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When four Norfolk Scouts decided to test the wheelchair accessiblity of Lake District walking routes for their Silver Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition, we joined them to document their challenge.
Hauling yourself up hills, clambering over rocks and sweating under a sticky layer of waterproofs may not be everyone’s favourite way to spend the weekend.
Yet there are those of us who see so much more to Duke of Edinburgh expeditions than the questionable ration packs of food and sleeping in damp tents when there’s a perfectly good B&B down the road.
It’s the challenge; the chance to push yourself, to leave your gadgets at home and go forth into the wilderness with nothing but the boots on your feet and a bag on your back (albeit a very large one stufed with everything bar the kitchen sink).
Reminiscing about my own DofE Bronze expedition, it felt like it went on forever. My feet ached, my back was wet with sweat from generous over-packing and I longed for a bath and a duvet. At the same time I was buzzing with excitement, determined to complete the walk and meet other like-minded people my age.
We were all well equipped with proper walking boots, waterproofs and compasses, despite spending the majority of our first day walking along a canal towpath that really wasn’t hard to navigate. Ultimately it was about giving it your all, and that’s exactly what the Norfolk Scouts did when I joined them on their Silver expedition.
Their journey started in Norfolk where they began the six-hour drive up to Keswick in the Lake District; three challenging days lay ahead. Tackling their toughest challenge first, the route for day one followed the Old Coach Road, well known as a difcult route due to its steep and exposed nature. Day two followed a National Trail into Keswick and the final day weaved its way towards a disused railway track, which the team then followed all the way to Threlkeld.
When the Norfolk group planned their expedition in and around Keswick they didn’t just challenge themselves with a dramatic mountain walk or decide to trek five times as far as usual. What they did was far more impressive: they embarked on a three-day adventure to discover just how accessible walking routes are for wheelchair users in the Lake District, and they did it with Group member, Explorer Scout and wheelchair user, Zoe.
At first glance of the route they had chosen, it didn’t look easy. Zoe lives with a range of conditions, some of which haven’t been fully identified by doctors. With the help of her sticks she can walk a short distance but the wheelchair gives her the freedom of mobility.
She tires after walking just a few steps and struggles with a particularly limited diet, though you’d never know it from the way she chatters animatedly and jokes around with the lads. ‘It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that I’d rather walk this bit,’ quips Zoe as the group approaches a narrow ledge with a gushing river beneath.
She’s always determined to prove that she can take on the adventure; it’s when she becomes quiet and hunched up after she has used her arms to push herself up a set of stone steps that you remember just how exhausting this is for her. Every bump in the road shoots straight up her spine.
Initially knowing little about Zoe’s condition, it was inspiring to see how great an effort she put into her DofE expedition. The three lads also completing the expedition – Gulliver, Adam and Ed – are in many ways her other crutches.
The gates are as much a challenge for them as they are for Zoe; each gate or stile that requires Zoe to make her way over on crutches means that the lads need to lift and manoeuvre the wheelchair over it between them. They have taken on this enormous challenge to look out for Zoe when she’s feeling unwell, to help out when there’s a tough incline and to drag the chair out of the mud when it has been raining, which, being in the North of England, it inevitably has.
So why have they all decided to do this? You may expect an answer elaborating on how the four are close friends, determined to complete this together, squelching through the mud through thick and thin. But actually, the four didn’t even know each other before they were grouped together. They are still learning about each other’s needs and personalities and it’s endearing to see how quickly they relax into each other’s company.
‘Not only have you got to be carrying the pack and walking, sometimes you’ve got to help push and carry the wheelchair,’ Ed explains. Though it follows the DofE requirements, this certainly isn’t a standard expedition.
This unique experience has provided everyone with a new challenge. ‘I’ve done lots of walks up and down mountains on family holidays but this is totally different,’ Ed says, while taking a breather by a nearby river. Still, taking on a challenge of this nature in some of England’s finest countryside does have its benefits.
The physical exertion of their challenge is punctuated with rests on nearby boulders and unearthed tree roots, allowing the group to soak up the striking Lakeland vistas. In contrast to the everyday fluorescent glare of computer screens and whitewashed walls I’m used to, the views of rich emerald foliage, vast shimmering lakes and patches of rusty brown earth carpeting the mountains are a tonic.
All around us are fields dotted with sheep or cows curious to know what we’re doing on their turf. It isn’t all easy passage though; the imposing mountains certainly mimic the journey’s high peaks and sudden pitfalls. Towards the end of day two, Zoe’s wheelchair gets a puncture, causing the weight of the chair to slightly bend the structure of the rim. Gulliver and Ed step in to assess how they can repair the damage. ‘Can you pass me that metal spoon?‘ Gulliver asks, deciding to use it as a lever to remove the tyre from the rim.
They’re typically and impressively inventive with the tools that they have and after finding the puncture using a pot and a small amount of water they realise that there’s not much else they can do, except to split up to find the closest shop selling a puncture repair kit. In the meantime the others decide on a plan B, just in case this happens again. Which it does – an hour later.
‘I can’t believe this has happened now and not yesterday,‘ remarks Zoe. ‘The path yesterday was so much worse than this.’ When we first began the expedition, I wondered, apart from Zoe’s challenge with wheelchair access, what each individual’s personal challenge would be over the three days.
There are often bouts of homesickness, trivial personality clashes and cooking disasters, but apart from Ed’s unappetising omelette resembling a small pile of dog vomit (his words) the group’s challenges were not frivolous and were tackled together.
To explore such a stunning area and help others visiting in a wheelchair was enough to inspire the four to persevere through the tough times and bask in the satisfaction of having completed their challenge.It seems I had forgotten how much DofE bonds you; your challenges become everyone else’s and theirs yours. When Gulliver’s tent broke, it was Adam who offered him a place to sleep. When the lads were low on gas for cooking, it was Zoe who provided the fuel. When Zoe’s wheelchair got a puncture, it was Gulliver and Ed who trekked to find a repair kit.
Expeditions like these provide everyone involved with a chance to push themselves and form new bonds. Even those anticipating an easy ride will take on their group’s challenges and experiences. It doesn’t matter if it’s carrying a wheelchair or borrowing some gas, I witnessed first-hand how these expeditions create bonds and challenge everyone involved.
The DofE Programme is great because it works alongside Scouting and has links to the Chief Scout’s Platinum and Diamond Awards and the Queen Scout’s Award. Each Group can find their own angle for the expedition and work towards helping others or the environment.
When the group finally reaches their destination I joke with Ed: ‘I bet you’re looking forward to some decent food? No more vomit omelette or lumpy rehydrated porridge?’ Expecting him to reply by saying that he was dreaming about roast dinners or takeaways, I was surprised by his response: ‘Actually, I do have a pack of porridge left. I may have that for breakfast tomorrow!‘ Clearly somebody enjoyed this even more than they were letting on…