“I can no longer walk my beloved fells – so I’m helping others gain wheelchair access to the countryside”

A spinal condition put Debbie North, 62, in a wheelchair – and turned her into a passionate campaigner for the countryside. She tells her story.

It felt as though the world that I knew was caving in around me. The black dog of depression was nipping at my heels.

I knew I had to find the strength from somewhere to be able to carry on.
I had to build a new life – but around what seemed like a constant flow of hospital stays and medical appointments. Somehow, I had to get back out on the fells.

Debbie North agains a backdrop of the Yorkshire DalesCredit: Debbie North
Debbie North knew she had to get back to her beloved Yorkshire Dales

I used to love walking in the hills. But in 2010, an MRI scan revealed that I had degeneration of the spine, a condition that left me unable to walk.

At the time I had been struggling with “a bit of backache”. Little did I know it was going to rob me of my career and my favourite pastime, both of which I was passionate about.

As headteacher at a primary school, I was forced to take ill-health retirement. On top of that, I was no longer able to get out on the fells.

However, my determination to visit the great outdoors again would not only help me access the countryside in a wheelchair, but help many others do it too.

Back to roaming the fells

officially finished work on February 28 2011, and the very next day I set up a blog as an outlet to vent my frustrations. My first post read:

“Yesterday I was the headteacher of a primary school – today, what am I? I used to be a walker and I’m not that any more either…”

My husband, Andy, and I still tried to get outdoors, but I wept when we went into the Yorkshire Dales and parked up. I would watch other people don their hiking boots and sling their rucksacks on their backs as I manoeuvred myself into my wheelchair.

My first blog, Access the Dales, drew a lot of attention. I received emails and messages from other wheelchair users who wanted to get out into the countryside but didn’t know where to start looking.

So I began researching all-terrain wheelchairs. When I’d done my homework, I discovered there was nothing like them available in the Yorkshire Dales, my favourite stomping ground.

I now knew I wasn’t the only person who longed for adventure. Determined to improve access, Andy and I raised the money to buy an all-terrain wheelchair for the Yorkshire Dales National Park. There is now a Tramper off-road mobility scooter available to borrow – booking is free – at the National Trust Office, at Malham Tarn.

Debbie with her late husband, Andy. She set up the charity Access the Dales in his memoryCredit: Debbie North
Debbie with late husband, Andy. She set up charity Access the Dales in his memory

Expanding my horizons – by wheelchair

“You were made to soar, to crash to earth, then to rise and soar again,” fell walker and author Alfred Wainwright is quoted as saying. This could not be more fitting to describe my life.

With support from the company that makes the TerrainHopper, a robust 4×4 all-terrain wheelchair, Andy and I decided to make one of my dreams come true by doing the Coast to Coast route again, a walk we had completed twice before. The iconic 192-mile (309km) route stretches from St Bees in the west to Robin Hood’s Bay in the east, crossing the Lake District, the Dales and the North York Moors.

The epic journey took us 14 days and attracted considerable media attention. Andy and I had walked the Coast to Coast in 1999 and 2003, and our 2015 journey was just as rewarding but considerably more challenging. Along the way, I certainly learned a lot about accessibility – or, in many cases, the lack of it.

My life had a purpose once more. This was the start of my new career. My experience had given me the drive, passion and determination to become one of the country’s leading campaigners for creating a countryside accessible to all.

From then I was, literally and figuratively, climbing mountains again.

I was made an Ordnance Survey champion, promoting the great outdoors for all. In addition, I started to write regularly for magazines and newspapers. I felt like I was flying high once more.

Debbie North in a wheelchair by a sign for the Westmorland DalesCredit: Debbie North
Debbie was made Disability and Access Ambassador for the countryside by the Cabinet Office

Access the Dales

Those words from Wainwright were to prove prophetic yet again, however. In 2020, tragedy hit once more. Andy was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and lost a short, tough battle against this terrible disease. 

In June 2021, he passed away, aged 56. I was heartbroken.

As a legacy to Andy, my family and I set up a charity, Access the Dales, to break down the barriers that prevent people with limited mobility from enjoying the great outdoors, independently or with friends and family. We’re achieving this by making all-terrain mobility vehicles available to borrow at different locations in the Yorkshire Dales.

With £16,000 raised in memory of Andy, we purchased a TerrainHopper designed to be used by children with disabilities. The first location was launched in April 2022 and is up and running at Ravenseat Farm, home of Amanda Owen, famous for her book, The Yorkshire Shepherdess. Since that launch, the wheelchair has been well used and it is a delight to see the smiling faces of the children using it to access the fells.

We’ve been bowled over by the generosity of wheelchair manufacturers such as TGA Mobility, TerrainHopper and Paratreker, who have donated different types of wheelchairs to our charity. So far, we have eight mobility scooters and all-terrain vehicles. We have set up hubs in four different visitor spots – Malham, Nateby, Tebay and Leyburn.

Debbie with a fellow walker out on the DalesCredit: Debbie North
Debbie loves exploring the Dales with fellow walkers

Becoming an ambassador for the countryside

More recently I have been appointed by the Cabinet Office as Disability and Access Ambassador for the countryside, for which I work with the minister for disability, Tom Pursglove, helping to form policy and drive forward change.

I promised Andy that I would continue to forge ahead to create a countryside for all, and though I may have crashed, I am determined to once again rise and soar.

How wheelchair users can access the countryside

Just as there are a range of walking groups around the country, there are various ways people in wheelchairs can explore our rural areas.

A number of National Parks in the UK have adopted walks called Miles Without Stiles, and there is an agreement across the parks to use the same difficulty grading for the walks. It is worth checking individual parks’ websites for details. A list of website addresses can be found on my website.

Many places around the UK have all-terrain vehicles to hire or borrow. There is a fantastic scheme in and around southwest England called Countryside Mobility, which has more than 50 different locations where wheelchairs can be hired. There is a similar scheme in the Lake District hosted by the charity Lake District Mobility.

Based in West Yorkshire, Experience Community holds regular rambles for disabled people and has a range of wheelchairs to borrow.

The Disabled Ramblers holds regular events and provides a great way for people with disabilities to meet others passionate about the outdoors, and enjoy rambles in different locations.

Many National Trust properties now have all-terrain wheelchairs which are free to borrow.

A walk along a sandy beach is impossible in a manual wheelchair, but it’s worth checking the council websites for the area you’re visiting as many coastal local authorities have special beach wheelchairs that can be borrowed for the day.

And of course, there is my charity, Access the Dales. 

Debbie North

Written by Debbie North


Debbie North is a writer, speaker and campaigner working to make the countryside accessible for all.

North, who lives on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, was a passionate hill walker, until she was diagnosed with spinal degeneration in 2008. She now uses a wheelchair and is still exploring hills and mountains on an all-terrain scooter.

North is a Cabinet Office Disability and Access Ambassador for the Countryside, Ordnance Survey Champion and founder of Access the Dales.

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