My first trip to Wales was aged two, when I fell over on Llandudno Pier and ended up in hospital having hundreds of splinters removed from my small hands. I was undeterred by this traumatic experience and went on to spend many happy holidays in Llandudno with my grandparents, making sandcastles and eating mini pork pies.
I celebrated my 13th birthday wandering up and down the glorious beach at Harlech, listening to pop songs on my transistor radio and revelling in the endless sunshine of that July day. Since then I have visited North Wales with my parents, my friends, my daughter Phoebe and most recently with my partner Chris. We first went to Snowdonia together 20 years ago and in 2004 bought two stone and slate horse stables in the former slate miners’ village of Maentwrog.
I have always had strong feelings for this magical, mystical, deeply beautiful land and marvelled at its many wonders – its coast and mountains, its rivers and lakes, forests and farmland.
Never have I loved it so much, however, as during the six months after I walked up a hill near our home, fell off the gate I was trying to climb and landed on my foot, badly fracturing my knee and leg. This painful and nasty injury started its recovery progress with a heroic rescue by the mountain rescue team and a spell in Ysbyty Gwynedd – the region’s main hospital – which has spellbinding mountain views from its windows.
I had spent the earlier part of 2016 travelling almost without pausing for breath. Exploring Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil, Valencia and Paris, trips to London and my family home of Staffordshire, visits to friends in Sussex and a wonderful week with Phoebe in New York, all ran into one another. I was rarely still for more than a few days. Maybe it was no wonder that I felt a little disconnected at 1.30pm on 5th August 2016 when I walked up the hill towards the village of Llan Festiniog.
The slope was steep and muddy and at the top a locked farm gate barred the way to the next field. The only way forward was to climb over as I had done many times in the past on other walks. I put my foot on the lowest bar and prepared to ascend. My next clear memory was of lying on the ground in agony, shivering and insisting that we call an ambulance rather than attempting to descend unaided.
After 20 minutes of looking upwards at the slightly cloudy sky, sipping water offered by three passing hikers, a man in green appeared from the woods below, carrying a silver blanket and a phial of morphine. Calm, reassuring and administering pain killing drugs, this highly competent paramedic was the first of many angels I encountered during the months to follow.
Another six winged saviours arrived minutes later when members of Snowdonia Mountain Rescue Team walked up the hillside and stood around me discussing the next step, A helicopter was mentioned and they politely asked me how I felt about being airlifted. I think this was when I realised the severity of my situation. This option was dismissed and instead these men, voluntary workers, sure-footed mountaineers, used to dealing with injured walkers, carried me on a stretcher down the hill I had ascended an hour before hand.
Looking back on this now, I shudder. I was scared and in shock. Much of my time in hospital was spent in a haze of morphine, available on demand at three hour intervals.
Within a few days, however, I was home, encased in a pink plaster which stretched from ankle to thigh. I had broken two bones – the fibula and tibia, just below the knee and also smashed part of the knee cap itself. The kindly consultant told me the break was too complicated to pin but that it would heal naturally, in time. And that I should be prepared for knee replacement surgery at some point in the future.
I tried to be calm and philosophical. The weather for the coming weeks was lovely so I struggled into my pink bikini and with the help of my boyfriend Chris, I managed to zimmer frame my way onto the long verandah which he had just built, so that we could better admire the magnificent mountain scenery. The verandah became the stuff of legend for me, documented widely on instagram and twitter as my base and lifeline for the coming months.
Chris did many kind things for me during that difficult time, but one of the first was to built a ramp so I could get onto the verandah fairly easily. There I sat, hour in, hour out, day in, day out, week in, week out watching the Ffestiniog railway train tooting its way across the mountain side opposite
It wasn’t long before a stream of visitors arrived. I had injured myself before, but in London, where no one but close friends came to cheer me up. Here almost the whole of Maentwrog turned up people, bringing eggs, cakes, magazines, plants, body lotion and even a flagon of cider. I felt like a celebrity as I sat, pink leg outstretched, trying to keep up my tan.
Friends from elsewhere sent flowers, books and cards all of which brought joy to divert me from my misery.
It was a strange and difficult time. I felt as though a giant hand had appeared from the sky, picked me up and put me down in a place from which I couldn’t escape. As everyone reminded me, there are worse places to break bones than in beautiful Snowdonia. But for me, whose life revolves around movement and freedom, who is ever restless and always looking for new places to see and explore, it felt at times a torment.
My dearest friends turned up to visit me – making a round trip of 500 miles and their presence warmed my heart. We had many visitors sleeping in the next door building (a converted horse stable)until the weather grew cooler and the last visitor emerged looked blue and frozen in the morning.
All of this was gratifying and wonderful for me, as I progressed slowly from plaster cast to leg brace, from crutches to walking stick.
But it was the unlimited kindness of the local people, which took this difficult process onto another level and often moved me to tears.
I felt vulnerable and frustrated for much of the time. We didn’t have a car so one endlessly generous family loaned us their van to drive and we bowled through the countryside enjoying its rich autumnal beauty.
We tried to hire a car, but an explained problem prevented us. One dark night I was weeping in frustration when our neighbour turned up with the van keys again as an answer to my prayer. As he stood in the doorway, the yellow street light created a halo behind him.
‘You’re an angel,’ I told him, meaning it literally, rather than in some English gushing way. He faded into the darkness, going home for tea , leaving me elated at having transport again and the freedom which came with it.
Another lovely friend, whose business is selling mobility equipment, brought a wheelchair, which was invaluable even though I hated using it. It came in handy for seaside jaunts, lunch at Dylan’s in beautiful Criccieth followed by trips along the seafront, with me attempting to walk a bit of the way. At another time I needed a spare crutch and came home to find one propped up against the front door, like a milk bottle.
All this goodness was in addition to the excellent health care I received. From the nurse who brought endless bed pans and smiled through my embarrassment, to the ambulance drivers who came to pick me up and ferry me through the stunning scenery of Snowdonia for my hospital check-ups. From the calm, reassuring consultant, who later confessed his relief that my leg had healed so well without surgery. To the funny, cheeky physiotherapist who laughed at my anxiety and spoke to me like a friend.
The greatest test came though on a bright day in December when I was preparing to go to Criccieth for lunch with two local friends whose help and hospitality I had planned to repay. My phone rang and I noticed that it was the number of the head of the care agency looking after my mum. Preparing to deal with the latest in a string of her health problems, I was heartbroken to hear that in fact my dear Dad, my friend since childhood, had died suddenly sitting on his own bed.
As I sat sobbing, one of our kindest neighbours knocked at the door. In a long pale grey coat, dressed smartly for church, she too took on the guise of an angel as she calmly comforted me, convincing me that I could deal with what lay ahead.
I stayed there in the village until 15th February, leaving briefly for a trip to England, for my dad’s funeral and to install my mum in the care home where she now lives.
I was scared to leave that small community which had showed me such kindness and care. I felt safe there, protected by the mountains that can cause such danger. But I knew that if I stayed any longer I might never leave and resume the nomadic life I had previously loved so much.
The consultant discharged me with praise for my trust and patience, the impish physio urged me on my way. ‘Go back to Spain’ she told me. ‘Sit in the sun, eat Mediterranean food, swim, forget about your accident.’ It really was time to move on.
So we left, heading south in the car that yet another giving friend had loaned us, heading to The Midlands to say goodbye to another dear relative, who died just a few months after my dad. My Aunty Margaret, who had cared for me as a baby as well as countless others after me in her work as a nurse.
Eventually we made it onto the plane, with more tears from me as it soared into the sky. How kind my valley had been, how warm the sun of Valencia when we landed.