Storyteller blog has moved.
melnicholls.co.uk is live, where you will find my continued Stroyteller blog.
Please head over now for a visit!
Storyteller blog has moved.
melnicholls.co.uk is live, where you will find my continued Stroyteller blog.
Please head over now for a visit!
Cycling up here however is perhaps a different challenge all together. I was certainly inspired to cycle to the summit myself and drop down the other side at speed. However at this point in the day, some riders were beginning to feel the full force of this climb, the heat of the sun and the toll on their bodies of already hours in the saddle.
This time last week.. I was lucky enough to be involved in the Tour of Pembrokeshire. A sportive to beat any other. For epic scenery, warm welcoming Welsh community spirit, renown local home grown and produced food, challenging climbs and of course sensational cycling. For families and confidence builders, to ultra endurance cyclists, adventurers and Olympians. A sportive unlike all, for all.
Of course as soon as I heard about the tour I wanted I ride it.. but on this occasion, I had a different role, one off the bike and out of my usual cycling kit. I was to be ‘The Voice of the Tour’.
It was a beautiful sunny blue sky Friday afternoon as Luna the campervan and I trundled our way West, over the border into Wales and towards the Pembrokeshire coastline. I always find it exciting when I see the border crossing Wales sign, welcoming the passage from England and the promise of castle-rich lands and adventures.
My first sight of the sea was as I reached the road summit just before dropping down towards Newgale Beach and overlooking St Brides Bay. My vista was something akin to a movie backdrop. The blue sky met the sea, though what looked like a layer of mist lay just above, wrapping itself around the peninsula and rocky outcrop, mysteriously haunting as the sun beamed down with force. It had been six months since my last visit to West Wales, and I couldn’t be happier to be back, Pembrokeshire National Park and all its wonder, welcoming me back with open arms.
I arrived at event HQ as set up was in full swing. ToP’s head chief and directeur sportif, Peter, was first to greet me, escorting me straight to the bar for my favoured tipple of a cup of tea, despite it being so warm out I’m wearing shorts, vest and sunglasses. Personally I believe every weather is tea weather and this was exceptionally well received.
Registration for the following day’s rides was followed by a hearty meal, drinks and good chatter, as I gave a short talk accompanied by my trusty handbike, about my own cycling journey and where my adventures have taken me so far. At the end, a good number of people asked questions, came to look at my bike and I even got a few to sit in and experience it for themselves. The pure-blood cyclists interested in the mechanics and comparisons with their own two-wheeled charges, youngsters full of fascination and parents keen to hear stories and share their own cycling life and experience. I really love talking to people and giving a window into what I do and why I do it, especially the youngsters. I believe completely that everyone should have the right and the opportunity to ride a bike, there is nothing more simpler nor greater, and I hope I can play a part in encouraging that.
That night I took to my bed in Luna under a clear Welsh sky. I was excited for what the morning had in store.
It was an early start, my alarm set for 5am, and I was on the road heading to ToP HQ by half past. The event village had been transformed, an inflatable start / finish gantry loomed above the lane as a countdown clock was being set up and PA system tested. I parked up Luna around the back of the hubbub of the day ahead, nestled among the cowsheds and silage wraps, my own piece of calm as the sun came up and I began to feel the warmth on my face in the crisp early morning air.
It was time to take to the stage, for my role as Voice of the Tour of Pembrokeshire.
There were four distances riders could choose from, starting from a 25 mile ride, up to just over 100. The 100 mile riders were the first to leave the start line, in split waves, a minute or so apart, making their way down the lane and out onto the course. For all the distances, there were around 1400 cyclists, yet with thought out route planning, careful timing and staggered feed stops, it never once felt as though the lanes were awash with lycra and cycling calves.
My first job of the day was to give each of the early start waves a few words of wisdom alongside the starter and compere for the morning. Everyone was very well behaved and no raucous heckling came my way, at least not from the cyclists! I can only presume the thought of the 100 or so miles ahead of them and awaiting climbs, plus the early start had yet to kick start the cyclist adrenaline, as the riders steadily and orderly made their way across the start line as the Welsh national flag dropped to a cacophony of cowbells.
The first riders off, it was to the official tour car for me and my number two; my driver and the man behind the camera, Dave, ready to capture the essence of the tour in full technicolor.
My job was to get amongst the people, the riders, the marshals, the locals, the volunteers and feed stop hosts. The Voice of the Tour was to piece together the tour on film, interviews, fun chats and thoughts of the rides, the route, the delicious array of food, what was it about Pembrokeshire that keeps bringing them back, or brought them here, other that the incredible weather that had kindly joined us on the tour.
Our first stop was the first official feed stop for the 100 milers. A beautiful coastal village at the south east corner of St Brides Bay, Little Haven treated early morning riders to freshly made jam sandwiches, welsh cakes and flapjacks, all locally made and manned by volunteers from Milford Haven Cadets outside The Corner Cafe under the Little Haven clock.
At first I was quite surprised to see how many cyclists stopped at this initial refuel, riders had a lot more hours of riding ahead of them and as a cyclist myself I would have quite possibly pushed on through to make good time. Though within minutes of arriving in Little Haven I began to see why and began to realise this place, this ride, was about far more than the 100 miles. It was about Little Haven and all the places in between much more than it was about times and being ‘the first’ back home. Anyone who was that way in mind, was sure missing out.
As we took to the road for our next meet up point, I grabbed a piece of bread and jam for the journey and recounted my conversations so far. Everyone was in good spirits, excited yet seemingly relaxed and most definitely enjoying the good weather.
Although I would have loved to be riding the route myself, being in the car, following the riders and having my own local tour guide was quite the treat. For one I was able to see over hedges for a change and I made the most of snapping pictures and filming out of the car’s sunroof.
I was really enjoying my job as film content contributor and interviewer, the more we did, the more we learnt what worked and the more we knew who was likely to give us a unique angle of the cyclists side of Tour of Pembrokeshire and reasons for riding, and everyone who made this event what it is, which I quickly learnt was far far more than the beauty of cycling, that and more proved a special story to tell.
There were four feed stops in total, a stop at each for us to get in on the action, chat and hear stories from club riders through to multiple Ironmen and women, cyclists who had only started their bike journeys a year before, for health reasons, for happy marriage reasons, for challenge reasons, for their own reasons. For some people this was their first ever sportive, and for others the Tour of Pembrokeshire had become a yearly staple, along with with the infamous haggis sausages on offer at Maenclochog. The feed stations in general proved a particular highlight for many riders, the haggis taking centre stage, closely followed by Pembrokeshire buttered and salted potatoes, those I can definitely vouch for! Not forgetting of course the flapjacks and welsh cakes. Riders talked about the friendly atmosphere, the camaraderie, the local community and of course the weather. If we could have ordered the most perfect weather it would have been this. Blue cloudless sky, warm sunshine and no wind. The weather gods were certainly on our side and it was clearly appreciated by all.
Before we left Maenclochog, I gave a short talk with cadets and staff from 2420 Squadron who were doing a fantastic job of supporting riders and were always on hand to look after bikes and help pump up tyres. I was a real pleasure for me to speak with them and hear about their own sporting achievements.
At just over halfway on at least two of the routes came the Preseli Hills. As one of the finest high walking grounds in Wales, with views as far as Ireland, deep into South Wales, and north up the majestic arc of Cardigan Bay towards Snowdonia, links ancient monuments and burial places, cairns and rocky tors.
Cycling up here however is perhaps a different challenge all together. I was certainly inspired to cycle to the summit myself and drop down the other side at speed. However at this point in the day, some riders were beginning to feel the full force of this climb, the heat of the sun and the toll on their bodies of already hours in the saddle. For the first time we came across bikes lay down on the roadside as their riders, head between their knees collected their thoughts and their stomachs. Seeing so much road ahead of them going up and up, seemingly endless, must have broken a few minds at that point. But those that did push on through the wall, got to reap the glory of the downhill that followed and the feel of the air wicking away at salt-crusted brows and heavy legs.
Rolling into the penultimate feed station, Bluestone Brewery, a relaxed outdoor chill-out space with good vibes, summertime live music and the all important feast and fuel.
I had never experienced a sportive quite like this one. And this seemed to run true with so many people I chatted with during my day filming. This was the case for the volunteers and marshals as much as the riders and even roadside supporters, not one could work without the other and together, this tour had all the magical ingredients for something very special indeed. I totally understood the love for this place, its people and communities. It wasn’t something artificial, part of a conveyor belt of processed money driven characterless free-for-alls. The Tour of Pembrokeshire is its people. That’s what brings riders from far and wide again and again. The people make it, the food from local people make it, the local communities, schools, businesses and support make it, every cyclist makes it. All wrapped together in this incredible coastline and National Park, its quaint harbours and villages, its mountains and country lanes, its epic views and wild places, nature and wildlife. There was not one thing that made the Tour of Pembrokeshire. It made everything.
Back at base, riders poured through the finish arch, cheered on by families and loved ones lining the lane waiting for partners and parents to push on home. Many were enjoying the afternoon sun with drinks flowing and cow bells clanging. Every cyclist I saw finish had a smile on their face, and I’m sure it wasn’t just for the relief of finishing.
Hundreds of bikes lines the walls around the event village, they had done their job for the day. People lay on the grass and filled tables under the sun. There were ice cream, local beer and even strawberries and fizz to celebrate the Royal Wedding, the other highlight of the year, only second to the ToP. People were tired but happy. A live band played, people danced and children played. More hearty food was served as cyclists continued to return back base, fuelled with tales of the day and a good amount of cyclists tan.
I had had a fantastic day out and about and we managed to catch up with a few more people once back at HQ, it was important we got thoughts at the end of the day, had they changed since the six plus hours out on the road? People may have been a lot more tired than back at that first feed stop in Little Haven, but the energies and fondness of everything the day brought had not changed, it had only grown.
I was really happy to catch up with Tori James after the ride. Patron of the Tour of Pembrokeshire and first Welsh woman and at the time youngest British woman to climb Mount Everest. Tori was one person I did not want to miss the chance to speak to. I could of easily chatted and listened about everything adventure and her incredible challenges well into the evening, but Tori and just finished her ride, her first event as a mum! and I wasn’t going to keep her away from enjoying the rest of the late afternoon’s sunshine with friends. Though I do look forward to hopefully catching up with Tori again sometime, and without the camera and mic next time. I did have on my list to try and catch up with Wales and British Lions Rugby legend, Shane Williams on route, but learning he had dropped from the 100 mile to a shorter route in preparation for a triathlon event the following day, we missed our chance with the second best Welsh great cycling the tour. We did manage to catch up with a number of Shane’s team, all cycling or Velindre cancer centre. They certainly didn’t let him off lightly with some great banter on camera for us, even the parts told in Welsh I knew were all in good spirits.
As the late afternoon blended into early evening, heavy legs and sun-blushed skin covered the grass and benches, with family and friends, drinking, eating and chatting the day away.
I took a few minutes of quiet and retreated to Luna for a cup of tea amongst the cows, the sun was low and covering everything in a sparkle. I sat contentedly with my tea, as laughter and chatter washed over the barn into the evening air.
It would have been very hard to choose between experiencing the Tour of Pembrokeshire from bike or as I did this day. I witnessed and experienced the heart of the tour and I learnt what the ToP essence really was, I had thoroughly enjoyed my day in a different role.
I am sure stories of the tour will be told for years to come and without doubt the Tour of Pembrokeshire 2018 will go down in the history books for its weather alone. I have my own tales to tell and great memories made and I know without doubt, I will be coming back..
London marathon is special, as one of the leading World elite marathons and part of the Abbott World Majors series for elite wheelchair racers and runners, as well as being a world-wide favourite for mass participation, and in our home capital of London.
London was my first marathon back in 2015 where I sadly was unable to continue after a puncture, beginning my marathon campaign again after leaving the track post Rio in 2016, coming back to London and finishing last year was a really special moment. To return again this year has meant just as much.
I love wheelchair marathon racing, there is a camaraderie between racers and I get to see friends from all around the world and closer to home as we support and where possible work together while racing these incredible cities. It is a part of athletics I will always love.
I was pleased with my London prep in my week lead up, prior to that, training has definitely been tough with some earlier niggles and the weather making road training impossible, but with no Paralympic or GB pathway for me in marathon racing due to there being no class for me, I’m very happy racing with the T54s, pushing myself against the best and learning from the best, and making this marathon a much more personal challenge as well as a professional one. Personal reasons meant there were outside factors to be aware of for me this year and my race was not to be about times or placings, but doing what I love to the best of my ability, surrounded by friends and friendly strangers in the capital that I love. Having the sun pouring down was an added bonus.
The night before the race I didn’t get any sleep. I don’t sleep well before races anyway and with it being so hot in the city and in a small single room in the centre of Earls Court’s Saturday night, any chance of sleep was to evade me. I wasn’t worried about this, I knew I’d slept well all week and it was only a case of a couple of hours early morning pushing, I could do that in my sleep! (If only).
Early start but feeling good and happily riding the bus to the start with the other racers and my good friend Ian (Butch) who was here to support me and make sure I was well fed and happy before race day. This was in the form of Saturday night dinner at a fab little place we found in Kensington, called ‘Sticky Fingers’. It was Bill Wyman, off of The Rolling Stones fame’s restaurant and served awesome food and epic music and memorabilia to match! As we rode the bus, led by our police outriders, London was coming alive.
Just before 08.55 all the wheelchair racers were on the start line. We were off.
I quickly found my place with another racer who I’d pushed with before and found myself leading the two of us through the first 10k. We were later joined by a small group including the T52 men and my training buddy and friend Rob Smith, and then later catching another couple of racers, another of my Godiva Harriers track training mates, Sean and Nicky, who I’d planned to try and work with but she took a bit to rein in as she’s pretty rapid on her starts. It was so good to have people around to race with and people to chase, quite a new experience for me as I am often time trialling marathons alone, passing the slower racers and in the big races, not quite up there with the big fish, or leading my own with the smaller fields. We are all working hard but it’s amazing when you can say the odd word to each other and in yesterday’s case, point out the London sights and incredible crowd support while sharing it with those around you. Nicky and I worked well together taking turns to pull. Some point after the halfway point we all went into a very tight right hand corner together, unfortunately the marshal was a little late on informing us and Nicky skidded out onto the side of her chair, I wanted to stop and help but knew there was little I could do, but she was amazing, within seconds she was back upright and chasing me down, the quickest recovery I have ever seen, I hung back a bit so that she could get back on as we then worked to catch the second female in the pack, done fairly easily. We continued our push together for a few miles, every now and again Rob or the Portuguese athlete would sprint ahead playing cat and mouse with each other, one was quicker up the climbs, one down them.
Pushing through the Isle of Dogs was harder for us all to be close as there are so many twists and turns, speed bumps and bad road surfaces. I was leading happily as we made our way, though coming back towards the ‘mainland’ it had gone quiet behind me. I had a tricky tight roundabout to negotiate followed by a short sharp climb where I happily saw my friend waiting to cheer me on, he gave me a real boost as I pulled a face at him as I passed. The quiet behind continued and somehow I had lost all the other guys, I had no idea what had happened to them.
I was now alone on the road but in no means alone out there. The crowds were incredible! I swear I was smiling the whole way around that marathon, every person lifting me beyond measures. I couldn’t resist a wave when I was able, so grateful for their support and energies. Spotting one of my fellow racers family was another high point, little Daisy has the best cheering voice and I can pick her out from a crowd with much delight, thank you Daisy!!
As I pushed on, the remaining kilometres came down, I was nearing 30k, only 12k left. I had taken it fairly steady up until now and told myself I’d press on with 10k to go, saving my best til last. I could see the Chinese athlete Zou ahead and my plan was to chase her down. The gap continued to get smaller and I eventually caught her, she didn’t know I was there until one of the crowd very well meaningly shouted “keep going ladies!” At that point Zou looked back and saw she was not alone, I waved and smiled.
I think that gave her her second wind as she pushed on. I managed to take her and pushed on a gap through the next km or so but Zou eventually took back the lead and gave me a chase through the remaining kms of the capital. I could feel a strong headwind as I had 5 km to go, wishing at the time it was a tailwind, though now realising how hot it was, the wind probably did me a favour. On one hand I yearned for the company I had earlier in the race to distract me from my own head during the final stretch, but at the same time was still surprised and pleased I had managed to hold the gap and maybe I could all the way to the finish. I didn’t look back once, it didn’t matter, I was listening to the crowd and marshals, when they cheered and whistles blew, that told me how far anyone was away, I heard nothing. Now head down and coming into Birdcage walk I dropped down a gear to chase the Chinese athlete and finish with my promised effort.
The last km was a full on sprint, I felt fairly fresh, carried by the atmosphere and incredible day. A wheeled robot camera was tracking me up the red road of the Mall, I gave it a look and put in the biggest sprint I had to beat this robotcam, that was great fun. My heart rate was through the roof as I gave everything through the finish, there was no way I was slowing down now, especially as I knew I was so close to my Berlin marathon pb.
I had done it. My second London marathon finish, on my pb and my best London time so far.
I felt fine which surprised me most, I had paced myself and done better than expectations I had on myself. Coming out of Seville marathon, finding it tough, I had doubts coming into London, but I’d really surprised myself. I know there is clearly so much more to give and that really excites me in marathon racing, I have a few things to sort and am now really looking forward to coming back and taking on my next marathon, supercharged.
The hottest London marathon on record and in my opinion, the best marathon I’ve done so far. Amazing to share it with fellow racers and see friends achieving great performances and loving London.
I think the biggest thank you to all the crowds and supporters, they made me smile the whole way, they often made me nearly cry, they are what makes London special, and makes us want to come back and see you year after year. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I’d mentioned earlier in the week on my social media that this race was for some very special people. Meeting the guys at Men’s space St Richard’s Hospice, Worcester, a few weeks ago was an incredibly powerful and positive experience for me, all thanks to a wonderful friend, Terry Tromans. I told them that day that I would be taking them all with me around London, and that I did. They were constantly in my thoughts, Terry in his colourful Hawaiian shirt that I was tempted to swap for one of my medals when I saw him, willing me on and sharing everything with me on the roads of London. They gave me energy, belief and the pure joy of living in the moment, loving everything that was around me and doing exactly what I love. Without doubt, that gave me something special to power our greatest marathon so far.
Terry and friends, this one was for you, thanks you for the sunshine, blue skies, colour and Dolly magic.
#DreamBig #BeyondBarriers #LondonMarathon
“there are clearly many women wanting to cycle more, or to start, looking for confidence to make that first step or pedal, wanting the support and camaraderie that cycling with others can bring.
There is without doubt a need to press for progress and close the gap in women’s cycling”
2018 was to see the launch of my Beyond Barriers, health & well-being campaign. A social campaign and collection of projects all with one common goal of encouraging and supporting people facing barriers to existing opportunities and activities, to get active outside.
I’ll never stop shouting about the many benefits being active outside can bring, and I believe it can be and most certainly should be, accessible for all. Many people feel they face barriers to being active and getting outside, these can include disability, physical health, mental health, age, gender, financial and social barriers. My campaign goal is to encourage, inspire, promote, lead and show, that there’s always a way, that we are all Beyond Barriers.
At the end of last year I began my training for what I believe is a cornerstone of my bigger campaign picture, a project on its own but also an important part of moving forward with ideas, thinking and progress. Part of my plan was to train and qualify to become a cycle leader. Not knowing how to go about this or even if it was possible, though of course I do believe anything is possible, it’s a case of having to find your way, I researched my options and began to see a possible route. In doing my research and finding out about necessary skills and abilities to become a qualified ride leader, I did not see any reason why, as a disabled person and as a handcyclist, I could not meet the necessary criteria, along the same route as any able bodied cyclist. Of course I knew this would take a little open mindedness and that I may have to adapt some practises, but as far as I could see, it was possible. Now for me, becoming a cycle leader was about many things, and one important thing was that it wasn’t about disability. It was about being a cycle leader. As in, I didn’t want special treatment, I didn’t want my own course only for disabled cyclists, to lead disabled cyclists, progress is inclusion, in every area of life and while we are all very different, we are also all the same and I knew that what I could offer as a cycle leader; to support, encourage and take people on great rides for all abilities, had nothing to do with disability and everything to do with passion.
My research lead me right back to British Cycling, though on the recreation side. I had discovered the Ride Leadership Award, summarised as: “The Ride Leadership Award is for people who love cycling and want to share their passion with others.” Box ticked. Now to convince course tutors and governing bodies of my grand idea.
My training and assessment took me to Wales. Following some online learning and testing, I found myself back in a classroom, pen and paper in front of me and our course tutor sharing and teaching the theory of being a competent ride leader. I shared my course with around ten other women, of all ages, all beginning their own Breeze journeys. Once ready, we took our training to the streets of Cardiff, as a group going through scenarios we would face ourselves and learning in real time.
The second part of my cycle leader training took me back into Wales, Abergavenny to be exact, for a very cold few days in November where I trained in First Aid in the outdoors with Borderlands Outdoor. My chosen course far exceeded the required ‘First Aid for Leading Rides’, but like I say, this is part of a bigger picture and I relished the challenge and knowledge it brought to me.
From an idea, a what if.. a let’s see how I can make this possible.. a passion for something, I am proud to now be a qualified ride leader. This is the first step onto the next and enabling me to follow a path alongside my racing career of supporting others and sharing my passion for getting out on a bike and riding. As I said before, becoming a ride leader was about many things. I have proven to myself that I can, I have, I am. I hope within my leadership training and role I can inspire others who may think the only options are inside the box, to look for ways outside of it, and to use my new role to support, encourage and lead the way to sharing the purest joy of getting on your bike and going for a ride. With new friends and new adventures, happy and healthy, and smashing down those barriers, that’s the great thing about cycling, you can always find your way..
As I mentioned earlier, my route to being a qualified ride leader took the path of a Breeze journey. British Cycling launched Breeze to inspire women to ride for fun and fitness, offering free bike rides, friendly support, and great people to ride with. As a qualified ride leader and volunteer Breeze Champion, I have set up my own Breeze group for women.
This week celebrated International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. A call to #PressForProgress
In celebration of International Women’s Day and a demonstration of our Press for Progress, today I lead my first ever ride, as a ride leader, as a para-cyclist and as a woman. Today launched the first of my HSBCUK Breeze rides for Women.
When I created my first ride through the Let’s Ride website, I honestly didn’t know if anyone would sign up. Even now after smashing down my own barriers to get to this point, I doubted myself and questioned if anyone would want to ride with me. My doubts were soon dismissed and replaced with a new excitement as places began to be booked.
This ride and all of my Breeze rides are not about my training, what I love is they are not about me and so much my cycling. These rides are ran on my days off. They are not fast, not particularly endurance, there is no pressure. They are about encouraging all women to get out on their bikes and come for a social ride, gaining confidence, new friends and fitness and sharing the love of cycling and everything it brings. Today I had eight ladies booked on my first ever ride, a full house within my ride leader remit, an accomplishment in itself. Just before 10.00am at my set meeting point, all were ready and looking keen for our Saturday morning cycle.
I had set a simple yet scenic route for our first ride. Once bike checks were done and a few instructions and hand signals shown, we set off, first negotiating our way safely though town and the Saturday market, before heading out into the countryside and nearby hamlets. I was excited about taking this first ride and to meeting my eager participants, but I was also feeling a little into the unknown. After all, this was my first lead ride and I was responsible for the group, it was no longer just me looking out for myself, I certainly felt a whole new level of responsibility and professionalism to uphold. It doesn’t matter how in depth you do your risk assessments and route planning, out there in real time there’s only so much you can plan for and control, and I wanted this ride to run smoothly and safely.
In all honesty, out there, it all came naturally. My fears were definitely bigger than the here and now and by the sounds of the chitter-chatter behind as I lead along the lanes, this was going pretty well. I was able to move through the group with ease, making sure everyone was ok and marshalling junctions before taking the lead once more. My ladies really were amazing and made my role very easy indeed.
Listening to them talk was enlightening and reassured me in my underpinning ethos, to push beyond barriers. A common theme was one I had also experienced, a more mental than physical barrier. Many of these ladies spoke about wanting to have some kind of a cycling group that they felt comfortable in, yet all they had available to them were cycling clubs, many of these still heavily male driven and have felt they wouldn’t be good enough to join rides or had been made to feel they wouldn’t be. Now I know this is not always one sided, we are our own worst critics and self-doubters and often afraid of failure or looking silly and can easily ‘think’ others are doubting us as much as we are ourselves. Though I agree there is also a certain amount of closed thinking still out there, ‘assuming’ we wouldn’t be able to keep up, still a lot of male egos that can be intimidating and sometimes dismissive towards female cyclists. And while cycling clubs have their place, there are clearly many women wanting to cycle more, or to start, looking for confidence to make that first step or pedal, wanting the support and camaraderie that cycling with others can bring. There is without doubt a need to press for progress and close the gap in women’s cycling, and I fully commit to doing what I can to support that change.
Our ride today went perhaps even better than I’d planned, everyone told me how they’d enjoyed both the route and the group, aided by coffee and flapjacks at our post-ride pit-stop.
New ride buddies were made and plans for the next Breeze ride eagerly anticipating, everyone with their own reason for wanting to cycle but all sharing the simple passion for getting outside and riding a bike.
Today was a first on many levels. Today marked my first lead ride and the launch of my Breeze group for International Women’s Day. As far as I am aware, I am the first and only handcyclist qualified as a British Cycling Ride Leader. As a para-cyclist and handcyclist, I lead a group made up of both able-bodied and para-cyclists, simply women supporting women.
On a day looking to lead the way, we pretty much trail-blazed it.
We are Breeze Beyond Barriers.
My role as a ride leader involves navigation and route planning which I’m able to do through OS maps with Ordnance Survey. If you’re interested in today’s cycle route, the route link can be found here.
Earlier this week I was invited into the BBC Gloucestershire studios to chat about my Beyond Barriers campaign and upcoming Breeze launch. You can listen to the interview here from 2 hrs 11
I’d like to give a special mention to someone who has been part of my inspiration to explore this adventure along my journey. A chance meeting to help a group of female cyclists with a flat tyre, on my first trip to my own spiritual home of discovering the possible, the Isle of Arran. Janice Small’s passion and commitment for encouraging women to get on their bikes and believe in themselves, alongside new friends, in setting up the Isle of Arran Belles cycling club in her retirement is a true example of today’s and tomorrow’s female role model. I have been lucky to ride with Janice and the club whenever I get to visit Arran and am proud to be an honorary Belle. I am also proud to have Janice as one of my role models and as my friend. ∼ Honorary Belle, Mel.
As GetOutside champions, all passionate and enthusiastic about the outdoors, we commit to help tackling the rising levels of inactivity in the UK and to educate and encourage everyone to look after our parks, green spaces, countryside, mountains and coasts, for the next generation of outdoor lovers and adventurers. We continue to champion for more people to get outside more often.
Get Outside!! That’s the message I’m shouting. It just so happens this is also the message of a very special band of people. Within it, a tribe of 60-strong, energy-bursting, story-telling individuals, wide-eyed excitement brimming and smiles to match. And for two days in January, this newly formed clan were brought together, by equally passionate outdoors championing, and all the benefits thereof, creators of this wonderful and life-changing initiative. Who are Ordnance Survey.
From every corner and coast of Britain, many different backgrounds, guys, girls, families, young and young at heart, walkers, runners, cyclists, scout leaders, mountaineers and mountain leaders, climbers, instructors, wilderness teachers and survivalists, record breaking round the world-ers! kick-ass adventurers, conservationists and environmental warriors, most of us arriving not knowing each other, and all brought together by our passion and belief for inspiring, supporting and empowering everyone to get outside and reap the rewards to health, happiness and the world around us.
We are the Ordnance Survey GetOutside Champions.
OK, we needed a bit of practise, on three.. “Camera’s over here guys”
So 60 champions, all dressed to impress in our Craghoppers champion branded jackets, all eagerly awaiting the launch of the 2018 OS GetOutside Champions and the adventures that await us.
In 2015, Ordnance Survey first launched the GetOutside campaign to urge people off the sofa, to ditch the car and to enjoy the outdoors, and what is beyond our doorsteps. Ordnance Survey’s social initiative aims to make the outdoors enjoyable, accessible and safe to all. Since its birth in 2015, the campaign has continued to grow, gaining further momentum in recognition for the impact it is having in Great Britain. With 60 new and returning champions, all passionate and enthusiastic about the outdoors, we commit to help tackling the rising levels of inactivity in the UK and to educate and encourage everyone to look after our parks, green spaces, countryside, mountains and coasts, for the next generation of outdoor lovers and adventurers. We continue to champion for more people to get outside more often.
I find it so sad to hear the reality that as a nation, we have stopped moving. Progress with digital technology, gaming, smartphones and easily obtainable gadgets, does not always mean progress. Taking a quote from OS’s website; Nick Giles, Managing Director of Ordnance Survey Leisure, says: “At Ordnance Survey, we firmly believe that an active outdoor lifestyle can help you live longer, stay younger and enjoy life more. Being active is scientifically proven to benefit both health and well-being, and we make no apologies for encouraging more people to reap the benefits of this. The outdoors is good for the body and great for the mind, and we currently have a real problem in this country with sedentary living. It’s a huge worry when surveys reveal that children spend less time outside than prison inmates; instead spending an average of over 6 hours a day in front of a screen. The list of ailments and conditions derived from being inactive is both shocking and scary.” It is OS’s and my own belief that encouraging more people to get active and get outside, an already stressed and stretched NHS and pressured society can be helped and in time be reduced.
I am passionate about health and well-being, it is important to me as an athlete, as someone with a disability, but most importantly as a human being who wants to feel the best they can, do the most they can and be the best they can, and it is vital as a nation to keep moving forward and encourage and support each other to care and to act now, for us, for our families and our children and for the future of Great Britain.
It is no secret my passion is outside. I have always loved being outside, fresh air, every weather, mud, sun, puddles and snow drifts. As a child I would spend every moment I could outside. I’d often be off on my bike with my friends, we had no idea where we were heading but that was why it was so great. When it wasn’t the bike I was off all day on my horse, meeting up with friends, taking picnics and stopping for a can of coke at the pub (one for me and one for the horse), We’d spend our summer days riding bareback through the ford and having water fights from our horses. We’d get soaked from rain, miles from home and have to trot home with sodden saddles and jodhpurs, to get to the back door and my mum make me strip in the utility and chuck everything straight in the washing machine before I took one step in the house. I built dens and nature gardens, we pretended fallen trees were horses and made mazes out of cut grass in the back fields. We played rounders in the fields with our dogs as the catchers, they were far too good at that though and it always took forever to get the ball back off them. I watched TV, Blue Peter and Biker Grove, but that was when mum had called us in or someone had been hit with a boomerang or fallen off the wall at the front of our house we were balancing along. I guess we were doing Parkour even before Parkour was a thing. Of course we got into scrapes, but that’s what being kids is about, and I still have so many wonderful memories of those times and the stories that go with them. I couldn’t tell you what happened in Biker Grove, except for the time PJ got blinded by Duncan while Paint-balling. I was put off Paint-balling for life after that.
Now I’m all grown up (apparently) I make sure I spend just as much time outside. My life hasn’t differed that much, I still go out on my bike with no idea where I’m heading, though nowadays I do take a map with me. I’m lucky to make what I love doing my career while I can, but I know even if I wasn’t doing sport for a career, my life would be outside, it always has been. It is where I feel free, in my mind and my body, I can breathe big air, I can hear the world around me, I can smell every season, the summer rain and the proper winter snow, I can feel the earth under my feet, my wheels and my crutches. Outside I feel strong, healthy and happy, where there are no confined walls, outside I am me, I am beyond barriers. In the UK we have so many incredible places to get outside. We have countryside, parks, green spaces, rolling hills and mountains, beautiful beaches, forest and coast. Nowhere is far from somewhere wonderful and often we don’t know what magic lies just beyond our doorsteps. All this is what children of today will remember, the trips made and adventures had and memories made. The same goes for everyone, we can all gain so much for getting outside and I do believe for everyone, it IS possible.
Through my own adventures and time outside I aim to showcase the beauty that’s on our doorstep, Great Britain, and give an insight into getting outside with a disability and explore accessible Britain. As a female role-model I hope to empower girls and women to plan that adventure, take that hike, get on their bikes, and I want to show that getting outside, that adventure however big or small, is beyond barriers. Whatever those barriers may be, let’s break them down and GetOutside together.
So that is who we are, and this is our mission. Every champion with their own story, their own reason for applying to be an OS GetOutside Champion and wanting to do their bit for our incredible little island and its family isles. It was amazing to hear just how many people applied to come on board, people who care for our future and are committed to change. I firmly believe good actions are like ripples in a pond or butterfly wings, the effects are infinite, and I believe we can all make a difference.
Our crew really are an incredible lot with a few familiar faces. Ben Fogle, Kenton Cool and Sean Conway all return as ambassadors, each with adventure, mountaineering, tales of extreme and ultra-endurance CVs that have already gone down in the history books, and then to welcome in the newbie, Me! I’ve known Sean a little, since a crazy night in Cheltenham, cycling one summer’s eve with a small group of equally crazies, ending with being carried on my bike, Grecian style, up a steep grassy hill so that we could cook marshmallows on a campfire in the dark overlooking the town below. You may have briefly seen this on the telebox or hanging around the British Cycling webpage. Kenton I have seen and listened to talk once before, he has climbed Everest more times than I have Snowdon, and is about to take on this epic challenge for another time. This is where Ben comes in, alongside Kenton and Victoria Pendleton – Olympian and ex GB cyclist, the trio will embark on attempting to summit mount Everest in the spring of this year. I had not met Ben before but have been a big fan of his work and follower from his early days on Castaway 2000. I do enjoy watching his channel 5 show ‘New Lives in the Wild’, when I’m not outside myself, I love learning about how others have made their lives off grid and back to nature and their reasons for it. It was really great to finally get to chat with Ben, who we found out thanks to Kenton’s cheeky double act banter, was a big fan of scarves, as am I. I was in fact wearing my favourite scarf that day (pink of course), and while Kenton placed bets on what colour scarf Ben might be wearing as he makes his Everest summit, I did offer him mine to which I could see he was tempted. I’m really honoured to be amongst such outstanding individuals and part of something really incredible. I certainly don’t feel I have the qualifications to be alongside these true inspirational and certified real-life action heroes, but I do know I share the same passion and commitment to making a difference and showing that there is always a way.
Our first day of the launch involved meeting all the other champions and getting to know one another, fuelled by lots of tea and coffee and sneaky trips outside of the glorious New Forest hotel that was our base. It was a beautiful building for sure, but get 60 outdoorsy folk in a room for longer than a couple of hours when the sun is glinting through the windows, it was only going to be a matter of time before we had our first escapee. I admit I was one of those, in fairness I went to get a hairbrush from my car in between sessions as knew we had media duties to do, and 5am was a long time ago when I left my house to drive south so I had to try and look presentable. But only to find once outside I could not get back to where I was meant to be as camera crews had barricaded doors shut and my only way in. It was gorgeous outside so I was quite happy, and eventually we used the time wisely and jumped in to get the official OS GetOutside Champion head shot papped.
Once that was done, a few of us found our way back in round the back of the hotel, I was all for using a window, sadly the door was open. A few more media interviews and learning more about OS maps and all the awesome information we have literally at our fingertips with the OS maps app as well as our trusty Explorer and Landranger paper maps, which just so happen to be totally on brand in pink and orange. It was always meant to be. Next was an orienteering challenge for the team while I hung out with a fluffy microphone and talked about my reasons for supporting and being involved in GetOutside. This time also gave me chance to find my room, put the kettle on, (always the first job arriving in a hotel room) and finish planning my talk, as for that evening, I was one of two pre-dinner speakers. The other being ultra endurance man, world record holder for the longest triathlon in the world and mighty ginger bearded, Sean Conway. No pressure there then! And although my hair often resembles the wild women of the moors, his ginger beard I cannot compete with. Thankfully.
A few hours later we were all reunited ready for dinner, everyone in their smart clothes, I even had my ‘best’ crutches for the occasion. My lovely sponsors, Pink Sky, held a unicorn themed pink and orange tea party fundraiser for two new sets of crutches. My current ones have seen as much as the world as me and are looking and feeling a little worse for wear. My new smart crutches had been designed by the Pink Sky team, I’d given them a free rein and they certainly did not disappoint. Pink and orange √ Dolly flag √ secret pink unicorn √ All the important things.
Once everyone had joined their tables, it was speaker time. I was kindly introduced by the CEO of OS and with my funky new crutches and matching bling-ed up converse I began my story and shared my love for getting outside and what it means to join such an inspirational bunch of outdoor role models who are active in celebrating and championing Britain’s great outdoors.
Once my bit was done, it was Sean to take centre stage, recounting his tales of running Britain, cycling the world and swimming up the west coast of England, and over to Ireland, because, well why not.. before continuing his way up to the most northern point of the UK, his ingenious cultivated jellyfish protection, again the beard, and his latest monumental achievement of the world’s longest triathlon around Britain. Sean is the type of adventurer most people would call utterly crazy. To me, his rawness of his adventures, in a way the simplicity, his beyond doubt belief that whatever challenge he sets, the ability to rise above doubters and nay sayers, is what I can understand most and admire most.
I do love speaking about the whirlwind journey I am on but I was happy to take my seat with my table and listen to Sean speak with such expression and humour, and listen to daring deeds of everyone on the table around me. Now I could really relax, not to mention I was very aware everyone was getting exceptionally hungry after their team challenge and I was not going to be the one to get between their hunger and the delicious food that began wafting into the room.
The night was full of laughter and stories, new friends made and hilarious confessions etched in our memories. I shared a table with an awesome lot of characters. One in particular a true hero of mine, Sarah Outen. Sarah solo rowed, cycled and kayaked around the world, humble in her epic physical and very much mental achievements, Sarah is the greatest of role models, demonstrating complete mental and physical strength, belief and dogged determination and bravery, as a woman and as an example of the possibilities of being human. I didn’t expect Sarah to be so down to earth, both sharing similarities for some of the simple things in life, learning the go-to ice cream flavour of the first woman and youngest person to row solo across the Indian ocean is not how I’d imagined any conversation to go, should I had ever got the chance to chat. Neither would it be talk of kayaking together now we realised we are practically neighbours. But as meeting your idols go, it surpassed any expectations and can’t wait to continue ice cream chats, next time maybe on the water. Katie Tunn too had an interesting story, as did every single person in that room, some I didn’t get round to chatting with but will make sure next time, wherever that is, I do. Katie’s story fascinated me, a London girl, she left the bright lights of the big city for a very different one of remoteness and raw beauty of the Hebrides on the Isle of Skye. Katie is an artist and lover of the sea and I really do understand her pull to somewhere wild and free, where creativity has no end, no air conditioned white walled offices, no 24 hour traffic jam constricting the city with its fumes and high blood pressured drivers and passengers. Katie had taken island life to the next level when, for one year she lived with a small group of people on the west coast of Scotland, completely cut off from any contact with the rest of world and totally self sufficient for everything from food to a bed, where she would call home for the 12 months. I remember thinking the concept of this experiment would be something I would love to do, the idea of living remotely, off the land, away from our hectic lives, for a time would be both fascinating and of personal learning. I admired the people who started this project although personally I quickly learned, Eden does not always mean paradise, and I completely empathised with Katie’s self-survival, more from our own species that the harsh wilds of nature, and for her taking comfort surrounded by the animals, away from the darker side of human contact. I have so much respect for Katie, it can be hard to be resilient and show strength and positivity when facing tough times, and to do this in the most extreme environments, on your own, whether physically alone or not, that is courage. Two quite different life-stories in both Sarah and Katie, both equally ass-kicking examples of the female spirit. Not only that, but Katie has quite the awesome taste in Skye knitwear, proudly rocking the sheep woolly jumper and bobble hat during our walk the next morning.
As a few champions championed into the night in the bar, I began counting my own sheep. In the morning we were heading out for a champions walk.
Morning came, the sun was up and everyone congregated outside, eager for a mini GetOutside adventure. All were dressed for every weather, some champion’s dogs had joined too as we headed to the New Forest.
I had my off-road attachment on my wheelchair, I knew it was going to be wet and muddy, I also knew I’d probably need a bit of a hand at times, something I’m not usually happy at accepting, and It wasn’t long before I had to ask for my first push, sooner than I would have liked but necessary as we climbed a steeper gravel track and the path began to get decidedly ‘off track’. It was fantastic to be out with so many awesome people, each as excited as the next about the forest around us.
Some jumped, climbed trees, some ran, everyone snapping photos of everyone and everything, we all stopped for group pictures and moments were caught of splash landings and muddy faces.
The hero of my day was my new teammate Andy. Andy quickly came to my assistance early on and remained my adventure buddy for the majority of the walk. Our planned gravel tracks turned into forest swamp-lands and it wasn’t long before I was up to my casters in mud. Though let me make this clear, there’s mud and there’s mud. The deeper it got, the bigger the crossing we had to make, the more Andy and I relished our challenge. I was doing everything I could to push through the sludge, my entire arms were covered in thick wet gloopy mud. It was brilliant.
Of course I embraced my inner warrior and drew my fingers across either side of my face, painting battle stripes Rambo style, it just felt right.
This only empowered our sense of adventure and even when faced with the seemingly impossible mud swamps off of the Never Ending Story, Andy ploughed through full pelt. One stream where I was completely on board with this line of approach until seeing at the very last minute its depth was much greater that I’d anticipated, resulting in me simply putting up my hands and screeching, as if on a roller coaster and bracing for impact. To my surprise we made it! Though not from any help from me.
Other vast waterlogged mud seas required a bigger team approach, never one to admit defeat and surrounded by the same, my chair and I were carried through, by cleverly choreographed teamwork, at a pace of minimising handler sinkage and boots lost forever in the swamps of doom.
Another brilliant memory that came from the day was with Rory, our red shorts, cap backwards-wearing freestyle run, jump, leaper, lover of life. Known for his love of launching himself through trees and over ditches and any obstacle worthy of leaping, we had approached a rather wide banked stream. While we all took the path bridge over, Rory had this glint in his eye and soon we had all stopped for encouragement.
Some weren’t so sure this was doable, others had full belief, but all of us were fully supportive of Rory giving it a go, with cameras poised and a friendly jeers, Rory was eyeing up his jump pacing back and forth and carefully calculating his required trajectory. We all waited with bated breath. And we waited. It was one of those classic thunder stealing moments that followed, Rory was so focused on his challenge ahead, carefully planning his path, all of us, eyes fixed on Rory, willing him on. When out of nowhere at speed runs in Andy, a slight stumble then lift-off! He made it, just. Rory never saw it coming. Moment stolen, no one could have rehearsed that, pure comedy magic. And hats off to Andy for some serious acro skills! An adventure-man of many talents.
I had fully expected a great day in the forest with my new champion friends, but this mini-adventure of teamwork and camaraderie was something even better. I wasn’t sure I was going to be allowed back in the hotel looking as though I’d emerged from the depths of the swamp and I’m not sure my wheelchair will ever be right again. I did have to take it to the local car wash and jet wash the thick crusted coating of New Forest that encased every bit of my chair and wheels. But what an adventure we had and such wonderful memories made.
This certainly sums up what GetOutside is all about. Whether young or young at heart, runner, cyclist, walker or wheelchair user, weekend warrior, or lunchtime park seeker, horse rider or dog walker. Outside is for all. It is beyond barriers, it can be accessible for everyone. It gives so much and asks for little in return. Simply respect and staying safe.
Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.
I’ll be blogging lots more about GetOutside, what the champions are up to and my own projects, and where we will be supporting Ordnance Survey at various events and festivals throughout the summer. Keep an eye on my blog, new website and follow my social media channels along with all my fabulous fellow GetOutside champions by searching #GetOutside for awesome inspiration and top tips for making your own outdoors adventures around the UK. Go check out getoutside.uk for guides, advice, stories, routes and maps maps maps! And of course you’ll find out all about us champions and our passion for getting outside.
Just one last thing..
What are you waiting for.. Fill up that flask, grab your maps, pull on your boots and let’s GetOutside
It’s time for an adventure
The sea had become a lot rougher and it became clear we needed to do some work to paddle back towards land, this actually excited me as I knew cross-training was about to step up a gear, but my new fear of suddenly being surrounded by a load of rough water was quietly creeping in.
So I’d left this story with a group of happy unicorns, carrot cake and sweet dreams. The next day promised adventure by the boat-load to set-sail friends on their way home.
Morning arrived with a loud shout up the stairs “BREAKFAST’S READY!!” The fridge had been raided and all the 15 eggs, scrambled, 2 packs of sausages, sausaged, beans, baked and bread, toasted, ready to served up on the kitchen table from giant cauldrons and oven dishes. Everyone tucked in, I opted for my usual muesli and tea, although I did source a veggie alternative I think I was still full of cake from the night before and didn’t fancy a full on cooked breakfast. My brother and I did a supermarket sweep for the house on our way up to Pembrokeshire on the Friday, I was very happy to see my selections were going down well, quite a task for a non meat-eater. Everyone fed, it was washing up duties followed by a team tidy up. Most people were leaving today and we were to leave this beautiful farmhouse as we found it, that meant a quick clean and sweep up and emptying of bins before we headed out. All done while being serenaded by Dragon Radio of course!
Today was the day we’d decided to go kayaking, well some of us. Tim didn’t fancy it so preferred to spend a bit of quiet time at the house before heading off back home to Derby. It was the right decision for him, he had a long drive ahead of him and I know how he’d have been feeling after packing so much ‘outside’ into the last 48 hours. Tim was a trooper, not only being my right hand man in the drive up and supplies pick up, bringing the ultimate party piece of the giant unicorn balloon, being part of our great team of his crazy sister and her equally crazy friends, but also because I know our outside adventures weren’t easy for him either. Tim has lived with debilitating eczema and asthma all his life, he didn’t grow out of it, and it came with a whole load of extras. Essential life-long steroid use (along with a load of other nasty treatments over the years) has affected his sight, he’s had two cataract surgeries, and as a result of the steroids he has Osteoporosis. That combined with congenital hip displacia has meant double hip replacements and surgeries and learning to live with everything that comes with it. You see Tim is my little brother, and although as kids I used to hate it when he would fight me, he was so strong from the steroids, I would never win, that was until I pushed him head first into our garden pond (and then hid from him and our parents behind the dining room curtains). I grew up with it, it was a part of our family life. I remember him having to be bound from head to foot in tar bandages, night after night, having to have his hands bandaged up to try and stop him clawing his skin open with his scratching, and not being able to eat most things, due to severe allergies. This is still largely the case. The times we’d be out having a meal and he’d be given something he shouldn’t, us unaware until Tim started reacting and meaning another A&E trip. Thank goodness now for EpiPens! When we were kids it became quite normal to be visiting Tim in hospital, I remember one Christmas when I was very little myself, Tim in hospital, mum and dad doing their best with the three of us, all piling onto Tim’s ward and entertaining ourselves in the playroom. I’ve seen what he has to go through on a daily, hourly, basis, but only Tim has to truly cope with it, how he remains as laid back as he is (most of the time), I can only applaud him and give him my total respect and annoying big l’il sisterly love. I know how much pain he would have been in on our beach wanderings, walking on his hip that’s due to be Robocop’d any time now, but never saying a word of disgruntlement. I loved it that Tim joined me on my Unbirthday weekend, and even more so that weekend, he proved that he is my favourite brother and my hero. Just don’t tell him that.. 😉 And yes, I only have one brother 🙂
So Tim was heading home and the rest of us were heading to the water. Cars loaded with kit and people we went in convoy through the lanes leading to and through Pembroke and then on to Freshwater East which was to be our watersports base.
We were all really excited about getting out on the kayaks, it was only going to be the five of us as Ems was uber keen for a run along the coastal path. I knew she’d be having a great time and didn’t put it past her to do some big miles, not that she’d have planned to, just that knowing Ems, she would have been enjoying herself so much and been lost in her own thoughts she wouldn’t have realised how far she’d ran. Ten minutes after she left for her run under route instructions from one of the resort staff where we’d basecamped, Ems was still weighing up her direction options at the end of the car park, she made me smile as she finally set off on her travels positively skipping her way down the road.
When we’d arrived that morning at the bay, the wind was strong. It was raining too, and cold, but none of us could chicken out now, we’d psyched each other up all morning so we weren’t going to back out now. Now I am a confident kayaker but I know my own limitations. Thankfully I had had a good chat with the hire guys already about the adaptions that I needed due to my balance and support issues and with Lucie being the most experienced of all of us we decided that I would go with Lucie in a double just to be on the safe side. I also know just how competitive Lucie is too so knew we’d be up for some fun in a boat together, I was ready for a great cross-training session. Getting into the clubhouse was a fair mission to start with as I was nearly blown off my feet, this concerned me a little and I did ask (again) to the staff if it was ok to go out in this wind? We were assured it would be quite fine, the bay is known to be very safe (as long as you don’t go out left) and I had nothing to worry about. Next everyone scrambled into car boots, boat sheds and toilets to get changed out of woolly hats and winter layers and into wetsuits, buoyancy aids and helmets. Boats grabbed between those that could we made our way to the beach.
I hated that I couldn’t carry my boat and the others had to move them all between them, it’s never usually the activity that’s a barrier but the how to get to get in, get out, logistics, especially when I’m usually doing such things solo. Thankfully today I was not, and my friends made the impossible possible.
The beach was stunning. A wide expanse of golden sand sheltered by gentle cliffs either side of the bay. The bay itself looked peaceful, like a childrens play pool that gently slopes into the water at the edges, beckoning nervous water babies into its arms. There were few people on the beach, and those that were, were wrapped up from the wind, walking dogs and getting their dose of Welsh fresh sea air. Once we’d made it to the waters edge we all quickly attempted to get in our kayaks, it was cold and now once at the sea edge we could see how choppy the water was this side of the breakers, meaning any elegant boat boarding was not going to happen. As I stood on my cleverly adapted bike and boat crutches, Lucie did her best at holding the kayak still for me to scramble in. Once I was in and fully supported I could fold up my crutches and strap them along either side of the kayak. Lucie jumped in at which point I squealed like a child as having no balance thought the only way I was going was out, to Lucie’s amusement! She saved it and jumped aboard. Everyone else was in and finding their ‘webbed’ feet as the water bobbed us about like 4 brightly coloured seagulls on the sea. These kayaks weren’t like what Lucie and I were used to. They weren’t very reactive and the oars so light it made it very difficult to move in the direction we wanted and at any speed, meaning a lot of concentration for both of us and already proving the good workout I was after. The bay was beautiful, we headed to the rocks on the right hand side to take some photos. Lucie had her funky waterproof camera around her neck and I had my GoPro attached to my now folded up strapped on crutches, making the perfect mount. Every now and again I would take a photo, of the sea, of the others, and of course the obligatory sea kayak selfie to prove in no doubt that it did happen. Snaps for the memory books and reminders of the good times.
After my initial snaps, I put my GoPro to video mode so I could concentrate on actually paddling. Getting up close to the cliffs was fairly easy and as Lucie took some photos I tried my best at keeping the kayak facing the right way and keeping tabs of our surroundings. The sea had become a lot rougher and it became clear we needed to do some work to paddle back towards land, this actually excited me as I knew cross-training was about to step up a gear, but my new fear of suddenly being surrounded by a load of rough water was quietly creeping in. Watching my video back from our sea trip, this verbal fear was quite obvious in a calm and stern kind of way, much to the amusement of Lucie and I once sitting back at the farmhouse kitchen table with hot tea and biscuits. Back in the water it was all hands to the oars. Conversation had been replaced with hard breathing interspersed with hysterical laughter and screams as the water repeatedly sprayed over Lucie’s head and into mine. Lucie was getting a face-full every time while I was just getting thoroughly soaked, I did find it hilarious and so did Lucie, although my hysterics were certainly fuelled by a certain amount of fear displaying as laughter, while Lucie was genuinely in her comfort zone, I was very grateful for this. Later on that day chatting about swimming and me telling Lucie how although I love it, I’m not a great swimmer only being able to use one arm and not being able to kick, Lucie’s face changed a little thinking back to our time in the kayak. “You mean you were happy out there in the sea despite not being a great swimmer?!” remarked Lucie. In my eyes I could have done enough to stay afloat and although I’m not the fastest, if I’d had needed to swim to get somewhere I would have, as much as anyone would have been able to, it just would have taken me a while, and besides, I had no plans on getting out of the kayak.
I could leave this part here with, ‘we all had a jolly time and that’s where the story ends’. But it wasn’t, quite. But what did happen next is a part of the story I am going to keep for another time, it is a chapter of the book that will have its place that’s for sure, but for now it will remain in our memories and stored through the keyboard of my laptop in a ‘Pembrokeshire Adventures’ vault. A story between friends yet to be published, yet.. a Famous Five first edition where every character has a true story to tell..
Out of the water, Ems returned from her coastal run jubilant and full of wild running euphoria, totally oblivious to our own adventures, which actually was the best reaction ever. An alien ship could have landed while Em was away but she wasn’t bothered, as long as she could show them her photos from her running adventure! And too right, Ems managed to snap some awesome shots of the coast from dry land, she’d ran across the top of Barafundle Bay, looking down at its golden sands and turquoise waters, deserted from people today resembling a far flung desert island. It was so beautiful and I was certainly envious of her exploits, running solo, the wild coastline and her own thoughts and excitement, I could see what that couple of hours had meant to Ems and I was smiling for her, and at her!
After some hot food and drinks, everyone’s thoughts had turned to getting back on the road for home, once we were sure everyone was ok, much to the brilliant reaction from Ems. People that say they are great in a crisis, stay well away from them, they will create the crisis. However, if ever there’s a crisis and Ems is around, I just know everything will be ok, and if not, she’ll have me laughing. We have a great track record of this from my early days in hospital and Ems trying to load the old tank of my NHS wheelchair into her car when picking me up from the rehab centre. I was never allowed to look at her while she was doing this as she’d burst out laughing which took all her strength away, leaving her in a heap on the floor with my chair on top, I’ll never forget that. Friends that can laugh with you in the bad times are the best friends.
So it was just Lucie and I who were staying on. We hugged our goodbyes and wished everyone safe travels, we’d shared such an awesome weekend together that felt like longer. In everyone’s busy lives these days, these moments are so important and it meant the world. We made memories to last a lifetime and stories to tell and to treasure. I was so grateful to my amazing friends, and we were already planning the next big trip.
Lucie and I spent that early evening at Freshwater West beach. We explored the clifftops and an old seaweed hut where we took shelter from the winds and watched the sun set into the sea.
We’ve both found this bay to be such a special place. It’s wildness is its beauty, there’s very little man-made here and what is has stood here for a very long time, now part of this natural landscape. There’s nothing here, yet at the same time there is so much to take in, so much to see, to breathe, to feel.
There’s a plaque over the road from the beach, it tells a story. It is a story of the worst maritime disaster, not involving enemy action of the whole of WW2. This is a true story. It happened here, at Freshwater West.
‘On Easter Sunday, 26th April 1943, two Landing Craft Guns, which a few days before had left Belfast making for Falmouth in the West Country, were overwhelmed by giant rolling waves in a violent storm, off this beach at Freshwater West, with a tragic loss of lives.
Converted from LCTs by the addition of 4.7 inch guns and with only a portion of their otherwise open decks covered over, the two craft were no match for the violent sea conditions on that fateful night, and both sank within sight of land and in view of helpless onlookers on the cliff tops above the beach. LCG15 was overwhelmed first and sank beneath the waves while her sister craft LCG16 met the same fate later that night.
Seventy two young Royal Marines lost their lives, drowned or battered to death on the rocks with only three survivors. Fifty bodies were recovered from the sea but many were never recovered.
A further six lives were lost when a small ship’s whaler crewed by brave volunteers from the Royal Navy sloop HMS Rosemary, which had been alerted to the disaster, attempted to get a line aboard LCG16, as she began to sink, but to no avail.’
I shed a tear learning this, and even writing it now I have shivers and lump in my throat, it is hard to keep back the emotion. To stand on those same cliffs and look out into the bay just as local people would have done on that fateful night in 1943, imagining watching all those young men’s lives being taken away by the sea and not being able to do anything about it. It really brought it all home, the sea, its immense power and our own fragility. Such a sad story in such a beautiful place, I think the brave souls of those seventy eight men are part of that special feeling here, for they can never leave, but we can keep returning to watch over them.
May we never forget and may the sea forever be your spirits.
That night Lucie and I talked about our day and ate the leftovers from the fridge. The big farmhouse seemed so empty without the others there laughing and chatting over the giant kitchen table, with the big teapot full of hot tea from its 6 teabags, making it tricky to lift. The teapot was still there, as was much of the tea, it felt a bit sad pouring the cold stewed tea out and down the plughole, like the end of a chapter.
I’d mentioned that morning that I thought there was a ghost in my bedroom the night before and had felt something shake my bed just as I was about to go to sleep. At the time I was quite scared about it and had I been on my own in there, there’s no way I would have gone back to sleep, and certainly not with the light off. But when I looked across from my bed, Lizzie was still sound asleep and no spook was to be seen so I put on my brave boots and went back to sleep. Maybe this wasn’t the best tale to tell now it was just the two of us staying tonight, and Lucie made it clear that she wasn’t keen on sleeping on her own now. I agreed it was a good plan to both stay in the same room, although I did manage to convince Lucie to sleep in my room, ghost or not, and I am pleased to report neither of us had anything go bump in the night, not that we were aware of anyway.
We’d made plans for the morning that we were both excited about. I say morning, it was still dark outside and the birds were yet to start their morning calls. It took about twenty minutes for us to get into our wetsuits and grab our kit before we were heading back down to Freshwater West in the warmth of the car.
There was nobody else about, it was perfect. We made our way down along the sand to the water’s edge, Lucie helping me to get there as we left strange tracks in the sand behind us. The sun was beginning to rise and the natural world had started to wake up. I felt like a child at Christmas sneaking down early to see what was under the tree, we had beaten the sun to it, we had beaten everyone else to it, we were about to have our own private show of dawn from the now calm waters of the bay. The water didn’t feel as cold as I’d expected, and it was every bit worth it. As the sun began to rise from the east, the sky began to glow from across the grasslands, slowly creeping to the cliff edges and eventually reflecting on the wintry waters. We didn’t need to say much to each other, this was what we had both come for. It’s very easy to hit the snooze button and go back to dreamland for another ten, twenty, thirty minutes. The warmth of a cosy bed is hard to leave, how could there be anything nicer. This, this is why. For me, out here, wind blowing, the sea shimmering on the shore, birds swooping into the waves, and the lone surfer making his way down towards us in the water for his morning ritual, there is nothing that compares, there is little better Why continue to sleep with your dreams when you can get up and chase them.
We only saw the temperature once we’d got back in the car, by then the sun was up and it was a toasty 2 degrees Celsius. The air temperature was probably nearer 0 when we were in the water, but the sea temperature much warmer, clearly that was the best place to be.
Of course this was only the start of our day. We had plans to make the most of every bit of it before we had to head home ourselves. After breakfast and another kit change, we headed out around the Pembrokeshire lanes on our bikes.
I’d been driving these lanes for the last three days so had an idea where we were going. That and Lucie’s magical mystery tour the night she arrived took her way over the other side of the bay, so Lucie knew a handful of landmarks we were looking for, though I was pretty impressed seeing how it was pitch black the last time Lucie had been this way, I felt our navigation skills were in good hands between us. It wasn’t long before we started descending a rather steep section of road. I did my best to keep my brakes on and go steady, it was wet and muddy on the roads and I wasn’t used to riding here, the lane twisted and turned at every opportunity and it was impossible to see what was around the corner, at one point that being a large tractor with its forks raised up high in front. I could see Lucie in my mirror and did the best I could to not lose sight of her. Once we levelled out we could re-group and catch our breath, just for a short time. Lucie remarked how quick I’d gone down that last hill, apparently I scared her a little, I’m glad I was going steady then! I thought I’d break her in gently to my world of cycling, after all I didn’t want to put her off, I was loving having some company on my ride and wanted to be able to ask her to join me again. It’s funny, yesterday we were definitely in Lucie’s comfort zone kayaking, although I’ve done a fair bit of it and would count myself as experienced, Lucie is the pro in my eyes, she’s just completed her Olympic course white water qualification and spends her weekends reading the river and navigating her way through rapids along our UK waterways. Today however, when it came to road riding, I was in my element, a role reversal of soughts, but in the best way. Lucie is fit and strong and confident on her mountain bike, so I knew she’d be a great training partner when it came to wheels rather than oars. She did have a bit of a disadvantage however being on a mountain bike with a roadie, although some of the terrain was certainly suited to off roading, it does make any climb harder, though in my head that only levels up the playing field a bit as I’m having to climb with a heavier bike, while lying down and with only my arms. We were in Wales of course, and Wales does hills. I hear this so often, “It didn’t look this steep when we drove it!” Lucie presented those immortal words once at the top of the first hill. No, it never does! I remember my mum back in the summer whilst I was staying with her in France for some Tricolore training. I was heading out for a racing chair marathon session and asked mum for a flat(ish) route. It was the hottest day as it was, hitting 46 degrees while I was out, so any endurance session was going to be far from easy. Mum sent me on my way on a route that “has no hills!” Oh how wrong was she! Climbing a 20%+ gradient in a racing chair in that heat was… quite challenging. I’m not entirely sure how I made it back that day, I didn’t feel well. When I eventually did, I collapsed in a melting pile of water on mums living room floor, I have never been in that state before. Once back able to talk I questioned my mum about this ‘flat’ route. She replied “well it seems flat in the car!”
Lucie and I were certainly making the most of our little corner of adventure perfection. I was able to get my training in and and get my dose of Welsh Wanderlust from my bike. I say that, it became a running joke along the ride when Lucie would shout “Look at that Melly! Look over there! Can you see that boat?.. surfer?.. cow?.. giant city-like power staion?..” Always me, “NOPE!” It was quite comical, I totally agree that the best way to see the world is by bike, but when it comes to racing handbikes.. there’s really not a lot to see, not a lot at all if there’s any kind of hedge, wall, or grassy mound in the way, and Wales, has many of these. When it came to Lucie trying to point out the gigantic power station that she’d made a wrong turn towards three nights ago, it was just silly. This place was genuinely colossal. It resembled the New York skyline at night, lit up in red and silver, in daylight it could have been a city in outer space. Yet I couldn’t see it! Eventually I found a gateway that finally gave me a view of this modern age wonder. Lucie was right, it was epic and strangely artistic in an architectural engineering kind of way. I found it amazing how something this immense could be found in such an un-spoilt part of the world, but it oddly didn’t detract from the surrounding natural beauty that was bigger than it, maybe that was the plan, or just Mother nature showing who’s the boss.
As we headed back down towards the coast, Lucie pointed out some cows to the right of us in a field, of course I could only take her word for this and she told me how she’d parked up here the night she got lost and had a conversation with them. How she found them at night and I can’t see them in broad daylight is bonkers. She could probably have pointed out exactly which cows they were too.
We rounded a crest in the road and suddenly Lucie disappeared. “Melly you’ve got to come up here!” I hear her shout and look over to where the noise is coming from. Lucie is standing at the top of a steep gravel bank just off the roadside. “Lucie! And how am I supposed to do that!?” I shout back. “Well can I help you?” she says, in a ‘there’s no option in this’ kind of way. Lucie knows me very well and I am a firm believer in my motto of “There’s always a way”, Lucie clearly shared this, and before we could get a plan together Lucie was attempting to push me up the steep bank as I attempted to crank with all my might. Plan A was not all that successful as I quickly grounded out on the earth beneath me. We weren’t giving up easily and I began to free myself by lifting me and my bike clear of the mound while trying to get back some traction on the front wheel. Between my manoeuvring and Lucie’s brute strength, our actions were not always in sync and with a shove from behind, Lucie had ran over my hand as I squealed and fell apart laughing in unison, Lucie now bent over my bike laughing so hard too. I freed my poor left hand with the other and finally our teamwork paid off and I’d made it to the top of the bank, goodness only knew how i’d get back down but that didn’t matter.
OK so Lucie was right, the view was worth doing that a million times over, although I’m not sure my hand or my bike could have coped with much more abuse. As we looked over the coast beneath us, the sun sparkled on the water like fairy dust on a shimmering silver platter. The sky whirled with white cloud, leaving a perfectly placed doorway to glimpse the blue skies beyond and let through the sunlight, a gateway between two worlds.
This ride was proving to be everything we’d hoped for, we didn’t have a plan, and without a doubt, those kind of plans are always the best kind, two friends, two bikes, on our road to wherever. And what a wonderful journey it was shaping up to be.
We made our way back down to the road, this time a little easier for me and with Lucie down on the road watching out for cars as I came flying down the bank, unable to turn at the bottom and going straight into the bank on the other side. By the time I’d done my multiple point turn in the road, a usual problem that comes with handbike territory, Lucie was back on her bike and speeding down the lane ahead of me. I chased her down as we weaved our way down through golden sand dunes on either side of us, eventually the sand covering most of the road as we dropped down back on to the coast road.
There were a lot more people about on the beach now compared to when we had it all to ourselves this morning. We smiled at each other in this knowing, smugly and in a happy acceptance. We’d had our time here and no-one could take that away from us, we didn’t mind sharing now, this was their time. It was funny seeing people milling about, walking dogs, drinking tea from their vans along the roadside, surfers loading up their pickups, quite the hive of activity, and such a long way from this morning’s sunrise. We made our way back up the road away from the coast back towards the farm and the end of our ride. I had my GoPro filming for a lot of the ride, I plan to put a little film together. Part of it was facing behind me so caught Lucie as she climbed the hill behind me. For everything that is breathtakingly beautiful about the coast dropping away from us as we climbed, seeing Lucie waving at the camera and snacking away on Jelly Babies behind me is just priceless, this is why you need crazy friends to do crazy things with.
Back at base, it was time to pack up, though neither of us were in a hurry to leave.
This trip had been so much more than I had imagined. It reunited friendships, made bonds stronger than ever through the great outdoors and the wilderness that surrounds us. Sometimes we all need reminding of the important things and often those things are the simplest. It’s not money, it’s not named brands, it’s not material things. It all out there, it’s nature, it’s our great land, it’s the sea, the sky, the hills, the coast and countryside, and it’s each other. Adventures are wild, exhilarating, amazingly special on your own, but to share those epic moments are even more so.
We were ready to leave Gupton Farm. In a minute, just a bit longer. Something was keeping us from leaving.
One last wander to fill up our water bottles and take in one final look, I had never imagined a weekend like this and for a place to leave such an imprint, the house felt like our own and we were sad to leave, though promised we would be back again soon, that was in no doubt. This place had given us so much, there was magic and wonder, adventure and treasures here, not to mention a few unicorns! But it seemed there was one last treasure to find, and that came in the discovery of a treasure box of dressing up clothes in the camping barn.
OK it was no unicorn but as big birds go, this one was a keeper.
How we had not found these before was disappointing for any Enid Blyton would be adventurers, but now I know where this treasure lies, and there’s always next time..
We were ready to leave this time. We both looked at each other and made a plan to go back to Freshwater bay, just one last time. We weren’t ready to close the chapter on this book just yet, one last moment on this epic coast, one more bit of Pembrokeshire magic to store in our souls, until we returned.
We wrapped up in the cold crisp air and found our seats to the greatest show on earth. We brewed up mugs of hot chocolate and ate unicorn cake as we watched the sun set into the sea one final time on our Pembrokeshire adventure. As Unbirthdays go, this one was the greatest.
And with that, it was time to leave…
But we’ll be back soon.
The wind was strong, my hair had come alive whipping around my face like Medusa and around us the coast roared like a dragon from its cave. We had arrived…
Training and racing around the world gives little time for get togethers. Real friends are for life, not just for Christmas, or importantly not just for the highlights. I have some wonderful friends and quality time spent with them is rare and very precious. We are all so busy, life is busy, nobody seems to have the time, but it is important to make time. Make time for the important things, they might not even seem to be the big things, but special moments, conversations, laughter around a board game, or Jenga in our case, hugs with your best friends, those are the little things that mean the biggest.
I had decided I was well overdue some time-out with my closest friends. After London 2012 I had an awesome big party to celebrate everything that had brought me to that point, and to thank everyone along the way. Rio did not seem right for this, apart from the games themselves not being so memorable for me (well not in the right way anyway), I was totally focused on the New York marathon once I’d recovered from my illness last September/October. Once the marathon was done, it was headlong into seeing what I could do on the bike, my goal was to earn GB programme selection and that meant giving absolutely everything I had, physically and financially to my handcycling training last winter. It was a scary jump to make, leaving the track and athletics that had brought me to that point so far, but I had to leap, I had to see how high I could fly, I wanted to take the risk.
One year later, a few battle scars, a handful of tears, lots of smiles and a couple of international medals and national title jersey later, I am happy to look back and know it was the right decision. My GB cycling journey so far has been a steep learning curve, and there is still so much to learn, but I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Great Britain Para Cycling Team since last May and I am really excited about the future, and very hungry for more as we work towards 2020, today in fact marking 1000 days to go to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Since this time last year, a good few milestones have been hit and a birthday had, one that I didn’t celebrate or get a birthday cake. It was a nice day, I took myself off for a sea paddle in the summer sun, and despite the £100 parking fine for my 7 minute car park stay, I was also happy with my alone time surrounded by the sea and rich coastal wildlife, but I was happy the next day was just another day to live life. Birthdays always evoke mixed emotions, another mark in the sand of getting older, in sport even more so apparent as your track competitors coming in have yet to take their GCSEs let alone learn the lessons of life that is Sambuca and dancing in a fountain at 2am in front of the town council offices. Yet at the same time a birthday really should be celebrated. Growing old is a privilege only granted to some, another year older is another page in the storybook, memories made and good times shared, so make those good times as often as you can and really really good. Now the summer racing season was over it was a chance to regroup, breathe a bit deeper and keep that promise to friends to make time. And here was born the Unbirthday weekend.
I made it clear to my friends that this was not a birthday party, there was no pressure, it was about time together doing what we love, getting outside, but there was one very important rule. The rule was, THERE MUST BE CAKE.
I had arranged for us to have a beautiful National Trust property for the weekend on the wild and wonderful Pembrokeshire coast. I had not been there much myself but everything about it seemed just what I was looking for. The house was for 10 people, there were 8 of us so I knew there’d be plenty of space but we weren’t planning on spending much time inside so even if it was cold and draughty, we’d wrap up warm and just make the most of getting outside and filling our lungs with sea air.
We all planned to drive up on the Friday. Everyone was coming from a a different part of the UK; Derby, Essex, Manchester, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, so we all made our way up separately, after work / horses / training. My brother was also joining us, he came down to mine the night before to break the journey up and we drove up together. He arrived at mine bearing the biggest unicorn helium balloon I have ever seen, which he had driven down with in his passenger seat. That set the tone of the weekend to come.
Cars packed full with bikes, wet-suits, warm clothes, waterproofs, food, board games, party outfits (more on that later) and of course the giant unicorn balloon, we set off over the border into wales towards the West coast. The sun was shining as we passed castles straight out of film sets, rolling green hills and glimpses of the coastline to our left, leading us on a very Welsh adventure. We planned to stop en route for a drink, but by the time we finally stopped, we were only 16 miles from our destination, so after a quick toilet visit and coffee each at a ‘local’ traveller stop, where Welsh Yoda sat in the corner, we set back off on our way, following the sun, with a mission to get to the west coast to watch the sun set.
We found the farm track leading to the farmhouse that was to be our basecamp for the weekend relatively easy. It was certainly remote, it was definitely wild, and that was exactly what we wanted. I drove past the entrance and headed straight to Freshwater West beach at the end of the road, I wanted to get out the car and breathe in the salty air, I wanted to feel the wind around me, awakening my spirit and stoking my fire for adventure. Tim, my brother followed me and quickly pulled up in a small car park opposite the bay. We threw on coats and woolly hats and got out to take in the beautiful site that greeted us. I could say we were blown away, we literally were! The wind was strong, my hair had come alive whipping around my face like Medusa and around us the coast roared like a dragon from its cave. We had arrived, this was perfect. The wide expanse of sand beneath us in the bay was in contrast to the rocky edges, lone standing cliffs, separated from the mainland by a passage of time. Big boulders, smaller stones, rocks covered in dark seaweed. The grey skies and white clouds seemed to mirror the grey sea, its white horses galloping towards the shore and crashing on the rocks. The air excited me, and I couldn’t wait for everyone else to arrive to share this wonderfully wild place with them. It was time to go find adventure HQ.
We followed the farm track down through green fields to a courtyard where we were met by Mike and his adorable retriever. I had been speaking to Mike from the National Trust on the phone, he had been very helpful and it was really great to now meet him in person and thank him for his help. It never gets any more normal when you’re greeted with “I’ve been reading about you” or similar, I always hope people are not disappointed with the real me, only yesterday in another meeting I was met with “you have make up on, I didn’t recognise you from your photo”, haha, the joys of racing images adorning the internet! It was great chatting with Mike, we had some common ground and I loved hearing about the area and what it’s like to live here. Mike then let us settle in to our weekend home and went on his way. First mission, put the kettle on.
I had seen photos of the property which looked lovely but was keen to see it with my own eyes. It was much bigger than I imagined, once the farmhouse, it had the iconic farmhouse kitchen, in its centre, a long wooden kitchen table and sat on it, the biggest tea pot I had ever seen. This was my kind of basecamp! Downstairs was totally accessible, there was a boot / surfboard room at one end, and a wet room, through the kitchen was a cosy sitting room with wood burning stove and then onto the hall, with a large bedroom at the other end. Up the stairs split to the left and right. To the right was a bedroom and bathroom, while to the left lay a long landing with three further large bedrooms and bathrooms. For such a large house it felt so very cosy. The wind was roaring around outside, banging at the windows trying to find its way in, but inside was warm and so very homely. I could have happily moved in there and then. In true Goldilocks style, I methodically tried out every bed in every room, and then at least once more just to make sure. The trouble was, they were all just lovely, my decision was a difficult one. I opted for the bedroom at the end, it looked out towards the coast over the farmland, and although I couldn’t quite see the sea, I felt comfort that between it and me were simply fields and this window, the rawness of the Pembrokeshire coast was just out there and I couldn’t wait to get exploring it.
Tim and I made ourselves at home, unpacked the cars and loaded the fridge. We had found what we now call the greatest radio station of all time, Dragon Radio, playing in their own words, “Wales’s greatest hits”, in other words, eighties-tastic! We couldn’t have planned it better, while Dirty Dancing and Starship played in the background, the kettle was on and the giant unicorn balloon took pride of place at the end of the table. We happily waited for the others to arrive.
One by one my friends arrived. Some found us easier than others and once darkness fell, between the clear lack of landmarks to see to navigate and the lack of mobile phone signal at the farmhouse which resulted in one of us heading up stairs every few minutes to check the phone for SOS calls as that was the only place we had signal, one friend in particular (Lucie!) very nearly spent the night out on the beach in her van as tiredness grew and patience lessened. We were both very pleased to see her finally arrive just before midnight and fed her the remains of the pizza and sweet potato wedges we’d cooked up earlier in the evening. Those who hadn’t met before soon became friends, bonding over tea and Prosecco and chatting into the night sat along the huge farmhouse kitchen table, the heart of every family and friend-family.
We had come up with a plan of heading to the beach in the morning, we didn’t care what the weather had planned, we planned hats and gloves, beach exploring and wet toes from a sneaky paddle for the braver (sillier) ones amongst us. We all made our ways to bed, most people had their own rooms, with the only couple of the group taking the double room. Lizzie decided to bunk up with me in the end twin room, having gone through University with Lizzie and Lucie but hadn’t spend nearly as much time together as we’d like to these last few years, we decided we’d have our own Hartpury reunion and camp out together, for old times. Lizzie had even demoted herself to the camp bed in the room so Lucie could have the second twin, it was only a small futon style camp bed and we both spent best part of half an hour trying to work out how the bottom half matched up with the top without the step down we could only manage. In the end having been defeated by the futon and giving it a Princess and the Pea type test, Lizzie was happy to give it a go, afterall as I told her, she’d hardly reach the bottom half anyway so it should be no bother! She didn’t wallop me. Lucie however had other ideas and after cracking us all up stating very sternly that no-one should make any noise at night as she will hear it and that she must only sleep in a double bed, with ear plugs, in a cold room, she was happy to be directed to the last empty room once we convinced her that we could push both beds together just fine and I’d try really hard to refrain from needing a midnight wee and waking her up coming down the landing clicking my crutches. Yeah, we all know how that’s likely to go. Lucie headed up the stairs first, laden with enough kit for a full on mountain expedition. About 2 minutes later she came back downstairs with a worried look on her face. “There’s a problem” she says. “There’s a spider in my room!” Lucie doesn’t do spiders. Em goes to her rescue, complete with an empty glass. Only Em doesn’t do spiders either! This I had to see. At this point, Alabama, my brother and Lizzie had already gone to bed, Nick and I followed the girls into Lucie’s room to check out the situation. There was some squealing from both girls but I was actually quite impressed with their bravery and spider catching techniques. The next step was to release said spider out of the bedroom window. Now here lies a little problem that soon became apparent. I had earlier found out about the flies. Being on a working farm, bugs and flies are all part of the environment and as it had gotten colder, the sleepy flies were looking to get inside the warm where they could. I had already caught around 8 of them since arriving in my bedroom, using the slow, gotcha method I find most effective. Standing in Lucie’s room watching was happening, I knew we were heading towards flymageddon. Nick opened the bedroom window, Em and Lucie screamed as the spider rattled around in the upturned glass, neither of them knowing how they were going to release it without losing it back into the room, or worse, upon themselves. Meanwhile in they flew. Em, Nick and Lucie oblivious, me “erm guys.. erm, did I mention the flies..? We seem to have another problem.” The girls were proud of their spider evacuation achievements, as was I, that was until everyone saw what we had next to deal with. To be honest, there wasn’t loads of flies, a handful, and Lucie did even say she’d just ignore them. But this is Lucie! She’d hear a mouse walk down the landing, in slippers! I know just how annoying the buzz…. buzz of a single fly at night is, let alone multiple. It was no good, they had to die. Lucie was still working out the logistics of getting the beds together now the spider had moved out, she shoved one to the other with great vigour. The only problem there was, I was standing between the two on my crutches, I can’t move fast, and I can’t step out of the way, so as the bed hit me at my shins, down I went onto the other bed behind me, half shouting “Lucie!” and mostly in a heap of laughter. If anyone had been watching the three of us in there I swear they’d have thought it was a scene from a comedy film, and it was only going to get worse. Once I’d been helped back up and out of the crack between the beds, we started to deal with the fly issue. I went with my proven technique of stealth grabbing, silent but deadly, while Lucie opted for the ‘hit them as had as you can with a packet of baby wipes’. By this point I couldn’t see how anyone else in the house was asleep, despite my best efforts of flymageddon management. What I said next I clearly did not think through. In my head it made sense, as things often do, but I said it and the others did it. “If you turn the light off they’ll move away from the bulb!” …… We all stand there in pitch blackness. A second of silence until complete hysterical laughter breaks out. “Now what?!” With the light back on we clear up the last remaining baby wipe beaten beasties and head off to bed, still laughing.
Saturday morning arrives and some are more keen to get up and out of bed than others. Lizzie and I were chatting into the small hours and laughing at the nights exploits, we were both really tired but it was so fab to spend time chatting mainly rubbish, just like we used to. I hoped I had not woken Lucie in the night, but more importantly I hoped I had not given Lizzie a partial moonie as I attempted to creep out through the bedroom door down to the toilet. I say attempted to creep, the doors were heavy and noisy and we all know, as much as you try and make no noise, exactly the opposite happens. Lizzie’s bed was nearest to the door and I had gone to bed in my T Shirt and pants, that was fine, it was dark, that was until I opened the noisy bedroom door to a shining beacon of light that was the landing light we hadn’t switched off, immediately illuminating my bottom. I just preyed Lizzie didn’t open her eyes else the spider would have seemed a far less frightening night terror. I asked Lizzie this in the morning and to my relief she hadn’t woken up. That night I promised to switch off the landing light AND wear better covering bottoms. With that, we were up and heading for a hot cup of tea and breakfast.
We were all wrapped up and out the door just after breakfast, all excited to get to the beach and have a good walk / push along the way. When we woke, the wind was howling from the west through the end window, it was raining too but we weren’t put off. That and the fact that the strong winds had caused a power cut at the house which resulted in me cooking Lizzie’s eggs in my camping stove on the kitchen table. We had lost our weekend soundtrack of Dragon Radio in the storm so we headed out to make our own music. Everyone layered up, boots on, best adventuring foot forward.
The farmhouse was part of National Trust campsite on the farm, the site was closed as the season finished so it was just us to explore this wonderful place. Out the back of the house was a fire-pit, this looked ideal to sit around toasting marshmallows and singing songs, we all said how we’d love to come back in the summer, it was quite the magical place and a feeling of being far enough away to feel like you’d really escaped, yet a feeling of home in a comforting wild nature kind of way. After our first group selfie of the day and once we’d all agreed on our direction of travel, we headed off over the fields and followed the track down to the coast, guided by the sound of the sea and the westerly winds.
The weather improved as we neared our destination, the rain cleared and even the winds seemed to lessen once we’d got outside. We might as well had skipped our way to the bay, we were all very excited to be out on our first mini adventure. The tide was much higher than when Tim and I visited the night before, the sandy beach was nowhere to be seen, as if someone had come and stolen it overnight and left a dark stony covering as far as we could see. I slowly pulled myself across the stones on my crutches, not easy on a moving stoned floor especially with the added wind knocking me sideways. Everyone began exploring and searching for treasures, photos were a plenty, landscapes, each other, group pictures, sea selfies, all memories collecting to look back with a smile of those magic moments. We ventured towards the sea, I certainly felt its calling. I can never resist the lure of the sea, wherever I am. I was intrigued to see how cold it was so I took off my boots and socks. I dabbled my toes of my right foot on the edge of the surf, it was surprisingly not that cold. This only made me want more so while leaning on my friend, I awkwardly pulled up my waterproof trousers, tracky bottoms and thermals to just above my knees and pulled myself back towards the sea. At this point I was the only one sea-bound, everyone else perhaps had the better idea of watching from the shore, cameras at the ready of course. The lapping waves were temperamental, they didn’t seem to come up as far every time and I found myself having to go further towards the breaking water to actually get in the sea. I quickly learnt this was Mother Nature having a good chuckle at me and the error of my ways. I saw the sea coming at me at pace, I tried to pull myself back to the beach in haste but the pull of the surface water from the beach was strong as I tried to balance precariously on the sodden sand on my crutches. With that I was hit from behind with an almighty splash, the wave crashed up my legs, hitting my bum, to my high pitched yelp and doubled up laughter, as soon as that one hit along came another, double barrelled! I was laughing so much, as was everyone else watching me, cameras poised hoping they got ‘the shot’. Now pretty soaked I got myself back on the stones with a little help from the others, when again we were hit by the fast shallow water sneaking up and overtaking our escape. Now I wasn’t the only one with wet feet. My boots and socks went back on despite being wet and covered in sand, Lizzie had taken to walking through the waters edge in her trainers having already gotten soaked and we all ventured further up the beach towards the larger rocks in search of rock pools.
The different colours and texture of the rock were incredible, so many patterns, shapes, smooth, rough, pitted like cheese, striped deep red straight edged rocky spurs, and amongst it all small shells so delicate and beautiful. The bay floor was a storybook in itself, we all longed to know its tales of centuries gone by. We made our own stories, sitting at the back of a cave in the cliff face I imagined pirates coming ashore at night to hide their loot amongst the rocks, or young men during the wars hiding out in the safety and secrecy of the cliffs caves before making their way to a nearby farmstead.
The rock pools were vast. Though in complete contrast to their neighbouring sea, just the other side of the rocks. The sea crashed around us, spray reared up the rocky faces and choppy waves crashed into each other out in the deep. The pools were practically still, almost millpond-like. They were deep, none of us tested quite how deep apart from me sticking one of my crutches down as far as I could, Lucie and I did say we wished we’d had our wetsuits with us that morning as we’d been tempted to by the glass-like mermaid pools within the safety of the rocky boundary.
Thankfully none of us got any wetter during our morning’s beach adventure and after we’d all re-grouped from our walks, stone skimming, cave exploring, rock scrambling, shell searching, we were happy to see the tide had not come up much further so could still take the better exit option of back across the shore from where we had come.
We found our way back to the house, all a bit red faced and wind battered, and settled around the big kitchen table, power back on and with it Dragon Radio, to the giant teapot full of hot piping tea and a slice of well earned fruit cake for everyone.
… Saturday afternoon took us out through Pembroke and over to Freshwater East where we’d been recommended to check out for some sea kayaking. We’d been told that Freshwater East was a much calmer bay as protected, as long as we didn’t venture out of the bay to the left, as we’d likely find ourselves being pulled down towards the Severn estuary. Right was fine if we so fancied, but to stay away from the left. This bay was indeed a lot calmer than over in Freshwater West where we were earlier, it had quite a different feel to it, compared to Freshwater West where there are no houses, no cafes, no shops, no anything, just wild, here was more like a small coastal tourist area, there were benches for people to stop and take in the views, a small holiday village and a scattering of houses coming down the steep road to the bay. The holiday village was clearly out of season and as the cold wind whirled around us all outside, we were glad to head inside to the bar to a hot drink. We warmed up with our hands around hot chocolates and coffees and made plans for our kayak trip the next day.
… Back at base, Saturday night was party night. I’d offered to cook, spaghetti bolognese and a veggi version for me, Nick lit the fire which instantly made the house so toasty and everyone got changed into their party clothes.
Of course this was an Unbirthday, and everyone between them had gone along the theme of such celebrations. That theme being unicorns. Every one of us re-emerged from our magical lairs, dressed in our very best unicorn. Lizzie and Alabama were both rainbow unicorns, Tim wore a very fetching pink unicorn hat, Ems and Nick wore matching purple unicorn onesies in true Mr & Mrs unicorn style, I opted for the traditional white unicorn with pink mane, tail and tummy and even glittered up my unicorn make up for full effect, while Lucie wore unicorn leggings, a unicorn t-shirt and was part of a giant white wearable toy unicorn, complete with bridle and reins. I’m not sure if Lucie had ‘borrowed’ this from her daughter but in my opinion she did win the contest for the best party outfit of the night.
My wonderful unicorn friends had bought me gifts, and all of course wonderfully unicorn! I have a new lucky charm to add to my collection that comes all around the world with me racing, of a little unicorn with the words ‘follow your dreams’, from Em & Nick. From Lizzie I have some new marathon race leggings, of course they have unicorns on them! And a new mug for my tea. Lucie got me a every girl’s shower staple, a shower cap, that is a unicorn!! some funky pink Unbirthday glasses and a pink unicorn headband, sporting what can only be described as ‘the Katy Perry fringe’. I loved this, it went well with my unicorn onesie, especially as I was finding it difficult to wear the unicorn’s face which was the hood of the onesie as being quite tall, pulling the face over my head gave me quite the unwanted wedgie. Apart from saving me from certain discomfort, I became quite attached to my pinky purple fringe, my friends thought I should request this from my hairdresser, I did that today in fact, she was not in favour, sorry girls. So unicorns did what unicorns do on party nights, we danced to Dragon Radio, snap chat filtered each other and played Jenga in front of the fire. But there was one thing missing from this Unbirthday party that Nick was very excited about even more than me. Alabama had made a cake! AND a unicorn cake at that. It had rainbows and mini unicorn heads on it with pink icing. Inside was carrot and nuts, with a jammy filling between the layers. Now this was an Unbirthday party, and the greatest Unbirthday I have ever had! I didn’t plan for it, this was just my wonderful friends making it happen, and making it one to remember, unicorns forever.
To be continued…