ATH 2007:

Armchair Treasure Hunt 2007

Title: The Fool on the Hill
Setter: Paul Coombs
Themes: Italo Calvino and Tarot

Mark Abbott writes...

The Notes of a Fool

Well, I think it is fair to say that Pablo left us with a fine Armchair Treasure Hunt. I know that he was very pleased with it, and considered it perhaps the best that he had produced.

Even though I had trialled the Hunt myself, and obviously studied Pablo's solution in detail in order to mark the entries, it was not until I started wading through the thick swathe of submitted tomes that I fully appreciated just how well designed it was. The paths through the Hunt had been very cleverly mapped out, there was nothing contained in the Hunt that was not there for a purpose, and Pablo's effortless prose once again told an engaging story in its own right. The way in which the Tarot cards, fairground rides, Italo Calvino references and clued aspects of the treasure locations (Tower, Richard Hull etc) were interwoven was brilliantly conceived.

Pablo had set up the first stage of the Hunt, the paths via the Castle and the Tavern to the Fairground Entrance, to be relatively straight forward, with the fleet of journeying Fools perhaps at least picking up some early pointers to the main themes (Tarot and Italo Calvino) en route, even if these did not crystallise until later. The Fairground was designed to be harder, with the Fool required to obtain tickets on most, if not all, of the rides in order to derive the directions needed to unearth the treasure at Leith Hill. In theory, this would require teams to answer all of the questions, although they might perhaps be able to acquire sufficient direction without maybe one or two of the tickets, as some teams indeed managed to do.

For this final Hunt, Pablo had pulled the old two-box trick. Those with eagle eyes might have noted that Pablo had mentioned a similar idea for his Anniversary Hunt two years ago. The general idea was that finding the treasure at Leith Hill would provide a major clue to the third stage of the Hunt. In particular, the clue on the back of these cards would point teams to the Tarot characters that they have not yet encountered, hinting that there was more to do. Whilst I was trialling the Hunt, Pablo's main concern was to get the level of clues to a third stage right - not too many such that teams would avoid Surrey and head straight for Buckinghamshire, and not too well hidden that teams would stop Hunting once they had reached Leith Hill.

As ever, in reality, teams found a variety of routes through the Hunt. The majority followed the envisaged path, spending their coins in the Fair in order to find the treasure at Leith Hill, before realising their journey was incomplete. A few teams did not go further, either because time had run out, or because they interpreted the message on the back of the Wands card buried at Leith Hill as simply completing the set of Tarot characters. Conversely, a few teams headed straight for Coombe Hill after stumbling across the hot-spot exit from the Fairground behind the motorbike, some even convincing themselves with classic ATH paranoia that the Leith Hill pointers were red herrings.

However, if there was perhaps a minor flaw in the design of The Fool on the Hill, it was in the naming of the HTML pages. A couple of the teams were able, after a little lateral thought, to guess the names of the other third stage HTML pages once they had found Star Exit.html behind the motorcycle wheel. The fact that the final set of directions was not coded at the World Exit meant that there was thus a potentially very quick path through the third stage, with only the need to crack the final password. Consequently, a couple of the teams reached Coombe Hill as early as the first weekend after the Hunt was released, much to my surprise! Whilst some Hunts are designed with a standard route along side a possible short-cut to the treasure for the alert of mind, I don't think Pablo intentionally had this in mind here, despite his desire always to reward the ingenious.

Unfortunately, the exquisite design of the Hunt only serves to highlight the bumbling buffoonery of the menial hired to bury the treasure. I had trialled the majority of the Hunt when Pablo sadly passed away, but had not discussed with him the detailed logistics of either burial site. He had told me that he had marked both sites with the traditional Logica 'L' back in early summer, but that of course he had no idea whether these marks would have been preserved. He did wisely remind me to make sure that I buried the two boxes the right way around, one thing I managed to get right at least!

Not wanting to bury the treasure too early, I naively left visiting the sites until the last two weekends before release, complacently envisaging the burials as straight-forward tasks. After a thoroughly enjoyable but perhaps too lengthy lunch at The Plough in Coldharbour, we began our ascent to Leith Hill Tower, and spent some time enjoying the view, visiting the little exhibition, and taking photos. It was only after setting out along the "emerald" trail, and taking a quite considerable time to reach posts 1 and then 2, that some sense of urgency kicked in. When we finally reached post 6, it was 3:30pm and the sun was already getting its coat.

Having not discussed the sites with Pablo, I only had the same set of instructions that hunters would have. The first problem was in exactly which direction one should "head to the right". The path through a small gulley at approximately 1 o'clock seemed the most beckoning route, and indeed after roughly 90 paces there was a huge fallen tree off to the left. But there seemed no obvious hiding places, and I could not find a Logica 'L' for love nor money. It was only when I got home that I realised that the copy of the instructions I had taken with me had erroneously transcribed the penultimate direction as "Under this tree is a box displaying the sign", instead of "Under this rock.". Consequently, I was not looking for a rock.

Logica L at the Leith Hill treasure site
The lesser spotted Logica 'L': a rare sighting next to the treasure site at Leith Hill by the Burghfield Burghers on 30 December.

With the sun dial ticking, I tried other routes to the right. Along one of these, at roughly a direction of 4 o'clock from the path, I again found a fallen tree at 90 paces. This time, I found a perfect rabbit-burrow-style hole at one end of the tree right next to the path, although again no L's. This seemed an obvious burial spot, and I convinced myself that the signs must have been eroded since May. I desperately scratched a number of my own L's by the burial site, and also on a large tree close to post 6 that would hopefully indicate the direction to go.

When the first teams arrived at Leith Hill with the correctly deciphered directions, they duly found a large rock near to the first fallen tree I had investigated. Lifting this up apparently unveiled the remains of Pablo's Logica L, but of course no treasure. As the result of a frantic telephone call to me, I quickly realised what had happened. No prizes for identifying the real Fool on the Hill. I quickly compiled some 'clarifying' instructions, and am much indebted to that team for leaving a concealed note under the rock instructing other teams to call me should they stumble across Pablo's intended site. Most teams who visited the site did get in touch, and I can only apologise for any inconvenience that my error caused.

This experience at least ensured that I left myself plenty of time the following weekend, and thus it was early on a wind-swept and rain-lashed Sunday morning that we began our ascent of Coombe Hill. Pablo's instructions were fairly easy to follow, our only uncertainty involving which "junction of paths" to turn right at. The first possible junction half way up the hill proffered an unmarked and steep path directly up towards the memorial. This didn't seem right, as it were, and in fact we were anyway unable to climb this hill in the slippery conditions.

We returned to the original path, and when we reached the top, a big cross-path sign-post pointing us right along the Ridgeway removed any doubts that we were on the right route. We quickly found the tree in question, and I was mightily relieved to see immediately Pablo's large Logica L marked on the tree at about head height. It was actually impossible to bury the treasure directly beneath the L, due to some rocks and roots under the surface, but I was able to find some softer earth further around the tree, and scratched a large downward arrow on the base of the tree to indicate the exact spot. I also marked a matching black Logica L on the second bench (as per the instructions), on the right hand leg under the seat to try and protect it from the elements (although reports from those visiting the site late on suggest that it was no longer visible by then).

I did wonder about clarifying that one element of the directions, but in the end decided not to tamper with Pablo's words. And in any case, I reasoned, if teams turned right at that first junction they would surely come at the Boer Memorial from a different direction, follow the wrong path to its left and would thus not find any of the landmarks included in the subsequent directions?! It may even have been what Pablo had in mind I thought.

Subsequent experience suggests not. It seems by a remarkable quirk of coincidence that following this erroneous route meets with all the requisite markers - bench, waymark, second bench, and - most unfortunately - a gap in the bushes after approximately 45 paces with a huge many branched tree just beyond. The only saving grace, apart from the lack of spurious Logica L's this time, was that the tree was apparently fenced off, thus ruling itself out as a possible burial location. It seems from entries and other e-mailed anecdotes, that those teams initially following this erroneous path did work out that there was an alternative, correct, route.

In the event, despite my ham-fisted burial attempts, thirteen teams (exactly half) retrieved a ticket from each of the two treasure sites, although not always the same teams in each case. There were still teams visiting the sites in the last week before the deadline, and these statistics I think would please Pablo, implying that he had pitched The Fool on the Hill at roughly the right level of difficulty.

He would also, I think, have been delighted at the increase in the number of teams (26) entering, and I know of at least two other teams who attempted the Hunt but were unable to submit a formal entry by the deadline. Most heartening was a number of ATH Virgins, including two new teams from Logica and another team based in the US. There are now a number of regular teams entering from across the pond, all managing to find a local-ish contact to visit the sites on their behalf. One of these, The Yarboroughs, again mightily impressed with an overall second placed finish, and the overall standard of competition remains very high. Indeed, many of the compiled submissions were literary masterpieces in their own right.

The competition for the best overall solution was a very close fought battle, and the marking system devised by Pablo once again came to the fore. This awards marks for correctly solving a particular puzzle or question proportionally to its difficulty - the more teams that get the answer correct, the less points it is worth. Consequently, a team getting the most number of correct answers might not necessarily prevail. It was quite interesting to watch the teams changing positions as I marked each successive entry in Pablo's finely crafted marking spreadsheet.

As you might imagine, all teams got most of the questions correct, mainly because the password feature meant these answers were self-validating. Most teams even made it through to Brillig, admittedly after a great deal of hair-tearing, one team even desperately resorting to posting the question on WikiAnswers! Is ATH team collaboration the way forwards perhaps?! The trouble that some teams had with another question on this ride (Intransigence being the longest Morse palindrome) only multiplied the confusion here. Otherwise, the only other questions that caused some problems were at the Castle and the Tavern (Friends, Romans and the best film of 1944), presumably because these were not essential to derive the Fairground password.

I myself loved the connections questions. Much hard work, and some lateral thinking was required since Google could not provide a direct route to the answer. Very satisfying, though, when you finally cracked them. I think the question on the Gallopers ride, asking where Ismail Merchant, Thelonius Monk et al might be heading, was Pablo's favourite.

Thus it really fell to puzzle solving and hidden reference identification as the means of differentiating team scores. The hardest reference proved to be that to "dour Workforce bitter", which only one team identified as an anagram of the Crooked Furrow beer produced by the Leith Hill brewery. Presumably those teams who mentioned that they had stopped at the Plough in Coldharbour for a hunting lunch were drinking orange juice! Only four teams noticed that the very first paragraph of the whole Hunt is taken from the 1987 Fool's Errand computer game. Some of the references in the third stage also passed many teams by, perhaps because time was short by this stage. Only four teams actually drew the pentangle between the five points identified in this stage, revealing the World's End at its centre, although perhaps the unencrypted nature of the directions to Coombe Hill meant this wasn't essential.

It does perhaps not take too much lateral thought to deduce the inspiration for Pablo's themes this year. One might imagine the Tarot fool's journey through life resonating with Pablo in his situation. A few neatly concealed self-references bring a smile to the face: a second Coombe Hill near Aston Hill (the right-hand point on the OS pentagram) giving us Coombes; the memorial to our Cornish speaker in the village of Paul; and the subliminal advertising of Pablo's book Revelations. I confess, though, that when I finally reached the World's end and Stairway to Heaven began playing, I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, the latter not just because of the complete balls-up I'd made of burying the treasure!