I wouldn’t usually spend much time thinking about the word ‘hurt’. But I did recently give it some consideration after receiving an email warning: “There is a very good chance you will get hurt.”
Actually, the word and its definition became a matter for urgent consideration. And I considered that it embraced anything from a scratch to a maiming.
Usually, you’d gauge the severity from the context. When an armed robber says, “Do as I say and no one will get hurt,” for example, “hurt” means “shot dead”.
I didn’t know whether the email sender, a Wall of Death rider, had been brandishing a weapon as he typed. By way of clarification he added only: “You do this at your own risk.”
The thing I had a very good chance of getting hurt doing was learning to ride the Wall of Death that weekend. I had no idea how hurt.
At no point did I decide to go through with it. In typical fashion, I left it too late to back out, trusting that, by some chance, it might just not happen. Perhaps the Messhams Wall of Death team would change their minds about teaching me. Delayed email replies became cause for hope.
But the replies came and the freak storms did not and the sun did rise on Saturday morning.
I was completely sure I was going to break my neck.
Brothers Jake and Nathan, the fourth generation of Wall of Death riders in the Messham family, were setting up when I arrived, at Carters Steam Fair in Woking, Surrey.
Into the torture chamber
“How dangerous is this going to be?” I asked Jake.
“The big problem is dizziness. People black out on the wall,” he said.
Looking at their work, I realised there was no need to wonder what degree of hurt to expect. The answer was there, spelt out in gaudy red letters on a massive green sign, like something from a circus-themed Hammer Horror film. It didn’t say ‘Wall of Bruises’. It said ‘Wall of Death’.
At the bottom of the dazzling -orange structure, which was more giant wooden drum than wall, was a small rectangular opening showing gloom inside. “Go in and have a look,” said Jake.
If Vincent Price had invited me into a torture chamber, I’d have been only five per cent less inclined to accept. Inside was the endless wooden wall, a circus-striped canvas roof and chequered floor with 1920s Indian -motorcycles in the middle. There was no doubt I had stepped into a period British horror movie. Deep scores in the wall, descending at steep angles from top to bottom, were the scars of old crashes, like bones of those who’d gone before me.
The bikes’ tyres were all bald on the right-hand edge, where they cling to the wooden panels.
A 45° banking stretched from the floor to about three feet up the wall, which I’ll admit sounds low but at the time seemed fantastically high. Three feet up a wall is not where you are supposed to ride a motorcycle.
Because the planks of the banking weren’t all precisely the same length, it met the wall like crooked lower teeth. The idea of riding on it at all filled me with dread.
Fear takes hold
Looking at the top, where the banking joined the wall, made me break wind -involuntarily with fear.
I heard a noise and turned to see a thickset, no-nonsense blond-haired chap, carrying equipment into the drum. “I’m Steve. Are you Charles?” I said.
“No,” he said. “I’m Nathan. Charles isn’t here today.” I could tell from his quizzical expression he’d detected my flatulence. I said nothing. It was an awkward introduction. Then he left.
The air had barely cleared when he came back with Jake and a third team member, ‘Tornado’ Tyrone, who slammed the door, surrounding me completely with Death Wall. They were going to practise their show.
One after the other, they rode all the way to the top, making it look easy and impossible at the same time. Nathan and Jake brought the front wheel within centimetres of the edge and quickly back.
They rode side-saddle. Jake looked the wrong way. For a finale the three rode together, side-by-side. The noise from the straight-through exhausts was deafening. I almost blacked out with dizziness just watching them.
“Your turn now,” said Jake. Nathan went out and I waited, expecting we’d move the motorcycles parked in the centre of the floor. Then Jake slammed the door again. Apparently the bikes were staying.
I was already beginning to hate that door. Every time it closed, it seemed like a final escape route blocked, along with the sun and hope.
Under their instruction I started by riding a fixed-gear bicycle around the banking. Slowly. Getting on the banking wasn’t a problem. The problem was coming straight off it again, then pogo-ing on and off uncontrollably.
While that was still making me pale with fear, Jake told me to switch to a motorcycle. Not one of the left-hand throttle Indians, thankfully, but a battered Honda CG125 with its brakes disconnected.
I managed to keep the CG on the banking, in second gear as instructed, but my posture was the visual embodiment of fear. I looked like a human claw or a crab riding a bike.
“You’re like this,” said Nathan, hunching his back and bending his arms. “Try to relax. And look up. Look around the wall.”
I straightened my arms but forgot to look further ahead. Then I looked ahead but forgot to stop being a crab. “****! This is terrifying. I hope you’re getting the fear in my eyes,” I said to the photographer.
“We can smell the fear,” he said.
“I can smell something,” said Nathan.
The time came for the bumbling learner to get out so they could do the first of their hourly shows. I couldn’t have been more grateful. Outside, I tried not to notice the whole structure shaking as they performed, or the gasps from the audience.
I wondered what would happen if I quietly left. I wanted time to drag. My only calming thought was that it didn’t seem to make me so dizzy after all - a ludicrously -premature conclusion.
“Right, now you’ve got to go faster,” said Jake after they’d dragged me back inside. “At the moment you’re still nearly vertical. You’ve got to be much closer to horizontal. Grip the tank with your knees because that’s how you steer on the wall. The bike will climb the banking as you get faster. Keep it down by leaning.”
I did as told. “Not fast enough,” he said, so I tried again. “Still not fast enough.”
Eventually he said I was getting closer to the angle and speed needed. Now I felt like a cat in a tumble drier. It’s not entirely accurate to call it dizziness.
It’s not the same sensation that you get spinning around on the spot. It’s more a complete disorientation, the absence of any idea where you are. It’s hypnotic. Once I completely forgot what I was doing and unintentionally put the front wheel on the wall. The bike went vertical and scraped down the banking to the floor.
“It’s like being in a washing-machine,” I said to Nathan.
“I’ve never been in a washing-machine,” he said.
I run over a dog
And then I ran over a dog. Not in a metaphorical or hallucinatory sense. Despite being sealed inside a drum with no dogs in it, I ran over an actual dog’s head. It was the third time in 24 years of motorcycling that I’d run over a dog. As on previous occasions, I’m blaming the animal.
The Messhams had an excitable bull terrier which they’d tied up outside. Earlier, I’d seen it break free and run amok until recaptured. So I knew what had happened when, circling around, I saw the same dog’s head poking through a gap in the banking directly in my path.
“Oh!” I said.
“Oh!” said someone else.
The gap was at the edge of the door, which the stupid dog had wedged open with an important part of its body. I managed to avoid the head but not the door. As I went over it, the poor creature’s skull was trapped with a pressure great enough to pin a 100kg motorcycle and 12-stone rider to a wall.
Luckily, bull terriers’ heads are constructed from the world’s hardest material, most likely a kind of extra-terrestrial rock which arrived on earth as a meteorite. I’m surprised the front wheel didn’t collapse.
The dog made an agonised yelp. By the time I stopped, its head had gone. Since it wasn’t bouncing around the wall detached from its body, I surmised the animal had fled intact.
The door was flung open and the Messhams ran after the dog. They came back, assuring me it was okay, but I must admit I didn’t see it after that.
The episode didn’t help my concentration. I’d been getting faster and better. Now I was slow and sloppy. The sense of disorientation didn’t fade when I stopped. It accumulated. A walk around the fair didn’t help. When I closed my eyes, the world was still spinning.
“The wall is completely different to the banking,” Nathan told me ominously. “There’s nothing like it, no way to describe it.” I couldn’t see how I was ever going to find out what he meant. At 5pm I gave up. I had Sunday to learn too. I would make a fresh attack with a clear head.
Who is trying to kill me?
All evening I felt dread. I couldn’t report back to the office that in two days I’d only got on the banking. There was no way out of what I had to do tomorrow. I considered new career paths.
MCN keeps giving me these challenges. Last time it was jumping a car. I must be their most challenged reporter. Perhaps they were trying to kill me to save a redundancy payout, I thought.
On Sunday I woke at 5am and couldn’t go back to sleep. I got ready slowly. The photographer was waiting outside the locked and deserted Wall of Death in the pouring rain when I -arrived. “Do you think rain could have got inside and made it unrideable?” I asked.
Could I be off the hook? Maybe that was why the Messhams weren’t here yet. It was too wet. It would be the perfect excuse. “I was so disappointed,” I’d tell people. Then I saw Nathan trudging toward us. “Can you still ride in there after rain,” the photographer asked him.
“Oh yes,” he said. As he unlocked and threw back the door, I thought it creaked like gallows.
Next came an agonising wait. We waited for Jake to arrive. We waited for some oil from an ancient bike to be cleaned off the floor. For teas and -coffees to be drunk. For continents to shift.
I am certain that I have never -approached a CG125 with such foreboding as I did when the time finally came. I wanted this over with. Jake had suggested I get back into it slowly but I’d decided I couldn’t go around the banking till I didn’t know up from down again.
I hadn’t warned anyone, but I was now going to ride the Wall of Death. Or try to.
I go vertical, crash, but live
I circled just enough to feel I had the necessary speed. Then I went onto the wall. But I wasn’t going fast enough. The back washed out, the bike went vertical and I crashed to the floor.
I got up, saw the fresh score I’d made in the wall and noted I was still alive. Now I thought I could do it. I went around again, looked at the wall, gave it more gas and went on. Not for long, maybe only one revolution before going back onto the banking.
“There you are, you’ve done it,” said Nathan when I stopped. When I’d first looked at the wall the day before, I’d decided one revolution would be enough. If I could do that and remain in one piece, I’d call it a success and stop.
Although still terrified, now I wanted to go further. So I did it again. And, seeing that I still wasn’t dead, again. Now I could stay on the wall for several circuits.
I took a break. Earlier, I’d been silent and morose. Now I was full of endorphins and couldn’t stop yapping.
Back on the wall for another go, I found I could get about a third of the way up. For once Jake said I should slow down, not speed up. I realised I’d stopped thinking about it as a wall and started to look at it just as something I had to ride on. But I was also getting dizzy.
After a few circuits I’d get that strange feeling again, like my mind was wandering off somewhere at the worst possible moment. I had to come down before it got worse. Perhaps this was the sensation that came before blackouts.
Jake and Nathan wanted me to carry on and get higher up the wall but I -decided to give up while ahead.
The dizziness wouldn’t go away. Actually, it might have been the dizziness that I was beginning to enjoy. It didn’t seem like a Wall of Death any more but a petrifying fairground ride. Which, as far as I can tell, is exactly how the professionals see it. Apart from the ‘petrifying’ part. That’s just me. That and the farting.