COUNTRYSIDE RAMBLING – AGAINST THE ODDS!
The first ten years.
written by Mike Bruton, the founder and initial Chairman of the ‘Disabled Ramblers’
To understand the background to the Disabled Ramblers of today, I need to go back 60 years. I have nearly always been disabled, with a disorder which has developed very slowly over 65 years. At school I was unable to take part in sports, and in my teens I looked for alternative activities, mainly cycling and walking. I could ride 40 miles, or walk 10 miles in a day, and went away youth hostelling with my brother. On a cycle tour of Wales in 1953 I fell in love with Snowdonia and decided to climb a mountain. I only had cycling shoes but felt sure these would suffice – after all the peaks were only just over 3,000 feet high – surely a doddle to climb? Well, my innocence was shattered on the very first day, and I came down with my big toes badly skinned and very raw !
I wasn’t easily put off and next year bought very hefty boots which proved just right for the job. For the next six years I went up mountains every year, culminating with a climb involving Jo, who was by then my fiancé. (Last year we celebrated 50 years of marriage – how time flies!) This was in 1960. We attempted to climb Sgurr Dearg, one of the peaks in the Black Cuillin range on Skye, in Scotland. This range is fearsome and involves rock scrambling and steep climbing. We nearly reached the summit, but were defeated by a very exposed final 60 feet up to the top. We were aware of a very long almost vertical drop below and so we retreated!
The Cuillin climb was my last – my strength was fading fast, and so I adopted a walking stick and went on much easier walks thereafter.
Now, fast forwarding thirty years to 1990, to a time when my walking was becoming very restricted. I was faced with a challenge to raise funds for my medical charity.
I decided to ramble again, with a weekend 50 mile walk along the Ridgeway National Trail. But how? I couldn’t walk it, so with the help of colleagues at British Airways, we decided to do it by Rickshaw, using four teams of friends, tasking each team to pull me along very rutted tracks for 12 miles or so. BA apprentices built me a luxurious sprung machine, fitted with an economy class airplane seat. There were stainless steel pulling bars, and places to push – just right for six attendants at a time, all working hard…
The whole venture raised over £4000 and was immensely enjoyable. Shortly after this, I retired after 24 years service with BA, and took on a new job as Executive Director with the Disabled Drivers’ Association. This enabled me to develop a new hobby. I noticed the increasing availability of electric pavement scooters and I resolved to try these out in the countryside in places like the Ridgeway Trail, to see if any would be suitable for country rambling. I quickly came across a wonderful man, David Wenman, who imported and sold robust scooters, called ‘Sportsters’. I bought one myself – it proved a revelation!
So, in 1992 I organized the first disabled ramble for scooter and wheelchair users, again visiting the Ridgeway, but reducing the weekend distance traveled to just 40 miles.
Around 10 riders took part, and they all did amazingly well, despite one day of heavy rain and thick mud. We all judged this event a great success but rather challenging!
I next set up an affiliated group attached to the Disabled Drivers, called the Countryside Access Group, and over the next five years I organized an annual challenge ramble open to anyone interested. After three years on the Ridgeway, we moved to the New Forest, keeping the weekend 40 mile format unchanged.
By around 1997 we were expanding fast. I reduced the 40 mile challenge format to just seven miles per day. This proved much more manageable and numbers of members soon grew to 100 then to around 200. We also visited new places and the number of days rambling per year went up to six, including Thames Valley rambles and Kielder forest inNorthumbria, as well as the New Forest.
We soon established a powerful, hard working committee, including Robin Helby and Rosie Norris, and we moved to set ourselves up as an independent registered charity, the Disabled Ramblers. Robin Helby has always been imaginative and full of ideas. In 1998 four of us, Robin, Roger Fitzwater, John Hill and I set out on our first expedition. We decided to try a 62 mile section of the newly established Thames Path National Trail, between Oxford and Marlow. Robin took a leading role by commissioning equipment necessary to get us past stiles and ‘kissing gates’. Starting with a bespoke lightweight trailer, Robin designed and had built a comprehensive bridge structure which could be quickly assembled and enabled our scooters and wheelchair to be helped over all the obstacles encountered en route. We had great fun and mercifully avoided falling into the river. Robin was almost without fear and I was more than happy to follow his wheel tracks over treacherous ground, where often the overgrown vegetation hid deep holes in the river bank!
This expedition led directly to new developments. Firstly Robin and I modified our scooters to become prototypes of the new Tramper range, and secondly, we very much influenced the Countryside Commission to get involved with us in developing access standards to fit within more robust environments than had previously been considered as suitable for access by disabled people.
Editor’s note: In this article Mike has laid out for us the background to the present Disabled Ramblers’ organization up to about the millennium year 2000. This early period showed the development of our present pattern of rambling based upon heavy duty electric mobility scooters serving our desire to go to places without relying on specially developed and manicured paths. Mike also showed how we became involved with statutory bodies like the Countryside Agency (now renamed Natural England) helping to set out guidelines and standards of access suitable for our present and future needs. Mike was awarded the MBE for services to disabled visitors to the Countryside in 2005. He retired from the Chairman’s job in 2008.