KATHY LETTE. 24 November 2020
Key to eternal youth? Tree climbing, fishing – and ogling
Lockdown fatigue? To put the spring back in your step, a weekend of tree climbing, kayaking and horse riding is just the ticket
'I abseiled back to earth an hour later feeling a huge sense of achievement. I’d climbed out of my comfort zone'
‘Do you swing and do you mind rope burns?” the chiselled, muscular young man asked, strapping me into a harness and tightening it around a part of my anatomy normally associated with childbirth.
“Um…” was about all I could manage to utter in reply.
No, I wasn’t getting some kinky thrills at a whipped cream bondage orgy, but learning to abseil up a 70ft-high, 300-year-old oak tree on the Isle of Wight. It’s all part of my Carpe the Hell Out of Diem credo.
It’s a sad truth that just when you’ve learned to make the most of your life, most of your life is gone. The best way to tell a woman’s age, by the way, is not to. Or to simply say, “I have no idea how old you are, but you certainly don’t look it.” But when it comes to staying young, scientists agree that the most effective technique is to try new things, master fresh skills and get out of your comfort zone… Hence my action-packed staycation on the Isle of Wight with an itinerary of tree climbing, kayaking, deep sea fishing and horse riding.
Like most middle-aged women, while I may feel like a 30-year-old, unfortunately there’s rarely one within reach. Except for today.
“So, now you’re strapped in, let’s get you up and away,” enthused the handsome arboriculturist whose manly thighs were severely testing the limits of his Lycra.
I felt a twinge of ill ease. Was it wrong to ogle my instructor in this way? Could I be accused of “reverse sexism”? I passed that question on to my loins, which stirred, then answered loudly, “Hell, no!”
I glanced upwards towards the towering treetops.
Abseiling ropes dangled down from the far-off canopy – ropes I was expected to scale. My face must have resembled Edvard Munch’s The Scream, because my instructor immediately tried to convince me that my fear of heights was groundless.
“Groundless, exactly! I like terra firma,” I explained, anxiously. “For me the firma the ground the lessa the terra.”
But then I remembered my pathetic attempt at the cryptic crossword that morning. I clearly needed to blow away the cranial cobwebs, otherwise I’d only be fit for remedial scrabble. Or Join the Dots. And so, determined to fulfil my mission to stay young, I prepared to conquer the canopy.
The instructor showed me the ropes, literally, and, following his lead, I tied a knot, inserted my foot in the loop, then hauled myself upward. I repeated this action three times, before making another loop. This macrame-like process was so meticulously absorbing that I didn’t realise how far I’d ascended.
By the time I looked down, I was 30ft high. I dangled there for a moment, paralysed with fear, and wondered if the “lump sum” promised in my travel insurance referred to the head injury I’d no doubt sustain when plummeting earthward.
“OK, it’s been great. But how the hell do I descend?” I asked in a panicked voice, swinging like a drunken pendulum back and forth in the breeze. “Come on, Kath. Only 40ft to go.” The airborne Adonis beamed so enthusiastically that I found myself tying another knot. Although I do want to stress that the completion of my ascent had nothing to do with the peachiness of the instructor’s perfect posterior positioned just inches above me… Well, not much anyway.
I abseiled back to earth an hour later feeling a huge sense of achievement. I’d climbed out of my comfort zone and all with a minimum of pathetic “turning over a new leaf”, “going out on a limb” and “branching out” groaners. Mission accomplished!
Having successfully pulled off this Tarzan impersonation, I approached kayaking class the next day with renewed confidence.
'I was now gliding through the sea with insouciant ease, humming the theme music to Hawaii Five-0' CREDIT: Getty
I’d imagined that the water in the Solent would be so polluted the fish would be using snorkels, but the opposite is true. The sparkling sea around the Isle of Wight is clear and clean.
The tranquil, turquoise water of Bembridge Bay glittered before me. With no wind, it took on a look of blank innocence. My instructor, another Greek god (honestly, this bloke looked underdressed without a plinth) took me through the basics, and then we headed off across the cove. Poseidon’s kayak was slicing effortlessly through the water in front of me. Copycatting his style, the rhythm of the paddling, left, right, left, right, soon lulled me into a meditative state.
I was now gliding through the sea with insouciant ease, humming the theme music to Hawaii Five-0. Our paddling was now in perfect synchronicity, but the lucky fella was saved from my saucy crack about having a simultaneous oar-gasm, because just then we rounded the headland.
Leaving the shelter of the bay I realised I’d totally overestimated my kayaking abilities. The choppy ocean now resembled a silk cloth covering a pile of writhing snakes. Not capsizing seemed as plausible a proposition as Trump in a Feminist Consciousness Raising class. As my kayak rocked precariously, my heart beat like a heavy metal drummer in my chest. Yes, the Solent’s clean, but it’s also freezing. Frantically battling to stay upright, I vowed to take up some physical activity that didn’t risk bodily harm – say hopscotch, or knitting. “Rock, Paper, Scissors” is also not known for its fatalities.
The aquatic god circled back and addressed me in the sort of soothing voice you use to calm feral dogs. “Stroke, stroke, stroke…” Despite the fact I was clearly having one, I concentrated on my breathing and finally found my equilibrium.
When we did eventually pull ashore two hours later, I told the instructor that I hadn’t been scared, truly I hadn’t – I always tongue-kissed the dock like this. But having kayaked in rough seas without capsizing left me feeling so elated, I could easily have waved to the arborist in his forest treetop far down the coast.
Luckily, my next youth-boosting activity was land-based. As a mouthy broad I’m known for mounting my High Horse and galloping off into the sunset, so I was pretty sure I’d feel at home in the saddle. The island’s tidal beaches are perfect for horse riding and I did not rein in my enthusiasm. After an hour’s cantering up the deserted Ryde Sands, drenched in warm autumnal sunshine, the range of sound effects available to me as a human seemed inadequate, and I wished I were a bell so I could ring and chime and peal out my pleasure. Nor did I fall off, so there was no, um, unbridled laughter from onlookers either. Always a bonus.
Last on my activity list was a fishing trip around the Needles, the chalky columns jutting into the Channel at the island’s most western point. What I learnt that day is there are two types of anglers; those who fish for fun and those who actually hook something scaly. I am definitely in the first category. Mind you, like all true anglers, by the time I was regaling pals in the pub that night, the fish I’d caught was so gigantic that I dislocated my shoulder just recounting the anecdote.
All this physical activity worked up a hearty hunger. To be honest, I had worried that the Isle of Wight would be a fish and chippy, jellied eel kind of place, but my taste buds and I are pleased to report that I was totally wrong. The delectable, innovative Asian fusion of the Smoking Lobster seafood restaurant; the hearty homeliness of The Cottage with its locally seasonally sourced produce, the glamorous Haven Hall’s five-star breakfasts and the gourmet thrills of True Food Kitchen, where delicacies are served up from a caravan onto rickety tables by the pounding sea, left my palate purring.
For traditionalists there’s also high tea at The Royal, with tiers of cakes and champers served by the garden fountain. It’s so charmingly old-fashioned, I kept expecting Queen Victoria to bustle by in a bonnet singing Rule Britannia.
It was she, of course, who put the Isle of Wight on the map when hubby Albert built Osborne House, the Royal family’s Italian Renaissance-themed summer holiday shack. The house boasts one of Britain’s first lifts or “ascending rooms”.
If it’s raining – and let’s face it, in Britain, saving up for a rainy day and a holiday can often be the same thing – there’s a plethora of places to entertain we DFLs (Down from Londoners). The Brading Roman Villa; the Appuldurcombe ruins; the exquisite Butterfly World; and Carisbrooke castle, where Charles I was incarcerated before his trial, and which is now a windswept, evocative ruin – much like yours truly, before I undertook this restorative staycation.
The pandemic panic means that “flights of fancy” are the only overseas trips we can take right now. But you don’t have to go overseas to be overawed. Once restrictions lift, there’s so much to explore in Britain’s own big, beautiful backyard.
I was worried the Isle of Wight would be a naff, bucket-and-spade-type holiday destination, but it proved adventurous and scrumptious.
Oh, and on the car ferry back to the mainland I got through the cryptic crossword puzzle in record time, proof that my staycation escapades provided the desired cerebral workout. Of course, the best way to stay young is to lie about your age. But the second-best way to stave off dementia is adventure. So, post-lockdown, pack your bags.
How to do it
How to get there
A journey with Wightlink Ferries (wightlink.co.uk) costs from £47.75 one way with a car.
Where to stay
Haven Hall (telegraph.co.uk/tt-haven-hall) has rooms from £420 per night, including breakfast.
What to do
Two-hour session with Goodleaf Tree Climbing (goodleaf.co.uk) costs from £29 per climber.
Two-hour kayaking or paddleboarding “Splash Session” with Tackt-Isle (tackt-isle.co.uk) costs from £25 per person.
Beach and trail rides with the Island Riding Centre (islandriding.com) cost from £60.
Three- hour taster fishing session with Black Rock Charters (blackrockcharters.co.uk) from £35 per adult.