Going away on holiday when you’re blind can be a mixed blessing.
Sure, it’s great to escape the daily grind of work and chores for a week or two; but I seldom find it relaxing.
At home I’m on familiar ground. I know where everything is. And if I want to go out, to the shops or the climbing wall, I can do so independently.
On holiday I’m always reliant on someone else. Whether it’s finding the coffee or working the microwave; or being escorted everywhere in case I get lost; my lack of independence is dis-spiriting.
Then there’s sightseeing! I know, it goes with the exploring new territory part of a holiday. And I don’t expect others to forego the pleasure on my account. But the constant refrain of ‘ooh, look at this’ and ‘ah, isn’t that beautiful’ does get irritating when you can’t see the objects being ogled.
So I’ll often stay behind and listen to an audiobook instead. Which is okay…except that all rest and no play makes me intolerable. I need my daily dose of exercise. Without it I go stir crazy. So thank goodness for The Isle of Wight.
With its own association for the blind, the island takes accessibility seriously. Which means there are plenty of activities to keep me busy.
Unfortunately climbing The Needles isn’t an option – at least not on my family holiday. The aim is to find something we can all enjoy doing together.
This year – our eighth – Kate, the kids and I went off the beaten track and explored the island by bike. Thanks to a wonderful charity called Charlotte’s Tandems, we had free hire of a bicycle made for two.
And with Kate steering and me pedalling hard behind, the kids quickly discovered that their parents aren’t so decrepit after all.
A few days later we were riding the waves. With me and an instructor in a two-man kayak and Kate and the kids in singles, we were all able to enjoy paddling at our own pace.
After all that fresh air and fun I was quite happy to stay behind and do my own thing when the others did go sightseeing. And we all returned to London relaxed, refreshed and without feeling my blindness had been an issue at all.
So no prizes for guessing our holiday destination next year!
There’s something about coastal climbing that really does it for me.
Maybe it’s because I grew up near the sea, in Sussex. Or maybe it’s the association with childhood holidays that often began with a ferry trip from Portsmouth or Dover.
Certainly those trips led to a fascination with coastal rock formations. I’d stand on deck goggling as the White Cliffs receded behind us or as we slid past The Needles. Even as a little boy I wanted to climb them.
Fortunately for my parents most of our seaside holidays were spent at the foot of sand dunes so my juvenile climbing exploits always had soft landings. But my desire to try something harder didn’t leave me. So when, in the early 1980s, I watched a documentary about Chris Bonington and saw footage of him climbing The Old Man of Hoy, the seed of my desire began to germinate.
Like thousands of other kids I’d followed Bonington’s adventures on Blue Peter. But the snow-capped peaks of The Himalayas were an alien world to a boy who’d never even been skiing. But here, with this giant sea-stack in The British Isles, was something I could aspire to.
As soon as I was old enough I joined the Army Cadets at school, suffering a year’s square-bashing for the promise of a week’s climbing instruction in the Welsh Mountains the following summer. That week convinced me that I had found my sport. Soon I was heading off to Harrison’s Rocks in Kent and testing myself on sandstone. I was hooked.
Unfortunately back in the 1980s I didn’t have access to indoor climbing like The Arch; so the season was short and subject to the fickle British weather. Somehow it always felt like I’d only just got into peak condition when the summer holiday’s ended and autumn began. Still I bagged some decent routes on the sea-cliffs of Swanage, Portland and Pembrokeshire…but never made it up to Hoy.
Then, aged 19 I was told I was going blind and my life went into free-fall. After a brief and hair-raising flirtation with night-time buildering at university I hung up my harness and for two decades put away my dreams of climbing anything ever again…
…until eight years ago when my daughter decided to have her birthday party at a climbing wall. I saw my way back in and began making up for lost time. I bagged the Old Man of Hoy in 2013. At 137m (449ft) it’s Europe’s tallest sea-stack.
Having bagged a few other routes on my bucket list my climbing partner Matthew and I now spend the indoor climbing season preparing for the next coastal challenge…that way we can make the most of the outdoor season. We do most of our training at Arch North in Colindale (with a bit of high-wall practice thrown in elsewhere to maintain our rope skills), After a couple of hours bouldering we’ll head to the pub next door to plan our routes for the next climbing trip.
This winter we were getting in shape for an attempt on Europe’s second tallest sea-stack, Pan di Zucchero in Sardinia. At 133m it’s only a little shorter than The Old Man of Hoy. But lying 2km offshore in the middle of Masua Bay it forms a beautiful island of white limestone that is just as dramatic.
Like many routes in the area it’s bolted, which is good for me as my trad skills are definitely something that departed forever with my blindness. It means I can do a bit of lead climbing, although realistically for my own safety and Matthew’s nerves we’ve found that attempting anything more than an F5c is inadvisable.
The hardest pitch on Pan di Zucchero is graded F6a+. With neither Matthew nor I getting any younger and both of us having family and work commitments, that meant packing a lot of practice and planning into the evening each week we meet to climb.
Luckily The Arch North is close by and has enough wall-space that we don’t waste time queuing. It’s also a hub for climbers who are always happy to pass on tips and advice. We knew that the hard white limestone in Sardinia is dotted with sharp little pockets and tiny nubbins so worked on finger strength and footwork, especially rockovers. We also made time for some thuggy overhangs in preparation for a couple of meaty crux moves.
So we felt in pretty good shape by the first week in May when we flew out to Cagliari with our ropes and quickdraws. Unfortunately our arrival coincided with that of the maestrale – a strong, cold north-westerly wind that was gusting up to 50mph and creating 1.5m waves making the sea crossing to Pan di Zucchero, let alone any attempt on it, impossible.
Fortunately there’s loads of climbing out there and it was easy to find some cliffs in the lee of the wind. We bagged some excellent single-pitch routes at Castello dell Iride and a clutch of truly stunning multi-pitch climbs further round Masua Bay.
There’s a wide range of grades from beginner to full-on ‘in-my-dreams’ stuff. And all the sport routes are really well maintained. Without being as busy as, say, Swanage there were plenty of other climbers out there, from all over Europe. Some dirt-bagging; others staying in B&Bs or, like us, in one of the lovely villas that dot the hills overlooking the coast. If you can get a group together I’d recommend where we were, www.casafigus.com – it was a great place to chill after a hard day’s climbing and it also had sea kayaks we could use to explore the amazing rock formations that line the coast. The food, the people and the scenery (according to the others in the group) were wonderful. And as for the rock…that hard, white limestone is a dream to climb on. Just remember to check your shoes beforehand, you’ll need all the smearing you can get!
The sea was like a mill-pond as we drove back to the airport past Masua Bay; wind-speed 2kmh. Typical! Was I disappointed not to bag Pan di Zucchero? Yeah…but I had a great climbing trip, and it’s still waiting for me. And like Arnie…’I’ll be back!’
Sometimes it’s like I’m in a real-life game of Donkey Kong. Negotiating Hampstead’s pavements, assailed by a host of objects and obstacles – not all of them stationary – that seem designed to sap my energy levels.
Now, I know I’ve ranted about our cluttered pavements before! The Parisian-style cafés that have co-opted the public right of way for their own retail space; the A-frames advertising everything from beer to bikini-waxes; and the mournful, monotonous accordion murderers. They are all street trash but, for the most part, I’ve learned to live with them.
I’m not even going to vent more spleen on the school run. Summer’s here and we can enjoy seven blissful weeks without toddler’s on ‘Razor’ scooters cutting a swathe down the pavement as they hurtle away from their handlers; and no four-wheel-drive Ego-carriers off-roading across the York-stone paving. Not today!
No, this afternoon, in-between rubbing arnica into a bruise the size of a kumquat on my shin and feeling the blood seep from cuts on my palms that I hope don’t require a tetanus jab, I am putting finger to keyboard because it’s a waste of time trying to contact those responsible for my injuries. Thanks Camden!
It’s rubbish! Strewn all over the pavements, every time I step out of my front door.
Since when did Hampstead become an extension of Regis Road Rubbish Dump!? What century are we living in?! The last time I saw this much crap all over the pavements was the late 1970s – when the country voted in Maggie Thatcher to clean up the mess.
Apparently it’s all due to cuts. I’ll show them cuts…and bruises. Lots of them, all over my body from all the recycling bins and bags of garden waste and household refuge that are littering our already cluttered pavements because – guess what Camden – your refuse collection programme is a mess.
I am a big fan of recycling. I religiously sort it, wash it and put it in the right containers. I also understand that the containers need to be larger now we are recycling more. But 5-foot tall wheelie bins for homes that have virtually no outside space is not clever. After years of witnessing how lazy people are about taking in their smaller (and stackable) green boxes, did it occur to no-one in Camden that large wheelie bins were even less likely to be brought indoors – and so, like herds of heavy plastic Daleks, were destined to be abandoned at awkward angles across pavements all over the borough? I find they are particularly effective at fracturing ribs and collarbones because they are wider at the top than the base and so my white cane doesn’t always find them before my upper body does. Thanks Camden!
In the two-or-so years since these alien invaders took possession of our streets I’ve done my best to adapt. I’ve slowed my pace right down, tried a guide dog and thought about buying a flame-thrower. My fellow Hampstonians have taken to shouting out warnings and for the most part I’m down to a couple of BLTs (Bin Laceration Traumas) a week – I can handle it.
But just when I thought I could cope what did the Council of Cretins do? Halve the number of collections to once every two weeks. So now the bins are fuller and smellier and even less likely to be stored indoors. The result is a proliferation of heavier, more bruising objects strewn all over the pavement – and a lot more fly-tipping, particularly in the roads near the High Street that are fortunate enough still to have weekly collections. Thanks Camden!
At least non-recyclables and garden waste go into nice soft bags – you wouldn’t think they could do much damage. Don’t you believe it! I carry the scars to prove it. This morning I was assaulted by a bag of tree cuttings, squatting in the middle of the pavement like a mini-palisade, in Willow Road. Its partner in grime, a festering food recycling caddy was cunningly positioned to trip me a couple of feet ahead of the up-thrust spikes. Fortunately I found them with my hands, not my throat. Thanks Camden!
Limping home through rubbish ripped from refuse bags by foxes and rats, who must be the only creatures in London to believe that we live in a time of plenty, I had a light-bulb moment…
I’ll give the idiots who came up with this rubbish scheme a blindfold and white cane each so they can try to navigate their way round Hampstead for a couple of hours. Then let them tell me how workable they think their scheme is. Dare you!
I was going to finish there but have new injuries to report: a cut forehead and smarting eye. I only nipped out for emergency medical supplies (more plasters and antiseptic cream); but in sidestepping a sack of broken crockery dumped next to a street bin, I was raked by an overhanging branch.
At least, I suppose, I’ve found the one area where there have been no Council cutbacks. Thanks Camden!
Hampstead truly is a wonderful place to live. People round here really do look out for each other. Since Ella and I separated I’ve lost count of the number of lovely local residents who have come up to me, patted me on the back, enquired after her well-being and offered their sympathy. They all tell me how much I must be missing her. I never knew so many people cared. In London we get so used to being invisible; one more face in the ever-growing crowd. But up here, with the lungs of the Heath to feed oxygen to our minds, it is different.
And that’s where Ella was in her element. She was never happier than when she and I strode out onto The Heath and she could gamble ahead of me, glancing expectantly over her shoulder, willing me to chase her into the bushes and roll around with her in fox-shit.
But my dog days are over. Ella has gone to stand at another man’s side and, I’m sorry to say, I really don’t miss her. Clutching my white cane, I’m happier tapping my way through life alone and at my own speed.
Ella always was just a little too fast for me, a bit too eager to get to where we were going.
The final straw came when, with the prospect of running free of her harness ahead of her, she pulled me into East Heath Road and the path of a speeding van. The bond of trust between us, never that tight, started to unravel and I knew I’d have to let her go. After all, I can have my own accidents; I don’t need an over-enthusiastic guide dog to lead me into peril.
So where did it start to go wrong?
Maybe, Dr Freud, it was when I was three years old and the neighbours’ Alsatian jumped up and bit me on the face. I still bear the scar, perhaps it’s deeper than I think. And growing up in rural Sussex the only dogs I came across usually belonged to ramblers who let them run amok terrifying the horses, which hardly endeared them to me.
I confessed all this to the Guide Dog people who assured me that a guide dog is a working dog, not a pet. Mollycoddling them confuses them. However, guide dogs also tend to be rather needy, it’s what makes them form a such a close bond with their master.
And I guess that’s the root of the problem. I don’t see myself as anyone’s master, or god. I love companionship but on an equal footing. One of the great joys of parenthood is watching my children develop into my equals. Ella was and always will be a toddler with arrested development who looks to me for guidance and reassurance when that’s what I need from her.
And gosh was she needy. As soon as I was out of her sight she’d bark and whine. It was impossible to take her to yoga (although she was positively gifted at demonstrating the downward dog position). And though she led me beautifully across the Heath to the Men’s Pond she hated me swimming. Like The French Lieutenant’s Woman she’d stand at the end of the pier awaiting my return, and howl. It got so painful I considered taking a taxi there instead!
Needy and greedy. Always possessed of an eye to her stomach (she was a Labrador remember) Ella had seen us banished from several shops for sneaking food from the shelves. Oh how she loved to chomp on a carrot or bite into a bag of sugar!
There were good times too of course. But the only place we were truly happy together was The Wells. She with a regular supply of gravy bones courtesy of the attentive staff and the prospect of her beloved Heath close by; me nursing a pint of Hackney Gold. It was hardly the basis for a healthy relationship and I had to limit our visits to days with an ‘S’ in them.
But before Tony Parsons or anyone accuses me of being a dog-denier, let me say that in the eight months Ella and I were together I finally learned to like dogs. I miss being part of the wonderfully welcoming dog-owning community and hope they will not ostracise me for admitting that my arranged marriage wasn’t working.
Ella made me feel inadequate. As a person with a disability it’s a demon that lurks close to the surface. Like so many people who met Ella, I expected her to be a cross between Lassie and Google Maps. She wasn’t. She was just a highly trained but fallible and slightly neurotic, dog who like me wanted more than was feasible from our relationship.
And so, last week, I phoned my guide dog instructor. I told her that I felt lousy, that it was probably all my fault, but that, though I’d given it time, it really wasn’t working out between me and Ella.
Hearing her name Ella trotted over and laid her soft furry head on my lap, showing me those puppy-dog eyes. They had no effect – I don’t think she ever understood that I can’t see.
They came in a van and took her away a couple of days later.
So when you see me please don’t ask me where she is or if I’m missing her. I’m not. Since making that call I have felt only relief. It just wasn’t the right relationship for me and I’m happier to be out of it.
I hope Ella finds happiness with someone who can give her the attention and long walks she craves. And that she learns to curb her enthusiasm so that she and they can live to enjoy years of frolicking on the Heath together.
I meanwhile have returned to do bruising battle with Hampstead’s street clutter. Armed with my trusty white cane I am wary but glad to have my independence back.
I knew I should have slotted in a session at Arch North between Christmas and New Year. Because the first week of January slipped by to become the second and now here I am struggling up a V3 with my winter stomach providing a bulge more difficult to work round than any of the volumes on the wall!
It’s amazing how quickly you lose climbing condition – particularly as you get older. I check with my climbing partner Matthew (who at 51 is even older than me) and he confirms that all those grunting and sweating most profusely around us are also of parental age, whereas the under 25s are cruising up the white or green routes with their usual effortless grace.
To paraphrase Ruby Wax – life is cruel; it takes months to get fit and days to get fat.
Not that I’m particularly bothered about my appearance. Being blind it’s been a long time since I last saw my reflection in a mirror! – but I do take pride in my climbing and get frustrated when a route I know is within my capabilities defeats me because I’ve overindulged or under-trained during the past few weeks.
As my fingers slide from a yellow crimp to send me thudding for a third time into the mat, I consider that the chalk ball I received for Christmas is scant mitigation for all the butterball turkey I ate.
But then as Matthew reminds me, remember how much worse it was in the days before we had indoor climbing walls – something the under-25s will never have to suffer.
Back then, unless you were into ice-climbing or had the time and money to go to a crag in the sun, the dark days of winter stretched interminably from mid-October till early-April. And the only way of maintaining climbing fitness was at the gym – which was fine for strength but did little for technique…and it was boring!
How well I remember those brutal first trips of the year; dogging up some still damp VDiff as if it was Longhope because the muscle memory and the mental agility you need to climb decently had dissipated during my months off. Back then it would take at least a couple of frustrating weekends and the goodwill of the British weather to get back into any kind of form at all.
Thank goodness for indoor bouldering centres! Now all I have to do is hop on the tube and head to Arch North, or The Biscuit Factory, and within a week I’ll have worked off the Christmas excess, ensuring that none of what I learnt or perfected last year is lost for lack of practice.
So now my only problem is trying to decide which of the climbs on our wish-list Matthew and I will work towards conquering this year, when the weather is good enough to get back outdoors again? I’m thinking something Scottish and coastal….