The good, the bad and the ugly from the Lewes and Burgess Hill club descended on Cornwall in spite of all the gloomy warnings of rain and wind. We were the Bravehearts; frightened of nothing even though last year’s camp coincided with the only bad weather of the entire summer. Memory told us that it had been fun even without the sun. We arrived at the campsite and the rain and wind began on cue as we set about erecting tents with varying degrees of skill looking like over-enthusiastic boy scouts or very sensible girl guides.
Lessons had been learnt – Richard and Lucy had invested in the camping equivalent of the Taj Mahal after last year’s multiple disasters with their “Halfords Special” which had flooded, sagged and finally collapsed. Sadly, like the Roman Empire, this magnificent structure came crashing down too but, like all true warriors, Richard and Lucy picked themselves up, brushed themselves off and started all over again. Maybe, next year, they should adopt the luxury-free pioneer style of Dave’s single man igloo.
Pioneers we all were – a frontier community with our tents snuggled precariously in a single encampment within that vast canvas jungle that is the New Perran Holiday Park near Newquay -surfers’ paradise and consequently dude capital of the Universe. With tents erect, tea urn bubbling, resplendent in our sensible waterproofs, we began, with some gentle “sticking hands,” what was to be thirty hours of Kungfu training spread over nine consecutive and, after that damp start, nine miraculously hot, sunny days under the tuition of our instructor Neil Johnson.
Every morning at 7.00 we started with an hour of Da Mo meditation exercises facing the rising sun. Da Mo was an Indian Buddhist monk who travelled to China over a thousand years ago to teach his system to the famous martial artist monks from the Southern Shaolin Temple in the Fujian province of China where our White Crane form is said to have started. It could have been like sending coals to Newcastle but he obviously knew his onions because these exercises are still taught today. Da Mo probably didn’t realise this but his exercises are also a very good hangover cure as a number of us found out most mornings. Cheers, Da Mo.
Glowing inside and feeling strangely inspired by these exercises which, somehow even manage to make the lower horse stance seem like a good idea, we moved on to our daily sticking hands practise. This frustratingly difficult but gentle method of trying to uproot your opponent with only the minimal amount of wrist and forearm pressure takes years to acquire. We did our best trying to resist the impulse to give the other guy a quick shove followed by a kick to the groin only to find that we actually got better the less pressure we applied. Neil said there was a secret which would help but we had to guess what that was. Nobody got the answer so we had to be told on the last day. If you want to know what it was – tough. You should’ve been there.
This session was followed every day by a hearty breakfast at the camp’s restaurant, Abigail’s Café. For anyone fantasising about Abigail and her wonderful way with eggs, we were told, rather bleakly, that, unlike Da Mo, Abigail had disappeared years ago and no one knew anything about her. Pity. We were looked after by Sue, Abigail’s worthy successor, who could have taught those monks a thing or two about discipline. She issued us all with a number which tallied with our order and our seating position – if we couldn’t remember it then we would be looking hunger in the face.
After breakfast it was time for the beach – sadly not with buckets and spades and little paper flags. There was little time for sandcastles when there were Kungfu classes on the timetable. A typical session would begin with a warm-up – something like running up sand dunes in relays or in what must have looked like competing teams of conga dancers. Sue’s sausages seemed like a bad idea at times like these. We then had classes in the different Crane styles – Sleeping Crane (not as restful as it sounds), Flying Crane (some of us were pretty primitive flying machines), Shaking Crane (another activity not to practise after breakfast), Feeding Crane (nothing to do with coffee and biscuits), Crying Crane (big boys don’t cry but the complexities of some of the moves are enough to make you weep). At the end of the week, we did crane style sparring back at the campsite trying to use all these techniques. It was surprising how much better we had all got and we even gained some respect from some of the other campers who had previously been over-heard calling us “those ****ing meditating ****ers.”
The Crane fighting classes were followed every day by sessions on our Kungfu patterns where we could really move on with our technique and benefit from the concentrated daily practice under Neil’s eye which has an uncanny ability to see you whenever you make a mistake. We learnt a whole new set of problems too – like keeping a solid stance even when you were sinking in the sand. Not that removed from what the original White Crane fighters must have experienced in those Chinese paddy fields.
On the last morning we climbed up onto a remote sand dune for a session in Iron Shirt body conditioning where we divided into pairs of roughly equal weight to do the two-man routines where arms, shins, chests and ribs get a “good” work-out. Even though we were supposed to have escaped from the eyes of the madding crowd, we had soon attracted an audience mostly made up of fourteen year old boys who kept whispering “Cool!”- They obviously loved the idea of joining a club where you bash the hell out of each other. Just like school but without the telling off. They have a point.
After a packed lunch, usually accompanied by a sand and lettuce salad, there were surfing lessons for anyone game or stupid enough to give it a go. The range of experience varied between the annoyingly show-off cool to the totally helpless. By the end of the sessions everyone had managed to at least stand up on their boards – even if it was for only a few seconds and some even began to look like real-life dudes. We had all grown to understand what it must be like to be stuck in a washing machine during a spin wash and we had all learnt, the hard way, how to put on a wet suit the right way round, first time and to make those important little adjustments before anything gets stuck in the wrong place.
We returned to the campsite every evening for taichi. We were lucky to have a large space in front of our tents, the size of a military parade ground, where we could go through the entire form. Without exception it always drew a crowd. The other campers seemed hypnotised by us going through the, even for us, graceful series of movements in near unison…. there is no better way to spend a summer’s evening.
The final session each day was devoted to learning a two-man Ba Gwah form called Two Swallows Flying Low. This is a complex series of inter-weaving moves where the opponents circle each other practising a number of strikes and blocks. Done well, it looks both graceful and dangerous. Done by beginners, like us, it looked perilously like country dancing. We persevered and, by the end of the week, half of it was learnt –well, learnt enough to practise for a year before we return next summer to learn the other half.
Then it was time to eat. The Bar-B-Q was masterchefed by Bryan, that son of the South African soil, who is quite used to roughing it in the outback and who certainly knows how to turn a sausage. His skills were complimented by Pete, a professional, if not quite a naked chef, who lorded it over the French dressings with smarmy finesse. None of this would have been possible without the happy choppers and shoppers who were kept in line by Anna’s not so quiet authority. Never mess with a woman with blood-red hair. Vegetarian-in-chief, Mike knew how to hold his ground too. His aggressive policing of the Veggie department meant that only true believers got their hands on those veggie burgers – well, or so he thought.
Any unspent energy after the day’s activities could then be worked off with a bit of gentle washing-up in the washing-up block. Invariably what began as an orderly process, ended up as a water fight. Pebble skimming on a pond has got nothing on plastic plate skimming between sinks and hands that do dishes can whip up a real lather when provoked. No one ever left that washing-up block dry.
In that dead time between eating and drinking, various activities were born. First it was football with the goal being the entrance to anyone’s tent. Then things got silly as the football was joined by a Frisbee, some juggling balls and finally a stuffed frog and some boomerangs. Volley Ball was played in the same spirit of abandon especially when one of the players, Daniel was dressed as a Mexican bandit with Pete wearing a long curly wig looking like a cross between Brian May and Cher or, perhaps, their long lost child.
Each evening ended in traditional manner with a session of Drinking Crane at the campsite’s bar – the ambiguously named Cottage Inn where anything can happen and where we were welcomed by the camp’s Geordie owner and star, Christine who, amazingly after last year, not only looked pleased to see us but showed off her new hair colour – “it looks natural because its got three different tones. Look.” With only a moment’s notice the place can turn into a madhouse like when you are warned to stand back “because a Red Indian will be coming through in a minute.” And so he did, complete with feathered headdress and bare chest. Why he did it no one knew. The Cottage Inn’s high point, though, was karaoke night when Daniel and Milad proved that they could out camp both Meatloaf and Christine with their rendition of A Bat Out of Hell and then top it with a scandalous interpretation of “Gay Bar” which brought the house down. Two starlets were born.
The last night took on an inevitable pattern when everyone went in to Newquay to eat and drink in one final binge where the worst behaviour came from the under twenties and the over fifties. Man-Boy Mark’s prowess with the girls, alcohol fuelled, of course, was on full display and his success was written all over his face when he awoke from his drunken stupor in a nightclub surrounded by a bevy of graffiti-mad beauties. Our senior members, not to be out-shone showed just how badly behaved baby-boomers can be – in the bar and on the dance-floor. No wonder they can’t remember the Sixties, it’s amazing that they can remember anything.
For some, the following morning demonstrated the final and ultimate crane style: Dying Crane.
We all survived. We learnt a lot thanks to our all patient instructor and, also mostly thanks to him, we had a lot of fun. Same time, same place, next year? I hope so.