So, last year I turned 45, as I may have mentioned. And realising my next birthday milestone would be 50 (50!), I decided to‘celebrate’ by attempting 45 challenges over the year, and asked people for suggestions. It was only intended to fill my free time with something more than KenKen and the increasingly prompt first drink of the day. I was happy (wasn’t I?) with my London life and my small metropolitan luxuries; sushi delivery on speed dial, seeing films the weekend of release, savouring the joy that only a parking space outside Peter Jones can bring, and anonymity (I don’t even know the names of the people who live in the flat next door to mine). I wasn’t looking for personal truths. But they were looking for me.
And they found me, on my first task, learning a circus trick. The flying trapeze was a thrilling whoosh of a ride. Afterwards I felt exhilarated and surprisingly nostalgic for my tomboy childhood. I realised I’d spent my younger years almost entirely outside in the countryside, climbing trees and having adventures wearing my brother’s hand-me-down green Levi’s needlecords. It hadn’t occurred to me that I missed the rough and tumble, or that my most rambunctious activity as a west London woopsie was accessing the Harvey Nichols shoe department during the sales.
So it made sense that I’d enjoy the murky, skin-tingling 18c water when I joined the Serpentine Swimming Club. But more, I was charmed, by the eclectic membership -from World War Two heroes, to wet-suited Channel crossing wannabes – the sweet tea, and the club secretary’s words; ‘It’s always been a club for eccentric elderly gents, and still is, for all ages and sexes.’
I whizzed along Europe’s longest zipwire, and mis-stepped a tango lesson. When I fire-walked at Regent’s Park Zoo, I was prepared. As a child, I’d used mind over matter to stop being ticklish (it held me back when sparring with my brother). I arrived alone, noticing my solitary nature. The walk took 1.5 seconds, over 12ft of burning oak embers at 500c, and it didn’t hurt.
I knew what my friend Teresa, a mad keen marathon runner, would suggest. I didn’t run a marathon (I could barely drive that far) but instead a 5k Race for Life for cancer research. It was poignant, feeling the compassion in the field of 3,000 chirruping women.
I visited the Arctic Circle, sledging with hardy reindeer though pristine snow, and camping out at -20c. I saw the Northern Lights; two minutes of spectacular nature showing off for us. I began to notice how much I was enjoying all the outdoorsy experiences and started wondering if I really was such a city girl after all.
The only disappointment was flying a jet (in a simulator). Nothing happened; great in mid-air, dull in a lesson. The most embarrassing task was having a Brazilian (wax not man). Physically painful, personally mortifying. And forensic? DCI Sarah Lund couldn’t have been more thorough.
One highlight was wing-walking. It was suggested by my friend Georgia; she could see that I was enthused by my derring-do tasks and I was touched that she’d noticed. Being strapped onto a rig atop a bi-plane was thrilling, loud and chilly at 1500ft and 100mph. Hurtling to earth at 150mph before somersaulting backwards to loop the loop was terrifying. When no one that I told said, ‘Ooh fun!’, I realised I may be a daredevil.
It was a privilege to work a shift at London’s River Café, watching the best chefs cooking the best lunch, and admiring the warm grace and expertise of co-founder Ruthie Rogers, who still writes the menu anew every day and checks every plate that goes out. It’s a creative, physically demanding, calm kitchen. I envied the joy of pride in your work. I noted there are no shortcuts to success, and the really talented make it look easy.
I cherished Paris in the springtime with my Mum. One of my tasks was learning French, now progressing at l’escargot’s pace. But when visiting Jean-Paul Hévin, a chocolate shop/bar, intimidating as a Chanel boutique, I stumbled through an order for a magnifique ginger hot chocolate.
Simple tasks were equally rewarding. I baked a cake at the suggestion of a cheery shop assistant; I suggested in return that he took up lacrosse, I have no idea why.
I ate something new (elk carpaccio and a moose steak so meatily macho it could challenge Russell Crowe to a bare knuckle fight), did an anonymous good deed, had a flesh eating pedicure, and a Bobbi Brown makeover.
Several people suggested I ‘cut all my hair off’. I compromised with a haircut at Hari’s, and returned for subtle highlights (no one’s commented, but I can’t stop admiring them.)
I bought the next best thing to a bespoke bra in 15 brisk minutes at Rigby and Peller, planted an apple tree, and learned the phonetic alphabet. I broke a habit; ceasing wearing Converse daily and discarding any heels which felt like walking on point down a step ladder frontwards. I learnt a magic trick (it concerns a disappearing column of coins), but the real magic is that I haven’t spilled the secret.
I invented a word; after driving a friend to a party who brought jazz and a Ginsters pie into my car, criticized my driving, and misread the map by 50 miles, I shouted, ‘You passenge badly’. I wrote an appreciation diary, briefly, though its positive effects linger. I attempted inventing universal truths. I wrote fan letters to Jilly Cooper, Nigel Slater, Roger Federer and Mad Men writer Matthew Weiner, which showed me that you can’t separate who you are from what you do.
I met one of my heroes, my charismatic, kindly English teacher, and congratulated myself on choosing so well as a child. I visited a prison. I can’t tell you which one (security!) but the suspicious eyes of authority figures and the tiny incremental privileges (being allowed your own hair straighteners) for good behaviour reminded me of boarding school.
I compiled a playlist; one song per year since 1966, but failed to have a party to play it. Surprising for anyone who’s invited me to a party, but I’m a guest not a host.
I’ve failed plenty. I tried and failed to read War and Peace, Catch 22 and Infinite Jest. I failed to secure Olympic tickets, the suggestion of my fabulous godson Sonny. My friend Simon’s first suggestion was ‘Pick up the shattered pieces of your broken life and learn to laugh again’. Er, no. His second was ‘Arrest someone’. Still, no. His third was to follow someone for a day. I tried and failed; I got eyes and ears on my asset (I’ve watched too much Homeland) browsing at BabyGap but it was too creepy. I failed to even apply for Total Wipeout (suggested by my adventurous nephew Milo; I think he’d like to take part himself).
My friend Claudine, a foul-mouthed poppet, suggested I should make a celebrity friend, because she’d been trying to for years. I failed; I tried ignoring their fame, and I tried counting the ways I loved them, and got nowhere. I also failed to deliver home truths, realising I’m incapable of non-confrontation confrontation.
I failed aerial silks (scarlet, cobalt and emerald silk ropes hanging from the ceiling on which you climb and entwine), despite the teacher’s Sisyphean attempts to push me up them. When I couldn’t lift a cafetière or brush my hair for a week afterwards, I quit. I failed to volunteer at the Ministry of Stories, a non-profit centre encouraging 8-18 year olds to develop creative writing skills. At the introduction, I realised immediately I’m clueless with kids, who are infinitely more creative than I’d ever be. I failed to write a book. So far.
My final task was to ride a horse in a flat race. I started riding when I was six, and I took to it at once. My brother went to boarding school at the same time (aged 8!) so horses became my partners in crime. I rode for ten years, until a horse nearly killed me, but I always wanted to ride in a race, always. So I hadn’t ridden for years, but serendipitously, my parents moved to a Cotswolds village with a racing stable. Richard, the trainer, generously allowed me to ride out on an 11year old bay, Stop the Show, a winning hurdler and the yard’s gentleman.
When Richard first directed me to the gallops, he shouted from his Land Rover, ‘When you turn onto the railings, he’ll just take off’. ‘Er, take off how?’ I yelped. ‘Don’t worry, he always stops at the end’ he yelled. As oppose to what? Leaping converted barns in a single leap?
My first ‘slow canter’ up the gallops was magical, but it wasn’t riding as I knew it. It felt like being given the keys to a Ferrari, having learnt to drive in your Dad’s Toyota Corrola. I whimpered to Richard, ‘I’m worried I’m not good enough’. He said, ‘If you’re not good enough, you’ll fall off’. Six furlongs later, my knuckles were bleeding, I was breathless, ecstatic, hooked. It was an intense and surprisingly intimate feeling of utter joy.
I rode regularly, loving every minute, bonding profoundly with my horse. He was noble, strong, and gentle, a quality so rare it always knocks me off my feet. He had beauty without vanity. He never took advantage of me, he always kept me safe. He took me seriously. I trusted him with my life, and he trusted me. Too bad he’s only a horse, you might think. Nothing ‘only’ about it.
Later, when Mum watched, she said, ‘You look really happy riding’. I was struck by the significance of the obvious.
I successfully applied for a one mile five furlongs charity race at Cheltenham; amateurs raise money for charity and participate in a race, at the end of a normal race meeting.
For three weeks before the race I rode daily, bonding profoundly with my horse and loving every single minute of it. I ran daily, and cut out (ish) carbs and red wine, accepting that losing weight is as simple as we haven’t been told; eat less, move around more.
On the day, my parents drove me, silent with fear, to Cheltenham. All ten of us charity racers (retired jockeys, point to pointers, relatives of trainers, an Olympian!), walked the course with a ‘real’ jockey. It felt like a terrifying rollercoaster of uphill, downhill, hairpin bends and divots the size of dinner plates. One of the officals said, ‘Don’t worry, nobody is expecting you to ride like a jockey’. But here we were, riding real racehorses, round a real course. I spent the day being nervous, petting Stop the Show, and pleading for reassurance from Richard. Stop the Show spent the afternoon having a bath.
I was anxious; about being legged-up, that I wouldn’t canter slowly to the start, but would set off full throttle and not stop, and that my front hooves would clip another’s back hooves, and we’d fall, my horse on top of me, and that I’d be fit enough (I’d never galloped that distance non-stop), and that I’d be so far behind I’d take a wrong turn, and that I wouldn’t be able to stop at the end, and that my anxiety would make my horse anxious.
At 5.30, I finally put on emerald silks (the owners’ colours), and was weighed out with the other riders. We were friendly, but we hadn’t bonded. I suppose the important relationship was with our horses (which exists on an intuitive, unsayable level). In the paddock, I met Richard, the owners, friends and family, and Stop the Show, gleaming like polished mahogany, in the paddock. I looked the part, though I didn’t feel it. I felt the warmth of everyone’s support, and how much everyone had done to get me to this point. Richard legged me up (one anxiety down) and said, ‘Love him, and he’ll look after you’.
My horse was dancing sideways with anticipation before we cantered to the start. As we circled, I felt intimidated by the ovewhelmingly powerful physical presence, the charisma, of ten highly strung and excited racehorses. We were higgledy piggledy on the start line; flag start, we were off. We lept into a gallop from a standing start. It was loud; the rhythmic thrum of the hooves, the horse’s breath, the wind, and it was fast. We approached the downhill. I realised not only was I not terrified, I was loving it. Stop the Show was looking after me, as always. I cooed to him, he cocked his ears to hear me.
Suddenly we were approaching the final furlongs and the famous Cheltenham hill.
We were last, but we were in perfect harmony. I felt connected to my six year old self, to nature, to life, to Stop the Show, to the universe. It was joyful, it was profound, it was emotional, it was everything to me. It was exactly how I dreamed and hoped it’d be. Stop the Show had given me my childhood dream. Afterwards the winner (a retired jockey) was interviewed by local radio. ‘When did you think you might win the race?’ they said. ‘About two weeks ago’ he replied.
Anyway, there it was. I’d recommend this project to anyone; my suggestion would be to take up a childhood hobby. I’m staggered to learn that – despite living, loving, losing and learning for 45 years – I’m the same as I ever was (minus the needlecords). As a child I was a tomboy, solitary, and I wanted to marry my pony. And now I’m an adult, I’m still a tomboy, solitary and…well, you know. I’ve realised I can still be those things in a city, but I could also do with a few top notes of fresh country air. If life is circular, and who we are doesn’t change, it explains a lot. Not least my return to riding, my first love. Oh, how I missed you.