Johnny Sombrero Rides!

cowboy graphic

Johnny writes about his travels from the low-slung comfort of a lightweight manual wheelchair. He is often accompanied by his woman, Juanita Fajitas. E&OE. He doesn’t do toilets – go before you go out!

Johnny also tries other mobility stuff; horses, handbikes, helicopters, that sort of thing.

… To Amsterdam!

Just because a place is flat doesn’t make it accessible! Certainly the landscape in The Netherlands is a help but the bars (and there are some great bars) and restaurants, typically, are up at least one bi-i-g step. It got to the point where, patience exhausted after four days, we chose our final venue based entirely on its level entrance.

Adam and I took the excellent Eurostar to Brussels and a Thalys train on to Amsterdam. There’s an Ibis Hotel close to the central station and we had booked an accessible twin room. The chair-lift from Reception to the restaurant was broken (we had been warned but you have to wonder for how long it had been u/s) but there were plenty of better breakfast options in the station concourse.

That evening, for some reason, we drifted off towards the Anne Frank museum. These days it’s quite an operation and you have to book slots to visit weeks in advance (but some tickets are made available on the day). Even at 5pm there was a queue. As expected it was not accessible but a friend had recommended the adjacent pancake shop, which is. Here is a photograph of our meal, including Adam’s disgusting reconstructed tea. You’re welcome.

Maritime Museum

November weather became a factor on Day 2 and we had to postpone our planned bike ride into the countryside. Instead we headed through the rain to the Maritime Museum, which shows some excellent art, models and artefacts — many from wars against the verdoemde English. There’s a fantastic golden Royal Barge and a full-size replica of a Dutch East-Indiaman is defo worth a visit, if only to experience a short but thrilling VR ride around the 18th century ships and harbour. This was my first such experience and I whooped like a kid. Clearly Millennial Adam had seen it all before.

Tally ho!

As forecast, the next day was sunny and clear and we took off to Starbikes to collect our trike. The electric-assist contraption had a wheelchair platform up-front, to which I was strapped like a Christmas mailbag, and Adam did all the donkey-work from behind. We headed off for the free ferry and then into the hinterland. For me it was eye-wateringly cold but a lined cover — the local equivalent of a tartan blanket — kept me poor old knees warm at least.

After a couple of hours’ steady pedaling alongside canals, past sombre fishermen and over the odd bridge (we had to take a run at these), we reached Zaanse Shans and a display of five, count’em five traditional windmills. A bit of a tourist trap, I felt, but perhaps we didn’t give it a chance. We were desperate to get back to town before we lost the sun’s warmth, so there was just time for lunch. Great pea soup mit Spek!

For Monday, Adam had booked a slot for a Rembrandt v Velazquez MMA grudge match at the Rijksmuseum, so we shlepped off there under lowering clouds. We had planned to visit the FOAM museum of photography en route but, frustratingly, that was inaccessible too. However the main event lived up to expectations; it’s a bit of a maze but the art on show is wonderful. Afterwards we caught the No.12 tram back to the station; a fold-out ramp was available but I had to ask the conductor for it (locals clearly manage without).

On our last day we made a rather fruitless side-trip by train to Haarlem. We had booked help but turned up late and were scolded by both the lady in the ticket office and the chap holding the ramp.

The excellent Sharrebier

From the bars we stumbled upon during our stay, only the Cafe Sharrebier was accessible. Luckily, it also has a fine range of beers (each with its own glass, apparently). We also ate well but only the more formal De Kroonprins, our final destination, boasted a step-free experience. Other level-access venues may be available.

… on an exercise bike!

I’ve let things slip. I acknowledge that. From walking everywhere on two sticks to struggling around the car with elbow crutches (currently seeking a car with the petrol cap on the driver’s side), the insidious process of weakening has taken many years. And the less I have used my semi-paralysed legs, the weaker they have become.

It’s partially to do with getting older. If during my early decades of disability I lost my balance and fell over, it was a straightforward manoeuvre to regain the vertical using my wrists and arms. But one day (forgive me for not making note of the date) I must have either bruised my bum or needed help to get back up. So the next time I walked, I would manage the risk. And over the months and years — you get the drift.

It is mainly down to laziness, however. The less hung-up I became about using a wheelchair, the more convenient it became. I still hate having to use it, just not all the time. I still try to keep fit but the exercise — mostly hand-cycling — is confined to my upper body. And now I’m in my 60s, even those bits are showing wear and tear. Since I know that my glutes and quads still work, I must now help them contribute to what’s left of my mobility.

I rock this joint.

So the other day I bought this mofo. Got a good price on GumTree — 2nd-hand fitness equipment is a buyer’s market — and jammed it into the office in place of the unused scuba kit and several guitars. Climbing aboard is still a two-man job but, once there, I can make it work. I use the minimum setting but will soon ramp up the volume “Ramp up the Volume” to a gentle incline. And after that? My only enemy is a total absence of staying power.

Being a modern machine, I not only get read-outs of time, speed and distance but also, now and again, motivational messages like ‘You Rock’ and ‘Awsome Dude’. That’s all the encouragement I need. Man.

… To dog agility training!

When it’s August, and half the family is away in Canada and it’s just you and the dog, and you need to get off the ranch but your regular walks are kinda crowded with other people, well watcha gonna do?

Well Sombrero, you could start by being a bit more bloody sociable. But that said …

Armed with his ball and a pocket full of kibble, Ludo and I made our way to an isolated field in darkest West Sussex, where Tania Chapelle introduced me and the critter to a canine assault course of jumps, see-saws and plastic bendy tunnels, just like the ones at Crufts. I had booked a one-to-one session with Tania’s Dogs First training school.

We walked the course and then, using liberal quantities of food, bribed the mutt into jumping a jump, scaling an obstacle and finally running through a tunnel. There was more to it than that of course and Ludo took a while to get with the programme, but his endless enthusiasm — not to say appetite — won the day.

Not Ludo

All I wanted to do was wear the bloody animal out, and that certainly worked, but we discovered he was quick to learn too. I also learned, how to guide him around the course, how to manoeuvre the wheelchair to block his exit around each obstacle, and to scatter food to good effect.

Team Ludo has since graduated from food to tennis ball and is currently competing for a place in a group class. Tania has asked the farmer to put the roller over the course, to make it easier for me to do my bit.

A number of sponsorship opportunities are still available. Sombrero knows a business opportunity when he sees one.

… To Highclere for the Battle Proms

No sign of the Downtons?

Just us and 9,000 Brexiteers, up for an evening of popular classics and fireworks at ‘Downton Abbey’ near Newbury. We were also treated to a stirring flying display from a Spitfire, some Napoleonic Wars re-enactors who we couldn’t see and a vertical arrival by the Parachute Regiment’s display team (of which more later).

It was a beautiful location, if a wee bit flat for ground-level displays such as the Light Horse. We could make out the stage but the TV screen was only big enough to help the compere and soloists stand out. Ryan bought us a package that included a pretty decent catering box. I don’t know how long we’ve had the Honda but this was the first time we remembered to use the picnic table from the boot. Incidentally, this feature is in keeping with the official amplification of the CRV marque as ‘Comfortable Runabout Vehicle’, which isn’t quite as ‘off-road’ as I would like, Had I known this at time of purchase …

Cheers Ryan!

Many of the audience put far more effort into their participation than did we. As well as many flags and hats, and flags-in-hats, groups of friends could be identified by Glasto-style flagpoles, chandeliers or a game of giant Jenga. And when the fireworks weren’t popping, as they say, the champagne corks were.

It was a grand day out. Oh, now that I am officially an OAP, I’d like to end by paying tribute to whoever set up the traffic plan. We stayed until the anthem and yet, as we exited the park, I don’t believe we rolled to a stop once. Very slick, we even filtered in turn like in Jersey. Well done that man. Or woman! You never know these days …!

PS. Many years ago my showbiz pal Noel Edmonds and I organised a set of helicopter air shows known as Helifest. Having called in all my operator favours for the flying display, in desperation I widened its scope to include the Red Devils parachute team (for it was they). The soldier who dealt with my enquiry revealed, rather nervously, that the Army had told them henceforth to charge for each appearance (until then they had been funded by its recruitment budget). I asked how much and he said, £1,000 (I forget the actual sum). In shock I shrieked “£1,000 POUNDS?” and he immediately retorted, “Oh, OK then, free!”

I have never felt more proud of my negotiating skills.

… The SmartDrive (update)

I’m glad I invested in this kit. It gets me up slopes, it helps me walk the dog and keep up with grown-ups. It’s reliable and the lithium battery lasts long enough for me (the Bluetooth wristband controller, without which the whole thing is dead-weight, does not). The only real problem is, the thing has a life of its own.

My home is surrounded by a path of fake york-stone flags, laid when I were a lad and a lot more mobile. Most times I negotiate these safely but, every so often, I time it wrong and bounce off an edge. It’s the same with kerbs and unexpected stones. The front castors stop abruptly and so do I. But no matter the obstacle, unless you stop it by tapping the wristband, the SmartDrive will power on at the selected speed. It will soon overcome the clamp and push itself through the vertical to cut out in a facing forward position.

And then, basically, you’re shafted. The only way to reset the device, back to the facing aft condition, is to get out of the chair. If there’s a seat nearby it’s a 30-second job but if not, all you can do is shuffle your sorry ass to the ground. It takes but a moment to reset but then, of course, you have to get back in the chair, a manoeuvre that I find increasingly difficult in me old age.

Dramatic reconstruction

If you spend your life cruising through airport terminals and exhibition halls, you have nothing to worry about. But if you live in the real world, this can be a real issue. You need to keep the clamp tight but there is a limit to the torque you can apply with the Allen key supplied.

This condition can be avoided by coupling a FreeWheel to the front of the chair. It lifts the front casters off the ground and makes life, with and without a SmartDrive, a lot smoother. Leaning backwards helps as well.

Finally, it’s a good idea to turn the device off when you don’t need it. Several times I have patted the dog and immediately run him over.

… To Piraeus!

Jock and I before hearing the bad news

Well, not just yet. In April next year I hope to set sail in the Tenacious, on a voyage to and from the port of Athens and as a replacement for my cancelled trip. Apart from the Med climate, the good news is it will mark a nice round number — 50 years since joining the Navy as an officer cadet.

My classmate Jock made a last-minute decision to join me. I hope he can make it next time too.

… To nowhere

Surprisingly cold at 0400

It was shaping up so well. We climbed the gangway, signed on, made up our bunks and drew foul-weather clothing. Unexpectedly, Jock volunteered us for an 04-0600 harbour watch. But after breakfast the next day, we learned that the Trust had failed a safety audit and we weren’t going anywhere soon.

The ship systems were fine but the MCA found fault at Head Office. We were hoping to sail on Saturday but when this was extended to Monday, Jock and I (with plenty of experience of weekends stuck alongside) pulled the plug. We could no longer make Oban on time and would have to head straight for the less-salubrious port of Campbeltown.

It is such a shame. We were settling in with a great bunch of able-bodied and disabled crewmembers, plus volunteer watchleaders and permanent crew with exactly the right attitude. The weather was set fair. What could be better?

We were promised expenses and offered refunds or a substitute voyage. We will try again so friends who supported my own effort can rest assured their contributions will not be in vain. As we used to say, it’s just life in a blue suit; a shipmate told me she had sailed with the Trust 20 times and this had never happened before.

I note the Lord Nelson will spend much of next January and February sailing from Antigua. Just a thought …

… The SmartDrive MX2+

This battery-powered clip-on doo-hicky may not extend your mobility horizons, but it should make your existing ones easier to handle.

I have been struggling up the uneven slope to my office lately, and searching for a little oomph to avoid my shoulders becoming any more knackered thatn they already are. The choice was between a hand-bike attachment at the front of my wheelchair and a SmartDrive underneath.

This kit from Cyclone Mobility mounts to the chair front

The former option — several makes are on the market — effectively upgrades the chair into an electric trike. Another term for it could be mobility scooter. I make the comparison only because your hands move from the push-rims to handlebars and all the power then comes from the front wheel. You just steer it. I once tried out my Dad’s mobility scooter and froze half to death after half an hour excercising only my right thumb. That said, the combo does look and perform much better than a scooter. It also lifts the front castors of the ground so you can try it out OFF ROAD!

With a SmartDrive, your hands must stay in contact with the wheels, if only because the thing will push when you start it and only stop when you tell it to. If you come up against a stone or tree-root and fail to avoid it, stop or lift the front castors manually, it will keep on pushing until, in a worst-case secanario, it tips you onto the ground and runs you over. Your own chair. Oh the indignity. But at least the blood keeps flowing around (and potentially out of) the body.

Safely at the office door

You control a SmartDrive through a Fitbit-style wristband with a Bluetooth connection. This feaures an accelerometer that reacts to taps on the push rim. Two taps to go, one to stop accelerating and two more to stop. After a couple of near disasters pushing/driving up my uneven slope, I have the hang of it. It helps if you (counterintuitively) lean backwards. I will now trial it at the local beauty spot where I exercise the dog; if that works, which it should, everything else will be a bonus.

I will also use it in conjunction with my FreeWheel, which will get round the castor problem. That should make for quite a nifty combo. More later.

… to the Amalfi Coast.

The Vertical Coast, more like. L arranged this trip and, if I had seen in advance photos of towns like Positano, Maiori or (our base) Minori, I would have whinged like a sailor denied shore leave in Rio. Our flights were to Naples so I thought I had only Visuvius to worry about.

Imagine my surprise, then, as the autostrada dipped down between two cliffs and transformed itself into the first of numerous hairpin bends. Truth be told, it was somewhat hilly. How hilly was it? It was so hilly that, whenever the Croche Rossa ambulance sped past our hotel, sirens blaring, we would get the Doppler effect two or three times as it zig-zagged up or down the main street. In fact it wasn’t hilly at all. It was edge-of-the-cliffy.

This gangway was a tight squeeze for the chair

But we managed, as always. Our hotel had a decent accessible room. The boats linking many of the neighbouring towns were do-able, if you were prepared to be manhandled up and down the gangways. Many of the restaurants have outside seating at street level. Most of the village piazzas are at least on the level. And of course for every uphill, there’s a downhill.

Just don’t expect much in the way of lifts, ramps or loos. We depended on taxis for every journey, and even then they insisted on sending vans. Easy for the wheelchair, not so much for Andy. Linda’s informal scouting revealed two, count’em two, accessible loos along the entire coastline — one in Ravello (doubling as a storeroom) and another up several steep steps at the Blue Bar on Positano beach. As for ramps, the Villa Rufalo in Ravello boasts the steepest, longest one I have ever been expected to negotiate. Definitely a group effort required but, if you can muster the support, the gardens and the views are stunning.

A whole ‘nother challenge in Ravello

We ate well. Most meals started with an amuse-bouche, the food revolved around seafood and lemons, the coffee was wonderful and, to finish with, there was often a free tot of home-made limoncello. Orchards lined every road, many protected by netting and some of that, so we were told, concealing illegal building projects.

We were about 90 minutes from Pompeii and that is a sight to behold. Our visit concentrated on the structure of Roman society and the precarious nature of one’s position as patrician, pleb or what-not. Our guide led us from the Coliseum entrance, avoiding the smutty mosaics that had been the focus of my first visit, back in the day. We got in free, by the way.

Traffic calming, Roman style

So I guess the point of this entry is to encourage any fellow wheelchair user who might feel intimidated by the obvious obstacles lying in wait along this dramatic coast, to have no fear. We spend our entire bloody lives improvising so it would be a shame not to take it up just one more notch, if you want to experience some of the most spettacolare scenery Europe has to offer.