Saturday, 30 November 2013

Going Under part 8 : Dan's Revenge

My descent, of about 10 meters, almost ended in my being impaled, arse first, on a rusted metal panel that jutted out of the sea bed. It was a small part of a old sand dredging ship which was half submersed in sand, just outside Portland Harbour.

This was our last dive of the weekend. For the trainees it was make or break. Screw up now and the 6 weeks of training and study towards achieving our PADI licence would be in vain.

For me, there was more to it than that.  I had unfortunately fallen out with one of the junior Dive Masters, named Dan. He had walked into the changing room that morning to find his girlfriend, Kim, another Junior Divemaster, allowing me to inspect her tattoo covered body, in her see-through, pink underwear... You know, I am not even convincing myself here, but it was totally innocent!

He had given me evil looks since that time. Even now, kneeling at the bottom of the seabed next to the wreck I could see his narrow, blue eyes in his mask. I imagined passing shrimp being fried immediately as they crossed the space between us.

The need for levity was satisfied by Stanley, half man, half Greyhound. For comic effect he suffered the misfortune that I had managed to avoid. He came down hard, butt first,  on the large triangular panel of metal. Without sound, it's amazing how much eyes give away ones emotions. That and flailing arms and legs. I laughed hard into my regulator. It almost popped out entirely and let in some cold , salty water which I immediately inhaled. It made me cough and splutter. That would teach me to laugh at others misfortune, I thought.

Steve 'Jellie', the chief Dive Master (DM) brought the 5 trainees together with some hand signals. Down the line we went, each signalling in turn our starting tank air.  The trainees were buddied up and allocated a DM. I was delighted to be put with 'Jellie' himself. He was a made you could trust. We found a space and went through the final skills and drills:  cramp removal, underwater swim with compass, regulator exchange and finally the one we all dreaded, mask removal, then swim, then mask replace.

This was the most awkward to tasks for various reasons. Firstly, without your mask you can't see anything, the world is totally blurred. Those with contact lenses need to keep their eyes shut, but it's not worth opening them anyway. Secondly, one has to master breathing from your regulator and not use your nose at all. This actually comes with practice, but we hadn't had much of that, so the sea water gets right up, into your sinuses and irritates like hell. Thirdly, the bubbles that come out of your regulator don't help one bit: they rush up your nose and make it entirely uncomfortable.

With eyes shut, you can't see the hand signals from the DM, so the signal to remove the mask is given and then without sight or sound you just have to presume your doing the right thing. You begin by flooding your mask and removing the strap. You keep hold of the mask, for dropping that, like losing a fin, will incur serious beer-fines. With mask firmly I hand you tilt forward and begin to swim in as straight a line as you can manage. You just keep going steadily,  kicking your legs. The signal to stop is given by touch, one of the few senses still available to you, and you are grateful when it comes as the rising panic that comes with inhaling so much water and coughing continuously into your mouth-piece is almost irresistible. It is not uncommon for novice dives to become overwhelmed by panic and try to make a break for the surface. " That's how you get bent!" One of the DMs told us.

Two taps on the head. Now it's not over yet. The tricky task of replacing the mask and clearing it of water comes next. Tilting the mask and blowing air out hard from your nostrils usually does the trick.

Another double tap on the head to indicate a clear mask and hey presto, it's done! Thank God.

Jellie's large hand was offered to me as I opened my eyes finally. It was the signal that said 'well done'. I was delighted.

Soon we were back in our group and, as promised, at the end of the skills session we were allowed a little, 'free time' to swim around. After a quick air check, I was buddied up with Stanley and off we went to explore the length of the dredger. This felt great, we had all but passed the course and now we we had some freedom to go discover.

Stanley and I swam in touching distance, side by side. Inquisitive small silver fish flashed around our masks and below I could see translucent shrimp darting to and fro over the sea bed.  We followed the skeletal hulk of the former proud ship.  A ribcage of steel, like the Caracas of some extinct sea monster protruded from the yellow sand. We reached the bow of the ship and turning the corner we saw another diver. They had a string bag attached to their waist in which I could make out a collection of scallop shells. It was Dan and as soon as he saw the two of us approaching he stopped what he was doing and with a swift kick from his fins he had closed the distance between us.

'What now?' , I thought. The my eyes caught sight of what glinted in his right hand. It was a menacing-looking, diving dagger. Stanley and I exchanged a look, he too had spotted the knife and I could see uneasiness in his expression.

We were both relieved when Dan's first act, when he approached us, was to reach down and return the knife back in its ankle holster.

However,we were perplexed when, with free hands, he gave us the kneel signal. We stared at him for a second and he repeated his command, which was unequivocal.

The two us adjusted our BCDs to create negative buoyancy. Air bubbles escaped and we both came to rest on the sea bed.Was Dan going to ask us to help him look for scallops? That was too much to hope for. The guy was an asshole and he was about to take his natural, gift to a new low level.

Dan turned to Stanley and showed him the flat of his hand. It was the signal to 'stay' where he was. Then he turned to me. Those eyes drew level with mine, again they spoke of his intentions. They were filled with dark and wicked mischief. He was clearly savouring the moment. I hoped my eyes were giving away nothing, except , 'Yeah, what?'

Finally, Dan raised both hands and gave the unmistakably mask removal sign followed by swim, my first thought was to say , " But I've already completed that task, and with the Chief DM." Firstly, I didn't know the hand signals that would communicate that sentence and secondly, Dan knew full f***ing well I had already completed it.

I didn't react, I just stared at him. I hated this drill as much as anyone else. He signalled again and his eyebrows knotted together in his mask.  'Bastard!' I thought. I'd show him. I reached for my mask and started the flooding. Water rose up to my nose,  then up to my eyes and the last thing I saw before closing them was Dan's eyes. Once again they were wickedly narrow.

The mask was off and a stream of cold bubbles went straight up my nose carrying with them their stingy prickle which hit the back of my throat. I coughed violently through my reg. Nevertheless, I got on with it, with those butterflies of fear and uncertainty riding in my stomach, I tilted my body forward and started to swim slowly. With my head forwards and down the bubbles were less of a nuisance.  I focused on my breathing. That was the crucial thing and  I kicked slowly on.

'Come on you sod, that's far enough right?' anger welled-up inside me.  'Where's the rap on the head'. It didn't come, I swam on. Still nothing, I had no idea if he was still with me or not. What do I do? Do I stop or keep going? I was no longer scared, but severely pissed off with him.

Tap. Tap.

Thank God. There it was. I immediately stopped and retuned to the kneeling position. The bubbles were back in my face, but I managed, despite everything, to breathe slowly and deeply. I felt around my mask and pulled the strap over my head. I took my time. There's no way I was going to show this idiot that he' d got to me. I took a huge drag of air from my reg and cleared the mask in one long nasal breath, which evacuated the remaining water in my mask.

I blinked expecting to see that nasty expression again, but instead I looked into a mask with held a much more agreeable visage. It was Kim. She was checking the seal around my mask. She signalled 'OK?' and I returned the sign.

She then asked me to follow her, which I did unhesitatingly, then soon realised that Dan and Stanley were no where to be seen. I had no idea what had just happened in the time my eyes were closed. Soon Kim tuned back to me, she looked distracted and concerned. She gave the signal for a slow and safe ascent and together we made our way to the surface.

Stanley was mouthing something to me from the opposite side of the powerboat as we skipped and bumped our way over the surface of the waves at high speed. I couldn't quite make out what he was trying to say to me, but the ' Are you ok?' bit, I understood perfectly.

Dan was alone with Kim at the very front of the boat, but it was far from a romantic Titanic moment. Dan seemed to be desperately trying to explain something to her and she, remaining statuesque, was giving him the cold shoulder, staring straight ahead.

Back in the cafe it was hot drinks all round. Stanley, came up along side me just as I was ordering a second round of unhealthy fried  meat in a bread roll. He spoke in hushed tones, " You ok mate? What was that bastard Dan playing at? He just let you swim away. Without a mask! You need to say something to Jellie mate."

"Nah" I said, " just leave it!"

"Then, I'll say something," he was clearly concerned.

"It all turned out ok, Stan. I'm sure it was just his idea of a bit of a joke. He must have known Kim was around."

"I'm not sure about that," said Stanley. "They were just having a blazing row the car park just now."

"Look , " I smiled at him," Forget about it. We've just passed the course mate. Here's to us" I raised my mug of tea towards his and they clunked together.

I didn't want to make a big deal of it, but I couldn't lie to myself, it did bother me. I think the experience had aged me 5 years.

3 weeks later my PADI license was posted through the door. My birthdate was wrong on the card, it made me 5 years younger. ' Bonus' I thought, 'I've got those years back already. :-)

Going Under Part 7: The Tattooed Girl

The powerful motor boat tore over the Weymouth waves, sending up icy spray into our faces to prick at our skin. If we had not been awake before this, at this unGodly hour we were now.

All the trainee divers held onto short bungie ropes, attached to a centre rail in the boat, for dear life.  Sometimes the boat would climb a ramp of a wave before dropping down hard. The jolt was bone crunching. We were all sat on the outside rubber of the small, 20ft open topped vessel. We were already fully equipped for diving, in case we toppled in, with heavy tanks of air facing outwardly. The Dive Masters had done this many items before, of course, small powerboats like this were ideal for diving from and the skippers made good money from chartering the boats out to dive clubs like ours.

Pete, the Skipper, clearly loved his job. He stood at the wheel sharing a 'remember the time when...??' story with Steve, who was known as Jellie, and was chief Dive Master and team leader.  They had to shout to each other to be heard over the deafening growl of powerful engine at full throttle. Occasionally they would laugh heartily or glance back together and chuckle at the sight of the 5 trainee divers being tossed about like beads of sweat in a aerobics coach's bra, and clinging for dear life to the vaulting vessel.

They were the only ones laughing. The trainees were anxious about what was to come, my eyes skipped between them.They all sat deep in their own thoughts. Then there was Kim, one of the DMs, an attractive girl in her early thirties. She smiled over at me I looked away immediately. Next to Kim was.... Oh dear. Dan's gaze could burn glass. He stared at me unflinching. Dark and brooding. 'What's that guys problem',I thought. 'Surley, he's not pissed off about earlier, is he? ' ....'I guess he is.'

No more than an hour earlier we had arrived at Portland harbour at dusk. Four cars brought us all to the quiet and sleeping water side car park, next to the dockyard. There was a cafe and, despite being this ungodly hour, it was open.

Most of the guys took the opportunity to get a hot brew down them before we started. Some others unloaded their equipment. Myself and a overexcited Greyhound of a man, called Stanley, decided we'd get changed immediately into our wetsuits and focus on keeping warm afterwards.

Next to the cafe was a toilet and changing room area. Just the one toilet and just the one adjoining changing space.  The two of us took hoods, suits, jackets boots and gloves through the door. Stanley sized up the situation and  decided that he did not want to get changed in the small space with me, being the prudish chap he was no doubt, so he decided to use the toilet to change in.

Before long I was frantically tugging my wet suit up over my legs, like trying to wrap a condom around a turkey, when the door open and Kim entered carrying her dry suit on a hanger. She tried the toilet door. "Stanley's in there", I offered, " I think last night's curry didn't agree with him".

She looked disgruntled for a second and then turned to me. " Well, there's enough room in here, I suppose" . She hung her hanger on a peg then as she pulled her rucksack from her shoulder. She paused for a second  and looked back at me. "You ok with this?"

"Yeah," I replied. Not knowing exactly what I was ok with, but I soon got the idea.

Putting on my wet suit got no easier as I hastened to finish changing and get the hell out of there.

As Kim peeled off her clothes I turned to face the bench where my open bag lay and I stared fixedly at it while pulling a stiff sleeve over my shoulder.

She was making small talk with me, but I wasn't paying attention to what he was saying. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that her fleece sweater was still on, but, bugger -the trousers were off! Something caught my attention, I glanced over ever so briefly, - electric pink underwear!? You're kidding me?

Attention back on the bag, Rich! -I told myself, but wait a minute, weren't they?...... instinctively I glanced over again. Bloody hell, they were, they're see-through! I must have turned scarlet!

Thank God prudish Stanley wasn't out here, he'd have keeled over.

She was still talking to me, relaxed, calm, friendly.

With the wetsuit finally on, head down, I started to pack my bag and prepare for my exit. Then I became aware the fleece had dropped down onto the bench next to me. I picked up my bag to go. I turned and saw it.

 I wasn't expecting that.

All thoughts of averting my gaze respectfully fell away suddenly. I stared at her and without thought the words were out of my mouth, "Oh my God, Kim!"

Her back was still facing me and the entire expanse of flesh was covered in a vivid and elaborate, tattoo montage; there were mermaids at play, a sunken ship, tropical fish, an octopus with tentacles that wound there way along her upper arms, a sun, surfers, dolphins and sharks. It was truly a beautiful work of art.

"That's amazing!" I said.

"Do you like it?" Kim half turned. "It was bloody painful and expensive, but was worth it in the  end".

"How long did it take to do?" I was truly impressed and honestly interested.

"About two years. I needed to save up in between sessions. It's all by the same artist, I kept going back to this guy in Bristol. He's amazing and does quite a few footballers and  celebs."

"Which one is your favourite then? " she turned to face me. Strangely, it seemed not to matter anymore that she was only standing in her pink underwear.

 The whale on her bicep I had not noticed before. She lifted her arm close to my face and flexed her muscle. The whales head bulged and his eye widened and closed on each flex, " It's my party trick",she laughed. I laughed too. That was until she lowered her arm. The space just beyond it was now filled with an grotesque face, gurning at me . It was Dan, Kim' boyfriend.


"I-it bulges!" was all I could splutter.

"I bet it does!" Dan returned in an guttural growl.

" I was just showing Rich my tats." Kim interjected, dismissively.

I prayed Dan had not misunderstood what she had just said, as I had just done.

Dan turned to Kim crossly. " What the hell are you changing out here for? Why don't you use the toilet?"

" There's someone in there, obviously", Kim replied. And at that moment there was a clicking sound and  the toilet door half opened, we all turned as one. Stanley's head poked out. His eyes passed between the three of us briefly before disappearing back inside - the lock clicking firmly shut once again.

So that's what Dan's got the hump about . A simple misunderstanding. Totally innocent. But Dan's glare across the boat at me told me he was deeply pissed off with me. There's was nothing I could say that could help.

The boat made it's way out of Portland Harbour and over the remains of H.M.S. Hood, which was scuttled and sunk across the entrance of the harbour during the Second World War to stop submersed U boats from entering the harbour and making easy pickings of the Royal Navy and merchant craft moored up there.

Although less glamorous, Jellie had promised us a wreck on the last dive of the Open Water diving course. It was the wreck of an old dredger, which sank after it got into difficulty whilst constructing the harbour wall. We arrived at the spot and the out-board motor turned from roaring dragon to purring like a cat.

We went through the final checks with Jellie. The other Dive Masters, Dan and Kim, had already tipped backwards into the water. None of the five of us had done this sort of entry before, it was something a few were dreading.

"I don't want to do this?", Lorna was sat next to me as the call of 'Regs in!' was given by Jellie.

"You'll be fine!" was, pathetically, all I could offer as reassurance before clasping my lips over my regulator. It's an odd thing, but I have found whilst doing this dive course that I seemed to take strength from other people's  fears and self-doubts, or at the very least, I used it as a distraction from my own dark thoughts.

One of those thoughts was the disturbing dream I had given myself last night.  I had dreamt I was deep under the water and drowning. Not the thing you want to be doing the night before your first open sea dive. I dreamt that my frantic fear of not being able to breathe soon gave way to a more calm and relaxed experience once Rea, a former pet, a beloved family Alsatian from my youth, appeared and joined me in the still and silent deep.

I woke sweating in the sheets of my room at the B&B. I cursed myself in the bathroom mirror for inflicting upon myself such an hideous nightmare and for losing valuable rest time. It was 4am and we needed to be dock side by 6am.

"I will call your name and count to 3. If you don't go on 3, you won't go in!" warned the Dive Master. "It's important to get a positive start to build confidence, so who wants to go first?"

There was much adjusting of masks and BCDs, but no one spoke.

"Right then!" continued Jellie. " I know who won't let us down. Ready Rich?"
My head shot up. I couldn't believe he chose me. My self belief was given a new boost. I was ready and told him so.

"3....2....1...GO!" I'd seen it so many times on telly, now here I was unhesitatingly throwing myself backwards off a boat and into the sea. There was a brief moment of disorientation, but the drills training took over and I remembered what I must do first. I immediately surfaced, turned and signal to the boat crew. The hand on my head told them I was fine.

Then a sloosh of ice-water , evading my wetsuit's defences, shot down the back of my neck, cascaded down my spine, and found a new home in the fjord of my bum-crack.
Fortunately, the regulator in my mouth muffled my cursing.

Before long, with the whole dive-team were in the water, it was time to descend. I hoped and prayed that things would be fine and that the dive would go smoothly  .....yeh,  like hell it would...... Final instalment soon, Dan's Revenge.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Going Under Part 6: And Then There Were Five

To wait 5minutes for someone your are expecting to arrive can not be considered a big deal, even by the most impatient. However, the context of the waiting is entirely key in this. Setting plays a big part too.

Take the situation I recently found myself in. I was not alone, but with someone I had not known very long, a nice girl called Lorna. We were both kneeling, shivering and holding hands, for reassurance purposes. The person we were waiting the 5, or so, minutes for had led us 18 metres straight down narrow shaft, in a flooded and disused stone quarry, and abandoned us to the cold and the dark.

'They're ought to be a bloody good reason for this', I thought to myself. Bravado was my only way of generating a little body heat. Despite the wetsuit , it was cold.

There was, so it happened, a very good reason for the wait. One of the trainees following us down the shaft had panicked. Be it brought on by a overwhelming and irresistible attack of vertigo or claustrophobia, the result was that poor Alan had made a dash for the surface at 10 meters down with Dan, one of the Dive Master team, frantically hanging onto his legs to stop him ascending too quickly. This can be extremely risky as divers can suffer the effects of decompression sickness, otherwise known as the 'bends'.

The remaining trainees with the dive masters (DMs) had returned to the open shaft, their torches, coming down through the gloom, were a welcome sight for Lorna and I. Jelly, the lead DM, then organised everyone together and we went thought our skills and drills. If any of us were to pass and qualify for PADI Diving licence then we needed to prove we could carry out all the necessary tasks under water.

Fin pivots, flooded mask clearing, using alternative air sources, and controlled ascents were some of the things we needed to prove we were competent at. All under the scrupulous gaze of the DMs, through the kicked-up silt and gloom.

Despite the fractious start it was a good session not just for myself, but for the remaining trainees.

Back at the surface I passed my tanks, jacket and fins up to Kim, another of the DMs, before making slow progress up the iron ladder from the water hampered by a sodden and constrictive wetsuit. Before I got to the top I could hear raised voices.

It was policeman-Dan. Still in dripping in his dive gear, he stood, leaning menacingly over someone who sat in front of him on the bench. A condescending, finger jutted back and forth. ' I don't care if you want to get yourself bent, but next time I will leave you to it!'

At the time I had no idea what was going on. I had no knowledge of what had happened to Alan, but I was now piecing things together.

'If you thought your weren't up to this Alan , you should have f***ing said something before put our lives at risk!" Dan continued his rebuke the forlorn Alan, until Jelly interjected.

"That's enough, Dan!" The big man's words sounded like a drum.

Dan, red faced and spitting, turned to face Jelly, " I'm not having this Steve ..."

"ENOUGH!" The senior DM showed him the flat of his hand hand to accentuate the point. It may have been instinctive, but the hand signal meant STOP, even at the surface.

Dan, shot a look at his partner Kim who now had a grip on his upper arm. He wrenched his    arm away and stormed off, head steaming in the cold air. We all looked on, many open mouthed.

Jelly watched Dan go before turning to us. He suddenly, looked drained. " We're calling that a day guys".

"Tomorrow we're diving off Portland. Go fill your tanks and make sure you don't leave any of you kit behind."

Almost apologetically he turned to the figure who had been motionless throughout. "Alan grab yourself a brew, we need a chat". Childlike, Alan stood, uneasily and then moved through us, like a ghost, making no eye with any of us.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Going Under part 5 : Alone in the Dark

Going Under: part 5

Signal, orientate, regulator in the mouth, time check, elevate BCD and down we went. Lorna and I had been buddies together for this second dive at Vobster Quarry and the Dive Masters words were still ringing in my ears. 

"Stay close together and don't bloody wander off!" 

Steve or Jellie as those who knew him well called him was as unjelly-like as you can possibly imagine. He was bald headed, sported a broken nose and was robustly built. He was a firm but fair kinda man and had earned our respect, which was useful, especially as , to a degree, our life was in his hands. 

It was the first of two days on our Open Water scuba diving exams and things had not gone well on our first dive. The trainees, including myself, had made several bad mistakes, and this had not inspired confidence in Steve and his Dive Master team. One of those coaches, Andy, had taken an obvious dislike to me.

Lorna gave me the signal to descend and under the watchful gaze of Steve, Jellie, and the rest of the anxious-looking group nearby. We slowly let out the air from our buoyancy jackets and sank below the surface. 

The plan was that in groups of three , that's two trainees buddied-up and one supervising DM (Dive Master) we would descend down a shock line, which could be 'shot' line, but I was too shy to ask which it was. Essentially, is was a line of rope fixed to the bottom which divers could follow in their descent. It almost guaranteed that all divers would arrive in the same place. Well, that was the plan, I guess.

The last time we dived it was down to 5 meters This dive was taking us to a new low of 18 metres. No wonder the DMs were nervous going into is one. No one had told us. 

Stone quarries are obviously man made and as such it is clear to see the man-made digging that has happened over time. Even in a flooded quarry like Vobster you could see the workings of the quarry. 

The five metre level we had dived first time had an edge, like a precipice, a clear line which demoted deeper water beyond. The shock line of rope which Lorna and I followed down disappeared into a rectangular shaft-hole, of about 4X4 metres, with one side open. We descended into this shaft, urged on by Jellie,  who regularly checked, with the familiar hand signal, if Lorna and I were 'OK'.

To my relief, I was 'OK', due to my new found, ' get the f*** on with it attitude' I had discovered in myself. A glance into Lorna's mask told me another story; she was far from ok. The poor girl was terrified. The line of rope we slowly dropped down disappeared into a black shaft, it was testing our fears of vertigo and claustrophobia all wrapped into one. 

I looked into Jelly's mask, it was clear to me he wanted to separate the wheat from the chaff here; he wanted to see what we were made of.  Then I spotted his torch, which he unclipped from his belt. He switched it on as we approached the opening to the shaft. He shone the light down and the sides of the white stone were illuminated as was the the thin line of rope disappearing into the gloom. What I could not see, however, was the bottom.

Down we went into the shaft first jelly, then Lorna and myself almost side by side. I wondered what the rest of the groups following made of this.

Continuously holding my nose and blowing, I had never had to equalise the pressure in my inner ears quite this much; I had never been this far down before.

Eventually, Jelly turned and face upwards. He had reached the bottom and was kneeling on the bottom. He signalled to us to do the same. Lorna and I let go of the rope and we both knelt down nearby linking arms, which was good practice to keep groups together. 

Jellie once again checked we were fine, and we both signalled we were although my heart was beating fast. 'Take long slow breaths', I kept telling myself. All I could hear was the sound of my regulator and the bubbles I breathed out passing close to my ears.

Jellie shone the torchlight on a wall of the white stone shaft. The bright light picked out a cloud of silt we had disturbed and in it tiny fish darted. We waited. Occasionally, Jellie shone his torch back up the shaft looking for the others. Where were they? They were taking their time getting down here. In that strange way, despite the near total silence, it is still possible to interpret people's moods and I felt Jellie's anxiety growing. 

I looked at Lorna, I could hardly make her out in the darkness and the silt-cloud when the beam of torchlight was pointed back up the shaft. Then it happened. Jellie suddenly  turned to Lorna and gave her a clear 'stay here' sign. He then turned to me and also showed me the flat of his hand. Then he turned and made his way to the shot line and began ascending into the darkness. He was leaving us! Surely not! The sod was leaving us 18 metres down in near darkness. In disbelief, I tracked the beam of light upwards as it disappeared into the gloom above us. Feelings of pure, cold fear started to whelm in the pit of my stomach.

I looked back to Lorna who was squeezing my arm tightly. I could just make her out. Her eyes were wide, the poor girl was frightened. I could see by her bubbles that she was breathing shallowly and fast. I encouraged her to breathe slowly and deeply. Shallow breathing at depth can be very dangerous and it can bring on panic. 

My own fear suddenly left me, I was much more concerned about Lorna at that moment. I unhooked my arm and reached out for her hands. She responded and we gripped each others hands tightly. As the light drew away from us we were enveloped in darkness. I could only make out the whites of her eyes now, even in the short distance we were from each other. It was time to pray, and hope that someone would be down for us soon. We waited and we waited...

Going Under Part 4 : By The Seat of My Pants

 It was 5:30am and I was pinned to my sports seat and grateful that i had no time to eat breakfast this morning. I was driving shotgun for Cartwright, a trainee diver like myself, clearly a 'BoyRacer' , but I had him down for 30 plus, so I thought he should know better. "What is this fellow doing?"  Cartwright was leaning forward in his seat, nose pressed close to the windscreen. 
Bar offering a few grunts of acknowledgment I stayed quiet. Allowing him space to concentrate and allowing me time to remember the Lord's Prayer. 

We were travelling in convoy and were not late, although he drove like we were. Full on the accelerator or hard on the brakes, Cartwright did not know the meaning of coasting. 
We followed two 4x4 brimming with dive trainers, trainees and their dive kit. We travelled in an Evolution ( Japanese sports car, I forget which make) but it was supped up and pimped to the max. The dashboard in front of me looked like something from The Enterprise, with all manner of digital dials and monitoring gadgets, on the dash up the sides and on the low ceiling between our heads.  

I took the opportunity to enquire about them when a set of traffic lights had the impertinence to stop us in our screeching tracks. Cartwright was quiet, polite and well spoken, but edgy, always edgy, like he had committed some terrible deed in his past and he feared that the very next person to speak was about to expose his secret.

I made him jump and he looked me with wide eyes, perhaps he had forgotten I was there. Behind the wheel of his baby he was clearly wired. 

" Oh, all this? It's all highly important. This is my turbo indicator and this one tells me the temperature of my fuel..."

I had little time to ask why it was vital to know what temperature your fuel was as on the 'A' of amber Cartwight had pushed the pedal to the floor and once again my face was sucked back into my headrest, I felt folds of cheek skin gather at my ears. 

In an hour we had arrived at Vobster Quarry, a disused stone quarry that had been allowed to fill with water and then converted to a scuba diving centre. 

Steve 'Jellie' , the Dive Master gathered the 6 trainees together and apologised for the change if venue. We was a stocking built former Rugby player. Bald as a coot, but felt as home being under water, as out of it. 

Due to storms out at sea, the first day of our Open Dive exams would not be off the coast of Weymouth, instead it would be in the more reliable setting of the quarry.

" It's probably a blessing in disguise," Jellie remarked, " The water is fresh water and still. We won't get carried away by surges and currents. It's a good introduction to open water diving. Right guys, hope you enjoy the day, get your kit together and we dive in 30 minutes!"

The sun was creeping up and starting to offer some warmth, although, to be fair, it was October and it wasn't cold. 

Scuba diving is one of those a activities where a great deal of (expensive) kit is required. None of the trainees had there own, so we were borrowing the clubs equipment. Air tanks ' tins', buoyancy jackets ( BCDs), lead weights were all heavy and cumbersome, while wet suits, hoods, gloves, fins and masks, made being outside the water uncomfortable and just plain awkward. 

In the water, however, it's a different story. 

We all took a big step forward off the jetty and into the cold dark waters. I was greeted by a sloosh of chilling water down the length of my spine. Wet suits are not designed to keep water out, that's for dry suits.  A wet suit takes water in, but then a layer of water close to the skin is warmed by the body and it is that which keeps you warm, in theory. However, a loosely fitting wet suit will create pockets of circulating water which will remain cold. As for mine, I could not complain, it felt tight on the surface, but was now fine.

Three by three ( that's two buddy trainees and a Dive Master) descended to about 5 metres. We swam around a for a while and then gathered together at the bottom for some basic skills and drills from Jellie. At least that was the plan. It took forever to get everyone back together at the same point. The DMs were working overtime with flooded mask issues, dropped fins, trainees swimming off, even one inadvertently inflating their BCDs resulting in an uncontrolled ascent to the surface with the DM hanging onto their leg. This is not life threatening at 5 metres, but can by lethal from greater depths.

Underwater speech is useless, of course. So, instead, divers use a type of sign language that can make themselves understood. With experience it is possible to have conversations underwater and even interpret the mood of the signer. When we had finally gathered into some sort of order, kneeling at the bottom in front of Jellie, it was clear he was mucho pissed off. We had learned many of the hand signals one can use under water, but Jelly was using a few new ones that were probably not in the book anyway and, although delivered in total silence, we got the message loud and clear.

Back on the surface he continued to barrette our forlorn bunch, "'s as though you've learned NOTHING from five weeks in the pool! We couldn't even get all the skills done in that first dive! You guys dive that badly again and we'll just get back in the cars and drive home! You'll all fail!" Then Jelly dismissed us and called his DMs together for a secret debriefing while the rest of us got our tins refilled and grabbed coffee.

We felt terrible! I, too, had messed up. At the bottom I had spotted the rear part of a aeroplane, one of many old vehicles sunk to give divers something to look at. I drifted closer to it for a better look, but once I turned around I had lost my DM Andy and buddy Cartwright in the silt cloud. Visibility was only a few feet. Luckily, another DM, coming up behind,  had seen me peel off and she collected me and led me to the meeting point. Her name was Kim and her and Andy were an item. Andy was a policeman by trade and was not happy with me at all.

Later, I was checking my kit when he sidled up to me, "I got my nuts chewed off 'cos of you". Andy's chiseled features were grim.

"Sorry?" I pretended not to know what he was talking about, but I knew.

"You going off sight seeing like that! " he growled. " Always stick to your buddy!"
I took the lesson, but didn't like his manner with me. I remained calm, but turned to face him more face on.
"Look, I'm sorry. The visibility was bad. I'm not used to...."
"You will be sorry!" he cut me off, eyes narrowing, " Jellie wants you with him next dive. Try and lose him down there and you'll know the meaning of 'sorry'!" 

The tense eye contact we exchanged as he moved away was only broken my a much, softer, kinder voice. " Don't worry about him," it was Kim, his partner and fellow DM.

"He's just annoyed that he lost you and I found you". She smiled attractively. " Just remember to stick close to your buddy, really tight. "

"I know I f***ed up, but it's just his attitude," I explained.

 "All the DMs are a bit edgy with this group, it's not just you. We've got a lot of pressure on us, too. Next dive we are going much deeper. Jelly will be keeping an eye on you. "

We exchanged smiles and I returned to sorting my kit out determined to make it a good dive.

"In the water in 10 minutes! " came the call from Jelly. " Rich and Lorna, you with me!"

 As determined as I, and the rest of the trainees, were to not make any more mistakes we were not to know what was to happen next. Six trainees were going into the water, but only five were coming out..

Going Under: part 3

' I've never seen anyone as calm as you on there first time underwater' .
'Thanks' I sputtered as I spat out my regulator, heart pounding hard under my buoyancy jacket. Bruce was an experienced Divemaster and I took the complement as it was intended. I had surprised myself. I had just finished a frightening first scuba experience under water.

The sensation of being under water is unlike any other. Even swimming underwater is a different experience. I mere fact that you can actually breathe, artificially or not it's mind blowing. And that's the key; as long as you can get you mind 'used' it  you are fine, but if your mind is 'blown' then you will soon discover that diving is not for you.

What worked for me and the it was probably the reason I took to diving was that I could breathe and that comforted me. No matter how deep I would dive, and in qualifying it would be mo more than 18 meters, telling myself, ' You can still breathe, so you are ok', really helped me.

After 5 weeks in the pool and classroom I was given the all clear and invited to attend the qualifying weekend, in Weymouth. This would be the real test for myself and my 5 other fellow trainees. Could we transfer what we had learned in the pool to challenge of open water?

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Going Under : Part 2

Going Under : part 2
I cant actually recall what got me thinking about taking a scuba diving course. Yes, well, of course it had everything to do with turning 40, but diving?
I have never been a strong swimmer, I learned late and did not enjoy my experiences of school swimming lessons. Even now the smell of chlorine sends me straight back to that new town swimming centre, when, at the age of 8, a swimming coach named Mr Salmon ( no kidding) leaned over me at the side of the pool. With Popeye arms the white vested 60 something would crack a weak joke before sending children to their watery doom.

" What did the canary eat for breakfast?  Tweetabix! "  Push....SPLASH!

At that time I couldn't even swim!

I never voluntarily choose to take my kids swimming and the Jaws films traumatised me as a teenager ( except the third one, of course, which was just made for giggles).

Everything points to a man who would never, in a million years, choose to risk his life by offering himself to the cold embrace water.  Yet, here I am. And why?

For the past 5 weeks Tuesday evenings were given over to making the short joinery to a local pool and learning to dive with Scuba Club. At 10 in the evening a small group of us were being put through our paces by our Dive Masters.

"Isn't this bloody amazing! " Stanley, another trainee diver, would say to me.

" Yeah, I guess" " I would reply.

At that time I didn't realise how amazingly bloody it would become...

Friday, 11 October 2013

Going Under: part 1

Going Under: part 1
I stepped off the train at Burnham only because my ticket had told me that if I had wanted to get to Weymouth from Brighton that I should travel ' via Burnham'. I thought this was a change point, where I could pick up a direct train. The platform was deserted and the automated, message, announcer, woman was announcing the departure of a train to Bognor Regis.

"No mate, there's no train to Weymouth from here you should have stayed on that train to Southampton." I had clearly amused the proprietor of a smallest eat-in platform cafe I had ever seen. " You'll have to get the next one at 12:57 now". He smiled, not unkindly, and showed a string of yellow teeth. He was in his late 40's with a sailor style crewcut with a grey T shirt pulled tightly over a portly frame, which made it look as though he was wearing a buoyancy aid underneath. 

 I thanked him for his information and was about to order some food when a tanoy speaker crackled into life over his left shoulder. It was too loud to talk over the monotone announcer so I wait eyed patiently for it to end. 

"The train arriving on platform 2  is the 12:30, Southern service to Bognor Regis. Calling at Bognor Regis. This train is made up of 3 coaches and is calling at Bognor Regis only!"

We maintained eye contact throughout the announcement and now it had finally ended I  ordered a chilli pot noodle, an anaemic sausage and brown sauce sandwich and a cup of dark brown hot liquid, which may, or may not, have been coffee.

With 45 minutes to kill I sat in the small space dedicated to seating and took in the room. As well as the usual confectionary there was a book table displaying train and railway books from bygone eras, some of these looked very old. The walls were adorned with photos and paintings of attractive steam engines. Under foot was a cracked, but beautifully ornate tiled floor, this little cafe had bags of character.

"Is this floor original?" I asked. 

"It's all original," said the man. I wondered if he was including the sausage sandwich when he said that.  "This floor is from 1910, as is the windows, doors, pretty much everything!"  My molars crunched into something hard in my sausage sandwich.
"We don't want to change like all those new stations with all their pumpkins and lemon trees.." The geriatric speaker behind him crackled into life again but the man, seeming unaware of this fact continued to talk, his lips moved, but I could only hear...

"The train arriving on platform 2  is the 12:36 Southern service to Bognor Regis. Calling at Bognor Regis. This train is made up of 3 coaches and is calling at Bognor Regis only."

"....which is why we sell jellied sweets in pots" he finished.

"Doesn't that speaker disturb you?" 

"What speaker?" He asked. I pointed out the obvious black trumpet shape next to him screwed to the wall. "Oh that, no I don't notice that anymore".

"There are a lot of trains going to Bognor Regis from here?" I observed.

"Every 6 minutes on platform 2, regular like." he said proudly.

"Every 6 minutes! Don't you ever get tired of hearing the words Bognor Regis? I have only been here 20 minutes and it's driving me crazy"

His brow furrowed. "I never thought of it like that," he said.

I thanked him for the food and waited for my train outside on the platform. The next time a train was announced to Bognor Regis I peeked through the window of the cafe to see the man staring hard at the speaker on his wall.

Five more times the trains to Bognor Regis were announced and he still had his eyes fixed to that speaker. 

When my train finally pulled away, I could just make out the poor cafe owner desperately stuffing serviettes into the bell of the speaker.

Inner Journeys

Turning 40 has turned out to be a positive experience for me, so far. I made a conscious effort, fed by an unconscious yearning, to do more for myself. Being a father of 3 with a demanding job would no longer be an excuse for not making time out to feed my soul. I've never quite understood the concept of 'finding oneself', but if it meant finding more out about myself then that would be a worthwhile experience, I think, but perhaps this is not so.
Only yesterday I was listening to Terry Waite. He was the keynote speaker at the Headteachers conference. It was a sober and thought- provoking precursor to , the more frivolous, beach volleyball and indulgent eating, drinking that would follow.

Terry had spoken in solemn tones if his 5 year captivity in Lebanon, during the 1980's. Most of this time was spent shut away in a small cell, on his own, in silence, sometimes in darkness with nothing to read.

He spoke about an 'inner journey' that he took in a desperate attempt to preserve his sanity. He described it like any other journey one would make by travel : exploring , opening doors, looking inside, questioning and trying to understand things better.
He described the 'good' that he found inside himself on this journey, but also the dark parts and 'evil' he found there.  He said that this discovery had disturbed him immensely and rather than securing his sanity, nearly tipped him over the edge.

It was surprising to believe that a man who had filled his life with numerous self-less acts of courage to save the lives of complete strangers could ever have such an evil within. Yet it was there and he had seen it. That time spent on his own was the vehicle of this discovery.  This resonated with me, as most of the activities I had planned to do now turning 40 were solitary. I was choosing to on my own. I will have plenty of time to make ' inner journeys' of my own and I can only hope that I'm not alarmed of what I find there.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Hadrian's : Every great thing must....

Breakfast wasn't the best at the Cornerways B&B, in Carlisle. The bacon looked like it had been cooked by body heat alone and, by way of contradiction, the egg had been crucified, a Wayne Bobbitt sausage completed the items on the plate which were all swimming in bean sauce. This was bewildering as I couldn't actually see any beans. I declined the extra round of toast and left as quickly as I could.  

The sun was shining, finally. Although this seemed like a wonderful backdrop for my triumphant procession to the end of the Hadrian Trail, it proved to be a hindrance. I got very hot, very quickly and, whereas, I had been cutting back on water over the last few days as I was not getting through 3 litres a day, now I was getting through the water fast.

 My mission was to walk the final 15 miles to Solway village and get back to Carlisle again before my train left at 3:30pm.  I got in the walking frame of mind early on and powered on.

I ignored the sights of historical interest, the beautiful view was now background scenery, even the iPod was off. It was a time for concentration and reflection.

It was strange to consider the  journey I had come on in just 5 days, and I am not talking about the distance. I had changed. I was now a confident walker ( although I hadn't cracked the camping thing yet). I had started today with no plasters on my feet and I was not missing them. I hadn't taken my daily dose of Nurofen and I didn't feel i needed it. My feet had toughened, the skin had become like leather. My shoulders had also changed shape, they felt stronger and wider. My calves and thighs were rock-hard and my buttocks could crush boulders...small ones. When starting out my backpack had felt awkward on my back, like giving a friend a piggyback on a drunken night out down the street. You're always relieved to put them down.  The pack felt natural on my back now, it was almost part of me, it actually stopped feeling heavy.

On the second day of the challenge I honestly had doubts that I could do it. I contemplated  giving in and was already preparing my excuses for those at home. Day 3 was the big turning point. It was as if my body had said to me, ' You idiot Rich! You did no training and look at what you've done to our feet!' My body rebelled, it ached me, it bled and blistered me and even when I wanted to rest, it would not allow me to.

On day three we had come to a compromise. I would ensure that we would try and sleep in a proper bed each night, if we could, but we would carry on with the walk and the body had better get itself sorted. To my amazement, it did!

I can't remember exactly when the last visible feature of the wall disappeared, but by the time I'd crossed the marshes around Port Carlisle, the trail was following a large grassy bank. The wall disappeared again and I lost the trail, my compass told me which direction it should take and I found a length of wall jutting out into the mudflats around the bay. I think that was the end of it. A sign said that a great Roman fort originally stood on the sight, but no visible signs were left. Things was danger of turning into a bit of a damp squib.

 I hadn't expected fanfares, or a welcoming committee with a ticker tape parade or a medal, but there was no ending. Nothing. I needed an ending, I needed closure.

Wandering further into Burness-on-Solway, more by habit than direction, I spotted a  wooden signpost I recognised, it was the final sign for the Hadrian's Wall path. I was so happy. It directed me to a small path that ran down to the waters edge. The tide was out, but I followed the path to a secluded garden where ornately carved benches were dotted around and at the centre was a small wooden structure. Carved above the entrance was the face of Emperor Hadrian and beneath, in red, were the words: "Welcome to the end of the Hadrian's Wall path, Ave Terminvum Vallis Hadirani Vagusta Pervenesti"
I have no idea what it meant, but that didn't matter.

 On the floor was a tiled mural of wading birds in the bay. It was nice, simple, but in some way fitting. I was satisfied I had finally finished. I had my end.

I took a moment to catch my breath and take it all in. I felt a strong and profound sense of achievement flow through me.

Moments later, I was joined by an Italian walker who'd I'd spotted several times behind me on the trail from Carlisle. We swapped stories and I asked him to take a photo of me, he obliged and then asked me to take one of him - with my camera! I did and he asked he immediately left quite happy that I had this memento of him being there.

I picked up my bag, took one last look across the bay, took a deep breath and left to find my way home.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Hadrian's : The Road to Carlisle

I left early on day 4, with a hangover, but eager to put some miles behind me.

I rejoined the trail near Cawfields Quarry and reached the highest point of the entire wall when I still had energy in my legs for the climb. The view from there was breathtaking, but as often was the case there was no one around to share it with.

I have met many people on The Wall walk, and when I do people are always polite and courteous and will share a 'good morning', a 'hello' or a 'hi'. There is a real and profound sense of mutual bonding around a shared experience. It is truly heart-warming!

However, I must say, I have noticed that an in-proportionate number of the couples I have met along the way happen to be middle-aged lesbians.
Now, hold on! Allow me to substantiate this comment by evidencing the fact they have short hair, no makeup, comfortable shoes and a noncommittal air about them.

This is an observation, not a homophobic remark.

In fact, I'll have you know, some of my most cherished jpegs happen to be lesbian.
It is merely an anthropological observation and I am sure they are all very nice people and good to their pets.

I pressed on to the small town of Gildsland when the path I was following crossed the A road to the south. It was a small attractive town whose narrow  roads were never designed for a large coach packed with tourists meeting a delivery lorry going in the other direction. The traffic had ground to a halt. It was at times like this I was pleased I was travelling on foot.

The next towns of Newton and Crosby were similarly contemporary with the look of the area, but rather spoilt by the inevitable appearance of KFC and Subway.

I was determined to make it to Carlisle by sunset. I was painfully aware that the patchwork of plasters on my feet had all detached several miles back and I had run out of replacements.

I stopped caring what the view was like or what point of historic interest I was passing by: I was, head down and 'in the zone' , concentrating hard on putting one put in front of another and keeping a fast and steady rhythm. This is where my iPod was a GodSend, with the setting on shuffle, I  used the fast tracks to beat out the pace and skipped over the slowies. At one point Bing Crosby, inexplicably, appeared in my ear singing a lullaby. Not now Bing! I could have done this that on my first night of wild camping.

I staggered into town feeling, finally, like a seasoned walker having put a good 25 miles in. I had used Carlisle as my goal, my utopia, my place of pilgrimage, as it represented the final significant habitation near to the end my journey. However, in my exhausted frame of mind and beaten body, I had a negative perception when it came to first impressions. The place looked run down and dirty and I thought the people had taken liberties with their God-given right to be ugly. (So says the steaming, smelly Gruffalow that just entered town)
There was also an extraordinary number of bargain shops all in one area.
The was Poundland, Less Land , Less than a Pound Land, Bargain World, Bargain Basement, Cheap Zone, Half Price Palace, Low Cost Castle and Cheapo Chappies all on the same street!

It was here that my brochure, obtained at the Tourist Information Office, told me the cheapest B&Bs were to be found. I found one called Cornerways and the doorbell was answered by a huge, red faced man in his 60's who spoke with a well-heeled, Home Counties accent. I know we mustn't make generalisation about people, but I presumed he had spent a long and  unsuccessful career as a Shakespearian Thespian before deciding to run a bed and breakfast with his mother. They probably lived downstairs together and would spend long evenings in  together watching reruns of Brideshead Revisited and the Onedin Line,  whist keeping her propped up and refilled with stuffing.

'Yaaaarss', the opened dramatically.

"I was wondering if you had a single room free for the night?" I was well aware he was making a top to toe analysis of me.

" I have one room left, the rate is 40 pounds sterling a night."

"But the Brochure says that a room is £30 a night?" I waved the brochure at him.
His eyes narrowed. "Yars, well that is our winter rate."

"Is that the winter as in the season or in climate 'cos it's still bloody cold?"

"It's the season!" I could see that the large door was slowly closing on me. The audible clack of another crushed vertebra under the weight of my rucksack prompted me to stop perusing the point and politely accept his generous offer.

The room was very small and I had to share a shower. ( Not with him and not at the same time, of course).

Before I showered I popped into a local charity shop and picked out an outfit for myself. Light blue shortsleeved shirt, said medium, but turned out to be extra large (£3), a dark, brown long sleeved cardigan with a blend of suede and corduroy, unique and another bargain at £4. I also bought some beige trousers that were never going to fit me for £3. I hoped the look might be so different as to be trendy, but at least it was clean. But I still wasn't.  I went back to the b&b, had a shower (alone), got dressed into my new/old threads, in front of the two-way mirror in my room and hit the town.

I found a huge Wetherspoons pub near the station, drank more than I should have done, given the circumstances and somehow managed to find my way back to Cornerways. The door was firmly locked. It was still earlyish, 10pm, but I had totally forgotten the code for the door lock I had been given when I checked in.

Reluctantly, I rang the bell. No answer. I rang again, still nothing. Just as I was going to consider what my next move might be the door opened. It was the landlord wearing what can only be described as a huge stripped nightshirt, come smock thing.

"I take it you've forgotten the code I gave you earlier? I did repeat it twice," You can consider yourself fortunate, we don't open the door after 10. That's what the code is for. They sleep on the door mat, they do."

Entering, I started to apologise, but we were interrupted by a dull, thud-like sound from the room behind him, he seemed alarmed at this and without a word hastily returned to the room closing the door behind him.

I can only presume his mother had rolled off her wicker chair again, spilling stuffing all over the floor.

I took the chance to nip upstairs to room 5 and barricade my door for the night.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Hadrian's: the best night ever!

The benefiting sleep at the B&B in Corbridge had given me a new lease of life. I was positively bounding along again now.

I entered the Northumberland National Park, which was as bleak, desolate and unforgiving as you can expect, but it had a harsh beauty of its own.

It is in this heritage site that the real conservation of Hadrian's Wall was to be found. All the classic photos of The Wall following crests of hills, stretching on and on into the distance were taken here. The path was relentless, like following the track of a roller coaster, up steep gradients and down steep banks. Just when you thought you'd reached the hill top you had spotted an hour earlier, The Wall continued, relentlessly, on and on, always disappearing into the horizon.

Knowing that there was no real 'end' made setting targets difficult. The path was remorseless and this was just as mentally challenging than physically so.

It was late on, when I had had about enough of the endless trudge. I had been lashed by rain, but, luckily,  blown along by a favourable wind that was at my back. I'd covered 25ish miles and I hadn't seen anyone in hours and it was getting late and very dark. I spotted a building a good distance away. I imagined a Slaughtered Lamb experience, or worse, another Boathouse, but this was nothing like it.

No sooner had I got in the door, I felt comfortable. For one, it was full of walkers, all swapping their stories of a day's stolid hiking. It had an effervescent atmosphere. It was a long shaped inn with the bar at the centre . I requested a tab and they didn't even ask for my card. The staff were all young and I got a  feeling that the boss was probably out for the day and, so, anything went.

I sat at the bar. Something I would never do at home, but if you want to get to know what's going on, that's where you should sit.

One of the barman,  David, was in his 20's and I couldn't help notice the devil's fork pronged tattoo that was protruding over the neck of  his black work shirt. He opened his shirt to reveal an intricate and unfamiliar symbol. It looked like a black star with a red eye in the centre. He told me that this symbol gave him magic powers of destiny. Intrigued, but mildly disturbed, I enquired further. He told me it was a l'Cie. I said I would Google it and David disappeared out the back. I brought my iPad to the bar and logged on.

One of the barmaids, who looked remarkably like a darker version of Amelia Pond, came dancing in from the kitchen wearing a cowboy hat and was taken aback to see me grinning at her.

I told her that I was Googling her colleagues tattoo, " You've only been here 5 minutes and Dave's shown you his boobies."

I told her that I'd now been there 6 minutes and hoped it might catch on. Naughty!

I discovered that David's tattoo was, indeed,a symbol of destiny, but it only seems to exist in ... the computer game Final Fantasy 7. The barmaids both seemed less surprised than I was. "Yeah, he's got loads of computer tattoos like that on him. He's even got the X Box symbol on his shoulder."

"And Donkey Kong on his arse?" I suggested.

They both laughed, but David immediately reappeared from the kitchen and we all went conspicuously quiet.

Together, during the course of a promisingly entertaining evening, we discussed tattoos, Amsterdam, the Banana Bar and ping pong balls.

The inn was filling up now with a melting pot of quirky characters from all nationalities. A quick check of my Weird-dometre and it was off the scale!

A lady approached the bar with a handful of barmats and two posters. She gave another barman, young Colin ,instructions to advertise tonight's entertainment. Steve Bonham , The Rambling Gypsy, would be performing tonight as part of his tour of the North of England. She was also insisting that all food and drinks for Steve and his party would be included in the deal. Colin seemed to be the one who was left in charge (if that's what you could call it) for the duration of the evening and bending like Beckham, he reluctantly agreed.

 I felt a little sorry for him, as, I too, had inadvertently managed to get £20 off my room, because I told him I was doing my walk for charity. This probably contributed to my coming to his defence later in the evening when some conceited, Michael Winner lookie-likie had approached the bar and raised his voice. I had entered the discussion part way through.

He opened " Can I assume that the rest of the menu is of the same diabolical standard?" Winner exclaimed tossing his menu over the bar at the fraught and overly apologetic, Colin.

"No, not at all!" replied the helpless Barboy. " Can we off you something else?"

" No! We just want a refund thank you! I don't think I can risk anything else for my wife!" Winner had his claws firmly in and he could smell blood.

Then he followed up with a finishing blow, which he gratified in the whole bar overhearing.
"That was! Without doubt! The worst chips I have ever tasted!"

I could hear my voice talking even before I realised it was me. I admit, I was four pints of Guinness to the better.

"No !" I blurted out, surprising Mr Winner and Colin  "There was this place in Milton Keynes once... Awful! Cold, soggy chips they were".

Michael turned to me, " We'll these were no better!"

" You know," I said, rounding in my bar stool to face him, " I reckon, if you try really hard, I am sure you will find places that sell chips much worse than this place."

He hurumphed, dismissively.

" I presume you sent the plate back immediately to the kitchen?"

He snorted, but it was Colin that spoke next. " No, they both finished the lot!" he interjected surprised at his own bravery. Winner gave him a withering glare and Colin visibly flinched.

"Just give me my refund!" Mr Winner purposefully turned his back to me and thrust out his hand toward Colin, who duly handed over the cash.

" I bet you do this everywhere you go?" I spoke into the back of his head. Winner ignored the comment and beckoned over his submissive, canary-like wife, who had already gathered up their belongings right on cue. They left in silence, under the glare of the entire pub.

I ordered another pint.

"Gahd,  I can't stand people like that guy". I was joined at the bar by Ken, a loud talking Canadian who had that amazing gift of being able to bellow loudly out of one side of his mouth.

"I'm here spending my kids inheritance!" He proclaimed.

Ken and Jenny, his wife, were walking The Wall. They had originally met in England in the 1960's and has settled back in Canada.  They were enjoying their retirement years traveling. And in some style.

" I've got a team of people, I call my Sherpas, who pick up our bags each morning and take them on to our next stop along the way. That way we can hike with just small back packs and our things will be waiting for us the next inn. Tomorrow, we are at the Samson Inn , we've got the Caligula Suite. It's got a king sized bed." He gave his wife a sideways wink and she blushed.

The entertainment for the evening, Steven Bonham, approached bar,and asked for a shandy and a coke.

" Want to keep a clear head for the night?" I suggested. He was a portly man in his mid 50's and sported purple trousers and a swanky, brightly patterned waistcoat.

I told Steve that I had just Googled him and found YouTube videos of him. This pleased him no end.

"Ah yes", he smiled, modestly. "Now was that the Hexham or the Brampton gig?" I had no choice but to admit, guiltily, that I hadn't actually been motivated to press play on either of them.

"Well, I've been doing the same set in pubs for the last two weeks." Steve was performing this evening with his daughter, an attractive blond in a flowery dress and a very ample fellow with implausibly thick glasses who was setting up the speakers and mikes.

"That's a tuba?" pronounced Ken, loudly.

"Oh yes," said Steve," that man there is the best player ...well, .... in ..." Ken and I hung on for the end of this sentence, " in Europe... at least".

The three of us looked over at the virtuoso tuba player, who was currently busy bending over to attach some low cabling. His bulbous backside, to which some jeans had sunk so far down they were only superficially covering the top of his thighs, knocked over a mike stand.

"Yes, a lot of folk music lends itself to the guitar and the tuba. It's a marriage made in heaven. " Steve clasped his hands together to illustrate the point. Ken and I looked doubtfully at each other, before Ken erupted, " Hey! Bonham??"

"Yes!" said Mr Bonham. I was equally perplexed.

"Any relation?" bellowed the Canadian.

" To whom?" Asked Steve.

"Led Zepplin, man?" Ken was clearly feverish about this. " John Bonham? The drummer, man?"

Steve now had both of his drinks in hand and was turning to walk way, "Oh yes," he said unconvincingly, "er...a distant cousin."

Ken watched in awe as Mr Bonham walked away, " No kidding? Did you hear that? That's amazing! They're related!"

Not wishing to bring Ken down, but I had to interject, " Ken? You and I are distant cousins".

The rest of  evening went superbly well and Steve, his daughter and his tuba prodigy were magnificent. Not a melody ended without everyone in the room remembering to applaud.
Late in the evening Ken's request for Stairway to Heaven was duly obliged on guitar and tuba and Ken's backing vocals were so strident, they required the speakers to be turned up. Half -cut Ken finished his performance with tipping half a pint glass of ale into his wife's lap, to the raucous amusement of all present.

All in all, it was a great night!

If you're ever in the area, I highly recommend the Twiced Brewed Inn. You will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Hadrian's : exhibit number 2

I' d hit The Wall, ( nice pun huh? ) about 4pm, both my blisters had popped within 3 steps of each other. My blister-resistant (or so they'd claimed) socks had done little to stop me forming two 50p sized blisters on either foot. I don't know how the company , Regatta, can make such a bold claim about their socks, as they hadn't worked for the guy walking for two days. Maybe they hadn't been tested on people who actually walk in any remotely serious way. Perhaps they had been trialled on on old man, at home shuffling around in his slippers, from sofa, to the kitchen, to the toilet, back to the sofa again. I can imagine a whole team of scientists in white coats checking his feet and announcing,  "All clear Steve, let's go to manufacture!"

I needed to stay in a B&B tonight, my body was in pieces and I needed a guaranteed good night's rest. I spotted Corbridge on the map and managed to make my way there on a dangerous road, with no footpaths, but steep banks on either side which seemed designed to tip you into the path of one of the huge lorries hurtling by. The only benefit of having two limps at the same time is that it balances you out a bit.

I found a room for one at the Golden Lion, for bed and breakfast, all for a reasonable £40.
I told the barman which way I had walked to get there.
'You take your life in your hands doing that m'n'.

Fed and watered I went on to have the best sleep I have ever had. Seriously ever! A sleep blessed by the Roman God of sleep, Nocturnus (probably).

Corbridge is a lovely little, grey stone village, 'quaint' I think the Yanks might call it. It had boutiques, pricey clothes shops and seemed extremely affluent.

It also has very narrow streets. In fact, I discovered this as my unfrosted bathroom window was directly opposite, and almost touching distance from an art gallery. I could clearly see the details of the paintings hanging from the walls from my perch on the bathroom 'throne'.

 A group of serious, studious looking people, led by an elderly tour guide, entered the gallery from a far doorway. Partway through my contemplations I didn't feel I could get up to lower the blinds. And I have to admit to taking a wicked delight in the imagined remarks about to take place.
It would have gone something like this. "If we can move on ladies and gentlemen to the next exhibit, here we have.... A man sitting on the toilet waving at us'.   Priceless.