'Out there together' - Celebrating 30 years of amazing Harrogate district charity that unlocks the countryside
'Out there together' - The sharp and punchy motto that encapsulates the go-getting ethos of Harrogate district charity Open Country so perfectly.
Celebrating 30 years of advocacy and empowerment across our communities, the volunteers and staff at Open Country can feel rightfully proud of the innumerous strings to their bow... Whether that is the raft of activities they deliver that are a real social, mental and physical lifeline to help people with disabilities get out into the countryside, or the specialist advice, information and training given to landowners, councils and outdoor organisations looking to improve disabled access - not to mention the dozens of meaningful conservation projects delivered over the years, and improving disabled access by opening up new trails.
What initially started out as a three-year pilot project has become a long-established and respected charity with more than 100 volunteers, the eldest 89, and the youngest in their late teens - demonstrating the universal appeal and feel-good factor of being able to go out into the countryside and share experiences together, proving that disability is no barrier.
Whatever your hobbies and interests are, Open Country prides itself on offering an unapologetically eclectic mix of activities, including those that are adrenalin-fuelled as well as gentler forms of exercise - from tandem clubs in Harrogate, Ripon, Wetherby, York and Wakefield, to walking, abseiling, water skiing, and even skydiving.
The message underpinning all of the charity's work is that the outdoors is a tantalising gateway to wellbeing, friendship and confidence. Whatever your disability, Open Country sees only ability and can open up the world.
Lizzie Hughes, who has a long history of involvement with Open Country - 15 years as a volunteer, being employed to run a tandem group, then starting as a communications officer, said taking part in all the groups and activities is a real tonic all round.
She said: "When you get involved with Open Country, you can't seem to get away, it's just such a fun and rewarding charity to be part of. I always think they are doing me a favour because I get just as much out of it by enjoying the outdoors and getting to know new people.
"I think for people with mental health issues as well, getting outdoors and into the countryside is a huge therapy. We have people joining in who might not want to come out in the wind or rain, but they know that by doing so they have got a chance to form friendships and spend time with a good group of people.
"Open Country wants to empower people - people with disabilities can often be told throughout their lives that they can't do something because they've got a disability. We want to remind people that they can, and we are here to help.
"I also like the fact that when you're outdoors, you're not sitting face-to-face with someone, you can just talk while you are walking along, you can open up a bit and chat about whatever you like without it being so intense, it's like therapy in an outdoors space."
Celebrating this 30th anniversary is special for everyone involved, but for chief officer David Shaftoe who has been part of the Open Country family for the last 22 years, it represents an especially proud moment.
He said: "To be able to help other people enjoy what I love, what's not to like? It's a real privilege. The range of our activities is a real plus - not everything we do might suit people's abilities or tastes, but we are not prescriptive, people can pick and choose what suits them, so there really is something for everyone.
"My absolute proudest moment was how we coped during foot and mouth in 2001, because while everyone else shut down, Open Country managed to keep going - people were sadly losing jobs, services were winding up, and facilities shutting down, but we kept going. Personally I think that was our greatest feat - that dogged reliability, keeping going despite everything.
"It's that sense of permanence - the countryside can be a bit of a fearful place for some people with disabilities, and often not a first destination of choice, but I think knowing that there is nothing to be feared, that Open Country are out in all weathers to keep people safe and provide something stimulating and enjoyable to do is a great reassurance and motivator.
"People make friendships because of the organisation, and then meet up independently."
Open Country also has volunteer guides to describe to people with visual impairments what is around them - a fantastic experience for the volunteer too, who then experiences the world in a different way.
Iain Savage, who volunteers for the York tandem club and has a fundraising role within the charity, said: "Our strapline is 'out there together,' and I think that encapsulates it perfectly really - nobody's ever just thrust out into the countryside, 'here you go get on with it,' there are always people there to support. It offers great escapism as well, being outdoors and not sat in the office or in the house.
"Every group we do, there is a supportive environment where people are encouraged to get out of their comfort zone. We always look for ways to do things, rather than reasons not to."
Open Country always soldiers on as far as possible with a burning sense of adventure and camaraderie - members and volunteers laugh and defiantly have fun when faced with 'knitting needle rain' and 40mph winds. Nothing stops them, and they will always carry on as long as it is safe and sensible to do so.
Lizzie said: "We are constantly surprised by our members and what they do despite all the challenges they face.
"We also have an electric disability tandem - an electric-powered bike that's specially adapted for wheelchair use for people who have perhaps never had the pleasure of riding on a bike, so that they can feel the wind in their hair and experience that amazing feeling and rush of being on a bike."
Such is the professional clout of Open Country, that national organisations have turned to them over the years for advice about improving accessibility, and the charity also produces extensive directories detailing accessible routes and venues across the district, region and beyond - including outdoor sites, museums and countryside parks.
Open Country has also partnered with the likes of the National Trust and Pinewoods Conservation Group for special conservation and accessibility projects.
Although some great strides have been made in accessibility, Open Country says there is still much more that needs to be done locally, regionally and on a national level.
David said: "It's really important that there is meaningful access - not just lip service or a ticking box exercise. There is no such thing as disabled access and non-disabled access, there is just good access and bad access.
"Places will get a higher footfall as a result, and there are plenty of people out there, including us, who can offer the benefit of their advice."
Lizzie said: "I think there is huge improvement that could be made, but I think people are definitely are more wise to it now, and there are a number of organisations locally who have made a lot of progress. You don't need to do huge things to make a difference, just looking around and being more mindful of it helps. When it comes to access, small considerations could make a really big difference."
Ian added: "It's also a case of thinking about all the disabilities that are out there, thinking about people who have invisible disabilities and what their needs are."
Tom Marsh, who does admin work for Open Country and goes out with some of the charity's groups, said: "It's just a wonderful charity to be a part of, every day is different, and it's great to be able to get out and enjoy the outdoors together."
Open Country has to raise nearly £300,000 every year to keep providing its hugely-valued services. To make a donation, visit the Open Country website for more information.What does Open Country have planned to commemorate their milestone 30th anniversary? (Subject to lockdown and social distancing restrictions being lifted in time for this year).
- An anniversary ceilidh
- A 30 trails project - working on 30 access projects to mark 30 years
- Bringing together its five tandem groups for one night with 30 tandems to do a special 20-mile ride
- For every member of Open Country, planting 30 trees, amounting to an extra 2,200 trees
David said: "We've also got a whole raft of ideas for ways we'd like to expand in the future - looking at how we can expand Yorkwards, but also ideas within the Harrogate district and even into Leeds."
*Please note that Open Country has had to temporarily suspend its activities and outings in line with government advice and social distancing guidelines during the Covid-19 outbreak, but the charity is publishing tips for safe ways of keeping active and busy during the lockdown on its website: http://www.opencountry.org.uk/blog All photographs featured in this article were taken long before the coronavirus outbreak, and the interview was conducted before the outbreak.