Merlin Hanbury-Tenison

My father is home at last

My father is home at last
Robin and Merlin in April last year
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Today is my father, Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s, 84th birthday and miraculously he was able to wake up in his own bed and listen to the spring warbling of a green woodpecker while watching the swallows cavorting on the veranda in front of his bedroom. He was brought home three days ago in an ambulance having spent seven weeks flickering between life and death while battling Covid-19 at Derriford Hospital. I would be lying if I pretended my, usually unshakable, faith in his invincibility hadn’t wavered at several points during this ordeal. Many tears of joy and relief were shed as he was wheeled out by a paramedic on Monday evening and given back to us.

My wife, Lizzie, and I live a stone’s throw away from my parents across our farmyard on Bodmin Moor. Since his return, we’ve quarantined ourselves from them as Lizzie is 33 weeks pregnant and the doctors still don’t seem to be sure of the contagious nature of recovered patients. This morning we opened a bottle of champagne from the veranda and toasted Robin’s return from an appropriately socially distanced range. He lay in bed, surrounded by cards and marvelled to us at his close brush with death. The latest in a long list of adventures and escapades that stretch back over eight decades.

My mother, Louella, has adopted the role of drill sergeant. A natural woman of action, she has been understandably frustrated and felt unutilised while he was cared for by the superb medical team in Plymouth. Now the hard work can begin and she has sprung into action with all the vim and vigour that one would expect. A strict exercise regime will be adhered to and regular hydration and nourishment will be administered at rigorous and uncompromising intervals. The old explorer is currently as weak as a babe in arms and needs help with even the most basic activities, but I have no doubt his recovery will continue to startle and amaze all onlookers under Louella’s strict but loving ministrations.

As the debate rages at a more national level over whether and when the lockdown should be eased it feels like my father’s recovery parallels our country’s in many ways. He has survived the worst of the Covid beast and yet the real battle is still ahead of him. The slow and frustrating trek up the exhausting ascent to health and wellness will need a determination and patience that his time under sedation didn’t require. We have all come through the first, rather exciting, lockdown sprint only to find that we might face a long Summer of closed pubs, remote working and socially distanced outdoor activities. It seems this is going to go on for far longer than we all initially imagined and some parts of our lives will never return to what we considered normal before.

Alongside this gradual slog through the following weeks and months comes a reawakening of our need for gardens, parks and wilderness. At first, there was a gentle whisper which has risen to a louder, more insistent conversation about the healing power of nature and how we all need access to green spaces and the countryside for our mental health and wellness. It has taken being locked away to notice what’s right in front of us. For a species that evolved surrounded by jungles and mountains, it was madness to think that we could ever truly be ourselves when entombed in concrete, brick and glass. More and more scientific studies are showing that cortisol, adrenaline and our sympathetic nervous systems are all less evident when people look at, smell, hear and feel plants and trees. Stress goes down and happiness goes up.

This has manifested in a surge of interest in property in the countryside and a dip in urban house prices. People are considering ‘life after Covid’ away from bustling commutes, shopping centres and cityscapes. It seems the government’s 25 year ‘A Greener Future’ environment plan was rather prescient when it was published last year. It encourages urbanites to reconnect with rural life and for farmers and country-dwellers to begin reshaping their industries to accommodate this. Perhaps coronavirus has served to accelerate this transformation.

We haven’t managed to take Robin down into the ancient oak woods on our farm yet. After all, it has only been three days and he is still effectively bed-bound. However, he is now out of the woods medically and soon to be back into the woods physically. I look forward to helping him down into the valley that he knows so well to watch for otters by the river and laugh at the dippers swooping for insects and freshwater shrimp amongst the eddies.

He is already talking about his next physical challenge. As an octogenarian marathon runner, skydiver and water skier I knew it wouldn’t be long before he started planning the next improbable undertaking. It’ll be closer to home this time and he wants to focus on his new passion; enabling intensive care patients to access gardens and promote their healing while they are still very constrained. It’s what catalysed his recovery and he’s committed to helping others benefit in the same way.

In the meantime, I imagine there will be another book in the oven. This one about his medical adventures juxtaposed with the spiritual journeys he sailed through while sedated and delirious. As he gets busy planning his next endeavours, the drill sergeant will focus on his physical health while our bucolic wooded valley on Bodmin Moor helps to heal his soul.