Reading the blog, and talking yesterday with Liz, one of our researching walkers, I’m reminded of a walk I took this time last year. The whole walk followed a European walking route over a stretch from Stroud in Gloucestershire to Derby – a walk of over a hundred miles. My walking companions were able bodied and I was walking in a wheelchair. Needless to say there were lots of stretches of the walk that were inaccessible to me, and this story records one of the more subtle things about access, how we (or more accurately in this case I) experience obstacles emotionally. I often find myself chastising myself for being a wimp, feeling that I should be brave, take more risks, challenge myself and sometimes others.
In May of 2012 a small group of friends and I made a walk to Derby from Gloucestershire. The original motivation came from a conversation with my friend Richard, who is doing his PhD using drawing to facilitate people to engage in discussions about landscape. He had noticed that the second Affective Landscapes conference was being held in Derby, and saw an opportunity for us to do some more researching together, continuing some of the themes touched on in our slow walking towards the Severn project and some of the issues from our talking/writing group of friends, who had originally met through Local Agenda 21.
The project interested me, as someone who wants to challenge some assumptions about walking, particularly walking as research method (such as the assumption some people make that it should be a lone pursuit, undertaken in wild places etc), and to explore the distinctive contribution of disabled people in relation to embodied knowing, knowing about the body in space/place. It also pressed a lot of buttons in relation to physical access and the marginalised body.
The walk was planned in two and three day stages, to fit with our availability, and timed so that we would walk into Derby the evening before the conference and present a paper about the walk the next day.
Many things have come out of the Derby walking project for me, and one of them relates to kindness, specifically the kindness of strangers.
The towpath between Finwood and Kingswood Brook, north of Bushwood Grange.
Moving towards the M4 as it crosses the canal the speeding horizontal of the traffic sucks in the landscape around it, tugging at our attention, as if catching silk on a bramble. Tugged.
The other side of the motorway, pushing forward to find a lost tranquility we are stung by the rasp of quad bikes ripping their way out of the green lane and over the tiny bridge (‘insufficient to carry heavy cars’) and down the towpath the way we came.
So far, so far then…
We take a detour onto the Grand Union canal towpath, passed (locked) facilities, including a disabled toilet – odd as this turns out to be a near inaccessible island! The alternative route at this junction of the two canals is guarded by steep steps. Just over the brow of the top step is visible another ‘private‘ sign on another garden gate.
Lunch in the pub for everyone else it seems, but not for me as the pub where we arranged to meet is on the other side of those steps.
Alison runs up and down towpaths looking for an accessible way out, at this point it looks as if I may just have to backtrack a mile to Kingswood Junction, where we met the quad bikes, and resign myself to travelling by van again. Helpful cyclists stop, they warn of more steps at bridges, and shake their heads as they try to imagine what an accessible surface might look like. It’s hard to step out of mobility and into being disabled.
Finally we return to the steep bridge over the Stratford canal, which we passed earlier, its blue engineering bricks shiny and smooth, the surface ridged by small brick steps. I feel anxious that I might overturn on the smooth surface, vulnerable and exposed as I would be unable to right myself or my wheelchair. Alison makes off over the bridge to see where the path leads on the other side, I wait impatiently, feeling like a wimp, what would once have felt fun feels frightening.
There is a way out beyond the bridge she says – still I dither, anxious, afraid of overturning like a black beetle. We turn away as Alison and I discuss what’s so hard about it. And then it happens again, the kindness of strangers. Down the towpath two women are walking, both substantial, strong looking women. We are assessed, the immediate question ‘have you got a problem, can I help?’ I hesitate, then bolstered by the experiences of the last two days say ‘yes’. I admit my fears, explain my need. “Would it help if we came with you?’ another slight hesitation on my part, then ‘yes, please’.
We are on! I square up to the bridge, its brick lips, its camber and steep pitch. One woman either side of me and one behind I motor forwards, up and onto the bridge. I can see the basin and towpath on the other side. (What I don’t see is a real ‘view’ from the top. Getting over is such a struggle all my energy is expended on just overcoming the obstacle). Going down the other side is scary but do-able and talk-and-laugh-about-able. I reach the level towpath and thank them. They continue on their walk, smiling. I am warmed by their care, as I was stung by the ‘private’ notices and the steps.
Further round the canal basin we see evidence of the sell off of the waterways. Useful public buildings are turned into private offices, free boating facilities are locked up. Outside at the back of the building two chairs sit, sadly looking out through a gap in an overgrown hedge.