18 April 2014 by Julie Dexter
"My eyes are empty bottles floating in the sea. . .
Above us is the sky; below us, all around.
I can’t remember colours though my guide tells me it’s green."
On the last Sunday in March, 34 blind, partially sighted and sighted Ramblers stepped off the train at Hertford East station to go on a circular walk.
Blind Ramblers rely on sighted guides to help them when out walking. The Blind Rambling Club is run by Valerie Davies and her blind husband, David who is the coordinator. Together they arrange partnerships with local Ramblers’ groups.
Each week a different Rambling group may volunteer to act as guides. Today’s volunteers are members of the Capital Walkers who are part of the Inner London Ramblers.
The main task of a guide is to advise companions of approaching obstacles – things like overhanging branches, undulating ground and approaching stiles. Perhaps, too, to point out the features of the surroundings, such as colours, shapes and textures.
Today’s walk is a five mile circular walk along the Lee Navigation to Ware town centre, where we plan to have lunch. My walking partner for the day is Mafoud. Mafoud had full sight, until 2010 when his retina detached and he went blind. He said it has been a big challenge to get out and about, and he often wakes up extra early in the morning to map out routes before the rush hour.
With my arm firmly linked to Mafoud’s we set off on to the tow path south-westwards to reach the banks of the River Beane until we come to a weir. The sound of the weir captures everyone’s attention, but the blind among us are able to quote almost exactly the shape and size of the weir.
Crossing a footbridge we enter Lea Island, which eventually leads us on to the Lee Navigation. Farther upstream this changes its name to become the River Lea. But here the lock is a fully operational navigation system to allow river traffic to ply between Hertford and London.
The sun shines brilliantly and we cannot wish for a better day. We walk on and enter the open space of King’s Mead Nature Reserve, a grazed riverside flood meadow and a tranquil wildlife haven. Cabbage white butterflies bob happily by as we traverse the soft grass and clumps of drier, wild reeds.
We continue on eastwards, successfully tackling kissing gates until we arrive at a railway line with a pedestrian crossing.
Although I see quite clearly, Mafoud has developed a really strong sense of smell and hearing. Two or three minutes before I catch a sense of the sound of an approaching train, Mafoud has already informed me that there is indeed one on its way!
Safely over the two stiles and across the railway line we continue on until we came to the New River itself. As we pause for a drink of water, Linda, another member of the London Blind Rambling club tells us how she listens out for the sounds and smells of the area – the noise of cattle or the distinctive woodland sounds.
Linda has a guide dog, Cara, but today Cara is able to enjoy a free run. It is wonderful to see and hear the dogs taking a dip in the New River, their tongues dangling sideways out of their mouths and then to feel them shaking their wet bodies against us.
As we continue our walk it becomes evident that Mafoud is something of a poet and requires some help to complete a line of a poem he’s just started.
"My eyes are empty bottles floating in the sea..."
Mafoud enjoys a very active lifestyle, takes part in pottery, supper clubs, yoga, gym, music as well as being a keen walker. He can write and read Braille and will, he says, perhaps write his poetry down once he gets home.
There is a feeling of camaraderie, and much banter passes back and forth as we approach the White House Sluice, a 400-year-old aqueduct built to provide drinking water to London. It reaches as far as Stoke Newington, 24 miles away.
Soon we are at Ware and a good selection of pubs line the tow path. Mafoud and a few friends choose the Saracen’s Head. We sit outside to enjoy our sandwiches and salads as the weather is so good.
Mafoud tells me that guides are essential to the blind to be able to get out walking and to discover new areas. “Especially if we’re visiting a pub,” Mafoud tells me, “as I’ll need to go to the toilet.” I lead him to the door and Mafoud is an expert at feeling his way around, once inside.
It’s not long before we are all back on the tow path recapturing our steps, past the Broadmead Pumping station, once again over the Lee Navigation and back towards the River Beane and Hertford East station.
For a county that is land-locked I've been amazed by how much there is to see. Or as, Mafoud commented: “how much there is to smell and hear.”
For a first time volunteer as a blind guide, I can safely say it was both enjoyable and rewarding and I will definitely do again.
Julie Dexter is writing her first novel. She aims to walk every weekend. You can follow her on twitter @JulieADexter. David and Valerie arrange the London Blind Rambling Club programmes with local Ramblers' groups. The walks vary from around six to ten miles and Valerie and David say that they are always on the lookout for new guides. If you fancy guiding with them email Valerie.
If you want to try this walk out for yourself, please download the route.