown sugar as an hors d'oeuvre, and with chocolate meringue as a dessert. We considered, and finally added, a piece of blue-veined, very ripe Stilton to finish with. Then we turned to the wine list, a veritable treasury of calories. Two minds worked as one here. There could be no other choice than a half bottle—a half bottle only—of Gevrey-Chambertin 1962.

Ninety minutes later, after a hard and exacting workout, I pushed my chair back, rose to my feet in stately fashion and moved with dignity into the hotel lounge for a final phasing-out with black coffee and one, or conceivably two, liqueurs. I was beginning to feel the aura forming now, so I made it two. A third became a possibility, but I put the idea firmly aside. No sense in overtraining. A gracious goodnight to my coach, and I went upstairs for a little mild intellectual exercise with Nero Wolfe.

In the morning, though I felt fine and was able to continue training with a light breakfast of lamb kidneys and pork sausage, a horrid doubt assailed me. Had I peaked too early? There was still a 300-mile drive and a night to spend in Cumberland before I faced the big challenge. Who could tell what the training conditions were going to be like that evening? I had already fixed my quarters, of course, and there was no alternative but to drive on and take my chance.

Training facilities in Cumberland proved to be a good deal more primitive than those at The Elms. On arrival, I had encountered the redoubtable Mr. Travis and made my car-borne pilgrimage to the summit of Irton Pike to view the arena. Then it was time to check in at the camp. A dentist sat in the bar drinking beer. He had never heard of orienteering or Mr. Travis, but, yes, he knew all about the Rev. William Malkinson. This gentleman had been in the habit, each Sunday morning after services, of striding up to the top of the pike. Finally, on Feb. 21, 1886, he had taken his last walk, expiring neatly at the very peak. Probably he had neglected to eat a good breakfast, I reasoned. In the few hours I had left I was not going to make the mistake of skimping on the final preparations. That evening I trained simply on steak and apple pie and took Disley on Orienteering to bed with me.

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