For a while, back pain and poor mobility meant I almost become a recluse, venturing out when I had to. Then I decided that back pain and disability was not going to win; I am not going to stop living, I would just have to do things a bit differently. Some experiences have been shockingly negative. But some experiences while reclaiming my life as a person with chronic pain and disability have been uplifting.
I’m a member of the National Trust, have been for a while, ever since they put their Wembury Beach car-park fees up to £4.50; a single membership was cheaper than paying each time I kayaked and bodyboarded there. Then I had children and it was an invaluable way of getting out for fresh air in lovely locations. And now, my membership gets me out with family and friends when I might otherwise hide at home avoiding crowd and difficult situations.
There are some fabulous National Trust properties and gardens around the South West – Saltram House in Plymouth, Cotehele, just into Cornwall off the River Tamar, and my favourite Lanhydrock, further into Cornwall near St Austell. National Trust have an inclusive attitude to disability – where possible, bearing in mind many of their properties are in old houses where lifts can’t be installed, or with rocky steps leading to hidden gardens that would be ruined with ramps put in. Although some places within their properties remain out of bounds, every location has as much access as they can put in without destroying the historic places themselves.
At Lanhydrock particularly, I hold the staff in high regard after one key visit. I couldn’t walk more than a few feet without stopping, had two children, two crutches and my mother-in-law with me. Immediately, the door to the little octagonal admissions hut was opened for me (possibly also for Mother-in-Law before she charged off; a spritely 80 something year old with a healthier back than me). Carers go in free, so I have single adult family membership and R or a friend comes with me. Without having to provide evidence of my disability, we were guided to the Golf Buggy that was to drive us the long walk to the house and gardens. This discretion was refreshing, having experienced other places where not much short of providing a full medical examination outlining the nature and extent of disability will allow a carer to freely accompany you watching your family go on rides that you can only look longingly at (Legoland – click on the link and view the section ‘Accepted Forms of Proof’ if you think I’m joking there).
The driver carefully helped me onto the Buggy and let Summer Girl sit in the front seat; took the bags from my mother-in-law, and told me to call from the restaurant when I was ready to come back. He would collect me before the main stop outside the grounds. Impressed so far? There’s more.
The house has a few floors, some of which are not accessible for disabled people (to be honest, I can’t say I missed much, I am not a huge history fan, love the gardens but it occupies the children for an hour). There’s a lift available (if you’re not afraid of small confined spaces) to some of the floors, hidden away and powered by what felt like small children and only available for disabled people. I was shown this with a smile, told how best to see the house with a disability, and a volunteer offered to help me up the stairs of the last section if I wanted to view it. I told you there was more, but keep going!
The children tried on top hats, searched the house for wooden mice so they could get a badge with a hedgehog on it, and pretended to cook in the vast kitchen. Halfway through, i crashed on the comfy sofas and rested while mother-in-law finished the rest of the house with the children, before heading back out for ice-cream and coffee and a hobble around the gardens. Plenty of benches to sit on and take in the beauty.
On the way back on the driver picked me up first as promised, dropped everyone else at the admissions hut and told me and another person to stay put. He then drove us a further 5-10 minute walk straight to our cars. I was so, so grateful, I hurt so much and literally couldn’t walk another step. I was dreading that walk and he must have read my mind. Amazing huh?!
I love that most of the National Trust staff seem genuinely family and disability friendly, not just because they have to be, but because they care about their work, their countryside and want everyone to share it. Ok, let’s not lie, there is always going to be the odd person having a bad day right? I can cope with that.
I’ve spent three days in the last two weeks at Saltram House; Winter Boy and Summer Girl playing croquet and badminton on the lawn with friends while I sat on a deck chair and drank coffee from a fancy tea-cup. Not a bad way to reclaim my life back.