The 83-year old author and explorer recently climbed the highest peak in Cornwall after surviving Covid, raising £37,000 (so far) for NHS hospital gardens
I went down badly with Covid in March, and my family were told to expect the worst. I was in intensive care for five weeks and in hospital for seven. I should have died at my age. But the wonderful doctors at Derriford hospital in Plymouth pulled me through.
The key moment was towards the end of the coma, when they were trying to wake me up and wheeled my bed out to the healing garden. I remember waking up with the sun on my face, smelling the flowers and realising I was going to live. From then on everything picked up, and after I was released in May, although I could barely walk – about five yards on a zimmer frame – I set myself the challenge of climbing Cornwall’s highest peak, Brown Willy, which I achieved last Saturday.
I live in Cornwall in sight of the hill, on the edge of Bodmin Moor. I’d climbed it before, but not for many years. Up to two or three weeks before, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it. I’ve climbed many hills and mountains in Britain, but this one is quite steep at the end and a bit of a scrabble, and on the day Storm Alex was blowing a 60mph wind and driving rain at the top. My wife Loella and son Merlin helped push and pull me up. I managed to get up to the top of the cairn at 420 metres (1,378 feet) and waved the Cornish flag.
It’s right in the middle of Bodmin moor, with fantastic views from the top. You can either start from Jamaica Inn and a 3½-mile slog across the moor, or come in from the shorter Rough Tor car park on the northern side. Either way its a longish walk and a steepish climb, but everyone can do it.
I’ve always done a lot of physical activities, my thing is rainforests and deserts. But Brown Willy was a good choice for now, about the limit of what I could manage.
During recovery, a lot of it was about that will to live, and the grit and determination to complete my expedition. I had experienced something that I would have thought of as rather wacky before this – being in the hospital healing garden – but that’s the healing power of nature. I’m now a great advocate for that and believe every hospital in Britain should have a healing garden attached to the intensive care unit. It could be a gamechanger.
• Robin’s fundraising page
During lockdown the Manchester barrister published a picture book with her six-year-old daughter celebrating diversity and multiculturalism, with proceeds going to charity
Lockdown was tough: I was working from home and trying to home-school three children (six, eight and ten), and we were shielding to protect a family member.
The book was an escape – Rosie and the Unicorn fly around meeting local people of all colours and family setups. It’s about kindness and community, with the message that not all heroes are boys and not all heroines are blonde and blue-eyed. Our family is dual-heritage and we live in a diverse neighbourhood, so it reflects our experience.
We’re an outdoorsy family, so it was hard not being able to go out – we craved walks and cycle rides in nature. The garden offered solace, though, and we started growing sunflowers and herbs – even a little time outdoors helped.
When we were eventually able to leave we went to Anglesey to recharge – somewhere we’d been before and loved and found calming. We stayed in Beaumaris, in the east of the island, and spent our time exploring the beaches – it felt like we’d rediscovered freedom after so much time inside, to be out in the fresh air, to be kayaking on the sea, to play tennis on the sand. It was good to see the kids so free after all that time indoors. My daughter collected shells and sticks, my middle son had missed seeing dogs and loved watching them play on the beach … just simple pleasures.
Newborough beach is one of our favourites; it’s amazing, it feels a bit like New Zealand, wide open spaces with sand dunes and forests (you can even see red squirrels). Benllech is a lovely beach, too, and we’d go to Towyn beach early when there was no one there.
Despite everything, Britain is still a brilliant place to be. There are so many places to discover and it reinforced how we all need to get out into the countryside if we can, to be in green, open spaces and fresh air – it’s crucial for mental health.
• All profits from Rosie and the Unicorn go to NHS Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital and Young Minds. You can buy a copy on Amazon for £7.99
The vocal leader launched the Sofa Singers in lockdown in response to global self- isolation – around 1,000 people a week now sing together online
A few miles from Wrexham in north Wales there is an ancient woodland called Plas Power Woods. In all the uncertainty of lockdown, it’s been amazing to be able to visit a place that feels timeless. After spending so much time on Zoom with the choir, I felt the need to connect with nature.
Most of it is ancient woodland with huge oak trees and dappled sunlight, with the River Clywedog running through it. I visit on my own or with my children. We’ve watched the seasons change, from bluebells coming out in spring to the leaves starting to turn, and you can always hear birdsong. The sense of nature’s rhythms has felt meditative. Even though so many things are changing in the world, nature keeps on doing its thing.
It’s almost like going into Narnia. We make up stories, like creating a “fairy beach”, rekindling a childhood magic. We throw stones, paddle in the water and all the things we forget as adults that are good for us.
It’s a lot quieter now, compared with the height of lockdown, but it’s always felt like a safe, nurturing space. It’s 10 minutes from my house and a short walk from the town centre. A few hundred years ago, the estate owner started to build a wall to keep people out, and at night it’s said the miners and other townspeople would come and take it down again, so there’s a sense of it having been enjoyed by local people for a long time.
I usually spend time with big groups singing, which is off limits for now, but I’m now training to be a forest bathing guide. I’ll be leading trails in the new year through the woodland, helping others tune into it with all their senses.
• thesofasingers.com. James is the author of Do Sing, published by the Do Book Company
Tracy helped create the Eden G Community Garden in Edenthorpe, Doncaster, which opens officially this weekend
During lockdown I was furloughed, but one thing that kept me sane and helped with my anxiety was helping create a community garden near where I live in Edenthrope, South Yorkshire.
With a group of other volunteers, who met initially on Zoom, we’ve transformed an overgrown wasteland into a beautiful garden, organising fundraising activities to support it. It has been amazing – we now have everything from a children’s play area and fairy garden with storytelling chair to a wildlife area and allotment beds.
It has not been an easy time in many ways, but working on the garden and going for walks around Doncaster – to Lakeside, Sandall Park and by the canal at Kirk Sandall – made me realise how much nature and the outdoors mean to me. It’s amazing what you can find on your doorstep – I often found myself just lying on the swing staring into the trees or watching the frogs in the pond. My husband is an angler and I had always thought it must be boring, just sitting on a river bank all day … but oh, how I was wrong!
My real escape, though, was a boat trip on the Norfolk Broads with my family. On a boat, the stresses of life seem far away and you can go as slowly as you like. We spent a week exploring from Stalham to the southern Broads at Loddon, visiting the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey and the gardens at How Hill, mooring at villages along the way. Goats and cows even visited us.
I loved sitting alone at the back of the boat, just listening to the sounds and watching the scenery. Even in the rain, feeling the cool fresh air and the tranquillity of the slow-moving river was a real tonic.
The trip has given me more ideas for the garden too – particularly the “sensory area” we’re developing. I never thought of myself as a nature person before, but getting involved with this garden has changed all that. I hope it will be used by many of the community to just sit and reflect on the beauty of the flowers, the smells and the sounds of the garden, and that they enjoy it as much as I do.
• The garden opens on 18 October, on Facebook.com
With his brother he started the Sikh Food Bank in Glasgow, which delivered 80,000 free meals around Scotland during lockdown
Whitelee Wind Farm, 10 miles outside Glasgow, is the largest onshore wind farm in the UK and second largest in Europe. Standing under the turbines is exhilarating, feeling the power and might of the wind. It’s an ethereal experience seeing the rhythmical swoosh of the turbine – obviously we can’t see wind, so seeing the turbine being moved by an unseen force is a reminder that there’s a greater force out there, which puts everything into perspective.
We’d try to go most weekends, after a busy week with all the logistics of organising the food bank. It was somewhere to pause, sit, and reflect. As the founders, we had a lot of responsibility to the volunteers, donors and people we’d commited to provide meals to. So coming out here allowed us to escape for a bit.
It’s high up and on a clear day you can see Glasgow, which is powered by the wind farm. There is a huge network of trails and you don’t bump into too many people as there are so many paths to take. We had some excellent weather over the summer but one day the weather suddenly changed and thick dark clouds started rolling in. Really thick dark clouds. It was a bit scary how quickly the mood changed, how the wind turbines went from looking graceful to menacing against a different backdrop.
Launched Give them a Break, which offers free and discounted trips to frontline staff, and has so far raised £20,000
Around a month before lockdown, I went to an event in Edinburgh and then took the train to visit a friend in Aberdeen, a striking journey up the east coast. I got the train as the sun was getting low, so it was all golden light hitting this wild land, dotted with tiny huts and highland cattle, and the Forth Bridge.
My friend took me to a place called Newburgh beach, north of the city. It’s an amazing site, off the beaten track. We walked out to the headland across beautiful dunes and a nature reserve. The wind whipped around us, and it was freezing cold, but with bright sunshine, too and completely deserted, apart from a colony of about seals on the beach, barking away. You can watch them from the south side of the estuary, rather than walking through them, as they can get a bit stressed. There are more seals here there than people, even in summer.
There was something about the feeling of freedom and open space at the time, and spending time with friends. I now look back on that lovely sunny, golden day as the last carefree trip I took. It was just before we realised the world was changing – the last bit of innocence, where you could go to a friend’s house without worrying about rules.
In June, I decided to launch a charity raising funds to provide holidays for the amazing and undervalued key workers who have been keeping the country running during the Covid crisis. We especially wanted to help those in roles that aren’t always appreciated, including delivery drivers and those emptying people’s bins. People can simply donate to the fund we’ve set up with our charity partner, the Family Holiday Association, to provide free holidays for the key workers who most need them.