O’er vales and hills in a wheelchair: a new accessible trail in the Lake District

O’er vales and hills in a wheelchair: a new accessible trail in the Lake District

As the largest national park in England, and muse to the likes of Wordsworth and Swift (Taylor, not Jonathan), the Lake District needs no introduction. My friend Anthony, on the other hand, who has yet to appear on a postcard or be recognised by Unesco, almost certainly does.

Anthony and I have been mates since university. Between our second and third years, Anthony found himself bearing the awkward responsibility of marketing the drama society’s production at that year’s Edinburgh fringe. When I spotted Anthony’s call for assistance pinned to a noticeboard in the campus launderette, I unwisely volunteered to be his aide for a fortnight. While the task of flogging a feminist reworking of The Wind in the Willows was rarely straightforward, the ordeal did pay the significant dividend of forging a solid friendship that continues to this day.

In part because of his cerebral palsy, and in part because of his role at a charity called Able Child Africa, Ant hasn’t seen as much of the UK as he’d like. So when I proposed a winter trip to the Lake District to ascend a famous fell, having learned of a newly curated set of accessible trails in the area, it only took him a few hours to come round to the idea. He’d initially objected on the grounds that he’d miss Bake Off.

Panoramic view to Langdale, Scafell, and Wetherlam from Orrest Head.
Panoramic view to Langdale, Scafell, and Wetherlam from Orrest Head. Photograph: Malkin Photography/Alamy

After a testing afternoon on the M6, we arrived in Cumbria just as Storm Debi did. As a result, we spent the first portion of our getaway admiring the great indoors – namely, the cosy interior of our hotel, a country house – once owned by Beatrix Potter – on the eastern bank of Windermere. As well as being the hotel equivalent of a charismatic great-aunt, Lindeth Howe was admirably accessible, which is to say that at no point during our stay was I required to provide Anthony with a piggy-back. The highlight of the evening proved to be a brief blackout during dinner. Ghost stories went around the room, the best of which involved a ghost with amnesia.

When I awoke the next morning, it took me a few seconds to remember why I was lying less than a metre from a geography graduate. Anthony was already awake, and in devilish mood. “Coffee,” he said. “Love one,” I said. “That wasn’t a question,” he said. These charitable types, huh?

It didn’t take me long upon drawing the curtains to ascertain that it was still blowing a hoolie. Despite the bad weather, we managed to fashion an interesting morning, chiefly with a visit to an Arts & Crafts house up the road called Blackwell, where we admired the handiwork and wondered whether William Morris’s golden rule – that people ought to have nothing in their houses that they do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful – bode ill for the pair of us.

Lindeth Howe hotel.
Lindeth Howe hotel. Photograph: Steven Barber

It was about now that Storm Debi finally tired of drenching the Lakes and began dumping her load on Merseyside instead. Sensing our moment had come, we hopped in the car, pegged it to Windermere, swiftly layered up, and set off for the summit of a nearby hill.

The trail up to Orrest Head is one of 50-odd routes that make up the Miles Without Stiles initiative. All have been chosen (and in some cases tailored) with wheelchairs and pushchairs in mind. The collection offers great variety – a lap of Buttermere, a stretch of Derwentwater, or climb Latrigg Fell. What’s more, if you find yourself in possession of the will but not the wheels, a number of sites in the region rent out fairly robust mobility scooters known as Trampers for as little as a fiver.

The early stages of the climb up to Orrest Head wound through a patch of venerable woodland, thick with oak and ash and beech and sycamore. The path had become an accidental carpet of fallen leaves, and the drystone walls that flanked it were matted with vivid green moss. Notwithstanding some early wheelspins that he put down to jetlag (we’d travelled up from London), the ascent was more than doable for Ant in his new ride – an SD Motion Trike, kindly on loan from Steering Developments. He kept saying words like traction and muffler, and showed zero contrition when he overtook a mobility scooter on the back straight.

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The footpath leading up to Orrest Head.
The accessible footpath leading up to Orrest Head. Photograph: Loop Images Ltd/Alamy

Not that we were in a hurry. If anything, we were dragging our heels, the better to take it all in: the appealing bells of a far-off church, the potential flash of a kestrel or buzzard. Our minds, detached from their ordinary ways, had a new right to roam. Anthony took advantage of this new scope by wondering aloud which trees grow the tallest and what the point of lichen is. Conversely, I took advantage by wondering how tricky it was likely to be to get a ticket for the Girls Aloud reunion tour. Despite their differences, our minds had something significant in common – they were better and lighter for the journey, for the climb, for the stroll. The simplicity of intent, the surrounding nature and the breath of fresh air all came together to make the going good.

But not as good as the view at the top, which was better for coming at once, for not having been glimpsed on the way. It was a true revelation, and bigger than expected, growing west towards Dublin, pushing north towards Carlisle, reaching east towards the Pennines and Durham and the Netherlands, and falling south towards the once-satanic mills of Lancashire. It was full of crag and tarn and hill and corrie, full of vale and sheep and weather and quarry. This was the view that got Alfred Wainwright going; the view that stunned the lad from Blackburn almost out of his socks, and inspired in him a lifelong devotion to the region and its hills. Wainwright came up here and saw something to live for. We saw the same thing.

Blackwell, arts and crafts house.
Blackwell, arts and crafts house. Photograph: John Morrison/Alamy

Quiet until now, Ant pointed out the shifting palette of Windermere, a football pitch on which some whippersnapper had just fluffed their lines, the classic Cumbrian cottages with their slate roofs and whitewashed walls – and then a rainbow, suddenly proud and beaming and above all else. I asked him how it felt, to be up here, in front of all this. “I could offer you something woolly and floral,” he said. “Something about God and Mother Nature and the Sublime and whatnot. But really it just feels nice. Really nice. The sort of nice you don’t feel very often.”

And on that note – on that very nice note – it started chucking it down again, and all our airy sentiments gave way to the weather, and we cursed once again our rain-sodden whereabouts, and hastened to the most proximate tavern (with an accessible loo), where we took ample solace in glasses of the local porter. There were doubtless other ways we might have answered the return of inclement conditions, but at the time, and for the life of us, we couldn’t think what they were.

Trip provided by Cumbria Tourism and Visit England. For more information on the Lake District and Miles Without Stiles, see visitlakedistrict.com. Superior accessible twin/double room with en suite wet room with shower chair at Lindeth Howe from £165 a night, including dinner and breakfast, lindeth-howe.co.uk. SD Motion Trike loaned by Steering Developments, based in Hemel Hempstead, sdmotion.co.uk or steeringdevelopments.co.uk

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