Charity giving blind a walk on the wild side

Janice Every with Alison Bates and her guide dog Jack
Janice Every with Alison Bates and her guide dog Jack
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It’s easy to take a stroll in the glorious Yorkshire countryside for granted. Now a charity is hoping to keep country walks accessible to those suffering visual impairments. Sarah Lally reports.

Recreational walking is one of the most popular activities in Britain, with more than nine million people enjoying the benefits of this popular pastime, according to the British Ramblers’ Association.

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However, although many will be donning their woolly hats and hiking boots this weekend to enjoy a bracing New Year walk in the great Yorkshire countryside, this simple pleasure can prove challenging for some.

For those who are blind or partially sighted, being able to walk in their local countryside in safety can prove to be almost impossible which is why a Malton-based charity decided to set up a walking group with a difference.

A Sense of Space and Place is a project run by Sight Support Ryedale, a local organisation that supports and positively affects the lives of blind and partially-sighted people living in the Ryedale area of North Yorkshire, helping them to meet the challenges of sight loss.

The aim of their walking group is to enable their members to access their local countryside in a safe and enjoyable way.

The charity’s Chief Officer, Janice Every explains that the initial idea for the group, now in its third year, came from one of their members:

“She spoke to me about how much she missed going out for walks since she had lost her sight, so I spoke with all of our members and found that there was a large number who also missed walking and were really enthusiastic about the possibility of setting up a walking group, which is why we decided to set about raising funds so that we could make it happen.”

The charity is continually looking for new and innovative ways to combat the isolation and sense of exclusion that many of their members experience as a result of sight loss, which can result in mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

“We found that the mental health charity Mind had undertaken some ecotherapy research that confirms the benefits of getting out and about in our rural area and undertaking green exercise for health and wellbeing, confirming that a ‘greener’ lifestyle aids positive changes to mental health. We have seen these benefits first hand since we started our walking group a few years ago,” says Janice.

Janice says that the success of the group is in no small part down to their walking group leader Annie Wilkinson, who is passionate about the local countryside and, as a keen walker herself, has an excellent knowledge of the area which enables her to ensure that everyone gets the most out of each walk. 

“Annie works out two or three routes, so that we can accommodate everyone – the strong walkers and those with mobility issues.  She thinks about making the walk particularly appealing to senses other than sight – the sound of water and birds or interesting scents.  She also tries to include walks with brightly coloured flowers or berries, as most of our members have a small amount of sight, to varying degrees,” says Janice.

For Annie, the opportunity to share her passion and bring the countryside to life for those without the benefit of sight has been a rewarding experience for a number of reasons,

“Most of the walkers have got a little bit fitter, but they have all become more confident and of course had the opportunity to visit different places, some they had never been to even though they had lived in Ryedale for many years,” says Annie, who works hard to ensure that every walk is carefully researched and risk assessed, so that everyone feels safe and has fun, whatever their level of fitness or mobility.

She believes that the social side of the walking group is just as important as the fitness aspect or enjoying the countryside, which is why having a dedicated team of volunteers is so important. They walk with members of the group and provide one to one companionship and support, particularly when the walks become more challenging, as Annie explains,

“The most ambitious walk we took on was in Rosedale when we coaxed the walkers down a steep, wet hill, whilst one of the funniest moments was negotiating a stile at Hovingham which proved to be quite a challenge for some, but provided great amusement for everyone!”

For members, the opportunity to explore their local countryside and experience both the physical and emotional benefits of walking has been invaluable.

“It’s lovely to be able to do something that everyone else has the choice to do,” says Thornton Dale based member Alison Bates. “I’ve thought about joining in a group before, but there’s a barrier and you wonder how it’s going to work, how you’ll know where to go or what to do and how it’s going to be possible with a group of sighted people.

“To have the opportunity to do things that other people take for granted is great – it makes sense really and my guide dog Jack really enjoys the walks too.”

In addition to connecting members with their local countryside, the aim of the walking group is to support local rural communities by enabling those previously unable to enjoy rural areas the opportunity to feel a part of rural life and engage with local people and businesses.

“Engaging with our rural communities is an important part of this project and since the walking group began, the villages in our beautiful area of Ryedale have always provided a finishing point for us – this generally means tea and cakes at the local village hall or tea rooms, which are always welcomed by members and volunteers alike.” says Janice,

Major awards accolade for group

Sight Support Ryedale was recently named ‘Rural Community Project of the Year’ for their walking group at the Ryedale Rural Awards – an awards scheme run by Ryedale Voluntary Action and Rural Action Yorkshire to recognise and reward the work of rural charities and voluntary organisations in Ryedale.

For further information on Sight Support Ryedale and their award winning walking group contact 01653 698860 or visit their website www.sightsupportryedale.org

The British Ramblers Association has a wealth of information on their website: www.ramblers.org.uk and their magazine is also available as a talking book. Call 020 7339 8500 or visit the website for further information.

The RNIB has a list of rambling clubs on their website where you can find your local group at www.rnib.org.uk

The Sensory Trust also has information and advice.Visit www.sensorytrust.org.uk or contact them on 01726 
222900.