It was Friday night and I fancied a couple of beers down the pub. Despite the fact that I live only four miles from the end of the runway at Gatwick airport it is in many ways a fairly rural area. My cottage, at the Cheshire Home, is in a single-track lane surrounded by horse fields with farmland just down the road. There are two local pubs. The Hedgehog Inn is at the end of the lane only four hundred yards from my front door, but it’s not much of a drinker’s pub these days. Then there’s the Cherry Tree which is where you go if you want a lively pub on a Friday night, but it’s a little more of a trek, most of which is along a bridle path through the woods. To get there I take my handcycle and husky dog. I leave the dog outside with the cycle and crawl in on all fours. They’re used to me in there and it doesn’t raise an eyebrow!
I didn’t go out until late and it was already dark with no moon to light the way. I often take a head torch if it’s dark when I leave, but it needs new batteries and I’ve always managed well enough without, so I chose to rely on my senses. It used to be easy to navigate by looking up at the tree tops and following the line of lightness where the trees only just meet above the track, but they seem to have grown up so much that it’s now more of a dark patch where they densely meet above and so not as easy to be guided by. I found myself relying more on my husky to guide me. She runs alongside, working in harness, attached to a point behind the back wheel, and has no trouble keeping to the path.
It’s a trek I’ve done a thousand times and my mind was elsewhere while I cycled along on auto pilot, so it took me totally by surprise when all of a sudden I was heading straight for the ditch. I braked hard and stopped just in time. I couldn’t work out what had happened, how I’d come to lose the path or even how far along the path I’d come. I’d lost my bearings even though I know that stretch of wood like the back of my hand. I realised I needed to back up, but as soon as I released the back pedal brake the front wheel started to slide into the ditch. I grabbed the back wheels and stopped it, but it was teetering on the edge and I was struggling to back out. Then it slid past the point of no return and like it or not I was heading into the ditch.
I expected to slide down into a fairly shallow ditch full of half rotten leaves but suddenly the handcycle started tipping and I was falling down into a deep hole. I put my hand out to break my fall and came to rest at the bottom of a three foot shear drop. The handcycle ended up upside down and I had to use my other hand to stop it falling over on top of me. The dog had got dragged in with me. I disentangled myself and sat in the bottom of the ditch to lift and push the handcycle back out. The dog jumped out and being still harnessed up she helped to pull it clear of the ditch. I then had the task of getting myself out. I felt around and found that there was a steep sloping bank at right angles to the shear drop and it started to dawn on me then where I was and how this had happened. Half way down the track there is a path going off to the right. It’s also where a drainage ditch crosses under the track, hence the shear drop and the only deep section of ditch along the route. The track veers to the left here and I suspect that my husky, running on the right hand side, had moved out taking advantage of the wider track at the junction and so, instead of veering left, I’d ended up veering slightly right, thinking I needed to keep the dog close to stay on track, and consequently headed straight for the ditch.
I tried to bum my way backwards up the bank but it was too steep so I had to think of another plan. I got onto my knees and then with one hand at the top of the shear drop and the other on the steep bank I managed to lift myself up, twist my body round and sit on the edge of the drop. What impressed me was how well I managed to deal physically with the whole situation. I had landed in a controlled manner without hurting myself, manhandled the handcycle out of the ditch and then lifted myself out. It’s not long ago that I wouldn’t have had the strength and ability to do this and would have been praying that I had my mobile phone on me to ring for help. Anyhow, I got back in my handcycle, thinking ‘this will be a story to tell when I get to the pub’, only to find that my problems had only just begun. The chain felt all out of line, but then I realised that the chain ring on the hand crank had been badly bent when the handcycle landed upside down. I wasn’t cycling anywhere!
Getting to the Cherry Tree was now out of the question and the mission ahead of me was simply to get home in one piece. Luckily it is possible to push the back wheels like a wheelchair, but they’re set back from the seat which doesn’t make it easy. I geed up the dog and between us we headed up the slope back to the start of the track. Kaya, my husky, impressed me with her tenacity. I had to do a little work myself, both to make it easier for her and to give her the enthusiasm, but she worked hard and I’d have been lost without her. From the end of the track it was down hill and I managed to work the back pedal brake by pulling directly on the chain and got home safe.
I put my husky to bed, took my lurcher down to the Hedgehog (a safe, gentle run in a wheelchair) and made it in time for a beer. The best thing was I didn’t have a scratch or a bruise on me.
‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained!’