North-East teacher Vanessa Hilton has to spend her life lying down due to a rare condition, but she's been given a new lease of life since an appeal for help three months ago. PETER BARRON reports

IT’S fair to say that Vanessa Hilton is in a much better position than the last time we met.

She’s whizzing down a wooded country lane, saying hello to dog-walkers, and enjoying the feel of the wind in her face.

“I just love being out in the fresh air and having that sense of freedom,” she says as we arrive at the gate to the Darlington allotment she tends with husband, Paul.

“Look, there’s a robin on the pear tree,” she adds, excited that spring’s just around the corner, and she’s been able to reach the tranquility of the allotment under her own steam.

It may not seem like a big deal for those of us who take the joy of venturing outside for granted but, for Vanessa, it means the world.

Our previous meeting, in the first week of December, was in the lounge of her home in Hummersknott Avenue, with Vanessa lying flat on her settee. Indeed, lying down has been a way of life for the 41-year-old since she was suddenly struck by a rare condition 12 years ago.

A diagnosis of intracranial hypotension means that being upright for more than a few minutes makes Vanessa ill, so she has no choice but to spend 99 per cent of the time lying flat.

Vanessa’s life was turned upside down in an instant while she was planning lessons as a science teacher, at Branksome Comprehensive School, in January, 2010.

Thinking it was just a bad headache that would go away, she went home, and got into bed, but was in so much pain the next day that she couldn’t get up.

After a week in Darlington Memorial Hospital, followed by scans at The James Cook University Hospital, she was given the diagnosis.

It meant that her spinal fluid was leaking, and she is now a ‘guinea pig’ for the condition, with doctors at the Royal Stoke University Hospital trying – so far in vain – to come up with an answer.

In an attempt to lead as independent a life as possible, a fundraising appeal was launched to buy Vanessa a custom-made recumbent tricycle, costing £7,608, to enable her to get out and about while staying as horizontal as possible.

Darlington Lions Club kicked things off with £500, with another early contribution of £400 coming from the Arctic One Foundation.

After the appeal was publicised in The Northern Echo, The Guardian followed up the story, and Vanessa describes the response as “humbling”.

“People have been so generous and I can’t thank them enough,” she adds.

“I had one donation of £1,000 from someone I didn’t even know. They left a message saying they’d just had an ISA come to maturity when they’d read the article, so they wanted to help.

“When you think that we’re living in such difficult economic times, with rising energy bills, it’s amazing how kind people are. Every single donation – no matter how large or small – is greatly appreciated.”

As a result of that kindness, the shiny, green tricycle has now been collected from Saddle Safari specialist bike shop in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, and Vanessa has had a week to build up her confidence on the roads and paths around her home.

So far, she’s restricted her rides to daily visits to the nearby Hummersknott Gardeners Association allotments, where she and Paul love to grow a range of crops, including rhubarb, gooseberries, garlic, kale, sprouts, cabbages and sweetcorn.

Paul does the heavy lifting and has put in paths between the beds, so that Vanessa can lie down on a cushioned mat to do her fair share of the planting and harvesting.

“It’s so nice to be able to get to the allotment on my own without anyone having to take me – it’s already transformed my life,” she says.

Once she’s developed her stamina, she’s looking forward to riding further afield. A visit to her friend Emma’s house, on the other side of town, is next on the schedule, along with trips to the local shops.

And she insists it won’t be too long before she’ll be pedalling the nine miles or so to Gainford, where she likes to indulge in her passion for wild swimming in the peaceful River Tees.

Swimming’s an ideal activity because she can do it in a horizontal position, and being in the river keeps her close to nature.

That said, she’s also a regular in the Dolphin Centre pool, in Darlington town centre, although it’s temporarily closed for refurbishment. In the meantime, she’s been using the pool at Newton Aycliffe Leisure Centre.

Either Paul, or Emmie – a personal assistant provided by Darlington Borough Council – do the driving, with Vanessa lying flat on the rolled-down passenger seat.

“I did 30 lengths this morning but I can’t wait to be able to ride out to Gainford and get back in the river. That will be such a great feeling,” she smiles.

In the meantime, it’s the little things in life that mean so much to her.

“We had some friends staying with us at the weekend, and it was great fun being able to have a race with their children while they ran alongside me,” she explains.

“There’s a speedometer fitted on the tricycle, and they loved the fact that I was able to tell them we were going 15 miles an hour!” she laughs.

As well as the financial donations that have come in, Vanessa has also had lots of messages from people thanking her for raising awareness of intracranial hypotension.

“So little’s known about the condition, it’s good to be able to get the word out and, hopefully, help others to have a better understanding of what it means.”

In my book, Vanessa’s an inspiration – a shining example of tackling adversity head-on, and making the most of life.

Her jobs at the allotment have been completed for the day, and she’s tired after her 30 lengths at the pool.

It’s time to pedal home for a rest on the settee, but she’s already looking forward to riding back tomorrow.

“There have been some hard days but it feels like every day’s my birthday at the moment!” she says as she checks her wing mirror and picks up speed.