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I'm slightly claustrophobic.
Being locked in a cupboard in a childhood prank was my earliest memory of being afraid in dark and confined spaces.
Most of us have at some time in our lives felt out of our comfort zones and, as I have just discovered, it’s no bad thing. In fact, it’s quite liberating.
Trying out the new purpose-built overground labyrinth at Fanwood activity centre in Gomersal was a more daunting challenge than most, considering the aforementioned cupboard escapade, but life is about taking on challenges, isn’t it?
I tried to convince myself it was, as I heaved my body along tight passages and tumbled headfirst through narrow holes with only the small flashlight attached to my safety helmet illuminating the way.
I was conscious of the scrambling above my head and shouts of “How do I get down there?” and “I can’t do it” – and that was just me!
A young lad, one of the party of eight to 12-year-olds with Kirklees Young People’s Service, navigating Jonty’s Cave, named after the late Spen Valley Scout leader whose family helped to fund it, is following up the rear.
I heard the youngster scuffling along in the confined passageway as I desperately attempted to sort out my knee pads which had come loose and were hindering my progress.
My struggle with the kneepads paled into insignificance when I saw what lay ahead – a small square hole. Clearly the only way down was head first, but even so, I took a moment to see if I could tackle it any other way.
Conscious I was holding the young lad up, and, believe me, there was no room to pass, I decided it really had to be head-first. Diving down into the unknown – actually it’s another equally-tight passageway – I felt like a contortionist bending my body round corners and crawling through holes.
Knowing someone was going through it with me was a comfort, and when I sensed he was ready to give up, I was willing him on.
He too had arrived at the square hole drop I’d just crawled off from. “Is it on my head?” came the voice – the phrase we coined for subsequent holes we would encounter where we literally had to forward roll down into a hole.
“Yes,” I said, “but you can do it.”
He did, and I felt that if I failed to complete the course, I’d helped to achieve at least something.
Crawling onwards, I’d hoped to come out halfway and tapped on the nearest emergency trap door, only to have it briefly opened and closed again by Ian Jessop.
Ian, adventurous activities officer with Kirklees Young People’s Service, is a regular at Fanwood. He is used to guiding youngsters through the extensive range of activities on offer there – and there are many more in the making, such as the mountain bike track currently being developed.
“I’ve got to get out,” I gasped, all breathless and weary, but laughing. “See you at the end!” smiled Ian leaving me gazing forlornly at the closed trap door.
“Ballpool duck next,” he instructed. I saw the brightly-coloured balls looming. “You are joking?” I quipped as I tried to swim through them, but was sinking.
I scrambled on in desperation to get up the slope and through another narrow hole. I hadn’t bargained on the Krypton Factor!
Crawling along the length, I hoped the end was in sight, then I was forced to thrust my body sideways through the ‘back passage squeeze.’ Thankfully, Ian let me out. I thought he’d relented then it dawned on me the photographer wanted to take a posed shot!
A few flashes of the camera and some encouragement from Ian and I was back where I left off in the cave. “I really, honestly, can’t do this,” I pleaded.
“Yes you can, you’re nearly there,” said Ian encouragingly.
I liked Ian. He’s a great guide and a fantastic mentor for the young people, as are Graeme Sunderland, chairman of the Spen Valley Scout Council and his wife Alida, district commissioner for Scouts, who are also actively involved in the centre.
Scaling the swinging rope ladder, I shoehorned myself into another tight spot, along a narrower passage, and another dreaded roll-over drop – albeit hanging on to a rope this time.
Swinging down the slope, there was light at the end of what seemed to be an endless tunnel – 500ft of crawling space to be precise. I saw daylight, and people’s feet as I thrust my body forth along the final length of this labyrinth.
The idea behind Jonty’s Cave is to simulate a caving experience, although Ian told me it is actually harder than caving, as it is tighter, there is more crawling and more obstacles, but the benefits, as I discovered, were boundless.
It’s an opportunity to participate in a challenging situation under expert guidance and in a safe and structured environment.
Younger participants can work with buddies, promoting teamwork. “They feel like they’ve climbed a mountain, and they feel like they have achieved something,” said Ian.
I can empathise with that. You can face your fears and increase your confidence in a physically-challenging, yet truly-satisfying and exciting way.
To find out more, contact Fanwood Activity Centre, Ferrands Lane, Gomersal. Call (01274) 876682, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.