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Alec and his wife Hazel. Bury, Manchester

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“With Hazel being on the vulnerable list we have to be a bit more careful. Like everybody else we get fed up now and again but our daughter phones us every day. She took me on a video walk last week actually beside the Bridgewater Canal. Walking along holding the phone and talking to me so I could see the scenery. It were lovely. Next best thing to being there.

This is the thing you see. I retired early through a heart attack. I sort of took up walking afterwards to get myself fit. Me and a friend. We used to go hill walking every week. I’d be gone from 8 in the morning til 8 at night on those days, Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough, as far as Robin Hoods Bay once.  I don’t know how the wife put up with it. She’s fantastic. I had to keep a close rein on Kevin though. He was a devil for going off-piste, if you know what I mean.

Obviously when the wife were taken ill I couldn’t do the walking. So it was really great when Bury Carers took up walking with https://carerssteppingout.co.uk/. That walk we did at Heaton Park, Hazel and I thoroughly enjoyed it – even though we got soaked! We’re looking forward to starting again when we can.

It’s our 58th wedding anniversary this year. We were 15 when we met. Rock’n’Roll, Bill Haley, Elvis Presley. Thing were different. Different world altogether. There were no dating sites, internet, things like that. We actually went out and met people face to face. On Friday/Saturday nights in Chesterfield the habit was for all the youngsters to go Town Topping, as we called it, in the centre of town. Four streets formed a quadrangle and all the girls would circulate one way round the triangle and all the boys would circulate the other way. Bit of talent-spotting. Eyeing up what was available, so to speak. Then we’d go into a coffee bar to chat.

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That’s how we met, me and Hazel. We arranged a date following weekend to go to the pictures. I can’t remember what the film was. (I know it wasn’t the John Barry 7 Band at the Chesterfield Gaumont because I’d already seen them with the lads). So I turned up at the allotted time. No Hazel. Ten minutes – quarter of an hour later, no Hazel. In the end I waited for next two buses. Still no Hazel, so I decided I might as well  go home and chalk it up to experience.

I forgot all about it until about a week later when, my mother said: Oh Mrs. Hardwick’s got a note for you from a young lady. Mrs. Hardwick was our next-door-neighbour. Turned out that she’d met Hazel at a bus stop the day before in Chesterfield and they’d started talking as you do. When Hazel discovered that Mrs. H was catching the bus to Dronfield, she said: Oh I met a young man from Dronfield couple of weeks ago. His Mum and Dad have a shop.’ (They did. Mum and Dad had a corner shop like Arkwrights, you know, the old BBC comedy with David Jason and Ronnie Barker.) Mrs. H said “Oh my next-door neighbours run a shop.” Hazel said: ‘His name were Alec”. Mrs. H said: “Oh my neighbours son is called Alec”.  So she scribbled a quick note to give to Mrs. Hardwick- “Same time, same place, next weekend” – and now we’ve been together over 60 years.

What had happened was Hazel had got infected gums and her mother wouldn’t let her come. ( I understood what it was like because I’d had it too. All I could eat was soup and mashed potato for days.)  From that day we’ve always said, myself and Hazel, it was fated for us to be together.

I was 20 and Hazel was 19 when we married – and I always add we didn’t have to get married! We had 5 children – lost three of them at birth or from miscarriage but we got through.  We still have two fantastic children. Our daughter Susan is a gem, our son Steven is fantastic lad and his husband  Michael is also a great lad. He’s actually made big improvements to our life. He’s brought us out – because he’s always been involved in theatre and performance.

Where we’d been happy doing same things at night and going to work in the morning, Michael got us mixing with his friends and going out more. We would always go to Mablethorpe on our holidays, he goes abroad. And now we’ve been as far East as Bangkok and as far west as San Francisco. He’s done us good.  One of first places we ever went away with them was to the Greek Island of Crete. I got dressed and went outside and Michael looked me up and down and said:“Father-in-law, we do not wear socks with sandals.” I’ve never worn socks with sandals since.

How’s Hazel? This is the thing: obviously it’s not good. She’s losing her memory. She can’t even remember now when we got married. But she’s ok – she’ll have a conversation with you. But two minutes later she’s forgotten every word. Her short term memory is shot. Myself, Im coping because Ive got to cope. I cant do anything else. I also know if boot was on the other foot shed look after me. She looked after me brilliant when I had my heart attack. When I had my second one in 2018 my daughter and son came for a week each but Hazel, even though then she was ill, looked after me as best she could.

She’s had Alzheimers for about seven years now and she’s always laughing. She’s chosen to. She says there’s two things you can do: laugh or cry.  I do things to try and jog her memory. I put on the DVD of our Golden Wedding Anniversary a week or two back. She can’t remember any of it now. Being only 2012 that was heart breaking. I’m looking at that film and there’s my Hazel in full-song on video but she weren’t sat watching it as she was then. But our daughter is prouder of Hazel than she’s ever been. She says: “I’ve never know anybody with such a positive attitude.” So that’s basically it. That’s where we are now.

 I suppose the toughest thing about this lockdown – me particularly, the wife not so much – is not meeting people, losing contact with people, not seeing family. That’s been the worst for me. I’d love to be able to get in the car and drive to the Peak District and park by the side of the road for an hour, see the sights, walk in the hills, but those days will come again.”

The Daily Round

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Here we are again, just like every afternoon for ages now, off for The Walk. Just me (ancient, creaky, stick) and my grown son Jay (tall, specs, autistic). Fortunately, we can make each other laugh – precious in these strange lockdown times. In our house we also have the cat (old, tabby- and-white, cattle prod for encouraging slaves). 

So here we go, down the muddy bank and onto the Green. This is mown grass. It was turfed over after they demolished the remains of a Victorian factory or two, so that they could build that new estate you can see up there. Apparently research has shown that seeing stretches of horizontal green like this are calming, good for us – I can believe it. 

So, down to the little lake we go. No coots today, but the Canada geese are nesting on the bank. A few pairs of ducks about. The pond weed is coming back, too, so I guess there will be plenty of insects for the birds now. Talk about birds – just listen to that glorious din of birdsong from the surrounding woodland! Can you hear that single, miraculous song ring out above the rest; a blackbird, maybe, or a thrush? Wish I’d learned to recognise birdsong in my younger days. 

We talk as we go. It’s a good time to share silly stories. 

“Did you know, the cat’s thinking of getting a helicopter?” “Really? Where’s she going to keep it?”
“In the garden, she said.”
“No room. Her tyrannosaurus is there.” 

“Oh yes. Have to be on the roof then, I suppose.” “Mm”. 

When they made this into a tiny country park a few years ago, they left the woodland alone. Lots of scrubby new growth, with a few mature trees. Hawthorn, sparkling with fresh green leaves now, and brambles and ivy, filling in the gaps. To our right there’s a raggedy little stand of redcurrant bushes. If it was later in the year we might find a handful of berries to munch. 

 

A pair of magpies are lurking about deep in the wood on our left. One peeps out from behind a tree trunk and says ‘Kark?’ suggestively to Jay – cue for developing a ludicrous scenario about flirting magpies. 

“Well hello there sailor! You look very – fit – in those jeans. Like to hold my feather?”
Stop laughing. No, really. Stop. Look, there are people coming. Let’s get out of the way. Remember 

the 6ft rule? “Afternoon. Hello dog.” 

Here’s the ancient cobbled path called ‘Nursery Walk’, and we turn left to go uphill towards the main road. Still woodland here, but soon we hear the traffic, cross over and go into the playing field. We’re really high up here. Look! There’s the wind farm all lit up in the sunlight, and Ramsbottom Moor there – can you see Peel Tower on the top? And a long way off, Saddleworth Moor. The wind is cold, isn’t it? 

And we head home, via the lovely, scruffy back alleys, for cups of hot tea.  

CM April 2020 

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Lesley’s Story

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WHY THE ‘ECONOMICALLY INACTIVE” WON’T TAKE A JOB AS A CARER.

My name is Lesley. I am between 16-64. And I confess I have been “economically inactive”.  I am one of the 8 million people that Priti Patel has highlighted as being among “plenty of people in the UK who businesses should be looking to upskill and train.”

The trouble is I don’t have time to get a job as, say, a carer in the social care sector because I’m already a carer to my Mum and Dad. My Dad was diagnosed with dementia 17 years ago and my Mum had to stop being his full-time carer in 2013 because she diagnosed with cancer followed by chronic arthritis and a stroke. I do virtually everything for them bar actually living in the same house: shopping, form-filling, hospital trips, doctors appointments, outings, holidays.

I also run a charity called Friendly Faces of Kent for people facing loneliness and isolation. A huge number of our group are equally “economically inactive” because they have mental health conditions which come from being isolated – often stemming from the loneliness of being a carer. It’s common to find that people are abandoned by friends and other family over they years when they are a fullltime carer. They don’t go out, they don’t do anything, they have nothing to talk about apart from their caring role.

Then there are the people they care for  – also “economically inactive” – who have all kinds of physical conditions from Parkinsons, MS, diabetes, fibromyalgia, the list is endless really. Often the carers have significant health issues themselves that are rarely addressed because caring for someone is a full-time, full-on 24/7 job. Unpaid. I know people who are postponing their own operations so that that they can soldier on in their carer role. That’s surprisingly common.

I think “economically inactive” is terrible term to use towards carers, especially when they are saving the government an estimated £132 billion according to Carers UK. They reckon that is the amount carers in kind contribute to the treasury because carers have abandoned jobs, income and often their own needs to look after someone in the family or a friend. Otherwise that responsibility would fall to social care (in crisis) or the NHS (under huge pressure) to do the job instead. The whole system would topple.

Do not get me wrong. I love my Mum and Dad. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want to spend as much time with them as possible in the years that remain to us together. I love Friendly Faces. I love the Stepping Out walks we take with carers and the people they support as a wonderful break. But caring generally is hard work and tough going. It does impact on my life.

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I’m five years down the line since the break up of my marriage and I can now recognise the toll it took on us. Rather than go out to work and earn a proper wage I decided to go part time and look after Mum and Dad instead. My husband was working doubly hard and I wasn’t really contributing very much. Believe it or not, I worked out that in 22 years I’d been out twice with my husband without my Mum and Dad. Every holiday we went on, we took them aswell.

When it was all over I realised that actually we should have made time for us as a couple too. We never really did that. It definitely contributed to the break up. This happens regularly with carers. You give it your all. You do that because you love the person you care for or you feel a profound responsibility and there’s no-one else to do it. You don’t always realise what’s happening around you. How you can lose touch with the real world.

And we should give credit, perhaps, to those who work when they can. Barry, my new partner, was a full-time carer to his wife earning £60 a week in carers’ allowance for 8 years. When she died, he did, in fact, return to work.

I can honestly say that I’ve never been more “active” in my life. It never bloody stops. So forgive me for not accepting a job as a professional carer. I’m doing the job as an “amateur” already.

Find FRIENDLY FACES OF KENT on FACEBOOK

TWITTER @FFOKent

A Wild Country Ramble…..in London! (By Suzanne Baboneau, MD at Simon & Schuster)

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There is wildness in us all, but in most of us it’s latent, sleeping, unused. Wild we are in our deeper selves: we are hunter-gatherers in suits and dresses and jeans and T-shirts. We have been civilised – tame – for less than 1 percent of our existence as a species.

 Simon Barnes, Rewild Yourself

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Suzanne Baboneau, Managing Director of Adult Publishing at Simon & Schuster, probably didn’t set out to rewild herself the morning she left her home on one side of London at some ungodly hour and walked pretty much to the other side of the city just to get to work. It was miles. There is a perfectly good underground system. What was she thinking?

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“I was thinking: ‘I’ve just turned 60 and I wonder what I could do to help keep myself active.’ It just came to me as a challenge. From where I live at Shepherd’s Bush to where I work at Grays Inn Road: could I do the walk physically? How long would it take? I seem to remember there were tube strikes at the time so that was another incentive. My daughters had grown up. I didn’t have to do the school run any more. I liked walking. Why not?

 “It might be something I’d do a couple of times and then give up. Maybe it would take too long. Maybe I’d get to work exhausted. Maybe it was just plain crazy. That was three years ago. I still do it every morning.

 “I owe a lot to the Royal Parks. The vast majority of the walk is through beautiful green spaces and attractive back roads. I’ve seen glorious sunrises, families of swans, geese flying in formation.  It is like walking through the countryside in one of the biggest, busiest cities in the world. It’s extraordinary.

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“I vary the route from day to day but it’s roughly west to east from Shepherd’s Bush Green to Holland Park to Kensington Gardens. The Italian Garden and the pond there are favourites of mine. Then into Hyde Park where I see people like me every morning: runners, joggers, dog walkers – all part of the same early bird community.

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 “Marble Arch is always a bit of a shock to the system, with its reams of traffic and noise and construction but once navigated the back roads offer peace again.  The BT Tower is sometimes lit up with a message that says “Good Morning London”. I take that as a personal greeting.  I reach work before 9am and instead of feeling tired, I feel better, energised and ready.

 “It’s never boring, the walk. Every day is different. I see the changing of the seasons, I vary the route and I don’t care about the weather. My friends say: ‘But what if it’s raining?’ I say” ‘I put up an umbrella.” Sometimes I hum to myself. Sometimes I’m pondering a book title. You can definitely work as you walk. Things come to you. But above all it is just wonderful to look about you, take in nature, be part of nature and make the time to build it into your everyday life. I hardly notice I’m walking 12 miles a day. I’m just going to work my way.

 “It’s simple. It’s free. I didn’t realise at first that I’m rewilding myself – to borrow Simon’s phrase – every morning. But that’s exactly what I’m doing. There’s a rhythm and a quietness and a contemplative element to a walk and it has brought me great joy.”

 Huge thanks to Suzanne and Simon & Schuster for sponsoring https://carerssteppingout.co.uk/ with copies of this wonderful book “REWILD YOURSELF” by the brilliant wildlife writer Simon Barnes at a major Stepping Out event this year. Details coming soon.

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ON THE BOOK: “Whether you’ve in the city or suburbs or deep countryside, this book will bring you closer to the nature that exists all around you. You can always be where the wild things are. These days non-human life walsh’s seems to be just over the horizon – but with the smallest alteration all this can change. This book is designed to make that happen.”

Walking Back to Happiness

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I don’t know why it is, but you tend to get to know people better on a walk. Maybe it’s something to do with being out in the open air, communing with Nature, meeting other people who are enjoying the same thing. Chatting combines with exercise effortlessly – it does for me anyway – and that’s why I’d like to thank the Stepping Out and the Manchester & Salford Ramblers so much for all the walks this past year.

The last one at Alexandra Park was as brilliant as ever and unlike our previous walk at Heaton Park, this time the weather remained dry throughout.

It was nice to see some new people from The Bury Jubilee Centre, who joined us and there must have been about thirty of us all together.  We instantly bonded with our new friends, and I reflected that the Pavilion,where we sat enjoying enjoying tea and coffee afterwards, was the same place I’d regularly visited, when I was about six years old, on a Sunday afternoon with Mam, gran and my elder brother. I remember the tropical plants and large whicker armchairs in the Pavilion which opened up at the front to take in the panorama of tennis courts, fields and cricket pitch over yonder. This was something of an “Oasis,” where we were treated to delicious Orange Squash, Dandelion and Burdock or Strawberry Soda. Not forgetting the famous Wall’s  vanilla ice cream, which we eagerly devoured clamped between two wafers! Then there was the novelty, and at times frustration of a bag of Smith’s Salt & Shake crisps, with a little blue paper (dark blue like the touch paper of a firework) twist of salt inside. The problem was that occasionally this was absent, and the tantrums were frightful, and sometimes “explosive!”.

These were such vivid happy memories of endless Sunday summer days, partaking of a spot of “pitch and put” behind the Pavilion, or walking down the passage way between the wire-fenced tennis courts. I can still recollect on one occasion, chatting to a young couple, resplendent in their immaculate tennis whites. They were so kind and and must have been bemused by this talkative little chap.

Back to the walk…..as is the habit with The Manchester & Salford Ramblers (I was there as a member of The Manchester Carers Forum) there were two walks to choose from: an easier more pedestrian type walk in the confines of the park, or a longer one that I chose to take.  We set off from the rear of the  Pavilion, with the old duck pond ( I didn’t stop to throw bread as had been the habit in my younger days!), out through the smaller of the park gates, down the wide street bordered by elegant, red brick, large victorian houses to eventually join the “Fairfield Loop” at the end of the street, a now tarmac-ed path, well signposted, that was formerly a railway line. We’d entered at the point of the old station, as the Station Master’s house to the right of our view now testified.

Some imagination had been used to enable us to lose the main roads and cut through Hough End Playing Fields down into a grove by the stream. Our Ramblers’ guide Margaret (also amongst the leaders a  “Mags” and a “Maggie,” which continues to confuse and amuse me!!!) informed us that the clump of very old blackened and wettened trees were once the shelter for a herd of horses being hidden from Bonnie Prince Charlie as he passed this way.

After about one hour and a half in total, we had apparently totted up four miles as we made our way back onto the “Loop” and retraced our steps back to our base at the Pavillion for a hearty buffet and hot drinks. I celebrated the day’s walk with a delicious slice of Blueberry Pie and a nice hot brew!

It only remains for me at the end of this year to say thank you to everyone for making these walks not just possible but so enjoyable too. I am really looking forward to the outings’ next year with The M & S Ramblers and all the new friends we made this year. Plus those we have yet to meet.

A very merry Christmas to everyone involved and a Happy New Walking Year.

Jack.

Walk in Heaton Park, Manchester

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A lovely blog post entitled: Walk in Heaton Park, Manchester, in September by Jack Coupe, one of our carers with the Manchester Carers Forum.

I looked out of the window that morning and thought: “Oh no, it’s raining”, followed by  “Who cares if it’s raining!”  I love walking in the fresh air. My wife’s the same. We go for walks in the park most days. We don’t have a dog, so we walk each other. It’s one of the greatest things: to be out in Nature, hear the birds singing, smell the new-mown grass, the wind rustling the leaves. It’s like a movie in front of your eyes.

I was a bit concerned that they might cancel it thanks to the weather. But I didn’t get a call so I soldiered boldly forward. It always reminds me of the love I had for walking 40 years ago when a bunch of us at the YMCA in Peter Street used to catch a train and go out somewhere for the day with a packet of sandwiches and a thermos. It was a trek really. We’d climb what felt like a mountain to me and on the way up, you’d be shattered and thinking: “Why, why, am I doing this?’ Then you’d get to the top and see this beautiful patchwork quilt of fields and trees and lakes laid out in front of you and all the pain would vanish.

Now I’m older with a bit of arthritis but I still love it and I can’t praise the Manchester Ramblers and the Carers Forum enough for putting on these walks for us at so many wonderful places. The value of them is immense.

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I was surprised to see so many people turn up in the drizzle but, you know, I think that’s because people can be lonely. When you’re a carer you often feel isolated. My son developed a drug dependancy when he was young, mainly cannabis, and  there have been long years of struggle and heartbreak. He’s doing better now but I can sympathise with people going through the same thing. Somehow people can find that bulldog spirit that pulls them through, which I suppose is why this huge crowd turned up at a hotel on the edge of Heaton Park – the largest park in Europe, by the way – to walk, have a chat and have fun.

“Fun?” I can hear you saying. But it was. We had an amazingly good time. It was like “Singing In The Rain” –  the old film. And it was all the more amazing to me because I’d had quite a grumpy start to the morning. I do sometimes. I have anxiety. My dad died in a road accident when I was seven and it’s like Sliding Doors the movie. I don’t know how I’d have been had he lived. I’ve always been a bit nervous and anxious since.

But then I put my boots on and it made me think immediately: “Wow, I’m getting back to my youth here when I was young and fancy free at the YMCA.” I was unemployed then but doing exercise and taking in their philosophy about cultivating mind, body and spirit gave me motivation. I got a job with the Royal Mail and stayed there for 23 years.

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My mood changed and the walk was fantastic. In the distance saw the big stone, like an obelisk, planted to commemorate the Pope’s visit to Manchester in 1984. We made our way to the highest point in Manchester, topped with a grand-looking folly made of pillars, with a panoramic view out to Oldham and the suburbs. For me, I think the most moving sight was the memorial to the Battle of the Somme, a semi-circular wall made of up plaques in a collage dedicated to the soldiers who fell in battle. We all stood and read the inscriptions for some time. Took some photos. Took time to think of them.

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We came back for lunch together and that was great too. No man is an island and talking to people, being with people, especially people who have just been part of the same adventure makes you feel better.

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I can’t say enough about Margaret, Mags, Maggie and the rest of the Manchester and Salford Ramblers who organise the walks for us. Nor Miriam and the other staff at the Manchester Carers Forum. You are always greeted by smiles and they are not perfunctory either. They really care. Looking forward to the next walk now and seeing everyone again.

 

A Record-Breaking Walk by the Sea

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Ryan was gazing in fascination at a short winged conehead cricket. Ah, hang on, no it wasn’t. Victoria had spotted an orange bit (not the official anatomical term) on its body and so Joy from the Essex Wildlife Trust declared it  – drumroll  – a LONG winged conehead cricket. Everybody cheered.

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This was an off-piste moment on the pilot Stepping Out walk in Southend-on-Sea –  an event which broke all box office records for gathering group of carers and those they support in numbers even greater than Basildon’s turn out back in May. A grand total of 72. In fact 74, if you – and we do – count Roxy and Oscar, the guide dogs.

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The walks – long, long–ish, short and short-ish to suit all abilities – roamed through the nature reserve at Gunners Park in one direction and along the promenade from Shoeburyness towards Southend Pier in the other direction. The expert guides were drawn from two local Ramblers groups, South East Essex and Basildon Greenway. Co-walk organiser, Megan Potts, led the Sport For Confidence cavalcade and broke into impromptu dance moves where necessary. An array of volunteers and staff lent their support from every participating groups which included:

Project 49 (Ryan’s group) –  Southend day centre for adults with learning difficulties

Forget Me Not – providing disability support in Rochford

Action for Family Carers in Essex

Basis – Blind And Sight Impaired Society

Papworth Trust – Basildon centre for adults with physical and/or learning difficulties.

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Chief among the motivating factors was Billy. He has been declared an official”National Fitness Day Hero” only 24 hours earlier, awarded the title for his dedicated service to a vast array of sports and organisations including the recent Cricket World Cup and Active Essex. Just two years ago he has been lying in hospital stricken by fibromyalgia.

“I was practically dying,” he said.”When I came out I was determined to get better. So I took up multidisciplinary low impact exercise like cycling, swimming, yoga.  It’s made such a difference to my life. The thing I love is that it’s enabled me to empower others.

“The best thing about today was giving a bit of motivation to some of our walkers who really wanted to reach the mile mark but doubted they could do it. So we chatted, we keep going, we encouraged one another  and – with a few rests on benches in between – we made it. I loved that!”

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Being the sort of organisation believes in post-exercise lunch, Stepping Out had booked a massive order of cheese toasties and drinks for the returning hordes after the walks in unbroken sunshine. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the seaside cafe,  rose to the occasions spectacularly as did the Ramblers and Megan’s forces who were press-ganged into service as waitresses.

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QUOTES OF THE DAY

‘I love to the diversity of the age range. The pace was really good. It was accessible to everybody and the best thing about it is that it was fun. Mum and Dad had a great time,” Martin Crocombe, who raised £1500 for Pancreatic Cancer UK in the recent Prudential 100 cycle ride.

“Oh it was just wonderful meeting new people and walking along in the fresh air with nice views alongside like-minded people. We would definitely love to do it again.’ Ama Owusu and her daughter, also Ama, who regularly attend Sports For Confidence activities in Southend.

Geoffrey Forward,  the Basildon Greenway rambler who guided the long (long) walk with his usual meticulousness through clouds of butterflies and wild flowers in Gunners Park, quietly revealed that his mum and dad used to bring him to Uncle Tom’s Cabin for an ice cream 65 years ago.

“You’ve just knocked five years off…” exclaimed an overhearing Rambler, “you told me 70 just now!”

Jeff laughed slightly sheepishly and made no further comment.

If you would like to discover more about Stepping Out Walks and how you could join one of our walks email: hallosteppingout@gmail.com

 

Georgie Preston in Madagascar

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STEPPING OUT ambassador and GB rafter, Georgie Preston, surveyed the swirling torrents of the river they call the Mania in Madagascar and instantly diagnosed: ”Certain death”. What with the violent thrashing of the mud-brown water AND the Nile crocodiles. A little further on she and her fellow expeditionists decided: “Almost certain death.” That was fine. They’d go in the water there.

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To each their own adventure. This is the story of Georgie’s.

“Every adventure begins with the first step, as your motto says, and my first step on this particular expedition was a phone call I received at 3 AM in Galway nightclub. Between being slightly drunk and the booming music, it wasn’t easy to hear the voice.

“Oh Ben, it’s you,” I said, delighted to hear from a great friend and fellow kayaker,  one of two brothers,  hard-core adventurers, I’d met in Ecuador last year.

We talked about the trip he was planning with his brother and dad to tackle the infamous Mania for only the third time in human history, 191 miles east to west, in all its wildness. I couldn’t wait to tell him that my plans changed and now I was free to come.

“Are you sure?’ he asked.

“Yes of course,” I said without hesitation.

He called again the next day when he figured I’d be sober.

“How serious are you about Madagascar?”

“100%”.

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So here we were, carrying two rafts, two kayaks, 400 kg of gear in all, through the wilderness to the most practical start point of the Mania at Ambositria. Maybe ‘practical’ isn’t quite the right word. It’s not ‘practical” to invade the territory of 6 foot long crocodiles who launch themselves in such aggressive attack you can see the teeth glistening in their widening jaws as they tank towards you. Nor to shoot the crashing rapids where the siphons can suck you under and hold you trapped in tunnels of rock.

The river was high and fast just after the rainy season and boiling with turbulence. Choosing the right line to navigate was a tricky business. We’d argue sometimes. “Certain Death” – don’t do it. “Almost certain death” – ok. Once I remember there was a particularly difficult lateral move to cross from one side to the other where the line was easier. The kayaks went first and made it. But the raft wasn’t quite as agile. There were three of us in there. I was paddling at the front. We could tell we weren’t going to make it. I knew then we were in trouble. I didn’t say anything. I just paddled really hard. The worst thing you can do is panic and stop. Your whole life comes down to this pin-sharp moment. Do or die. Well, here I am so we didn’t die. But it was scary.

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But I don’t love adventures for their crazy dangers. I think that is more of a bi-product. What I truly love is bonding as a team with people who look out for you just as you look out for them. I was the only girl on this particular trip amongst six boys and that didn’t matter at all. (Although I did wash more – and with soap.) We were in this together whether it was negotiating with the wonderful local people in sign language to help us carry our stuff or just playing with the children and the women with games like ”head, shoulders, knees and toes” for fun. Communication, you realise, can go way beyond words, although I did learn Malagasy for ‘tree”.

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And ‘train’. Because there is a universal fact applied to river adventures. You never want them to end. So having survived the Mania, we altered our plans to include one more river that we could apparently reach by steam train through the jungle. Who could turn that down? It seemed to be going so well as we discovered this platform and a little hut right in the middle of a wilderness but then we learnt the snag. The train didn’t stop. It just chugged past while we ran hopelessly alongside. Someone local consoled us with the thought that there would be another train along at 5am and locked us in a little hut for safety on the platform to wait for it. It was still pitch dark when it came into view and we stood on the track waving torches to flag it down. It was an oil tanker. No seats. Just clinging to grills on top of each rounded oil tank screaming “DUCK!” “TUNNEL!” “TREE” to each other as we steamed through the jungle dodging all the overhanging dangers.  Very James Bond.

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We were rewarded with a clear water river of great beauty with no crocodiles. The surface was so flat and gentle that you could paddle right up to the lip of a waterfall and look over without tipping to your doom.

I love this way of life. I don’t really know why it’s so addictive but it has something to do with living in nature, living WITH nature, respecting it and belonging in it without exploiting it. Living very simply, sleeping outside at night, travelling by river. Sometimes I find cities overwhelming with their noise, lights, concrete, people although it would be hypocritical to claim I don’t enjoy a browse around camping shops.

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I’m at my happiest on these adventures although I’m aware of the invasion of sadness on the last two or three days of every trip knowing it must come to an end. But there’s always a next time. Another incoming phone call at 3 AM in a nightclub, not necessarily in Galway.

Would I be in?

“100%”.

A word from Georgie about Stepping Out: “I get it. I get completely why carers and the people they care for love being outdoors with new friends in nature, seeing beautiful things, learning to rely on one another, laughing together, coping together, eating together. Good luck to you on your adventures and I look forward to seeing you again soon.

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Leeds Castle Walk

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On a glorious spring day in March, we arrived at Leeds Castle, Kent in anticipation of the latest Carers Stepping Out walk. It was the first time I had ventured out on one of the walks since starting to work with Sue Mott and team with social media support. I brought my mum along as she was staying with me for a few days – she was absolutely  delighted. The last time I visited Leeds Castle was over 5 years ago and this glorious Castle was  as wonderful as I remembered.

With the walk starting at 10.45am many carers and those in their charge starting arriving, gathering at the entrance excited about the day ahead. The Carers groups that joined our walk included The Friendly Faces of Kent, a support group to bust loneliness and isolation (founded in Sheppey by one of our carers, Lesley Nowell. Touch base Care, Folkestone, joined us too and SOBS Margate – Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide.

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The sun was shining as the carers decided whether to join the 1 mile or 3 mile walk around the grounds – both guided by volunteers from White Cliffs Ramblers, including ex regimental Sergeant Major Les Preston who has experience of this kind of thing from years in the army where he trained soldiers in climbing and kayaking. Les and two volunteers from the Samaritans led a group on the longer route and Sue and Bernard the caring Cockapoo and mascot led the rest of us on the shorter walk meandering alongside the castle and an array of beautiful spring flowers.

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My mum, Marion walked with a lovely lady, Hilary who is a volunteer with The Ramblers as a treasurer, and this was also her first time on a walk with the Stepping Out project. It was heartening to see how they both talked about their lives and shared experiences.  Hilary stayed with my mum who is unable to walk very far these days. We later discovered that Hilary had planned to do the longer walk, but decided to walk with my mum – so lovely. We later stopped for coffee for a while, soaking up the sunshine whilst waiting for those who had taken the longer route. Then making our way to the  restaurant for a delicious lunch. I was able to catch up with Les and hear all about  the work he does with the White Cliff Ramblers. Around the room there were many happy people who had shared experiences and made memories.

As I walked and photographed the glorious scenery and the carers enjoying well needed respite from their normal daily routines, it struck me how there were over 50 people who had come along many as complete strangers, getting to know each other – who rarely having the chance to enjoy the outdoors – with all the worry taken out of organising a day out, this was a poignant moment for me. A real insight into the importance of being able to have access to open spaces, something most of us take for granted.

Along the way I spoke to some of the carers and their lovely charges too, all with their own stories who all agreed that these walks offer a lifeline, something to look forward to, sociable, fun and carefree!

One of the carers who now cares for her partner, talked about happier times when they could enjoy walks like this one, spontaneously whenever they wanted to get out to the countryside. The Stepping Out walks help to keep those memories alive and make new ones; a connection from the past in the present. I feel privileged to be a small part of this project, helping to grow the popularity of the walks through social media, funded by the national lottery through Sports England and in partnership with The Ramblers.

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A huge thank you to the wonderful carers,  fabulous staff at Leeds Castle, Kent who made the day so memorable for us all, especially the extraordinarily helpful attitude of the restaurant staff, including Chris who also works, he told us, as cabin crew for BA. Not forgetting ‘Bernard’ @Bernardlovessteppingout, our caring Cockapoo who puts a smile on everyone’s face.

If you care for someone and want to be part of something quite special, then you too could join one of these walks.

Lee Valley Walk

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.