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Saturday 2nd February 2019

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Route: Banbury, Crouch Hill, Giants Caves, Banbury

Distance: 7.5km/4⅔ miles, 1¾ hours

Ascension: 120 metres/400 feet

An Imbolg Reboot

Easing back into the world with a frosty walk

Off on a whim, to find a sunset… for Imbolg (albeit, a day late). Many people have got in touch recently to ask how I’m getting on. Well, as of mid-January, I can see with both eyes now. More importantly though, as I can now see what’s at my feet, I’m walking again – which is even better! As people driving at dusk will know, the test of your eyes is not so much ‘seeing’ but being able to see when the light is poor. So, I’m off into the dusk to see how I do.

        Click here to load a map of this location.

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The problem with uncertain ‘limits’ is that you often can’t precisely know them until you’ve exceeded them. I’ve done a lot of that lately, often with uncomfortable results. After surgery and almost ten weeks mostly laid flat on my face, both in terms of vision but also my general physical health, it’s going to be a while to things are ‘right’ again.

How am I?

I keep thinking about Zac’s line from the wonderful 1985 film, This Quiet Earth: "everything seems the same but the water keeps running down the plug hole the wrong way". Things are not the same, but the changes are so subtle it’s difficult to know what is different – hence why I keep pushing myself to find out.

Due to my graphic design and photographic work I could tell you about the slight difference in contrast and colour shift in my left eye, but it wouldn’t really explain what that means. I could also explain how weird it’s been taking photographs with my ‘wrong’ (right) eye. Again, explaining why using a different eye should make framing shots different, or why the images have developed a slant to the left, wouldn’t really explain the mechanics involved.

Then again, this is the first ‘proper’ thing I’ve attempted to write in the last three months. Even amidst my worst "writer’s block" I’ve never had such a break in my work in the last 30 years. That’s actually been quite nice. During all those weeks lying in bed I went on some brilliant walks – in my head! I’ve dictated huge amounts to memory in the meantime. The only restriction on getting it all out again is, once again, the current limits I have using my eyes before the sockets start to sting.

I hadn’t intended to go out today, but sometimes, you just have to do things when ‘the wind and tide are right’. I really wanted to go out when the snow first fell, but it was a bit dodgy. One slip and I could damage all the hospital’s good work.

I’m heading towards the top of Crouch Hill. It’s a walk I’ve done countless times before, though it’s nearly always different. That’s because, even on well-worn walks, the thing that’s different each time is ’you’; you take different baggage with you in your mind, turning it over inside as your feet, on their well-trained autopilot, take you ‘around the block’.

First problem I have; rhythm.

When my vision went my co-ordination went with it; that was definitely weird, since so much of my everyday activities were seeming carried out without even a thought given to how I did them. No co-ordinated sight, and everything just fell apart (I now realise how that had happened in the weeks/months leading up to last November’s total ‘blackout’).

Now the bubble (part of the surgery) in my eye is gone and I can see my feet again, things are so much easier.

The problem is that, walking out of town, I’ve got KT Tunstall’s little earworm of a tune Black Horse & the Cherry Tree (the live version, not the studio album) going around in my head. It’s appropriate; a song about making choices on an uncertain path.

Unfortunately it's defintely a bit faster than I can handle right now. Walking long distances and the pace you maintain, like music, is all about rhythm – and I know this is the wrong one!

The pace you set is a good indicator of general health, perhaps far more than the distance covered. Focus on your stride, and your breathing (breathe-in over two steps; breathe-out over two steps) and everything else pretty much takes care of itself.

My stride is roughly three-quarters of a metre; at least that hasn’t changed. By ‘feeling’ how fast I’m walking, and knowing my average stride, I can know my speed: Multiply stride length in metres by strides per minute by sixty, and then divide by a thousand, and you have your speed in kilometres per hour; divide by 1.6 to get the speed in miles.

Of course I’m not walking constantly; I do stop and look at the view. Over time I’ve found that if I knock 10% off that raw calculation that pretty-much approximates to how fast I travel. Sixty paces per minute equates to about 1½ miles per hour (or 2.4 km/hour). Every twenty paces per minute above that adds half a mile per hour (0.8 km/hour).

That’s useful to know because, if you absolutely have to cover a certain distance in a certain time, you can think of a known piece of music and plod away. Once, having spent far too much time having fun along the Cotswolds escarpment near Snowshill (like today, it was cold and frosty), I only had just over two hours to get the train I wanted – at Moreton in Marsh, seven miles away. I just had to think of a tune at 140 beats per minute, like The Cure’s In Between Days, and I arrived with time to spare.

Limits are important; knowing your own limits is vital. Especially if, like me, you go off and do silly things outdoors on your own.

It’s for that reason that I know the earworm in my head is proving positively problematic.

Black Horse & the Cherry Tree is about 110 to 120 beats – or paces – per minute. That’s about three-ish miles per hour, or 2¾ including stops. I’m not sure if that’s good for me right now, but as I can’t get it out of my head, I plod on regardless. I’ll ache tomorrow. Then again, pretty much everything I do at the moment results in aches and pains after two months of complete inactivity.

The reason I’m probably thinking about rhythm is that, for the first time in almost 2 years, I’m playing guitar again. After New Year I needed to start to move around, because staying still was getting painful. I thought to myself ‘what can I do with my face pointing downward and my eyes closed… play guitar!

I was discharged from further treatment last week. I asked the doctor if I was still not to sneeze. "No", she said. Then I said, ‘and what about a bit of head-banging to music?’. "No!".

Obviously air guitar is out too, so I’ll just have to carry on with the real thing. In adversity you can find solace; or as in Canned Heat’s Fried Hockey Boogie, ‘even in the strings of a guitar’ (that's a great walking track, approximately 130 beats per minute or 3⅗ m.p.h!).

I’ve missed the sunset, but the scattered low light from the west-south-west afterglow is highlighting the bands of snow laid across the landscape. Visibility is great – which is reassuring.

I continue over Crouch Hill and down onto Salt Way.

It’s getting cold now; I really love this weather!. Perhaps it’s just my metabolism, but once I’ve been walking out in the frost for an hour or so, and I’ve developed an equilibrium between my temperature and speed (which involved adding or shedding layers) I feel like I could just keep walking forever.

I think the only thing that’s more stimulating than walking in frost is camping in it. OK, that’s a bit of a fringe activity, I know.

As I wander down-slope towards Giant’s Caves a cloud bank is moving in from the north-west. This actually makes the light even more ‘exotic’, lighting the features of the landscape with a pale red/blue low angle glow.

My camera hates it; I have to take it off automatic and start rolling through a range of low shutter speeds on manual focus. Doing that requires my brain to interpret what’s in front of me, and then calibrate the ‘machine’ to work optimally to take the picture. Question is, with my ‘new’ eye, will it work?

It’s a lovely crisp evening. I pause for a while at Giant’s Caves, watching the last of the sunset evaporate into azure sky and steel-grey cloud.

It’s at this point I realise that I’m missing my rucksack.

I haven’t brought it with me because there is no way my knees can handle the twelve to fifteen kilos of my Winter pack right now. I know this as, returning from town with about the same weight of shopping last week, didn’t go well for following the 36 hours. There was much sitting involved afterward!

Giant’s Caves is a good place to sit and watch the stars come out as you can more easily return back into town in the darkness along the paved pathway. If I had my pack I could sit in my favourite spot and wrap myself in a blanket, or light a fire and make a brew (filmed on this same walk almost two years ago, making the video in that link was the last time I ‘twiddled’ with my guitar!).

I’ve been still for a while. It’s at least freezing point now, and the cold is starting to claw at my ears and knees. Accepting hard realities, I stir and plod back into town.

It’s quiet. For a Saturday evening, even the roads are quiet. It seems that people are burying themselves beneath layers of insulating warmth to hide from the elements. That’s a pity; it’s really nice out here. As I said to someone earlier today in town, when they asked my why I was wearing shorts, "feeling cold is a state of mind; so is not being cold; do the Inuit or the Sámi think about cold in the same way as you?".

Postscript: It's taken me four days to run-off this post. Normally I would have completed it in four hours. Not to worry! Every new journey has to have a starting point!