Thursday, August 23, 2007

Welcome to the Drawing Breath photo-blog!

At the beginning of January 2006 I began researching the route of the Drawing Breath journey. The journey is central to an ongoing arts and health project which includes the aim of raising awareness about lung disease. The journey's route was along the coast between Whitstable and Hastings and I completed the five week trip on 19th August this year.

The blog has been reversed so that the start of the journey is at the top of the page. You can read about the journey chronologically from its beginning in mid-July to mid-August when it ended. To see the whole blog continuously on one page, please click on "2007" at the top of the blog archive on the left.

If you have feedback, suggestions, or thoughts about breathing or biking, please get in touch via the website's forum page, or through the email address above. Thank you!

13.7.07: Thinking about leaving

When I began working on the Drawing Breath project in 2006, Whitstable beach was in chaos. Fortifications were being renewed - the beach raised, new groynes - sinister yet friendly diggers keeping the town safe from flooding.

Now, after much preparation, Whitstable beach is the start of my journey on Monday morning and to make it, I am dependent on another machine, my new prosthetic bicycle whose bright efficiency contrasts with the inconvenient cellular breakdown in my lungs.

14.7.07: How to pack

Packing for the trip means taking oxygen deficiency into account.

If you have insufficient oxygen for normal activity, you need to carry as little weight as possible. I am weighing everything and making choices, packing nothing which is unnecessary for survival, no change of clothes .... just hoping they'll dry out overnight.

16.7.07: Whitstable to Herne Bay

12.00 pm:
Temperature: 19c, humidity 39%, light west wind. Distance cycled: 9 miles

Horsebridge Centre, Whitstable

Breathe Easy group members and friends have come to see me off. I have brought my finger pulse oximeter which measures oxygen saturation in the blood and we all measure our own levels. 96% and over is normal and ours collectively range from 87% to 98% depending on our health and the state of our lungs. Mine is 93% but it changes from moment to moment.

Leaving via the harbour, past Brett's strange giant inhaler-shaped structure I head east for the wide promenade (forbidden to bicycles in the summer but still used by most cyclists). After the past months of planning chaos and trepidation, it feels strangely calm to be on my way.

1.30 pm:

Gentle ride towards Herne Bay pier ...

... where I call in for lunch with Rosemary and her partner John. They entertain me with stories of cycle journeys they've made in the past. Rosemary's oxygen equipment crouches by the front door in the hall - she shows me how its tubing reaches all over the house and offers me a whiff to perk me up.

Later near to the pier I begin a conversation with a woman who asks me about the yellow buoys in the sea. My first conversation with a stranger on this trip is interrupted by sudden heavy rain as she runs for cover. I didn't discover her name.

3.15 pm:
Shelter from the rain at Herne Bay Junior School with teacher Rosie Cullen. We will be working together with Year 5 on the project next year. The current plan, which could change, is to make a giant sculptural bicycle out of coastal waste materials.
Later and hungry I buy fish and mushy peas from Bhanal who works at Kings Fish Bar and eat them on a bench in the mournful damp of Memorial Park before heading inland.

6.30 pm:
Overnight with Vicky, Tom and Nancy in nearby Broomfield - peace, calm and generosity. At the end of this first day I'm exhausted and exhilerated.

17.7.07: The road to Minnis Bay

3.00 pm:
Temperature 18C, south wind. Day's distance cycled: 6 1/2 miles

Computer up-loading problems, so I set off late. My blog appears to be on US time, which feels somewhat surreal and appears that I'm blogging at 4am!

Such gusts of wind at Reculver(past Herne Bay), all my concentration is focussed on not being blown off the path, so that I forget to photograph the iconic tower. Earlier in the summer I had some coaching on this stretch to Minnis Bay with Paul the cycle instructor at a weekly club for people with disabilities.

We would ride together on a kind of conjoined tricycle - 3 wheels, 2 sets of handlebars, 2 saddles - where I could gradually build up strength by taking a greater proportion of our combined weight. Sadly for its regular members the club is now closed.

Joyful ride in sunshine - I'm sustained by apples growing wild below the path and collect fennel to cook later.

Closer to Minnis Bay I meet Carol and her dogs. They are very obedient.

Carol's grandfather had emphysema but still lived into his 90s. This is cheering.

6.30 pm:
Arrive at Annie and Jenni's in Minnis Bay.

18.7.07: Frustration in Birchington

Annie and Jenni are away. I have their house to myself and the morning to get stuff done. But some days just don't work out. I miss meeting my friend Connie at the Minnis by ten minutes.

I cycle uphill towards Birchington Library before realising I've forgotten my USB lead for uploading photos onto the blog. But returning with it later, the library turns out to be closed on Wednesdays. On to the bank to get cash, but it's been ramraided - two cash machines squat glumly and uselessly on pallets inside the building.

And then my pink perspex waterbottle vanishes from my bike.

For the record, this was it, pictured Monday, in Memorial Park, Herne Bay. I loved it but clearly someone else did too.

18.7.07: Minnis Bay to Margate

3.45 pm:
Temp 24C, West wind, sunny. Day's mileage: 6 miles

Easy ride past chalk cliffs and inset dank adolescent hidey-holes and brick infills. If anyone knows how and when these brick parts of the cliff were built, please post on the forum. Further on a young couple on holiday from Derbyshire are on the other end of this kite ...

... and Cori who works in the West Bay Cafe sells me an icecream.

6.20 pm:

Reaching Margate, I turn off the front near the old Sea Bathing Hospital and arrive soon after at Di's house.

19.7.07: Around Margate

Windmill Community Allotment rocks!

9.00 am:
Outdoor yoga class, tutored by Di who is putting me up; the yoga breathing works well to open up my lungs. The project is funded by Surestart and it's a beautiful, vibrant and well-used place with children learning about the vegetables, lots of different people digging, holding classes and hanging out. There are also several rather sinister scarecrows.

Some of the people I meet are Surestart worker Enid, beside the "salad chair", James who is preparing smoke to use with the bees he keeps here and Steve who tells me about re-mineralising the soil by inoculations of sea water several times a year and links my search for oxygen with the photosynthesis of plants.

Volunteer worker Marion tells me about a man she knew with a serious lung condition whose care home constantly placed him in the smoking room, and only moved him before health inspections.

2.15 pm:
Rush by taxi to Cliffsend village to give a talk about the Drawing Breath project to the Thanet Breathe Easy group. Some of the group are upset as their other speaker from the oxygen supply company has cancelled as she is sick. Unsurprisingly they are unenthusiastic about my talk right now. I feel nostalgic for my own Breathe Easy companions.

20.7.07: Royal Sea Bathing Hospital

2.00 pm:
Margate Museum

On Wednesday evening I passed the old Sea Bathing Hospital on my way in to the town. I am looking for details of earlier lung disease treatment in the museum files.

The hospital opened in 1791 in order to offer poorer people the pioneering benefits of seabathing and sea air treatment for scrofula which was already available to the rich in Brighton. However its intended treatment of pulmonary TB was not to be: it was found that Margate's sea air was far too bracing for damaged lungs.

The placing in the museum of these dolls, early teaching aids from the RSBH, has been contested by some medical practitioners who see them as more appropriate to a hospital context than their current home in museum, where they are much loved.

Finally closed in 1996, the RSBH has been sold and resold to be developed into luxury flats. The front is finished but what about the rest? A workman laughs: "How long is a piece of string?" he says.

21.7.07: Pride in Margate

Last night I moved a couple of miles on to stay with Jenny and Fiona in Cliftonville. At the nearby Walpole Bay Hotel a month back they were preparing for the smoking ban ....

.... and today Margate is jumping.

We all walk along the front into the town which is hosting Thanet's first ever Gay Pride which is spread out along the main road by the sea. This is Fiona's hat.

This evening she is dj-ing at a local Pride club event but I am too exhausted to go and flop in front of the telly.

22.7.07: Party at Botany Bay

My friends are organising a beach party at Botany Bay to raise money for the British Lung Foundation. Fiona has made an encouraging banner!

I get cranio-sacral treatment from Val (Room2Breathe,Whitstable) who is sponsoring my journey with free sessions, and Moi Jill and Cath have cycled from Whitstable to give my bike emergency treatment.

Val helps me photograph the horizon through holes in termite-eaten chalk stones. They make me think of holes in the lungs which are a feature of emphysema. A member of the Thanet Breathe Easy group told me they are called PUTTOCKS!

These chalk cliffs attract graffitti carvers on different quests for immortality. Last year I found this unpleasant symbol high up out of reach. It calls out for some corrective sculptural readjustment.

22.7.07: Botany Bay to Broadstairs

8.00 pm:
Temperature: 18c, humidity 41%, wind south west. Day's mileage: 5 miles

Set off to Broadstairs on what has been the shortest but hardest ride so far and it's the part I've been dreading. Up hill to North Foreland lighthouse, I dismount and push for 30 steps, then wait 60 seconds for oxygen to go up and pulse to come down; 30 steps, 60 seconds - 30 steps, 60 seconds - at least five cycles of this before reaching the top exhausted. It is at the lighthouse that, in Shipping Forecast terminology, I cycle out of "Gibralter Point to North Foreland" and into "North Foreland to Selsey Bill".

9.30 pm:
Arrive at Connie's - she has become worried as there's no phone reception and I'm late and got lost - and collapse in a room used by her son when he visits, but in truth owned by her cat Jess.

The room is covered with Laurel and Hardy posters and maps, including one of shipwrecks on Goodwin Sands. Connie tells me about being evacuated to Bristol during the war, and how evacuees walked past houses in a long crocodile and were picked out "like goods" by the people living there. She was twelve and still remembers the pain of being chosen last.

24.7.07: The kindness of strangers

Spent time showing Connie my website, then blogging in the local library. In the evening we watch the latest stage of the Tour de France, and Connie explains its rules and rituals, including the various jersey awards. Connie was a touring cyclist, regularly covering up to 60 miles a day.

Backwards to Margate rail station, then cycle past the harbour to collect forgotten items and meet with Isle of Thanet Gazette photographer by the Lido. He admires the Leica lens on my little camera.

In the afternoon Connie and I go by taxi to visit the famous Morelli's icecream parlour. Connie hasn't been here for two years. She has a rum baba, and I have chocolate icecream.

Later when I say goodbye and depart for Ramsgate, I ask Connie why despite warnings from friends she asked me, a stranger, to stay at her home. "Because you're a cyclist, dear," she tells me.

24.7.07: Broadstairs to Ramsgate

4.15 pm:
Temp: 23C, humidity 34%, south wind, distance cycled 5 miles.

Sunny uneventful ride to Ramsgate along the cliff top and down past beach games and into the town where I come across Louise having a fag break outside Mad Max, sister shop to the one in Whitstable. She doesn't want to be photographed but tells me about her mother who has an inherited form of emphysema caused by a missing enzyme, alpha1antitrypsin.

I am heading for Karen's house. Karen is the friend of a friend and she hasn't met me before either. After riding around Ramsgate Harbour I arrive at her house. Karen knows what it's like to get diagnosed with a frightening illness and we talk about the fears and the coming to terms. She has cats (there are a lots of cats on this trip), and a small beautiful garden with a fairground figurehead.

After dinner I drop my extremely expensive pulse oximeter into my cup of tea. We attempt to dry it out with a hair dryer; the screen goes berserk, appears to die, but later it seems to have made a miraculous recovery!

25.7.07: Ramsgate harbour

10.00 am:
After I leave Karen's I return to the harbour, wait while John the security man lowers the drawbridge, then cross and meet Alice, a law student working over the summer for Thanet District Council as a fuel barge operative. She refuels pleasure craft in the marina and lets me go on board her floating fuel station.

At a kiosk at East Cliff, Gerry of Ramsgate First, who does regular breathing therapy to cope with after-effects of an accident, tells me the way to artist Ruth Cutler's sea garden, which is being constructed at Eastern Undercliff out of sea and beach materials and is designed to be viewed from the cliff top above. Go see!

25.7.07: Ramsgate to Sandwich (the raw and the cooked)

9.30 am:
Temp: 22C, humidity 40%, south wind, distance (by signpost as register on bike is playing up) 6 1/2 miles.

Long climb up the hill out of Ramsgate, walking and resting alternately all the way up. During a couple of minutes rest at the top my rescued pulse oximeter, photographed last night after its dunking in my tea, shows my oxygen level in my blood going up from 91% saturation to 96%, and my pulse coming down from 122bpm to 88bpm. Hopefully it's accurate.

Southwards along the cliff top into a headon wind and on along National Cycle Route 15, and the Viking Coastal Trail, past Pegwell Bay. This nature reserve encompasses a disused hoverport, a surreal eery place with wild plants re-colonising the space by breaking through the concrete grid markings of the hoverport's former carpark.

Last year a man with a dog told me the area's history and the legacy of greater unemployment since the hoverport closed. Showing through the trees up on the cliff above is a reproduction viking ship in perpetual grass dry-dock by the road I am taking.

I take the bike route which goes parallel to the A256 and there is evidence here of earlier unseasonal warmth: huge, sweet blackberries and in July, how strange! Further along the main road is a plum tree heavy with plums bursting out of their skins.

On past a paper recycling plant . . .

. . . past the heavily guarded Pfizers where some of our medication is produced . . .

. . . and arrive at Sandwich at 2.15pm.

After a chocolate icecream, but leaving the cone, I am collected and driven away to a secret location hiding so far inside my jacket hood that I look like Kenny from "South Park".