The lanes leading away from my house. Note the buzzard, captured by accident.
The lanes leading away from my house. Note the buzzard, captured by accident.

It’s been a quiet week for me here in Devon. The monsoon season has returned with a vengeance. Temperatures dropped and rain fell so heavily that at times the gutters and drains around the houses where I live couldn’t cope with it. August feels much the same as January did, cool and wet with strong gusting winds. The weeks of pleasant warm weather we have recently experienced quickly disappeared from my memory as I tried not to think that summer is over until next year.

Watching the weather forecast I’m so glad I didn’t go to Scotland as I had planned to do. Sometimes we just get lucky. The weather there has been vicious for weeks and the things I wanted to achieve would have been pure misery had I gone ahead with my tour. It will wait for better times. Perhaps I will go in the early summer next year, a time that has always given me the best weather on the west coast.

This week has been about bigger things than cycling. I’ve been waiting for the results of the allergy tests that I had done following my incident of anaphylaxis a couple of weeks ago. It hasn’t played on my mind overtly but there has been an undercover operation somewhere in the depths of my mind that has been subconsciously sabotaging my confidence with regards to being out and about in the countryside.

Most of life’s challenges are about confidence: the confidence to start something new, to push on when it doesn’t go your way, to believe what you are doing makes a difference, to belive it worthwhile, to see how the many small steps are taking add up, and to believe that your life will change for the better as a result of your efforts. A large part of my ability to believe in myself, which I find extremely difficult at the best of times, is based around the fact that I try to any given situation as best I can before I enter into a big challenge, whether that’s riding a long way, or writing a book. I like to explore the possibilities before I commit to something. It’s a kind of personal risk assessment and knowledge acquisition process.

Having lived with poor mental health for many years it remains difficult for me to see that anything is changing for the better in the long-term. I have strategies for dealing with episodes of depression and emotional instability, strategies that remind me of what I have achieved in the last few years and I use them as best I can, when things feel bleak, to steady the ship. The sad loss of Robin Williams this week saw me crying out loud at the thought that he had reached the point of no return, one challenge too many perhaps, as he found out he had Parkinson’s disease. Those who live with mental illness know the depths of despair that things like depression can bring to their lives. I strongly believe that by cycling and writing I can offset enough of this anguish to make a big difference to how I see my life and how confident I feel about the future. That’s what motivates me to keep doing new things, exploring, and writing.

Any way you choose. They're all good.
Any way you choose. They’re all good.

I don’t mean I need to ride as though I’m trying to getting a fix from it. I’m no longer the adrenalin junkie I once was. I need to get out and connect with the world of nature and people, to see and feel life’s beauty. It reassures me that the planet we inhabit is not only still there  as I remember it but that it’s still a place that soothes me and helps heal the still-open wounds that my poor mental health has left me with. Being outdoors is the most healing thing I know and the one thing I would keep above all others if I had to choose.

Prior to getting my test results I became aware that I was making excuses to stay inside. I didn’t feel I was frightened of going out at all. The incident with the wasp was so sudden, and quickly dealt with, that it initially seemed to have had little impact at all on my life. There was no panic at the thought of going out, more an insidious awareness that it might have serious consequences if I got stung again.  I was waiting for the results of the tests so that I could make an informed decision about how to move forwards with this new challenge. In the interim I did manage a few short rides with friends and even one fifteen kilometre venture alone, but I didn’t feel as relaxed as I normally would. When riding I would find myself eyeing the hedgerows and any flying insects that came my way rather than just getting on with enjoying being out.

The results of my blood test were crystal clear: I am allergic to wasp stings, not bee stings, and the strength of the allergy is moderate. More accurately I scored a four on a scale of one-six where one is weak and six is super-allergic. As my doctor explained this I felt a sense of relief. Moderate is such a harmless word: we get asked to drink in moderation, eat moderate amounts of fatty food, and exercise in moderation in order to remain healthy. In short, I felt I could live with moderate.

There is a caveat to those results though. Previous to the last sting I wasn’t at all allergic, not moderate, not at all. I didn’t feature on the scale of things as far as allergies go.  I’ve been stung many times during my life without consequence so what had changed?  What about next time ? From what I’ve researched I understand that while I might not react at all to another sting I could go majorly anaphylactic in a short period of time. That is the challenge to my outdoor confidence. As much as I want to believe next time will be moderate I just don’t know until it happens, which it almost certainly will at some juncture.

French family tour: Sheepwash, Devon.
French family tour: Sheepwash, Devon.

Rebuilding confidence takes time as I know well. With this in mind I started going about doing things that would make me feel safe to be out and about. I went online and purchased a waterproof bag to carry my epipens, mobile phone, and drugs with me at all times. It’s a compact handlebar bag from Ortlieb and clips onto the rear of the seat on my trike. When I’m out and about walking I can sling it over my shoulder, man bag style. I also ordered a medic alert type sports bracelet on which is engraved my name, allergy, and a contact number for emergencies.

The main challenge was to simply go out and ride and try to remember that I had all the bases covered as best as I could if I was unlucky enough to get stung again. The opportunity came on Saturday as the wind and rain subsided for a short while. Sunshine is the greatest pull for me to be out and the moderate (that word again) wind encouraged me further.

As I rattled down the pot-holed mess of Market Street in Hatherleigh I never gave wasps a thought. I was out doing what I love and that was all that mattered. My ride would take me over hill and dale to Dartmoor where I would visit my friends at Devon Cycle Hire and see how they were doing. My legs felt rubbish as I warmed to the task slowly. The road rises upwards as soon as you leave town and I wasn’t sure about being there physically or mentally. I told myself that I would soon be lost on heavenly lanes that afford beautiful vistas across the Devonshire countryside and kept on pedalling.

There are lots of hills on this ride and they initially all join up leaving you feeling that you are constantly climbing. The biggest of these saves itself for your approach to Dartmoor, shortly after you have plunged a couple of miles down into a valley that hides a charming hamlet of cottages at its base. That was some way off as I toiled up the long incline that leads to a golf course near Thorndon Cross. Fortunately the fairways point away from the road reducing the chances that you will get stung by something bigger and more deadly than a wasp. The same can’t be said of the electric buggies that buzz around driven by drivers who act as though they don’t have any responsibility for their actions. Silent assassins, they lay in wait and then, with a whisper, they leap out in front of you spoiling the relaxation you have spent nine miles building slowly to a crescendo of internal peace.

Kermit admiring the view on a stunning evening.
Kermit admiring the view on a stunning evening.

Once out of buggy range another danger offers itself up to keep you awake. My route passes the entrance to the golf course and it would seem that young men in BMW’s, all desperate to starting hitting a small ball with a long stick, hurl their cars across the road and into the course confines as though their lives depend upon it. “Sorry mate I didn’t see you,” does nothing for my confidence as they never see me, not on my bike or on my trike. They appear to have the same genes as the pheasants that act in a similar way by hurling themselves into the air screeching whenever a car approaches and leaving you to take evasive action.

What with all these goings on I began to wonder if I was really on one of the quietest routes I know in my part of the world. Even as I thought this another BMW buzzed me on a narrow lane. I had kindly moved over to let him pass by and he accelerated hard throwing all manner of road debris in my face. Thanks mate. Summer time, and the living is dangerous. It’s par for the course with so many incomers who don’t seem to have a clue how to drive on country lanes, and worse, don’t want to scratch their precious metal.

I passed Mr BMW who had stopped by a gate to answer his phone. He passed me again a little later on still driving way too fast as I pulled completely off the road to avoid the cleverly anticipated shower of stones. Arriving at the foot of the aforementioned hill my legs went on strike. I rode on regardless but my legs were quite clear that they didn’t want to. My head was in two minds: one quite happy to be filling my soul with the views of an ever more impressive landscape, and one ready to fold with the inordinate effort I seemed to be having to make. I stopped once the hill relented and took to leaning on a gate to relax and chill out a bit.

I sent and received some texts to Michele so she would know where I was and that I was okay. It was part of my safety outdoors plan that Michele suggested I might try in order to feel more confident. Emergency advice was simple: Use the epipen, stay put, and dial 999. Part of my mind wonders whether the dial 999 part would be very easy amongst Devon’s rolling hills. There are plenty of holes in the mobile phone network where there is no signal.

I didn’t let these thoughts bother me unduly but they were there in the background ticking away in my mind. I did wonder if suppressing these worries was why I felt so weak and lethargic but decided it more likely due to the fact that my mental health was having a major wobble at present. In the end I got back on my trike and rode the last couple of miles to Devon Cycle Hire where I was met with smiles and a wave. My friends were knee-deep in customers when I stepped off the trike but it soon quietened enough for us to have a talk about life, the universe, and everything. A cup of tea and a hefty flapjack revitalised my spirits and after three-quarters of an hour or so I felt ready to leave on the Granite Way trail that would take me back to Okehampton.

Dartmoor: adventure capital of Devon.
Dartmoor: adventure capital of Devon.

As I got ready to leave four lads on road bikes pulled in. They were in the process of completing a lightweight End to End journey and one was having problems with his drive chain. Full of fun they explained that they had specifically agreed they would all ride white bikes and the broken one was black so it was its owners own fault he was having problems. They also told me that they had drunk far too much beer the previous night which was playing havoc with their days riding. As I stood laughing at their refreshingly unserious attitude one of them hurtled around the car park on my trike exclaiming it to be fast and fun.

Alone again I tore down the quiet trail using the biggest available gears. My legs were ecstatic that the slither of tarmac slowly fell away in the direction I was travelling. A broad smile appeared on my face, taking me by surprise, as I enjoyed the speed. Slowing down only to pass others safely it seemed to take no time at all to get to Okehampton. This section of trail is exceptional. The views of Dartmoor from Meldon Viaduct are simply stunning and the presence of the moor makes itself felt at all times. Back in 2002 when I was contemplating living in Devon to be nearer my daughter I took a motorcycle ride over Dartmoor and it was this that let me know I would be fine living here. It’s a huge rugged area containing a great deal of wilderness type scenery. Uncompromising to anyone or anything it looms over the whole area and is visible from the north coast of Devon to Cornwall.

The long road home.

From pain to joy in so few miles, that is one of the things I love about cycling. It’s different every time, even after five years. The plunge into Okehampton from the trail is always welcome but watch out for myopic car drivers lurking in the shadows. Once out-of-town the road is flat for a couple of miles and my average speed rose in accordance with this. The evening sun was strong, encouraging me to feel the same. Riding the twisting, climbing, road up past the deer farm I eventually arrived at Hatherleigh Moor with a smile and a sense of well-being that was being held by an equal sense of being physically very tired. The sun lit-up Dartmoor giving which stood out like a beached whale on the horizon. I stopped briefly and stared back at where I had been, feeling at one with the outdoors again.

Two days later I completed a second and longer ride out to Dartmoor. Another of my favourite routes this was hillier than the previous one with one particularly steep and long hill and many shorter steep hills.  The inner dread had receded as I left home and my legs enjoyed the challenge feeling quite different from two days ago. I felt the freedom and joy of cycling flowing through me for the entire ride and returned home energised and full of life.

Confidence is a strange mistress to court, hard to win and easy to lose. It varies day-to-day and sometimes hour to hour. We have to feel these variations to grow stronger and meet new challenges and perhaps that is what makes living so special. As cyclists we put ourselves out there with only our own resources to meet the challenge and the more challenges we meet the more confidence we gain that we can go further from our comfort zones to explore and enjoy our world.

Until next time………………….