Hello, everyone! You may remember, when Tom injured his hand rather badly a couple of years ago, that we went on holiday to Madeira – the prime destination of British convalescents for at least a century and a half. Tom’s Dad has dibs on an apartment over there, which, in its lovely coastal location, always makes for a convenient and extremely pleasant break in the funshine. I am fond of most things Portuguese (design and cuisine especially) and there are so many things to recommend Madeira – you may recall that I wrote about the island’s beautiful hand embroidery the last time we were there. On this occasion, the focus was on firmly on recuperation, and I spent the majority of my time walking and attempting to swim. You will note in the photograph above that I am sporting actual shoes – an interesting and welcome development, as my feet have, since Februrary, been clad in giant clod-hopping boots. My left ankle is still quite wonky, of course, but it is now capable of managing in a pair of flats occasionally, which I am pleased about – I like to wear dresses, and a walking boot / dress combo is not really the best look.

Every evening, when the weather had cooled a little, we went walking along Funchal’s coastal promenade. Facing South and West, the promenade showcases a marvelous mosaic path (pictured above), Madeiran flora, and the wide expanse of the Atlantic.

The promenade is steep in places . . .

. . . we met friends along the way . . .

(one of many feral cat buddies)

. . . and admired several glorious sunsets.

I managed about 2 miles every evening, after which I would reward myself with an ice-cream from the circus of value. . .

Yes, I know it’s just a vending machine, but I found the basic idea of a street-side automatic ice-cream dispenser quite exciting. This is not something one sees in Scotland.

During the day, when the weather was hot, I spent the whole time either in the pool, or resting from my efforts. Despite the fact that I was a good, strong swimmer before the stroke, I can tell you that learning to swim again was not easy at all. But it is like everything, I suppose. . . the brain has to figure it all out again from scratch, and this is both difficult and tiring.

When I first got in the pool, my left leg could hardly move at all – it seemed confused by the resistance in the water and wouldn’t follow what the right leg was doing. I began by trying to just walk in the water – my foot balled itself up into an immovable club-like object, and the hip refused to relax and swing – but I managed it eventually. Then I got Tom to support my weight while I tried to teach the leg to kick. This took a long time – it didn’t seem to like moving upwards in the water, and the ankle and foot remained stiff, refusing to relax and work like flippers. All of this was familiar from my experience of learning to walk again; the left leg seemed to prefer doing exactly what the right one was doing; attempts at independent effort in the limb would make it want to just shut down; and movements in other parts of my body would seem to help the left leg move in a similar way (for example, bending my right arm at the elbow would help the left leg bend at the knee). This neuroplasticity stuff really is fascinating – the stroke wiped out my left leg from my brain, and now some other bits of my motor cortex are clearly operating it. Indeed, I wonder whether my left leg and right arm are now permanently wired together – certainly it is curious that I can make the leg do things by moving the arm about.

Though I found it difficult to move about at first, the buoyancy of the water helped in other ways. For example, I found after a while that I could jump about from one leg to the other, and even hop up and down on the left foot – an activity impossible to contemplate on dry land. The jumping and hopping and kicking and walking seemed to have beneficial effect, and in a couple of days I was swimming – unsteadily and wonkily, but swimming nonetheless – across the pool. By having several sessions in the pool a day, and doing a lot of sleeping and resting in between times to allow the brain to make sense of what it had learnt, by the end of a week, I had managed to do this:

If you had seen my first lopsided attempts, you would understand what a massive achievement this is for me. And though my movements may look relatively smooth, I have to say that none of this feels easy. Previously when I swam, I found breast-stroke quite relaxing, but this is certainly not the case now – every movement with the left arm and leg involves a lot of concentrated effort. I am sure, like walking, or knitting, or anything else, that this will improve over time. And it is also worth pointing out that, so far, I’ve been unable to master my favourite stroke, the crawl: the bilateral kicking and reaching seem too much for the left leg and arm to master. I saw an interesting programme before we went away which featured Paralympian swimmer, Liz Johnson. Johnson has cerebal palsy – which has left her with serious damage to the right side of her brain and, like me, impaired mobility on the left side of her body. She similarly finds the in-tandem action of breast-stroke much easier than the bilateral movements of the crawl. I found the short film of her swimming around London extremely moving and inspiring (can’t seem to find it online, unfortunately).

The swimming certainly seems to have had a beneficial effect. There are some small, particular movements that so far, despite my efforts, have eluded my leg and foot. For example, bending my ankle toward me while holding my leg extended has proved extremely difficult: the tendons along the top of my foot (are they called extensors?) don’t seem to be able to manage this, and the foot just flops out to the side. But after a week’s swimming, I was finally able to bend my foot upwards toward me at a neat right angle. Hurrah! I know it may not sound much, but these tendons on the top of the foot seem to affect all sorts of things about my gait and mobility, so this is a big step forward. And really, just about everything about my leg seems that little bit stronger. Needless to say, I intend to add swimming to my exercise repetoire now I am back home.

Anyway, such was my holiday duathlon of daytime swimming and evening walking. Tom reckoned when I factored in the other activities in which I excelled – viz, knitting, eating pasteis and drinking tea – that I actually accomplished a curious daily modern pentathlon . . . more of the knitting shortly. . .