It’s been a month of ups and downs. At the start of June I headed up to the far North West corner of Scotland to tackle Am Buachaille – the third and ‘most serious of the big three British sea stacks’.
Lying 100m offshore it involves a bit of swim before you can start climbing. I’d always wondered how nearby Cape Wrath got its name; a few minutes exposure to horizontal rain and gravity-challenging wind gave me the answer.
A noise like a daemonic dishwasher turned out to be metre-high waves crashing through the channel we’d need to swim. We backed off.
For consolation we climbed a couple of 35m cliffs further round the beautiful, sandy crescent of Sandwood Bay – Am Buachaille sticking its finger up behind our backs as we did so. A far-from-wasted trip but one that left me feeling a little cheated.
40 hours later I was at the opposite end of the British Isles climbing onto the rear saddle of a mountain bike tandem, at the start of The South Downs Way. A 100 mile bridleway that runs from Winchester to Eastbourne over 11,000 feet of ascents and descents.
My two companions Simon and Mark took it in turns to pilot the bike and act as out-riders clearing the path ahead. Like jumbo jets tandems are most likely to crash on take off and landing.
The pay-off for all those hill climbs is the downhill sections on which we hit speeds of up to 40mph. Simon and Mark both confessed to moments of envy for my inability to see the precipitous path ahead. After two days hard pedalling and only a couple of minor tumbles the finish line at the end of a glorious hurtle down the track from Beachy Head came almost as a disappointment, we were having such fun!
So I returned to London feeling pretty good. Despite my sight loss I’d taken on the great outdoors and conquered bits of it. My remaining challenge, to swim The Henley Mile, is still a few weeks off but what better way to sooth my aching muscles and keep the ball rolling than a nice swim round Highgate Men’s Pond?
It’s only a mile away, across Hampstead Heath, along a well-trodden track I’ve used regularly for the past twenty years.
That said, as my remaining photoreceptors fizzle out, I do sometimes find myself marooned in places I know must be familiar but can’t recognise. I wonder, is this how encroaching Alzheimer’s feels?
The secret is not to let your concentration wander. I need to head straight till I reach The Model Boat Pond, then first right to avoid the unfenced path along the water’s edge.
It’s all going swimmingly till I find my way blocked by a construction site. This must be The Corporation of London’s bizarre project to build a dam against a 1 in 400,000 year biblical flood event.
Whatever, it and a monosyllabic workman-cum-sentry force me left, down an unfamiliar path; which disgorges me into a line of anglers.
At least, I reason, I must be close to a pond.
Closer than I think. My attempt to navigate the cast rods of these taciturn fisher-folk results in my taking an earlier plunge than I’d anticipated.
As I squelch home I reflect on the irony of being defeated by the tamed outdoors in my local park. Of how visual impairment magnifies small changes into major obstacles. And how much I have come to rely on other people to help me express my independence.