Saturday, 20 December 2014

Every Breath You Take

At last I have an explanation for the breathing problems I’ve had for the past couple of months. I’d been coughing and wheezing with a sore chest, especially in cold air and during exercise. The problem began after a bad cold, but didn’t go away as the cold got better. The GP gave me one course of antibiotics and then another, but neither had any effect. After this I was sent for a chest X Ray, which identified inflammation in my lungs but didn’t explain why.

I read up on inflammation and respiratory problems and found a series of lung diseases, most of which were related to smoking or industrial chemicals, and all of which were progressive and incurable. I recalled my twenty a day habit as a younger man and the different factory jobs I had tried when seeking my way in the world and became very anxious.

This week I spent several hours in the Regional Respiratory Centre at the City Hospital being given a series of strange tests. I was connected up to a machine via a breathing tube with a clip across my nose. I was told to breathe in deeply then breathe out as hard as I could until I had no breath left, a needle tracing the volume and speed of my breath. I had to do this three times. Then I was led to another room and connected to a different machine that had a bellows which moved as I breathed and a computer screen that registered different aspects of my breathing. I was taken through a programme of tests: my regular breathing, my steady breathing out after a deep breath in, my hard breathing out after a deep breath in, my holding my breath, and so on.

The upshot of all of this is that I have a mild impairment to my airways and have been diagnosed with asthma. I greeted this news with a sigh of relief, so afraid was I of the other lung diseases I had read about. Asthma most often affects children, but adults can develop it too. Late-onset asthma is often associated with allergies, but I’m not aware of having any of the most common of these: pollen, dogs, cats, etc. The last thing they did was take a blood sample from which my allergic reactions to common irritants will be investigated.

Now I have an inhaler and twice a day I breathe deeply in some fine powder that makes me splutter. Already the wheezing, tightness in my chest and coughing has diminished. I don’t like the idea of having to do this every day for the rest of my life, but being able to breathe clearly is such a fundamental need. You don't realise how precious your breathing is until it becomes compromised.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Wilderness

At the edge of our known world another begins. A dense and dark forest where you could easily become lost, never to return home. A boundless place where wild and dangerous animals roam. A realm of menace and mystery that unfolds beyond the apparently safe boundaries of what we know. This primitive wilderness is lodged deep in our memories: a place not to venture, a frontier not to cross.

At times we stray near to that edge. Drawn by the allure of the unknown, we sniff the air and sense the threat.  Perhaps we even tread at the margins, then return to safer ground with a thrill, feeling revitalised.

At times the edge comes near to us. An unexpected danger comes shrieking in to startle and disturb our relative calm. Threatened and vulnerable, we hear the wild animals baying for blood at our door.

I think of them as wolves. But I have never heard the howl of a wolf in the wild. Only virtual ones, like the wolves that call in the night when I’m waiting for test results at my six-monthly cancer reviews. Or when I have some strange symptoms, like the unexplained cough and breathing problems without a cold at the same time that I’ve had for the past few weeks. A chest X-ray was done yesterday and now I’m waiting for the report.

I have heard the guttural roar of a lion in the wild. I was camping in a game reserve in Botswana and woke in the small hours with my skin prickling. The guttural roar resounded. I knew it was a big, dangerous animal. I quickly clambered out of my tent. I was twitching, ready to run. But I couldn’t work out where the roar was coming from. It reverberated, sounding both faraway and near. My two companions got out of their tent as well. We listened intently, no-one spoke. The roaring stopped. My companions went back inside their tent. For ages I kept listening to the many sounds of the African night. Then I went back to my bed but found it hard to sleep.

Over breakfast at the campfire the guide asked us had we heard the lion last night. Yes, we smiled. He said he had been listening inside his tent, rifle at the ready. As we drove out in the morning he found the lion's tracks about 500 metres from the edge of our camp. Later we encountered the pride sleeping in the shade of a tree.


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Vikings: Pirates and Settlers

The Vikings have a bad press. The Norse raiders who pillaged and burned their way across Britain and Ireland over a thousand years ago are the stuff of legend. Their favourite destinations were monasteries, perhaps because of the relatively rich and easy pickings. But here the Vikings were robbing an educated Christian elite who went on to chronicle the barbarity and depravity of their pagan attackers in great detail - and the legend was made (from the victims point of view).

Viking is a Norse word meaning ‘expedition’, and the word came to specifically mean an expedition to plunder a foreign land. The people we call Vikings were in effect Norse pirates who went abroad to make money by looting valuables and taking captives who would be sold into slavery. But these pirates were a minority of Norse society, which was predominantly agrarian. Then as now you didn’t get rich quick by farming, and piracy was a dangerous occupation full of opportunity.

Norse society had three main classes: Jarls (earls) – the landed gentry who owned large estates and employed many; Karls (freemen) – the peasantry who owned land and livestock or who had a specialised skill and worked for a Jarl; Thralls – slaves who worked for both Karls and Jarls. There was limited social mobility, but with riches from piracy you had opportunity to better yourself.

Norse society also privileged male strength and bravery. The sagas tell of dynasties of Jarls and their great feats of valour in struggles for the dominance of particular lands. These were largely written during the 11th and 12th centuries by writers employed at the courts of the Jarls. They give richly detailed stories of great deeds by great men, but like the monastic chronicles cannot be seen as independent accounts.

Of particular interest are the ‘housecarls’, a troop of bodyguards or private army that was employed by each Jarl. It strikes me that these would be the most likely pirates. They were freemen and had both status and fighting skills; led by ambitious Jarls, these were soldiers of fortune like the conquistadores of later years. The Vikings were thus get-rich-quick types who were prepared to undertake the dangers of expeditions to inhospitable foreign lands for the rewards that would enable them to buy land and status back home.

So were these pagan Vikings any more violent than their Christian contemporaries? Well the standards of the day were pretty brutal, so they do not seem exceptional. For example, the Christian emperor Charlemagne executed four thousand five hundred Saxons after a battle in 782. Perhaps the Vikings primary mistake was to prey upon rather than to exempt the Christian Church from their piracy (thus making an articulate and influential enemy).

The Viking expeditionary raiding parties of the 8th and 9th centuries were very functional for the spread of Norse dominance in territory and trade. Foreign raids were followed up by the establishment of bases, then settlements, from which Norse trade and rule was spread within these territories. By the 10th century the Norse empire spread from Newfoundland to Central Asia, and Norse culture achieved great heights in wood, metal and stone-working. At the same time, the Norse were also converting to Christianity.

After dominating great swathes of Britain and Ireland for over a hundred years, the Vikings were defeated and displaced by local tribes in these islands. But in the 11th century the Norse invaded again from a territory they had established some time before in Northern France. This time the invasion was successful and lasting: we gave these Vikings a different name, we called them the Normans.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Irish and The Vikings

Anyone who has been to Dublin and seen tourists in a semi-submersible truck with plastic Norse helmets on probably realises that Dublin was at one time a Viking town. Following several decades of hit-and-run raids across Ireland, the Vikings established Dublin as a base in 842. Thence it developed into an important settlement that was the seat of a Viking King for over a hundred years. However, the first encounters between the Irish and the Vikings did not take place on this island or anywhere nearby.

These first encounters took place on islands in the North Atlantic where Irish monks had first travelled in small boats during the 6th, 7th and 8th Centuries to establish hermitages. These monks were followers of Brendan, Columba and Aidan, who voyaged increasingly far in search of wild places to practice their monasticism. Where better to find a life of solitude and spiritual dedication, akin to that of John the Baptist, than remote islands far to the North of the British Isles? Monastic records from the 9th Century describe the actual voyages of Irish hermits to the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, Iceland and The Faeroes (which they reached in the late 8th Century).

On these wild and windswept islands the monks encountered the stone dwellings and ceremonial structures of Neolithic farmers, abandoned 3000 years earlier. It seems very likely that the hermits would have used these dwellings situated at the shore for shelter. Indeed the stone ‘beehive huts’ that monks constructed on Skellig Michael in the 8th Century bear a very strong resemblance to the Neolithic stone dwellings recently discovered under sand-dunes at Skara Brae in Orkney and Jarlshof in Shetland.

But the monks were not alone for very long. In the latter part of the 8th Century, Viking raiding parties travelled to these northerly islands in search of treasure and territory. They did not find rich pickings amongst the hermits and moved on to better targets, such as the monastic settlements at Lindisfarne and Iona and then the mainland of Britain and Ireland.

However, I imagine the Vikings were impressed by the seafaring abilities of the monks who had travelled far across stormy seas in primitive craft, much smaller and flimsier than their longboats, and by the sheer hardiness of the hermits. In the Norse language a hermit is papi and this place-name recurs across the many remote islands that the hermits inhabited: Papey near Iceland, Papa Stour in the Shetlands, Papa Westray in the Orkneys and Pabbey in the Outer Hebrides.

Their cohabitation didn’t last long; for the hermits chose to leave, or were driven out from, their wild islands. But the monks do appear to have had a lasting influence on the pagan Vikings, who shortly after began to convert to Christianity. Over the next hundred years, their trading empire spread from Greenland to Central Asia and Christianity became the established religion amongst the Norse. Viking Kings then took part in the First Crusade.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Papay and the Mainland

Last week I clambered into a 5000 year old burial chamber, visited an ornate chapel made by Italian prisoners of war and watched seals playing in pristine blue waters. Where was I? Orkney.

I had long intended to visit this archipelago of seventy islands to the north of John O Groats, and recently I found a special reason to go. A long lost pal got in touch, Patrick my best mate at primary school, who I last saw aged nine, was now living in Orkney. T and I took a plane to Glasgow and another to Kirkwall, then we took the inter-island plane to Papa Westray. This is the furthest North West of all the Orkney Islands and is known to the locals as Papay.

The inter-island plane seats just eight and you sit right behind the pilot. The twin propellers make a real row and you can see all the instruments flickering and twitching. We travelled low across the sea, moving from island to island (most small and uninhabited) until we reached Papay, which is six miles long and just one mile wide. We touched down on a strip in the middle of a field and rumbled to a halt. Collecting our bags from the side of the plane, we walked to the terminal building (the size of a garage) and out into a narrow stone-walled country lane. Some seventy people live on Papay, spread out in smallholdings, but there is a shop, post office, nurse, primary school and volunteer fire station.

I recognised Patrick straight away, his features hadn't changed at all. It was just great catching up with him. Despite the long absence, we found that we were still great pals. He has retired to a bungalow on seven acres of land with sheep, ducks and chickens. He took us on some fantastic walks, to see the oldest known house in Northern Europe (inhabited 5,500 years ago) a drystone igloo amidst sand-dunes, and some fantastic wildlife – seals, migratory geese and hen harriers. Throughout, the weather smiled on us.

With reluctance we got back on the little plane for the two minute flight to the adjoining island of Westray (the shortest scheduled flight in the world) and then back to Kirkwall. For two days we travelled around the Mainland, as the main island is called. The Italian Chapel was a real highlight, built by Italian prisoners of war, it is an ornate slice of Rome created from a Nissen Hut. A phenomenal work of devotion, the chapel was made by the prisoners in their time away from building the Churchill Barriers (a submarine defence between the islands to protect Scapa Flow).

My favourite place was the complex of Neolithic sites at Stenness, a small promontory between two lochs, that was very important 5000 years ago. It holds the great chambered cairn of Maes Howe, built to interr human remains in a central chamber down a passageway that is lit by the sun on the shortest day of the year. Nearby are the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, circles of huge standing stones, built 1000 years before Stonehenge. These are powerful spiritual places that have always held an attraction, this can be seen in the runic inscriptions made by Viking visitors to the many pictures taken by more recent travellers. They still stir the soul.  

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Ebola, Concern and the Scare

On Saturday I met with a man who had recently returned from working in Sierra Leone and Liberia to counter the Ebola outbreak. The meeting was calm and we didn’t wear face masks. He was Dominic MacSorley, Head of Concern Worldwide, and he was reporting to the Board on the work that Concern was doing on the ground in the Ebola-hit region.

Dominic explained that it was safe to be in this area as long as you observed the strict protocols: face masks, no touching, frequent washing and regular monitoring of your own temperature. He told us of the vital work that Concern was doing - scaling up education and community health work in a country where there is only one doctor for every 30,000 people and supervising the safe burial of Ebola victims. This latter task being of great importance as the World Health Organisation estimates that two thirds of new Ebola cases can be traced to unsafe burial practices. In West Africa, as in many cultures, it is normal to touch the deceased as you pay your respects. Concern is now responsible for health education and the safe burial of Ebola victims in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone.

Dominic also told us of the reactions he had received since he had returned from Freetown. As per usual after an overseas trip, he was undertaking media appearances in Ireland to publicise the work of Concern. During one radio phone in Kerry he was told he was a danger to the public and should leave the county immediately. The Make-up Department of RTE had also refused to prepare him for a television interview, being afraid to touch him with pad and brush.

These reactions returned me some twenty five years to the height of the AIDS crisis, when similar stigmatisation of victims occurred. Ebola like HIV is a virus transmitted only by body fluids, so safe practices are required to protect against this transmission. Ebola like HIV is an animal virus that has transmuted to humans. Ebola is apparently common in fruit bats and is believed to have travelled to humans via monkeys (the monkeys ate the infected bats and humans ate the infected monkeys).

But Dominic wasn’t an Ebola victim, he had merely travelled to the area to help plan and co-ordinate the response to the outbreak. And he had been checked thoroughly before he was allowed to leave Freetown. Although still within the 21 day incubation period, he had been taking his own temperature each day and had no symptoms. I left the Board meeting proud of the work that Concern has been doing in West Africa and concerned about how easily moral panics become aroused.  

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Scum-bag in Sri Lanka

I went on my first long-haul cycle tour in 2005. My destination was Sri Lanka and I joined a CTC group that toured this beautiful tropical island, the size of Ireland, for three weeks. Exploring a developing country by bicycle is a great experience, because travelling alongside local people as they go about their daily lives allows you to become really immersed in the culture.

Sri Lanka has lush tropical forests and fruit plantations on the coastal plains. The land then rises through rubber plantations, then tea plantations, to mountains of over 8,000 ft at the centre of the island where root vegetables are grown in terraces. We had plenty of long hilly days cycling in warm sunshine (25-30 degrees C) but these were interrupted by regular stops. I loved to drink green king coconuts, these were often piled up for sale at the side of the road by a child who would chop the top off one with a machete to reveal the nectar within. Or I would pause for my favourite dessert, buffalo yoghurt topped with coconut treacle (caramelised coconut milk mixed with cane sugar) - absolutely delicious.

On one particularly long ascent the group became split up. Cycling on my own, I was joined by a young boy on a large battered black bike. He was perhaps seven years old and could just about reach the sit-up-and-beg handlebars with his arms above his head. He was wearing school uniform, a white shirt and blue shorts, and was barefoot. Although I was on a modern touring bike with thirty gears, I was finding it hard going up the hill. He looked like he was on his mother's old bike, which was fixed gear and rickety, yet he didn't seem to be too troubled by the slope.

We cycled side by side for a short while. I smiled at the young lad.

He grinned at me. 'Scum-bag' he said.

Startled, I stared across at him. He was smiling at me. 'Scum-bag' he said earnestly.

After all the warmth I had thus far experienced on my trip, I was shocked to be insulted in this way. I put on a spurt to try and distance myself from him. Turning my head, I saw the young lad some fifteen yards behind. He was swaying hard on his bike, straining to catch up. I pedalled on.

'Scum-bag.' There he was at my side again, smiling. I shook my head. 'Scum-bag' he grinned, his bike swaying and rattling as he leant on the pedals.

I pedalled harder, panting as the slope increased. The rattling of his bike slowly receded. I turned around to see him some twenty five yards back. 'Scum-bag' he shouted, slowing to a stop with an air of resignation.

That's got rid of the little bastard, I thought and continued riding for an hour until I met the group at the next rest stop. I sat down and related my strange tale to the tour leader, Peter. He laughed.

'It wasn't funny', I said.

Peter shook his head, grinning. 'He was probably asking you for a school pen,' he said, 'pens and paper are expensive here'.

I felt sheepish and sad. I wished there could have been time for me to go back and say sorry.

With thanks to Eunice Yates and her story of Lenny Kravitz in Japan, which reminded me of this.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Bumblebees and Jam-making

It's been a bumper year for fruit. A mild March meant that bumblebee queen's came out of hibernation early, made nests and began their colonies. The queen is the only bumblebee that survives the Winter, she has a sac of stored sperm from males that died last Autumn and when the warmth of Spring arrives she begins a new brood, determining the sex of each of her offspring. The new workers, mostly females, emerge to collect nectar from the blossoming plants, pollinating them too. Our good early Spring was followed by a long, warm Summer and hedgerows and trees became filled with ripe fruit. The bees had done their work well.

Early in September, T and I picked ten pounds of blackberries in around an hour and left many more still ripening. Back home we combined our spoils with the same quantity of apples from my garden (another good crop despite the heavy pruning I gave the tree in January) and made jam. The recipe called for the same weight of sugar as fruit, but we couldn't countenance putting so much in. We decided to try half the weight of the fruit and poured in five kilos of sugar with added pectin. Even then it seemed a lot.

We had some problems boiling this thirty pounds of mixture. I had a huge pot, but it became too full and the jam mixture splashed out across the cooker, up the wall and onto my hands. I didn't realise you could get nasty burns from hot jam. So we split the mixture and boiled each hard for over ten minutes, my hands in oven gloves this time. The jam seemed to set okay when we tried it on a saucer, so we bottled it. The next day we opened a jar and found the jam was only semi-set, but with a great rich fruit (rather than sugary) flavour. I've been eating our blackberry and apple jam every day since on my toast.

Another of the good things about foraging and jam-making is that it enables your entrance into the local exchange economy. You give a pot of jam or a bag of apples to a neighbour, and at some future point you will receive in kind. Yesterday a neighbour brought me a big bag of damsons. Today I'm going to combine these with the blackberries that T and I picked a week or so ago on our latest foraging trip (and froze) and have another go at jam-making. I'll still only put in half the sugar, but this time I'll add the juice of a couple of lemons to help the jam set. I wonder what damson and blackberry jam tastes like?

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Unexpected Call

A week ago I got an unexpected phone call. It was from the office of a bone cancer specialist at Musgrave Park Hospital. I needed to come in and see Mr Barr. I was given an appointment, it was for just five days ahead. As I put down the phone, I began to worry.

I knew the scan I'd had last month had shown up something strange - a lesion inside my left femur. I'd sent the report to my kidney specialist, who'd treated me for cancer in 2011, and he told me he was sending it on to a bone cancer specialist. It was good to see the NHS working so quickly, I told myself. But being called in by phone with just five days notice was suspiciously quick. Too quick. It could only mean one thing - bad news.

I looked up the lesion on the internet. These bone lesions were common and ninety percent of them were benign and untroublesome. The rest were sinister: early-stage chondrosarcomas. Oh dear, I thought, I'd done well over the past three and a half years but now my luck seemed to be running out. The five days to the appointment were interminable. I did my best to distract myself: easier in the day, almost impossible at night.

At last, I drove in to Musgrave Park and sat in the waiting room. The clinic nurse, a Sri Lankan, couldn't pronounce my surname and called out 'Mr Paul'. I stood up and she escorted me along the corridor to the small consulting room. I sat alone for a while, then a young man of Middle Eastern appearance came in accompanied by three pasty-faced teenagers. He introduced himself as Mr Barr's Senior Registrar and asked if I minded the medical students being there. Too wound up to speak, I shook my head. He told me to get on the couch and roll up my trouser leg. I complied and he conducted a thorough examination of my left knee, giving a running commentary to the students.

The Senior Registrar then fixed me in his gaze, 'I've looked at your scan,' he said.

I nodded.

'You have a lesion in your left femur,' he said, pointing to the spot.

I nodded again, trembling.

'It's nothing to worry about,' he said.

I heaved a large sigh, then grinned.

He smiled back, 'it's probably been there since childhood.'

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Seamus Heaney at the BBC

Not only did we have a great day out in Magherafelt (and a splendid meal at Church Street) but I learnt a good deal about Seamus Heaney. T and I joined the On Home Ground Festival last Friday and caught up with Geraldine and Eugene Kielt, Maura Johnston, Marie-Louise Muir, James Kerr and Medbh McGuckian. Excellent readings and performances of course, but for me the most memorable was to see two of the many programmes that Seamus Heaney made for BBC NI, followed by a talk from Pat Loughrey, the ex-Controller of BBC NI, about Heaney's work for the BBC.

I only had a sketchy knowledge of Heaney's broadcasting work. I didn’t realise that he had begun working for the BBC in 1966, having been introduced by Philip Hobsbaun, the leader of the Belfast Group. At first Heaney worked only for the Schools Broadcasting Department, writing and narrating radio broadcasts for children on diverse topics such as language, mythology, landscape, poetry, childhood and farming practices.

In many ways this was a radical step for BBC NI, for here was a Catholic nationalist writing and narrating programmes at a time when such voices were not normally in positions of authority on the airwaves. Yet Heaney also had impeccable credentials, as a lecturer at Queen's and being published by Faber and Faber. Surprisingly, Heaney's early radio work passed off with very little comment in NI. Whereas, his later television work (a series of programmes in a similar vein to his radio work) provoked more reaction, being described by some as 'papist propaganda'.

Heaney was a gifted broadcaster. The films I saw were apparently simple, but with considerable depth. The first concerned the language of boundaries as Heaney roamed across the landscape of his childhood in South Derry. The second was set in Lough Erne and concerned pagan beliefs and the early Christian church. Heaney had a natural flair for engagement with both his subject and the audience - he informed, educated and entertained. As Pat Loughrey observed, his scripts were almost written in verse.

Well done to Marie-Louise Muir for putting together the excellent Festival programme at Laurel Villa. Many thanks to Geraldine and Eugene for their hospitality. It's a little over a year since Seamus' passing and only now are we becoming able to assess the extent of our loss. He was not just a great writer but also a great broadcaster (amongst other things) - all in all, a great communicator.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

As I was Young and Easy under the Apple Boughs

My front room is filled with the sweet must of freshly harvested apples. There has been a good crop this year, around two hundred and fifty apples from my sole tree. Most fruits are large, well ripened and tasty. Indeed, this year some are very large, a fair bit bigger than an orange.

I grew up on a smallholding with a sizeable orchard filled with apple, plum and pear trees. There was also a hazel that produced a good crop of nuts. I patrolled the orchard every day, herding geese and chickens with a stick. My favourite tree to climb was the hazel, it had a spread of hanging branches and I would haul myself up to survey my demesne through its swaying boughs.

When, as a teenager, I began to read poetry, Fern Hill quickly became my favourite. I had left my orchard years before, when we moved to a village near Gloucester. So Dylan Thomas' tone of loss chimed with me, even though I was only fourteen. And then it was just a couple of years until I followed his path and began a drinking career - on scrumpy, of course, in a back street cider-house called The County Arms.

This hostelry, long since demolished, was a drinking den for those with little money. It sold only cider, most of it locally made, very strong and extremely cheap. The place was run by a wizened old woman, called Mother, and her son, called Ocker, a silent brute three times her size. They had little regard for the licensing laws, or any others for that matter, as long as you had money to pay for your drink you were alright.

The County Arms was dirty and disreputable - me and my schoolpals loved it. The place was full of characters: one old fella, called Bristol, would sing sea shanties and do hornpipes around the pub to earn money for his next pint of scrumpy, another would tell tales of his adventures which included fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

Ah, when I was young and easy. I hardly take a drop anymore. I only have one kidney now and I'm looking after it. It's great that my apples are good eaters.


Friday, 29 August 2014

Rafa and Me

There is much I don't share with Rafael Nadal: a great forehand, latin good looks, vast wealth... but there is one thing we have in common - Hoffa's Impingement. This is the very knee injury that Rafa had last year, which curtailed his season so painfully. But, after an extensive programme of treatment, he came back as strong as ever this year. I'm doing my best to emulate him.

My new physio doesn't believe in treatment machines, she prefers to get to grips with your flesh with her powerful fingers and arms. Earlier this week, I lay on the treatment table and she began to manipulate my knee. Then she pointed her elbow, placed it on my patella tendon, leant her weight onto it and started to rub very hard from side to side. I gasped and gritted my teeth, red-hot knives were shooting across my knee.

'Is that your pain?' she asked.

'Aooow,' I howled in assent, thinking she would stop.

'Good,' she said, digging her elbow in further.

'Really, really hurts,' I gasped, gripping the sides of the table as my body began to shake.

'Don't worry,' she said cheerily, 'it'll go numb in a minute or so.'

'Aooow,' I howled again, sweat coursing down my face. It felt like she was trying to saw my leg off. I kept wishing I had a piece of wood to bite on.

'Gone numb yet?' she asked

'Yes, yes,' I moaned, thankfully.

'Fine,' she said, moving her elbow to a fresh part of my tendon and the intense pain began again.

After what seemed an age, she stopped and left the cubicle to get something. I lay back on the treatment table, took some deep breaths and tried to relax. My patella tendon was throbbing, but numb. No ball-boy came to proffer barley-water, banana or towel. I sighed. My physio returned and strapped my knee. The treatment was over, until next week.

I may never reach SW19 or trouble Hawkeye. At this point, all I want to be able to do is to walk to the bottom of the lane outside my house without pain.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Hoffa's Impingement

I've been given the results of the scan on my knee. I'm very pleased and surprised to find that my cartilages and ligaments aren't damaged. I went for the scan because my local Physiotherapist thought I had torn a cartilage. Happily, I do not need an operation. But I am still in pain. At this point, the Osteopathic Surgeon seemed to lose interest and handed me over to another Physiotherapist for further treatment.

What the scan did show is that I have swelling inside the knee joint, inflammation of the tendons that attach to the kneecap and some misalignment of the kneecap itself. But my primary problem is Hoffa's Impingement. This is where the large pad that fits between the ends of the shin and thigh bones (and behind the kneecap) gets pinched and inflamed inside the joint. This pad is the most sensitive part of the knee, having more nerve endings than any other, and gives an excruciatingly painful injury. When my knee is bad, it feels like red-hot knives are being stuck into me.

After two months of pain, confusion and disappointment, I'm relieved to finally get to the bottom of the knee problem. The treatment for this injury is frequent icing (I have two large packs of frozen peas that do the job three or four times a day), stopping the activities that cause the pinching of the pad (for me this means most walking and standing) and taping the kneecap to restrict its range of movement.

The next step is a programme of special exercises to strengthen some leg muscles and to stretch others, in order to achieve healthy alignment of the knee. Some of these exercises are quite odd, like squeezing a football between your ankles and doing gentle squats with the ball between your knees. My current exercise programme takes over half an hour and I need to do this twice a day. All being well, my knee should recover in a couple more months.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

My Long Lost Pal

Out of the blue, I got a message from Patrick. We were the best of mates at primary school. Patrick lived along the canal from me at Bridgend, near the small town of Stonehouse in Gloucestershire. I lost touch with him aged nine, when we moved house to the other side of the county. 

We used to play together along the canal tow-path and across the fields and railway line that separated us from the town. Yes, we grew up (literally) on the other side of the tracks. Patrick's family had a TV (mine didn't) and I used to go home with him after school to watch cartoons. I recall us eating sarnies and shouting at the screen. The Lone Ranger was another favourite of ours.
We walked to primary school down a lane, across a main road, over a railway line and along a footpath to the iron railings that guarded the school. It was a journey of about a mile and a half each way and we did this every day without adult supervision. The school was Victorian in its construction: there was a bell in a turret above the main entrance, with separate doors for boys and girls. And in its ethos: you would be beaten regularly, on pretty much any pretext. I recall being caned one day for failing to eat my pudding. I still hate tapioca.
Patrick now lives in Orkney, so other than through Facebook, there was little chance of us encountering one another again. I must admit I can easily live without the pictures of cute animals and obscure homilies that seem to represent the majority of the traffic on the site. But putting you in touch with someone who you lost contact with fifty years ago, that's a real achievement.

Stonehouse Primary School, outside the main building at break.
Picture courtesy of Stonehouse History Group, date uncertain (late 1940's - early 1950's, I'm guessing).

Monday, 28 July 2014

Pauls Knee (ii)

My bad knee continues to be a problem. It's been five weeks since my fall and I've been getting treatment every week. The swelling has now gone down to leave a large lump on the top of my tibia. The lump is egg shaped and gives a little if you press it. I'm told this is a haematoma, a blood blister that formed on top of the bone when it was bruised in my fall. The lump is no longer very painful and I'm told it will go away in time.
The knee joint itself is the most painful: it still feels weak and I get stabbing pains with certain movements, especially when walking. I've been wearing a support bandage a lot of the time. The physiotherapist now believes that I have torn a cartilage. I'm booked to have a scan on my knee which will tell for sure.
You have two pieces of cartilage in each knee. They are crescent shaped and look a little like the segments of an orange, thicker on the outside of the knee and thinner on the inside. The cartilages fit between your tibia and femur, working as shock absorbers. A sudden impact on your knee, particularly with a twisting movement, can damage them.
The outer edge of the cartilage has a blood supply and thus can repair a small tear. So I've been doing plenty of hot compresses on my knee to help stimulate this. The inner surface of the cartilage doesn't repair. It's possible to have surgery to repair large tears of the cartilage and for damaged pieces to be removed. But, especially given my recent experience, I don't want to go down that road.
As driving is a little painful, I'm leading a fairly enclosed life. At home with my injury I surf the internet and watch plenty of TV, which has driven me to fix the drip on the kitchen tap and other minor tasks around the house that I had been putting off. I don't seem to be in the mood for writing very often. It's pretty frustrating, this is the longest interruption to the active life that I've been enjoying over the past three years. And of course I'm very worried about what the scan will show.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Americano and Caramel Square

I've become a connoisseur of independent coffee shops. My usual is an americano and a caramel square. I've tried plenty of different places.

You sit and wait with anticipation: the coffee machine growls and hisses, a teaspoon clatters onto the saucer and a plate is loaded with your pastry. But so often the outcome is disappointment: coffee insipid or brackish, caramel square thin and tasting like sugary cardboard.
I end up returning again and again to the few places that provide consistent high quality: strong flavourful coffee and a delicious caramel square (smooth shortbread, caramel and chocolate in good proportion). My favourite independent coffee shops are:
Grounded Café, Monaghan St, Newry. On the corner near the Canal Court Hotel. A café with a youthful vibe, always busy but the quality never lapses. Great coffee and the best caramel squares I've tasted.

Green Bean Café, Townsend St, Banbridge. Just off the main street, behind Supervalue. A peaceful place, rarely full but always high quality. Fantastic bespoke coffee (they ask you how strong you want your americano) and great caramel squares.

I've tried independent coffee shops across much of Co Down and South Belfast. These two stand out as the best. Are there any others of note that I've missed?

Monday, 7 July 2014

Paul's Knee

Home sweet home is a dangerous place. Three million of us visit A & E every year because of an accident in the home. I'm afraid to say I've joined this unhappy band.

I don't recall exactly what happened. One moment I was stepping out from my front door to collect something from the car, the next I was lying on the gravel outside with a terrible pain in my knee. I guess I must have tripped on the steps down to the driveway.

Many accidents must happen just like this. You are in a well known place doing something routine, and your attention lapses momentarily. It's the sort of thing you find yourself doing pretty often, thankfully without unpleasant consequences most of the time.

On this occasion the top of my shin bone (tibia) took most of the impact of my fall, pushing it upwards and across into my knee joint. I've been told that I've sprained two knee ligaments (patellar tendon, lateral collateral ligament) and bruised the cartilage. It could all have been a lot worse, had the impact been an inch or so higher it would have hit the side of the kneecap itself.

I've had a couple of ultrasound treatments and one of electrical stimulation, where a pad is placed either side of the knee and electric current passed through. It's a very odd feeling, intense pins and needles, like you're attached to a farmer's electric fence for a couple of minutes.

During the good weather it's been tough having to sit quietly at home and give my knee hot and cold compresses. Thankfully I've also had the distractions of Wimbledon, the World Cup and the Tour de France. All being well, in another couple of weeks my knee could be back to normal.

Friday, 27 June 2014

From Kabul to Moss Side

This journey took place a few days ago in Dublin. I was talking with Concern's new head of operations for Afghanistan and asked him if he was worried about being kidnapped or murdered by insurgents in the course of his work.

He assured me that he took security very seriously, but personally he didn't feel under threat. Why, I wondered, because he had armed bodyguards? There were guards on all Concern workplaces, he told me, but these guards weren't armed. After all the footage I'd seen on TV, I was surprised by his response. But isn't it really dangerous in Afghanistan, I asked, especially for foreigners? It depends who you are and what you are doing, he replied.

He went on to explain that Concern's operations in Afghanistan depended on the support of the local communities in which they worked. If what you were doing was perceived as being beneficial to the community then you received support from that community. He told me that this support included Concern staff being warned when it would be dangerous to travel to and be in any of the places in which they worked.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world: it is ranked 175th (out of 187) on the UN index of development, calculated from a range of indicators such as under five mortality rate, life expectancy, years of schooling and so on. Concern's operations take place in Kabul and two rural districts and are focused on maternal and child health, water and sanitation, agricultural development and the empowerment of women. Despite the threat of the insurgency, these developments are wanted by the communities in which Concern works.

It was a fascinating conversation, over lunch at a Concern away-day (I am in my tenth year as a member of the Board), and reminded me of an experience I had thirty years previously. Whilst studying for a PhD at Manchester University, I was supporting myself by working on an experimental community project in in Moss Side, Manchester. The team ran a drop-in advice and education project from an empty unit in the Moss Side Shopping Centre. I worked there for two years.

At that time Moss Side was a notorious district synonymous with very high unemployment, enormous social deprivation, drug gangs, drive-by shootings and riots. My friends and acquaintances were shocked at where I worked, they would never have ventured anywhere near the place. Yet the project team were told again and again how valuable our work was for the community and all of us felt safe working there.

There is a further link between Afghanistan and the inner-cities of developed countries. Afghanistan is the source of 90% of the worlds heroin and the production of this cash crop is largely in the hands of the Taliban: this is how the insurgency is financed, how small farmers in remote districts are kept under control and how some people choose to try and escape from the disadvantage that shapes their lives.


Thursday, 19 June 2014

Have You Seen the Fish?

Over the past year, I've often asked this question. Unfortunately, the answer has been no.

I built a wildlife pond in my garden in 2012 and a botanist installed a mix of plants chosen to provide oxygen naturally. After frogs, water beetles and invertebrates had colonised the pond, I decided to try some fish.

At my local pet-shop I purchased two small goldfish and brought them home in a plastic bag, as if returning from the fair. I needed to find out if fish could survive in the pond; they were going to be the canary in the mine. Last June I put the goldfish in the water. I checked every day and was delighted to see them. They liked to nestle under lily-pads in the centre of the pond.

Pleased that my experiment had succeeded, I began to think about koi. Then, after a couple of weeks, the fish disappeared. I kept checking, but nothing there. Oh dear, I thought, perhaps a heron had eaten them. Or maybe they had died from a chemical imbalance in the water and a crow had scooped them up for breakfast.

As time went on, I stopped looking for the fish. There was plenty of wildlife in the pond after all: great diving beetles, water boatmen and so on. But I couldn't really hide my disappointment.

Then, one sunny day last week, I noticed two orange bodies under a lily-pad. Their fins were slowly moving as they raised their mouths and sucked in air. It was lovely to see the fish again. The prodigals had returned after one whole year. And, yes, they had grown; so there was oxygen in the water and enough food too.

All along the goldfish had been living in the depths of the pond. They had hunkered down and got through the winter: not only surviving, but thriving. I wont be buying koi now. I'm happy with my resilient goldfish.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The New Normal

Today is my anniversary. I've been all clear for three whole years now. When I was first diagnosed, I never expected to get this far. Happily I have, and from here on I'm regarded as having a much lower risk of recurrence.

On my first anniversary I had a meal out in a Belfast restaurant, one of the first times I'd done this since my surgery. On my second, I hired a motorbike and relived a much younger normality of mine by doing a weekend tour of the northern counties.

For my third anniversary I'd booked an away from it all weekend on Rathlin with T. This was a place I'd never visited and I was really looking forward to it. But fate intervened and I went down with a bad head cold and sore throat, so the weekend away was postponed.

Instead, I've been at home having a quiet time with paracetemol, vitamin C and throat pastilles. It's been ordinary and mundane instead of celebratory. But in a strange way this is entirely appropriate, for the occasion marks my return to normal, everyday life. After all, there's little so human as having a cold.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014


I discovered some strange tracks across my lawn this morning; neither sheep nor cattle, both of which had wandered in through the gate before. I followed the tracks towards the back hedge and looking over saw two stags in the field behind my house. I stared at them and they stared back. We eyed each other for several minutes then they sauntered away up the hill - a truly magnificent sight.

The stags are fallow deer, they are still in their dark winter coats which will soon become dappled with light spots. Their antlers are growing, covered in velvet, until Autumn when they become unsheathed for the rut. The stags had loped across my lawn as I was sleeping - almost a Narnia experience (no lamp-post in sight).

The most common wild animals I see around my home are rabbits, which live in burrows under the hedge and delight in digging up the lawn for their favourite roots to eat. Because of this we have a love-hate relationship, but I cannot bring myself to harm them. Next are a colony of wild cats that live in an old graveyard nearby and forage the land around my house. They will eat whatever they can, recently I saw one munching a small rabbit it had killed. The wild cat spotted me, picked up the rabbit carcass in its jaws and scampered away.

In the old graveyard is also a badger's sett and at dusk they can sometimes be seen out foraging. I once saw five together beside the hedge. From time to time a fox comes by, sometimes in broad daylight, it follows a route around the perimeter keeping near to the hedge. Overhead are a good cross-section of country birds, the most spectacular flyers being buzzards, ravens and red kites.

I'm a country kid who left home for the city at eighteen, vowing never to return. After decades of city life, I moved here thirteen years ago as an experiment. It's been great to live in the country again, I won't be leaving now.


Sunday, 25 May 2014

A New Girlfriend?

Does Tesco have an aisle where you can find a new girlfriend? I glanced again at the shopping list that T had prepared, below 'Milk' and 'Bananas' there it was - 'New Girlfriend'. Perhaps I needed to look somewhere between 'Seasonal Goods' and 'Tastes of the World'.

Instead of visiting at weekends, T had come to stay with me for a week. The day she arrived she asked to stay for two weeks. I, of course, agreed.

When I told my brother about it, he said, 'she deserves a medal!'

'And what about me?' I replied.

'Oh yes,' he said somewhat belatedly, 'you deserve a medal too.'

I wondered what sort of medals might be awarded. Distinguished Service? Two weeks seemed a bit short for this. Bravery? No frying pans had been raised and no household utensils appeared to have been secretly sharpened.

It wasn't an ordeal. Our couple of weeks passed pretty smoothly with plenty of happy, normal life. I found myself, quite naturally, thinking for two. I'm going to really miss her next week when she's gone.

And about that new girlfriend - there's no vacancy.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Giro d'Italia Stage 3

The riders ignored the fake road sign in Keady, offering a 'short cut'
to Dublin, and sped to the start of the Category 4 climb that would take them over Windy Gap to Newtownhamilton. It was sunny and fairly warm inbetween the heavy showers. A big improvement on the almost continuous rain that had dogged their progress around the North Coast the previous day.

After forking out 5 million Euros for the first three days of the Giro and hoping that tourist numbers would dramatically increase after 170 countries had seen the sweeping panoramas of the Causeway Coast live, NITB must have been worried that the international viewing public would spot the relentless downpour and put NI on a list of destinations to avoid.

Whatever the weather, thousands of people had turned up to watch and encourage the riders. Supplies of pink paint had all but run out and pink balloons, ribbon and all sorts of home-made decorations bedecked the roadsides. I stood at the edge of a long slope that wound uphill between trees in the soft green of new leaf. After plenty of cars and police motorbikes cruised by, a breakaway group of four riders came into view followed by their team cars with spare bikes on top. The four made light work of the gradient and raced away trying to gain as much time at the front of the race as they could.

Five or more minutes passed and then the peleton came into view, 200 riders closely bunched together with a phalanx of team cars following behind festooned with spare bikes. They came up the slope quickly but they weren't sprinting, they were riding tempo in their teams chatting to each other. Then one rider stopped just below me, the team car braked and a mechanic rushed out with a spare front wheel, changed it and pushed the rider back into the road. He was on his way again in under 30 seconds, sprinting to rejoin the pack.

More cars and motorbikes followed on behind, then a series of ambulances and finally a truck and police car with the legend 'race end'. The whole caravan had taken less than 10 minutes to pass. The Giro was gone, over the pass and down to Newtownhamilton and across the border towards Dublin where today's stage would finish. Sadly for NITB the sunshine across the leafy lanes and drumlins of Armagh would not be televised. By the time live coverage resumed, the riders would be travelling through Louth and Dublin and Bord Failte would be rubbing their hands with glee. Perhaps in the end this would not matter too much, as the majority of the international televison audience would not be aware that this small island was subject to two jurisdictions. Indeed, the flag-saturated local audience itself could not fail to notice that the tricolours flying everywhere were those of Italy.


Thursday, 8 May 2014

In the Pink

I began cycling regularly some twenty years ago. I took it up because a back injury forced me to stop running. But soon I became besotted and was riding through the Yorkshire Dales and Wolds in all weathers on my trusty Dawes Galaxy. I'd bought the bike secondhand some ten years previously and it took me up hill and down dale, enabling encounters with lovely places such as Thixendale, Filey, Rievaulx, Masham and Swaledale (amongst many others).
Then I moved to NI and began exploring the island by bike. Alongside many day rides with CTC Belfast, I did solo summer tours following the coastline in Donegal, Connaught, Munster and Leinster. Moving to South Down gave me lots of new roads to explore, through drumlins to the Mournes and Cooleys then across the Pale. It wasnt long before I had visited every county by bike.
I began to do tours overseas. At first I did solo tours to France, Spain and Italy. I flew with my bike in a padded bag and took a taxi to a nearby hotel where I stayed the first night, then I toured for some weeks on my bike, returning to the same hotel to collect my bags and fly home. These were great adventures, I enjoyed leaving all my normal stuff behind and relying on what I could pack in two panniers. I have particularly fond memories of my tours of Puglia, La Mancha and Castile.
Then I went further afield on organised CTC tours. Sri Lanka was my first, the tour took place a month after the Tsunami. I expected it to be cancelled, but we were persuaded to go by the Sri Lankan authorities. On the plane from London we were the only tourists, the rest were aid workers. We explored a fascinating and beautiful tropical island the size of Ireland. At the end of the tour we each bought a bike and donated it to a village that had been devastated. There was a touching handing over ceremony where we and the bikes were blessed. I returned determined to get involved in development work and within a few months I'd joined the Board of Concern Worldwide.
A series of overseas cycle tours followed - to Thailand, Laos, Southern China, Patagonia and Vietnam. There is something compelling about cycling in a developing country: you travel at the pace of the local people, stay at local guesthouses and eat at local restaurants. You feel more part of the culture. My most vivid memories: staying with a family in a Lao village, we ate and drank with them then slept on the floor of their stilt house; the striking traditional costumes in a village in the foothills of the Chinese Himalayas, people not dressed up for tourists but because it was market day.
All of this stopped when I became ill. Last summer I began cycling again tentatively. After a winter of hillwalking, I'm feeling much stronger and am now back on the bike again. Admittedly I'm a fair weather cyclist these days, it has to be 14 degrees before I'll get the bike out. Over time the Galaxy has been replaced by several others: an Audax (for day rides), a Sardar (for laden overseas tours) and a Bontrager (for supported overseas tours). But my trusty steed is still there in the garage, I'm not able to part from it.
And so to the Giro d'Italia, here for the next three days. I'll go and watch it for sure, I'm scouting out the hills near Armagh for a good vantage point. Professional cyclists go so fast on the flat that all you often see is a whirring blur of colour. In 1992 I saw an alpine stage of the Tour de France (the year that Miguel Indurain won), here you could make out individual riders as they sped by. I shall wear a healthy glow, shout and wave.

Monday, 28 April 2014

The Return

I had returned to Snowdonia. Who was it said 'never go back'?

Towering ridges pressed upon the Llanberis Pass. I halted amid huge boulders and craggy buttresses. Fifteen years had passed since my last visit. Gill's death hung over me.

I would again traverse the Snowdon Horseshoe, scrambling up and along the narrow ridge of Crib Goch. I'd cross the pinnacles to the bwlch and then the place would be near - a steepening of the ridge that marked the start of the ascent to Crib y Ddysgl.

She had fainted then fallen. The post mortem could find no cause. We built a memorial; scattering her ashes over the cairn on a wet, windswept day.

In the sun it was an innocent place, a pile of stones under an outcrop. I repaired the cairn and sat in a landscape formed by glaciers millenia before. Far below, Glaslyn shimmered under the rugged peaks of Snowdon and Lliwedd. In the distance the Irish Sea was calm and cloudless.

I collected a stone from the cairn, it was shaped like a pinnacle from the ridge, and went on. Tourists were massing at the top of the Pyg Track. A place where we had hugged and kissed in mist. The sinuous trail to the summit now flagstoned to protect the fragile earth from all those feet: some in boots, many in trainers, a few in wedges.

I crossed Lliwedd with my heavy load digging in and descended slowly to the Miner's Track, hillwalkers and tourists mingling on their way back to Pen y Pass.

It had taken seven hours, but on my return I could not rest. I drove back down 'The Pass' and stopped by the Cromlech Boulders. I remembered sitting on top with Alan in evening sunshine after we'd done routes on Dinas Mot, limbs heavy with success and reluctant to begin the journey home. I grinned, thirty years had flown.

I carried on down the road to Flying Sheep Gully, where, one winter, I'd almost been knocked from my perch by a mountain sheep less sure-footed than its companions. I stopped again at Nant Peris, the simple campsite where you washed in the stream and one morning at ten to six I'd felt my first earthquake. Then into the Vaynol Arms, scene of many an evening of story and celebration.

A pint of Robinson's Best. The day had gone well.

Friday, 4 April 2014


After the elation of the all clear came the relief and then the exhaustion. I was up in Belfast for a celebratory meal with T and barely made it home before conking out. Almost three months of high stress has a legacy that isn't easily dissipated. You seem to have to work your way back down to everyday levels of stress. It's like travelling down a large multi-storey car park and stopping on each of the floors to acclimatise.

To help this process, I'm going away to visit family and friends for a while; a trip to Wales and England that had been put on hold whilst I was waiting for my scan appointment. It's also a time of memorials: the anniversaries of the deaths of my good friend Jean Morgan (9 April) and my father (11 April). These anniversaries will be marked in different ways: Jean's husband Phil has arranged a get together in Gloucester at a rugby game, and the day before I will put flowers on my father's grave and go for a walk in the Malverns (a place where I feel particularly close to him).

I'm going over by ferry to Holyhead and will first stay in Snowdonia for a couple of days. I plan to walk the Snowdon Horseshoe, the hillwalk that Gill was doing on the day she died. There is a memorial to her that I carved from a piece of slate and placed there in 1987 on the occasion of her ashes being scattered. It's a place I've returned to a good number of times, but not since I became ill almost three years ago.

It's very good to make and return to memorials. You are marking out people who mattered in your life and giving them a special place of memory. You dont need a focal place to do this, but it can help - I've made a memorial to Gill in every place I've lived. For when someone who has departed really matters, they are with you all of the time.

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Scan (3)

After a ten week wait, I finally have my CT scan tomorrow. I've never waited this long for a scan before, it's been very stressful and has really stoked up my anxiety. It doesnt really help to learn that there are three million other people on NHS waiting lists in the UK at the same time. You have to get through the dark nights and difficult days yourself as best you can.

I've tried to take it one day at a time: some days have been bad, others have been better, few have actually been good. I found myself putting things off because I just couldnt commit to them when I could be called in to the hospital at short notice. The whole process grinds you down remorselessly. It's a type of torture that you have to do your best to resist. And when some other problem comes into your life, as inevitably happens, your stress levels go off the scale very easily.

Still, I've made it through the ten weeks reasonably intact - with plenty of help and support from friends and family. The scan itself, as far as medical procedures go, isnt too terrible. You sit and drink a liquid with metals in for an hour, then your take off your clothes and are laid on a narrow bed that sticks out from the scan machine. The operators retire to a glass fronted control room and the narrow bed slides you inside the machine. The machine whirrs and tells you to breathe in, hold your breath and breathe. It spins noisily around you for a while, stops, gives more instructions, spins again, stops and then slides you out.

You're done, you can go and get changed. Then the really bad waiting starts - for the results.

on the skyline
a turreted house
the letter in my grasp
paint blisters
from the leaden door
one twist of the handle
and a draught sucks me in
overturned chairs
table laid for dinner
stove empty
the threshold
where steps echo down
to the knife-man basement
I crush the letter in my hand
and descend
a room
a single bed
I strip and lie supine
arms stretched beyond my head
Hold your breath
the wind howls
and the house spins around me
clothes broken plates and chairs fly
to the rattling walls and stick
my bed stays firm
the wind roars
and the house turns
every place I've lived screeches past my eyes
the wind eases
This gothic poem was written during my long weeks of waiting.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Misty Mulranny

I'm just back from another great trip to Co Mayo with T. The Mulranny Park Hotel has an exceptional location overlooking Clew Bay and matches this with great friendliness and service (although we werent given the bridal suite this time). Each day we did go out on good walks and stuffed ourselves in the delightful Nephin Restaurant both before and after.

The first day of our trip was bright and sunny with clear blue skies so we did plenty of sightseeing, visiting Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, Ballina and Lough Conn (see above) en route to the hotel. Next morning it was quite a shock to find the sea and land covered in mist. I checked the weather forecast and thought it would burn off so I headed out for a long hillwalk, the Corrannbinnia - Bengorm Horseshoe (T decided to go for a local walk).
By the time I reached the first summit the mist was thicker, giving about 20 yards visibility, so my options were either to return or go on using compass bearings. I was very unsure because I'd not done this sort of mountain navigation for many years (the Mournes are easy, in mist there's a wall to show you the way). I was also in mountains I'd never walked before. I decided to carry on for a little while and try to find the next summit on the route, if not I would retrace my steps.

Map in one hand, compass in the other, I headed on over very rough ground with no real trail. My old navigation skills, honed in the mountains of Snowdonia, were coming back to me despite the difficulties of walking bearings and estimating distance. The main problem was my glasses misting up with water droplets and not clearing too well as I wiped them again and again with what rapidly became a soggy handkerchief. I was overjoyed when the next summit appeared from the mist.

I paused, I could now return the way I had come or go on. I felt happy rediscovering my old skills and was enjoying the challenge, so I decided to continue. I found my way along a broken ridge then up a steep face to the summit of Corrannbinnia. The trig point loomed out of the mist and I stopped for a snack. Perhaps it was just my eyes, but the mist seemed to thin and I even thought I saw some watery sun for a few seconds, then it was swallowed up by the whiteness.

I was just over halfway around the horseshoe and it felt better to go on than to return. Suddenly the summit ridge narrowed into a rocky scramble and I traversed steep drops that, thankfully, I couldnt see. At the end of the summit ridge was a broad shoulder that the map showed as leading to a ridge that offered a reasonably safe way down. I set the bearing and headed off into the mist, keeping the steep edge to my left. Sodden hanky working overtime, I descended on a sheep track for the best part of an hour until I could see the valley again. I'd been in thick mist for well over 4 hours and had found my way around a complex of mountain ridges and safely back down again. I was delighted to pass this mountain leadership test.

The next day was again misty so we went to Achill Island sightseeing, beachwalking and birdwatching. There are still some great places on the island, Keem Strand and the Deserted Village especially, but since I first went there 15 years ago Achill has become afflicted with holiday homes blight. Bad Government policy and lax planning produce ugly results and a special place has become somewhat spoiled.

On our last day the wind came bringing sunshine and showers. We went for a long walk across peaty moorland to Lough Furnace and back via the Greenway. After a late lunch in Newport at Kelly's Cafe we visited the striking stained glass of Harry Clarke in the local church. The town was established by Ulster Quakers who brought linen weaving to Mayo. Afterwards we went sightseeing on the shores of Lough Carra, to Ballintubber Abbey and the excellent Castle Carra.

A longish drive back (four and a half hours, with a break in Manorhamilton) brought another great Mayo trip to a close. Tired but happy, we slept soundly.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Slieve Donard

A year ago I was in the early part of a journey to recover my health after a long illness. I hoped I would be able to become as fit and healthy as I was before I became ill. This was an aspiration, I knew I was on a journey of recovery and I didnt know how far I would be able to travel along it. So I imagined some ultimate achievements that would show I was fully fit again. One of these was to climb Slieve Donard.

As soon as I was mobile again after my cancer treatment I had begun to walk. I decided to walk every day: at first a little, then further, then for a quarter of an hour and so on. I walked on the roads around my house and then along the beach at Murlough with my friend Avril. Looking up I would see the saddle that divided the peaks of Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh and wondered if I would ever be able to go into the mountains again.

As time went on I completed a charity walk around Belfast and extended my walking into Tollymore and Castlewellan Forest Parks with plenty of rough trails and small hills. I then ventured into the Mournes on long upland trails to Lough Shannagh, Hare's Gap and the Brandy Pad.

Last December, I ascended my first real mountain - Slieve Meelbeg. I set out with some trepidation but it went well, the climb wasnt anything like as tough as I expected. After that I did hillwalk's once a week or so, choosing the better weather days and gradually ascending the other main summits of the Mournes. The last, of course, was Slieve Donard - the highest mountain in the north of Ireland at 2,789 ft.

On Thursday the sun shone brightly and I headed steadily up the river to the Ice House and along the glen to the base of the saddle. I stopped for tea from my flask and a snack then set off again up the steep path that curved up to the saddle. No-one was at the saddle and I felt in a good rhythm so I decided to keep on going up the last steep 1000 feet. I trudged steadily upwards beside the Mourne wall, choosing my footholds and trying to keep my breathing even. The wind pierced through gaps in the wall and brought the sharp croaks of a passing raven. A harbinger? I kept on, one foot after the other. As the ground began to even I looked up, the turret and trig point at the top was in sight.

I placed a stone on the summit cairn and relaxed. I could see Newcastle and the beach at Murlough shining below. I'd made it in good style, reaching the top of the mountain in half an hour from the saddle and a little over two hours from Newcastle.

The wind was strong and cold, I sheltered behind the wall and had more tea and food. The summit cairn is in fact a neolithic passage tomb, dating from 3000 BC, the highest ancient site in these islands. It is also associated with St Domanghairt (or Donard), a disciple of St Patrick, who it is said made pilgimages to the summit from his monastery in the village of Maghera and lived there as a hermit until his death in 507 AD.

Within five minutes a storm blew in and sleet began to fall. In ten more minutes the top of the mountain was carpeted white. I thought about the detachment of Royal Engineers who camped on the summit for four months in 1826, making it a base for the triangulations of the Ordnance Survey in this part of Ireland. Two of the party had died in a snowstorm.

The storm subsided and was gone as quickly as it had arrived. The sun came out again and the summit shone. I had completed my journey back to health and vitality. It was time to return.