… the good ship Tenacious!

Third time lucky.

The first time the Trust ran out of money. The second time was disrupted by Covid. But finally, more than three years down the line, my official buddy Jock and I set sail on this adapted wooden square-rigger — this time for a winter jaunt around the Canary Islands.

I faced the prospect with a degree of trepidation. In 2019 I still considered myself an independent sort, ready to try my hand at most things. But lately, decades of out-of-balance walking have since come home to roost and the end result, an unpleasantly curved spine and a pronounced list to starboard, meant I would probably need more help than before.

But that’s where the Jubilee Sailing Trust makes a difference. Still going strong after 20 years, the Tenacious takes mixed-ability crews on trips following the sun around the UK, the Mediterranean and Caribbean. For our own belated adventure we flew to Las Palmas (Gran Canaria) and, after a couple of days R&R, stowed our kit in a tiny two-berth cabin aboard the vessel. Me with the bare minimum; Darroch, never knowingly underpacked.

We assembled on the messdeck for a slew of briefings and drills. Surprisingly, out of some 25 ‘Voyage Crew’, I appeared to be the only wheelchair user (Charlie, a volunteer Watch Leader, managed almost everything with a crutch). This, I learned later, was a casualty of the continuing funding difficulties faced by the Trust, which means they are unable to offer disabled folk previously generous discounts. For our cruise, they were largely replaced by individual adventurers and Trust supporters.

We were split into watches and handed our watch cards, detailing our duties while aboard. We sailed the next day, heading to the north and then west against the Atlantic wind and swell towards La Palma. In fact we deliberately overshot the island, creating the opportunity to set the sails and beat downwind overnight. We voyage crew were told which ropes to heave or check away, providing the muscle to manoeuvre the boat under the guidance of Bosun’s Mates Chelle and Amy.

For the next six days we shuttled between the islands, taking in visits to Tenerife as well as LPx2. The vessel moved about a fair bit under sail, which appeared dramatic as your correspondent appeared to come within a degree or two of being tipped out (especially when heeling to starboard in the Atlantic swell). However, only once did he require lashing to the wheel during a dog-watch (this is 95% true) and the services of Jock and four companions to regain his cabin afterwards. That was quite diverting.

Nearly there Bill

Other highlights incuded me hauling my sorry ass in a sling up to the forward mast crosstrees, where the Bosun had thoughtfully provided a beach chair. We sat in the sunshine for a half-hour or more, just chatting. I then watched in wonder as shipmate and senior adventurer Bill climbed to the very top of the mainmast, beyond the security offered by a harness, on the way to raising £1,000 for the Jubilee Sailing Trust.

Incidentally, the organisation deserves a bright future but it badly needs help like this. The Tenacious offers a unique opportunity for handicapped and able-bodied folk to work together in a challenging environment, with few concessions made to individual limitations. Yet her future is far from secure. Her sister ship the Lord Nelson has not yet been sold and next summer’s UK programme, peak season for disabled crewmembers on a budget, will provide an acid test.

Cream tea, anyone?

Back to highlights. The food was brilliant. Cooks Ian and Mike — with a little help from voyage crew messmen — consistently served up quality meals. They baked their own bread as well, including a particularly tasty chilli loaf. And one afternoon, as we stopped work for a smoko (break), they served up a full cream tea. What a treat.

Finally there was Jock. He kept me upright from stem to stern, from Gatwick drop-off to pickup. Thanks pal. BZ

Back to the bad old days

A family celebration in Jersey was ruined by my experience at the hands of the EasyJet handling agent. I use a lightweight manual wheelchair and on arrival in the island from Gatwick, it had been brought to the aircraft door as expected. With a handler’s help we negotiated the boarding ramp with ease and my wife, daughter and I were soon joining the Covid Queue. A seamless procedure – one I have come to expect during many flights this century.

Our return flight provided a different experience. Before pre-boarding EZY896 (13/9/21), I was informed I would not be permitted to use my own chair to scale the ramp. Instead, I would have to transfer to one of their devices, then again to an aisle chair to reach my seat.

The chair waiting for me was totally unsuitable. A flimsy affair, the armrests were fixed making a transfer awkward at best. The footrest was tiny, offering little room (let alone support) for my size 8 paralysed feet. It looked more like a coal-sack trolley and I refused to be loaded onto it. I explained that my own chair had proved perfectly adequate four days previously.

Initially the handler acquiesced but by the time I moved onto the ramp, he had obviously been rebriefed. We argued but I was conscious that my fellow passengers would not be on my side for long. With difficulty I managed to transfer and my feet immediately fell off the rest, one becoming trapped underneath. I continued to argue with the handler (a man in his 60s with a grey beard and a badly-fitted face mask) until at the aircraft door he lost his temper. He thrust his face into mine, wagged his finger and threatened to have me removed from the flight. (The exchange was witnessed by the flight crew. He said I had been rude; I had told him to shut up.)

I was now furious. The handler’s complete lack of empathy reminded me of behaviour I encountered when I was newly disabled – 30+ years ago. Since then, airport and airline staff around the world have been trained and, until this incident, I felt confident that I would be treated with consideration and my dignity more-or-less preserved.

I want this man to be reprimanded, relevant procedures reviewed and passenger-facing staff retrained. @EasyJet has so far ignored me (I sent a survey response to the CEO the following day) but I have had an apology from @JerseyPorts, who are in touch with (the agent) @SwissportUK.

Wheelchair users do not like using unfamiliar substitutes – in extreme cases they can be dangerous – and, as far as practical, they should be avoided. But more importantly, in the 21st century, disabled passengers are entitled to expect a far better service than I received in my former home the other day.

… the Devil’s Jumps!

Although Johnny lives in Hampshire, it’s right on the border with Surrey. The bambinos went through the Surrey schools system and Juanita still works for Surrey County Council. Johnny’s dog-dragging routes take him through the dusty border towns of Churt, Frensham and Dockenfield — lying in an area known (mostly by greenhorns and carpetbaggers) as the Surrey Hills.

So the family has grown up taking lanes like Jumps Road and areas like the Devil’s Punchbowl for granted. But now Johnny has a folk-tale for ‘ee about how them there names took root. It involves witches, fairies, a cauldron and the Devil himself.

Back, back in the mists of time, a white witch known as Mother Ludlam lived in a cave worn into sandstone cliffs near the market town of Farnham. Or it might have been a colony of fairies — who knows? Anyhoo, Mother Ludlam was valued by the locals for her ability to conjure up utensils and tools. Anything you needed, she could provide. Just visit her by her cave at midnight, make your wish, turn around three times, repeat the wish and when you get back home, the item will be waiting on the doorstep. Your only commitment? To avoid her wrath, make sure you return it within two days.

One day, so the story goes, a stranger appeared and asked to borrow the cauldron itself. Mother Ludlam was reluctant, then suspicious. Her eyes were drawn to the sand outside her cave and they saw hoof-marks. The footprints of the Devil himself! He grabbed the cauldron and fled, pursued by a furious witch on her broomstick. He made three giant strides to the south before dropping his booty in panic and making his escape.

The actual cauldron

His strides tore up three huge mounds known as the Devil’s Jumps and are there to this day. So is Jumps Road in Churt. The last of the mounds, where he is said to have dropped the pot, is known as Kettlebury. His fourth landing created a depression known hereabouts as the Devil’s Punchbowl, now a National Trust property. And the cauldron itself? Mother Ludlum recoverd it and, for safety, placed it within the sanctified ground of St Mary’s Church in Frensham. Where it lies TO THIS DAY!

So the legend goes. As is the way with folk-tales, I have passed on this one from a much more detailed account by David Castleton. But the next time I am riding past St Mary’s Church, I will drop in to see if the cauldron does indeed lie next to the pews. Easier said than done, but then at least we’ll know that everything I’ve told you is TRUE!

… on Staycation!

I won’t pretend these visits were the result of my endless quest for new adventures. If Johnny had had his way, he would be spending the summer holed up right here, only venturing out on the hand-bike (along a well-worn trail) or with the dog in the boot. As for wearing a mask, I only went somewhere that required one last week. But as usual, Juanita Fajita had other ideas.

One day Jock, one day.

First of all, did I mention that my tall-ships sailing experience got binned? For the second time? The more this happens, the more I want to do it. A few domestic voyages are pencilled in for next summer. I never thought I would consider one more passage through the Dover Straits as an attractive holiday option. “Bridge Ops, further surface contact, green two zero steady bearing …”

So, with quarantine threatened, we made a few trips that didn’t require a passport.

Buscot Park is a National Trust stately home on the edge of the Cotswolds, and the Failey clan gathered there on a blazing August day to celebrate Linda’s (and her twin brother Ian’s) birthday. While the house was closed the gardens on their own made the visit worthwhile, and a shady picnic area offered welcome respite from the sun. That’s where I stayed, I must confess, so the rest is pure hearsay.

As a private home supported but not owned by the NT, accessibility does not reflect modern standards. Steps (with handrails, though) up to and within the main house and to several garden terraces restrict wheelchair users and indeed the guide recommends power assistance around the grounds. So you might be forgiven for concluding that a visit wasn’t worth your time and money (there is a separate charge to visit the gardens but a handful of NT membership cards took the hit).

There is an accessible route!

But there is a great deal for the horticulturalist (So Johnny) and art-lover to enjoy outside. Visit the website, I’m busy. While waiting in the shade for the main group, we plundered the tea-room’s stock of Calippos. On the downside, I could not tell who, if anybody, had wiped down the disabled loo before me. Someone could catch something.

Chidham, I think, from Bosham.

We drove to Bosham on the south coast to meet Deb and Nick. It’s a beautiful area, favoured by yotties and peppered with art galleries and tea-rooms. And flat. Lovely and flat. Walk/wheeling round the shallow inlet, we passed quaint old houses with gardens leading down to the sea. The path floods at every hight tide and a step or two are their only defence against the collapse of the world’s ice shelves. Not sure the one we saw For Sale represents the solid investment it once did.

With Deb and Nick

Then round to Chichester Marina for a late lunch at the Boat House. We sat in a shady veranda area, from where I could surreptitiously glance at the pretty girls in their summer dresses. Indulge an elderly gent; I meant no harm. With the Eat Out to Help Out discount in place, it was really good value too. Finally, another flat stroll (that’s a better word for what we do) to Birdham Pool.

A grand day out.

Because the West Sussex coastal area is so flat. there are quite a few accessible walks to enjoy. Download the guide here. We’ll write about some of them soon.

…To Dublin!

Ireland’s capital is navigable, accessible, and it’s true what they say about the locals. Johnny almost felt guilty that they got trounced in the Six Nations.

That’s the Guinness Six Nations rugby tournament. The black stuff featured large during our weekend break, so much so that Juanita and I ended up watching the crunch England v Ireland match over a cup of tea in the hotel lobby.

My goodness, it’s …!

The first taste came during our tour of the Guinness Storehouse at St James Gate. Having declined all the added extras — the personalised beer glasses, your selfie tantalisingly dribbled onto the white head — we made our way up the impressive circular tower while learning, via the obligatory son et lumière, how the stout is made. The humans who did talk to us knew their stuff but, when it came to tasting it, I took exception to some teenager’s encouragement to ‘gulp, don’t sip’. Well derr.

We did get a ‘free’ pint at the circular Gravity Bar, though. That was lovely.

It wasn’t just me Officer.

Booze turned out to be an important feature of our visit. Access, apart from the flights (see below) was not. Buy a Leap card at the Airport Spar for big, big savings on buses and trams. Perhaps I should have brought my Freewheel to deal with the cobbles of Temple Bar, wherein it took us several visits to find the eponymous watering hole. Every damn one of them seems to be called Temple Bar.

Anyway, back to the drinking. With the yeasty goodness of Guinness still on the sides of my tongue, at the TB I favoured a double Jamesons on ice with (an inspired move, this) a glass of water on the side. All the taste, none of the headaches.

The best pub we visited surely was the Doheny & Nesbitt on Baggot Street, where we joined a rowdy croud about to enjoy France v Wales. It’s the people, so it is. Just a couple of pints there.

The Gravity Bar — I think

Spread over four days this consumption doesn’t add up to much, I know, but I’m an old man trying like hell to avoid a hangover. These days, one of those would write off half the vsit.

And it wasn’t all drink, nossir! We did galleries and museums, and saw two shows; Blood Brothers at the striking Bord Gais theatre in the Docklands area and The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the famous Gaiety on South King Street. The two plays couldn’t have been more different but, faced with a choice, I’d go for the dark, dark humour of the latter. Love that dismemberment scene.

We overheard lots of languages, including a fair bit of Gaelic, and met some friendly folk. The staff at our hotel, the Maldron on Pearse Street, couldn’t have been more helpful. Aer Lingus, on the other hand, perhaps should. I had to fight my case for an accessible seat and on both sectors, despite waiting patiently to disembark after everyone else, they took ages to locate my chair. Just like in the 80s.

Do you go past Temple Bar mister?

… 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, or may not, be available.

… 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 …

… 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.