‘Very often one of the first things to go when people’s mobility becomes more limited is the confidence to take a simple walk in the countryside – that’s why this scheme enjoys overwhelmingly positive feedback.’
Even allowing for the upbeat assessment of its project manager Neil Warren, the merits of Countryside Mobility are undeniable. Established in 2010 with a grant from Natural England as part of its Access to Nature programme and funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Changing Spaces programme, the not-for-profit mobility equipment hire scheme is run by the user-led Living Options charity and aims to improve access to the countryside on equal terms for people with limited mobility by working with a range of visitor attraction sites that lease its electric all-terrain Tramper mobility scooters.
This year Countryside Mobility is due to open its fiftieth site at Highlands End Holiday Park at Eype to give those who are unable to get around as well as they would like the opportunity to go across country to West Bay or on one of the way marked circular footpath routes covering the immediate area.
Unlike Countryside Mobility’s other Tramper sites in Dorset – at Durlston Country Park, Lulworth Cove, Hardy’s Birthplace Visitor Centre and Thorncombe Woods, RSPB Arne, Holton Lee, Avon Heath Country Park, Moors Valley Country Park and Golden Cap – the Highlands End site offers access to open countryside that’s not defined by existing estate boundaries.
Working with the park’s owner Martin Cox and countryside project development officer Tara Hansford, from Dorset Council’s Countryside and Greenspace Service, Countryside Mobility identified a range of improvements and adaptations to footpaths and hedges with the needs of the less mobile in mind.
‘We’ve done work that has no particular benefit in terms of farming or the holiday park business,’ says Martin Cox, whose family has owned Highlands End since 1971. ‘But this is about the wider community, to create a facility for local people, visitors and holidaymakers whether they’re staying on the park or not.
‘For instance, we’ve been laying hedges and digging out channels so that water can sort itself out and not cause flooding; or if there is a flash event then it will soak away quickly.’
And as Tara Hansford points out: ‘There are benefits for the whole community.
‘Not only are people with limited mobility getting out into the countryside with the benefits to health and wellbeing that can bring, but it also improves social cohesion so families and other groups can explore together. As well as that it benefits the local economy by increasing footfall to local businesses and attracting visitors to the area.’
Anyone aged 14 and over who has a condition that affects walking ability, can become a member of Countryside Mobility, which then provides access to the full network of Trampers. Currently, there are some 1500 members each paying a £10 annual membership fee and another 2000 people a year enjoying short-term Taster membership that costs £2.50. In total the members make around 6000 hires a year across the region’s sites.
Countryside Mobility provides training for the staff members and volunteers on-site who oversee the hire and basic maintenance of the Trampers. Some attractions charge a hire fee for Trampers to help cover the costs of the lease fee, but it will never be more than £2.50 an hour.
‘We hire it, charge it and provide a home for it, but it’s here for our residents and anyone else who wants to use it – whether they want to go on a two-hour round trip or if it’s just to go the short distance to the view point to watch the sunset,’ says Martin.
Sites typically have a single Tramper each, but even at locations such as RSPB Arne that have two, members are advised to book in advance to ensure availability and that trained staff will be on hand to explain routes and offer a quick refresher on how to use the vehicles. Information is provided to users on recommended routes that are considered well within the Tramper’s capabilities having been fully checked by access auditors who themselves live with limited mobility.
‘In the bigger picture the Trampers and the sites are really a means to an end,’ says Neil. ‘Once someone has got over what can be a significant psychological barrier to using a mobility scooter what we hear time and again from our members is that they feel included again, part of something. They tell us about what they’ve seen and where they’ve been far more than how good or reliable the Trampers are, so really what we’re in the business of is making memories.
‘I heard from one man recently who told me that thanks to the Tramper he had been able to go to the beach for the first time in 15 years. Until you hear a story like that it’s very easy to take something as simple as going to the beach or enjoying a walk in the woods for granted.’
Tara Hansford nods in agreement: ‘We’ve seen groups in West Bay have to split up and leave someone behind when they want to use the footpaths. It’s a shame because with a little work we can make the countryside more accessible for people of all ages who have mobility issues.’
Dorset Council’s Rights of Way strategy aims to improve access to the countryside but with no budget for this Tara spends much of her time sourcing external funding. In this instance the path improvement work has been entirely funded by the European Agriculture Fund for Rural Development and South West Coast Path Association. National Lottery Heritage funding secured the initial purchase of the Tramper by Living Options while Highlands End Holiday Park is covering the lease of the Tramper and also contributing to path improvements.
It’s as good an example of public, private and third sector collaboration as any, but ultimately it’s about the difference it can make to people’s lives.
‘People who have problems with mobility don’t want to feel they are missing out,’ says Tara. ‘So we can do things on footpaths, like putting in drainage grips or digging culverts to relieve flooding, replacing stiles with gates, improving the surfacing to make it easier to negotiate, providing seats or perching posts and making signage more meaningful by including destinations and distances. That might be above and beyond any legal requirement, but it makes access easier for people who are less mobile and in most instances more enjoyable for everyone else as well.
‘After all, the countryside is there for all to enjoy.’
Tel: 01392 459222
Countryside and Greenspace Service
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.