I first walked Wainwright’s Coast To Coast in 1999 with my partner, Andy. We walked it again in 2003 because our camera was broken first time round. At the end, Andy proposed to me as we stood in the sea. For many reasons, I have a very special love of the Coast To Coast.
In 2007, we moved to live on a farm in Lincolnshire. That’s when the problems began. It’s not Lincolnshire’s fault. Or the farm’s. No, the fault can be solely laid at the doorstep of my spine… if spine’s have doorsteps, that is. Early in 2008, I started having problems with my back. It turned out I had spinal degeneration. To say my life – our lives – changed in a heartbeat would be an understatement. In the following period, I lost my job due to ill-health, my hillwalking hobby and, it seemed, my life.
We moved from the farm. We had to. We bought a bungalow in the Lincolnshire Wolds as we prepared for my health to simply go downhill from here. I was on enough daily medication to bring down an elephant and then some. Life was now a constant battle against the twenty-four seven pain inflicted by bone spurs compressing the nerves in my spine. Chronic. Agonising. Debilitating.
In 2011, I founded accessthedales. I figured if I yearned to be out in the countryside, there must be other people in my situation. Our first efforts at getting out into the ‘wilds’ was no more than a simple jaunt along the footpath to Gordale Scar in the Yorkshire Dales. After all, it was only a footpath of a couple of hundred metres or so. And I was in my beast of an electric wheelchair. It was no big deal. Except, it was a big deal – on two counts. It was a big deal in the sense that the wheelchair, robust though it is, couldn’t deal with a public right of way in the Yorkshire Dales, which is in pretty good nick. The other sense… I was out there. Yes, we had to kick the smallest of stones out of the way (those brushes they use in curling would have been mighty useful here) to make headway, but I got there in the end… Gordale Scar. Was this as far as I would ever get? Not a chance!
In 2013, by sheer fluke, Andy was watching the local news and saw a feature about a company based just a fifteen minute drive away from us. They’d just won an innovation award for their robust all-terrain wheelchair – TerrainHopper. Well, then life got complicated by a three month stay in hospital (with no weight-bearing), an 8 hour operation to put rods in my spine, a high speed car crash (not our fault!!!) and pneumonia.
And it was when I was lying ill with pneumonia that I sent a card to Andy proclaiming that, in April 2015, we would do the Coast To Coast. After he came round and I slapped him a few times, he agreed it was a brilliant idea. Our erstwhile pal, Jonathan Smith of Where2Walk (who had been there on our very first accessthedales outing to Gordale Scar) announced I was completely “crackers” and promptly agreed to help.
On April 12th 2015, we left a rain-lashed St Bees and arrived in Robin Hood’s Bay on April 25th. I travelled in a TerrainHopper.
It was amazing.
Every single second of it.
I had my hobby back… and more importantly, my life.
Is an accessible adventure easy?
Is it worth doing?
Do you have any tips?
Glad you asked.
1: Choose Your All-Terrain Wheelchair Wisely
This seems so obvious, it’s almost not worth pointing out. Except that it is. You see, all-terrain wheelchairs come in all shapes and sizes and are designed for doing different things. Don’t necessarily listen to all the sales guff you’ll get from people, who will invariably tell you that their all-terrain wheelchair is capable of scaling Lhotse, backwards, whilst on one flat tyre and powered by a rubber band (an old one that has been stretched to its limits). Do your research. Have a test drive. Or several. Match your choice of vehicle to what you want to do. Think of it as your walking boots… and match your footwear to your trek. I would never wear walking boots to go shopping. Andy would. But he’s from Batley :o)
My choice of boot… my all-terrain wheelchair… is the TerrainHopper. For me, it does everything I want it to do – travels a good distance and has the capability of handling rough terrain. And it looks cool. Bit like me.
2: Know Your All-Terrain Wheelchair Like The Back Of Your Hand – Or Another Bit Of Your Body You Know Really Well
It’s St Bees. The car park. It’s desolate as wind howls in from the sea. And raindrops the size of a boxer’s fists hit you repeatedly in the head. The best course of action? Haul your backside out of there. Quick. Why be pummelled by rain in the car park when you can have it slap you about on the Outrigg?
This was the scenario we had on April 12th as we started our coast to coast trek. Our only problem was we hadn’t got the right set of batteries connected up and so, with flat batteries firmly in place, we managed to accelerate from zero to zero in six seconds flat. If the crowds had been there to watch, we would have been embarrassed. And wet through. As it happened, we were simply wet through.
This could have all been avoided if we’d known exactly what bits of the control panel display we were supposed to be looking at. We failed to notice the big flashing words that announced: YOU HAVE GOT THE WRONG SET OF BATTERIES CONNECTED, YOU NORTHERN BUFFOONS!!!
Over the next two weeks, we discovered all sorts of things about the TerrainHopper we didn’t know when we set off. For example: it runs on fresh air, it has a guided missile system for use on padlocked gates and the ejector seat button is set on a hair trigger. None of those are actually true. But you get the gist.
KNOW YOUR MACHINE!
3: Trust Your Machine Like You Trust Yourself… Or Someone You Trust Better Than Yourself… Or The Cat…
Not only know your machine, but trust it. You wouldn’t set out on a shopping expedition in a pair of shoes that you thought might hurtle you head first through a goodly collection of mannequins and leave you looking like you were in an outtake from some film based around a cage fighter who practises on plastic effigies of headless people… would you? Of course not, you’d wear something that would suit the conditions and, more importantly, something you know would cope with the conditions.
For our coast to coast odyssey, we had short days, medium days and long days. The usual hotch potch you’d expect of a long distance walk. But we knew we had both the battery power and the necessary all-terrain capabilities to get us up, over and through where we going. We trusted the TerrainHopper to be able to do just what we wanted it to do. And it did.
4: Plan Your Route – and Have A ‘B’ Plan
Wainwright always intended for his Coast To Coast route to inspire ramblers to plan their own walks across and around the country. That’s exactly what we did with the help of Jonathan from Where2Walk, who having overcome the fact I was crackers decided the easiest thing to do was join in rather than swim against the tide. He helped in casting an experienced eye over potential routes. He helped in pointing the TerrainHopper in the right direction. And he even bought us beer in the Kirkstile Inn. What a guy.
Remember, circular walks are a different beast than linear walks, especially when you have the logistics of pick up points at the end of stages. But either way round, make sure you plan your route and any necessary emergency routes off it should the weather turn. Or should you accidentally hit that hair-triggered ejector seat.
5: If In Route Planning Doubt, Ask An Expert… Or An Experienced Hillwalker… Or Someone Really Old… Like Jonathan Smith :o)
I can’t emphasise this bit enough. When we were planning the route across country, it was easy to look at bridleways screeching across Nan Bield Pass, up Clough Head and across to the Moon and say to Jonathan, “Why not go this way?” He was forever a gentleman and would look at either myself and Andy and, with a shake of the head, say, “You’re bloody crackers.”
I’d quite happily set off on any track marked bridleway. What I did discover was that in the Lake District, the term bridleway covers a range of possibilities, from lovely open tracks to rocky, throw you around tracks to tracks that have you pointing and gasping for air, whilst squeaking, “What size horse goes on that razor-edged ridge you call a bridleway?”
Real life knowledge really is worth its weight in flesh and bones here. Whilst you may feel dispirited that you can’t simply abandon all sense and zip towards the summit of Great Gable (we’re working on it… have patience) be sated in the fact you have many, many wilderness miles you can explore in the relative safety you get when adventuring in the great outdoors.
If in doubt, leave it out.
Or ask an old man.
Jonathan, for example ;o)
6: Accommodation Or How I Wrecked Your Carpets Or Your Shed Appears To Be Smashed
If your plan for getting back your life involves using something like the TerrainHopper to be out there in the hills, dales or mountains, you will need to be on the ball when it comes down to accommodation. The challenges of a linear trek are, as mentioned earlier, different to those posed by a circular challenge. But, at the end of the day, you’ll need to take into account two major factors. Your own needs and the needs of your all-terrain-bringer-of-much-mud-and-sheep-poop-wheelchair*.
Our experience(s) whilst travelling coast to coast were often a place on route could offer accessible rooms but nowhere to store the TerrainHopper overnight for charging. Or they could store the TerrainHopper and charge it, but wouldn’t be able to put us up as we were far too common and appeared to have an air of sheep about us. What we actually discovered was that many people heard the word ‘wheelchair’ but not ‘all-terrain’. And that led to some confusion on more than one occasion. One landlady via her son (unusual what you can do with seances) told us to put the TerrainHopper in her living room… and to worry not… the patio doors opened wide. Well, when she came back from her night out, she was more than a little surprised to see her uPVC door frame splintered into a thousand pieces and her Axminster shagpile not quite as piley or shaggy as it had been some two hours earlier.
Another experience involved an organisation who may or may not have a word referring to the period between childhood and adult age, a movie which involves people being put through food blenders, bacon slicers and episodes of ‘Top Gear’ and ‘association’ in its name… they offered us a garden shed. It was a nice garden shed, but failed on two counts. One – it was a garden shed. Two – and you may spot the flaw here – it had no electricity. To be fair, the staff at the place that may or may not be on a lakeside that may or not be in the Lake District did offer to plug the TerrainHopper in using a cable that would extend at head height across the car park, merrily decapitating anyone foolish enough to have a perambulating speed above four centimetres a second. We sadly had to decline such a random act of violence although we were happy to show them why the garden shed wasn’t suitable for the TerrainHopper.
It was a nice garden shed.
*The TerrainHopper, as a note of interest, can carry a goodly amount of said mud and sheep poop. So much so, in fact, you may decide to change your life completely and open a dung shop.
7: Prepare For Being Colder Than You Would Be If You Were Left In A Freezer… Or Stood At Mount Pleasant Watching Rugby League In The Deep Mid-Summer (it makes no difference, it’s always cold)
It seems a very obvious thing to say, but it was something that really struck me when I announced I wanted to travel coast to coast through the Lake District in February. Yes, all right… I’ve heard it all before! For able-bodied walkers, they generate a good amount of heat from sheer physical exertion. This is a factor that works against those of us who are sat behind the controls of our TerrainHopper. Being immobile, in a cold icy wind is not the most pleasant experience you will have whilst out trekking in the wilds, but is almost certainly an experience you will have. Along with rain. Lots of it. Fog. Lots of it. Sometimes accompanied by rain. And wind. And the occasional bagpipe player. You have been warned.
8: If You’re Doing A Long Distance Trek, Be More Organised Than A Librarian
Again, this sounds so stunningly obvious it’s almost worth not pointing out. Except, again, that it is. The level of organisation at the start, during and at the end of each day on a long distance trek is more than if you’re simply a foot traveller. For example, if you decide to travel coast to coast, like we did, then look at exactly where your accommodation (meeting all other requirements necessary also) is. We almost fell foul of this one as we entered Shap. Turned out our bed for the night was some four miles south of Shap. Fortunately, we had a brilliant back up driver, a brillianter set of mobile phones and the brilliantest van in the whole wide world. We were saved. But it crossed our minds how we’d have been fixed if we’d arrived, no van, and four miles to travel down the A6. Which brings us to the next tip…
It’s paramount in everything. Unfortunately our rights of way system is not truly accessible. I like to think that’s because of the age of paths and bridleways and not because of landowners who do things like lock gates on bridleways, put cows and calves in small fields where bridleways run (I could name the farm!) and generally try to be difficult. I digress. You will find, at times, you are forced to use country lanes. Really do exercise extreme caution. Also, when you’re traversing bumpy ground and feel ‘unsafe’, don’t be badgered into things by your walking companions. If it feels unsafe to you, don’t try it. There’s generally a way round obstacles. Swaledale is testament to this. We sprinkled so much pixie dust to aid our passage there I’m amazed there isn’t a Tolkien convention right now.
10: Know Your Rights
The TerrainHopper, which we used – and still do – falls into the designation of being a Class 2 and Class 3 mobility product. For our purposes, this means it is entitled to travel where anyone on foot can. In reality, we know footpaths are problematic because of things such as stiles, but bridleways shouldn’t be. As mentioned earlier, there are still landowners who think it’s okay to padlock gates shut (“Nobody uses this path…” Yes, we have had this said to us) and to question your passage across the bridleway on their land. I won’t name the places, but I had two encounters with farmers who were, shall we say, shirty about our plan to legally stick to and use the bridleway that crossed their farms. One backed down when he saw the Batley Bulldogs shirt and the other didn’t have any response other than “Yes” to our question, “It’s a bridleway, isn’t it?” when he challenged us. With that, we’d skipped merrily off on our way. Well, Andy didn’t because I’d run over his foot earlier in the day. What was that in tip 2 again?!?!
Now, I don’t want to come across as being arsey or awkward – I’m not – but a public right of way is a public right of way is a public right of way. It’s supposed to be access for all so it should be access for all.
Tip 11: Enjoy Yourself
There’s nothing more to say. Get out there and live it, love it, feel it!