Rambles on wheels

By Debbie North, the Cabinet Office disability and access ambassador for the countryside.

I have been an avid campaigner for access for all since ill health prevented me from walking in the hills, mountains and fells. Twelve years later, I am still knocking on the doors of people who can make change happen.

My love of walking was set alight when I met my husband-to-be many moons ago. Living in Bradford, we had the Yorkshire Dales on our doorstep. The Lake District and North York Moors also became our playground and we spent most of our free time rambling in open countryside. It was a way of relieving the stresses of everyday living and a special time we shared together.

In the early days of my being a wheelchair user, Andy and I would drive into the Dales, and I would sit in the car park, watching other hikers don their boots and head off for a day in the hills. I can honestly say the black dog of depression was nipping at my heels. Andy stopped walking, too, as he said it wasn't the same without a partner.

I then found out that the Yorkshire Dales National Park had a series of routes called Miles without Stiles (yorkshiredales.org. uk/miles-without-stiles), suitable for different types of wheelchairs. Some were less than 1km/½ mile long and suitable for a manual wheelchair user. Others were around 3-8km/2-5 miles, more suited to all-terrain and assisted wheelchairs. I was curious to find out what other National Parks offered in the way of access for all.


Choosing the right chair

Around this time, I started researching all-terrain wheelchairs. I'd never heard of them before and certainly they weren't a topic of discussion during my months of physiotherapy or the occupational therapy support I received. I discovered the definition of ‘all-terrain' is rather vague. Some manufacturers promote their chairs as 'all-terrain' when in fact they struggle with mud, snow, sand and gravel. There's also a bewildering choice of self-propelled, motorised and attendant wheelchairs.

Once I'd chosen my TerrainHopper, a 4x4 all-terrain wheelchair, there was no stopping us. Andy and I were back in the mountains once again. Our thirst for adventure returned and we were soon climbing higher, travelling further and exploring what was possible.

hebden bridge

Improving accessibility

Seventy years after the Act of Parliament that created the first National Parks, a major review in 2019, led by journalist Julian Glover, called for bold action to 'reignite the founding spirit' of the National Park movement. The Landscapes Review had 'big ambitions' to make our National Parks and AONBs 'happier, healthier, greener, more beautiful and open to everyone'. It stressed the need for improved accessibility for visitors with disabilities. This was music to my ears as it's something I have been shouting about since 2011.

Glover wrote of 'the huge appetite those faced with physical disabilities have for getting out into nature'. He called for a 'network of accessible, hard-surface, stile-free paths that are disabled- and wheelchair-friendly', as well as for gates with RADAR keys to be deployed and all-terrain wheelchairs provided'.

A few ignorant people took this comment about hard surfaces to mean tarmacked paths throughout our wild landscapes. One Twitter user reportedly suggested there would be a road to the top of Scafell Pike in the Lake District for 'them disabled folk'. Another apparently asked: 'When is the Stannah stairlift being installed on Helvellyn?'

Most disabled people accept that not all areas of the countryside can be made fully accessible. I have spoken to many people with disabilities and not one wants a National Park that has tarmacked all its paths and bridleways. However, disabled people do have a reasonable expectation that man-made barriers in the countryside, such as stiles and kissing gates, are replaced, where possible, with easy-opening gates.

Another concern from the disabled community regarding access to the countryside is a lack of information regarding stile-free walks. People want enough detail about a walk (yes, disabled people do refer to going out in a wheelchair as a 'walk') to make an informed decision about whether the terrain will be suitable for their wheelchair and their abilities. We need to know about path surfaces and gradients, the width of bridges, the height of gate latches, the type of cattle grids and whether there are accessible toilets and parking.


Breaking down barriers

I set up Access the Dales (www.access-the-dales.com) in April 2022 as a legacy for my husband, Andy, who passed away last year. We break down barriers that prevent people with limited mobility enjoying the Yorkshire Dales by making all-terrain mobility vehicles available to borrow. Our first wheelchair hub is at Ravenseat Farm, in Upper Swaledale, home of Amanda Owen, aka the Yorkshire Shepherdess. This specifically caters for children with mobility disabilities and is proving very popular. It's a joy to see the happiness and pleasure that being able to access the countryside brings to the whole family. As part of our launch, we held the first ever Accessible Walking Festival in the Yorkshire Dales. We were blown away to have 200 people join us over the eight-day event – proof that there is a want and need for inclusive walking.

hebden bridge

Rolling onward

The tide is slowly turning as more people become aware of the need to consider disabled access to the countryside. As well as being a Ramblers Ambassador, I'm working with organisations such as Ordnance Survey, to provide better information about stile-free trails, and the Youth Hostels Association, to introduce accessible routes into walking festivals. We must continue to promote, campaign for and share information about accessible walks so that I eventually can say: 'A countryside for everyone? Oh yes, it is!'

(Photos created in partnership with Natural England and the Ramblers.)

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