Charity’s 25 years of helping disabled people enjoy Harrogate’s countryside

NARG 1508171AM1 Open Country at bird hide. Open Country activities officer  Nick Milson with members of Open Country on a trip to a bird hide in Ripon.   (1508171AM1)

NARG 1508171AM1 Open Country at bird hide. Open Country activities officer Nick Milson with members of Open Country on a trip to a bird hide in Ripon. (1508171AM1)

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Open Country started as a small project in 1990, and now organises at least eleven countryside activities including walks, conservation, tandem riding and wildlife watching each week.

The charity’s patron Lord Phil Willis of Knaresborough said the charity’s work was ‘remarkable’.

Open Country's 25 strong tandem ride fundraiser

Open Country's 25 strong tandem ride fundraiser

He said: “It is a remarkable charity that supports people with both their physical and mental health and well being.

“Open Country does such an amazing job of getting people who have disabilities out to enjoy the out doors and the countryside.”

Lord Willis says that things have come along way in the last 25 years.

“There was a real sense 25 years ago that many people were unable to leave their home if they were disabled and we wanted to get people out into the countryside.

Open Country also offer more adventurous activites like zip lining

Open Country also offer more adventurous activites like zip lining

“The early days were very, very hard going I remember but there has been incredible leadership at the charity it has amassed an army of volunteers.

“The charity has convinced companies like Yorkshire Water to invest and open up parts of the countryside to people. All the volunteers have such a passion for the outdoors themselves, it is truly inspiring.”

The countryside around Harrogate has long been a passion for Lord Willis.

He said: “You can’t help is when you live in a place like Harrogate, you see al this wonderful countryside that surrounds us, the Dales are on our doorstep, it is important that everyone has access to it.

Open Country volunteers ensure that activites go ahead all year round, whatever the weather

Open Country volunteers ensure that activites go ahead all year round, whatever the weather

“It is quite an inspirational idea, to bring people into the countryside. 25 years and still going strong, it shows the dedication and the charitable endeavours of the Harrogate district.”

Project officer David Shaftoe has worked with Open Country for 17 years.

He along with other staff members and a team of volunteers organise activity days and events.

In 2014/15 Open Country worked with 261 different people on a record 5,622 activity days – this equates to 15 people enjoying one of the countryside activities every single day of the year.

Open Country began in 1990 as a project managed by The Countryside Commission, Harrogate Borough Council, North Yorkshire Social Services, Harrogate Health Authority and the Fieldfare Trust. It was originally funded by Powergen, Yorkshire.

Militant

Over the years Open Country has been recognised by many awards including the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service and the Duke of York’s Community Initiative.

David said: “Just one per cent of the countryside in the is fully accessible, so there is a long way to go.

“We are quite militant about our ethos, and we make no apology for that, we believe that everyone has the right to access the countryside, it is a right not a privilege.

“There is something very, very special about the countryside, which everyone know, it as a calming effect on helps everyone’s mental well being.

“A lot of people say that without being able to get out on their bike, or for a walk on a weekend they wouldn’t be as happy in their lives, the countryside keeps people sane and grounded and everyone needs to access it.” Over the years David has helped hundreds of people with disabilities to access the countryside. He remembers one particular cyclist who was left disabled after a car crash.

“He wanted to ride a bike, off road, as he had promised his family he wouldn’t ride on the roads following his crash.Thanks to the tandem rides, he was able enjoy cycling again.

Harrogate’s off road cycle infrastructure has improved greatly in the last two years, with the Bilton to Ripley cycleway and routes connecting the showground with Hornbeam Park.

“It has taken years to build up the network but there is more than ever before,” said David.

“Just look at the Ripley cycleway, it is amazing, but it also took 20 years to go from the idea to its opening, we’ve got to move quicker.”

Open Country has to raise over £140,000 each year to keep running as just 20 per cent of its money comes from local authorities.

Last month 50 cyclists jumped onto 25 tandems to cycle a 25km route from Wetherby to raise money for the Anniversary minibus appeal. The charity hopes to raise £33,000 to purchase a fully accessible minibus.

Tandem riding is just one of a wide variety of activities offered by the charity, and clubs in Harrogate, Wetherby, Ripon and York ride out each week during the spring and summer months, giving people with a visual impairment and other disabilities the opportunity to ride a bike.

To support Open Country’s Anniversary Minibus Appeal text OCAP37 with the amount you would like to donate to 70070.

For more information about Open Country’s 25th Anniversary visit www.opencountry.org.uk or contacts the team on 01423 507227.