We’ve driven past the outskirts of the New Forest countless times, but never before been tempted to turn off at the junction. From the A338, it looks like an expense of knee-high bracken, wild ferns and the odd spiky bush. A perfect wilderness for walkers, but completely inaccessible for my mobility scooter. Turns out there is far more to the area than can be seen from that main road! Having spent a wonderful weekend scootering around some of their many ‘four wheel friendly’ tracks, I now believe that the New Forest is the MOST accessible national park I’ve visited!
My happy place is the great outdoors. I feel lucky to live in the UK, with it’s feast of beautiful national parks all within a day’s drive. Over the years, I’ve visited many of them. Hiking and biking and climbing and camping. But since developing Pulmonary Hypertension, my trips have completely changed. I can no longer reach the hill summits, cross the stepping stones, or even pass through a kissing gate. I can no longer go off the beaten track, disappear into the back of beyond, or be miles from the nearest dwelling. National parks just aren’t easily accessible on four wheels. Mother nature and man have together created an obstacle course! Boulders, tree stumps, stiles and steps. Roots, swamps, weeds and bridges. Easily passed by walkers… but impassable obstructions for my little ‘shopping centre designed’ scooter.
It doesn’t mean I don’t try though! 😉 I’m on a continual mission to scoot as far into the middle of nowhere as I can. My trusty indoor ‘Luggie’ scooter gets pushed to its limits on every trip, as I attempt to manoeuvre it down all manner of off-road routes. I bump and shake and jerk around due to the rugged ground. My feet become makeshift stabilisers as my scooter tilts on the uneven terrain. Foot pushes and nudges help force my ‘Luggie’ over the smaller rocks and roots, whilst Phil walks close by ready to carry it around the bigger, more impassable obstructions. He pushes me up the steeper ascents, rescues me when I’ve become stuck in the mud, and acts as an extra balancing weight on the very sloping paths. I spend the hike deciding which route is least likely to end with me jumping from my falling scooter, or wedged stuck. It’s fun, brilliant fun. But we never get far. There always comes a point, normally after only a few hundred metres, where my scooter can’t go any further. So, as much as we try, I never get to stand at the top of a hill looking down on the world, or sit in the silence with no-one or nothing for miles. The percentage of grounds within the national park that I can truly access now, has shrunk from 100% to 1%. I’m restricted, severely restricted. In short, since getting PH my national parks have got smaller.
For disabled visitors, trips to national parks mainly involve admiring the view from car windows, and scootering along ‘accessible’ paths. These designated ‘disabled friendly’ tracks -hard surfaced, without obstacles- are great. However there are only ever a few within the whole park, they’re normally less than a mile in length, and are always around a lake or along a disused railway! 😛 99% of each national park is inaccessible! It would be wonderful if park authorities could also make simple, non-intrusive changes to some of their existing trails, to make them more disabled friendly. Maybe widening the path at large obstacles (like boulders), so scooters can bypass them. Maybe having a zigzagged track up a hill, instead of steps. Maybe cutting back the overgrown vegetation blocking routes. Maybe having pedestrian gates instead of stiles and kissing ones. Maybe having ramped bridges instead of stepped ones. Little changes that won’t alter or hinder or damage the natural environment, won’t look out of place, won’t be noticeable to the majority… but will make a huge difference to those with mobility issues. Relying on wheels, I know I’ll never be able to access 100% of the national parks (well until they invent a truly awesome scooter!)… but I’d just like to access 5% of it. I’d just like to see more than a few hundred metres around a lake or railway.
But to my surprise the New Forest was different. 🙂 We started the weekend in the usual way; visiting three of the designated disabled friendly routes advertised. Wonderfully accessible, but sadly only a handful in a 219 square mile area! However on the second day, we ventured off the beaten track, and instead attempted to scooter along one of the many cycle tracks (dirt footpaths designed for family bike rides). We kept going and kept going. Left then right and straight on and left again. It was fabulous to come to a crossroad, and have four options of possible routes. All wide and flat with no steps or boulders or swamps blocking the whole path. Lottie walked ahead, picking our course; whilst Phil and I trailed behind, holding hands as I scootered along. After a while, as we sat and admired the view, I realised we hadn’t seen any other walkers for ages. I’d found my peace and quiet, I’d found my remote, I’d found my wilderness, I’d found my no-one around for miles (well not quite 😉 ). And it was wonderful.
Later, we realised that there are many many miles of accessible cycling tracks around the New Forest. Flat terrain, wide paths, and regular maintenance means that although not designed for scooters, they are suitable for them. As mud and grass and gravel paths, they may be harder to scoot during the wetter months, but are completely usable under the summer sun. It is fabulous that disabled people are not restricted to only a very tiny proportion of this reserve, but instead can have almost as much freedom to explore as an able bodied person. They don’t have to miss out, be left out, or stay behind. The New Forest is without doubt, the most accessible national park I’ve ever visited. Obviously, most of the other national beauty spots in the UK are mountainous, so it is more difficult for them to make routes wheelchair friendly. But it would be wonderful if they could try. It would be wonderful if disabled visitors could one day easily access the natural wonders of the land… without tumbling and tilting off their scooters! 🙂
So there’s more to the New Forest than the overgrown bracken visible from the A338. Cycle paths, tall trees, shy deer… and wild ponies. Yep, they’re everywhere. One even tried to steal our morning bacon!