Debbie North and husband Andy
I was born in Sheffield where I lived until I was 21 years old with my parents and big brother Christopher. As a child, I have always loved the outdoors. My dad said I should have been born in a field as I was always outside creating my own adventures – making dens, brewing nettle tea, going on mini bug hunts with my magnifying glass and creating the most awful perfume from rose petals. My teacher, Mr Fletcher, was hugely inspirational and gave me the opportunity to continue following my passion of the outdoors through orienteering and spending endless weekends at the school farm in Hayfield in the Peak District. The Peak District became my playground.
Ribblehead, Yorkshire Dales
Falling in love
When I qualified as a teacher I moved to West Yorkshire and began exploring the Yorkshire Dales and fell in love with the limestone scenery. I continued spending time outdoors and when I had my own family, I loved nothing more than taking them on adventures and exploring new areas.
Debbie and Andy
My love of fell walking blossomed when I met Andy, a keen hillwalker himself. We used to spend each weekend walking in the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District and during school holidays, we enjoyed completing long distance walks, such as the Cumbria way and Dales Way. We walked the Coast to Coast twice, once in 1999 and again in 2003… a walk that we loved. In fact, Andy proposed to me when we were stood in the North Sea, having completed the 190-mile walk. He said he weakened due to exhaustion, but I made sure that we married that same year!
In 2008, I was diagnosed with spinal degeneration and was no longer able to walk the hills that I loved so much. Andy refused to go exploring without his walking partner because it did not feel right.
When I founded Access the Dales in 2011, it was simply a blog. Something for me to focus on during my extended periods of illness. I spent three long months in hospital, which was hard, not just for me, but for Andy and our son Adam. I had to come to terms that I would be using a wheelchair to move around. The black dog of depression came to visit. I knew that I had to keep going, which was extremely hard but having the blog to focus on gave me an outlet to challenge my feelings and anxieties.
Malham Tarn Estate, home to a Tramper which is available to borrow
I wrote about getting out into the Yorkshire Dales and began chatting to the National Park about accessibility. My story touched many hearts, and it was knowing that what I was doing was having a positive impact on so many other people’s life made me more determined to carry on and get outside. From a hospital bed, I began researching all-terrain wheelchairs (ATW) as I was keen to get back out into the hills. At the same time, we raised the funds to get a Tramper for the National Trust, which is now housed at the Malham Tarn Estate and is available to borrow.
Getting outside again
My first accessible walk in the Yorkshire Dales was along Gordale Beck to Gordale Scar. It was a very bumpy journey as I only had my power wheelchair, which was only really designed to be used indoors. Andy and our friend Jonathan walked ahead, kicking stones out of the way so that I could travel forward. When we reach the scar, I cried. That sense of being outdoors once more in such a beautifully stunning location was overwhelming and marked the start of our journey to make the inaccessible accessible.
Since then, because of major spinal surgery, I am stronger and am now fulfilling my passion of hill walking by using an all-terrain wheelchair. My real passion is finding routes that are longer, higher, and more challenging. A real close and personal experience if you like, with hills, mountains, and weather.
Andy and I teamed up with TerrainHopper, makers of a 4x4 all-terrain wheelchair. Having this vehicle has had an enormous impact on my life. It is my four seasons hiking boot. With our hiking boots on and TerrainHopper charged we were ready to go and we went on a mission to discover accessible walks in the Yorkshire Dales. We have climbed higher and further than we ever expected to be able to do so. We have climbed many of the Wainwrights in the Lake District, a lot of the Dales 30 – the 30 highest peaks in the Yorkshire Dales and a few of the Munros in Scotland. We also completed the Coast to Coast once again, this time with me in a wheelchair.
Debbile and Andy explores the hills
There are many obstacles to face being a rambler in a wheelchair. Many obstacles are manmade such as stiles and narrow gates. I’ve come across locked gates on bridleways, concrete bollards on public highways, kissing gates and bridges that are too narrow to pass through. Each time I have come across an obstacle, I have spoken to the National Park Rangers, who have taken note of the barrier and who have, where funding and time have allowed, made the necessary changes. In fact, whilst travelling through the Lakes, near Loweswater, on my C2C journey, we came across the Ranger I had been speaking to about the route that I was planning to take. He was just widening a gap in the fence in readiness of my passing through! “I’ve been expecting you,” he declared, “We’re all ready for you!” Now that’s what I call good service.
Debbie and Andy enjoying the outdoors
Whilst it is still my personal desire, when out in the hills, to get higher and to go further, I have come to respect that not everyone has the same wants and wishes. The more I am working with different people I have come to understand that some visitors to the National Parks are looking for a short walk with a view.
I met a lady a few weeks ago who said that her son had seen a waterfall for the first time because she had watched the film The Outdoor Guide had made at Cotter Force in the Yorkshire Dales and knew that his wheelchair would cope with the terrain to the falls and that she was able to push him the third of a mile along the track. She cried with joy at being able to do the walk with her family.
Making the inaccessible, accessible
In DEFRA’s Landscape Review (2019), which covers National Parks and Areas of Natural Beauty in England, Mr Glover calls for a “network of accessible, hard surface, stile-free paths that are disabled and wheelchair-friendly, deploy gates with RADAR keys, and provide all-terrain wheelchairs.” Let’s just hold that thought for a moment.
Most disabled people accept that not all areas of the countryside can be made fully accessible and no one wants a National Park that has sanitised its paths and bridleways. On the other hand, they have a reasonable expectation that their needs are considered when it comes to ‘man-made’ features in the countryside (such as gates, paths and seats). The main issue with getting outside has been the lack of information regarding each walk. People want enough detail about a walk so they can make an informed decision about the suitability of their wheelchair for the terrain and for the distance to be covered.
For the past 6 years I have been working with The Outdoor Guide to develop walks with wheels. I have had opportunity to visit new places and to write about my experience.
In Andy's legacy
Everything was good again, but in April 2021 Andy was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and after a short, tough battle with the disease, he passed away on June 29th 2021, aged 56 years old. I have been left heart broken and shattered but I promised Andy that I would continue our mission to make the Yorkshire Dales more accessible to more people.
Andy’s wish was to buy an all-terrain wheelchair especially for children and we set up a Just Giving page. Over £16k was raised and I have bought – a TerrainHopper Mini, which will be housed at Ravenseat Farm, Swaledale, so that families with a disabled child will be able to enjoy a walk on the fells. My family has been so amazed at the generosity of so many people and we have been able to purchase more wheelchairs for the Yorkshire Dales. Together with the support of friends we have set up the charity Access the Dales.
Debbie and Amanda Owen
Our vision is to help make the Yorkshire Dales National Park more accessible to people living with long term illness and disability, by providing all-terrain wheelchairs in different locations which will be available to borrow. By summer 2022 there will be 5 accessible hubs around the Yorkshire Dales and 4 new changing places built within the National Park – an announcement that made me cry with joy.
Our website is continually evolving with information about the mobility hubs and how people can book out the chairs. We will be sharing our favourite stile free walks in this beautiful part of 'God's own land'. I’m also writing a book which will contain 35 walks in the Yorkshire Dales for people who don’t like stiles including those with prams or dogs they are unable to lift.
With support from the Yorkshire Dales Sustainable Development fund, we are hosting the very first accessible festival in the Yorkshire Dales. We have guided stile-free walks around the dales and other activities such as accessible canoeing, boccia and TerrainHopper experiences at Gordale Scar.
Out of the tragedy we have established a fitting legacy in memory of Andy, who loved the Yorkshire Dales. I have now left The Outdoor Guide to concentrate on my own work and I have become a freelance consultant, writer and motivational speaker – an expert in accessibility in the Countryside – making the inaccessible accessible. Access the Dales will be putting the Yorkshire Dales on the map as a place that welcomes people with disabilities.
National Parks and stile-free routes
Alongside the Yorkshire Dales, many of the National Parks have a series of walks called ‘Miles without Stiles’ - a series of walks suitable for people with little or no mobility. Many of the National Trust properties also have wheelchairs to borrow and there are various schemes around the UK where wheelchair can be hired. These are listed on my website.