Norfolk is crisscrossed by a number of long distance trails. In the autumn of 2011 a colleague asked me ‘whose responsibility is it to make the Boudicca’s Way wheelchair accessible?’ Boudicca’s Way is one of those long distance trails and it runs from Norwich to Diss covering some 36 miles through south Norfolk. Whilst the County Council has overall responsibility for maintenance of the footpath network the current reality is that they can only afford to keep a fraction of this regularly cut and open. As for new projects there just aren’t the resources in the present climate. We realized that to make a long distance trail accessible for powerchairs we’d have to do it ourselves.
Come the following spring we set out from Norwich station with some helpers to sample the first part of the route. It was all on pavement and road coming out of the city, apart from a short inaccessible dog leg over a stile, until we got to a way marker pointing across a field. The first lesson had been learnt which was to divert around obstacles such as stiles and inaccessible gates and bridges with the aid of a detailed ordnance survey map. We don’t have the resources to address these types of obstacles. This would be something for the Council possibly at some stage in the future. That was enough for one day but next time we’d have to start crossing farmland and the countryside proper.
Crossing fields, when you’re able bodied, can be problematic enough but even more so if you have to use a powerchair. The surface is so often dependent on the weather or the state of ploughing or whether the farmer has properly left the way clear of crops and/or bisecting tramlines. We found that if the going is too difficult or impossible even with spades and portable ramps then another way round has to be found. This could be as simple as following the field margin if it is wide enough or failing that then an off trail detour has to be sort. In south Norfolk this isn’t generally a problem as there are many small back roads and footpaths.
Surfaces on the trail can vary so much too. We got stuck in a rabbit hole on one short soft surface section and had to be rescued. It’s essential to take a mobile device as well as an able bodied accomplice once you go off road. The going can be very slow at times and there can be hidden ditches under overgrown vegetation. Later we decided to address the very difficult surfaces ourselves with spades and a mattock. In the worst muddy patches and gullies we laid cheap plastic meshing. We made gradual progress over the summer months getting further from Norwich with each trip out. The route was logged and the barriers and diversions noted.
About a third of the way to Diss in the first summer of the project we found ourselves at a dead end. We followed the trail on the map and it lead to a stile over a barbed wire fence. The only way-signs were old ones. We trekked up and down a road but couldn’t find a way through and there was no signage. To divert here was impossible so the project hung in the balance. We came back another day armed with the knowledge that the trail had been rerouted down a private lane. What signs there may have been once were no longer there and the OS map had not been updated. We concluded from all this that we’d have to produce our own guide to the trail for powerchair users detailing the route where signage was poor and the diversions where the obstacles were impassable. Information is everything when you’re exploring.
It was a hot July day in 2014 when we finally rolled onto the platform of Diss station. We’d had to divert about a dozen times and ford two streams on the 36 mile trail but we’d made it all the way from Norwich in ten sections. We’d come back to parts of the trail many times over the three years to work on the bits where the surface was particularly poor. What remained was to produce a detailed leafletand then advertise the fact that there is a trail in south Norfolk just waiting to be explored by adventurous disabled powerchair ramblers.
Norwich Access Group
Thanks go to all the people who have helped and supported with this project including –