“ONLY the bravest souls will survive the trail,” warns Alnwick Castle’s guide to its fairy tale-themed garden.
Never a truer word, I think, wobbling as I stand on the gravel path watching a guide remove the cover from a mobility scooter.
I swing one leg over the vehicle, willing my other to stay planted on the ground. We’re stood in the sunshine near the entrance to the castle. The “good” leg seems to obey me - for once. Nerve signals must be working okay on that one.
The driver from Timberbush has brought us here on a trip from Edinburgh. It’s the school holidays and I’m trying to keep my kids entertained, not easy for any of us parents. Being wiped out with exhaustion from battling Multiple Sclerosis (MS) doesn’t make it any easier.
This trip is helping silence the voices from the past that still echo in my head. The ones telling me I’m lazy; that being this tired makes me a bad, morally inferior person.
The castle guide, Katie, gives me a driving lesson before my kids and I set off. The key goes in here, turns like that. A humming sound confirms success. Pulling on a lever this way makes the scooter go forward, you pull backwards for reverse. I keep looking in vain for a rear-view mirror.
There are no gears or brakes on my vehicle; good, I think, remembering the four attempts it took me to pass my driving test. I feel like David Walliams’ creation Gangsta Granny, an old lady who gets about on a scooter like mine. The main difference seems to be I’m minus her black mask and cat burglar outfit. Oh and there’s about forty years’ age gap between us too.
“Let me! Please!” chorus both my children, clamouring to be allowed on board my “broomstick”. Worrying that we might be breaking the rules (we later discover that indeed we are, but nobody gets cross at us) I allow both my children to take it in turns to ride pillion.
They scream with laughter as we explore the garden. We pass a crestfallen Humpty Dumpty, fallen off his wall, then track letters dispersed along hair pin bends that spell Pinocchio (I insist here that we slow down) and hunt for figures representing the three blind mice. “That was so fun,” remembers my younger daughter, her face lighting up at the memory.
Alnwick Castle is where Harry Potter was filmed. So its turrets, walls and vaulting rooves look familiar for a reason – we’ve seen them during our many family viewings of the Potter films. The castle appears as Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry, in the movies.
I feel strangely at home here on board my “broomstick”. And, not for the first time, I feel comforted to think that the Harry Potter author JK Rowling is the daughter of somebody who, like me, suffered from MS.
The thing is that life isn’t always a fairy tale. Neurological illness has crept up on me, a bit like the baddie in a fairy tale. All any of us has to counter the horror is the love of family and friends, a bit of medication and the sense that there are good people in the world, like the ones at Alnwick Castle and Timberbush.
I used to row competitively when I was a student, long before I’d even heard of MS. Never in a million years could I have imagined myself back then whooping with laughter as my kids and I travelled around hairpin bends in our mobility scooter. But that’s one of the many things I’ve actually gained from having MS. I take myself a lot less seriously and I laugh a lot more often too. Usually at myself.