… 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.

… To Oban. Post the second

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I am now a fully paid-up and insured cabin boy aboard the good ship Lord Nelson, pressed to take passage north up the Irish Sea in May. Will Nelly keep a sextant and chronograph? All I will need then is a clear civil twilight, a flat horizon, sight reduction tables, an astro-globe, nautical almanac, a chart … or Google Maps. Handsomely now, me hearties. Keep sending the treasure!

… to Oban, aboard the TS Lord Nelson

We set sail from Poole in May. If you visit my JustGiving page (click on button below) you’ll see I chose a similar adventure just 49 years ago, in the TS Winston Churchill, just before joining the navy. I could have waited an extra year to reach the half-century but, once I had the idea, I got excited.

Will keep you posted during the build-up and (I assume there is Wifi) while at sea.

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… roughshod over new emojis.

I do not think much of these at all.

Static and dependent

I thought we had moved on from this perception of wheelchair users. What do they all have to sit bolt upright in old-fashioned chairs. Why can’t they look just a bit more dynamic? And call me Mr. Picky but, we don’t all need push-handles.

These are Unicode images and can be tweaked. I urge platform owners to add a little pizzaz, It doesn’t take much …

LIke this