Passionate about all aspects of life outdoors, Debbie North is keen to share her love of the British countryside with everybody. Her research and filming of wheel-friendly family walks can be followed online at The Outdoor Guide through her videos and on foot with the digital mapping expertise of our partner OS Maps. With the expression ‘Permitted Exercise’ on everybody’s lips as individuals, couples and families rediscover walking locally, we asked her about her experiences.
What is it you love about being outdoors?
I love the freedom, the fresh air and to be able to feel the elements on my face. Back in the day, being on a Yorkshire hillside or a Cumbrian mountain was a great escape from the pressures of everyday urban life – work and domestic. All that’s still true – minus the urban as I live rural now and have done since 2007 – but there’s a different element there. When I had to stop walking because of spinal degeneration, it broke my heart.
I honestly thought I’d only see the hills and mountains from the safety of a car park or through the passenger window. Obviously, things have changed and I can get out there so each and every time I’m in the great outdoors, it’s a timely reminder to appreciate and savour everything about it… the sights, the sounds, the smells… and yes, even the weather. Every time I do a ‘walk’ now, there’s always that appreciation.
Do you have an all-time favourite walk?
It has to be Alfred Wainwright’s Coast to Coast. I’ve done it three time now. The first time I walked it was back in 1999 and again, four years later in 2003 – Andy proposed to me in Robin Hood’s Bay after this one. I was determined to tackle the challenge again but it didn’t seem likely. However, with advice and support from TOG co-founder Gina Bradbury Fox, I acquired a TerrainHopper all-terrain mobility scooter. Then we ‘walked’ it again in 2015 using the TerrainHopper. Well, we walked ‘coast to coast’ as Wainwright’s original route isn’t accessible. Yet. It led to my joining the TOG team to run AccessTOG.
Where were you exploring outdoors before lockdown?
I’ve been exploring more in the northern Yorkshire Dales and around Cumbria where the county boundaries meet. I’m in the great position of living in Cumbria with the Yorkshire Dales literally on the other side of the road from where I live. If I had to throw names into the melting pot of exploring, then Mallerstang, Swaledale and Birkdale would be key ingredients.
What do you look for in a wheel-friendly family walk?
The basis of a wheel-friendly walk is based around bridleways. In theory, the track will be wide-enough for any legal wheelchair and also the gates should offer trouble-free passage. Then we look at aspects such as gradient and camber along with features such as fords, rivers and boundaries. In that sense, it’s very similar to planning any walk out – just a variation or two in places.
For family-friendly, we’d take those planning elements and transpose them into something more ‘user-friendly’ in terms of height gained, terrain crossed and distance travelled. Places of interest also figure in the planning, especially if it’s a circular day’s walk. If I’m following my own passion of multi-day linear walks then there’s a need to be more flexible.
I explore different lengths and types of walks – from push do-able – for example, ideal for the Mountain Trike which has the assisted handle bar for help from a companion, to canal path walks – perfect for the zippy Davinci Trail Rider, and then more rugged walks for which I use the TerrainHopper. All the walks though have one common thread… they are all stile-free.
Are there common footpath problems for young families, wheelchair-users and dog owners?
Stiles are the biggest problem, I’d say. They in essence ‘wipe out’ all possibilities for us using public footpaths. You don’t want to travel five miles to discover the boundary you thought might have a large gate is, in fact, a stile. Landowners can be an issue too where some feel they have the right to padlock shut gates on public rights of way – we’ve come across this on more than one occasion. Then, I suppose, coupled with that is Andy’s favourite… cows.
What do think people mean by ‘accessible’?
I think there are still some people who interpret the word accessible to mean ‘restricted to people with disabilities only.’ So sad, and so ignorant. I’ve heard horror stories from hotel providers who have told me that they have had guests who have asked to swap rooms because the room that they had been allocated was a ‘disabled’ room. Unbelievable.
Who would complain about lots more floor space and an extra-large bathroom? There are people out there that think a wheelchair accessible walk is only for wheelchair users… it makes me laugh! There is still a lot of work to be done to educate some people.
What does ‘accessible’ mean to you?
Crikey! That question’s like…how long is a piece of string?! When I first started ‘accessthedales’ back in 2011, before I joined the TOG family, and the opportunity to develop AccessTOG, I was very focussed on wheelchair walks. Having experienced what the TerrainHopper could do, I was very focussed on getting higher into the mountains and travelling further on long distance adventures.
However, though this is still my passion, I am much more aware of the need for stile-free routes not just for wheelchair users but for a wide range of people who want to get out into the countryside. Cumbria, for instance has an older population of people living here, and the shorter, flatter routes that I develop and promote are welcomed by this community, as they know that they won’t have any stiles to climb.
Parents with children in buggies can follow the stile-free walks. I know a family who look for the accessible routes as they carry their little one in a baby carrier and say how difficult it is to negotiate a stile safely with a child strapped to your back. I’m surprised by how many dog owners use our ‘wheel-friendly’ walks because their dogs struggle with stiles too.
I’m a member of the Local Access Forum (LAF) for the Yorkshire Dales National Park and I represent the ‘Access For All’ committee. In the time that I have been with the LAF, there has been a significant shift in the way that I am valued as a member. At one time, I was seen as the ‘woman in the wheelchair’ but now I’m respected as a champion of inclusion and diversity. This is reflected by the number of wheel-friendly/stile-free walks on TOG that we have in Yorkshire.
These walks are for everyone. I believe that walks with stiles are the restrictive walks and only suitable to those who can throw their leg over a wooden step!
What would you like to see happening in the development of a countryside for all?
I would love to have my own series on TV that was all about promoting the stunningly beautiful stile-free family walks that we have on The Outdoor Guide. The focus would not be about my wheelchair, but on the fact that the walks can be enjoyed by anybody and everybody. Being an Ordnance Survey Champion has given me another platform to shout about the importance of developing and promoting stile free family walks.
In normal times, millions of people walk for leisure and travel in Britain today. Ramblers, the national organisation representing walkers, has useful info and advice on rights of way in the countryside and the varying situation regarding access law in England, Wales and Scotland.