Fringe Box



Opinion: We Simply Want the Same Level of Access to Our Park As the Able-Bodied

Published on: 8 Mar, 2023
Updated on: 31 Mar, 2023

One of the paths at the Riverside Park deep in mud, ruling out disabled access.

By Karen Robinson

Before becoming disabled, I had no idea how vital being out of the house and reconnecting with the world is, and living in Burpham with the beautiful Riverside Park Nature Reserve on our doorstep, this was not a problem.

So, on a daily basis, armed with two dogs, one husband and a mobility scooter, fashioned upon the elegant lines of a Chieftain tank (we call it “The Beast”) I was able to go out and enjoy the park.

Even during the freezing, soaking, windy winter, when the most stoic dog walkers are considering the wisdom of owning a cat, it is possible.

Or it was – until the parks department of Guildford Borough Council decided otherwise.

Firstly, against much user opposition, GBC Countryside Department installed the cattle they are obsessed with putting on the site, during the winter.

Not that the cows themselves were difficult, a very cute bunch they were, and had they been fenced in, as on other sites, to many, they would be a welcome addition to the park.

Naturally, despite countless pleas, no fences were installed, but if, when the cattle blocked the paths, or hemmed you in, you didn’t mind a bit of, “hee ya!” and rump smacking, initially it wasn’t too bad.

But as the weather worsened, and the cattle, seemingly competing in some dung-producing competition, meandered across the rapidly glutinous mud of the towpaths and fields, things became much more tricky.

Being locals, we enter at the rear of the park, along the towpath at the far end of the lake field. Here there are no made-up paths, GBC, it informed me, gives its priority to visitors who drive there, using the main car park. They acknowledge that there being no constructed pathways here is “a problem” and the council is, “looking into it”. I am not holding my breath.

It was more than a problem by the time the cattle left the site, it was horrendous. The entire area was pitted with hollows, due to heavy hooves sinking into the muddy, soaked grass. The cows produce multitudinous deposits, adding their own squelch. Farmers are, of course, exempt from the poo bag policy.

The walkers had problems, the cyclists, despite this being a national cycle route, were getting stuck and for anyone on a mobility scooter, let alone a wheelchair, it was impassable.

Paths through the park are meant to be cycle routes but this level of mud makes it as inaccessible to them as to those with mobility scooters and wheelchairs.

Once we had entered through the rear gates to the park, we were left with nowhere to go.

I tried to appeal to the GBC Countryside Department but the responses, via email, made it very clear to me that I appealed to the officer concerned not one whit.

I explained that the continuing towpath towards Stoke Lock was a churned-up mire, and the meadow was a steep, hoof-holed, mudslide.

There is a semi-constructed path along the side of the meadow, down which wheelchair and mobility scooters could go, and access the rest of the park. This pathway we could see, but not access, as between it and the towpath, there was approximately ten feet or so of very deep, churned mud.

I continued complaining, and an officer eventually offered to put down matting to cover this gap, which was marvellous, or would have been, if it had ever been done.

Just to be out, to see other people and not exist within the same four walls makes this walk very important to me, and other disabled users; so I assembled a team of volunteer able-bodied people, who were willing to dig up the mud. Also, there were some disabled mobility scooter drivers, who were willing, like me, to use their scooters to haul aggregates, which I would pay for, to form a temporary path.

As this is GBC property I asked for permission but he refused, on the grounds that there would be insurance difficulties. I told him we were prepared to sign disclaimers for the insurance. But this was also refused.

Some light, in the form of one of the driest Februarys on record, shone down on the problem. At the end of the towpath, a small rise, hitherto unmountable, became dry enough for my mobility scooter to climb, and circumnavigate the worst of the mire. I was able, albeit with the odd husbandly shove, to access the made-up path.

Others with more “standard” mobility scooters were not. I told this to the officer concerned but by now, I was getting the distinct impression he was organising a GBC whip round to pay for my removal costs, should I care to relocate. I pointed out that with the first drop of rain, the path would again become just a view.

Far from being any help (by, for example, laying the promised matting) the parks department has instead been sending large and heavy vehicles to the Stoke Lock area. What they are doing is anybody’s guess but the council’s vehicles, like the rest of us, become stuck in the towpath/path link and further churn up the mud.

They are now bypassing the deepest parts, and using the whole surrounding area as a turning circle. The ten-foot gap is now far longer and much wider.

Despite this, I again offered assistance.  Having reached the limit of my contacts, I volunteered to advertise for more help, get together a larger team, and pay for more aggregate, to lay the temporary patch. My request was again refused, this time claiming we would need training for our mud digging and aggregate depositing.

So far, we have been lucky, the rain has (at the time of writing), mostly, held off, and the mud is still temporarily set. The part of the hill around the new, council vehicle spinning section, is still climbable, although only for sturdiest scooters.

But, at some point the rain will return. I have warned Guildford Borough Council, who are so interested in insurance claims, that when it does, we disabled users of Riverside Nature Reserve might be making claims of our own against the council.

Grassed areas, normally easy-going, can soon become impassable.

We were fully prepared to sign disclaimers in order to patch a pathway, to give us access to the park. The council is mandated to provide equal access for the disabled and the able-bodied. It is the council’s duty. But they refused.

Effectively, GBC has deprived us of this access due to its vehicle use and the decision to graze cattle during the winter months before installing properly constructed, safe pathways those of us in mobility scooters can use.

The council has been fully warned of the problems, so is, I believe, liable for any resulting injuries caused by their neglect, either to injured persons using disability vehicles, or the able-bodied who assist in trying to recover any person or immobile or damaged vehicles.

Why should Guildford Borough Council be able to deny access to us? Those for whom it is so vital to get out of the house and, if only for a short time, feel once again a part of the world we feel we have lost.

Give us the same access as the able-bodied. We simply want to walk the dogs and enjoy the beauty of a local park.

Guildford Borough Council has been invited to respond.

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Responses to Opinion: We Simply Want the Same Level of Access to Our Park As the Able-Bodied

  1. Joe Taylor Reply

    March 9, 2023 at 9:20 pm

    This area is quite hard to walk through after wet weather, I can’t imagine how daunting it must be for those with mobility issues. We should be able to experience the outdoors and reap its benefits.

    I was walking through the boardwalk area of the nature reserve a month or so ago and spotted many parts that were in disrepair, not only is it hazardous to others but it also looks like the council doesn’t care. Which judging by the response Ms Robinson received from GBC might not be too far from the truth.

  2. Frank Phillipson Reply

    March 11, 2023 at 3:19 am

    It seems, contrary to current strategy encouraging walking and cycling, that Guildford Borough Council has given priority to car users. I say this because the car park in Bowers Lane, at the north-east end of Riverside Park, is the only place from where there are continuous made-up or surfaced paths (suitable for those who find it difficult walking or use mobility scooters or wheelchairs) all the way to the south-west end of the lake.

    Beyond this, the paths change to compacted earth which in wet weather turns to mud. This is exasperated by the seeming obsession of having cattle “to aid plant life”, plant life which seemed to get on quite well unassisted for many years. Surely providing electric fencing, as used on Whitmoor Common, could keep the cattle confined to the various large areas of meadow. Added to this, council and contractor’s vehicles have now made the area resemble The Somme.

    Riverside Park was created when the new section of the A3, avoiding Burpham, was constructed in the 1980s. Its purpose was to provide a “publicly accessible green space” for Guildford residents to enjoy walking and cycling with a secondary aim of maintaining the plant and animal life. This is, in fact, why Riverside Park is designated by GBC as a SANG (Suitable Accessible Natural Green Space). Its role is to “provide alternative green space to divert visitors from visiting” the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area (SPA).

    It now seems that members of the public have become the secondary consideration as regards the purpose of Riverside Park and far from diverting them from the Thames Basin Heaths (such as Whitmoor Common) they are more likely to go those places with their better drained sandy soils.

    Foot, mobility scooter and cycle paths from the A25 Parkway/Spectrum under the A3 into the SW areas of Riverside Park urgently need, in the first instance, emergency works carried out to enable access for all to resume. In the longer term, made-up surfaced paths need to be provided in the south-west areas of the park and adjacent to the A3 Parkway/Spectrum.

  3. GBC spokesperson Reply

    March 31, 2023 at 4:04 pm

    We recognise the important contribution that our parks and green spaces make to the health and wellbeing of residents. We are sorry that some visitors have experienced difficulties in accessing certain areas of the Riverside Park Nature Reserve. We are aware that access for people with disabilities has been made difficult due to the muddy conditions.

    A contractor was already booked to repair the muddy sections of the footpaths referenced in this article. They will also be repairing potholes in the car park and re-defining the parking spaces for people with disabilities. We are expecting them to start work tomorrow, but there may be some delays. This is because Thames Water are currently carrying out sewer repairs, so it may not be possible to access some areas to complete all the work.

    Our officers do listen to feedback from residents and where possible act to make improvements in over 50 countryside sites across the borough. We must comply with policies and procedures when considering works and assess the impact on the nature of the area and its biodiversity. This means that potential works need to be evaluated, costed, and approved, which can take longer than we would like. We take accessibility for people with disabilities very seriously and are compliant with all the relevant access regulations for a nature reserve.

    In 2020 we commissioned an access audit of Riverside Park Nature Reserve specifically to help us identify and prioritise access issues. In relation to the matters raised in this article officers have worked to resolve the issues raised as quickly as possible. We believe we treat all residents with respect and are polite in our communications.

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