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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Five days by the sea

It hardly seems credible that this time last week I was freewheeling down the M5 towards the small town of Westward Ho! on the North coast of Devon for five glorious days of rest by the sea. There is little to do in the town itself, other than the beach, but that suits me fine, as the town has one of the finest beaches in the whole of this region, backed by the famous pebble ridge and of course the Northam Burrows nature reserve. One can walk for miles all the way to the Tor estuary at low tide and round to Appledore on the other side of the dunes.

I stayed at the excellent youth hostel in the town, which is an excellent base for exploring the area, and took full advantage of everything that the area has to offer. It is a part of the country that I am quite familiar with, being just across the water from the island of Lundy, where until 2009 I holidayed two to three times each year. Since that year, when everything changed, I have visited the island less - maybe once a year in the spring, but I had been missing it so much of late that this time I decided to go for a day trip.

It was the first time I had ever done this, after 32 staying visits, so for me it was a novel experience. I must admit that there had been an element of "us and them", snobbery almost towards the day trippers, yet they bring more into the economy of the island than those that do choose to stay, and as I discovered, these trips do serve a definite need. They provide a taste of the island for those who are unsure as to whether they would like to stay, being unsure perhaps as to whether they would cope with the silence, and the lack of mainland "essentials" such as supermarkets, nightclubs et al. Lundy is for me, one of those places that you either get or you don't, and although the majority choose not to come back as staying visitors, many return as day trippers instead, as a short respite from mainland life, and so it was this time, for me.

It was strange to know that this time I would not be staying, and so I made the most of every moment on the island that I had, walking all the way to the north end via the west coast and back via the east. On my return to the village towards the end of the afternoon, I found myself walking across Acklands Moor towards the cottage where I always stay, almost without thinking, and as I approached suddenly realised that I wasn't this time staying there! I bid then a hasty retreat and headed back to the pub for a mug of tea and more than welcome gluten free chocolate cookie. It was a long day, but so very worth it.

The remaining three days were spent sunbathing at Saunton Sands, exploring the village of Clovelly, and for the final day, walking between Hartland Quay and Hartland Point - famed for some of the finest coastal scenery in the southwest. This is a walk that I shall definitely repeat, next time more slowly so that I take everything in and not have to rush. It was exhilarating climb those challenging hills, which peak at almost 1500 feet, with the sun and the wind streaming through my hair. I have definitely caught the sun this week, which will set me up the dark winter nights which are to come.

Now that I am back, it feels as always a lifetime ago. It was straight back to work at 7am yesterday after driving back on Sunday and right back into the fray. I have been in my current job, as a housekeeper in a nursing home, for three and a half years now, and during all that time have not received one single pay rise. By the time the minimum wage goes up next week, my salary will be just 21 pence per hour above that rate, which considering the level of responsibility that I have and the nature of the work involved, dealing with frail and elderly people at the end of their lives, is to be quite honest, scandalous. So, when the Head Housekeeper informed yesterday that she had just had her appraisal and been asked to submit a formal letter actually requesting a raise, I felt that I had nothing to lose by doing the same thing. The letter was duly delivered this morning and will be passed along the line to the Care Home Manager and ultimately the Directors for their consideration. They can only say yes or no, but either way, I will know where I stand.

Other than that, there is not much else to report other than the fact that it has become very autumnal these past few days - the trees are moving as I write, bending into the wind. Coran is visiting his sister who has been discharged from hospital, having been quite poorly these past weeks, and there is no further news of my own sister.

Corans video also continues to get many visits - it was mentioned in the local paper this week, which was noticed by everyone at work, so it was become a bit of a talking point there. Some seem perplexed as to the nature of our relationship given Corans trans gender status, but they can always come and ask - there is no reason to be shy and I have nothing to hide.

Oh well, back to the armchair and my latest book ....  

Monday, 17 September 2012

The year of the bike

It's hard to believe that barely a week has gone by since the Paralympic Closing Ceremony, and just eight and a half days ago, Coran and I were sitting in the Excel Arena watching the Sitting Volleyball Men's Final.

This week seems to have gone by in a blur, with work, work and yet more work. Our Kitchen Assistant broke his foot a few weeks ago, tripping over a stone step in the back yard, so that has meant plenty of overtime for the three housekeepers, especially since one of us was on holiday at the time it happened (so in effect, there were only two). This time it is my turn to be away from work - my eight days off started yesterday and will end at 7am next Monday morning.

I am off to Westward Ho! in North Devon then tomorrow for a few days by the sea, to sit in my newly acquired beach tent, in the shadow of the famous pebble ridge listening to the surf as it breaks over the shoreline, and if I am lucky, to wander as far as the estuary and around the Braunton Burrows reserve. A day trip to Lundy is calling, although whether I am up to four hours (two hours in each direction) on the boat remains to be seen. I may decide to wait until the spring, as I am not the best of sailors.

It has though been a fantastic summer all round - especially of course for sport. I must say I surprised myself at how much I got into it all - I never considered myself a sports fan at all, but I certainly am now, and it's all thanks to those fantastic Olympians and their feats.

Yesterday another cycling race came through Dorking, the town near where I live - The Tour of Britain, and so Coran and I had to go and see it. Expecting a big crowd, we got there early, around 10.30am to sit in Costa Coffee enjoying a cup of tea and some gluten free biscuits, watching the crowds as they slowly arrived. By 11.30, the town was heaving, so Coran and I bagged our places by the side of the road (myself at Pump Corner and Coran halfway up West Street) to await the action.

The crowds were as enthusiastic as ever, a mixture of the casual fans (which I guess you can say I am) and the enthusiasts, with several cycling clubs on their bikes. The Police riders were great once again, high fiving the crowds as they rode through those narrow streets. Police tape prevented people from getting too close to the road, keeping everyone safe, both riders and spectators.

I was though in the best position I could be, as when the riders approached, I had a clear view of them as they rounded the narrow bend towards the street where Coran stood. I have a good camera with a lengthy lens and reliable sport mode, so used this mode and just kept shooting. I am pleased with the results, even if they are a little dark - the weather could have been kinder for sure.

There is not much more to say, as the action as always, was over almost as quickly as it started and the crowds quickly dispersed. For our part, we went to the local Sports Centre for a veggie burger and chips before making our way home to watch the rest of the race on ITV4, and what a race it was! I have made a mental note that next time anything like this comes through Guildford, that will be the place to be, the crowds, the noise, the atmosphere, what a homecoming, what a year for cycling, one that I shall not forget, that's for sure.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Box Hill - Up Close and Personal - A Personal Journey

As regular readers will know, Coran and I live in the beautiful village of Box Hill, in deepest Surrey, which at the end of July played host to the Olympic Road Cycling Races. As Editor and Assistant Editor as we were then of the village magazine, Box Hill News, we hoped to produce an Olympic special to commemorate the Games. Sadly this was not to be, as after 100 hours of work and numerous meetings and other discussions, we were told that the National Trust areas in which we hoped to sell the magazine were to be ticketed zones. It is a long story, much documented on the Internet (at the time) and local press, and the least now said the better.

Good however can come from bad, as it was as a result of this that Coran first posited the idea to instead produce a video - a video for the village and the wider community (and that includes you) documenting not only the Races themselves, but what went on behind the scenes with regard to planning - and an awful lot did.

Coran is well placed for a project such as this, with his own web design business, having worked for the BBC for over 20 years, including as part of the RDS team. This project certainly stretched her own boundaries and taught her many more skills which will no doubt stand her in good stead for the future. I conducted at least one of the interviews myself, and so have also learnt from the experience.

The video, which can be seen above, comes highly recommended by myself (even if I am in it - and you can see me in person also at least twice), features interviews with Andy Wright, Southeast Regional Manager for the National Trust, Lyn Richards, Chairman of the Friends of Box Hill and Helen Shackleton, an independent artist who provided much of the artwork which was placed along the ZigZag for the Race weekend, as well as around the outside of the National Trust centre itself as a permanent feature.

This is our legacy for the Games, and our gift to the village. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Spirit of the Games - In Action

Once the Olympics were over, with the lull that followed, I wondered along with half of Britain, whether the Paralympics could live up to the hype. Now that they too are over, I have to say that for me at least if anything, I found these even more exhilarating. This may have been because in this case, I was able to see not one, but two of the events live at different venues across London - North Greenwich Arena and the Excel Arena.

Watching the Paralympic opening ceremony was for me just mind blowing. The theme of Enlightenment told me all that I needed to know. It may have been dressed up as a celebration of science, and it certainly was that, but for those who are on the spiritual path, science and spirituality are really the same thing. The search for the Higgs Boson, otherwise known as the God particle is a search to understand not just the origins of the universe, but the building blocks of life itself, life being who and what we are. The words life and spirituality in this context, can be seen as interchangeable, for what else when it really comes down to it, is life about?

As for the motto "Spirit in Action", well isn't that what we all are - and these games were a fine example of just that. To witness the trials and the triumphs that these elite athletes went through (if anyone doubts this, then watch Jody Cundy's completely understandable outburst) was the perfect showcase for this phrase. The spirituality was there in the Olympics too for sure, but much less obvious, with the Paralympics it was right there in your face, with bells and whistles, and it needed to be in order to get the message across - with 21st December and the energetic portal that that represents now just around the corner, we do not have the time to pussy foot around - people either get it or they don't, and they won't unless we let them know in the most obvious way and with the widest possible audience.

If I thought the Opening Ceremony was impressive, then the Closing Ceremony was even more so, with its steam punk theme and Pagan imagery depicting the elements and the seasons with words from the Order of the Druids no less. The more I think about it, the more spirituality I see in these games, even the motto "spirit in action", which can be taken in so many different ways - on the one hand we are all spirits in physical form, taking action to step out into the physical world and be seen, and on the other, the games also represent the fighting spirit of these champion athletes and the trials that they have to go through to be seen as the equals that they are. Lord Coe was absolutely right when he said that disability will never be seen in quite the same way again. The spectacle of blind footballers and one legged high jumpers made even me (and remember I work with those with disabilites - half of our residents are in wheelchairs), think.

Those first few days after the opening ceremony surpassed all expectations, with it seems records being broken each time that I tuned in. Various residents television sets at the nursing home where I work proved most obliging, with the residents enjoying my company and being most bemused by my seeming ability to materialise in front of their screens each time a particularly loud cheer erupted, and there were plenty of them - Richard Whitehead, Ellie Simmons and of course Sarah Storey, the greatest of all the Paralympians with 22 medals in 2 different disciplines.

After the Road Cycling Races and the Olympics that followed, Coran and I knew that we wanted to see at least one Paralympic event, and Wheelchair Basketball being our sport of choice, we were overjoyed to find tickets available on my first day off following the Opening Ceremony. The Basketball took place at the North Greenwich Arena, formerly known as the O2, where almost four years to the day Coran had been taken ill with a suspected heart attack while on the way home from a Stevie  Wonder concert. Initially reluctant to go back to this venue, Coran realised that part of the purpose for this second visit was to clear the negative energy that we were both still holding on to after that night.

Wheelchair Basketball turned out to be an amazing game to watch, fast paced and furious - seeing how the players tackle each other and trip over and manage to get back up again is really something else.

The first match we saw was Poland versus Japan (men's) which Poland won and then after a short break it was the women's turn - Team GB versus Australia. Sadly (sorry Australians) Australia won, but they were the better team and so did of course deserve it - I certainly wouldn't want to mess with those women! Team GB put up a good effort, but the Aussie's got such a flying start that it was very difficult for us to catch up. These were of course only the preliminaries, and many more games followed for all the teams. 

Coran and I were lucky enough though to be seated right down the front, in the very first row in front of the pitch, so for us, it could not have been any better. The crowd were amazing, if a little loud, but hey they were watching our own home team, so that was as it should be. The journey too was uneventful, and the company was good.

The exhilaration of seeing live Paralympic events fed both of our appetites, and was we found most addictive, so having spent a most enjoyable day watching the Wheelchair Basketball, along with many others, I tried to get some more tickets and eventually managed to get 2 for the Sitting Volleyball men's final on the penultimate day. I noticed that the tickets seemed to go on sale around 6pm most nights, which I suppose was the deadline for the corporations to say whether they had filled all of their own seats. While we would have liked to have seen the Olympic Park itself, sadly this was not to be. Actually now that the Games are over, and I have spoken to those who were there, I am glad that we did not go, as I think we may have found it too much, especially had we been in the stadium. I am more than happy with the events that we did see, as you don't often get the chance to see a gold medal event, and to get 2 lots of tickets was brilliant, when there were so many who didn't get any at all.

That night - which was only a few nights ago, was one that I shall always remember. It was touch and go as to whether we would make it in to the Arena as on the journey up in the morning Coran started to feel nauseous and shaky. Thankfully the amazing helpers in the medical room sorted us out, and after an hour or so in the dark room with some reassurance from the Doctor and her helpers (my own honesty and vulnerability helped as well in expressing how I felt, which encouraged Coran to do the same)  Coran felt well enough to go inside. Our seats were at the end of the aisle which helped, as it meant that we could wander in and out without disturbing people.

We had a brilliant view though of the pitch, only about 5 rows back, and the crowds were incredible, if rather noisy - especially the Iranians for the Gold medal match. The first match was Egypt versus Brazil, which Brazil won, and then it was the bronze medal decider between Russia and Germany. It was incredibly close, and by the third set it really looked as if Russia were going to win, but the Germans managed to pull things back and in the end, although it was still close, they won. Sadly we we had gone out for a walk and so missed the actual moment, but the gold match was of course the most important. I don't think anything would have got me out of the Arena for that one.

I have never seen so many Iranians (or Bosnians for that matter) in one place, other than Iran (or Bosnia) - waving huge flags and chanting, blowing their horn type things (I am surprised they let them bring them in), with the women in their colourful hijabs. It was lovely to see such scenes of celebration, cheering on their teams. Every time Iran scored, they got louder and louder.

This was a a very close match as well, like the Bronze Medal - we did go outside a few times when the noise became too much, and for a cup of tea just to keep going. We were sitting down drinking our tea when Coran spotted a games maker with a Paralympic Torch by the Manderville statue, so we went over to investigate and he took our picture with us holding it - a real live torch ! When we got back inside, the crowd were at fever pitch, with Bosnia in the lead. It seemed that every time Bosnia scored, the Iranians would then get another one, evening things out. This seemed to the scene for most of the game until almost the end of the third set, which went to Bosnia. The Bosnians went wild, as it meant that they were in with a chance - if Iran had won the first three, then they would have got the gold. The final set was so close, it was electrifying, but when it got to the point where Bosnia had a 6 point lead, I think everyone knew what the outcome would be, and they swept to victory.

Having stayed for this long, we had to stay for the victory ceremony. By this time my camera battery was threatening to run out (I had already used up by first one, having taken almost 800 pictures - thank goodness for sport and burst mode). I had to be very selective then over what I took in those final moments, but thankfully the battery did keep firing, and I managed to get another 100 or so shots.

By the time we got in it was almost 11.30pm, and it had been a VERY long day - long, but so very worthwhile. We paid for it the following day, especially Coran, who had to go back into London for a hospital appointment, but it was worth every single moment to say that we were part of history and witnessed one of the finest sporting events I have ever seen. Now that the games are over, I am seriously considering a trip to Rio!