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Thursday, 28 January 2021

University of 3rd AgeOn Top of the World in a Wheelchair – An Uplifting Tale


In their January members' meeting, u3a welcomed Deborah North, who, as an active headteacher and dedicated fell walker, had her career and hobby abruptly curtailed when, in 2008, she was diagnosed with a chronic degenerative condition and told that she had the spine of an 80-year-old.

Even after an operation to insert tiny rods into her back she still needed a wheelchair, but she and her husband, both keen fell walkers, decided not to let that stop them continuing their passion for the outdoors.

Initially, she used a standard electric wheelchair in an attempt to go up to Gordale Scar, but soon found that it was not robust enough for what she needed.

Terrain Hopper

When an award-winning all-terrain wheelchair appeared on TV, made by a local firm, she had to make contact, quickly resulting in Debbie being able to test drive the Terrain Hopper.

Before she could go any further, however, she contracted pneumonia and was hospitalised once again. Whilst bed bound, she had something to focus on, and she and her husband agreed that they would attempt the coast-to-coast walk when she was fit again.

After recovering, she kept her husband to his promise and the makers of the Terrain Hopper lent her a machine to take her on a coast-to-coast journey. They could not follow Wainwright's Coast to Coast route exactly, but in the spirit of his words, "Make your own footsteps across the country" they forged their own way when necessary.

Were there problems? Of course. As well as early battery issues, there were stiles (including horse stiles!), locked gates and boulders galore. Debbie initially chose to wear salopettes which were not waterproof and so in the intense rain, when they left St Bees, she swelled up to resemble a Michelin Man. After drying out in Ennerdale they continued through the lakes – Buttermere, Shap and then onto Kirby Stephen, where the quarry was closed for her so she could traverse the motorway.

Throughout her trip and in her work since to achieve greater accessibility, the National Parks have all given strong support.

When she arrived in Robin Hood's Bay (see above), her friends and family were all there to meet her and celebrate their achievement of travelling coast to coast in a wheelchair called Harriet, named after her mother.

Twelve years after her diagnosis and operation, Debbie has now bagged three Munros along with Blencathra and Skiddaw. She is planning to climb Helvelyn for the BBC 4 programme by Terry Abrahams – "The Life of Helvelyn".

Debbie feels that in a strange way her circumstances have presented her with a new career path and referred to Alfred Wainwright who said, "You were made to soar, to crash to earth, then to rise and soar again."

She admits there are times when she curses not having legs that work, but on the other hand, she has now reinvented herself to deliver improved walking route access for a wider range of people than before.

Her work with Julia Bradbury, following her TV Walking Routes by wheelchair, resulted in the German Tourist Board inviting her to help promote Germany as the perfect place for those with a disability to visit.

Julia Bradbury's Outdoor Guide

Debbie is keen for everyone to be able to access information about suitable walks and she has now put over a hundred walks on Julia Bradbury's Outdoor Guide. When she tests the walks, she does it for all types of disabled machinery from the robust Tramper Mobility Scooter to ordinary electric wheelchairs.

Debbie's story illustrated her courage, persistence and oft-time serendipity in pursuing her desire to liberate herself so as to savour the trails and tops once more. She can arrange test drives at her home in Kirkby Stephen when we are able to travel and visit again. Contact Debbie through her Debs North page on Facebook.

The next Todmorden U3A Monthly Members Meeting by Zoom will be on Thursday 21st February 2021 at 1.45 pm, open to all fully paid-up members.

Our presenter will be Dr James Taylor, FRSA, with his presentation: "Brilliant British Humour in the Forgotten Art of the Picture Postcard, 1840-1950".

Not yet a member? You can attend one talk free by requesting an invitation to this zoom event. We're always delighted to welcome new members.

Our contact details are www.u3atod.org.uk (website), info@u3atod.org.uk (email), or 01422 886021 (phone).

Many thanks to Michael Astrop for this report


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