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.

Bridges Walk Canterbury

Our first Stepping Out walk of 2019 with participants, carers and the people they care for, came from all over the county and included the Friendly Faces of Kent project from Sheppey, Touchbase Care from Folkestone, our new partners from SOBS charity, a wonderful group that helps people bereaved by suicide. Not forgetting Bernard, the dog, our caring cockapoo who took part in our very first walk back in 2016 and has been our assistance dog and mascot ever since.

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We met at the Bandstand

We gathered at the bandstand in Dane John Gardens for photographs, with the guides from the White Cliffs Ramblers conspicuous in their High Vis. Rowena, the Bridges Walk leader, explained in her opening talk that this incredible walk had been devised by her dear late friend, Alan Clewer. It has been created to cross every bridge in the city without traversing the same one twice. The full-version includes 30 plus bridges. Rowena was kindly cutting it down to 21 for us. Which was quite enough.

We took in the wonders of Westgate Gardens which has a 200-year-old oriental plane tree that is believed to be the oldest specimen in the country. It is also rumoured that the trunk has actually engulfed a metal seat which once encircled it!

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The Oriental Plane Tree
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The Bridges Walk

For fun, and a sense of achievement, as each bridge was crossed Rowena held up the number in question. The walkers zigzagged through parkland, canal paths, city streets and rare byways going over the flowing River Stour in a multitude of different ways. There were a few steps and moments of soggy ground involved so it was not suitable for wheelchairs, which made it all the more remarkable that Steve, in his wheelchair, with his friends from the ever-resourceful Touchbase Care, happily joined in.

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Canterbury Cathedral

The short walkers, for those with mobility issues who nevertheless enjoy a good stroll in the outdoors even on a grey day (no rain though), took advantage of the starting venue to explore Dane John Gardens, bursting with snowdrops and crocuses, before climbing up to the top of the city wall. With scenic views in every direction, we could spot Sandra and Brenda (who were running late) and very clearly our destination beyond the shopping centre: Canterbury Cathedral  The Cathedral staff could not have been more welcoming, waving us through the barriers to gaze in considerable wonder at the magnificent building, even with its skirts of scaffolding while it undergoes extensive repairs.

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Bernard the Caring Cockapoo, our assistance dog and mascot.

 

After a wonderful lunch in the Canterbury Lodge, a number of the carers were able to tour the Cathedral – those parts that are accessible to people in wheelchairs – and Bernard, as usual, had his photograph taken in a suitable scenic spot by an admirer, certainly one for his instagram account. @Bernardlovessteppingout. We’re loving the doggy instagram too.

We’re delighted that everyone had such a wonderful day. We would like to thank Canterbury  Cathedral Lodge, Cabline Canterbury Taxis, the White Cliffs Ramblers too. We’re already planning our next walk which will be a walk around the grounds of Leeds Castle, Kent on the 26th March – more details coming soon.

If you are a carer and would like the opportunity to walk somewhere beautiful with the person you look after or simply would like to walk, meet and chat –  sharing experiences, we arrange walks all over the country – so please get in touch with us here.