Making the Inaccessible Accessible

Debbie North has blogged about her work as the founder of accessthedales – an organisation committed to creating a countryside for all through the development of wheel-friendly treks for people with poor or no mobility. Debbie discusses some of the challenges she faces.

In 2011 I took early retirement on grounds of ill-health. I had serious spinal degeneration.  It meant I couldn’t go hillwalking anymore. That’s when I founded accessthedales. I figured if I wanted to be out there in the wilds, there must be other people who wanted to be as well. To cut the story short, I got out there - and continue to do so. But there are challenges you’ll have to face when it comes to accessing the countryside.

Image: Debbie, Accessthedales

Public rights of way - when we’re planning to venture into the National Parks we currently look on the maps for bridleways and Other Routes with Public Access. The fact is a ‘footpath’ usually has stiles and gates that are too narrow for an all-terrain wheelchair (ATW). In turn, this sends wheelchair users onto country lanes and fell roads where not all drivers stick strictly to the Highway Code (the B6255 at Ribblehead, for example!)

Bridleways - experience shows us that just because it’s a bridleway on the map doesn’t mean it automatically translates into ‘accessible’. Some bridleways are too narrow for an ATW; or too steep; or too rocky. Some bridleways run through fords that are too deep to cross. Others come to footbridges that are too narrow. By the way, steep, rocky and rugged are just the way it should be. The last thing we’d want to see is a sanitised path crossing the fells.

Having the right all-terrain wheelchair - the kind of adventures we generally take on are ones are long, high and rough. That’s why your choice of ATW is important. Don’t simply think you can get in any ATW and go hurtling into the countryside without some thought. Think of an ATW as your choice of footwear. You make sure your footwear suits the challenge you're going to take on.

Linear or circular treks - we rarely do circular treks. Anecdotally we’d say it’s because the network of bridleways doesn’t support that ambition. Add footpaths into the equation and the situation changes in a heartbeat (see point above about footpaths!)

Accommodation and pubs - we’ve found this to be a real issue across the National Parks we work in. We love long-distance trekking but finding suitable accessible accommodation has generally been difficult. When we journeyed coast to coast in 2015, a trip of fourteen days saw us staying in just two places for nine days. If we just planned routes where we can get suitable accommodation, we’d be very limited. Throw into the mix pubs/cafes for getting something to eat and drink (‘No, that six-inch step is not wheelchair accessible.’) and life just gets that bit more complicated.

Communication - first and foremost, we have to say that each National Park we have spoken to has been helpful. Much of our time has been spent in the Yorkshire Dales and we have built up a great working relationship with National Park Authority. The work they have done is amazing. Remember there are people there to help you.

Transport - the size of the ATW we use means we don’t use public transport around the National Parks when we’re ‘going large’. That said, not all accessible adventures have to be long, high and rough. There are places in the National Parks that are more than worth visiting along the bus and rail networks e.g. Settle and Hawes. This is when buses and trains come to the fore. And it’s vital that these services are not just protected, but enhanced.  

Image: Debbie, Accessthedales

I now work with ‘The Outdoor Guide with Julia Bradbury’ and am on the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority Local Access Forum. In August 2016 our first book, ‘In the Spirit of Wainwright’ was published and our second book, ‘Coast to Coast to Coast’ is due in 2017. We’re all determined to make sure ‘accessibility’ is woven into the fabric of the countryside and isn’t just something on a checklist that can be ticked off. Making the inaccessible accessible - it’s what we do.

Some useful websites:

www.lakedistrict.gov.uk/visiting/thingstodo/walking/mileswithoutstiles

www.yorkshiredales.org.uk/visit-the-dales/get-outdoors-dales/walking/miles-without-stiles

www.theoutdoorguide.co.uk/walks/wheelchair-friendly-walks

Please note, the opinions expressed in all our blogs are of the author, and not endorsed by Campaign for National Parks. We are hosting blogs on a variety of subjects to provoke thought and discussion about National Parks.