The Unbirthday - Part 2

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The sea had become a lot rougher and it became clear we needed to do some work to paddle back towards land, this actually excited me as I knew cross-training was about to step up a gear, but my new fear of suddenly being surrounded by a load of rough water was quietly creeping in. 

So I’d left this story with a group of happy unicorns, carrot cake and sweet dreams.  The next day promised adventure by the boat-load to set-sail friends on their way home.

Morning arrived with a loud shout up the stairs “BREAKFAST’S READY!!”  The fridge had been raided and all the 15 eggs, scrambled, 2 packs of sausages, sausaged, beans, baked and bread, toasted, ready to served up on the kitchen table from giant cauldrons and oven dishes.  Everyone tucked in, I opted for my usual muesli and tea, although I did source a veggie alternative I think I was still full of cake from the night before and didn’t fancy a full on cooked breakfast.  My brother and I did a supermarket sweep for the house on our way up to Pembrokeshire on the Friday, I was very happy to see my selections were going down well, quite a task for a non meat-eater.  Everyone fed, it was washing up duties followed by a team tidy up.  Most people were leaving today and we were to leave this beautiful farmhouse as we found it, that meant a quick clean and sweep up and emptying of bins before we headed out.  All done while being serenaded by Dragon Radio of course!

Today was the day we’d decided to go kayaking, well some of us.  Tim didn’t fancy it so preferred to spend a bit of quiet time at the house before heading off back home to Derby.  It was the right decision for him, he had a long drive ahead of him and I know how he’d have been feeling after packing so much ‘outside’ into the last 48 hours.  Tim was a trooper, not only being my right hand man in the drive up and supplies pick up, bringing the ultimate party piece of the giant unicorn balloon, being part of our great team of his crazy sister and her equally crazy friends, but also because I know our outside adventures weren’t easy for him either.  Tim has lived with debilitating eczema and asthma all his life, he didn’t grow out of it, and it came with a whole load of extras.  Essential life-long steroid use (along with a load of other nasty treatments over the years) has affected his sight, he’s had two cataract surgeries, and as a result of the steroids he has Osteoporosis.  That combined with congenital hip displacia has meant double hip replacements and surgeries and learning to live with everything that comes with it.  You see Tim is my little brother, and although as kids I used to hate it when he would fight me, he was so strong from the steroids, I would never win, that was until I pushed him head first into our garden pond (and then hid from him and our parents behind the dining room curtains).  I grew up with it, it was a part of our family life.  I remember him having to be bound from head to foot in tar bandages, night after night, having to have his hands bandaged up to try and stop him clawing his skin open with his scratching, and not being able to eat most things, due to severe allergies.  This is still largely the case.  The times we’d be out having a meal and he’d be given something he shouldn’t, us unaware until Tim started reacting and meaning another A&E trip.  Thank goodness now for EpiPens!  When we were kids it became quite normal to be visiting Tim in hospital, I remember one Christmas when I was very little myself, Tim in hospital, mum and dad doing their best with the three of us, all piling onto Tim’s ward and entertaining ourselves in the playroom.  I’ve seen what he has to go through on a daily, hourly, basis, but only Tim has to truly cope with it, how he remains as laid back as he is (most of the time), I can only applaud him and give him my total respect and annoying big l’il sisterly love.  I know how much pain he would have been in on our beach wanderings, walking on his hip that’s due to be Robocop’d any time now, but never saying a word of disgruntlement.  I loved it that Tim joined me on my Unbirthday weekend, and even more so that weekend, he proved that he is my favourite brother and my hero.  Just don’t tell him that..  And yes, I only have one brother 

So Tim was heading home and the rest of us were heading to the water.  Cars loaded with kit and people we went in convoy through the lanes leading to and through Pembroke and then on to Freshwater East which was to be our watersports base.

We were all really excited about getting out on the kayaks, it was only going to be the five of us as Ems was uber keen for a run along the coastal path.  I knew she’d be having a great time and didn’t put it past her to do some big miles, not that she’d have planned to, just that knowing Ems, she would have been enjoying herself so much and been lost in her own thoughts she wouldn’t have realised how far she’d ran.  Ten minutes after she left for her run under route instructions from one of the resort staff where we’d basecamped, Ems was still weighing up her direction options at the end of the car park, she made me smile as she finally set off on her travels positively skipping her way down the road.

When we’d arrived that morning at the bay, the wind was strong.  It was raining too, and cold, but none of us could chicken out now, we’d psyched each other up all morning so we weren’t going to back out now.  Now I am a confident kayaker but I know my own limitations.  Thankfully I had had a good chat with the hire guys already about the adaptions that I needed due to my balance and support issues and with Lucie being the most experienced of all of us we decided that I would go with Lucie in a double just to be on the safe side.  I also know just how competitive Lucie is too so knew we’d be up for some fun in a boat together, I was ready for a great cross-training session.  Getting into the clubhouse was a fair mission to start with as I was nearly blown off my feet, this concerned me a little and I did ask (again) to the staff if it was ok to go out in this wind?  We were assured it would be quite fine, the bay is known to be very safe (as long as you don’t go out left) and I had nothing to worry about.  Next everyone scrambled into car boots, boat sheds and toilets to get changed out of woolly hats and winter layers and into wetsuits, buoyancy aids and helmets. Boats grabbed between those that could we made our way to the beach.

I hated that I couldn’t carry my boat and the others had to move them all between them, it’s never usually the activity that’s a barrier but the how to get to get in, get out, logistics, especially when I’m usually doing such things solo.  Thankfully today I was not, and my friends made the impossible possible.

The beach was stunning.  A wide expanse of golden sand sheltered by gentle cliffs either side of the bay.  The bay itself looked peaceful, like a childrens play pool that gently slopes into the water at the edges, beckoning nervous water babies into its arms.  There were few people on the beach, and those that were, were wrapped up from the wind, walking dogs and getting their dose of Welsh fresh sea air.  Once we’d made it to the waters edge we all quickly attempted to get in our kayaks, it was cold and now once at the sea edge we could see how choppy the water was this side of the breakers, meaning any elegant boat boarding was not going to happen.  As I stood on my cleverly adapted bike and boat crutches, Lucie did her best at holding the kayak still for me to scramble in.  Once I was in and fully supported I could fold up my crutches and strap them along either side of the kayak.  Lucie jumped in at which point I squealed like a child as having no balance thought the only way I was going was out, to Lucie’s amusement!  She saved it and jumped aboard.  Everyone else was in and finding their ‘webbed’ feet as the water bobbed us about like 4 brightly coloured seagulls on the sea.  These kayaks weren’t like what Lucie and I were used to.  They weren’t very reactive and the oars so light it made it very difficult to move in the direction we wanted and at any speed, meaning a lot of concentration for both of us and already proving the good workout I was after.  The bay was beautiful, we headed to the rocks on the right hand side to take some photos.  Lucie had her funky waterproof camera around her neck and I had my GoPro attached to my now folded up strapped on crutches, making the perfect mount.  Every now and again I would take a photo, of the sea, of the others, and of course the obligatory sea kayak selfie to prove in no doubt that it did happen.  Snaps for the memory books and reminders of the good times.

After my initial snaps, I put my GoPro to video mode so I could concentrate on actually paddling.  Getting up close to the cliffs was fairly easy and as Lucie took some photos I tried my best at keeping the kayak facing the right way and keeping tabs of our surroundings.  The sea had become a lot rougher and it became clear we needed to do some work to paddle back towards land, this actually excited me as I knew cross-training was about to step up a gear, but my new fear of suddenly being surrounded by a load of rough water was quietly creeping in.  Watching my video back from our sea trip, this verbal fear was quite obvious in a calm and stern kind of way, much to the amusement of Lucie and I once sitting back at the farmhouse kitchen table with hot tea and biscuits.  Back in the water it was all hands to the oars.  Conversation had been replaced with hard breathing interspersed with hysterical laughter and screams as the water repeatedly sprayed over Lucie’s head and into mine.  Lucie was getting a face-full every time while I was just getting thoroughly soaked, I did find it hilarious and so did Lucie, although my hysterics were certainly fuelled by a certain amount of fear displaying as laughter, while Lucie was genuinely in her comfort zone, I was very grateful for this.  Later on that day chatting about swimming and me telling Lucie how although I love it, I’m not a great swimmer only being able to use one arm and not being able to kick, Lucie’s face changed a little thinking back to our time in the kayak.  “You mean you were happy out there in the sea despite not being a great swimmer?!” remarked Lucie.  In my eyes I could have done enough to stay afloat and although I’m not the fastest, if I’d had needed to swim to get somewhere I would have, as much as anyone would have been able to, it just would have taken me a while, and besides, I had no plans on getting out of the kayak.

I could leave this part here with, ‘we all had a jolly time and that’s where the story ends’.  But it wasn’t, quite.  But what did happen next is a part of the story I am going to keep for another time, it is a chapter of the book that will have its place that’s for sure, but for now it will remain in our memories and stored through the keyboard of my laptop in a ‘Pembrokeshire Adventures’ vault.  A story between friends yet to be published, yet.. a Famous Five first edition where every character has a true story to tell..

Out of the water, Ems returned from her coastal run jubilant and full of wild running euphoria, totally oblivious to our own adventures, which actually was the best reaction ever.  An alien ship could have landed while Em was away but she wasn’t bothered, as long as she could show them her photos from her running adventure!  And too right, Ems managed to snap some awesome shots of the coast from dry land, she’d ran across the top of Barafundle Bay, looking down at its golden sands and turquoise waters, deserted from people today resembling a far flung desert island.  It was so beautiful and I was certainly envious of her exploits, running solo, the wild coastline and her own thoughts and excitement, I could see what that couple of hours had meant to Ems and I was smiling for her, and at her!

After some hot food and drinks, everyone’s thoughts had turned to getting back on the road for home, once we were sure everyone was ok, much to the brilliant reaction from Ems.  People that say they are great in a crisis, stay well away from them, they will create the crisis.  However, if ever there’s a crisis and Ems is around, I just know everything will be ok, and if not, she’ll have me laughing.  We have a great track record of this from my early days in hospital and Ems trying to load the old tank of my NHS wheelchair into her car when picking me up from the rehab centre.  I was never allowed to look at her while she was doing this as she’d burst out laughing which took all her strength away, leaving her in a heap on the floor with my chair on top, I’ll never forget that.  Friends that can laugh with you in the bad times are the best friends.

So it was just Lucie and I who were staying on.  We hugged our goodbyes and wished everyone safe travels, we’d shared such an awesome weekend together that felt like longer.  In everyone’s busy lives these days, these moments are so important and it meant the world.  We made memories to last a lifetime and stories to tell and to treasure.  I was so grateful to my amazing friends, and we were already planning the next big trip.

Lucie and I spent that early evening at Freshwater West beach.  We explored the clifftops and an old seaweed hut where we took shelter from the winds and watched the sun set into the sea.

We’ve both found this bay to be such a special place. It’s wildness is its beauty, there’s very little man-made here and what is has stood here for a very long time, now part of this natural landscape. There’s nothing here, yet at the same time there is so much to take in, so much to see, to breathe, to feel.

There’s a plaque over the road from the beach, it tells a story. It is a story of the worst maritime disaster, not involving enemy action of the whole of WW2. This is a true story. It happened here, at Freshwater West.

‘On Easter Sunday, 26th April 1943, two Landing Craft Guns, which a few days before had left Belfast making for Falmouth in the West Country, were overwhelmed by giant rolling waves in a violent storm, off this beach at Freshwater West, with a tragic loss of lives.

Converted from LCTs by the addition of 4.7 inch guns and with only a portion of their otherwise open decks covered over, the two craft were no match for the violent sea conditions on that fateful night, and both sank within sight of land and in view of helpless onlookers on the cliff tops above the beach. LCG15 was overwhelmed first and sank beneath the waves while her sister craft LCG16 met the same fate later that night.

Seventy two young Royal Marines lost their lives, drowned or battered to death on the rocks with only three survivors. Fifty bodies were recovered from the sea but many were never recovered.

A further six lives were lost when a small ship’s whaler crewed by brave volunteers from the Royal Navy sloop HMS Rosemary, which had been alerted to the disaster, attempted to get a line aboard LCG16, as she began to sink, but to no avail.’

I shed a tear learning this, and even writing it now I have shivers and lump in my throat, it is hard to keep back the emotion. To stand on those same cliffs and look out into the bay just as local people would have done on that fateful night in 1943, imagining watching all those young men’s lives being taken away by the sea and not being able to do anything about it. It really brought it all home, the sea, its immense power and our own fragility. Such a sad story in such a beautiful place, I think the brave souls of those seventy eight men are part of that special feeling here, for they can never leave, but we can keep returning to watch over them.

May we never forget and may the sea forever be your spirits.

That night Lucie and I talked about our day and ate the leftovers from the fridge. The big farmhouse seemed so empty without the others there laughing and chatting over the giant kitchen table, with the big teapot full of hot tea from its 6 teabags, making it tricky to lift. The teapot was still there, as was much of the tea, it felt a bit sad pouring the cold stewed tea out and down the plughole, like the end of a chapter.

I’d mentioned that morning that I thought there was a ghost in my bedroom the night before and had felt something shake my bed just as I was about to go to sleep. At the time I was quite scared about it and had I been on my own in there, there’s no way I would have gone back to sleep, and certainly not with the light off. But when I looked across from my bed, Lizzie was still sound asleep and no spook was to be seen so I put on my brave boots and went back to sleep. Maybe this wasn’t the best tale to tell now it was just the two of us staying tonight, and Lucie made it clear that she wasn’t keen on sleeping on her own now. I agreed it was a good plan to both stay in the same room, although I did manage to convince Lucie to sleep in my room, ghost or not, and I am pleased to report neither of us had anything go bump in the night, not that we were aware of anyway.

We’d made plans for the morning that we were both excited about. I say morning, it was still dark outside and the birds were yet to start their morning calls. It took about twenty minutes for us to get into our wetsuits and grab our kit before we were heading back down to Freshwater West in the warmth of the car.

There was nobody else about, it was perfect. We made our way down along the sand to the water’s edge, Lucie helping me to get there as we left strange tracks in the sand behind us. The sun was beginning to rise and the natural world had started to wake up. I felt like a child at Christmas sneaking down early to see what was under the tree, we had beaten the sun to it, we had beaten everyone else to it, we were about to have our own private show of dawn from the now calm waters of the bay. The water didn’t feel as cold as I’d expected, and it was every bit worth it. As the sun began to rise from the east, the sky began to glow from across the grasslands, slowly creeping to the cliff edges and eventually reflecting on the wintry waters. We didn’t need to say much to each other, this was what we had both come for. It’s very easy to hit the snooze button and go back to dreamland for another ten, twenty, thirty minutes. The warmth of a cosy bed is hard to leave, how could there be anything nicer. This, this is why. For me, out here, wind blowing, the sea shimmering on the shore, birds swooping into the waves, and the lone surfer making his way down towards us in the water for his morning ritual, there is nothing that compares, there is little better Why continue to sleep with your dreams when you can get up and chase them.

We only saw the temperature once we’d got back in the car, by then the sun was up and it was a toasty 2 degrees Celsius. The air temperature was probably nearer 0 when we were in the water, but the sea temperature much warmer, clearly that was the best place to be.

Of course this was only the start of our day. We had plans to make the most of every bit of it before we had to head home ourselves. After breakfast and another kit change, we headed out around the Pembrokeshire lanes on our bikes.

I’d been driving these lanes for the last three days so had an idea where we were going. That and Lucie’s magical mystery tour the night she arrived took her way over the other side of the bay, so Lucie knew a handful of landmarks we were looking for, though I was pretty impressed seeing how it was pitch black the last time Lucie had been this way, I felt our navigation skills were in good hands between us. It wasn’t long before we started descending a rather steep section of road. I did my best to keep my brakes on and go steady, it was wet and muddy on the roads and I wasn’t used to riding here, the lane twisted and turned at every opportunity and it was impossible to see what was around the corner, at one point that being a large tractor with its forks raised up high in front. I could see Lucie in my mirror and did the best I could to not lose sight of her. Once we levelled out we could re-group and catch our breath, just for a short time. Lucie remarked how quick I’d gone down that last hill, apparently I scared her a little, I’m glad I was going steady then! I thought I’d break her in gently to my world of cycling, after all I didn’t want to put her off, I was loving having some company on my ride and wanted to be able to ask her to join me again. It’s funny, yesterday we were definitely in Lucie’s comfort zone kayaking, although I’ve done a fair bit of it and would count myself as experienced, Lucie is the pro in my eyes, she’s just completed her Olympic course white water qualification and spends her weekends reading the river and navigating her way through rapids along our UK waterways. Today however, when it came to road riding, I was in my element, a role reversal of soughts, but in the best way. Lucie is fit and strong and confident on her mountain bike, so I knew she’d be a great training partner when it came to wheels rather than oars. She did have a bit of a disadvantage however being on a mountain bike with a roadie, although some of the terrain was certainly suited to off roading, it does make any climb harder, though in my head that only levels up the playing field a bit as I’m having to climb with a heavier bike, while lying down and with only my arms. We were in Wales of course, and Wales does hills. I hear this so often, “It didn’t look this steep when we drove it!” Lucie presented those immortal words once at the top of the first hill. No, it never does! I remember my mum back in the summer whilst I was staying with her in France for some Tricolore training. I was heading out for a racing chair marathon session and asked mum for a flat(ish) route. It was the hottest day as it was, hitting 46 degrees while I was out, so any endurance session was going to be far from easy. Mum sent me on my way on a route that “has no hills!” Oh how wrong was she! Climbing a 20%+ gradient in a racing chair in that heat was… quite challenging. I’m not entirely sure how I made it back that day, I didn’t feel well. When I eventually did, I collapsed in a melting pile of water on mums living room floor, I have never been in that state before. Once back able to talk I questioned my mum about this ‘flat’ route. She replied “well it seems flat in the car!”

Lucie and I were certainly making the most of our little corner of adventure perfection. I was able to get my training in and and get my dose of Welsh Wanderlust from my bike. I say that, it became a running joke along the ride when Lucie would shout “Look at that Melly! Look over there! Can you see that boat?.. surfer?.. cow?.. giant city-like power staion?..” Always me, “NOPE!” It was quite comical, I totally agree that the best way to see the world is by bike, but when it comes to racing handbikes.. there’s really not a lot to see, not a lot at all if there’s any kind of hedge, wall, or grassy mound in the way, and Wales, has many of these. When it came to Lucie trying to point out the gigantic power station that she’d made a wrong turn towards three nights ago, it was just silly. This place was genuinely colossal. It resembled the New York skyline at night, lit up in red and silver, in daylight it could have been a city in outer space. Yet I couldn’t see it! Eventually I found a gateway that finally gave me a view of this modern age wonder. Lucie was right, it was epic and strangely artistic in an architectural engineering kind of way. I found it amazing how something this immense could be found in such an un-spoilt part of the world, but it oddly didn’t detract from the surrounding natural beauty that was bigger than it, maybe that was the plan, or just Mother nature showing who’s the boss.

As we headed back down towards the coast, Lucie pointed out some cows to the right of us in a field, of course I could only take her word for this and she told me how she’d parked up here the night she got lost and had a conversation with them. How she found them at night and I can’t see them in broad daylight is bonkers. She could probably have pointed out exactly which cows they were too.

We rounded a crest in the road and suddenly Lucie disappeared. “Melly you’ve got to come up here!” I hear her shout and look over to where the noise is coming from. Lucie is standing at the top of a steep gravel bank just off the roadside. “Lucie! And how am I supposed to do that!?” I shout back. “Well can I help you?” she says, in a ‘there’s no option in this’ kind of way. Lucie knows me very well and I am a firm believer in my motto of “There’s always a way”, Lucie clearly shared this, and before we could get a plan together Lucie was attempting to push me up the steep bank as I attempted to crank with all my might. Plan A was not all that successful as I quickly grounded out on the earth beneath me. We weren’t giving up easily and I began to free myself by lifting me and my bike clear of the mound while trying to get back some traction on the front wheel. Between my manoeuvring and Lucie’s brute strength, our actions were not always in sync and with a shove from behind, Lucie had ran over my hand as I squealed and fell apart laughing in unison, Lucie now bent over my bike laughing so hard too. I freed my poor left hand with the other and finally our teamwork paid off and I’d made it to the top of the bank, goodness only knew how i’d get back down but that didn’t matter.

OK so Lucie was right, the view was worth doing that a million times over, although I’m not sure my hand or my bike could have coped with much more abuse. As we looked over the coast beneath us, the sun sparkled on the water like fairy dust on a shimmering silver platter. The sky whirled with white cloud, leaving a perfectly placed doorway to glimpse the blue skies beyond and let through the sunlight, a gateway between two worlds.

This ride was proving to be everything we’d hoped for, we didn’t have a plan, and without a doubt, those kind of plans are always the best kind, two friends, two bikes, on our road to wherever. And what a wonderful journey it was shaping up to be.

We made our way back down to the road, this time a little easier for me and with Lucie down on the road watching out for cars as I came flying down the bank, unable to turn at the bottom and going straight into the bank on the other side. By the time I’d done my multiple point turn in the road, a usual problem that comes with handbike territory, Lucie was back on her bike and speeding down the lane ahead of me. I chased her down as we weaved our way down through golden sand dunes on either side of us, eventually the sand covering most of the road as we dropped down back on to the coast road.

There were a lot more people about on the beach now compared to when we had it all to ourselves this morning. We smiled at each other in this knowing, smugly and in a happy acceptance. We’d had our time here and no-one could take that away from us, we didn’t mind sharing now, this was their time. It was funny seeing people milling about, walking dogs, drinking tea from their vans along the roadside, surfers loading up their pickups, quite the hive of activity, and such a long way from this morning’s sunrise. We made our way back up the road away from the coast back towards the farm and the end of our ride. I had my GoPro filming for a lot of the ride, I plan to put a little film together. Part of it was facing behind me so caught Lucie as she climbed the hill behind me. For everything that is breathtakingly beautiful about the coast dropping away from us as we climbed, seeing Lucie waving at the camera and snacking away on Jelly Babies behind me is just priceless, this is why you need crazy friends to do crazy things with.

Back at base, it was time to pack up, though neither of us were in a hurry to leave.

This trip had been so much more than I had imagined. It reunited friendships, made bonds stronger than ever through the great outdoors and the wilderness that surrounds us. Sometimes we all need reminding of the important things and often those things are the simplest. It’s not money, it’s not named brands, it’s not material things. It all out there, it’s nature, it’s our great land, it’s the sea, the sky, the hills, the coast and countryside, and it’s each other. Adventures are wild, exhilarating, amazingly special on your own, but to share those epic moments are even more so.

We were ready to leave Gupton Farm. In a minute, just a bit longer. Something was keeping us from leaving.

One last wander to fill up our water bottles and take in one final look, I had never imagined a weekend like this and for a place to leave such an imprint, the house felt like our own and we were sad to leave, though promised we would be back again soon, that was in no doubt. This place had given us so much, there was magic and wonder, adventure and treasures here, not to mention a few unicorns! But it seemed there was one last treasure to find, and that came in the discovery of a treasure box of dressing up clothes in the camping barn.

OK it was no unicorn but as big birds go, this one was a keeper.

How we had not found these before was disappointing for any Enid Blyton would be adventurers, but now I know where this treasure lies, and there’s always next time..

We were ready to leave this time. We both looked at each other and made a plan to go back to Freshwater bay, just one last time. We weren’t ready to close the chapter on this book just yet, one last moment on this epic coast, one more bit of Pembrokeshire magic to store in our souls, until we returned.

We wrapped up in the cold crisp air and found our seats to the greatest show on earth. We brewed up mugs of hot chocolate and ate unicorn cake as we watched the sun set into the sea one final time on our Pembrokeshire adventure. As Unbirthdays go, this one was the greatest.

And with that, it was time to leave…

But we’ll be back soon.