Perhaps because most of us live in towns and cities, the appeal of the great outdoors has never been greater, but just how accessible is the British countryside? Paul F Cockburn finds out…
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
So said John Muir, the Scottish-born American naturalist and conservationist, who died almost a century ago. A pioneer of national parks, Muir was a champion of ‘wild places’, and since 1983 he’s been the inspiration for the John Muir Trust, one of the UK’s largest conservation charities.
In May this year, Muir was quoted by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Greaves, during a Lords debate on the importance and value of ‘outdoor activities’. These he defined as, “Experiencing not just physical activities, but landscapes, nature and open, wild places.” (Hansard: 16 May 2013: Column 546.) He also pointed out how, according to research compiled by the John Muir Trust and the University of Glasgow, access to such activities was still heavily biased towards “More prosperous people”.
Given the demonstrable economic and health arguments in favour of countryside pursuits, it seems obvious that more should be done, particularly to encourage disabled people to enjoy the great outdoors. When the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust opened its Skylarks Nature Reserve back in 1982, the former commercial gravel pit turned natural wetlands was the first facility of its kind deliberately designed to be as fully accessible as possible, thanks to its wheelchair-friendly paths and viewing platforms.
While such pockets of nature are certainly to be treasured – especially when so close to major urban areas and reclaimed from former industrial use – what about the rest of the British Isles? The lure of experiencing the countryside remains strong in many of us, but the accessibility of these areas remains an issue. Thankfully, however, this is increasingly being recognised and addressed by a number of organisations and agencies charged with protecting and preserving these ‘untouched’ parts of the British Isles.
The Forestry Commission
Among the biggest of these is the Forestry Commission. While its chief focus might be on the management and exploitation of its millions of trees, it has also long recognised the leisure and recreation potential inherent in its forests that span length and breadth of mainland Britain. As a service provider the Forestry Commission is obviously covered by UK disability legislation, and has therefore spent much of the past decade assessing and implementing improved access for all of its visitors.
Kevin Lafferty is Access, Health & Recreation Advisor for Forestry Commission Scotland. “We’ve been looking at improving access to the national forestry estate for a number of years now,” he explains. “The focus has been to improve accessibility for as wide a range of users as possible. A number of years back, in collaboration with the Fieldfare Trust, we took a ‘snapshot’ of our accessibility and then made some key recommendations for developing a national network of easy-access paths and trails for people with a range of disabilities.”
This involved the Commission looking at infrastructure issues – such as improving paths, adding disabled parking bays, and improving toilet facilities – and also at ensuring that onsite staff and forestry teams have appropriate disability awareness training.
“We’ve also looked at how we can improve information, both onsite and off-site,” Lafferty adds. “With the Fieldfare Trust we’ve created photo-trails that provide really good information [about a location], so that people can make informed decisions and choices about which sites are suitable for themselves and where they would get the best visitor experience.”
While accepting that further work still has to be done to some parts of the forestry estate, Lafferty insists that improved access for disabled people is now built into the core of what they do – one example being David Marshall Lodge in Aberfoyle, where a new path has enabled visitors with mobility impairments to reach a nearby waterfall from the visitor centre.
Out and about in Wales
While the Forestry Commission continues to operate as it always has in England and Scotland, since April this year the duties and responsibilities of Forestry Commission Wales have been taken on by a newly established body – Natural Resources Wales (NRW). A NRW spokesperson told us that, “Our woodland paths and trails are designed using the BT Countryside for All guidelines. We also require grant recipients to adhere to these guidelines when developing or upgrading paths and trails. NRW strives to provide the least restrictive access to its own managed land, and encourages other land managers to do the same. NRW has worked with the Fieldfare Trust, who also carried out our 2011 audit of our visitor centres.”
As well as ensuring good quality paths, clear signage and ‘wheelchair friendly’ tables, some NRW facilities now also cater for visitors with visual impairments. “Coed y Brenin [a forest park forming part of Snowdonia National Park] has the Afon Eden, Tyn y Groes and Glasdir trails, with free to download MP3 audio trails,” the spokesperson added. “They’re also available at Dinas Rock [located in the Brecon Beacons], Bwich Nant yr Arian [Aberystwyth] and many other sites of interest.
“Our Coed y Brenin Forest Park offers adaptive mountain bikes for hire on site and the opportunity to use these on the exciting and innovative Minotour mountain bike trail. Afan Forest Park [near Port Talbot] also has its Rookie mountain bike trail, which is fully accessible for adaptive mountain bikes.”
Taking the initiative
Both the Forestry Commission and NRW have worked with the Fieldfare Trust, a national charity that works with – not for – disabled people, to promote disabled access to the countryside and environment education. Among those people is Bob Bennett, a wheelchair user with ‘an active zest for the outdoors’ who, upon realising that many people were still facing problems getting about the countryside, identified a need for properly researched access guides to various routes in and around Perthshire, Scotland.
Thanks to access audit training from the Trust and funding from an award bestowed by the Millennium Commission, Bennett was able to extensively research, audit and assess several popular tracks and walkways in Crieff, Perth, Dunkeld and Pitlochry, and subsequently produce a series of easy-to-read leaflets.
In places, his matter-of-fact honesty is startling. Regarding the Craigvinean Forest Walk near the town of Dunkeld, he writes, “I wouldn’t recommend any wheelchair user to embark on this walk on their own.” Conversely, the Dunmore Forest Walk near Pitlochry includes, “Quiet and very lovely places in which to sit and observe the wildlife and drink in the scenery.”
Given that the UK Government is attempting to increase levels of outdoor physical activity through investment in a range of initiatives, while at the same time building on the ‘economic potential’ of rural trails, it is surely only right that further such access initiatives should be encouraged. After all, who better to judge the accessibility of a forest or countryside path than disabled people themselves?
Leading the way
The Forestry Commission’s and NRW’s easy access trails across the country currently include the following:
Corbett Easy Access Trail (Shrewsbury); Alice Holt Forest (Farnham); High Lodge (Thetford); Chopwell Woodland Park (Gateshead); Wendover Woods (Aylesbury); Bedgebury National Pinetum and Forest (Royal Tunbridge Wells).
Larbert Woods (Forth Valley); David Marshall Lodge, Achray Forest (Aberfoyle); Littleburn, Blackmuir Wood, Torrachilty Forest (all Invernesshire); East Loch Lomond Woodland; Ferrywood (Sutherland)
Cascades (Hafren); Afon Crafnant Amble (Gwydyr); New Newborough accessible trail (Newborough); Afon Eden Trail, Forest Garden Discovery Trail, Pont Llam yr Ewig-Glasdir, and The King’s Trail (all Coed y Brenin).
Responsible for monitoring and managing the forests in Scotland and Wales, with two entities reporting back to their respective Ministries
Contact: 0117 906 6000 (England) / 0845 367 3787 (Scotland) www.forestry.gov.uk
Natural Resources Wales
Carries out the same duties and responsibilities as the Forestry Commission throughout Wales
0300 065 3000 www.naturalresourceswales.gov.uk
The Fieldfare Trust
Works alongside countryside managers and people with disabilities to make the rural destinations accessible to all
Contact: 01334 838629 www.fieldfare.org.uk
An online resource developed by the Fieldfare Trust, where visitors can find information on accessible country sites and trails across the country with accompanying descriptions, route maps and photography – an upload function also enables individuals to add trails of their own
A registered charity that organises an annual programme of outdoor ‘rambles’ in various locations throughout the UK, for people with limited mobility
Bob Bennett Walks
Summaries of Bob Bennett’s accessible rambling routes around Perthshire can be found on the VisitScotland Perthshire website, via tinyurl.com/perthshire-rambles
Contact: 0844 800 1895 www.nationaltrust.org.uk
National Trust for Scotland
Contact: 0844 493 2100 www.nts.org.uk