There was only one way Si King was going to react to the worst headache he’d ever had. “I thought Christ this is bad,” he says. “So I went for a pint with Dave.”
The 47-year-old TV chef is talking about his closest friend and fellow Hairy Biker, Dave Myers. Myers was staying at King’s cottage in the North East, when King first felt unwell in March 2014. The two were taking a rest from a book tour and also planning what they hoped would be their best series yet – a tour round the Baltic on their bikes, taking in the cuisine and people of the region from the Arctic Circle to St Petersburg.
For once the pint didn’t help. “The next day I was even worse,” says King. Although he was worried, Myers left after being reassured by King that he’d shake the “bizarre” headache off. “Then all hell broke loose in my head. I was about to go back to bed, but the pain was so bad I knew I was in real trouble. I put myself in a taxi to the hospital.”
If he’d crawled under the duvet he would have died. King had suffered an aneurysm in a blood vessel in his brain, leading to a subarachnoid haemorrhage – a bleed that left untreated could have crippled him or worse. According to NHS figures, the condition kills three out five people within two weeks and 50 per cent of survivors suffer severe brain damage and disability. King has beaten fearful odds to come through relatively unscathed.
“There’s nothing more devastating then death is there, really?” He reflects. “Except, perhaps, being trapped in your own body. I don’t think I could have coped with that.”
Doctors at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary saved King’s life but initially he was almost totally incapacitated. “There were very dark moments,” he reveals of his recuperation. “After a brain haemorrhage your body just doesn’t work properly and if you exert yourself it leaves you with enormous levels of fatigue. I knew I would always have Dave’s friendship but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do the Bikers again, that I would ever go out on the road with him again.”
That fear drove King’s determination to recover. Only a month after he got out of hospital, and before he could walk properly again, King sat on his bike. “Riding a bike is part of who I am,” he says. “The thought of not being able to do that again was a big thing for me, so I had to know if I could still do it. I wasn’t supposed to, but I got on the motorcycle. I thought my balance might be a bit off but I was actually better on the bike then I was walking.”
King’s only half-joking. He looks fine now but he has had to work hard to get better. He’s not up to running yet but does pilates and yoga, “stretching out and then working on cardiovascular stuff or boxing.” Often he’s happy to listen to old rock records – “Acadian Driftwood by The Band today”— and potter around his house.
“It’s been slow,” he admits. “When you have something like that come into your life, it’s a big hit. I surprised myself because normally I react emotionally to things but this wasn’t an epiphany or anything like that. I didn’t wake up one day saying: right, I’m changing everything now. With me it’s been a steady burn. The implications of what happened are slowly dawning on me on a daily basis. You have to process it and that’s taken me a while. It’s only now that I’m getting to the point where I’m going: God, I really do need to look after myself properly.”
Si King and Dave Myers with handmade Polish sausages in episode one of The Hairy Bikers’ Northern Exposure
Part of that is watching his weight. King and Myers are large men and they shed much fat in 2012 for their series Hairy Dieters. King went from 19 to 15 ½ stones but some of that weight has come back. “About a stone and a half,” he says. As he initially recovered King wasn’t well enough to cook or do much else but he could still eat.
“That was the problem,” he says. “You can only fight one battle at a time and my comfort was food, as it has been throughout my life I suppose. But this time I gave myself an exception and an excuse, which was I had to get myself well again. In retrospect I wish I hadn’t but, to be honest, I’m very pleased to have walked away from an aneurysm with very few deficits.”
A year after the two friends got together to plan their Baltic trip, they finally made it this summer. King admits it was an emotional moment.
“When our bikes were first on the road over there and I saw Dave on his and thought: Shit, we’ve got there – we’re doing it. It was a joyous for me and I hope it was for him. We just looked at each other and smiled. We didn’t have to say anything, it was: get in! We’re back. We’re back and thank God.”
The Hairy Bikers’ Northern Exposure begins at 8.00pm on Tuesday 1st September on BBC2