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Beat The Beast Challenge

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These last 4 days have seen 15.6 miles walked and tens of fabulous people met.

Bat Weekend - Calzearn Castle
Bat Weekend - Calzearn Castle

I have just had a really great weekend learning so much about bats. Organised and run by the National Trust for Scotland Rangers at Culzean Castle we were accommodated in the dolphin house outdoor education centre with stunning views onto the raggedy coast. The accommodation was sparse but warm and comfortable. Just before the weekend started however we learned that the chef was no longer available for the weekend so with the exception of Saturday night we were going to have to feed ourselves. With a car this would not normally be a problem but without a car or the luxury of military ration packs this was suddenly a problem. On public transport I couldn't get from Doune to the country park in time for the start time of 10am on Saturday and I couldn't get back to Doune after the finish time on Sunday night of 11pm. So I was going to have to pack enough food for 2 full days and 2 x 1/2 days so 3 days rather than 2. I was going to have to catch the No59 bus to Stirling before catching a train to Glasgow Central before then catching a train to Ayr before then catching a train to Maybole before then catching the No 60 bus to the country park before then walking 1.5 miles to the Accommodation at Dolphin house. Again, not normally a problem but when trying to travel with enough clothing and equipment for outdoor work for 3 days and 3 days of food for 3 meals a day plus a towel and washing & shaving kit plus enough anti seizure drugs plus my computer to write my book on in the quieter times plus my organ music in case the castle had an organ I could play on I suddenly had to become imaginative. I started packing on Friday morning but only after I had done a food shop to arrive on my return on Monday evening. I couldn’t stop off on the way to do a shop so had to plan and shop ahead and book the delivery for Monday evening. The next step was to pack the food and being lactose intolerant and without a car to get me to a shop one evening from Calzearn I had to carry a litre of coconut milk plus the cereal and bananas and blueberries and apples and bread, butter and marmalade for breakfast Sat, Sun, Mon plus enough cans of tuna and mayonnaise and spinach, rocket and watercress salad, Brazil nuts and tenderstem broccoli and carrots and red grapes and exploding cherry tomatoes and bread for lunch for Sat, Sun, Mon plus a pre made packed lunch for Friday night's tea plus a tin of chopped tomatoes, an onion, garlic and pasta to cook Sunday evening's tea plus enough tangerines and Turmeric supplements for after tea for the evenings then I had to pack the clothing and toiletries needed for 3 days of outside work in all weathers et al. With a walk of at least 1 mile a suitcase was never going to be a sensible solution and my small daysack was nowhere near large enough for just the food so I had no choice but to use my big Bergen and even then it was going to be tight. But I had to continue to eat as healthily as I could as a priority to beat the beast. One day of normal eating would be okay but not 4 days, so no matter how heavy the Bergen became the fruit and vegetables were coming. Once packed I lifted the Bergen. It was very heavy but with the washing and shaving kit and shoes packed at the bottom, and with the coconut milk and food above that all the weight was at or near the bottom so it was well balanced, and I was only having to walk a mile from the gates of the country park. So packed and ready it was lunch time. I had decided to treat myself with a club sandwich and a small bowl of parsnip soup in the Buttercup Café in Doune for lunch rather than trying to cook in an unknown kitchen on arrival at the accommodation. It was a most excellent protein hit and came with loads of salad so was just what the doctor ordered when complimented with the packed tea of an egg mayonnaise sandwich with spinach, rocket and watercress salad, and my usual vegetable pick and mix bag to be eaten on arrival at Culzearn. As I ate I went through a mental checklist to ensure that I had packed everything. I felt confident that I had remembered and packed it all so relaxed and enjoyed lunch, pleased with my ability to plan in such detail again. A significant progression from my efforts just a few months ago to leave the flat for a days walking in which, on a number of occasions, I was repeatedly having to rush back to the flat to check that I had turned off the hot water or to retrieve the packed lunch I had forgotten to pack. I felt a little more ‘together’ and was looking forward to the course.

Dolphon House
Dolphon House


So off I set and the journey plan worked like clockwork on the trains all the way to Maybole. The paperwork from Culzean Castle stated quite clearly that there was a bus, the No. 60 from Maybole to Girvan that would drop you off outside the Calzearn Castle gates. But when I researched the journey on Traveline Scotland there was absolutely no record of this bus on the system. Traveline Scotland had never let me down so I brought the timings forward for the No.59 bus and subsequent trains in case Traveline Scotland was correct and I was going to have to walk the 4.3 miles from Maybole to the Calzearn Castle Country Park gates. The ranger was hoping that I would turn up around 6pm to check into the accommodation so I worked backwards from that timing. With the walk I had to catch the 13:03 am No.59 bus from Doune to get there on time which I did and was very glad for it because on arrival at Maybole, while looking for the bus stop I asked a couple of locals where the bus stop was for the bus to Calzearn Country Park, ‘Oh No’ they replied, ‘that bus has been discontinued!’ That explained why I couldn’t find it on Traveline Scotland! I smiled a wry smile and was thankful for my foresight in planning the walk time in to the travel timings, just in case, then asked for directions to the gates of the country park. I received them, stripped off an extra layer of clothing so I didn’t over heat on the walk, packed it and started walking. The Bergen was heavy, very heavy, but well balanced so not uncomfortable. This was good training for the challenge and I needed the exercise. The route was along a busy B road but it had a good footpath for 3 miles and it was only in the last 1.3 miles that saw me hopping from the road and onto the grass verge each time a car approached from the front but what I couldn’t see, of course, was what was happening behind me and my fear for that final 1.3 miles was that a vehicle overtaking another vehicle from behind me might not see me until too late and as I was facing the oncoming traffic I wouldn’t see it at all. The first I would know about it would be when struck by it especially as I couldn’t really hear an approaching vehicle other than one of those exceptionally noisy motorbikes. So I was nervous and didn’t really enjoy the walk until I hit the country park gates. At that point, when I entered the country park for what ended up being the final 1.5 miles to the accommodation I walked on exceptionally quiet country lanes through beautiful parkland and with wonderful views of the coast. As I did so I thought that there had to be a much better off road route to Maybole so resolved to find one for the walk back on Monday.

Bat Detecting
Bat Detecting

I met Joanna King, the National Trust Ranger who had organised the course and she showed me to the accommodation. It was sparse but warm and comfortable and as I was one of two to arrive that evening I had lots of time to unpack and organise myself for tomorrow’s course before eating my packed tea and starting to write some more of the book with a mug full of Horlicks. Sadly there wasn’t a working organ on the estate that Joanna was aware of so I needn’t have lugged my organ music with me, but I have left it behind before and then had opportunity to play so it was not a lesson learned. Just a shame.

As Saturday morning unfolded I became increasingly surrounded by wonderful people. A large group of conservation volunteers were also staying in the accommodation and of course the bat course of 22. So I sought any opportunity that I could to tell people about the challenge. After all the challenge is no challenge at all without awareness of my attempts. Because it is only by speaking to people and raising awareness that I am able to reach out to more people, touch more people’s lives with hope, inspiration and encouragement, and find more sponsors to improve the lives and life chances of so many more people through more sponsorship. Firstly it was the wonderful Emma and Catherine who were the next to arrive and asked me what I did as we made a mug of tea in the kitchen. So I told them and Joanna arrived part way through so I told her too. I also managed to tell a most encouraging ranger who had arrived with the conservation volunteers and was so full of life. Derek has already been in touch as a most enthusiastic supporter. Welcome on board Derek and thank you for your kind words. ‘It has been a pleasure meeting you this weekend. You are a gentleman amongst men. You have certainly inspired me with your positive attitude, sense of humour and gregarious personality. While I do my bit to support your challenge you must continue to think and behave as you are because if you do I believe that you can attain everything you are so determined to achieve.’ Such a wonderful message popping up on the phone in an area in which there was little to no signal was a very welcome surprise. The pleasure in our meeting was most certainly all mine Derek and thank you so very much for your support and encouragement.

Learning to Handle Bats Safely and without injuring them
Learning to handle bats safely and without injuring them

The bat course got well under way by mid morning and through the weekend we studied lots such as bat calls and how to identify bats from their calls on a bat detector, we learned more about the Leisler bat, a larger and little known UK resident bat, and we learned about bat care and bat first aid as well as learning more about identifying the different types of bats from their physical features, and that required bat handling so we also learned about the bat handling techniques. I even managed to give a 10 minute introduction to the challenge to the bat course while the ranger was setting up. Again all listened intently and were hugely supportive. I just wish I had taken more flyers but I was sure that there will be some wonderful batty people joining the journey very soon. It was a busy couple of days of lessons and outdoor practical tasks finishing with a night survey on both nights. Saturday was a wonderful and very successful hunt for the Daubenton’s bat as it hunted for prey over the water of swan pond. Sunday night was a wonderfully successful netting session of pipistrelle bats. I even managed to successfully capture two but I wasn’t allowed to handle them. I was sure that I was up to date with my rabies vaccine after my operational tours and only needed a booster but my military vaccination records were not complete enough so we couldn’t be certain enough to go straight to a booster. As a result I was unable to handle the bats. Clearly I was hugely disappointed but got great satisfaction from managing to net a couple and then watching very closely and carefully as the bat was handled for examination. Both mine caught were Soparano Pipistrelle males. Did you know that Soprano Pipistrelle males have ginger hair around their penis instead of the usual brown and that they smell quite powerfully of stale urine? I didn’t either but I do now. I was tempted just to risk the bat handling and the risk of Rabies thinking that it would be fine. What could possibly go wrong but then I changed my mind. The bats when handled will take any opportunity given to bite down hard on whatever they can reach. The gloves protected the handler perfectly while being dextrous enough to enable the safe handling of the bats so they couldn’t hurt the handler, but rabies is carried in their saliva and on biting hard onto the glove they can of course deposit the disease onto the glove in their saliva. It just wasn’t worth the risk but at least I had the privileged opportunity to get up very close. Another team caught a female that was lactating. Cleary identified by her enlarged nipples. It was at that point that it suddenly dawned on me that these tiny little balls of fur with membranes of skin as wings were Mammals and therefore so very closely related to us. The animal kingdom truly is a most miraculous place. In fact so miraculous and ingenious that chance could not possibly have been the only force at play here. God’s hand was most definitely visible in the evolution of species. Sunday night was the moment that confirmed it most definitely for me.

I hadn’t managed to speak with the bulk of the conservation volunteers and Sunday evening prior to the net survey provided the perfect opportunity. They were gathering on the veranda prior to their own end of weekend brief and were more than happy for me to take 10 minutes of their time to introduce the challenge. They listened intently and this wonderful group of delightful and very tired people hung on every word. Not one fell asleep! At the end I offered out flyers but sadly hadn’t brought quite enough with me but feel sure that there will be some more Conservation Volunteers joining the journey. Thank you all very much for giving me that valuable 10 minutes of your time. It was such a pleasure to meet you all. As I walked back to the kitchen for a hot drink prior to the netting session I saw the Dolphin House minibus with it’s logo painted on the side. This reminded me of my old school logo and more importantly the chorus of the King’s School Bruton school song. I sang it quietly as I walked down the slope and stopped to soak up the view over the ocean as I sang. It seemed, all of a sudden, so very apt today. After all those events at school in which we sang it with gusto but not really understanding it. Now I did.
‘Our Dolphin we set as our sign,
An emblem of kindness and trust to say,
Whatever fate may proffer ill or benign,
Let us thank God this day.’

A Close Study Of A Soprano Pipistrelle
A Close Study Of A Soprano Pipistrelle

There is much that I have never known about bats but while conducting the tree survey I realised that there was so much about every other form of wildlife that I have simply forgotten. So much knowledge had I lost during treatment that I had to try and drag it out of my head. As a child I was passionate about wildlife. I read avidly and spent many hours exploring the countryside around me. I think I knew nearly every insect, bird or mammal and tree in the UK. A child’s mind is such a sponge on a subject which he/she holds dear to his/her heart. I read avidly from the British Wildlife Magazine I received every week, courtesy of my parents generosity, and filed so diligently into the binders sent every couple of months. But the passage of time faded that knowledge and then on waking from brain surgery I felt empty. I was at my most naked after surgery like a babe in arms. My character was pre formed but so much knowledge was lost in the depths of the brain. As if confined to row upon row of dusty filing cabinets which took an awful lot of time and effort to search through. I knew who I was. I knew who my friends and family were. I knew where I lived. I could speak and spell and copy simple diagrams as I had to do as part of my cognitive testing both pre and post surgery, but great chunks of knowledge that made me me were lost. I got home and couldn't read music anymore. I couldn't remember any of my old repertoire of piano tunes that I used to know off by heart and play regularly. I couldn't even remember what I enjoyed doing. I had been warned about this so had made great lists of passwords and other key bits of information to make sure that life didn’t stop in a world of lost information post surgery. I even spent many hours and even days building activity plans to remind me of the sort of thing that I used to get up to and to help me form a routine again post surgery. But I just couldn’t remember how to play the piano until suddenly, after several days of trying to recollect it, as I chatted to Mum it came to me. My brain had found it in a draw of one of the dusty old filing cabinets. I jumped on the piano and almost faultlessly I managed to play the Ballade. No music. Just from memory and gosh it felt good. It felt as if this empty hollow me, washed out and colourless was finding me again. I was so pleased that I hugged Mum tight. Hugged the children and in my excitement hugged Georgie. I was coming back.

Got One!!
Got One!!

On Sunday I couldn't tell the difference between a lime or a beach. My head felt empty. I felt stupid but I had earlier introduced the challenge so I was supported by Catherine who so very gently talked me through some of the trees we were passing, as we searched for possible bat roosts, and as she did, my knowledge slowly returned as dusty old files on which the knowledge was faded but just legible and with careful scrutiny could be relied upon. It was hard work and over time, tree after tree my confidence returned. I was truly at the school of the second life
.
The weekend had been intensive, especially as I was starting at a much lower knowledge base than the majority. At the end of Saturday I felt really good but as we progressed through Sunday it felt, at times, a little like trying to survive in a pressure cooker. Not because of any pressure to perform but because, and quite simply, the mental effort required to interact with so many different people on a one to one basis, and to try and remember everyone’s names and then to try and keep up with all this new information flowing in was really working the brain hard in terms of social dynamics and information assimilation and recall. It was perfect for me and a brilliant way to keep training the healthy left side of the brain to try and take over the cognitive and motor function from the diseased right side. Hearing and cognitive function started to feel compressed as I struggled to grapple with all the new information and became gradually more and more tired. The face was twitching, the lips gently tingling, my balance becoming a little uncertain, and breathing a little more laboured as a mist drifted ever so slowly and silently across the mind. At times I could do nothing but sit and do the very best I could to make the most of this opportunity. At breaks, when just a couple of years ago I would have been outside drinking tea and chatting away with the crowd, I was instead finding that I just had to withdraw into myself in order to give the brain a chance to catch up and rest. So instead I would go for a quiet walk around the local area and try and assimilate the information in my head while giving the brain a break from the intensity of social interaction which I so love and is in fact essential for the challenge, but was just a step too far at times during the course. By the end of day one I thought that maybe. Just maybe I was starting to build the mental stamina needed to be able to hold down a demanding job. But by the end of day two I realised that that sort of mental stamina was still a long way off. But not impossible. Not out of reach. Just not yet. It got so tiring that as the conservation volunteers and the bat course settled down for a quiet beer at the end of the day I knew that I simply had to go to bed. To sit and try and enjoy a quiet beer at the end of the evening could well have been the final straw that then threw me into a seizure which would have ruined the day and evening for many. So I declined the invitation for a beer and went to bed. As I listened to the wonderful group of people chatting and laughing last night I so desperately wanted to join them but knew that I couldn’t. Not because I was now wearing a pair of rather fetching stripy pyjamas straight out of a toothpaste advert but because I simply didn’t have the stamina for it. This just wasn’t the old Archie but it was the new Archie. It had to be. Life has changed in so many ways and at times I missed that closeness of friendship and those special evenings sipping a beer al fresco. It wasn’t so much about the beer but about the joy of deep conversation and social interaction. But it is not lost forever. One day, as I continue to grow in strength so will the opportunity for such friendship become a reality again. Even if it is only with a glass of organic red wine!

So the weekend completed after two wonderful days of learning, raising awareness of the challenge, making new friends and rediscovering some dusty old files of knowledge it was time for bed. Most drove home for the night but five of us remained. Two had cars. We couldn’t work out how to make the cooker work so cooking my chunky tomato sauce and pasta was out of the question. There was nothing for it but a fish and chip run in the pouring rain. As we sat and ate our chips I received a wonderful offer of a lift from John all the way back to Doune on Monday morning. An offer I was tempted to accept but I had a train ticket and wanted to explore the 4.3 mile walk back to Maybole. So I declined, weather dependant of course, but Monday morning brought fine weather after the vicious wind and rain immediately after our bat netting session and as we finished breakfast together two adventure training instructors burst into the kitchen radiating enthusiasm and a love of life. I had to tell them about the challenge. I rushed over to the accommodation and grabbed two flyers. Got back and introduced them both to the challenge. They were again both hugely receptive and encouraged me firmly about the ability to retrain the brain with examples that they were aware of. I was really pleased to hear it and as we chatted one of them ran upstairs, grabbed a paper copy of a map and started to highlight a route back to maybole off the road and along forest tracks. I had my new route and time was marching on so I had to go. As I walked I kicked myself for not getting their names and even a photo but they were a huge pleasure to meet. I hope you read this and get in touch. The map was brilliant and the route back to Maybole very pleasant. Thank you.

So with another 5.8 miles walked today giving a final total of 15.6 miles walked over the weekend while meeting loads of brilliant people and learning and relearning such a lot of fabulous information on Britain’s wonderful wildlife and our bats. The very sensitive indicator of the health of our ecosystems I sign off this post an extremely tired but a very happy and thankful man.

Yours aye

Archie.