Cambers, inclines and slopes, oh my!
13th January 2023
The day I discovered how accessibility-challenged the Trail could be…
by Peter Morris, North Downs Way National Trail Manager
Last month, I arranged to meet Gini Mitchell, one of our North Downs Way Ambassadors to try to scope out a new disabled access route to the new art installation “Coppice Oratory” on the North Downs Way National Trail in Kings Wood, Chilham.
Gini has a disability which restricts her mobility. Motivated by the challenges she faces accessing the countryside, Gini founded Wild with Wheels, leading accessible nature walk experiences for adults and children with disabilities and impairments. Here at the Kent Downs AONB, we are really keen to make the North Downs Way National Trail more accessible and I thought I’d chosen a reasonably accessible location for the new art installation…
Coppice Oratory ©Tchonova + la Roi
In reality, the day was a real experience for me and a steep learning curve of what I perceive to be accessible for users of wheeled mobility equipment. Lets start with the car park. When I arrived Gini had already done a brief assessment of the parking area. To my eyes it seemed perfectly acceptable and fairly typical of most small car parks you find on the edge of woodland, picnic areas and nature reserves. The space was quite tight so vehicles were parked quite close to each other. This made getting in and out of vehicles a bit tricky, particularly for anyone with mobility restrictions. Factor in trying to get your mobility scooter or wheelchair out of the boot and set it up, and you begin to understand how inaccessible lots of our countryside is for people with mobility issues.
We had identified a theoretical loop of approximately 4 miles around the site where the sculpture is to be installed. The wide, and largely well surfaced forestry tracks within Kings Wood make getting into the woodland relatively straight forward. Given the time of year and the recent heavy rain there were puddles and mud but nothing Gini couldn’t handle on her scooter.
It’s important to consider “the kit” when we talk about accessibility. The scooter Gini used she described as a hybrid – a multi part model somewhere between a shopping scooter and an all-terrain tramper. From the boot of an estate vehicle the scooter is winched out using a specially adapted electric hoist. Gini explained that she has another more robust scooter that is designed to cope with rougher terrain, but it’s so big you’d need a van to transport it, along with a suitable and safe location to park, with enough space to take the scooter out using a ramp.
Suddenly, I realised that just getting to the countryside with a suitable scooter is both a financial and physical challenge. Onwards….
In order to navigate around a man made barrier at the end of what would otherwise be an easy access trail, we found a smaller path off the main route which the map suggested would loop around onto the North Downs Way near the sculpture. We ventured up it. It quickly became evident that there were many more challenges for Gini ahead. Cambers, inclines and slopes were navigated with skill, but as Gini was quick to point out, she is an experienced user and can pick out the best route for her. For less capable or experienced visitors, this would be too daunting.
As we continued further into the woods, the mud became thicker. Often the wheels would dig in and Gini became stuck. Then, the autumn leaves and fallen twigs began to accumulate underneath the chassis of the scooter and need manually removing, or skilful reversing to free the obstructions. Fortunately, Gini has some mobility and is able to stand up and guide the scooter without the weight of a human on it, again others would not be in the same position and could be stranded in this situation.
The further we progressed, the more challenges we encountered; including a fallen tree to navigate around. Plus, the battery on the scooter drained quickly due to the additional exertion. Frequent breaks were required to allow it to recharge (Gini was understandably very keen not to run out of power so far from the car!). Flints, rocks, slippery chalk, mud and leaves all present significant hazards, and whilst I could easily pass over or around them, the scooter could not. These natural obstacles also present a challenge to those who have visual limitations, as well as those who need to use mobility aids to keep their balance or struggle with walking over uneven surfaces.
As we walked and talked Gini explained more about the challenges of finding disabled accessible rural routes. The lack of disabled toilets, proximity to food and drink, and having to carry snacks and water onboard whilst continually battling the conditions on the ground makes this kind of route very tough.
Eventually we made our way onto the North Downs Way National Trail where the path was much wider, flatter and better maintained, but just getting to the trail had taken us over an hour to travel just a mile. We finally got to the installation site and back to the car having identified a viable route. Gini felt our 4 mile loop would be classified as a tough route which would require suitable motorised mobility equipment with an experienced user. Even then, there could be sections at certain times of the year where a bit of pushing and further assistance would be required by a strong and competent companion.
All of this was a real eye opener for me, and made me realise how much I take for granted. I arrived, parked up, strapped on my hiking boots and was off….for people with physical mobility limitations just getting there in a wheelchair accessible vehicle is a challenge in itself.
I look forward to receiving the route write up from Gini and a list of recommended accessibility works so we can better understand how we can make the trail and landscape more accessible to a wider variety of people with physical and sensory challenges.
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