Devon – the trip we’ll never forget

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Update: following feedback from folks who found this post from Twitter, I just wanted to say at the top of this post – we’re all okay.[/spb_message]

Our holiday in Devon last week turned out to be… memorable… both for happy holiday reasons and for somewhat more-tragic ones. Selected features of the trip included:

Croyde

A Fish & Chip shop in Croyde
This pile of breezeblocks on the edge of a camp site was perhaps the sketchiest fish & chip shop we’d ever seen. Not bad grub, though!

We spent most of the week in Croyde, a picturesque and tourist-centric village on Devon’s North coast. The combination of the life of a small village and being at the centre of a surfer scene makes for a particularly eccentric and culturally-unusual place. Quirky features of the village included the bakery, which seemed to only bake a half-dozen croissants each morning and sell out shortly after they opened (which was variably between 8am and 9am, pretty much at random), the ice cream shop which closed at lunchtime on the hottest day of our stay, and the fish & chip shop that was so desperate to “use up their stock”, for some reason, that they suggested that we might like a cardboard box rather than a carrier bag in which to take away our food, “so they could get rid of it”.

Annabel on the beach with Ruth and JTA
“You’ve never seen a beach before, have you? Isn’t this exciting?”
/stares in wonderment at own thumbs/

The Eden Project

Annabel looks out over the Eden Project
In the right dome, a Mediterranean climate. In the left, a jungle. In both, lots of things for Annabel to try to grab hold of and put in her mouth.

Ever since it opened in the early 2000s, I’d always wanted to visit The Eden Project – a group of biome domes deep in the valley of a former Cornish quarry, surrounded by gardens and eco-exhibitions and stuff. And since we’d come all of the way to Devon (via Cardiff, which turns out to be quite the diversion, actually!), we figured that we might as well go the extra 90 miles into Cornwall to visit the place. It was pretty fabulous, actually, although the heat and humidity of the jungle biome really did make it feel like we were trekking through the jungle, from time to time.

Annabel gets a drink in the cool room.
The jungle biome was a little hot for poor Annabel, and she was glad to get into the cool room and have a drink of water.

Geocaching

Stile to an overgrown path; Devon.
In Devon, nipple-high grass counts as a “footpath”.

On one day of our holiday, I took an afternoon to make a 6½ mile hike/jog around the Northern loop of the Way Down West series of geocaches, which turned out to be somewhat gruelling on account of the ill-maintained rural footpaths of North Devon and taking an inadequate supply of water for the heat of the afternoon.

Very badly-maintained footpath in North Devon.
Seriously, Devon: if I need to bring a machete, it’s not a bridleway.

On the upside, though, I managed to find 55 geocaches in a single afternoon, on foot, which is more than three times my previous best “daily score”, and took me through some genuinely beautiful and remote Devon countryside.

Dan with GC24YCW - Way Down West 105
GC24YCW (“Way Down West 105”) was the last in my 55-cache series, and my body was glad of it.

Watermouth Castle

We took an expedition out to Watermouth Castle, which turned out to be an experience as eccentric as we’d found Croyde to be, before it. The only possible explanation I can think of for the place is that it must be owned by a child of a hoarder, who inherited an enormous collection of random crap and needed to find a way to make money out of it… so they turned it into something that’s 50% museum, 50% theme park, and 100% fever dream.

ABBA Robots at Watermouth Castle
A group of animatronic robots playing automatic-organ versions of ABBA songs greet you at Watermouth Castle. And then things get weird.

There’s a cellar full of old bicycles. A room full of old kitchen equipment. A room containing a very large N-gauge model railway layout. Several rooms containing entertainments that would have looked outdated on a 1970s pier: fortune tellers, slot machines, and delightfully naïve peep-show boxes. A hedge maze with no exit. A disturbingly patriotic water show with organ accompaniment. A garden full of dancing gnomes. A hall of mirrors. A mock 1920s living room. A room full of primitive washing machines and their components. The whole thing feels schizophrenic, but somehow charming too: like a reminder of how far entertainment and conveniences have come in the last hundred years.

Baggy Point

Ruth, JTA and Annabel on Baggy Point
The tip of Baggy Point gave me vibes of Aberystwyth’s own Constitution Hill, with the exception that it was sunny at Baggy Point.

We took a hike out to beautiful Baggy Point, a beautiful headland stretching out into the Atlantic to make it the Easternmost point in North Devon. It was apparently used by soldiers training for the D-Day landings, but nowadays it seems mostly to be used to graze goats. The whole area made me reminisce about walks to Borth along the Ceredigion coast. Unfortunately for Ruth and JTA, who headed back to our accommodation before me, I’d failed to hand them the key to the front door before we parted ways and I went off to explore the rest of the headland, and in my absence they had to climb in through the window.

The Collision

For all of the wonderful things we got up to in Devon, though – everything above and more besides – the reason that we’ll no-doubt never forget this particular trip came as we set off on our way home.

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Warning: this section discusses a tragic car accident.[/spb_message]

About an hour after we set off for home on our final day in Devon, we ended up immediately behind a terrible crash, involving two cars striking one another head-on at an incredible speed. We saw it coming with only seconds to spare before both vehicles smashing together, each thrown clear to a side of the road as a cloud of shattered glass and metal was flung into the air. JTA was driving at this point, and hit the brakes in time to keep us clear of the whirling machines, but it was immediately apparent that we were right in the middle of something awful. I shouted for Ruth and JTA to see what they could do (they’re both Red Cross first aiders, after all) as I phoned the emergency services and extracted our location from the SatNav, then started working to ensure that a path was cleared through the traffic so that the ambulances would be able to get through.

Police car in Devon
Ambulances, fire engines, and police cars arrived quickly, or so it felt: honestly, my perception of time at this point was completely shaken.

A passer-by – an off-duty police officer – joined Ruth and I in performing CPR on one of the drivers, until paramedics arrived. My first aid training’s rusty compared to Ruth and JTA’s, of course, but even thinking back to my training so long ago, I can tell you is that doing it with a real person – surrounded by glass and oil and blood – is a completely different experience to doing it on a dummy. The ambulance crew took over as soon as they arrived, but it seems that it was too late for her. Meanwhile the driver of the other car, who was still conscious and was being supported by JTA, hung on bravely but, local news reported, died that afternoon in hospital. Between the two cars, two people were killed; the third person – a passenger – survived, as did a dog who was riding in the back of one of the cars.

The emergency services from a distance
Once we’d handed over to the emergency services, we retreated to a safe distance and, for perhaps the first time, began to contemplate what we’d seen.

I am aware that I’ve described the incident, and our participation in its aftermath, in a very matter-of-fact way. That’s because I’m honestly not sure what I mean to say, beyond that. It’s something that’s shaken me – the accident was, as far as I could see, the kind of thing that could happen to any of us at any time, and that realisation forces upon me an incredible sense of my own fragility. Scenes from the experience – the cars shattering apart; the dying driver; her courageous passenger – haunt me. But it feels unfair to dwell on such things: no matter what I feel, there’s no way to ignore the stark truth that no matter how much we were affected by the incident… the passenger, and the families and friends of those involved, will always have been affected more.

It took hours for us to get back on the road again, and the police were very apologetic. But honestly: I don’t think that any of us felt 100% happy about being behind the wheel of a car again after what had just happened. Our journey back home was slow and cautious, filled with the images of the injuries we’d seen and with a newly acute awareness of the dangers of the glass-and-metal box we sat inside. We stopped at a service station part-way home, and I remarked to Ruth how surreal it felt that everybody around us was behaving so normally: drinking a coffee; reading a paper; oblivious to the fact that just a few tens of miles and a couple of hours away, people just like them had lost their lives, doing exactly what they were about to go and do.

It’s all about perspective, of course. I feel a deep sorrow for the poor families of the people who didn’t make it. I feel a periodic pang of worry that perhaps there were things I could have done: What if I’d have more-recently practised first aid? What if I’d more-quickly decoded our position and relayed it to the operator? What if I’d have offered to help Ruth immediately, rather than assuming that she had sufficient (and the right kind of) help and instead worked on ensuring that the traffic was directed? I know that there’s no sense in such what-if games: they’re just a slow way to drive yourself mad.

Maybe I’m just looking for a silver lining or a moral or something in this story that I just can’t find. For a time I considered putting this segment into a separate blog post: but I realised that the only reason I was doing so was to avoid talking about it. And as I’m sure you all know already, that’s not a healthy approach.

Right now, I can only say one thing for certain: our holiday to Devon is a trip I’ll never forget.

Wear Your Cycle Helmet

Today, my cycle helmet might have saved my life.

This morning, I was cycling to work along my usual route, National Cycle Network Route 51, on its final leg down Banbury Road to Parks Road. Here, the cycle route shares its path with a bus lane, and – on a warm, bright morning like this one, having a broad, flat lane is a great opportunity for a strong cyclist to make great time in a safe environment.

Bus/cycle lane heading South on Banbury Road.
Oxford’s multitudinous bus/cycle lanes are great for public transport and even better for cyclists: providing a safe, well-signposted space away from the majority of the main flow of traffic.

As I approached the bus stop, a spotted a car in the lane to my right, just ahead, slow down and turn on it’s indicator to turn left: it was heading for one of the driveways. But when the car began its maneuver, a split second later, I realised that the driver had not seen me. Perhaps she’d not checked her mirrors before turning? Or perhaps she’d only glanced (and seen no buses in the bus lane – just me and the second cyclist behind me)? Or perhaps she’d underestimated my speed, or dramatically overestimated her ability to get into the driveway before I reached her? In any case, she turned out to be wrong. I hit my brakes as sharply as I safely could, but it wasn’t enough to stop me from ploughing right into the side of her bonnet.

I’m not entirely sure what happened next. At the time, it felt like everything went into slow motion: a gentle flight through the air followed by a gradual landing on the other side, and that I’d be able to recall every single moment. But, probably as a result of the blow to my head (which as I’ve discovered before can have profound and confusing effects on memory), my memory of everything from a few seconds before the collision onwards is fuzzy and fragmented. But I spoke to the driver (a woman with dark hair), to the cyclist behind me (who was wearing a white t-shirt), and to a man who came out of a nearby building (who spoke with an accent – these details are the only things I can reliably remember about any of them), and based upon their descriptions – any my injuries – I’ve managed to piece together broadly what happened.

A penny farthing: the rider has tipped over the handlebars and ended up thoroughly upside-down.
There never was a graceful bicycle crash. Some, however, are less painful than others.

I hit the side of the car and flipped forward, throwing myself, some of the contents of my pannier bag, and my D-lock into the air. My handlebars knocked a dent into the bonnet of the car, and the lock landed elsewhere on it, but I flew clear over the car and flipped around in the air. I’m not sure how I landed, but it was probably on my back, because I struck the backs of my head, right shoulder, and elbow… but I must have rolled, because I also managed to scrape and graze the front of my legs.

I initially thought that I was fine (though I was clearly in shock), but I discovered about a quarter of an hour (or thereabouts: I’ve only been able to piece together a timeline in hindsight) that I was in more pain than I’d first thought, was feeling intermittently dizzy, and was unable to remember the details of the accident or even what day of the week it was. I asked for a taxi to be called for me and rode to the hospital, where they cleared me of anything seriously wrong (spinal injuries, serious concussion, broken bones, etc.) and sent me home for a day of lying down and mainlining NSAIDs.

A Kryptonite New York lock, like the one I use. It weighs about a ton but it's pretty-much bombproof.
A heavy D-lock like mine makes quite an impact when it’s catapulted into sheet metal.

Now it’s the early evening. I’m still far from entirely “with it”: I feel like my brain’s been rebooted into safe mode – I seem to be incapable of decent multi-tasking (for example: I can have a conversation with you, or can listen for my name being called by the doctor, but not both). I’ve got aching shoulders and arms and a bit of a limp. And I’ve been pretty much exhausted the whole day.

But here’s something: if I’m right about the angle I landed at, based on where I hurt the most, then it’s possible that my cycle helmet saved my life, today.

Wear your cycle helmet, folks.

Beware: Necrophiliac Paramedics!

A conversation I had this morning with JTA, via text message:

I sent:

Boiler update: this is getting silly. The probability-weighted Markov-chain based predictive text system I’m using this morning saw me type “boi” and suggested “Boiler update:”? /sighs/
On the upside, I’ve successfully arranged for the new distributor valve to be installed on Friday, when I’ll be around.

To give a little background, we’re having trouble with the boiler on Earth. You may have observed that it broke last year, and then again this year: well – it’s still broken, really. Nowadays it’ll only produce a little hot water at a time, and makes a noise like that scene in Titanic where the ship begins to tear in two. You know – a bad noise for a boiler to make. Over the last two or three weeks we’ve repeatedly fought to get it repaired, but it’s been challenging: more on that in a different blog post, if JTA doesn’t get there first.

JTA replied:

On the plus side, at least this saga is overriding your phone’s memory of your previous life as a male prostitute. :-)

I was once mistaken for a gay prostitute, actually – by a gay prostitute – but that’s another story, I guess. In any case, I responded:

Until now! you’ve just mentioned that again, which means it’ll be the “last message received” when the paramedics go through my phone if I’m killed on the way to work this morning. And they’ll say, “yeah; I’d pay to have sex with him.”

Quickly followed by:

And his mate will say:
“Now he’s dead, you don’t HAVE to pay.”
If my corpse is raped by a paramedic, I’m blaming you.

To which JTA said:

You’re talking about people who drive blacked out vans full of drugs. I’m pretty sure they never pay.

From prostitution to necrophilia to date rape over the course of only a handful of text messages. What a great start to a Wednesday morning. I do like the image of an ambulance as “a blacked out van full of drugs,” though…