Withering Heights

I’ve mentioned before that they are not my forte.

I mean, I have got better at them as I’ve grown up but I am still at risk of dissolving into a grovelling mess of a person; someone happier on all fours than on two legs.

Just the two legs are frankly inadequate when on a narrow trail with towering rock on one side and a treacherous sheer drop to a foaming sea on the other.

I could do with four legs really, or six… actually, preferably eight, with suckers or velcro – oh and a prehensile tail to grab any convenient shrub or protruding rock for extra purchase.

I blame my nan. She was such a bad influence at an early age. I was about seven years old and we were on holiday at Bigbury-on-Sea in South Devon when the family decided to go for a cliff walk. My nan, a tubby silver-haired traditional Welsh grandmother (aunties and nans came in a stock size of 4′ 11” in my family) had an attack of the Raging Willies while on a cliff path.

She felt unsafe to walk along the path, which admittedly did drop fearsomely to rocks on one side, and chose to clamber through a barbed wire fence – I caught a distinct glimpse of tight stockings and bulgy flesh somewhere around the knee area – into a field of cows. Not feeling very comfortable with the whole narrow path scenario, I followed and we walked through the field without a care in the world while the others diced with death picking their way along the cliff path. It was carefree until we needed to get out of the field, and my dad had to give nan a fireman’s lift AND negotiate the barbed wire fence, which got complicated and a bit heated. Him, not the fence.

And so my pathological avoidance of heights was confirmed.

Even so I’m not as bad as one friend who goes completely out of control when taken higher than the third step of a step-ladder. She caused quite a stir the day she tried to be brave.

She and her husband took some visiting family to Gloucester and the others wanted to go up the Cathedral Tower. Her sense of panic kicked in big time as they trod step after windy step of the stone staircase – and when she came out at the top, she caught a glimpse of the extensive views through the sculpted stone tracery.

She prostrated herself on the floor and clutched at the ankles of the tourist guide screaming “Get me down!” while the family tried to calm her and other members of the public looked on. Apparently it took about an hour to get her, only slightly less hysterical, slowly down the spiral staircase to terra firma.

I was walking with a pal the other day close to the edge of an old quarry (but not that close) when this pal confessed she isn’t much cop with heights either. We react in very different ways. She tends to panic and scream “For god’s sake help me here!” in a shrill voice that can attract attention from miles around whereas I am the silent, frozen type.

She’s terrified even though her mother used to take her, as a child, walking steep common land using the teeny ‘goat’ tracks criss-crossing the face of it.

I hated it. It made no difference at all to my nerves,” she told me, relating an incident on holiday in Turkey last year when she had trouble with a steep, narrow gangplank on to a boat that was taking a whole party on a trip along the coast.

She got stuck in the middle shouting “Push me on! Push me on!” to her the friends behind her. Whereupon they both pushed her bottom with such force that she was propelled on to the boat into a heap of nets with an insecure bikini top.

Once she’d reorganised her breasts and picked herself free of the fish netting, she was fine, but the rest of the trip was rather ruined for her as she smelled strongly of last week’s octopus.

Of course it’s difficult hiding a fear of heights when Capt Sensible and the kids were always fixated on high places. Hills, mountains, towers, they had to climb them with me, watching from below, bringing up the rear or perpetually reminding them to get away from the edge.

I’m not good with ridges. Walking above Keswick somewhere near Skiddaw we were following some faint little broken line on an OS map when we went off course and next thing I knew, the boys were striding ahead along what looked like a knife edge with he ground simply falling away on either side. What was even more unreasonable was that there was nothing whatsoever to hang on to. I mean, in the name of sanity what was I meant to do but continue the walk on all fours – just to be on the safe side.

I had trouble with a cliff path once. I was having a pre-breakfast stroll alone with doggo on a bit of coast in South Devon. The little beach was only exposed at low tide and the path went up either side following the steep contours of the cliffs.

So I started to climb up and the dog ran on ahead of me until I suddenly realised I was losing my vertical hold – things had gone a bit loose underfoot. There was a fine rocky gravel, rather like scree. I hate scree. It’s slippery stuff. Scree can carry you falling, rolling, screaming to your certain death from a great height, scree can, mark my words.

I stopped dead with my feet clamped close together like one of those table football figures but without the shiny painted hair.  In my peripheral vision, white-capped waves crashing on the rocks far below. The narrowness of the path struck me. There was no room to manoeuvre between me and the rocks to my left which stretched skywards. It’s an incontrovertible fact that if you get too close to a precipice,  Invisible Magnetism will pull you over the side. No question. This may not be a fact that you’ve encountered before, but believe me, everyone who is afraid of heights has had experience of this phenomenon.

Rolydog came back to me and looked. I returned his stare and then looked at my feet. Nope. They weren’t going anywhere. The dog waited for a bit, then trotted past me on the very edge of the precipice heading back down the way we’d come. It was a horrible moment when I thought he might plummet but as I was kind of stuck, I was unable to lift a finger to stop him.

So I was just there. A table football person in a fleece, facing uphill,  to all intents and purposes, admiring the view. Time went by. I seemed to be stuck fast. For some reason my brain had switched off the ability to move my feet instinctively in walking-type of fashion.  Back at the hotel Capt Sensible would be having breakfast by now. Or he might come to see where I’d got to? Nah. He’d be having breakfast. I rather hoped he was. This would be embarrassing…er, even for me and this is taking into account the descent of Goat Fell on my backside.

For a while nothing happened and nobody came from any direction. The dog returned, lay down behind me and emitted that long sighing whine that’s Dog for “Oh forgoodnessake, is THIS IT?”

It was quite cold out there on the edge of the cliff so I thought I’d have to do something and managed to move my feet in very small safe shifty little steps until I was facing the rock and then I planned to descend in a sideways fashion, thereby avoiding sliding to my certain death on the scree.

Of course if anyone appeared, I was just attending to a shoelace and I’d wait for them to pass. So the ridiculous palaver of turning around and sidestepping took quite a time but the path got less steep and less gravelly until finally I was able to walk normally and with considerable relief back to the hotel.

Capt Sensible had cleared his Full English, was munching leftover toast and hoping for a second pot of coffee when I sat down opposite.

You’ve been a while. Thought you’d walked to Salcombe.”

Oh not that far at all really…  lovely views though.”


About janh1

Part-time hedonist.
This entry was posted in Coast, Countryside, Current Affairs, Dogs, Science, Seaside, Uncategorized, Watery things and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Withering Heights

  1. valzone says:

    Wonderful tale Jan, I’ve laughed all the way through, thanks, a great read.

  2. This made me laugh too, but with slightly shrill overtones! I can’t cope with heights either, and have had similar moments of horror. Two steps up the ladder is high enough for me. My husband was once perched on the top of the banister rail at the top of the stairs, one foot braced against the wall above the stairwell, painting the wall, or the ceiling or some dizzying object, and had the audacity to say: ‘I don’t really like heights.’
    ‘So I see,’ was my response.
    We spent a holiday in the Cevennes once and every time we left the cottage, there were 10 miles of hairpin bends to negotiate before we reached ‘safety’ – with plunging mountain sides, as you so rightly say, magnetically drawing you ever closer to the edge. It was a narrow road, with massive storm drains on the mountain side, so NOWHERE to pull in. Every journey, I spent the whole ten miles PRAYING we wouldn’t meet anything coming the other way. I was destined to be disappointed every time, and of course the trucks and lorries we always seemed to meet were lashing along, as they’d been driving on that road since the dawn of time. It was hideous. I managed to invent all kinds of reasons why we should stay overnight at any place we visited!
    Obviously no mountain goat blood in my veins.

    Great title too, Jan!

    PS Please DON’T delete the post above! It’s highly appropriate, and seems to have travelled ok to me!

    • janh1 says:

      When Val speaks, I have no choice to obey 🙂 Blimey, you’ve put me *right* off going to the Cevennes!! Sounds horrendous. I think I’ll stick to watching cycling in that area on the TV!

      • IsobelandCat says:

        I had thought about holidaying in the Cevennes, following Robert Louis Stephenson’s footsteps without Modestine. Thanks for the warning. I’m walking and cycling in the Netherlands in August. No heights anticipated.

  3. IsobelandCat says:

    Ah, a kindred spirit. I am a complete wuss about heights. Like you, I get frozen to the spot, heart pounding, and I just want to keep my centre of gravity as low as possible. Do you remember the old Hungerford bridge? I crossed it. Once. Held on like grim death to the rail and didn’t look down. A one legged nonagenarian with a guide dog would not have made me let go. I should love to climb the Monument, but know I’d disgrace myself on that spiral staircase. I was with you every word of this. 🙂

  4. janh1 says:

    You too Isobel? Crippling isn’t it? Yet I have the feeling that I should have somehow overcome it by now. No I don’t know the old Hungerford Bridge – enlighten us?

    Another Really Bad Experience was when the kids made me walk *down* two stages of the Eiffel Tower. Awful, awful because if you don’t shut your eyes, you can see through the supports. They skipped about and creased up with mirth the whole time. Merciless tykes.

  5. IsobelandCat says:

    The first time I went to Paris I went up the Eiffel Tower. I stopped at the second stage, convinced I was going to die. At the Arc de Triomphe I couldn’t enjoy the views because I was so worried about how I was going to get down. I was fourteen.
    For the old Hungerford Bridge, watch Defence of the Realm.

    • janh1 says:

      Will do. I went up the Arc de Triomphe too but can’t remember the view. May have had my eyes shut.

      Re your walking/cycling in the Netherlands this summer – have a lovely time! Hoping to get to cycle Amsterdam and visit from museums with some pals as a joint birthday treat.

  6. IsobelandCat says:

    Actually I don’t even like driving up or down hills. Maybe I shall have to relocate to the Netherlands permanently.

  7. janh1 says:

    Not a bad idea. A colleague has just returned from Amsterdam with the great news that (to her irritation) the whole place seems to be designed for cyclists, who have Right Of Way. Sounds excellent to me 🙂

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