It’s a bright autumn morning in Dalby Forest and the light is casting dappled patterns on the leaf-covered ground as my sister Lisa whizzes past on her bike. I catch her up and we stop to take in the view and debate which way to head next.
Nothing particularly unusual in this, perhaps, except Lisa has been a wheelchair user for almost 10 years after a spinal cord injury left her paralysed from the waist down, and this is the first time we’ve properly been out and about in nature since.
Thanks to an adapted e-bike from Dalby Forest Cycle Hub we’re able to spend a morning cycling on trails that wind through the 3,200-hectare (8,000-acre) woodland, with the hub’s owner, Rob Brown, as our guide.
We’d come to North Yorkshire to see how possible an outdoor adventure might be, testing out the work of the newly launched North York Moors national park accessibility project. Eight attractions and four accommodation providers in the area have worked with Visit England to develop access and provide disability awareness training for staff. While Lisa’s disability affects her mobility, the project caters for a range of needs, from autism to sensory impairments.
“We want to make the national park as accessible as it can be for people with differing needs,” said project manager Rachel Gillis. “We chose organisations that were already working on accessibility and were keen to do more. We looked at what was going well, and what wasn’t, and helped with development plans, accessibility guides, training and some funding. It’s a pilot project we hope to roll out across the country.”
Rob’s enthusiasm for opening up the forest experience by bike is evident as he talks us through the types of adapted bikes he offers. Among them is a “side-by-side” tandem, useful for people with visual difficulties or reduced mental capacity, and recumbent e-trikes, good for people with balance issues. The bike that suits Lisa is the battery-assisted Sport-on XCR handcycle, designed for cross-country use by those with some upper-body strength.
“It’s all about inclusion. We want to give people the opportunity to come to a beautiful place and really experience it,” says Rob. “We can help people with all sorts of requirements, from those recovering from strokes to those with dementia.”
We set off into the woods and it doesn’t take long for Lisa to feel comfortable in the saddle and get used to being closer to the ground. “I love the sense of freedom,” she says. I love cycling next to her: it’s something we’ve not done for a very long time.
Our base for the trip is Sunday Cottage in Grosmont (sleeps five, seven nights from £525), reached after a beautiful drive across the moor. Owners Rod and Jill Hodgson have converted a former Methodist chapel and Sunday school into four cottages, and ours has been carefully designed for wheelchair users, with the needs of their own daughter, who has cerebral palsy, in mind. It’s a lovely place and more than adequately equipped, with an accessible bedroom and en suite wet room on the ground floor.
Grosmont is a stop on the North Yorkshire Moors railway, which is one of the attractions involved in the project, with several accessible carriages. It’s not running during our November visit, so we continue our adventure at Sutton Bank national park centre an hour’s drive away. A new road crossing from the centre has made access to the dramatic, three-mile White Horse Walk easier for those with mobility issues and it’s one of four sites around the North York Moors where trampers – electric all-terrain mobility scooters – can now be hired.
We’re soon high up on the escarpment admiring the big-sky panorama across Hood Hill and Lake Gormire – the tramper allows us to go further and tackle far more challenging ground than a wheelchair could. Another accessible route to “the finest view in England” runs from the centre and there are plans to open up more soon too.
Dalby Forest now has two trampers (two mobility scooters are also available) and the next day we head back there to explore more – this time on a forest bird sound safari (£35 for half a day) with Richard Baines, ecologist and owner of Yorkshire Coast Nature. We venture into the woods, stopping frequently to listen as Richard shares his knowledge of the birdlife. “We swap priority sense from sight to sound; it’s an immersive and very mindful experience,” says Richard. “It’s a different way for people to engage with their surroundings and is particularly good for anyone with visual impairments.”
It’s completely absorbing: we listen out as foraging flocks move through forests and learn about different birds’ characters and calls, from the alarm cry of the wren to the sharp contact call of the chaffinch.
Our itinerary takes us next to Whitby Abbey in time to catch sunset. The impressive ruins are easily accessed by lift, and wheelchair users can get up close thanks to ramps and flat ground (wheelchairs are available onsite). The wider site is grassy though, with no paths, making some areas hard to navigate, but it’s enough to soak up the atmosphere and the views.
One of the main issues travellers with a disability face is getting the right information in advance to ensure a trip goes smoothly. “The amount of time you spend planning and researching is frustrating,” says Lisa. So the project’s goal to make detailed information easy to find is welcome.
The next day we visit the open-air Ryedale folk museum, at picturesque Hutton-Le-Hole, knowing that the grounds, and heritage buildings such as the medieval manor house, will work for us (and that wheelchairs and mobility scooters are available if needed). On our way home we stop at Helmsley walled garden beneath the ruins of the castle. Run as a charity and staffed largely by volunteers, it was set up to be a place of sanctuary for visitors, with the emphasis on therapeutic horticulture. It’s easy to navigate the formal gardens and there are useful adapted picnic benches for warmer days (we head, instead, to the cafe for hot chocolate).
The last time Lisa and I went away together was on a girly break to Barcelona in 2012. This trip has been different but just as fun, giving us a chance to hang out and explore new places together. We head home with Lisa wondering about accessibility to nature near where she lives in Nottingham, and me pondering where our next sibling adventure could be.
The trip was provided by Visit England. Tramper hire is available at four locations in the North York Moors. First-time users must undertake a short training session to become an annual (£10) or temporary member (£2.50). Membership gives access to trampers at sites in the Lake District and all Countryside Mobility sites in south-west England. Dalby Forest cycle hire costs from £19 for an adult adapted bike. Other accessible accommodation includes Inn on the Moor Hotel (lunch and dinner for non-guests too). For more information on accessible travel in England, visit visitengland.com/accessforall