On 6 June 2018, I made the decision to leave my two roles—web architect within the digital communications team and warden of Agnes Blackadder Hall within student services—at the University of St Andrews and strike out on a new adventure.
My plan, such as it was, was to take a few months out to focus on my health before plunging back into gainful employment. The previous two years had been rather brutal on my health
Those plans came to a shuddering halt two weeks later while my (now late) mother was visiting. As I got up off the sofa I felt an excruciating pain across my lower back and I dropped to the floor in agony. I couldn’t stand up; I crawled upstairs to bed. I knew that something terrible had happened. A few days later my physio confirmed that I had herniated a disc in my spine. L5.
Nearly three weeks ago we packed up our car, loaded the children into it, attached my bike to the back of it and drove south in search of fame and fortune. Or Hoscote House at least, and a group of 16 cousins of mine from California who had flown over for the Selkirk Common Riding. It was one of the best holidays we’ve ever had.
The reason for the trip was that my third cousin (my great-grandmother Georgina and his great-grandfather Robert ‘Honolulu Bob’ were brother and sister) novelist, screenwriter and philanthropist Robert Mailer Anderson had been elected Colonial Standard Bearer for the 2013 Selkirk Common Riding, exactly 100 years after Honolulu Bob had held the same office.
About 18 months ago I emailed Robert and his wife Nicola, who live in San Francisco, and said that we were planning on coming down to the Scottish Borders to support them.
Do you have any ideas at this point where you guys might be staying? We don’t want to gate crash your party but it might be nice to be near, to meet up.
Robert replied a couple of hours later saying
we are renting a manor [Hoscote House] and you are more than welcome to join the family there. Isn’t that what this is all about?
And so we graciously and gratefully accepted Robert and Nicola’s kind offer and on Friday 7 June we rolled up outside Sycamore Lodge and moved in for the week.
It was a fabulous wee holiday cottage: three bedrooms, one en suite; a generous family bathroom; an open-plan living room and dining room, with a galley kitchen off it. It was comfortable, and as the week wore on we appreciated the space that we had away from the “big hoose”, particularly when getting the boys down to sleep at night.
The “big hoose” was a ten minutes’ walk up the drive. And boy! was it big. The 16 Californians who flew out to this remote backwater in the Borders of Scotland were accommodated there quite comfortably.
When they could find it, that is. And they weren’t driving in a vague vicinity of the place for two hours, crossing every river they could find. Whether it was at a ford or not. I’ve never seen someone so traumatized about a car journey. And don’t rely on the GPS: it directs you to Martins Bridge (which was being rebuilt):
or across another ford!
Built in the 1850s Hoscote House sits in its own 450 acre estate about a 25 minutes’ drive from Selkirk—through umpteen open fields, across many a cattle grid, and after the obligatory stand-off on the road with the local wildlife (I’ve rarely felt as nervous in my car as when I was slowly edging forward towards a young heifer with about twelve cows to my left and a rather concerned-looking bull to my right). But it was a beautiful place to spend ten days (the midges aside), with mostly great weather, and definitely with the most wonderful company.
Our boys met their American cousins for the first time and they all seemed to just click, particularly Reuben (4) with his Californian counterpart Callum (6). It was brilliant, such a joy to witness. They just took themselves off into the trees and bushes on the estate to climb and explore, to build dens and gather sticks. Even the memory of it now brings a tear to my eye. They were in their element, and we were content that they were safe… just as long as they didn’t wander too far into the sheep field on the other side of the drive.
Inside the house was generous and homely: two sitting rooms (one decorated entirely with padded tartan walls); an enormous, and always far-too-hot conservatory; a small office with a seating area outside it which became Internet Corner™ as it was the only place in the house you could get a WiFi signal; a billiards room; a huge kitchen, with a to-die-for farmhouse kitchen table; and a dining room that comfortably sat all 21 of us.
The place was grand but not over-the-top, and not uncomfortably posh. It was certainly quirky with an old rifle and two bugles at the front door (perfect for announcing your arrival), and various stuffed-and-mounted animals around the place. A little odd, but rather in keeping with the place.
Bike – bridge and hill
The decision to bring my bike was a last minute one, having only discovered a couple of days before we left that our bike rack did actually fit our car (it was bought many years ago to fit to a rather smaller Vauxhall Astra hatchback). But I’m so glad I did. Each morning, sometime between 05:00 AM and 07:15 AM (depending on when I woke up) I would get up, change into my cycling gear and pedal out into the countryside.
On our first morning there I tucked the Orndance Survey map into my fluorescent yellow jacket and headed off into the mist to recce the area. I’ll cycle down to Martins Bridge, I thought to myself, just to see how it looks. It looked about two to three miles away on the map.
It wasn’t. It was nearer seven.
I could just turn around and head back, but where’s the fun in that? So out came the map and I discovered a ford (yes, that ford) with a narrow bridge to the left of it, which was only just wide enough for me to shuffle across.
On the other side was a hill. On the other side of that hill was Hoscote House. The contours of the map promised a climb and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Having left the house just after 05:00 AM, having had no breakfast, thinking that I’d just have a quick cycle around and be back in time for the boys waking up at 6:00 AM, I was still climbing the hill as it was approaching 07:15 AM. I remember thinking to myself, “should I be panicking now?” My main concern was that I couldn’t get in touch with Jane to let her know that I was okay. Although I had my mobile phone there was no signal.
As I climbed, and I have to admit that I got off at one point to push the bike up a particularly steep 200 meters or so, I rose above the mist and emerged into the most beautifully rolling countryside beneath a deep blue sky, scratched at here and there with wispy clouds. In the distance I could see the top of the fog that I’d ridden through and into which I would soon descend.
The eight mile climb, including through two get-off-and-open-and-close gates, led to a one mile descent. That was fun! Honking at sheep to get off the road, and racing past with a cheery “Thank you”. I rounded a corner having just passed a sign that read “cattle grid” I wondered to myself, “I wonder how far before I get to the…” BRRRRRRRR! as the cattle grid rumbling beneath my wheels provided the answer.
I rolled into the small car park outside our lodge, I dismounted, propped the bike against the wall and wobbled in through the open door. I’d clocked up about 14 miles, the longest cycle I’d enjoyed since before my various back injuries of the last two years. It was great to be back on my bike. And what a return. Over the week, and since, I’ve discovered that it has given me so much confidence in my ability on the bike. I just have to think back to that mammoth, breakfast-less climb and it assures me that I will reach the top of this hill, that I do have the energy to keep going.
Bike – Craik
Over the next few days I went out a further three times. The next trip was out to Craik, a small village in the middle of the Craik Forest and at the end of a dead-end.
After that I turned right into Craik Forest itself. I thought I’d put my mountain bike to the use that it was intended for and for 45 minutes I cycled steadily up a forest track, surrounded by thick woodland, on another glorious morning. It was hard going, but satisfying: ducking beneath overhanging branches, bunny-hopping over fallen trunks, and simply admiring the view. My plan had been to climb the track to a crossroads that I’d seen on the map then turn right and roll down the hill to approach Hoscote from the opposite direction that I’d set off from.
Conscious of the time, and my energy levels, I made a final push towards a clearing that was a few hundred metres ahead. Success! I’d reached the crossroads. Jubilant I turned the corner and … was stopped in my tracks. The path was littered with coniferous trees. Some had grown right on the edges of the track, so that when I started to cycle down it they whipped my legs and made me feel as though I was trying to cycle through a wardrobe or a car wash. And to add to the problem there were very small saplings growing down the middle of the track, between the ruts. The way ahead was impossible.
I turned round and went back down the path I’d come. It took me 45 minutes to climb up, and less than 10 minutes to descend. Mostly screaming like a little girl. “I DON’T LIKE THIS!” I heard myself shout. “I DON’T HAVE MY SPARE GLASSES WITH ME!” But actually, I really did quite enjoy it.
I’m surprised I didn’t wear my brakepads down to the metal. Even with me pulling hard on them I was still reaching 25 mph, with pot holes and branches to negotiate.
I had hoped to cycle to Selkirk one day but I simply ran out of time. So my final outing, the day before the Common Riding, was simply up an enormously steep hill to Roberton, and back down the gentler brae by the Borthwick Water. By that time I’d put in the uphill miles and so when I reached the top rather unexpectedly I said out loud, “Oh! Is that it?!”
Next time: Meeting American family, and the Selkirk Common Riding.
A lovely, genuinely humble interview with Bradley Wiggins following his gold medal win in the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Wiggins is the kind of person that I would like my children to be inspired by. I wholeheartedly agree with what he had to say about ‘celebrities’. Most so-called celebrities, in my view, offer very little to celebrate. On the other hand, the British cyclists this summer, whether in the Tour de France or in the Olympic Games have much that we can celebrate.
I have found Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome and David Miller, in particular, incredibly inspiring this summer. And at 05:30 every second morning when my alarm goes off to tell me that it’s time to go out on my bike it is these people that I think of and all that they have done, and the training that they do day-in and day-out which encourages me to get out there and cycle. Truly inspiring.
Well, I think I can safely say that 2012 hasn’t been the greatest year for my health.
After a recurrence in May of the same lower back pain that disabled me for nearly a month last autumn, I managed to trap a couple of nerves in my neck (cervical vertebrae C6 and C7, I am told) about a month ago.
It started as a really sore right shoulder and neck; to the point that I couldn’t move it. I now realise that this was swelling, to allow my body to protect the nerves. This lasted about 1-2 weeks… after which my right arm started to go numb.
I phoned NHS 24. “That sounds like a nerve problem, see your doctor tomorrow.”
I got an appointment with a GP the next morning. “That sounds like a trapped nerve, take painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication and it should settle down in about 6 weeks or more.”
He has been excellent. The numbness/pain has now been reduced to just my right thumb now, and occasionally my arm starts to go numb again but dropping my arms to my sides seems to help. Which makes it feel awkward to type but otherwise I’m getting by.
This week I even managed to get back to cycling, and set a personal best on the Home – Kilrenny – B9131 – Home circuit. And that was me taking it easy! But it may have had something to do with my posture.
I’ve never thought about my posture so much since I sang in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and we were introduced to elements of the Alexander Technique. At the time I foolishly dismissed it as being irrelevant to me because I wasn’t going into professional singing or drama.
I’ve noticed how often I slouch. I’ve noticed how often I sit (or cycle) with my shoulders pushed up and my head pulled down into it like a tortoise.
And occasionally, ever so occasionally, I get a glimpse of life before this, with no odd sensations. That’s what I’m aiming for…