BACK IN MARCH an email popped up on the relative hills newsgroup (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/rhb/) mentioning a joint Times / Ordnance Survey competition which had the unbelievably brilliant prize of the complete set of Explorer maps, value around £3600. I don't do the National Lottery - it's just chance. I don't do the Times crossword - it's too hard. But give me something with maps to puzzle over and I'll forget all other chores.
Such was my confidence that I even started to work out how much extra shelving would be needed. Maybe I would have to build an extension ... the map wing ... Ah yes, I could picture it now. The prize was as good as mine. All I needed to do was to answer a few questions and claim my due.
Saturday 3pm Rush out to buy a copy of the Times. A good sign: I found the last copy in my local Co-op.
Saturday 5pm Easy-peasy. Drawing on 25 years of hill escapades, along with many books, maps and the internet, all but two of the ten questions (which involved identifying five map symbols and five photographs) had already been answered. Soon be there. The deadline was still ten days away. A doddle.
Tuesday pm Mailed the Times to ask if the purple letter I included as one of the map symbols was in fact shown correctly, as two lunchtimes spent pretending to buy maps and an evening spent web-searching had drawn a blank.
Wednesday pm Swift reply from the Times: Sorry, it should have been a blue symbol and drawn clearer. A printing error. They even told me the answer: the I indicated free moorings on the Norfolk Broads Outdoor Leisure map.
Nine down, one to go. Just a photograph. A photograph that now feels irremovably etched on my retinas. A lovely photograph, showing a tranquil stream flowing through rich farmland and passing under a very old-looking, double-arch pack-horse bridge. A bridge that was to drive me nuts.
The question in the Times was simple: Where is this Scottish pack-horse bridge? (It appears on the front cover of a new Explorer map.)
Over the next three days I visited, still in pretending-to-buy mode, the Sheffield branches of Smith's, Waterstone's and Blackwell's (two branches), and Jarvis in Matlock. I handled, scrutinised and secretively ticked off every Explorer map to have been published covering Scotland. But on the cover of none of these did the bridge appear. The OS website listed all the Explorers published at that point, so I knew I had covered all possibilities. Hmm.
OK, so there was a mistake. In some ways this was good, as it would throw others off the scent of my prize. All I had to do was track down a distinctive double-arch pack-horse bridge in lush-looking farmland in Scotland. Shouldn't be that difficult ... surely?
Time for a bit of strategic planning.
Strategy 1 Web search. Lots of pack-horse bridges, but I could not for the life of me see the one shown in the Times photo. Google. Yahoo. Jeeves. Huh.
Strategy 2 Revisit all bookshops - as ever in pretend-to-buy mode. I soon knew a lot about pack-horse bridges, drove roads, milestones, the coming of stagecoaches and similar interesting sidelines - but I still had no idea where the hell this particular bridge was. I kept assuming it would just be a case of turning a page and there it would be, but no.
Strategy 3 This was becoming personal. I would crack this. Presumably others (if there were others similarly engaged) were finding it just as difficult. I own a lot of Landranger maps of Scotland, and the gaps were filled from the library. There were clues in the Times photo: the area had to contain a quietly flowing river with gentle slopes covered in fields of wheat or corn - it was clearly an arable, fertile area. I reckoned this ruled out large chunks of Scotland and left just the coastal strips around the Beauly / Moray Firth, the east coast area around Dundee, and the Borders.
All I had to do was to search the Landrangers until they photo-fitted the gentle contours with a river flowing from right to left (you could tell by the way the weeds were bent) under a bridge over which ran an unmetalled track with a meander to the left in the background beyond which a narrow strip of (coniferous?) woodland ran at a particular angle up a slope away from the bridge with what looked like a straight road contouring the distant slope with a single building off to the right. Ought to be easy.
Saturday again A week after the competition had come out and with the closing date the following Wednesday. By mid-afternoon, having discounted numerous possibilities, I had it: what I later knew to be Bluestone Ford on the Whiteadder Water, near Chirnside, Landranger 74/879550. It seemed to fit, except for that bit of wood, but it was so hard to judge distances and angles and gradients from the fuzzy photograph. It seemed like success ... possibly.
I couldn't find any pictures of the ford on the web, so...
Strategy 4 Phonecalls. I rang local places that might help. The Chirnside Hotel - answerphone, on holiday all week. The Chirnside Inn - hopeful, new owners - not sure about old bridges but "hang on, I'll get Jack for you, he's been here for years." Jack came on. "Yes, it's lovely here, yes there was a bridge, washed away in a big flood in 1956 I think. Don't know if it was a pack-horse bridge, though."
Doubts creep in. Next, the local post office - closed. The police station at Duns - closed, but calls transferred to Hawick at weekends. Hawick very keen to help but I knew from the start they didn't have a clue what I was on about. "There are lots of bridges around here, you know."
Strategy 5 Desperate measures. With calls to locals not working, I rang about train times. I could buy a day return, Sheffield-Berwick, tomorrow, Sunday? Doing the work I was neglecting while on the train, I could then hitch or run seven miles out to the Whiteadder Water and seven miles back to Berwick. This did seem excessive - and expensive - but obsessions are dangerous things. And what if I was wrong? Luckily, I then thought up an alternative plan that might just work.
Strategy 6 I photocopied the photograph 40 times and sent it with a covering pleading letter (and an offer of a bottle of scotch if I won) to a blitz of police stations, youth hostels, tourist information offices, fishing clubs, canoe clubs, post offices and outdoor activity centres. I covered everywhere from Montrose down through the Borders. During the 40-minute drive to work on Monday morning my colleague was persuaded to lick all the envelopes shut and stamp them (first-class given the rapidly approaching deadline).
Tuesday evening Five replies. The police had circulated the picture all round their eastern division (Montrose to Dundee), but no one had recognised it. I can imagine the message: "Will all units keep an urgent lookout for an ancient bridge - believed to be hiding in our area." The Scottish Canoe Club had moved, but the lady opening the letter kindly rang to say she had thought about the bridge but didn't recognise it. A call came in from a youth hostel warden who had checked all his books to no avail. Berwick Tourist Information likewise didn't know, but suggested I tried Peebles Tourist Information. I had already written to them and - success! - they rang (as did Peebles post office) to say the bridge was in Stow, across the Gala Water. Landranger 73/458444. Yippee.
It was then that I received an email from the Times in response to my worried/puzzled eleventh-hour message asking if the picture was indeed actually on the front of an Explorer map as stated. I quote their reply in full: "Thank you for your e-mail message dated 10 March 2002. The answer to question 9 is 'Stow', Explorer 338, which will be published today."
They thus confirmed the answer which I had already found by a somewhat harder route - and at least I was now able to be 100% confident when mailing in my entry before the next day's deadline. It was then just a case of waiting for the winner's phonecall ... which never came. The winner - and proud owner of a complete set of Explorers - was announced the following Saturday. It was someone from Cheshire, a Callum Robertson, who had no doubt been busy putting up shelves for some time.
The published result included an apology for the quality of printing of the symbols, along with a comment that the pack-horse bridge had caused a lot of problems. You don't say.
I was rather annoyed with the Times, on two counts. First, it was clearly impossible for any entrant to have seen the photograph on the map's cover when the map was only published the day before the closing date and would not have made it into the shops until a day or two afterwards. The Times shoved the blame on to the OS for assuring them that the competition was correct - but did at least admit that they must do better next time in getting their facts right.
Then there was the ease with which the Times people had told me the answer before the deadline when I had already found out the hard way. I should really just have asked earlier, I suppose. How many others - Callum Robertson included - had been told the answers?
Anyway, I'm a lot wiser if still mapless - and I've just applied to go on Mastermind. Specialised subject? The bloody pack-horse bridges of Scotland.
TAC 56 Index