THE FIRST DAY OF SPRING and Connie East, 17, had never been so freezing in her life. “Sitting with my bum in ice-cold water for an hour…wow, it was fantastic.” She and a group of fellow adventurers from the Stepping Out project for carers had been introduced to the spectacular joys of white water rafting with the GB Rafting team at the Lee Valley White Water Centre in Hertfordshire.
For those with less ambition to be sloshed in icy water, the activity was confined to dry land with two walks to suit all capabilities – one around the action-packed Centre itself and another, longer expedition into the Lee Valley Country Park, guided by Rambler volunteers.
Carers and those they care for came from all over the county: Enfield, Hemel Hempstead, Stevenage, Buntingford, Hoddesden and Potters Bar to take part in the fun, which is specially designed as a scenic, sociable, stress-busting occasion for those who look after someone on a 24/7 basis.
“I know how important it is to look after carers,” said Jean Paul, a full-time carer for 16 years to her son who has severe epilepsy and still his mainstay following his move to supported living. “I’m a member of the Herts Weekend Walkers and I read about Stepping Out in the Ramblers’ Area Magazine. I didn’t know anybody when I turned up but I was made to feel very welcome by everybody.
“I walked in the country park with a lovely lady who has a 19 year old daughter with severe autism. We enjoyed talking to each other very much, I think because she knew I understood. And then, after the walk – oh my goodness, what an opportunity to go out on a raft. It was nerve-racking and amazing. I felt fantastic afterwards. I’ve told everyone about it. I’ll definitely volunteer again.”
Among the other members of the Stepping Out “crew”, GB Olympic swimmer, BBC broadcaster and Karen Pickering, also volunteered for the rafting. Or rather “was volunteered” for the rafting once she had finished the walk through the Country Park. She’d strategically forgotten her swimming costume and claimed that having retired from the Olympic pool she might fail the “swim-test”. But, suitably enticed, you can’t keep a competitor from competing.
“It was brilliant, “ said Pickering later, clutching a cup of tea for warmth later alongside fellow surf-rider Cecilia Kumar also from Sport England, the governing body that funds Stepping Out through the National Lottery.
“Stepping Out is such a great project because there’s something for everybody, “Pickering continued. “It opens a door to wonderful opportunities. Many carers would just not think it is possible to have a day out like this, nor be able to afford it.”
Age is certainly no barrier. Bernie Courtney, 87, from Stevenage virtually sprinted round the short walk, and then revealed that not long ago she’d broken the record at her local Park Run for being the most mature person ever in their group to complete the 5k.
Stepping Out cannot claim to have planned one accidental highlight of the day. The fact that the London Fire Brigade were undergoing their water training was a pure and happy coincidence – but there was a noticeable slowing of the short walkers, which was fully accessible to those in wheelchairs, at the spectator bridge with the best vantage point.
Following lunch in the restaurant, the participants bid good luck to GB rafter, Georgie Preston, who is embarking on an adventure of her own shortly. “I’m joining an expedition in Madagascar to raft down a river they call “The Mania”. We’re expecting to meet about 20 crocodiles a day, I gather and it’s only the first time in human history that anyone has gone down it.
“Why?” we asked.
“I guess I’m about to find out,” she said with an entirely unworried grin.
A classic demonstration of Stepping Out’s remarkable ability to put together adventurers of every level.
Huge thanks to: GB Rafting, Lee Valley White Water Centre, Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, North Herts Rambers, NLSH Ramblers, Herts Weekend Walkers, Karen Pickering, Sport England, The Ramblers and, accidentally, the London Fire Brigade.