Sure and steadfast

A group of intrepid Boys' Brigade members from the Leadgate area, County Durham, in the mid 1960s.

A group of intrepid Boys’ Brigade members from the Leadgate area, County Durham, in the mid 1960s.

For me the swinging 60s must have happened somewhere else, because as a lad of 14 in 1964, all I seem to remember was being bored. A mining village in Durham didn’t have much in the way of excitement for a teenager.

With nothing to occupy me in my spare time, I decided to enlist in the Boys’ Brigade. When I received my uniform, 1 spent hours getting everything just right. A side cap, with its silver badge gleaming, was perched on my head and in constant danger of falling off. A white cross belt ended in a flat pouch, reminiscent of army redcoat’s cartridge pouch. A thick leather belt and buckle that was identical to the army issue of the Victorian period completed my uniform. That’s where the military resemblance ended, although my imagination filled in the gaps.

Let’s start at the boots. Only one condition applied – they had to be black. Everything from pitboots to hiking boots were worn.
We all wore long trousers with shirt, tie and jacket, and hand-me-downs were the order of the day. As you can imagine, we were quite a motley looking lot.

The company met every Friday at 6pm, and once school was over my time was spent cleaning my uniform ready for inspection. The cross belt had to be spotlessly white and Blanco’d to perfection. All badges had to be gleaming, and a good part of my newspaper round money went on buying Duraglit. I

rubbed pork fat on my boots to keep them supple, a tip from my father who was a miner.

When we arrived for parade we lined up and dressed ranks – the organisation was run on discipline and everything we did emulated the armed forces. Drill was an integral part of the brigade, and many a time we would return from drill competitions proudly displaying the colours, a privilege that only went to the winners.

One Friday evening, our commanding officer asked if anyone had musical experience. “Yes sir,” I answered, along with five others. And so was born the band of the 6th Company – four drummers and two buglers. After many practise sessions we
were ready to attempt our first church parade. We marched proudly through the quiet streets of our little village at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, the drums beating out a rhythm as I blasted out the melody on my bugle, all the way to church. We were probably not in tune but it was a start. I have the feeling that we annoyed a lot of people during their Sunday lie-in.

Off to camp

One event that I always looked forward to was the annual camp. In 1966 we were destined for the Lake District for two weeks. We were split into four squads of ten boys who would live together under canvas for the duration. Our first job was to erect the heavy ex-army bell tents. The huge timber central pole was about 12 feet tall.

There was no fitted ground sheet, we had our own oilskin sheets and when it rained a small stream ran underneath our tent, soaking the grass and the thick army blankets that we huddled in. After the first week we felt we were living in a bog and we were permanently damp. Canvas kept the rain out for a while as it soaks up moisture and dries out when the rain stops. But as we were laughingly informed by our officers, this was the Lake District where it doesn’t stop raining.

We were lined up outside out tents when our CO addressed us. He held a canvas bucket and a short-handled spade in the air, proclaiming this was our toilet. Some of the new recruits looked baffled, but I was a veteran by then after two years’ service. We then dug out a latrine pit away from the tents near a line of trees. By the end of two weeks the pit would be full again and all we had to do was reposition the surface layer of turf.

There were no kitchen facilities and we had to provide our own items for cooking. The Primus stove usually defeated all our efforts to light it. When finally lit, the slightest breeze blew the flame out again. Most of the food we
ate was either cold or lukewarm. We washed our dishes at the edge of the stream that ran nearby, all scraps went into a bucket, and dishes were scrubbed with a handful of sod and then rinsed clean in the running water. The scraps were taken to the farm for the chickens or pigs.

An important part of the holiday was the endurance test, which formed part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Initiative and Endurance Scheme. That year it was a march to Kendal through the Kirkstone Pass, famous for its steep winding road to the top. We each carried a rucksack, which held everything we needed for the journey, and as it was pouring down with rain we had donned our waterproof capes in true army style. To keep our spirits up we sang songs such as The Quartermaster’s Store and Old MacDonald.

We used Ordnance Survey maps, as the rules of the initiative scheme stated, to
dictate our route. Often we stood in a sodden group trying to decide which way to go. Eventually we reached Kendal, seeing nothing of the countryside on the way, as it had been shrouded in mist and rain the whole time. It had been such a hard slog that our commander had arranged to have us driven back to base, where we collapsed in the relative dryness of our tents.

The last evening of our stay had arrived, this was ‘beano’ night. Every penny we had left was spent on chocolate, sweets, crisps and pop. The trouble was most of us didn’t have anything left to spend, so it was always a bit of a letdown.

The next morning, with mixed emotions, we packed up our gear, climbed into the chartered bus and headed home. Everything had been cleared away and looking back at the field we had camped in, it looked as though we had never been there.

That was the last time I went camping with the Boys’ Brigade – my world was changing and I decided to hang up my uniform. The Boys’ Brigade worked for me as many of its principles were adopted through my life and I have never forgotten the motto. Sure and Steadfast.

Michael Bowden, Chester-le-Street, County Durham