#33 Monsters and minnows

Swinton Bike Insurance are offering a prize-draw:

Swinton prize drawHere’s my entry:

Exmoor – monsters and minnows

A sudden bout of vomiting (my partner’s son’s) meant our planned tour of Southern Ireland was scuppered, so we sulked for a few days before settling on Exmoor. We decided to spoil ourselves to make up for the disappointment and booked this place:


I had to learn a polka for a friend’s wedding in a few days, so I had to pack my accordion. The VFR had little trouble, but we were pretty cosy with two side-panniers, a top-box, the accordion bungied in front of the top-box, J- my partner- and me. Tight!

All I’d known of Exmoor before then was Butlins. This time, there were no yellow-coats, just seething fields of heavy corn, ancient woods and hidden valleys. The VFR is a heavy bike but, as we joined the B3188, it plunged easily into the sinuous, tree-tunnelled fringes of Exmoor.

We stayed at Yarde, soon discovering the landscape is dense with holloways, high hills and quick-running streams. Owls accompanied our later-than-planned pub walk to Stogumber with their plaintive calls.

I had been nervous about taking the VFR, J and myself up Porlock Hill. Wikipedia states that it is `a very steep hill with gradients of up to 1 in 4 and hairpin bends.’ It is the steepest A-road in the country. I’d asked several locals if motorbikes went up- they all seemed confident that they did. Thing is, I’m not tall (5’7″) and the combination of heavy bike, pillion, 1:4 gradient and hairpin bends seemed challenging. There is a get-out, a toll road for less intrepid travellers. That decided it.

There is an ominous sign replete with dire warnings at the beginning of the hill.


We cruised past, it mattered not. J and I don’t use a motorbike intercom system, so I doubt whether she was aware of how psyched I was. Every sensory nerve was firing, a steady mantra of `low gear… use clutch… perfect line…’ looped in my head. The gradient suddenly tilted upward and we were committed, there was no way I could even attempt a U-turn now. The V-four engine pulled smoothly in 2nd as the first hairpin scrolled toward us. Then, somehow, it disappeared behind us with barely a conscious manoeuvre. Following the racing line (though not at racing speed) with a deep lean to the left, the second hairpin passed without incident. Unseen, inside my helmet, I gave a slight `woop’ and grinned, then pulled back on the throttle.

We parked further on at County Gate, a National Trust car-park with massive views


trekked along the coast there and did some painting. On the way back, as the sunset gave way to a chilly evening, we decided to hook a right off the A39 onto the New Road which flows smoothly down into the Doone Valley.

We were both gradually overwhelmed by the weathered, simple beauty of what the road revealed. It is not easy biking- tiny lanes, loose gravel and blind bridges- but it was a valley of unceasing allure. The Oare Water ambles darkly along the valley floor under stone arch bridges, fish darting into shadow. Faded, Georgian manor houses hide just beyond sight amid rambling gardens of rhododendron. A fox and his vixen froze at our passing, then padded away in opposite directions. We parked up and stood by the river, breathing deeply and feeling like we had stumbled backward in time. Apart from the cooling motorbike, there was no outward sign of modern technology for miles.

Reluctantly, we left. It was late twilight, we were hungry. The road wound its way back toward the A39, then perversely morphed into a far more challenging series of hairpins amid steepness than Porlock Hill. Somehow, despite my tiredness, I managed to ride us safely upward but there was no avoiding riding up the wrong side of this capricious lane.

Our getaway on Exmoor ended too soon. We had come here to soothe the regret of missing Ireland yet, we hadn’t spoken of Ireland once. The polka was learned, stresses purged, new roads embedded deep in our memories and pledges made to return on the motorbike to this happily underpopulated corner of Somerset.


#32 Ron Howarth

I couldn’t read the signal. A man driving towards me flashed his headlights repeatedly, wound down the window and proffered his fist toward me. Something wrong with my bike? Someone who recognised me? No, a police speed-trap I’d already sped through. My dull mind half remembers that I could have been doing 44mph in an arbitrary 20mph zone. Great.

My head’s been gone since visiting my upstairs-neighbour in a nursing home this morning.  It was a glorious day, earlier. The sun utterly distinct, a gold disc amidst clear autumnal blue, leaves everywhere shifting into their burning death-throes. For weeks, since visiting Ron in July at Bath RUH, I’ve been meaning to/not quite getting around to/saying that I was going to phone the hospital to see how he was faring, to make another visit. On our only visit, my daughter, J and me huddled around Ron’s bedside and exerted every muscle of concentration to listen to his barely intelligible monologue. In the forty five minutes or so that we were there, he stitched together his life story for us. Glimpses. A fleet of ghost ships passing in mist.

He’s 93. He worked on the shipyards in Scotland, as did his father. He almost became one of the Scot’s pipers. He fought in Burma. He moved to Portsmouth with his family to work on the docks, then settled in Keynsham. He didn’t have children. He met and married Marjorie late in life.

They only had fifteen years together before she died.

Ron has lived alone for over twenty years.

The cherry tree that he planted on the front lawn in memory of Marjorie became diseased, then withered and died last year. He bought another one and planted it in the hole left after the landscape gardeners had winched out the stump. It didn’t take and also died. Ron wasn’t sentimental about it.

When the ambulance came to take Ron, the whole street turned out.

Eric and Catherine, the Polish neighbours from two down.

David, the life-weary motor-biker from next-door.

Diane, the deranged woman above him.

Liesel, the kind, but unmoored woman from next door again.

My next door neighbours, Pat and Kevin, elderly and frail themselves.

Malcolm, the gloomy man from above who surreptitiously pours weedkiller from his window onto Pat’s wisteria.

No doubt Clarke, Patricia Clarke, the elderly widow who once toured America on a motorbike in the 50s watched from within the gloom of her flat.

Ron knew everyone here. He picked up the papers for some of the elderly people, did odd jobs, mowed people’s lawns. On his lawn, the grass remains thick and lush, though the border is now overgrown.

SONY DSCPat and Kevin came with me to St Theresa’s, Corston, the nursing home where Ron has been moved to. A former nunnery, it’s now corporately owned, redecorated with uplifting daffodil yellow walls, plush carpets, warm lighting. It wasn’t immediately clear where reception was, so I wondered along a corridor. A woman parked in a wheelchair lolled to one side against a wall. Her thin, grey and white streaked hair was wet and pinned up, she had probably just been to the in-house hairdresser and was now awaiting redelivery to her room. Last night, the nurse from the home had warned me that Ron was not the man I’d last seen a few weeks ago. She’d strongly urged that, if I wanted to see him, I’d better come today. A nurse took us to Ron’s room and went to get an extra chair. We left before she had time to return with it.

He was sunk down into a deep cot-bed. The blue-spotted sheet that covered him showed how shrunken he has become. He was curled into the foetal position, jaw slumped to one side, leaving his mouth agape, a dark wedge. His eyes, too, have been pulled back into his skull. They barely opened. Pat and Kevin sat and stood at the side, not speaking. I went to the foot of his bed and tried a few words.

It’s a really beautiful day outside.

The staff here seem very kind.

It’s a really nice place you’ve found yourself in.

Ron, mate, I just wanted to say that we’ve all been thinking of you.

The kids have been watering your plants on the balcony with the hose.

They stopped a few week’s ago., the plants are past it now.


I nearly said go well when we left, a phrase I sometimes end texts to my loved ones with. Pat went to the side of his bed and said that she is going to take seeds from the flowers in his borders and, each time they flower, she will think of him. When it seemed the right time to leave, I just gripped the end of the bedstead and said

Bye, Ron. Take care.

I wanted to give his shoulder a squeeze, or hold his hand. One of the most wretched things about being alone, and old, must be no longer being touched. Slowly, simple human contact becomes a lost thing. We’re not related, he’s just my neighbour. Keep it light.

How can we cross these borders?

As we left, Kevin said goodbye in his distinctive, retired G.P. voice and Ron’s face shifted a little. He twisted his head towards us, his mouth widened- a hollow, pained wail came out from deep within. We stood still until the sound died away. I think I looked briefly at Ron, but then down at the floor. We left him, then walked back down the corridor. We had been there less than ten minutes. As we walked, Pat mentioned that the thing most noticeably absent was his characteristic smile. She’s right, he was always smiling. He bore the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that he has lived with for years with quiet stoicism. He never complained, albeit the occasional apologetic, self-deprecating remark.

Later, when we were parking back in Keynsham, we drew alongside Ron’s nephew. We wound our windows down and held a conversation between our two cars for nearly fifteen minutes. Pat talked across me in her particular, very slow manner. Each. Word. Punc. Tuated. With. A. Full. Stop. Her words are kind, they just take a very long time to be a sentence. Kevin, her husband,  sat behind me, like one of my children, leaning toward the window and chiming in occasionally. Martin thanked us for the visit. He took my phone number. He mentioned that Ron had managed several sounds during his visists over the last few days. Each time, they sounded like help.

Now, sitting on my bed, remembering, I just hope that it wasn’t frightening, that our presence today didn’t terrify- the obvious, distanced farewell. Maybe we were only shadows, maybe there was only darkness with glimmers of recognition, muted sounds of well-meaning tones. I know now that when my time comes, if it is to be a gradual deterioration, I want, very much, for my sweetheart and my children to take me outside. Somewhere away from cars, and double-glazing, and framed prints that I didn’t choose. Away from the company of dying strangers to a field on a hill with a breeze. That would be fine. There is a view of just such a place, the tump, Kelston round-hill, from Ron’s window, as if within reach.


[Ron passed away later that day.]