Thursday, 8 August 2019

Decline and Fall: In which our hero plods wearily to the finish of the 2019 TGO Challenge

Trailstar Party Time: Philbrick, Dr Fagan and Captain Grimes

“I expect you’ll becoming a school master, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour”.  

(The college porter to the naive Paul Pennyfeather as Paul departed Oxford after wrongly being sent down for running around the quad naked at night, having previously been de-bagged by the Bollinger Club following their annual dinner.) From 'Decline and Fall', by Evelyn Waugh.

Wot? Why not smiling? In Glen Roy

Paul Pennyfeather reflected.  Not for the first time on this TGO Challenge.  Life can throw strange things at you.  Scottish backpackers expect the weather to be wet and cold and miserable.  Anything else is normally a bonus. But the wall-to-wall sunshine and 24 degree centigrade temperatures when carrying a large pack were of questionable benefit.

Still, thought Pennyfeather, “embrace the suck”.

Pennyfeather had heard an American backpacker use that phrase and, having eventually worked out what it meant, had decided it should be his mantra, there being much suck in life which needed to be embraced.  But embracing it was not always easy.  Still, the amiable and encouraging presence of Dr Fagan helped as they trudged along the road towards the Great Glen and a camp site with showers and resupply parcels full of chocolate and stuff.  Grimes and Philbrick had disappeared several hours ago, Grimes mysteriously vanishing into a forestry plantation and Philbrick had halted for a snooze in the sun by a gurgling river.  The team eventually reassembled on the towpath of the Caledonian Canal, if lying hot, dishevelled and thirsty in a hedgerow can be classed as reassembly. 

At the Caledonian Canal

They had heard that Digby Vane-Trumpington, with an injured knee, was in Fort William and would be taking a taxi to the camp site to join them.  Philbrick telephoned him with an order for wine and cheese and other goodies.  He muttered some last words into the phone, and Paul could have sworn that his final instruction was “Oh, and Trumpington, if you value what remains of your kneecaps, don’t be late.”

Vane-Trumpington was waiting at the site.  Prendergast arrived, smiling.  The team showered.  Not together, obviously.  The wine, intended to be drunk two days later, was opened.  And it was good.

The following days turned into a blur.  Despite his wooden leg Grimes frequently raced ahead, prodding cattle away to protect Pennyfeather.  Dr Fagan and Philbrick wandered behind "deep in philosophical discussion”, Pennyfeather suggested to Grimes, who simply smirked in response.  The last of the Cheese and Wine was drunk in the sunshine at an enjoyable spot by the River Spey not far from the Melgarve Bothy.  Over the wine Dr Fagan sought to convince some lovely Canadians, Malcolm and Martha, who had not, incidentally, consumed most of their cheese and wine days earlier but had actually carried the stuff to its intended destination, of the problems with climate science and the evils of wind turbines.  Malcolm sought quietly to rebut the good doctor’s analysis and change the subject.  A week later at Tarfside Pennyfeather met Malcolm and Martha again and learnt that Malcolm was, amongst other things, an adviser to the Canadian Government on climate change.

With Martha and Malcolm at the Cheese and Wine
The wonderfully named Brisbane and Yeticlaws from the US of A: Two thoroughly nice blokes. And no, those aren't day packs that they are carrying.
Glen Banchor: The best day. Simpy the best.

They plodded on.  At Kingussie they marvelled at the US backpackers with their ladies' clutch bag sized rucksacks and strange ‘trail names’.  Things like ‘Yeticlaws’ and ‘Brisbane’.  And they saw one happy Challenger, who must remain nameless, skipping, yes skipping, from the bar of the Silverfjord Hotel towards the bothy in Glen Feshie at four in the afternoon having sunk eight pints of bitter and three glasses of scotch.

Grimes and Pennyfeather then put in, what for Pennyfeather was ‘a big day’, off route, but on the lovely and easy path, up and over the Feshie to the Geldie Ford, Pennyfeather being encouraged and cajoled by the ever energetic and supportive Grimes.  They would have told Fagan and Philbrick of their plans, but these two had been passed hours earlier lying on the grass discussing how the world could be put to rights.  If they are ever put in charge you should be afraid. Very afraid.

With Captain Grimes

Braemar.  The Fife Arms has become horrific since its revamp.  What’s with a stuffed deer with angel’s wings flying above the bar?  Pennyfeather went to bed early to re-plan his route.  He had to get home earlier than he had wanted because of a sick elderly mother.  Grimes explained that he was also going off route and was heading for the hills.  “I'm not in the soup again old chap,” he assured Pennyfeather, “but needs must, you know how it is”.  Pennyfeather didn’t know.  All he wanted was to get to the east coast quickly and with the minimum of discomfort.  He’d had enough of embracing the suck.

Balmoral passed in a blur.  Well after the coffee and cake at Her Majesty’s place, obviously.  Ballater saw more niceness with lots of Challengers, the re-appearance of the smiling Prendergast, the appearance of a cheerful, excited Mrs Clutterbuck and also of a laid back, esoteric, ageing rock star in his trade mark cashmere sweater.

Pennyfeather eyed the top of Mount Keen from the dullest mountain path north of Skiddaw.  “Been there, done that, can’t be bothered again”, he thought, opting for the beautifully crafted but oh so artificial path over the shoulder, which he had not taken before.  Tarfside showed that the cheerfully inebriated challenger last seen skipping out of Kingussie was safe and well, still skipping, but had signed the pledge.  Well the first part of that statement is true.  Lots of old friends were making bacon butties at St Trinian’s Hostel.  Pennyfeather enjoyed the hugs and comradeship almost as much as the bacon butties.  North Water Bridge campsite was, well, North Water Bridge Campsite.  It has splendid new shower and toilet facilities.  What it really needs each May is a pop-up bar and a bacon buttie and cake shop.  He headed off to the coast at 5.10 in the morning of the Wednesday and walked along the empty beach from Kinnaber Links to the golf course and then up to the Park Hotel in Montrose to sign out before mysteriously disappearing, never to be seen again by his fellow travellers.  In 2019.

An evening in the Mason's at Tarfside


What happened to the ‘real’ Decline and Fall characters?

Prendergast, unable to maintain discipline in the classroom became the Chaplain in Dartmoor Gaol.  The reforming governor, in his efforts to rehabilitate the horrendously violent inmates, had allowed them woodwork tools in the workshop.  They used these to saw off Prendie’s head.

Philbrick, ever shady and politely menacing, had a spell in Dartmoor, but was last seen being driven around Oxford in the back seat of an open-topped Rolls Royce with a heavy fur rug over his knees.

Grimes, in the soup, escaped from Dartmoor Gaol by stealing one of the warders’ horses whilst breaking rocks in a quarry on the moor.  He galloped off into the fog, never to be seen again.  His wooden leg and his clothes were found abandoned on a beach.  His body was never found, but as Pennyfeather smilingly reflected, Grimes was one of life’s immortals.

Dr Fagan gave up being the headmaster of a minor public school in Snowdonia and, being a polymath, established a sanatorium on the south coast.

Pennyfeather, also a prisoner in Dartmoor, having innocently become mixed up in the white slave trade, was taken from Dartmoor to Dr Fagan’s sanatorium, allegedly with appendicitis.  The Doctor faked a death certificate and Pennyfeather disappeared from public view.

Any resemblance of the characters in these blog posts to any person, either living or dead, is entirely intentional entirely coincidental and is merely the outcome of my warped imagination and odd sense of humour.  The post has been written with affection, admiration and thanks for all these characters who helped me across Scotland - again. 

Decline and Fall was Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, being published in 1928.  Waugh was, in my opinion, one of the best authors of the twentieth century.  He created some of the funniest and most wonderful characters in fiction as well as some of the most poignant.  If I had one thousandth of his literary skills I would be a happy man indeed. 

Made it: a lonesome early morning selfie


  1. Just plain brilliant...
    You haven't seen me alright? (Grimes)

  2. In the cock-a-leekie again old chap?

  3. Pennyfeather.

    My dear chap. I must take issue with your denigration of the delightful oasis that is Braemar.

    I'm sorry that you didn't enjoy the Fife's ironic take on the Mar Lodge ballroom with the twiggy antlers and ghostly stag. I thought it tolerably amusing, but a matter of taste, and clearly not to everyone's.

    However, once one passes the portals of the inner sanctum I have to say that the Fife is quite exquisite. At luncheon Dr Fagan, in expansive mood, ordered the 'finest wines known to humanity' to accompany food fit for Gods. The artiste in the cocktail bar then mixed us stunning afternoon cocktails to see us through to teatime, when we shared a fine Highland Cream Tea with a fellow challenger who, by an unfortunate trick of the light, had spotted us through the window before the ever attentive staff could lower the blinds.

    Any fool can walk across Scotland, but it is how one tackles the periods of NOT walking that defines the true gentleman Challenger. Otherwise what do we become? Tramps and vagabonds, Sir!

    Incidentally, I note that some chap called Caries has taken the TGO helm. Sounds like a bit of a rotter.

    Toodle pip.


  4. Hello Phil(brick)

    "it is how one tackles the periods of NOT walking..."

    I'm afraid all I can really remember of the Challenge is walking...and walking...and walking.