I don’t like heights.
That’s putting it mildly – in fact it may be the understatement of the last almost seventy years.
I can just about manage a step-ladder, but spiral stairs have been a no-no since I stuck on the one inside the South Stack lighthouse when I was quite small. Only three or four years ago I struggled with the ones in Peel Castle on the Isle of Man, and finally went up them almost on hands and knees; for some inexplicable reason I find going up much worse than coming down. I was tempted to chicken out, but I’d paid for my ticket and there was no other way to go around the castle so I made myself manage them.
Over the years the fear’s got worse, and when I went to Finland two years ago I had a panic attack half way up a not-really-very-tall tower with perfectly safe wide steps, and Pat had to help me up to the first viewing level and leave me there while she went out onto the upper walkway.
There are many theories about the fear of heights, and particularly of tight spiral staircases, but I think my mother might be partly to blame.
I have a very clear memory of her lifting me onto the branch of a tree which stood in the wild garden of a cottage beside the River Ouse, just outside York. Once I had learned to swim well enough we used to go there for picnics and to swim in the river. She sat me on the branch, which was at her shoulder height, or thereabouts, and said, ‘Go on, climb the tree.’
In response I threw my arms round the trunk and cried until she lifted me down. Another disappointment for her, and bewildered confusion for me. Why did she want me to do this strange thing?
Although we had a row of trees at the end of our garden in York none of them were climbable, and I have no memory in those early years of seeing my brothers climbing trees, although I’m sure they must have done so on days out in the Dales or on holiday in Anglesey – although perhaps not there; there aren’t many trees around my grandparents cottage, it’s too exposed to the Atlantic gales.
Despite this poor start, in my own good time, I discovered exceptions to my fear of heights.
Once we moved to Lorton, we were in a tree climbers’ paradise, and almost at once Peter and Paul decided they would scale to the very top of the large Mount Atlas Cedar which still stands proudly on the front lawn.
Watching them I began to understand what this tree-climbing-thing Mother was so keen on was about, but I wasn’t ready for such a huge challenge. Still, not long after we had settled in, I was exploring our grounds and discovered an old holly which had very few leaves and which, to my delight, had branches starting close to the ground and going up just like steps. I made my first independent venture into tree climbing on this old holly, and was very proud of myself when I stood upright on a branch about six feet from the ground.
There were so many trees of so many kinds in our ten and a half acres that I soon made good progress. We had an orchard and vegetable garden down by the river – it’s gone now, there are bungalows where our fruit trees once stood – but the apples and pears were a great incentive to improve my climbing skills. Conkers would also have been a treasure to motivate my climbing skills, but all of the chestnuts’ branches started far too high for any of us, even my brothers.
However there were trees with branches I could ride, as if they were a horse, and trees like the Cedar of Lebanon which I could almost walk up. But it wasn’t long before I tackled the great cedar. Its lowest branches began well within my reach. They were broad, strong and reached out and down to the grass. It was possible to walk along the length of them, holding onto the one above, until I could step off onto the lawn. Those lower branches have been cut since then, and the tree looks strange without its lowest skirts, but its still there, and still towers over all the others.
I never got right to the top, but I went about half way, and I loved that tree like no other. The smell of the sap, the tufty needles and egg shaped cones were a delight to me.
I can’t explain my fear of heights, or why it didn’t apply to the trees at Lorton. Life is full of mysteries. But I’m glad I climbed that wonderful tree, even if I never got right to the top. I wonder if I could still do a little careful tree climbing on the right kind of tree?
[Conkers – for those not British are the prickly husks and glossy brown nuts of the Horse Chestnut]