Tuesday, 25 January 2022
Thursday, 30 May 2019
I'm lying under the covers waiting for the alarm to ring.
I'm listening to the birds begin to sing.
We're all wondering what the day will bring.
It's that twilight moment, not just between darkness and light, but between not travelling and travelling, between not knowing and knowing. The duvet still feels comforting and warm as I await the moment when the day must begin. I'm thinking about all that will happen, the things we must do, the places we will see, the great distance we will travel.
I'm worrying whether I've packed everything I need, whether the taxi will come on time, whether our attempt to find our own way through Terminal Five will end in disaster as we fail to find breakfast, or miss our flight. I'm worrying what I will do for seven hours in the air. I'm worrying whether assistance will be provided at the other end if we reject it at Heathrow, and if they will try to force us into wheelchairs. I'm worrying about the cane, and whether it can ever be a sensible substitute for a guide dog when visiting such a busy city.
But I'm also excited, so very very excited. I'm looking forward to being at the airport, to flying across the Atlantic for the first time in my life, to our arrival somewhere new to us, to finding our way alone, to our hotel and dinner and the sights, sounds and other senses of New York.
The dawn chorus reminds me how uncertain the day could be, but also oh how wonderful.
I can't recall a trip on which I have heaped so much expectation. Yes, I've certainly looked forward to holidays and spent plenty of time researching travel options and hotels, but ordinarily, once that's done and dusted, I would sit back and forget about it for a bit, intending to pick up the guide books again a little closer to our departure date. Not so with our next adventure however. From the day we decided to take the plunge and buy the tickets which, several days earlier had been ridiculously cheap but were now climbing higher with every hour, I have been immersing myself in every piece of information I can lay my hands on. I have read books, downloaded articles, browsed the "best of" this and the "ten greatest" that, I have spent hours viewing YouTube videos exploring every area and aspect we might hope to visit... but still I feel hopelessly unprepared.
The question is, can one ever really be prepared for New York City? Does there come a time when it is better to close the books and swipe away from the videos in order that we can experience the city with our own eyes and ears, rather than endlessly relying on the interpretations of others? Whilst it's probably sensible to find somewhere for Saturday night dinner, shouldn't we also leave space for culinary happenchance? And whilst a pre booked ticket for Top of the Rock will surely save us some queuing, often the best discoveries occur spontaneously.
So, it is with that thought that I sit here on a train winding its way through countryside on the Kent - East Sussex border, having just parted with guide dog Gio,. I'm anticipating what's to come with a healthy dose of enthusiasm, but without the fervent rush impatience that has characterized my research and planning to date.
In truth, after months thinking about the trip I have now entered my usual pre departure state of apathy. It reminds me of exams all those years ago, and the point one reached when cramming in information served only to remind me how little I thought I knew, rather than rectifying any apparent deficiency. That change in mindset is usually exacerbated by the ceremonial dropping off of the guide dog and my return to swinging the cane. Suddenly there are more pressing things to think about than how to navigate Central Park or which harbour boat trip to take, like how do I get myself home without tripping up half of Waterloo station, and can I manage to pack for a long weekend without bringing the kitchen sink or spending the whole night pondering how many shirts to take? I'm certainly excited that, within twenty four hours I'll be heading west across the Atlantic for the first time in my life, but I'm also nervous, thinking about the places I will have to navigate with my least favourite mobility aid.
The plan is to take it fairly steadily. To count on making it to the subway only after queuing at immigration for umpteen hours, and then to focus on finding the hotel and a nearby bite to eat. Somehow staying at a European chain hotel feels like an opportunity missed, but what is authenticity anyway in a city of the world? The CitizenM is located on Bowery, a road which was more coming than up for a good portion of its existence, but which benefits from not being in the madness of Midtown but rather closer to China Town, including, hopefully, a restaurant with our name on it for Friday evening. Of course we've done the research and have in our possession a shortlist of establishments, each claiming to be the best place for noodle soup or dumplings, but settling on the right one feels like tracking down that proverbial needle in a haystack.
The problem is that New York sounds much like London in terms of its restaurant scene, with literally thousands of options to choose from, and no end of opinions on which should benefit from our hard earned and converted dollars. And much like in London. If one strides always to find the best one possible one is surely to be disappointed. So, perhaps a different approach is required, forgetting about authenticity or that perfect New York experience, but focusing instead on what we really want. Indeed, perhaps that is a sensible mantra for the whole trip, helping us to find the sights and sounds that will interest or engage us rather than those which everyone else thinks we should enjoy.
Sunday, 18 November 2018
Sitting low on the sofa the climbers above, now relieved of their harnesses and ropes, still seemed impossibly high, and the moves they described, the effort in their voices, too challenging for a wall without protection. And every so often, as if to confirm the point, a dull thud sounded as the mats absorbed another hard arrival.
With fifteen minutes to go I didn't want to be sitting out the final exercise of my two session climbing course. I had done everything else to date, felt the gear, tied the knots, learnt to belay and to climb, arrested a staged fall, tried falling myself, and ridden the ever so slightly scary autobelay. There had been aspects which, as a visually impaired person, had been difficult, like pausing before each move, straining to hear shouted directions from my climbing partner or trainer below, before thrashing around for the right hold. And there had been things that were easier, like the very tactile process of tying in, or of raimbowing up a wall with no care for the specific holds involved. The point was, I had done it all.
Kerry, the trainer, had been concerned about the autobelay. Without the manual engagement of a belayer controlling my rate of descent as I returned to earth from the top of a wall, she feared that I would be at heightened risk of injury. I respected her view, but I also felt the risk was manageable. Yes, there would be no braking before I hit the ground, and yes, I would need to be very conscious of how far I had climbed, how long it would take to drop, and of when to brace for impact. I would also need a trusted partner who could watch out for me. But none of these points were insurmountable, and ultimately she was content for me to make the call.
In the event it wasn't the floor that caused me pain, but the counter-intuitive act of letting go of the wall, five meters up, with only an unthinking machine to catch me. I understood the technology from a bit of prior reading, and that the physics involved were equally as unavoidable as the gravity that would pull me down, but it still took several counts to three and a couple of deep breaths before I could give it a go.
The landing itself was uneventful, but that's not to say I couldn't see Kerry's point. The ground certainly arrived quickly and without warning, and should there be an uneven surface, some discarded gear, or if my feet were not positioned properly, I could see well how a routine trip up and bad down the wall could turn into days or weeks with my leg up.
I think it is fair to say that risks abound for the unwary visually impaired climber, and not necessarily in the places they seem most likely. Uneven floors, snaking ropes and industrial staircases all conspire to trip one up, and of course scrabbling for a hand hold to steady oneself following a fall, or attempting to avoid the large jug holds whilst walking backwards on a descending rope are much more challenging when the wall is just a blurry mass.
Learning to fall, and catching a falling climber, proved to be a interesting experience. The slight pull upwards as the rope tightened, the sense of being only just in control as an invisible force attempted to propel one face first into the wall and into the path of the descending climber, not to mention the trust one needs in one's belayer in the first place, provided welcome practice and demystification for the day this would inevitably happen for real. Aspects of it are certainly different for a visually impaired belayer, not least the need to be in communicative harmony with one's climber, knowing exactly what they are doing at whenever their direction of travel or intentions change. Important too is the guiding hand, constantly checking for slack in the rope in lieue of eyes watching the climber to anticipate each new move or the start of a fall. But the basics remain the same, the need to be primed for a potential fall, to return one's hand swiftly to one's side after pulling in slack, and to never ever let go of that brake rope. As the falling climber, on this occasion deliberately so and in a space chosen for its lack of protrusions, I suspect the chief challenge will be avoiding painful collisions with the larger holds and reorientating oneself following the event. On this occasion it was all quite controlled, and actually quite a positive experience.
So, it was with a degree of surprise and a little disappointment that I received Kerry's very strong advise that I should not participate in the final part of the course, bouldering. In my naivety I had rather imagined this to be the less challenging part of the experience, remaining relatively close to the ground, able to get off the wall easily when things got more tricky. I think I also had in mind happy times as a child clambering over boulders and other rock formations at the wonderful Brimham Rocks in North Yorkshire, their amazing tactility making it simpler, not more challenging, for a visually impaired person to navigate. But, I needed to be realistic, to recognise that indoor environments and the risks they introduced, were quite different. More importantly, I had been genuinely grateful for the thought and care that had been invested in ensuring that I got the most from the course and was not excluded from anything unless absolutely necessary. As the course trainer Kerry of course had a fair degree of responsibility for the safety off those climbing under her instruction, and I had to take seriously her concerns About my likely inability to fall safely if I couldn’t orientate visually. Therefore, whilst I dearly wanted to complete the whole course and, frankly, to be able to boulder like anybody else, there was no question of me pushing the point.
In the event I did get to try some traversing, albeit on the lowest holds and with Kerry resting a hand on my back, lest I missed a step and stumbled back the foot or so to the matting. It was surprisingly strenuous, far more so than any of the top roping we had done to date, and the first time I had raised my breathing rate or broken into a sweat.
Listening to the four other course members, and the countless other climbers on the bouldering wall upstairs, as I reclined on my plastic cushion, it was clear that cardio vascular workouts were par for the course, with the opportunity to attempt more challenging moves without the safety net provided by rope and belayer. I wanted to be experiencing that too, but secretly I was also relieved. Whilst I couldn't recall doing anything to prompt it, my left ankle was beginning to ache, and I suspected that, had I tried to take part, at the end of a long day at work and three hours of tuition, the risk of injuring myself may have been heightened somewhat, and what a sad way to end that would have been.
So I enjoyed the rest instead, listened to those around pushing themselves to try something new, and reflecting on the fulfilment of a long term aim. Now, all I need is to somehow keep it up.
Friday, 9 November 2018
Sunday, 28 October 2018
It was fifteen minutes into my walk that I realized my mistake. For a fleeting moment I thought I had found the right place, a large building beside a body of water, a steady flow of people entering and exiting the road beside. Was it just me or did they look like the young, athletic type I had been expecting, or was I seeing what I wanted to see?
I had left the Tube station as I so often do, striding purposefully, not so much because I know where I am going, but because I don't want anybody else to think that I might not. It is a failing of mine, I know, but I hate to reinforce any preconception that passers by may have of the guide dog owner they see, no doubt lost and in need of their assistance. So, rather than do the sensible thing, I strike out in whatever direction my inbuilt compass tells me must be right, walking with confidence and pace until I sense that something must be amiss, and pause to consider my options. This would of course be a good point to accept my predicament, ask for help, or in the very least retrace my steps to the last place I knew with any certainty where I was and where I needed to go.
Of course, in this instance, I had neither sought help on climbing the steeply curving steps leading from Manor House Tube to a busy street corner., and nor did I accost any members of the public when my phone informed me, rather disappointingly, that the shining water surface I had glimpsed briefly as I approached my present location was not the lake I was looking for, but the New River, channelling, as I believe it still does hundreds of years after its construction, drinking water into the Centre of London.
Truth be told, I was quite excited to have found the river, having previously read the wonderful London blogger, Diamond Geezer's account of walking it from source to sea, or whatever the equivalent journey is for a man-made water course. Perhaps it was this, or more likely my hatred of turning tail and confirming to all and sundry that as a confident user of their local pavements I was something of a fraud, I instead took a sharp left and began to trace my way along the road shadowing the river bank. This wasn't a bank like any that most people would know it, rather it was a Dan of sorts, rising steeply from the stout fence which kept pedestrians out, to a height of perhaps five feet, and in this way presumably maintaining the gradual gradient used to keep those precious water's flowing. If I had wished for an easy view of the river I was to be sorely disappointed, for it wasn't until I had returned, chastened, to Seven Sisters Road, having admitted defeat after a quarter of a mile trek in the wrong direction, that I was able to look down on it from the edge of a bridge parapet. It had a canal like straightness, and its towpath appeared decidedly unappealing, so only half an hour late I cut my losses and returned to the Tube.
But what was it that I was looking for in the first place, I pretend to imagine hearing you cry? What was it that drove me to leave behind the comparative safety of southwest London and head instead for the unknown hitherto largely unknown lands that lie beyond Kings Cross? Well, I was attempting to be sensible for once, recognizing that the next time I came this way, butterflies fluttering inside my stomach ahead of three hours of climbing tuition at The Castle Climbing Center, it would be dark and cold, and not a time to be getting lost and exploring rivers, new or otherwise. I had it in mind that I would pop gown there on a nice bright Saturday afternoon, trace the route a couple of times, ensure Gio could find the front door, and then head off elsewhere for a little more exploration. My unscheduled visit to the New River had put paid to this being a quick trip, but, having returned to those steep steps to the Underground I was finally able to achieve what I had come for in the first place.
The route to The Castle was, as I had been led to believe, simple and straight, and within less than ten minutes I was mingling with the hordes inside, young and old alike, just for the record, seeking out their shop and a new pair of trousers to see me through my early days on the wall. The but that's a story for another day.
Friday, 19 October 2018
Ten years ago I embarked on a new course with my free time, learning to sail a boat and ultimately helming in four Blind Nationals events, two of which I won. I have never been much of a sportsman, and am generally pretty aprehensive about entering a new and unfamiliar environment with nobody I know to lend moral support. That first day, turning up all alone at a dock in southeast London truly felt like leaping from a high board into an unknown pool. Little did I know that I would never look back, and whilst I don't sail as much as I would ideally want to, I made friends and enjoyed experiences I never would have otherwise.
And here I am doing it again. Having thought about it ever since I abseiled down a wall in Exmoor, two decades ago, I am finally going to take my first proper steps, or perhaps more accurately find my first handholds, learning to climb.
I've scoured London for the best climbing centres, not just for the variety of their walls or the quality of their instruction, but for somewhere where they will feel comfortable and confident teaching a visually impaired person whilst accomodating their guide dog. It could have been a tough ask, and may still prove to be, but for the time being I think I have found my venue, with the Castle Climbing Center near Finsbury Park. Not only that, but afraid that I night get cold feet and put it off for another ten years, I've made the necessary booking and, all being well, should be found somewhere on the end of a rope in about three week's time. Wish me luck...