Barrie Whitehead

Barrie Whitehead

I’m a small-town boy from North Wales who left home in 1984 to join the Royal Navy (RN) as an Air Engineering Mechanic.  In 2015, some thirty-one years later and now a Chief Petty Officer I left the RN at the age of fifty-five.  I have now retired / taking a career break (I haven’t quite decided yet) to primarily work on my Masters Dissertation in Outdoor Education. 

You might be wondering how an aircraft engineer ended up on a Master’s Degree in Outdoor Education, well during the early years of my career and after all my RN basic training was over I started to get involved in adventurous training.  The armed forces run their own qualification system and I qualified as an Unit Expedition Leader (Summer) which is equivalent to a Mountain Leader (Summer).

I then organised a couple of expeditions to North Wales and Scotland, and during this time a three-year posting became available at a Fleet Air Arm Resource and Initiative Training (R&IT) Centre.  I applied for it and to my surprise I was accepted and was swiftly posted to the small training centre in the beautiful Ogwen Valley.  We were a team of six instructors drawn from different backgrounds, who were tasked with taking trainees through a week of R&IT using all disciplines of adventurous training to achieve the objective. Obviously this was a great job, most probably the best of my career and after two years I ended up as the Chief Instructor, but more importantly my adventurous training experience was expanding and also my list of qualifications. 

Sadly, after three years I was called back to the Fleet, and a posting to Front Line Service on 845 Squadron, which is a part of Commando Helicopter Force.  I didn’t mind this as we were involved in some exciting operational tours. However when we weren’t deployed I started getting involved in expeditions abroad as I was one of the few in the Royal Navy who had a Winter Mountain Leader Qualification.

First was a trip to Nepal, followed by a trip to support a group walking the John Muir Trail, later an expedition to Machu Pichu and the Cordillera Blanca.  However, my horizons really broadened when I was approached to be the climbing leader on an expedition to the Eastern Mountains of Greenland in 2001.  I’d never done anything this challenging before and neither had the Royal Navy since the 1960’s. I attended for the selection weekend.  I was successful and after a few training expeditions in the United Kingdom I found myself flown into the Rignys Berg region of North East Greenland with five other arctic novices, totally isolated from any other human activity for the next four weeks.  This trip turned out to be exceptional; we were navigating with black and white photographs taken from planes in the 1960’s and as far as we knew this was an unexplored region.  We traversed three new glacial valleys and in the process climbed twenty-one previously unclimbed peaks. 

From this early exploration expedition and over a period of ten years I helped organise a further expedition to the Watkins Mountains in East Greenland, and finally led and organised my own expedition in 2006 to the Watkins mountains to climb the peaks we hadn’t managed to climb on the previous expedition.  This I feel was the pinnacle of my career. Funding was becoming difficult for expeditions of this nature so that was my last expedition to Greenland.  As a result of the Twin Towers incident the armed forces became exceptionally busy and time off was more difficult to come by. 

During this time, I also started training and competing in triathlons, and surprisingly was quite good, graduating to Ironmen competitions in 2005, after some good results I found myself on the start line representing GB for a half ironman World Championships in Florida as an age grouper, and a World Long Course Championship in Holland.  

To cut a long story short I held various roles in the Royal Navy, eventually finishing as a Non-Destructive Testing Technician, and found myself working at RAF St Athan for the last three years of my career driving a desk.  The bonus to this job was that I was able to relocate to Brecon and settle in the house I now live in, just below Pen y Fan.  In the last two years of your career you are given funding, and time to go on courses in preparation for your impending retirement and a future career outside the services.  I was hoping to become a self-employed outdoor instructor and thought I would be more employable if I had a degree in Outdoor Education to back up my experience. 

A chance conversation with Dave Windebank of Wye MTB, the instructor of a mountain biking course I was on, led me to Trinity Saint David.  I rang Dr. Andy Williams and told him about my adventurous training experience, but I was most perturbed when he told me the course wasn’t for me. I was just about to thank him for his time when he said I would most probably be better suited to a Masters Course which flummoxed me as I hadn’t even thought about a Masters. I met him for an interview, and a few months later found myself at Trinity Saint David for the first weekend. 

This was an eye-opening experience as I found myself in a discussion group of first and second year students who seemed to be talking in a way I wasn’t accustomed to and the subject was Marx and other philosophers. I didn’t have a clue how philosophy connected with leading people up a hill or on a climb, also my fellow students were quoting people I had never heard of and including a date after the name, what an earth was all this about?!  Who on earth was Higgins and Lloynes (1996), Allison (2005) and Humberstone et al (2003) and what did the date after their mean? Despite this confusion I joined in the best I could.

That first evening I seriously considered leaving the course, the next day I thought I’d give it a go and by the end of the weekend I became convinced I could do this. 

My first essays were poor, but surprisingly the feedback from Dr. Andy Williams was encouraging and informative. More importantly I was enjoying this challenging journey of discovery I was on. Over the course, my other tutors: Graham Harvey and Nalda Wainwright, have had the same impact on my studies. They were truly inspiring, motivating and very encouraging and now three years on I am writing up my dissertation.  It is fair to say I still find writing essays a struggle, but I can see some light at the end of the tunnel.

The focus of my research is the motivations, barriers and constraints that surround a group of ladies taking part in cycling training sessions, who are under the auspices of a British Cycling Go Ride Coach.  The data collection has gone well, and I am now in the process of writing up. 

I’m not sure what the future holds for me after the course, I am making tentative enquiries for some freelance guide work, and I start work as a part time Coach Educator for British cycling this year. I have enjoyed every minute of my Masters so far, it has given me the depth of knowledge and theoretical understanding that I lacked despite my prolific experience working in the outdoors.

I will forever be grateful for the support and encouragement received from my course tutors and fellow students but also from my wonderful wife who often spent late nights proofreading my work! Trinity will also hold a special place in my heart.

The University is blessed in its location – there really isn’t a better place to study the outdoors.