Devon boats, trains and cars (not to mention cathedrals and Jurassic cream teas!)

I promised last week to tell you some more about the holiday my friend Mary and I took in Exmouth recently.

The day after our abortive ice-cream sundae hunt, we took our second boat trip of the week. This voyage was along the so-called Jurassic Coast and included a Devon cream tea, which was absolutely delicious. Whereas on Sunday’s river cruise the water had done no more than lap gently at the side of the boat, this time there was a definite swell and there was no mistaking that we were out to sea. The boat bobbed up and down and the waves slapped vigorously at the sides of the vessel. This was all very satisfactory from my point of view. I don’t want a calm mill pond, I want a sea that is alive and kicking so that I can get the full experience – and on this occasion I certainly did!

Another fun if slightly more sedate trip was riding on the land-train around the town. Again, we got a commentary as we went along and this helped us get a good idea of where everything was.

Our explorations of south Devon by land and sea were extended still further when, half-way through our holiday, a college friend of mine who lives in the area came over and took us out in her car for a pub lunch and a drive along the coast.

On Friday we decided to venture into Exeter. This meant travelling on the train. We hadn’t booked assistance in advance but the station staff at Exmouth and Exeter Central were wonderful. They put wheelchair ramps in place and made sure we got safely on and off the train.

I have been to Exeter Cathedral before but it repays visiting more than once. It has a lot of history attached to it and is a magnificent building. One of the volunteers on duty offered us a guided tour, which we were pleased to accept. She was extremely knowledgeable and helpful. She knew the best route for the wheelchair, found a braille guide and showed us a tactile floor plan of the cathedral. This was really useful. I know what the layout is likely to be up to a point but when you can’t see it can be quite hard to hold the image of such a large building in your mind’s eye and work out which bits link up and where. They also had an architect’s model of the outside of the building which gave me a different perspective. Again, drawing a picture in of such a large structure just in your head can be very difficult.

Late summer was already becoming autumn and the weather started to turn colder and wetter towards the end of our stay. We had chosen a good week for our holiday but now it was time to go home.

We came back refreshed and feeling we had been very fortunate.

So now it’s back to work. No peace for the wicked, as my P.E. teacher used to say!

Exmouth

After our rather difficult summer, my friend Mary and I felt we needed a complete change of scene. We settled on Exmouth as a place she knew well and somewhere where there would be level walking to enable ease of wheelchair locomotion.

I was quite nervous about travelling by train with a wheelchair, walking frame and luggage but my sister and brother-in-law came to our rescue and enabled us to hire a car and driver to take us there and back door-to-door. So, off we set.

The flat was on the ground floor of a Victorian villa. The rooms were large, with high ceilings, and in the lounge we had a beautiful fireplace, complete with carved decoration. I do love  a tactile fireplace!

We had obviously done a good deed or two somewhere along the line because we were blessed with amazing weather for September. The sun shone warm and bright and the day after we arrived we went on our first boat excursion. This was along the river Exe and we were entertained with a commentary on the wildlife, local places of interest and how expensive buying a flat in the area is. One had recently sold for over  a million pounds. They wheeled me onto the boat in my chair and parked us at the front. I drank red wine and Mary ate an ice-cream. (She said that she didn’t want to be found driving a wheelchair whilst under the influence of alcohol.) We agreed that we were living the good life.

Later we sat on the seafront just listening to the sea and reading our books.

The next day we explored the town, treating ourselves to coffee and cake. This was the beginning of our unhealthy eating plan which we kept up, I’m pleased to say, for the whole week.

Which is not to say that we didn’t have our occasional failures.

We were sure we had seen somewhere that a local eatery served ice-cream sundaes. We walked (well, I didn’t!) around the town and along the seafront but could not find this elusive establishment. Mary even nipped back into the flat to check the visitor information but, no, there was nothing there about ice-cream sundaes. So we kept on looking.

Eventually we found a sign advertising ice-cream sundaes on a shop near the flat which was probably what we had originally seen. But it was out of date, a false prophet of illusory frozen dessert delights which in reality were no longer available. Further enquiries confirmed that there wasn’t anywhere in town that actually served ice-cream sundaes. I found this amazing. There was plenty of gorgeous full-cream Devon ice-cream for sale, however, so that day we “made do” with a cone each. Now we are back in Swindon, however, we will have to make up for this holiday disappointment by ordering something suitably calorific from our local branch of Kaspa’s.

We hadn’t been resident in Exmouth for long before we met our upstairs neighbour. He was a retired army captain who had been living in Spain but who had returned to England on the death of his wife so as to be near his children. He was delighted to find people to talk to and accompanied us into town, telling us where the best bakeries, coffee shops and pubs were and warning us about the expensive restaurants. He seemed to know the names of most of the counter staff in these establishments and told us, wherever we went to eat, to say that Richard had sent us.

He was keen to help on a practical level too and kept strolling into the middle of the road and holding his hand up to stop the traffic for us. Generally, Devon drivers had already proven sympathetic to wheelchair users, but it was great to be treated like VIPs!

Later in the week he twisted his knee and Mary was able to repay some of his kindness by doing some shopping for him.

We had other adventures, too, during our stay in Exmouth, but I’ll tell you about those in next week’s blog.

Greek temples, oracles & tombs

In my last two blog posts, I’ve been sharing some memories of a holiday my friends and I took in Greece years ago, just after we graduated.

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Someone told us that there was an ancient temple dedicated to Artemis not far from the hotel where we were staying so, one day, we set off to find it. After a while, my friends spied it in the distance.

Then we seemed to enter some kind of space-time vortex.

Whichever path we took, we never got any closer. It was quite uncanny and, Greece being a country steeped in legend, we began to feel some supernatural force was at work. At one point we even started to walk across the fields but this was messy and the going was hard so we retreated back to the path.

I can’t even remember how we got there but, eventually, Artemis stopped playing with us and we arrived. It was like stepping back in time. The temple was amazingly well preserved and very quiet, not being on the usual tourist trail.

We also went on some organised trips, one being to Delphi. We went by road, which was certainly memorable…

Now, I’m going to say something about driving in Greece. I don’t mean to offend anyone. I loved both my holidays there – this one on the mainland and a later one on Corfu – but the Greek attitude to driving was certainly different from what I had been used to in the UK. All the drivers, whether cabbies, bus drivers or ordinary commuters, adorned their vehicles with crosses and religious icons. We soon got the impression, though, that their display of piety was in lieu of safe driving practices.

They trusted in God and ignored red lights.

At one point our bus stopped suddenly on a clifftop road and we all nearly fell out of our seats. When we were told that the many shrines along the cliff roads were in memory of people who had died in traffic accidents, we were hardly surprised but certainly more than a little concerned!

The shrine at Delphi, where the famous oracle used to prophesy, was up a steep hill. Despite my arthritis, I climbed the many, many steps but, by the time I had reached the top, I was definitely struggling. A nice young man in our party carried me down.

Another indication of how small I was then! No young man in his right mind would offer to carry me down a steep flight of steps these days, especially not in such heat.

My memory of whether I was allowed to touch buildings and artefacts is a bit blurry now, but I don’t remember anyone telling me not to. My general recollection is that everyone at the historic sites was friendly and helpful.

We struck out on our own on one occasion, taking the bus into Athens and going to watch the changing of the guard outside the parliament building. At least, we thought that was what was happening. My friend Kris described it to me as being more like a dance than a military manoeuvre.

I wonder if that says something about the gracefulness or perhaps just the liveliness and exuberance of the Greeks.

It was a great day. We browsed the market stalls and I still have the jewellery I bought. I also purchased a lovely embroidered blouse which I wore for many years as a reminder of a wonderful holiday. I’ve grown out of it now, but the memories still remain.

It’s still all Greek

I was telling you about the holiday my friends and I had years ago in Greece, just after we graduated.

Our hotel room had a balcony and we sometimes sat out there in the evening when we felt we needed a change from sitting in the bar. We always left the balcony door open to cool the room, but there were a lot of insects around and one night when we came back into our room, we found a large, leggy creature on the ceiling over my bed. I didn’t want it to fall on my head during the night so my friends hunted about for something to kill it with.

It was a high ceiling. Nothing would reach.

In the end they stood on my bed holding the table from the balcony between them and used it as  a giant fly swatter. I stood bravely out of the way.

We had a lovely chambermaid who not only made our beds each day but also folded my nightdress into pretty flower shapes for me to find.

I will never forget the day my friend Kris tried asking her to spray the room with fly-spray. She had no English and we had no Greek. Apart, that is, from the only phrase I recalled from school, which was “He hippe,” which means “Oh horse.”

This wasn’t very suitable for our needs so instead Kris tried a combination of words and actions. She made a buzzing sound, followed by a “psst” sound accompanied by a mime of pressing down a spray, followed by a clap of the hands. In other words: fly, spray, dead.

It worked!

Our chambermaid understood and started spraying our room vigorously each day.

While on the subject of the language: we noticed the word “catinos” by the lift. I may not have spelt this correctly. We speculated that it might mean there was a cat in the lift but presumably it has a more sensible meaning. (Editor’s note: maybe the sign read καντίνας, which means “canteen”?)

It’s all Greek to me

It’s summer here in England and raining hard. As the water pours incessantly down, I thought I would reminisce, once again, about sun-drenched holidays of the past…

When we finished our degree, my friends and I thought we deserved a break so we went to a travel agent to see if there were any last-minute cheap holidays in Greece. Lo and behold, there were, so, off we went.

We set off from Gatwick Airport at some ridiculous hour of the morning. In fact it was so ridiculous, we didn’t even go to bed the night before but sat up talking, packing, washing our hair and doing all the things you do when you go on holiday. The only thing I recall about the flight is breaking two plastic knives on something with pastry on it. Plastic knives, are, in my view, pointless pieces of cutlery.

Safely landed at our destination, we were met at the airport by a tour company rep and driven away in a minibus to start our Greek odyssey.

We had, quite by accident, hit pay dirt.

The accommodation was comfortable and the beach amazing. We were on the Aegean coast and our hotel was in a small bay that seemed to be frequented mainly by the three of us, apart from at weekends, when the locals took over. That was fine by us. We weren’t greedy.

The sand was soft and golden and the sea always calm. It was also fairly shallow, so you could easily sit in it and it was like sitting in a warm bath. You could swim if you went out a little further but, even then, it wasn’t very deep. Silver fish swam about and it couldn’t have been more idyllic. There was even a nearby taverna where we could purchase cool lager.

We mostly ate in the hotel. The food was delicious. The meat was always tender and we had a good variety of vegetables, mostly squashes and chips.

I don’t think there is anything particularly Greek about chips. When I went to Corfu some years later, the guide told us that chips were common on the island and were a legacy of British rule. I suspect they served them at our hotel to keep the Brits happy.

In those days I was very slim and, being very short as well, the impression was of a very small person. When the waiter serving our table had been round everybody else, he would return and give me whatever was left in the dish. He must have thought I needed feeding up.

Oh for those days when I could eat anything and everything and still fit into size 10 jeans!

The one item they could not produce to our satisfaction was tea. They used warm milk and it was disgusting. I stuck to coffee which was thick black, strong and delicious.

Duck Terror!

Have you ever been terrorised by a duck? I have. Let me tell you all about it.

At this time of year, under normal circumstances, schoolchildren would be going on outings. I only recall one such trip during my time in a mainstream school but it left an indelible mark on my memory.

We were doing a project on London that focused on prominent buildings such as the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. To help us with this, the school arranged a trip to London. I was quite young but my sight had already started to deteriorate – a point which I will come back to later – and my recollection of standing outside these venerable buildings is hazy. I do remember seeing a soldier on guard outside Buckingham Palace, though, wearing the most amazing headgear, a busby.

What sticks in my mind most of all is having a picnic lunch in St James’s Park. I sat on a bench with my classmates and brought out my packed lunch, which consisted of Bovril and Dairylea cream cheese sandwiches. This combination was my favourite at the time.

A great flock of ducks suddenly waddled over to us. One very large duck, possibly a drake, stood in front of me and fixed me with a beady eye. He continued to stare unblinkingly until I tossed him a piece of my sandwich, which he gulped down enthusiastically.

Was this enough to placate him?

No, of course it wasn’t. Having discovered that I could be intimidated, he stood firm and stared me out again. And again.

And again.

I reckon he had around half of my lunch. I don’t remember being particularly upset. I was just astonished at his strength of will compared to mine. And I could be pretty stubborn myself!

This is one of my most vivid and happy childhood memories, but it nearly didn’t happen at all.

In the 1960s, disabled people like myself were brought up to believe that we should be grateful for any crumbs the able-bodied world threw our way. The idea of disabled rights wasn’t even on the horizon. I recall the first time I heard a disabled person speaking on behalf of an organization called “Rights not Patronage” in the 1970s and being blown away by this novel concept. However, back in the 60s, rights weren’t part of our vocabulary and they certainly weren’t part of my parents’ vocabulary. Whenever an outing with the school or the Girls’ Brigade was mentioned, my mother warned me I might not be able to go. This wasn’t primarily because she was worried about me, although no doubt she was, but because she felt it wasn’t fair to ask teachers or Brigade leaders to take responsibility for me.

Can you imagine that nowadays, when families take schools to court to insist their disabled children join in all the activities on offer?

My going on the school outing to London was a landmark in my young life because, for once, I won the argument. I pleaded and, at last, Mum agreed I could go.

My parents weren’t being unkind. They were lovely people who loved all of us dearly, but they did feel keenly the responsibility of caring for a disabled child and were concerned not to ask too much of other people in that regard.

So that predatory duck will stay imprinted on my mind’s eye for ever. I hope he lived a long and happy life, extorting sandwiches out of tourists and schoolchildren and I hope some of them were there because the people around them believed that they should be, disability or not.

Hearing

I have just been listening to a blackbird in my garden. I don’t think I have heard one there before. Is it the lockdown which allows me to hear this one?

I have heard several people say that they are more aware of birdsong since the lockdown. There is less traffic noise, fewer planes and, for many of us, more time to pay attention to the world around us. It has made me think about the whole business of listening and hearing.

Every visually-impaired person will be asked at some point in their life, “Do you find that your other senses are sharpened to compensate for your lack of sight?”

I find this interesting. Does the question arise from some inbuilt desire that there should be some kind of natural justice or karma in the world that compensates people for what they lack in life?

If you do feel the universe should readjust matters so that there is some kind of cosmic fair-play, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you.

Certainly I know people with little or no sight who have brilliant hearing, but I also know plenty who don’t, myself included. I also know sighted people with great hearing.

Another commonly held belief is that blind people are all musical. Sorry, again: not true! Obviously many are, but so then are many sighted people.

Despite all that, I do think something interesting is going on in relation to visually impaired people and hearing. I don’t think that we necessarily have more acute hearing, but it may be that we concentrate more.

I have written before about the problems of watching television with my parents before the days of audio-description. They would be so busy trying to work out who the actors were that they would often miss great chunks of dialogue. I would end up explaining the plot to them when the programme finished! The reason I could do this was that I had to concentrate on what was being said and any sound effects which I could identify.

Concentration also plays a large part in mobility if you can’t see. You have to think about where the steps are, how far it is to the end of such-and-such a wall, where potential obstacles might be, and so on. You don’t magically acquire super powers when you lose your sight, you just learn to put your brain to work to help you fill in the gaps.

Now it is true that, as a child, I lost all the sight in my right eye without anyone noticing. The hospital, who should have been checking, said my left eye must have taken over and compensated for this loss. The fact remains, though, that I did miss things. I found I couldn’t always read what was written on the blackboard but, at the age of six, it didn’t occur to me that this was because I couldn’t see. I thought I was being stupid and kept quiet about it.

Just as many people with hearing-loss learn to lip-read so, out of necessity, when you lose your eyesight, you have to learn tricks for getting round the problems life throws at you. You end up developing certain skills, but you don’t automatically acquire bat-like hearing (or, indeed, the ability to hang upside down from the ceiling, which is a pity!). Sadly, I think my hearing is actually pretty mediocre, and I can’t sing in tune to save my life.

I hope I haven’t just shattered all your illusions.

Just in case I have depressed you, let me lighten the mood.

I mentioned bats just now and have to confess that I have a particularly soft spot for these nocturnal flying mammals. It all started when I fell in love with Count Dracula in the person of Louis Jourdan in a 1977 BBC adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel and that led to a love of bats more generally.

Bats of all shapes and sizes and made of many materials now adorn my house. One of my lodgers thought this was part of an ironic take on my disability. I was amused by the suggestion and decided not to disabuse him!

Embarrassing adventures

In my last couple of blogs, I’ve been explaining the mobility training I received years ago when I was a young pupil at a boarding school for the visually impaired. We started with simple routes near the school and then learned to travel to such exotic destinations as the local corner shop and a random T-junction in the middle of nowhere.

Our next and longer walks were to Chorleywood station and the village beyond. In order to reach these destinations you had to take a walk across the common. My arthritis prevented me from achieving this, however, so I was driven to the village by a member of staff and a friend then taught me the various routes around the streets.

There were a few shops in the village but I don’t recall using them very much. I do recall embarrassing my friend on one shopping trip by accidentally knocking a box of soap powder with my elbow and thereby precipitating a cascade of boxes off the shelf.

“Baboom, baboom, baboom!” they went.

It didn’t take much to make me laugh and I giggled childishly while my friend hissed at me and dragged me hastily out of the shop.

Incidentally, she also objected to me eating an ice lolly as we walked along the road. To be fair, that probably was bad manners.

The last mobility test we had to undergo was to get the train one stop down the line to Rickmansworth. There was a great incentive to passing this test, because there was a record shop in “Ricky”. That was more or less the only place we went to there, apart from a Chinese restaurant which my friends and I visited one Saturday night. For a bunch of boarding school girls in the 1970s, this felt incredibly exotic.

Once we could get safely to Ricky and back, we were allowed to venture further afield. We would sometimes take the bus to Watford and visit the American ice-cream parlour there. They had twenty flavours of ice-cream which, at the time, seemed absolutely amazing!

The last adventure I recall was a trip to London. One of our form had left at the end of the fifth year to train as a typist at the RNIB vocational training college, which at that time was in Notting Hill.

Four of us set off on the Underground to visit her.

I was using crutches by this point due to my arthritis, so was unable to carry a long cane. Neither my friends nor I let this stand in our way, however. One of our group had quite a lot of sight and we relied on her to read the station signs on the Underground. At one point she said we had reached the right one and I got off the train. Almost immediately she changed her mind and another of my friends literally scooped me up and returned me to the carriage just in the nick of time.

Learning to get around was often a challenge, but it was rarely if ever dull!

The corner shop and beyond

I explained in last week’s blog how we were taught mobility when, as a young girl, I was a pupil at a boarding school for the visually impaired. We started with simple walks in the lanes around the school.

The next challenge involved walking further afield and included learning the route across the common to the parish church, where most of the school went to services on Sunday mornings. Being a Baptist, though, I got to go to Rickmansworth Baptist Church, and was privileged to get a lift.

Probably the most important route we had to learn, though, was the one that led to the corner shop. This included crossing a road by using a pedestrian crossing protected by traffic lights. You had to press a button to operate the lights, which emitted a loud beeping to let you know when it was safe to cross. It was the first time I had ever encountered one of these.   

The shop itself held a special place in our hearts. We could buy sweets, birthday cards and, for those of us who had pets at school, carrots for our rabbits. I wonder now if the staff were pleased to have our business or dreaded the onslaught of noisy teenagers descending on them most afternoons.

I remember one lovely guy who worked there who liked to joke with us. He was behind the counter the day I turned up and asked for, “Those little cheesy biscuits where you don’t get many in a packet.”

I was never allowed to forget this!

The next set of walks were invented to take us further afield but, as there wasn’t anywhere obvious for us to go to, our teachers had to dream up routes to some entirely arbitrary destinations just for the sake of the exercise. This meant that we got a walk, but we didn’t actually go anywhere very interesting.

And this is where the T-junction I mentioned last week finally comes in. One of our regular walks was to and from a T-junction in the middle of nowhere.

It was all very Samuel Beckett!

It was while I was on one of these walks to nowhere that I accidentally became a living cliché.

I had recently had an operation on my left eye which had improved my sight slightly. I also had new glasses and was keen to find out what I could see with them. I was walking with my friend when I spied a road sign.

This, I thought, was a golden opportunity.

I started to read the road sign to her. I took a step back and found that I could still read it. Brilliant!

I took yet another step back.

“I can even read it from here”! I cried – and promptly stepped backwards into a hole.

Pride definitely came before  a fall!

Mobility

I felt I had hit a bit of a low when I experienced a prick of jealousy when my brother told me he and my sister-in-law were going to the vet to get flea powder for their cats!

Some visually-impaired people are having to go out to work or shop, or to walk their guide dogs, but I am effectively stuck at home. You can’t safely distance from others when you can’t see, and I feel that it would be antisocial to put someone else at risk by asking them to act as my guide. In consequence, apart from my mini-adventure going to the doctor’s surgery a few weeks ago, the furthest I have been from my property since the start of lockdown was to step outside my front gate with a bag of recycling.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I have a garden, so that I can at least get some fresh air.

It’s all very different from my schooldays, when I used to grumble heartily at being forced to go outdoors for exercise every day, whatever the weather. What was I thinking of?

Well, I know why really. No schoolgirl wants to pointlessly walk to a T-junction in the rain. The irony is that I would take that now, certainly if the rain wasn’t too heavy!

“What T-junction?” I hear you ask.

Let me explain, though you’ll have to wait till next week before I get to the T-junction!

When you go to boarding school like I did, you don’t have to travel to and from school each day. How, then, do the teachers ensure that their pupils get regular fresh air and exercise?

My school’s answer was to throw them out of the building every weekday morning between breakfast and assembly on what we all used to refer to as “garden ex,” “ex” in this case being short for “exercise.”

In practice, this meant wandering round the school grounds for half-an-hour. On cold days, we used to lurk in the boiler house or summerhouse but at least we got some fresh air on the way to and from these hidey-holes.

On weekday afternoons, we went on “walk” for an hour between lunch and the recommencement of lessons at ten-to-three.

This was also how we learnt mobility.

At the start of our first year, we went on “croc”, which was our abbreviation for “crocodile”. This involved pairing up and following a teacher for a short walk around the lanes near school.

We soon, however, embarked on learning different routes. We were each allocated to a senior pupil, who would teach us the way, and we would then be tested by a member of staff.

The first test involved walking down the back drive, following the grass verge (there were no pavements in our immediate vicinity), and then walking up the front drive of the school. We then had to do the route in reverse.

This is where I got into trouble.

This version of the route involved the additional challenge of crossing a road. We had to go to a certain point and then cross over and walk up to the entrance to the back drive. Back then, I could still see a little and when I spotted the opening to the drive I started to cross over to it.

I was summarily summoned back.

Crossing over as soon as I saw the entrance, I had walked diagonally across the road, meaning that I spent longer than necessary exposing myself to the potential danger of being knocked down. That was when I learned the important lesson of safety first.