Yorkshire-based Open Country gives people with a disability the chance to get out and enjoy the countryside by providing a variety of activities including walking, cycling, conservation, nature study and outings. Fully accessible transport and support from their staff and team of volunteers enable their members to improve their health and wellbeing by enjoying the pleasures of being outdoors. There are few other places where you can find relaxation, exhilaration and mental rehabilitation.
They lead up to 15 activities a week, ranging from easy-going to more challenging and longer walks, tandem cycle rides, conservation work, nature study, adventure clubs and outings to local historic places and country parks. For the last 30 years, they have operated from their base in Harrogate but in 2018 they launched their outreach project ‘Wild About Wakefield’ which supports people with a disability in one of the more deprived areas of Yorkshire.
They believe that everyone, irrespective of ability, should be able to access the countryside and enjoy being in nature, both for its intrinsic value and for the wide range of well-being benefits. Nature can offer us all solace and time to unwind, refresh and refuel, which can often greatly improve an individual’s mental health.
The activities they lead also encourage social interaction between members and help improve self-esteem. These benefits address the significant and widespread issues felt by disabled people such as social isolation and loneliness. Their
outdoor activities also encourage a more physically active lifestyle through countryside recreation like walking, cycling and conservation work, all of which help disabled people to lead a more fulfilling, healthy, and active lifestyle.
With over 30 years of experience in countryside access, they also produce a number of directories to help people discover accessible places to visit, clubs to join and things to do across the north of England. They also use their experience to provide information, training and advice to landowners, councils and outdoor organisations looking to improve disabled access. Their Breakfree packs feature easy and accessible walks for all abilities, opening up the countryside to a much broader range of people.
Sandra Clarke has been an active member of Open Country for the last 15 years and says:
"Open Country literally unlocks the countryside for people with a disability, particularly those whose mobility is limited. I'm a member of a number of the groups they run including the Wild Things club which is all about appreciating the natural world around us. I also go on outings to countryside sites, both indoor and outdoor. It gives me the opportunity to meet new people and visit places I would never normally be able to access.
"Once we're at our destination, there are so many considerations to make - are the surfaces wheelchair friendly, will the paths be wide enough for me? Most importantly, can the cafe accommodate both me and my guide dog Millie?! I can rely on Open Country to take me places where all these things have been considered and I know I can enjoy it as much as the other members."
Just 1% of the UK countryside is currently accessible to people with disabilities, and Open Country are working to increase this figure through their practical access work days, working to restore and create accessible paths.
David Shaftoe, Chief Officer of Open Country, says: "There is much to be gained from encouraging inclusive access in our countryside, as disabled people are a powerful force for good in the outdoors. Improving access for people with a disability benefits all visitors and although the UK has a long way to go, it is important to celebrate those projects which are embracing this."
"There are forward thinking councils and landowners who are making progress in this area, while in some other areas the reverse is true. For example, Bridlington converted the sea front and made it accessible for all. Bolton Abbey estate has also done good work creating accessible paths and striving to improve their infrastructure. ‘Build it and they will come’ often applies here - disabled people will love to visit places with good, inclusive access - with all the socio-economic benefits their presence will bring. But there is still so much more that could be done.
"It's not just about physical access either. Other barriers to welcoming disabled people into the countryside can include a lack of accessible information, lack of support, lack of accessible transport and lack of financial resources. It is important to think widely - a countryside manager could foreseeably have the most physically accessible site in the land and yet still have few disabled visitors if other access factors have not been considered."
There is no room for complacency. Improving access should be an ongoing concern for all of us and Open Country will continue to champion projects going the extra mile to make access a priority in the countryside.
To find out more about Open Country visit www.opencountry.org.uk