Views with­out sight

Why lead­ing a blind walker can re­ally open your eyes.

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: NOR­MAN MILLER PHOTOS: RICHARD FA UL KS

THERE’S A GRAND view from Lind­is­farne beach. The evoca­tive ru­ins of Dun­stan­burgh Cas­tle are a shat­tered stone coronet on the hori­zon to the south. The Farne Is­lands – one of Bri­tain’s top bird sanc­tu­ar­ies, and Sir David At­ten­bor­ough’s self-de­clared favourite place in the UK to see na­ture at its best – are a low-ly­ing scat­ter sev­eral miles out in the North Sea. A long line of tall wooden poles pokes out of the sand be­tween Lind­is­farne and the main­land, mark­ing the trail that pil­grims pace bare­foot to reach Eng­land’s Holy Is­land in an­cient time-hon­oured man­ner.

But de­spite the im­pres­sive vi­su­als, I’m push­ing my other senses to bring this place alive for my com­pan­ion Laura since, be­ing blind, she can’t see any of it. And sud­denly I’m re­al­is­ing that, pri­ori­tis­ing the views as we tend to do, sighted walk­ers some­times miss out on the trea­sure trove of won­ders our other senses can pro­vide.

Trav­eleyes has put that idea to the test since it was founded by blind trav­eller Amar Latif in 2005. Frus­trated from years of be­ing turned away from hol­i­day op­por­tu­ni­ties un­less he could go with a sighted guide, he cre­ated the world’s first com­mer­cial travel com­pany to make the world “a more ac­ces­si­ble place for blind and vi­sion­im­paired peo­ple”. The clever ap­proach in­volves of­fer­ing sighted folk places on walk­ing hol­i­days at a sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced price, in ex­change for guid­ing vis­ually-im­paired trav­ellers ( VIs in the com­pany par­lance) on each day’s ex­plo­rations.

And if you think hol­i­days for vis­ually-im­paired folk are bound to be cau­tious or mun­dane af­fairs, think again. Trav­eleyes’ 2017 sum­mer trips in­cluded hang­ing out with fierce dragons on In­done­sia’s Ko­modo Is­land, tack­ling the gra­di­ents in Bul­garia’s rugged Rila Moun­tains, or ex­plor­ing the ‘ lost con­ti­nent’ of Mada­gas­car. There are en­tic­ing Bri­tish trips too. “Our April trip to Orkney sold out in 24 hours, so we ar­ranged an­other one for Septem­ber,” ex­plains Phil Adams, leader of the trip I’ve joined in coastal Northum­ber­land.

This is my sec­ond time with Trav­eleyes but I still vividly re­call my first-time nerves about, well, pretty much ev­ery­thing, as I tried to imag­ine my shame if my blind com­pan­ion ended up in a ditch, a hospi­tal or over the side of a cliff.

So, a few tips on guid­ing eti­quette. Once you’ve been told your VI com­pan­ion for the day, go and stand in front of them and in­tro­duce

your­self in a warm and friendly man­ner: “Hello Laura, I’m Nor­man, and I’ll be guid­ing you to­day.” Af­ter in­tro­duc­tions, nicely ask your VI com­pan­ion how they would pre­fer to be guided e.g, holding your arm on their left or right side.

Once you’re on your way, you’ll soon get into the swing of scan­ning ahead for things to alert your new VI friend to, though for first-timers the odd stum­ble soon makes the point.

“Step!” is per­haps the most com­monly spo­ken word by guides, but on a walk­ing ex­cur­sion you need to be aware of other guide warn­ings, from “big boul­der!” and “low branch!” to a gen­uine ex­am­ple from my first trip: “200m drop into the sea on the left of the path, Dave – let’s keep over to the right…”

Down on Lind­is­farne beach I’m push­ing my own sen­sory aware­ness to find ways to bring the set­ting alive for Laura. Sud­denly, things I would oth­er­wise have barely no­ticed in pass­ing be­come new op­por­tu­ni­ties for ex­pe­ri­ence. As Morten Stroksnes ob­served in his re­cent Nordic odyssey Shark Drunk: The Art of Catch­ing a Large Shark from a Tiny Rub­ber Dinghy in a Big Ocean: “The land­scape is not in front of me. It’s all around me.”

I be­come more aware of the fab­ric of the beach, for starters. Our is­land guide, Mary Gunn, has ex­plained how tiny fos­sil shells are em­bed­ded in flat plat­forms of sed­i­men­tary lime­stone left dot­ted around the beach by vol­canic ac­tiv­ity 300 mil­lion years ago, when Lind­is­farne was hid­den at the bot­tom of a pre­his­toric la­goon. Stand­ing on one of th­ese stony stages, I fo­cus on the rock to pick out de­tails for Laura of th­ese re­minders of an­cient life.

Guid­ing her down to the wa­ter­line, we stand qui­etly to lis­ten to the gen­tle lap of waves, and deeply in­hale the sea air – as Saint Ai­dan would have done when he came to Lind­is­farne to found its first monastery way back in the 7th cen­tury.

I’m re­minded of my pre­vi­ous Trav­eleyes ex­pe­ri­ence tramp­ing the hill trails of Italy’s Cinque Terre, when I was qui­etly tu­tored in the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of si­lence by my VI com­pan­ion Paul. Ask­ing me to stop in a hushed hill­side wood, he got me to lis­ten – re­ally lis­ten – to bird calls, un­der­growth rus­tles and the whis­per of a sil­ver stream tum­bling down the slopes. Paul recorded it all for a cou­ple of mind­ful min­utes, smil­ing as he cre­ated an au­ral aide mem­oire to con­jure up this beau­ti­ful place back home. And he in­spired me to do the same.

Step­ping out along Lind­is­farne beach, I guide Laura across mounds of olive-green seaweed, mak­ing jokes about quirky car­pet­ing as we share

“Ask­ing me to stop in a hushed hill­side wood, he got me to lis­ten – re­ally lis­ten – to bird calls, un­der­growth rus­tles and the whis­per of a sil­ver stream tum­bling down the slopes.”

the change in tex­ture be­neath our feet. I scoop up some of the long seaweed strands and ask if Laura fan­cies try­ing one around her neck like a ma­rine boa – a sug­ges­tion she laugh­ingly de­clines. In­stead, we run our fin­gers across the fronds, feel­ing their slick silk­i­ness, pock­marked by lit­tle buoy­ancy bub­bles. We even take a tiny nib­ble of salty tang, and de­cide we’ll wait for lunch.

We leave the beach via steps cut into a 20-me­tre high ridge, though not un­til we’ve ca­ressed the strik­ing square ge­om­e­try of the ex­posed vol­canic cliff face – a cu­bic basalt for­ma­tion rem­i­nis­cent of the Gi­ant’s Cause­way. Gusts of wind whistling across the ridge pro­vide a fresh sen­sa­tion. Laura turns her face to­wards them, while I scan the view over Lind­is­farne’s ru­ined pri­ory. Launch­ing into a de­scrip­tion of its an­cient red­dish stones, I pick out de­tails I would oth­er­wise have barely no­ticed.

Walk­ing down to Lind­is­farne’s lit­tle fish­ing har­bour, our guide Mary tells us how, in her 20s, she had worked on the boats over is­land sum­mers, help­ing land the prized lo­cal lob­ster and crab.

For Laura and I, the har­bour is a fresh sen­sory play­ground. Run­ning her hands over the gi­ant rusty coils in a pile of ship hawsers, Laura tells me about the joys of vis­ually-im­paired sail­ing – hoist­ing and winch­ing, as well as tak­ing a turn at the helm. Boats with tillers are par­tic­u­larly good for giv­ing VI mariners a greater ‘feel’ for the move­ment of the boat, while adap­tive equip­ment – au­di­tory com­passes or talk­ing GPS – help too.

Colour­ful lob­ster pots are piled like sculp­ture in­stal­la­tions all around the quay, beck­on­ing us for some more pok­ing around. I guide Laura’s hand around the struc­ture of one, show­ing her where the tasty crus­tacea are tempted in by pun­gent bits of fish. We both agree the whiffi­ness of a lob­ster pot com­pares badly to the lush per­fume of the Gertrude Jekyll climb­ing rose we’d sniffed and ca­ressed ear­lier on the outer walls of a Lind­is­farne cot­tage, run­ning our hands through dense pink frilly petals like a vin­tage crino­line dress.

Be­fore any­one thinks hav­ing sight gives me an undis­puted sen­sory edge, Laura out­does me when Mary points out one of the is­land fish­ing boats mak­ing a high speed re­turn to har­bour – Laura picks out the throaty growl of its en­gine while I’m still strug­gling to see it.

Af­ter cof­fee at Pil­grims Café – good enough for sighted and VI alike to agree on the joy­ful aroma of damn fine caf­feine – we de­part Lind­is­farne for the short drive to Bam­burgh Cas­tle.

Perched atop tow­er­ing sand dunes on one of Northum­ber­land’s finest stretches of silky-white sand, its roots date back to the pre-Saxon 5th cen­tury, when a Celtic Brit­tonic fort known as Din Guarie rose here to pro­tect the coast. It didn’t do much good, though, when the Vik­ings came and de­stroyed it in 993AD. Even­tu­ally the Nor­mans came along and put up an­other one.

It’s big enough that there’s some real walk­ing to be done as we make our way around the ex­ten­sive bat­tle­ments, through an­cient arches and onto squares of green­ery fronted by mas­sive can­non point­ing out to sea. Plenty to de­scribe too, as I swap VI com­pan­ions to guide his­tory en­thu­si­ast Jean, who is in her el­e­ment here. From atop the walls, I tell her about the waves rolling onto the strand, and the folk wan­der­ing amid the dune sys­tem, as we stroke the gnarly metal of old can­nons.

Walk­ing round the cas­tle, it’s amaz­ing how much more deeply I end up ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it. For­get just a cur­sory read­ing of the in­for­ma­tion boards; on a trip like this you re­ally be­come im­mersed in the set­ting, tak­ing the time to learn about it, and feel it.

For many VI trav­ellers, a com­pany like Trav­eleyes has trans­formed their ex­pe­ri­ence of the wider world. As one reg­u­lar client puts it: “I was just about go­ing in­sane with my in­abil­ity to travel the world in­de­pen­dently when Trav­eleyes burst onto the scene. I have now been on 15 hol­i­days with them, both in Bri­tain and abroad.”

Trip leader Phil says many first-timers ( both blind and sighted) try out UK trips like this be­fore com­mit­ting to an over­seas one.

And the cru­cial thing, he says, is that it proves that be­ing blind doesn’t mean you can’t be a hardy and ad­ven­tur­ous walker.

“What we find with VIs is that they want to walk twice as far as ev­ery­one else,” he laughs.

Amen to that.

“On a trip like this you re­ally be­come im­mersed in the set­ting, tak­ing the feel.” time to learn, and to

HOLY IS­LAND Set­tled by St Ai­dan in the 7th cen­tury, Lind­is­farne is dom­i­nated by its 16th-cen­tury cas­tle. ARM IN ARM Nor­man guides his blind com­pan­ion Laura along the beach, shar­ing a sen­sory over­load.

SEN­SORY AP­PA­RA­TUS The sighted and vis­ually-im­paired walk­ers ex­plore the tex­tures, scents and sounds of Lind­is­farne beach.

THE POWER OF WORDS Laura and her guide step care­fully on the slop­ing paths of Bam­burgh Cas­tle.

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