Day Trips30th January 2014

Ploughing Fields at Tank School

SLFirst visited the Tank School to try it out as a deaf friendly family activity. It passed with flying colours and was so much fun!

by Sarah Lawrence

Sitting in the comfort and warmth of my office on a cold Winter's day, I was busily going about my usual tasks when some bright spark asked me if I have ever driven a tank! I resisted the temptation to say, "gosh yes, most weekends", and instead confirmed that I had not. I am Deaf after all, who is going to trust me with a tank. "Well it's about time you did", came the response, "Let's see if The Tank School on the outskirts of Usk, in South Wales is deaf friendly and a fun activity?"

Being a daredevil by nature and keen as ever to try something new, despite some misgivings about not having an interpreter, I arranged to meet the owner of the Tank School on a cold Wednesday afternoon in January to then be let lose on some seriously impressive machinery.

Arriving at the locked gate slightly early, I was struck by the beautiful countryside, although to the side of me, I could see some heavily rutted tracks where something big and heavy had been driving around the perimeter of a crop field. My hearing colleague pointed to the crest of a small slope where he indicated he could hear the sound of a big vehicle approaching. Following his pointed direction, I could see puffs of smoke rising in the air and slowly but surely I could feel the ground beneath my feet start to vibrate.

Moments later, the armoured tracked vehicle that I was going to be let loose on, trundled into sight, fighting its way through the heavy, boggy ground following our long periods of rain. As the vehicle neared, I could see the face of the driver concentrating so hard on what he was doing, barely able to look and smile as he passed. Instinctively, I started to smile also as I thought I would be driving that soon. What fun!

Speaking briefly to the people who had driven before me, they were smiling from ear to ear and seemed thrilled with their experience.

The owner Alastair introduced himself and the team that are on site working for him. Alistair told me that he had never had a deaf visitor before, so he was looking forward to entertaining me. There were doubts and questions with communication so essential to the driving instruction, but Alastair explained that the underlying motto at Tank School, is exactly the same as mine, "Just do it".

We were taken to a small room that could be mistaken for a field command post. Inside, were rows of camourflage suits, army gear and some rather large guns. It looked pretty authentic and I remember thinking about how children would really enjoy this. I asked Alistair who came to drive his tanks, "the age range has been 10 to 85", he explained, "boys, girls, men and women, and next week we have a group of blind people coming along. It is a bit of fun for anyone and everyone".


Having dressed up in my fatigues I readied myself for the briefing. Dimly lit, I thought the lighting in the 'command room' might be problematic. However, in the spirit of "just do it", by positioning instructors under the lighting that was there, I was able to follow well, especially as the majority of instruction at this stage was accompanied by a practical exhibition of how to use the controls in the armoured vehicle I would be using. Through my own hand signs and following a simple instruction on the meaning of thumbs up in BSL, I was able to confirm that I understood and was ready TO GO!

For those that want to enjoy more of the army experience there are de-activated weapons available to carry around and I was asked to take a rather large and quite heavy Russian assault machine gun to our armoured vehicle, an FV 439 Command Tank. GI Lawrence was ready for action!

Climbing up onto the armoured vehicle, I started to feel a little nervous. I love driving, I enjoy speed and I have driven all sorts of cars, but this was something entirely different and I did not want to make a fool of myself. Having climbed on top, I then had to drop myself into the drivers seat, deep inside the body of the vehicle, leaving only my head visible from the outside. Rugged inside, the levers and pedals were exactly as they had been described in the briefing and instantly felt familiar to me. 

Having designed some hand signals with my instructor who was standing directly behind me, I was given the signal to drive straight forward. Releasing the right and left side brakes on the tracks and pushing the throttle pedal, I could feel the power of the engine rise, the vibrations grew and I was off, moving slowly forward. I was in control of this heavyweight people carrier and command vehicle, without a steering wheel in sight.

As with a lot, if not all, tracked vehicles, turning left and right is achieved by applying the brake to one or the other tracks. It is not as responsive as a steering wheel, but within minutes it was easy to get the handle of how to steer and the experience was so much better than any video game I have ever played. I also had to concentrate, otherwise the crop field, with all its new sprigs of growth was in grave danger of being ploughed well before harvest season.

I was able to drive a fair distance around the field before we stopped for a cup of coffee. Climbing 'elegantly' from the vehicle I was shown into a bunker type structure where we were served a hot brew. The Ritz it wasn't, but it was hot and added to the experience. Clearly a huge enthusiast, Alastair told me a little about the machine gun I had carried to the vehicle. He then showed me how to strip it down and together with another lady I was invited to put it back together again. On a dull overcast day the lighting in the bunker was not ideal for lip-reading but we just about managed and this could be easily rectified by using some form of portable lighting.

After a short break, together with my crew, I climbed back aboard and headed home. With each passing minute I became more and more familiar with the controls and that translated to greater enjoyment. This really was a lot of fun. My instructor George was just 20 years old, but he was brilliant. A student in photography at the University of South Wales, he had already been driving these vehicles for over 6 years. Young and intelligent, he learned very quickly about my communication needs and that added a great deal to the overall experience.

In addition to the vehicle I had been driving, Alastair showed me around the rest of his collection which was very impressive. I wanted to have a go at driving his 60 tonne Russian tank, but sadly that requires a little work on the engine before it is made available to amateurs like me. There were other armoured people carriers that are all able to be used on the road. "If people don't want to drive, they can climb in the back of one of these and we'll drive them to the Black Bear Pub a few miles up the road to have lunch," Alistair explained.

Before departing I got to sit in a very rare United States Army Spec Humvee that is also available to hire on site. A huge vehicle, it is fitted with bullet proof glass and wheels and can drive straight through a normal car when traveling at 40mph. Perhaps next time...

Being a Deaf BSL user, spending four hours in a hearing environment without an interpreter can be exhausting and quite often difficult. This was too, I had to concentrate really hard when I wasn't driving to keep up with conversation. If I went again, I would take a Deaf friend so that we could chat, when others were just talking. However, in light of the whole experience, this was just a trivial matter. This was a great experience, one that I enjoyed immensely and one that I would be keen to do again.

With the age range the Tank School can accommodate, this is an activity which three generations can enjoy together, men and women, boys and girls. It was just brilliant and a fatastic option for a fun family day out.

Being Deaf did not pose any safety concerns over and above the instructions given to everyone in the proximity of such big powerful equipment. We were easily able to work out hand signals so that the instructor could guide me in the same way as their other guests. I came away giving the Tank School a thumbs up for being a deaf friendly activity.

If you want to know more about the Tank School and how you can book a visit, you can access their website at tankschool

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Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Entertainment / Day Trips

30th January 2014