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:
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”.
The Eden Project
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On this day in 2003 I first juggled with flaming clubs! But first, let’s back up to when I very first learned to juggle. One night, back in about 1998, I had a dream. And in that dream, I could juggle.
I’d always been a big believer in following my dreams, sometimes in a quite literal sense: once I dreamed that I’d been writing a Perl computer program to calculate the frequency pattern of consecutive months which both have a Friday 13th in them. Upon waking, I quickly typed out what I could remember of the code, and it worked, so it turns out that I really can claim to be able to program in my sleep.
In this case, though, I got up and tried to juggle… and couldn’t! So, in order that nobody could ever accuse me of not “following my dreams,” I opted to learn!
About three hours later, my mother received a phone call from me.
“Help!” I said, “I think I’m going to die of vitamin C poisoning! How much do I have to have before it becomes fatal?”
“What?” she asked, “What’s happened?”
“Well: you know how I’m a big believer in following my dreams.”
“Yeah,” she said, sighing.
“Well… I dreamed that I could juggle, so I’ve spent all morning trying to learn how to. But I’m not very good at it.”
“Okay… but what’s that got to do with vitamin C?”
“Well: I don’t own any juggling balls, so I tried to find something to use as a substitute. The only thing I could find was this sack of oranges.”
“I think I can see where you’re going wrong,” she said, sarcastically, “You’re supposed to juggle with your hands, Dan… not with your mouth.”
“I am juggling with my hands! Well; trying to, anyway. But I’m not very good. So I keep dropping the oranges. And after a few drops they start to rupture and burst, and I can’t stand to waste them, so I eat them. I’ve eaten quite a lot of oranges, now, and I’m starting to feel sick.”
I wasn’t overdosing on vitamin C, it turns out – that takes a quite monumental dose; perhaps more than can be orally ingested in naturally-occuring forms – but was simply suffering from indigestion brought on as a result of eating lots and lots of oranges, and bending over repeatedly to pick up dropped balls. My mother, who had herself learned to juggle when she was young, was able to give me two valuable tips to get me started:
- Balled-up thick socks make for great getting-started juggling balls. They bounce, don’t leak juice, and are of a sensible size (if a little light) for a beginning juggler.
- Standing with your knees against the side of a bed means that you don’t have to bend over so far to pick up your balls when you inevitably drop them.
I became a perfectly competent juggler quite quickly, and made a pest of myself in many a supermarket, juggling the produce.
So: fast forward five years to 2003, when Kit, Claire, Paul, Bryn and I decided to have a fire on the beach, at Aberystwyth. We’d… acquired… a large solid wooden desk and some pallets, and we set them up and ignited them and lounged around drinking beer. After a little while, a young couple came along: she was swinging flaming poi around, and he was juggling flaming clubs!
I asked if I could have a go with his flaming clubs. “Have you ever juggled flaming clubs before?” he asked. “I’ve never even juggled clubs before,” I replied. He offered to extinguish them for me, first, but I insisted on the “full experience.” I’d learn faster if there existed the threat of excruciating pain every time I fucked up, surely. Right?
Juggling clubs, it turns out, is a little harder than juggling balls. Flaming clubs, even more so, because you really can’t get away with touching the “wrong” end. Flaming clubs at night, after a few drinks, is particularly foolhardy, because all you can see is the flaming end, and you have to work backwards in your mind to interpret where the “catching end” of the stick must be, based on the movement of the burning bit. In short: I got a few minor singes.
But I went home that night with the fire still burning in my eyes, like a spark in my mind. I couldn’t stop talking about it: I’d been bitten by the flaming-clubs-bug.
I ordered myself a set of flaming clubs as soon as I could justify the cost, and, after a couple of unlit attempts in the street outside my house, took them to our next beach party a few days later. That’s when I learned what really makes flaming clubs dangerous: it’s not the bit that’s on fire, but the aluminium rod that connects the wick to the handle. Touching the flaming wick; well – that’ll singe a little, but it won’t leave a burn so long as you pull away quickly. But after they’ve been lit for a while – even if they’ve since been put out – touching the alumium pole will easily leave a nasty blister.
Still: I learned quickly, and was still regularly flinging them around (and teaching others) at barbecues many years later.
Once, a Nightline training ended up being held at an unusual location, and the other trainers and I were concerned that the trainees might not be able to find it. So we advertised on the email with the directions to the training room that trainees who can’t find it should “introduce themselves to the man juggling fire outside the students union”, who would point them in the right direction: and so I stood there, throwing clubs around, looking for lost people all morning. Which would have worked fine if it weren’t for the fact that I got an audience, and it became quite hard to discreetly pick out the Nightline trainees from the students who were just being amused by my juggling antics.
Nowadays, I don’t find much time for juggling. I keep my balls to-hand (so to speak) and sometimes toss them about while I’m waiting for my computer to catch up with me, but it’s been a long while since I got my clubs out and lit them up. Maybe I’ll find an excuse sometime soon.
This blog post is part of the On This Day series, in which Dan periodically looks back on years gone by.
Weather permitting, there’ll be a barbeque tonight.
That is all.
Well, Paul‘s mid-Troma Night fire was still on, so after watching The Wicker Man we all raided the nature reserve for wood, raided the filling station for petrol (mmm… accelerant) and went and set up on the beach.
Hollywood Pizza were good enough to bring us our pizza on the beach, which was awfully nice of them, but the damp conditions made lighting the fire hard. It’d just started to char the wood when it went out, and, too impatient to wait for somebody competent to go and help him, Paul decided that he’d have a go at putting a little more petrol onto it.
He doesn’t seem to have the knack of it. Here’s a visual guide.
Experts at “pouring petrol onto fires” (e.g. Jimmy or me) will immediately see Paul’s mistake in the first frame. Not only is he badly-drawn, but he’s holding the jerry can upside down over the naked flames. The correct approach is to swing the can in order to “throw” petrol onto it, and even that is assuming that you rule out the *real* correct approaches of never putting petrol on a lit fire or never trying to use petrol as an accelerant to a bonfire in the first place.
The inevitable occured, and the petrol can caught fire in Paul’s hands. It took him some time to realise this, however, despite everybody else standing and shouting at him. He calmly and carefully put the can down on a rock before looking down and seeing that it was ablaze.
At this point, the correct course of action would be to attempt to extinguish the flaming can of fuel before it got out of control: perhaps by throwing something over it or by moving it into the sea. But what Paul did was…
…screamed like a girl. Many of the spectators ran for cover (many of them under the delusion that an open plastic petrol can with a flame burning the gas above it [like a wick] was in some great risk of exploding): Alec hid behind some rocks further down the beach while Paul was still trying to work out what he should do.
Paul’s master plan was to run blindly towards a number of sharp, knee-high, wet, slippery rocks. This had two effects. Firstly, it put a significant distance between himself and the petrol can which he should have been extinguishing, as the time in which it was safe to do so was growing short. Secondly, it caused him to fall badly onto his leg and injure it, tearing a reasonable-sided chunk of flesh away from him.
Meanwhile, I started to walk towards the can to try to get it moved into the sea and thereby put out the fire – the plan being that I might be able to salvage some of the petrol and make our bonfire more sustainable with it.
That’s me, wearing the cape like the superhero I am. I wasn’t actually wearing a cape, but I probably should have been. As I approached the can I saw that it was already too late to pick it up – the petrol vapours were being heated by the flame and were escaping the neck of the container and licking around the handle, so I opted to kick it as hard as I could towards the awaiting ocean.
It was at about this point that Alec popped his head out from behind the rock to see if the coast was clear. The petrol can narrowly missed his head as it flew past him – by this point, just a ball of fire. It fell short of the sea, and it took until a few waves had broken over it a couple of minutes later before it was extinguished, but it was too late: the petrol had already burned it’s way out through the bottom of the can, and our fuel was gone.
We had some difficulty getting the fire lit to begin with – perhaps something to do with the fact that it had been snowing for most of the afternoon – but eventually (with enough blowing on the part of Peter and I) we had a wonderful little blaze going. Three disposable barbecues gave us enough food to satisfy everybody, and we all sat out as the evening wore on, drinking beer and joking about whatever came to mind. A lot of the conversation seemed to be about the absence of Iggy, everybody’s favourite ‘bot. Jon and Hayley brought a bottle of champagne, and we celebrated the charges of fraud against Paul being dropped. And we huddled, as a group, closer to the embers as they burned out, stopping now and then to steal more wood from a nearby building site to fuel it a little longer.
Temperatures were low; spirits were high: it was a shame not to see folks like Andy, Sian and Liz there, but it was nice to see folks like Peter and Jimmy, who are usually a little more challenging to extract out on these crazy ventures. And those of us that survived the experience retired to The Flat to play Chez Geek and Fluxx past midnight.
That’s why Aber’s great. And that’s why I’m glad I’m here.
Claire, Paul, Bryn, Ruth, JTA, Andy and I went to the beach this evening to play frisbee and watch the sunset. We even got Bryn participating, which is somewhat a rarity for any of this fun outings that involve physical activity. Everybody seemed happy to be taking a break from exams. Aber is wonderful this time of year – why must it coincide with exam time?
Paul got some mint-choc-chip ice cream without chocolate chips. Don’t ask.
Afterwards, we all went to the Castle and played hide & seek as it got darker. Paul went first, and I was last to be found – I’d climbed over a wall to a fenced-off area, in which I was very visible, but not in a place anyone would look. I went second, and took ages to find Paul and Ruth. It shouldn’t have taken so long to find Ruth – she was just in the shadows of a tower – but Paul had a brilliant hiding place: inside the ruins of a chimney (how he squeezed in there I’ll never know). For our final game, with Ruth hunting, I hid on top of a tower – with a great view – where I could become completely concealed by lying down. I was found third-from-last, with JTA and Claire remaining hidden for ages (despite many [not particularly helpful] text-messaged clues sent by JTA to Ruth). JTA had wedged himself between two upstanding slabs of rock, and could only be seen from above. Claire, better yet, had lay down and slid herself into what appeared to be an old drainage channel from one of the buildings into the courtyard.
Finally, we all returned to the flat for a game of Chez Geek: Paul won, and deservedly so (despite us all ganging up on him quite brutally at the end.
Time for bed, methinks.
This repost was published in hindsight, on 11 March 2019.
Got up late, and spent the day on Ynyslas beach (A small town North of Aberystwyth, on the coast) with Paul, Kit, Fiona (Kit’s new girlfriend, as I’m sure he will relate in his next entry) and Dan. The water was warm, if a little shallow. We went for a swim, had a barbecue and watched the beautiful sunset. Pictures will be online soon enough. We climbed lazily back over the sand dunes to return to the car. Dan ran ahead, stopped at the crescent of a dune, and turned. “Drop your bag, take your keys, your car is underwater!” I thought he was joking.
So i wade into the now several inches deep water, just below the level of the exhaust pipe. Uncaring about getting sand in the car from my soaking shoes, I jump in and start the engine. I rev and rev, but my wheels are spinning and I’m digging myself deeper into the sand. Eventually, as the water continues to rise, some strangers come to my aid. (Dan had gone to get the others.) With about five people pushing and me panicking slightly less, the car was rescued and i drove it away from the water.
As I drove, very relieved indeed and driving cautiously in case the brakes had been damaged, a woman shouts at me. “Your lights are off!” she tells me. The least of my worries on an almost deserted beach after escaping a drowned vehicle! I flipped them on and waited for the rest of the crew.
We returned to aber, and laughed at our stupidity. Ok, my stupidity, I guess. This sort of thing only happens to me. We washed the salt water off the car and went back to the flat for beer and “Cannibal the Musical”. Hooray. A good day all round.
I’m considering giving my car bouyancy aids and an anchor.
Spent last night on the beach with Andy, Alec, Paul, Claire, and others last night. Folks like Andy and Alec are in Aber for the graduate’s ball tomorrow, we we went out for a barbeque. I took along my new juggling gear and practised juggling flaming brands. I wasn’t very good at it. I need more practice. Today, I have burns all over my arms.
Later, Claire and I borrowed Paul’s dinghy and paddled around in the sea for awhile. That was fun, too. All in all, a good night.
Kit wasn’t feeling well and retired early.
Came in to work late today. This afternoon, in fact. I love it when I get a lie-in. Claire’s uncharacteristically less horny than usual. Down to about my level, for once. Hmm… Anyway: lots of work to do for the company’s presence at the Royal Welsh Show next week. Better go get on with it.
Feel strangely nostalgic. Perhaps a result of the retro-computer games I’ve been playing. Or the music Alex has put on. Or just too much caffiene. Ah well.
Last night Kit, Claire, Paul, Bryn and I acquired a huge wooden desk and other burnables and went and started an enormous fire on the beach, having just finished a most fantastic curry at Cafe All Spice. Big fire!
Later, we were joined by a man with some juggling batons and a woman with some flags and flaming things on the end of cords. I’d never juggled with clubs before, but a quick play and a little coaching later, and he had me juggling with fucking flaming brands. What a buzz!
The woman will be taking part in Equilibre at Machynlleth. Judging by how impressive she alone was with her firey-things, I’m really tempted to go. Showing 9th-16th August, 8pm.
I must buy some flame-batons. The buzz is only just wearing off.
Paul made it to Aber. Woo and indeed hoo. He, Bryn, Kit, Claire, and I went to the beach and drank beer and ate pizza to celebrate. Then Claire and I took turns in an inflatable dingy and I got soaked as a wave leapt over the side. You’ll probably see their reports of this on their journals, soon, too.
The wiki I was coding got finished. Sadly, only a few of you who read this will ever be allowed to see it, but it’s pretty sweet.
Plothole appeared in the story on Andy’s LiveJournal – he has me drinking tea, which, as everybody knows, isn’t going to happen on account of (a) caffiene being a really, really bad thing for me and (b) I don’t particularly like tea. Have reported this to him and await feedback.
It is Claire’s birthday.
“Our feet are going to get wet.”
Somebody had to say it. Somebody did.
The waves roll up the beach, rustling gently against the smooth pebbles. Claire sits in front of me. Kit is to my side. The remaining embers of the fire flicker, as if trying to fight to hold onto the remains of their minimal existance against the oncoming tide. We watch the waves through the dwindling smoke.
I put my arm around Claire, holding her hand against her busom. She returns my grip. I glance across at Kit, and he looks back. For a moment, I look into his eyes… try to see what he sees… but to no avail. We turn back to the sea.
For the best part of half an hour none of us had spoken. For a half hour to come none of us will speak. Sometimes there’s no need for words. Sometimes just being together is enough.
The greatest secret you never tell is how you feel.