With my job as a broadcaster and journalist I am lucky enough to travel all over the country, but I've never been to the Norfolk Broads, despite always wanting to stay there. Whenever I saw the Broads it seemed idyllic but I was a little worried about the access for wheelchair users. I became a wheelchair user at the age of fifteen, and in the thirty five years since I have found that not all of our fair country is as welcoming for disabled people as we might hope. Nothing ruins a trip away like finding that most of what is on offer is closed to you due to poor access. As a key feature of the Broads is the water, and the boats that sail on it, it did seem to me that this could be one holiday destination that might prove difficult for me. Then I was asked to present a film on the access provision provided by various attractions in the Broads, and I jumped at the chance. Not only was I going to visit somewhere I really wanted to go, it looked like my fears about access were unfounded. Just how unfounded even I could never have imagined.
The first thing that pleasantly surprised me was just how close to my home in London the Broads are. After an easy drive up the M11 and then through some beautiful countryside, my wife Diane and I arrived at our hotel just outside Norwich. After a lovely night's sleep we woke to find the weather a little damp. Despite the rain, we ventured out to Whitlingham Country Park. If the drive to Norfolk was beautiful the drive around this area was breath taking. It really is a stunning landscape. The park has a new fully accessible visitor's centre, and serve a rather lovely coffee and cake. After a pitstop, it was off outside to try the accessible cruiser Ra, the UK's first solar powered trip boat. Captain Mike took me out and he gave me a running commentary on the wildlife and the history of the Broads. It seems that wildlife is so used to seeing boats that they are fine with them coming up close, even nesting swans. It really is the only way to experience the wildlife of this area. Back on dry land, I then tried out an all terrain Mountain Trike wheelchair with some members of Active Trails, a group of adventure living disabled people who want to open up the great outdoors to all abilities, and experienced the landscape close up.
Next stop was Barton Boardwalk. This lottery funded project has created a fully accessible pathway through a part of the broads that would be otherwise closed to all visitors. The pathway takes a visitor deep into a marshy woodland landscape that is rich with wildlife and nature, with Braille information points along it's length. From within undergrowth, I turned a corner and found myself on the edge of one of broads. The vista was stunning. The Broads where starting to burrow into my heart, and with this affection growing it was off to Fairhaven Gardens for more of the regions wonderful nature. If I was falling in love with the region before Fairhaven, I became besotted after.
The romance started in the garden's tea rooms, with a cream tea. The staff at Fairhaven are so friendly and helpful, and their overly stuffed tourism awards trophy cabinet proves that their service has been top quality for many years. Even the huge numbers of trophies did not prepare me for the glory of Fairhaven. I transferred from my wheelchair into one of the mobility scooters the gardens have for the use of people with mobility issues, and off I went into a magical landscape. A sea of Candelabra Primula covered the woodland floor, painting it with vibrant colour. Beautiful flora and fauna was everywhere. As I drove deeper into the woods I felt like I was entering a wonderland. I could have stayed there for all day, but I had an appointment for something I have always wanted to do. I was going sailing.
I have always been a little afraid of being on boats, but the landscape calmed my nerves and I felt a growing excitement as I was be-clad in all weather gear and life saver at the Nancy Oldfield Trust. Once hoisted into the trust's new specially designed sailing accessible yacht, my trainer Stephen and I set sail. The freedom and excitement of taking control of the yacht was like nothing I have ever tried, and I've flown a hang glider.. All I know is I will be back to the Nancy Oldfield Trust as I am a sailing convert. The trust has facilities to allow all abilities to experience the joys of sailing out on the water, and a fully accessible bungalow which holds up to 10 people. Another company, Broads Tours, as an accessible pleasure cruiser which you can captain.
I think you can tell I've fallen in love with the Norfolk Broads. The landscape, the wildlife and the activities all have me hooked, but the most impressive thing is how committed everyone I met is to accessibility. If you, a family member or friend are disabled you must visit the Broads. I know I will be back, very soon.
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