Why are some people so nice to others? Would you go out of the way to help someone? Have you carried a stranger’s bag up a mountain just because the other person was weak? Do you remember the last time, you kept rubbing the frozen hands of another person, trying to warm them up, because he was freezing? Or would you invite strangers to your home, on Christmas and share your meal with them?
Not many of us are such exceptional people. But I was lucky enough to meet some such exceptional folks, all packed near a tiny village in Bedfordshire and this small tribute is for those few who made a lasting impact on my life.
Hi, I am Vikas and this is my story. I was fortunate enough to be in the receiving end of all this and I would like to share some of my best experiences in Cranfield with you.
I come from a city in South India and, like some of you, this was my first time out of home. My first time I had left India and straight in to Cranfield. During the orientation, we were introduced to various clubs and societies and for some reason, I decided to join the Walking Society at Cranfield University. (Which later in hind sight was the best decision I ever made.)
The rumours that the best quality products of any go to the USA and Europe and India gets the second or third grade products (because it is sold at a cheaper price affordable to many), is true. On my first walk from University to Cranfield village along with 89 other students, my almost brand new pair of sneakers split. The lower half was ripped away from the upper half as I stepped in to the muddy fields that took us to the nearby village. I then removed my shoe lace, used it as a string to tie the 2 halves together and continue to drag my feet slowly, over the 3 kilometer walk, through the mud and slush, till we reached the university. (Trust me that wasn’t a pleasant start.)
But that is where I met Kristina. She was the society’s founder and the walking leader back in my day and she had planned the walk to the village that very day this incident took place. Now, believe it or now. She walked by me, the entire duration, as I walked sloppily in my torn shoes, making small talk and gently encouraging me to carry on walking. Once the walk was done and we reached the Mitchell hall, I expected her to say good bye and leave just like everyone else who enjoyed their first walk with the club. But she did something I will never forget. She drove me in her car, all the way to a shop called GoOutdoors (in Bedford which was around 15 miles away from University) and helped me select some good hiking gear (as I was totally clueless about even the basic asks of hiking in a terrain like UK) and also used her own discount card to get me the best deal out there and dropped me back at my accommodation.
I was taken aback by the love/friendship/ camaraderie (call it what you may) that she was able to show a complete stranger. This was the first time she met me and she went out of her way to do this for me. Why would someone do that? I do not have an answer. But all I know. She was an exceptional person and just to spend time with her. I did all the subsequent walks whilst at Cranfield University.
My 1st weekend walk was to an exceptional place in Wales called Snowdonia National Park. It was a snow capped mountain peak of 1,085 m. Being among the least fit trekkers and completely unaccustomed to the weather and altitude, it was definitely a struggle to walk 10 steps up the mountain, without having to gasp for air. My hands and feet were freezing, my nose had turned pink, my spectacles broke and my snow cap which was drenched in sweat, started to freeze. The logical judgement call at this point would have been to request me to abandon my trek. But along with Kristina, there were 2 others who saved me that day and helped me reach the top. Sarah Bergin – an exceptionally strong Irish lass, stood by me all the way, fed me chocolates and water at every other break I took and once we were at the top and I was shivering in the cold, she sat behind me and hugged me to share body warmth. That hug of life really did save me that day.
The other person I am thankful for was our walk leader for the trek, Professor Toby Breckon. He was another exceptional mountaineer too. He sat beside me, my rubbing my freezing hands, feeding me hot tea to keep me warm.
If not for Sarah and Toby. I would not have made it up the mountain and had my swig of whiskey at the summit. Now, when common logic dictated that I be sent back to the cabin, on the grounds of being unfit, why did they pull me along and go out of their way to support me? I do not know why. But thanks to them, I successfully completed my first ever mountain trek and came back in one piece.
Excited from my 1st mountain hike, I decided to tempt fate again on my 2nd mountain hike to Mam Torr in Peak District National Park. While my previous hike was snow clad only at the summit, this was a winter trek where we had to walk waist deep in snow. And being a person born and brought up in South India, temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius is something I’ve been accustomed to. So, a snow trek in winter in Peak District was definitely not in my comfort zone. Of course I had to go prepared. While my fellow trekkers carried 2 layers in their bags and wore 2 layers on themselves to protect themselves from the cold, I was 4 layers of clothing and 3 additional layers in my back pack. Half way up the mountain, I was drained of energy and my back pack weighed a ton. Well, it seemed like a ton to me.
That’s where I met Michal. He was carrying, what seemed like an equally heavy bag but then he offered to carry my bag up the mountain. Shamelessly I gave it to him because I could not go on further. Then, he slung my bag on his chest and started climbing effortlessly up the mountain as if he were a machine.
His wife Gosia was equally kind-hearted. She had 2 trekking poles, which she had got for herself. Without a second thought, she offered me one of hers so that I can support myself during the climb. You must also consider, they only met me a few hours earlier, when the trek began. Yet they carried my back pack and shared their hiking gear with me.
Now, why would someone go out of the way to help others, when they barely even know them by name? I have no answer, but thanks to them, I was able to walk over frozen glaciers and waist deep in snow and make back down alive, without a scratch on me.
The Peak District Walk, was the last mountain trek for the year and Christmas was nearing. Most of Cranfield University students and staff packed their bags and left for home. The only ones left behind were the locals, the overseas students from India and China, and sheep! The whole place was eerie and silent. There was nothing much to do but sit in. Imagine being among the 20 students, being left behind in an empty university, during Christmas break, having to remain cooped up indoors for nearly a month because it was either raining or snowing outside, while most of your friends were in their homes enjoying some family time with their nears and dears. I can tell you from personal experience, it was depressing.
But that is when we met Paul. An elderly gentleman who lived in Cranfield village. On seeing us being marooned in the University, he planned and arranged for a walk around the Cranfield village, on Christmas day.
We trod along with him as he told us folk tales of events that had come to pass. He then invited us to his home where we enjoyed a cozy meal by a crackling warm fire place listening to soothing music from his old gramophone. We remained in his home for the next few hours as heard stories, played board games and heard some country music while some of us dozed off drowsily in his living room.
That evening, he baked us a fruit cake which he flambéed in front of our eyes. I remember as if it were yesterday, the image of him serving me a plate for flaming goodness, with a smile on his face and a twinkle in is eyes. It was priceless! Till this day, I am still trying to understand, why he invited us to spend one of the most important holidays with him, while for all the logical reasons, he could have spent it with his family and friends, just like everyone else. But I can only thank the heavens and call ourselves blessed to be able to spend a special occasion such as Christmas with him and it was, still is, and always will be my most memorable Christmas in England.
Now, if you are wondering why I am blabbering on and on about my personal experiences, it is because they are all connected. Kristina, Paul, Sarah, Michal, Toby and many others were all the core members of Cranfield University’s Walks Society. They were walk leaders, trekking guides, event organizers etc. who played valuable roles in shaping up the club and its legacy to be what it is today. Unbelievably, all these wonderful and exceptional people fall under a single banner “Cranfield Walking Society”. It is an open society which believes in more the merrier. And I was fortunate enough to join the Society. These are just some of my most treasured memories from being the society’s member and if you would like to meet them and their successors, walk with them and make your own memories. I invite you be a part of it too.
Vikas, Coimbatore, India
Former Cranfield University’s student and a walking society’s committee member