Challenge Robin II

After the success of Challenge Robin this summer – where Ruth and I blindfolded her brother Robin and drove him out to the middle of nowhere without his phone or money and challenged him to find his way home – Robin’s been angling for a sequel. He even went so far as to suffix the title of his blog post on the subject “(part 1)”, in the hopes perhaps that we’d find a way to repeat the experience.

Ruth's email inviting Robin to Challenge Robin II
I gather that Robin was particularly concerned by the combination of the recommendation to bring swimwear and the warning that he may have to leave mainland UK… especially given that the challenge takes place in November.

In response to an email sent a week in advance of the challenge, Robin quickly prepared and returned a “permission slip” from his parents, although I’m skeptical that either of them actually saw this document, let alone signed it.

Robin's Challenge Robin permission slip
I’m told that the “signatures” on this document accurately replicate the signature styles of Robin’s parents. I’m guessing he forged a lot of these kinds of notes.

With about a day to go before the challenge began, Robin’s phone will have received a number of instructional messages from a sender-ID called “Control”, instructing him of his first actions and kicking off his adventure. He’d already committed to going to work on Friday with a bag fully-packed for whatever we might have in store for him, but he doubtless wouldn’t have guessed quite how much work had been put into this operation.

Mystery text message from "Control", received by Robin shortly before Challenge Robin 2 was to start, instructing him to go to a particular London address.
We considered giving Robin’s contact the alias ‘Smiler’, but ‘Frowny’ seemed more-fitting for the part.

By 18:06 he still hadn’t arrived to meet his contact. Had this adventure fallen at the first hurdle? Only time would tell…

Update – Friday 9 November 18:45: Robin arrived late and apologetic to find his contact, “Frowny”, at the GBK at that address, was played by JTA.

Robin in GBK
After sufficient apologies he was allowed to be granted the clue we’d expected to give him earlier…

The pair ate and drank and “Frowny” handed Robin his first clue: a map pointing to Cornwall Gardens in Kensington and instructions on where to find the next clue when he got there. The game was afoot!

Frowny's map to Cornwall Gardens
I love the little “Frowny” face; it really make this prop.

Clearly he’d taken the idea of being prepared for anything to a level beyond what we’d expected. Among his other provisions, he was carrying a tent, sleeping bag, and passport! “Clearly my mistake,” he told his contact, “Was giving intelligent people a challenge and then leaving them three months to plan.”

Update – Friday 9 November 19:53: In Cornwall Gardens, Robin found the note (delayed somewhat, perhaps by the growing dark) and began his treasure trail.

Sign in Cornwall Gardens
The sign at Cornwall Gardens kickstarted a journey visiting a thematic series of blue plaques around London before eventually leading to the Paddington Bear statue at Paddington Station…

Soon after, though, things started to go very wrong…

 

A London blue plaque photographed by Robin.
I’m not sure that this was even one of the ones he was supposed to photograph, but anyway…

Update – Friday 9 Novembr 20:40: Let’s take a diversion, and I’ll rely on JTA to keep Robin’s eyes away from this post for a bit. Here’s what was supposed to happen:

  1. Robin would follow a trail of clues around London which would give him key words whose names alluded to literature about Paddington (station) and Penzance. Eventually he’d find a puzzle box and, upon solving it, discover inside tickets for the Paddington-to-Penzance overnight sleeper train.
  2. Meanwhile, I’ve been rushing around the countryside near Penzance setting up an epic extension to the previous trail complete with puzzles, mixed-terrain hikes, highlands, islands, lions, tigers and bears (oh my). Some of those might not really have been in the plan.
Dan struggles against the beginnings of a storm, near Penzance
The storm was just starting as I climbed up to a cliff edge for an as-yet-undisclosed reason; it’s already looking pretty wild and getting wilder all the time!

Meanwhile, here’s what actually happened:

  1. Storms swept in across Penzance, soaking me, and
  2. Causing the sleeper train to get cancelled.

So now we’re working out what to do next. Right now I’m holed-up in an undisclosed location near Penzance (the ultimate target of the challenge) and Robin’s all the way over in London. We’re working on it, but this hasn’t been so successful as we might have liked.

Update – Saturday 10 November 07:58: We’ve managed to get Robin onto a series of different trains rather than the sleeper, so he’ll still get to Penzance… eventually! Meanwhile, I’m adjusting the planned order of stages at this end to ensure that he can still get a decent hike in (weather permitting).

Update – Saturday 10 November 10:45: Originally, when Robin had been expected to arrive in Penzance via a sleeper train about three hours ago, he’d have received his first instruction via The Gadget, which JTA gave him in London:

The Gadget
The Gadget is a cheap Android smartphone coupled to a beefy battery pack and running custom software I wrote for the challenge.

The Gadget’s primary purpose is to send realtime updates on Robin’s position so that I can plot it on a map (and report it to you guys!) and to issue him with hints so that he knows where he’s headed next, without giving him access to a phone, Internet, navigation, maps, etc. The first instruction would be to head to Sullivan’s Diner for breakfast (where I’ve asked staff to issue him with his first clue): cool eh? But now he’s only going to be arriving in the afternoon so I’m going to have to adapt on-the-fly. Luckily I’ve got a plan.

The first clue, as provided by Sullivan's Diner
The first clue has a picture of the ruin of a hill fort a few miles away and vauge instructions on how to find it.

I’m going to meet Robin off his train and suggest he skips this first leg of the challenge, because the second leg is… sort-of time-critical…

Update – Saturday 10 November 13:29: Robin finally arrives in Penzance on a (further-delayed) train. I’ve given him a sausage sandwich at Sullivan’s Diner (who then gave him the clue above), turned on The Gadget (so I’ve got live tracking of his location), and given him the next clue (the one he’d have gotten at Roger’s Tower) and its accompanying prop.

Robin finally arrives in Penzance
Rushing off the train, carrying his tent, sleeping bag, clothes…

Armed with the clue, Robin quickly saw the challenge that faced him…

Clue #2 pointing to St. Michael's Mount
The second clue SHOULD have been read at Roger’s Tower and so the photo would have made more sense.

After all of these delays, there’s only about an hour and a half until the tide comes in enough to submerge the causeway to St. Michael’s Mount: the island he’s being sent to. And he’s got to get there (about an hour’s walk away), across the causeway, find the next clue, and back across the causeway to avoid being stranded. The race is on.

The box he WOULD have found at Roger's Tower.
He WOULD have found this at Roger’s Tower. Why yes, I am a geocacher: why do you ask?

Luckily, he’d been able to open the puzzle box and knows broadly where to look on the island for the next clue. How will he do? We’ll have to wait and see…

Update – Saturday 10 November 14:18: Robin made spectacular time sprinting along the coast to Longrock (although his route might have been suboptimal). At 14:18 he began to cross to the island, but with only a little over half an hour until the tide began to cover the causeway, he’d have to hunt quickly for the password he needed.

Robin's movements near Longrock
Each pin is 3 minutes apart. You do the maths.

At 14:22 he retreived the clue and put the password into The Gadget: now he had a new set of instructions – to get to a particular location without being told what it was… only a real-time display of how far away it was. 7.5km and counting…

Robin makes the crossing.
I THINK he’s the rightmost blob. I wish I’d brought a telephoto lens.

Update – Saturday 10 November 14:57: Robin’s making his way along the coast (at a more-reasonable pace now!). He’s sticking to the road rather than the more-attractive coast path, so I’ve had “Control” give him a nudge via The Gadget to see if he’d prefer to try the more-scenic route: he’ll need to, at some point, if he’s to find his way to the box I’ve hidden.

Robin's route out of Penzance.
While not as steep as the gradient to Roger’s Tower would’ve been, the coast path isn’t without its steep bits, too.

Update – Saturday 10 November 16:50: No idea where Robin is; The Gadget’s GPS has gone all screwy.

Robin's position near Rosudgeon
One of these pins is probably right, right?

But it looks like he probably made it to Cudden Point, where the final clue was hidden. And then kept moving, suggesting that he retreived it without plunging over the cliff and into the sea.

The box on Cudden Point
It’s not VERY well hidden, but it only had to survive a day. A stormy day, mind…

In it, he’ll have found a clue as to broadly where his bed is tonight, plus a final (very devious) puzzle box with the exact location.

Clue 4 of Challenge Robin II
The fourth clue basically says “your bed is THAT way, but you need to open THIS puzzle box to know exactly where”. Evil.

The sun is setting and Robin’s into the final stretch. Will he make it?

Update – Saturday 10 November 17:25: He’s going to make it! He’s actually going to make it! Looks like he’s under a mile away and heading in the right direction!

Robin approaches Relubbus.
It might not be clear to him yet that there’s a river in the way, but I’m sure he’ll find a bridge. Or swim.

Update – Saturday 10 November 17:55: He made it!

Robin made it!
Success!

We’ve both got lots to say, so a full debrief will take place in a separate blog post.

Challenge Robin

Do you remember Challenge Anneka? It aired during the late 1980s and early 1990s and basically involved TV presenter Anneka Rice being dropped off somewhere “random” and being challenged to find and help people in sort-of a treasure-trail activity; sort of a game show but with only one competitor and the prizes are community projects and charities. No? Doesn’t matter, it’s just what I was thinking about.

Robin Varley in Oxford
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” said Robin, shortly before we stole his phone and wallet and dumped him in the countryside.

Ruth‘s brother Robin is doing a project this year that he calls 52 Reflect (you may recall I shared his inaugural post) which sees him leaving London to visit a different place every weekend, hike around, and take some photos. This last weekend, though, he hadn’t made any plans, so he came up to Oxford and asked us to decide where he went: we were to pick a place between 10 and 15 miles away, blindfold him, and drop him off there to see if he could find his way home. Naturally he’d need to be deprived of a means of navigation or communication, so we took his phone, and to increase the challenge we also took his wallet, leaving him with only a tenner in case he needed to buy a packet of crisps or something.

Baby John tries on a blindfold.
I had a friendly assistant test out a variety of blindfolds for me: this wasn’t the one we eventually used.

After much secretive discussion, we eventually settled on N 51° 50.898′, W 001° 28.987′: a footpath through a field in the nothingness to the West of Finstock, a village near the only-slightly-larger town of Charlbury. Then the next morning we bundled Robin into a car (with a blindfold on), drove him out to near the spot, walked him the rest of the way (we’d been careful to pick somewhere we believed we could walk a blindfolded person to safely), and ran quietly away while he counted to 120 and took off his blindfold.

Field near Finstock
We selected a location based on a combination of its distance, natural beauty, and anticipated difficulty in determining the “right” direction to walk in after being abandoned. Unfortunately it rained on the day itself, so the beauty was somewhat muted.

I also slipped a “logging only” GPS received into his backpack so that we’d be able, after the fact, to extract data about his journey – distance, speeds, route etc.. And so when he turned up soaking wet on our door some hours later we could look at the path he took at the same time as he told us the story of his adventure. (If you’re of such an inclination, you can download the GPX file.)

Map showing Robin's route
His route might not have been the most direct, but he DID manage to hitch a lift for the first leg.

For the full story of his adventure, go read Robin’s piece about it (the blog posts of his other adventures are pretty good too). Robin’s expressed an interest in doing something similar – or even crazier – in future, so you might be hearing more of this kind of thing.

The Right Place At The Right Time

I spent last week in the French Alps with JTA, Ruth, Annabel, and some hangers-on. It was great to get out onto the snow again for some skiing as well as some ski-based geocaching, but perhaps the most remarkable events of the trip happened not on the pistes but on an “afternoon off” that I decided to take after a rather jarring 42km/h (26mph) faceplant earlier in the day.

Dan at the summit of Tougnète, near Méribel. Pardon the wonky horizon: Robin took the photo. Also: Alps happened.
A great thing about taking a GPSr for snowsports is that you know exactly how fast you were going (my record is 101km/h!) when you crash.

Not to be deprived of the opportunity for some outdoors, though, I decided to spend the afternoon hiking out to villaflou, a geocache only about a kilometre and a half away from our chalet. Well: a kilometre and a half as the crow flies: it was also some distance down the steep-sided Doron de Bozel valley, through a wooded area. But there was, in theory at least, a hiking trail winding its way down the valley. The trail was clearly designed for summer use, but it was a trail nonetheless, so I ate a hearty lunch with Ruth and then set out from La Tania to explore.

A hiking trail sign outside of La Tania, covered in snow.
Signposts marking the trail were supposed to stand six feet tall, but barely stuck out atop the drifts… where I could find them at all!

It quickly became apparent that I was underequipped for the journey ahead. With the freshly-fallen soft snow routinely knee-deep and sometimes deeper still, I would have done well to have taken at the very least snow shoes (and, I’d later conclude, perhaps also poles and rope). I was, however, properly dressed with thermal layers, salopettes, multiple pairs of gloves, hat, etc., and – unlike Rory when he got caught out by snow the other year – was at least equipped with two fully-charged GPS devices (and spare batteries), tightly-fitted boots, a first aid kit and emergency supplies. And as the only hiker foolish enough to cut my way through this freshly-fallen snow, my tracks would be easy to follow back, should I need to.

The snow-covered "path" from La Tania to La Nouvaz.
Walking through knee-deep snow is tiring, even downhill! Beautiful, though!

Nonetheless, it’s quite an isolating feeling to be stranded from civilization… even if only by half a kilometre… surrounded by snowy mountains and silent woodland. If you’re approaching the hike in a safe and sane way – and you should be – then it makes you especially careful about even the simplest of obstacles. Crossing a small stream whose bridge is completely concealed beneath the snow becomes a careful operation involving probing the snow and testing the support it provides before even beginning to ford it: a turned ankle could lead to at the very least an incredibly painful hike back!

Needless to say, my caution around snow and mountains has been expanded by not only Rory’s scary experience, linked above, but also of course by my dad’s death almost three years ago, who slipped on snow and fell off a cliff. And he was hiking in Britain!

This photo should be titled "La Nouvaz Reservoir". Can you see the reservoir? No? It's under that pile of snow on the right!
After my hike down from La Tania, I was pleased to pass through La Nouvaz, a small alpine village that indicated that I was over half-way to my destination.

The village of La Nouvaz, half-way as the crow flies between my accommodation and the geocache (and over half-way by my planned route), was beautiful to behold: a sign of civilization after about an hour of hard wading through snow. Even when you’ve used satellites to know your location accurate to a metre, it’s nice to be reassured that your expedition really is panning out as you’d planned.

A family of Luxembourgers were trying to drive up this road as I came back across it, on my way back. Their wheels span as they failed to get traction. I noted that all of the local cars, parked in the village, had snow chains.
The “road” into La Nouvaz had been ploughed that morning, but was already becoming treacherous.

I also now had a metric to translate the journey time estimates that I’d seen on the signs: it was taking me about three times as long as they said, presumably because they’d been written for summer hikers. The segment that had been advertised as 20 minute walk was taking me an hour: that was useful information – I sat with a friendly dog while I recalculated my travel time with this new data. There was a blizzard blowing across the mountaintops (which had been partially-responsible for my faceplant in the morning!) and I’d heard that it was expected to descend into the valley in the early evening, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t out in the open when that happened! But everything was okay, and I had time to complete my expedition with two hours to spare (which I reasoned could be used hunting for the geocache, as well as a emergency reserve), so I pressed on.

I'm pretty sure that I wasn't on the path any more, at this point. But then, when the path was buried under over a metre of snow, is it really still a path?
The trail become more well-concealed as I pressed on. Here was my first sight of the hamlet of Villaflou, ahead.

After La Nouvaz, the path became even harder to navigate, and in the thinner tree cover huge drifts formed where underneath there were presumably walls and fences. At one point, I slipped through snow that came up to my waist, and had to dig my way out. At another, I’d deviated from the path and was only able to get back on course by sliding down a snowbank on my bum. And honestly, I can’t think of a more fun way than that to spend a Narnian hiking trip.

Only one chimney smoked in villaflou. I never saw another soul there, though.
The hamlet at Villaflou – nothing more than a couple of buildings clustered around a chapel – is as picturesque as it is remote.

My GPS coordinates took me directly to the pump and trough in the square at Villaflou, and I spent some time (in my thinner pair of gloves) feeling around its metal edges in an effort to find the small magnétique geocache that was allegedly there. But that’s not where it was at all, and honestly, if I hadn’t just spent two hours hiking through deep snow I might now have had the drive to search for as long as I did! As I hunted, I thought back to my GCSE in French and tried to work out how I’d explain what I was doing to anybody who came by, but I never saw another soul. Eventually, my efforts paid off, as I discovered a small metal plate in a cunning hiding place, disguised to make it look like it belonged to the thing it was attached to… and behind it, a log with just four names. And now: mine was fifth!

Still bloody deep, mind.
The snow was a lot less-deep in Villaflou itself, and had clearly been stamped down by locals moving around.

I texted my revised travel times to Ruth, and then set off back. Following my footsteps made the journey less-arduous, but this was compensated for in equal measure by the fact that I was now heading uphill instead of down.

As I passed through La Nouvaz, I noticed two strange things –

  • Firstly: looking back up at the route I’d come down, from La Tania, I saw that there was a signpost that indicated that the recommended route back wasn’t the route that I’d come to begin with. The recommended route was the other way, to the left, and would only take me about 30 minutes (or, based on my recalculation, about an hour and a half).
  • And secondly: looking along this proposed new route, I observed that somebody had taken it since I passed this way last. There had been no tracks on that route before, but now there were, and looking up the mountainside I could make out the heads of two hikers bobbing away over a rise.
Not pictured: my beard, full of frost, and my hat, frozen into a solid lump.
Meanwhile, the blizzard was starting to descend into the valley, so I was certainly keen to try the “preferred” route.

I followed in the footsteps of the other hikers: it’s a great deal easier to follow than to lead, in deep snow, and I was glad to be able to save the energy. I treated myself to a swig from my hip flask as congratulations on finding the geocache and my good fortune in being able to tail some other hikers heading my way. But my celebration was perhaps premature! About twenty minutes later, I caught up with the two women ahead, and they clearly weren’t doing very well.

They’d come up to La Tania from Paris, accompanied by some friends, for a long weekend. Their friends had gone off skiing, but they hadn’t been able to join them because they were both pregnant (four months and six months), and no doctor on Earth would recommend skiing after the first trimester, so instead they’d decided to go out for a walk. There was a circular walk on a map that they’d seen, which looked like it’d take about an hour, so they’d set out (wearing little more snow protection than wellington boots, and one of them without even a hat), following what looked to be a well-trodden footpath: in fact, it was probably the first part of my outbound journey, from La Tania to La Nouvaz, that they’d followed, “overtaking” me when I left the route to head on to Villaflou and the geocache.

And seriously: who's at the end of their second trimester and thinks that hiking though waist-deep snow down an unmarked trail up the side of an Alp, in winter, is a good idea?
The two women had been taking turns to lead, having also discovered how much easier it is to follow in somebody else’s footsteps, but I wonder how well-equipped to ‘lead’ either of them really were.

On the ascent back up they’d gotten lost – there are no good waypoints, the path is unclear, and the encroaching blizzard hampering the ability to pick out distance landmarks. They’d wandered – it turned out – several hundred metres off where the path should have gone, and I’d made the mistake of assuming that they knew what they were doing and followed them the same way. Worse yet, this ‘alternative’ path back to La Tania didn’t feature on any of my digital maps, and these two severely-underequipped mothers-to-be were struggling with inadequate grip on the slippy ground beneath the snow. When I first encountered them, one of them had slid into and was trapped in a snowdrift, and the other called me over to help her pull her friend free.

Between them, they had a paper map designed for casual summer use, and they’d realised their predicament. Were I not there, they confessed (once we’d established a dialogue somewhere between their shaky English and my very shaky French), they were about to start trying to find sufficient landmarks that they could summon rescue. Instead, now, they’d put themselves into my care. “We do not want to die,” said the one I later learned was called Vicki, after a few seconds consideration of the translation.

Spoiler: yes, this was a path. This photo was taken before I met the lost women and was still under my own solo navigational strategy.
Is this a path? Was it?

I plotted us a new course, cross-country up an aggressive slope towards the nearest road and thus, I hoped, towards civilization. I lead the way, tamping down the snow ahead as best I could into steps, and bemoaned my lack of a rope. I texted updates to Ruth, advising her of the situation and in each one establishing when I’d next be in contact, and as the women began to tire, prepared for the possibility that I might need to eventually relay coordinates to a rescue team: I practised my French numbers, under my breath, as we weaved our way up the steep mountainside.

I wonder how many signposts we would have seen had we been on the correct course to begin with? The route looked completely buried, from where we stood.
After hours out on a mountainside, not sure exactly where you are in relation to a safe route home, this is a sight for sore eyes.

A hundred metres from the road the gradient became worse and we were unable to climb any higher, so we turned towards La Tania and tacked alongside it. There, about an hour and a half after I first met them, we found a signpost that indicated that we were back on the footpath: the footpath that they’d originally hoped to follow but found themselves unable to spot, and which – by following in their footsteps – I too had failed to spot.

The main roads, like this one, were being ploughed about once every hour or two to keep the rapidly-falling snow at bay.
Finally reaching the main road, Vicki and Marine were pleased to be able to get back to their hotel and not die out on a mountainside.

Following that, we got back to the road to La Tania and to safety.

I find myself wondering many things. For one: who, at six months pregnant, thinks it’s a wise idea to trek through deep snow, underequipped, from a bad map, over an Alp? But I also wonder what might have happened if I’d have taken the same route back as I’d taken out to my geocache (and thus never bumped into them)? Or even if I’d not have faceplanted earlier in the day and thus decided to take the afternoon off from skiing at all? They weren’t ever far from safety, of course, and while the weather was rapidly becoming hostile to helicopters, they’d have probably been rescued so long as they’d been able to describe their position adequately (and so long as they didn’t keep wandering in the direction they’d been wandering when I met them, which would ultimately have taken them to a sheer cliff), but still…

So yeah: on my holidays, I rescued two lost pregnant hikers from an Alpine blizzard, while returning from a geocaching expedition. I think I win today’s “badass point”.

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.