Accessible adventures in Northumberland!

Fox Cover, Doxford Cottages

A great cottage, Alnwick Garden and Barter Books!

Our summer holiday this year was a very modest affair but really relaxing and restorative just as a holiday should be.

Accessible entrance to Fox Cover
Accessible entrance to Fox Cover

We had decided ages ago that we would “staycation” this year in anticipation of Brexit-related chaos after the previous deadline of 31 March (is that right? It’s all such a mess!). I don’t know if it’s because we therefore weren’t geared up to a longer holiday or to going abroad or whether I/we would have felt like this anyway but the thought of a long journey, even one broken up into stages (or perhaps particularly one broken up into stages with several different places to stay) would have been an utterly exhausting prospect!

Fox Cover, Doxford Cottages
Fox Cover, Doxford Cottages

As it was, the journey up to Doxford Cottages only took three hours. We started out on the A1 but as there were signs flashing up that there was congestion ahead we switched to the A19 for a while. There was sunshine and showers on the way with one particularly monsoon-like downpour, fortunately not in heavy traffic, when even the wipers in superfast mode couldn’t cope. That meant it was particularly lovely to arrive at the cottage, Fox Cover, in sunshine!

Parking and drop off area for Fox Cover, Doxford Cottages
Parking and drop off area for Fox Cover, Doxford Cottages

I’m sure any wheelchair user would agree that it’s also quite a relief to arrive at an unknown destination and find that it is, indeed, wheelchair accessible.

Fox Cover, Doxford Cottages
Fox Cover, Doxford Cottages

One of the first things we spotted on arriving was a really cute little rabbit and we saw plenty more during the week as well as various other wildlife spots, including a weasel, a mouse, woodpeckers, squirrels (they used to have red squirrels which would have been lovely but grey ones are appealing too!) nuthatches, chaffinches, lots of rooks and also bats.

Lots of cute bunnies live near Fox Cover!
Lots of cute bunnies live near Fox Cover!

Our delivery from Food Heaven arrived so we were all set for a relaxing time. I’d been having a somewhat stressful time at work so the complete switch off was very necessary. I barely looked at my personal emails and certainly didn’t access work ones or accessed any social media and we just caught the headlines on television now and again.

Peaceful surroundings at Doxford Cottages
Peaceful surroundings at Doxford Cottages

Reading, doing puzzles and jigsaws was the order of the day. Yes, it’s tame but it was also blissful.

There are a number of accessible things to do in the area. Knowing that the weather was not going to be terribly good, we had only really planned to go to the Alnwick Garden and to the coast.

The weather did exactly what was forecast: it rained solidly all Sunday but we had planned to just relax that day anyway. On Monday we went to Barter Books, a huge second-hand book shop in the old station in Alnwick. It has a slightly bumpy threshold but is accessible and has an accessible loo and a few designated parking bays right outside the door.

Accessible and entrance to Barter Books, Alnwick
Accessible and entrance to Barter Books, Alnwick

We have been here before but not for a few years; they have developed the café since our last visit but there is still the same relaxed atmosphere and, of course, thousands of books!

The Grand Cascade, The Alnwick Garden
The Grand Cascade, The Alnwick Garden

The next day, as the forecast was good we headed to Alnwick Garden (see my separate, more detailed review). I had read reviews of this on Euan’sGuide and knew it was accessible, which indeed it was as long as you don’t mind a bumpy ride. Many of the surfaces were very uneven but it was a pleasant visit overall and the walled garden is really attractive. I contacted the gardens once we were home and they said that improving the path surfaces is part of their development plans and they are going to include millions of fibre-optic lights in them so that the gardens can open at night.

The Ornamental Garden, Alnwick Gardens
The Ornamental Garden, Alnwick Gardens

Another day we explored the coast which is lovely and unspoiled with huge sandy beaches and big skies. We went as far as Bamburgh, an immensely impressive castle which we had visited before when I was perfectly mobile so this time we just admired the outside. I’m afraid I’ve been a very bad blogger and not taken anything like enough photographs.

The Ornamental Garden at The Alnwick Garden
The Ornamental Garden at The Alnwick Garden

Because these days doing lots of visits is quite tiring, it’s really important to us to have a cottage with pleasant surroundings and preferably a good view. This cottage has that in spades and we have even booked to go back next year. It’s important for us to get cottages booked up in plenty of time as there are not that many cottages which are exactly suitable and with the sort of surroundings we want. We had rather hoped we would be able to book it for a short break but it was only available to book for a whole week during the times when we want to go so we decided to go back next summer. I promise I will take more photos next year!

Here are some more of our Accessible Adventures!

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A garden especially for this time of year!

There are a few gates to negotiate

Breezy Knees Gardens has a September Garden which is a sight to behold. I really recommend these gardens for everybody but they are especially good if you are on wheels.

Even the approach to Breezy Knees Gardens is colourful!
Even the approach to Breezy Knees Gardens is colourful!

We visited Breezy Knees before, in August 3 years ago so it was interesting to see how it has developed. As you might imagine, this time the September Garden was at its peak and looking really fabulous and colourful.

September Garden, Breezy Knees
September Garden, Breezy Knees

In other parts of the gardens, there were still plenty of roses and myriad other plants: I suspect there will be something of interest at any time of year.

There are a few gates to negotiate
There are a few gates to negotiate

This time, instead of using my scooter, I used my Powerchair which did mean that we had to avoid some of the paths as they would have been too rough. Dilemma! I am less keen on using the scooter these days, preferring the chair but the scooter makes accessing the loo rather difficult. Using the chair mean some of the paths would be very bumpy but you can more easily access the loo if you need it!

Rather narrow loo doorway!
Rather narrow loo doorway!
Accessible loo, Breezy Knees
Accessible loo, Breezy Knees
The car park, Breezy Knees
The car park, Breezy Knees

The car park is still very rough with loose pebbles although someone if else was driving they could pull up next to where the tarmac path starts to drop you off then move the car.

You could use this as a drop-off point if the gravel car park is a problem
You could use this as a drop-off point if the gravel car park is a problem

There was less of a bump entering the reception/shop than I remembered. Exiting it there is rather a bump which, because of the way the threshold is designed would have been worse coming back through but the staff member serving us said she would be happy to open the gate for us when we left.

Plenty of autumn colour at Breezy Knees
Plenty of autumn colour at Breezy Knees

This is where the difference between a manual wheelchair and a Powerchair is crucial: a manual wheelchair can be tipped to get over the threshold, whereas a Powerchair can’t and many places which say they are wheelchair accessible are not actually accessible with a Powerchair.

What can I say?
What can I say?

Staff attitudes are hugely important. This place is clearly trying to make itself accessible (there are also plenty of benches for anyone on foot who needs a rest) and the staff are welcoming, friendly and helpful. Their website says that any new areas will have tarmac paths. I’m quite happy with gravel as long as it’s the really fine type called self-binding gravel and even grass is fine as long as it’s firm, although of course this depends on the weather.

Gravel path, Breezy Knees
Gravel path, Breezy Knees

This visit was a lovely experience all round: seeing so many beautiful flowers and shrubs was very restorative in these chaotic times!

September Garden, Breezy Knees
September Garden, Breezy Knees

Here are some more accessible places to visit.

Possibly the best cottage yet?

Accessible entrance to Fox Cover

We might have found our favourite cottage of all, plus some thoughts on what adjustments should owners of accessible cottages make?

Do you come over all ‘hotel inspector’ when you stay somewhere? We tend to, whether it’s a hotel, B&B or cottage, but with Fox Cover at Doxford Cottages, there’s not much you could improve on!

Accessible entrance to Fox Cover
Accessible entrance to Fox Cover

A cottage for two, it has a spacious sitting room / dining room / kitchen, large bedroom, bathroom with both a bath and a roll-in shower and there is also a conservatory to sit in which overlooks the private garden and the woods beyond.

Looking out from the courtyard garden at Fox Cover
Looking out from the courtyard garden at Fox Cover

It is one of nine cottages created from the old coach house and stables on the Doxford estate in Northumberland, all of which have beautiful décor. It was clean, comfortable and very well equipped, including up-to-date local information.

Fox Cover is fully accessible, being step-free and with wide doorways. There were grab rails in the bathroom by the shower and the loo. Inevitably, everybody needs rails in different places but it did strike me as slightly odd that the ones in the bathroom were placed as if you were left-handed. In the shower area, the rails were on the left if you were to use them to stand up from the shower seat (provided on request) as were the shower controls and there was no drop-down rail to the right of the loo to lean on when standing up but there was one on the left. There is a recommended setup for loos and washbasins that many holiday cottages don’t adhere to it. In some cases I think this is so that the loo can be used by people who prefer either a right-hand or left-hand transfer but I suspect it ends up being not ideal for anybody. Perhaps cottage owners should simply state whether it is a right-hand or left-hand transfer or even create an accessible cottage for each configuration. Anyway, we coped but for many disabled people, the bathroom arrangements are a deal breaker. It staggers me that some places advertising themselves as disabled-friendly don’t provide photos of the bathroom. Having said that, I have been very remiss in not photographing the cottage interior myself – there are pictures on their website though.

Barter Books in Alnwick is accessible!
Barter Books in Alnwick is accessible!

The owners have some equipment they can lend and are happy to answer questions – I asked about the height of the bed, for example. A bit high for me so we used a portable step. As a general principal, I think providing normal height furniture should be the rule, with the possibility of ‘raisers’ if people need different heights. Having said that, a lowered hob in the kitchen would have been useful. This sort of adjustment makes things accessible for everybody: lowered kitchen surfaces are not inconvenient for non-wheelchair users.

I really appreciated that I could sit at the dining table in my power chair with no problem. In the past two places we stayed, Normandy last summer and Norfolk at Easter, we had to prop the table up on books which was far from ideal. The dressing table was also a good height for a wheelchair user. At Valley View in Herefordshire the height of the dressing table was adjustable!

Parking and drop off area for Fox Cover, Doxford Cottages
Parking and drop off area for Fox Cover, Doxford Cottages

You can park right outside the cottage on the tarmac driveway to unpack or for drop-off and pickup but you need to move car to a gravelled area for more longer term parking. This was fine for us as Pete does the driving but if a wheelchair-user was the driver and couldn’t negotiate the gravel this could be problematic.

The lake, Doxford Cottages
The lake, Doxford Cottages

For the more mobile, there is a track down to a lake in the grounds. There was quite a lot of flooding when we were there but even without that you would need a sturdy all-terrain scooter to explore the estate.

The path to the lake, Doxford Cottages
The path to the lake, Doxford Cottages

The Doxford Cottages website has loads of useful information (although not an accessibility statement) such as what you will find in your cottage including a welcome pack of a bottle of wine, local honey, some tea and coffee and a pint of milk. They also mentioned a local company, Food Heaven that provides meals and other food items delivered to your cottage. We ordered three different ready meals and quite a few other items such as ham, eggs, bread, fruit and vegetables. A very friendly delivery driver turned up with it just after we’d arrived and helped to unpack: if you aren’t there they unpack it and put things in the fridge, bread bin etc. I’m not sure I would recommend them particularly though – the meals were tasty but the other things weren’t particularly special. Although it’s good to use local shops and services, it’s no good if the items aren’t things you would choose anyway and shops aren’t always accessible. There are supermarkets in Alnwick to stock up – we went to the local Sainsbury’s during the week which is very modern and accessible.

Barter Books in Alnwick is accessible!
Barter Books in Alnwick is accessible!

Although it rained quite a lot, we had lovely sunshine for our trips out and just chilled out on other days with books, magazines, puzzles and, yes, a jigsaw and did plenty of sitting outside in the peace and quiet. Even before we had entered the cottage we had spotted a rabbit and saw many more during the week plus a weasel, mouse, at least one woodpecker everyday – sometimes two or three at once! – nuthatches and half a dozen or more chaffinches plus, on the last evening, bats flying around! There are seed feeders opposite the sitting room window which are refilled every day.

Lots of cute bunnies live near Fox Cover!
Lots of cute bunnies live near Fox Cover!

I did feel a little bit inclined to keep this place to myself as it is so nice but as we have booked it for a week next summer already, I may as well share!

The Grand Cascade, The Alnwick Garden
The Grand Cascade, The Alnwick Garden

There are a number of accessible things to do nearby – we visited Barter Books in Alnwick and the Alnwick Garden, reviewed separately. The coast is lovely too and we will try out some more places next year.

The Ornamental Garden at The Alnwick Garden
The Ornamental Garden at The Alnwick Garden

Click here for more accessible places to stay.

Accessible, yes, but I wouldn’t go back.

The Ornamental Garden, Alnwick Gardens

The Alnwick Garden prides itself on its accessibility but what a bumpy ride!

We enjoyed our visit to The Alnwick Garden: the weather was sunny. the walled garden is lovely and it was good to see somewhere with accessibility designed into it from the start but some of the path surfaces were so bumpy that it was rather annoying. There are lots of very positive reviews on Euan’sGuide so I feel a bit ”bah, humbug” being negative but I found the constant jolting very tiring.

The Grand Cascade, Alnwick Garden
The Grand Cascade, Alnwick Garden

A couple of years ago, I think I would just have been grateful that somewhere was accessible. Now, I tend to question why places aren’t more accessible and what could be done about it? I’ve emailed the gardens on the subject.

Entrance to the Ornamental Garden
Entrance to the Ornamental Garden

The walled Ornamental Garden at the top of the slope is very attractive as is the Rose Garden and there were lovely wild flowers by the side of the path as you came down through the Cherry Orchard, but that’s not enough to draw me back. It’s designed to be very child-friendly and there were plenty of children really enjoying the little streams in the Ornamental Garden, the various fountains in the Serpent Garden and the swings in the Cherry Orchard, in fact some families were literally camped out on the lawn area below the Grand Cascade but I didn’t see much interest in the giant-themed features such as a huge pair of boots or a giant-sized pie, perhaps because of the notices warning you not to climb on them.

The Ornamental Garden, Alnwick Gardens
The Ornamental Garden, Alnwick Gardens

It is clearly a very commercial setup: there is a large shop and cafe, all very accessible and the plant centre, in fact many of the plants around the gardens had signs saying that they were available to buy in the shop. On the other hand, they also do lots of community outreach such as activities for over 55s and for young people. They also lend out wheelchairs and mobility scooters which you should book in advance.

The Ornamental Garden, Alnwick Gardens
The Ornamental Garden, Alnwick Gardens

We arrived by car and followed signs for Accessible Parking. There are many members of staff in attendance to help and I’m pretty sure we were directed to a general parking area but as the staff were aware of our Blue Badge we had plenty of space as the next car parked leaving us ample room. Apparently there is designated Blue Badge parking but this was the summer holidays so perhaps it was full. It was up hill from there to the ticket office (we hadn’t booked in advance) then through the main gates onto the terrace with plenty of café tables and a view of the Grand Cascade. We had been given a map of the gardens with the accessible routes marked but still managed to get a bit lost as we made our way to look at the Serpent Garden and Rose Garden. I think maybe I slightly missed the point of the fountains in the Serpent Garden, they just seemed a bit dull to me! We wound our way through woodland to the top of the slope on fairly good paths: other reviewers comment on this being rather hard going for those pushing somebody in a wheelchair but at least there are benches all round the gardens for a rest.

The slope down through the Cherry Orchard
The slope down through the Cherry Orchard

The Ornamental Garden at the top is absolutely lovely with little streams, good paths everywhere and some beautiful flowers and shrubs.

From there along to the Cherry Orchard the path was rather rough and then the snaking path through the orchard was very rough indeed as the tarmac surface had been worn away in many places plus the bends are quite sharp so you had to concentrate on your steering. Towards the bottom, there were some beautiful wildflowers growing amongst the grass.

Wild flowers, Alnwick Garden
Wild flowers, Alnwick Garden

Once we were on the flat we then encountered the worst bit of path of the lot near the Poison Garden. This had a queue so we gave it a miss.

We had a look in the shop which was light, airy and spacious with lots of souvenirs, gardening books, some tools (very decorative and expensive!) the usual jams and chutneys and also a small exhibition by a local artist. We didn’t partake of anything in the café which was ‘food-court’ style: different outlets but with central tables which I think were wheelchair-friendly. There were also some very civilised accessible loos, accessed via a spacious lift to the basement level. There are other accessible loos around the site. Apparently the Treehouse tearooms are also accessible via a ramp.

The Ornamental Garden
The Ornamental Garden

It was a pleasant visit and I would happily visit the Ornamental Garden again but wouldn’t be inclined to pay the entrance fee just for that! It’s great that access has been built in to the place, it is far more than just a token effort but I feel less and less inclined these days to accept poor access and to me, being constantly jolted constitutes poor access. I’ll be interested to see their reply to my email about the path surfaces. I’ll keep you posted!

Click here for more accessible places to visit.

More than just waterlilies

The Upper Lake, Burnby Hall Gardens

Burnby Hall Gardens, Pocklington are renowned for their fabulous collection of waterlilies but there is a lot more to the gardens and they are brilliantly accessible – I just can’t quite decide which type of path I like best.

The Upper Lake, Burnby Hall Gardens
The Upper Lake, Burnby Hall Gardens

They have been doing some restoration and improvements so there aren’t so many waterlilies as normal just now (they hold the national collection) but plenty were out and looking lovely and there is much more to see. It’s years since we have visited and they have created new paths since then and new areas to explore, such as the Victorian Garden, Aviary Garden and a shady walk with hydrangeas each side as well as the revamped rockery.

The Rock Garden, Burnby Hall Gardens
The Rock Garden, Burnby Hall Gardens

In the reception area/shop they gave us a map which is also on their website although the hydrangea path must be very new as it’s not marked. It was made of what I believe is called self-binding gravel: very fine gravel, claylike in texture and great for wheels.  Other paths were resin, such as  the ones in the Rock Garden which is lovely and smooth or tarmac with just a couple of loose gravel or bark chip ones which are easy to avoid if your wheels can’t cope with it. I also gave the path to the stumpery a miss as it was too bumpy.

Accessible viewing platform at Burnby Hall Gardens
Accessible viewing platform at Burnby Hall Gardens

It was easy to get right to the water’s edge too as there were viewing platforms especially for wheelchair users. Actually, I only remember one of them and you reached it by going over the grass but this was very smooth – more so than our lawn at home! I guess the gravel paths are the greenest option as they are permeable but might get muddy in wet weather.

Smooth paths at Burnby Hall Gardens
Smooth paths at Burnby Hall Gardens

It was very busy when we were there but it was never a problem and there was a lovely atmosphere – everyone was enjoying themselves! There is a café selling cakes and light snacks with indoor and outdoor seating, accessible loos (didn’t use them but got a photo and they look very civilised!) and baby-changing. There were also plenty of benches as you go round.

The café, Burnby Hall Gardens
The café, Burnby Hall Gardens
Accessible loo at Burnby Hall Gardens
Accessible loo at Burnby Hall Gardens

The museum is accessible too. It houses artefacts gathered by Major Percy Stewart, who lived at Burnby Hall, which is now council offices, during his travels around the globe during the early 1900s. Stuffed animal heads might not be to everyone’s taste but there are plenty of other interesting objects and some interactive parts.

The Stewart Museum, Burnby Hall Gardens
The Stewart Museum, Burnby Hall Gardens

The shop sells gifts and postcards and the staff were helpful and friendly. There is plenty of parking although not enough Blue Badge bays – there were a number of people using scooters and chairs and no wonder when it is so accessible – they hold an Age UK award for accessibility. Pete dropped me off then found a space elsewhere. There are details about parking on their website.

The Victorian Garden, Burnby Hall Gardens
The Victorian Garden, Burnby Hall Gardens

We will definitely be going back – perhaps at different time of the year to see the garden in different moods. It’ll be interesting to see it develop as the lilies and rockery plants return to their former glory. I also like supporting somewhere so committed to making themselves genuinely  accessible – they deserve our business.

Click here for lots more accessible places to visit.

Immersed in Van Gogh – and fairly detached about being in town

360° projections at the Immersive Experience (Visityork.org)

The Van Gogh Immersive Experience was lovely, visiting that part of town for the first time in years was not as great as expected.

The Van Gogh Immersive Experience has come to York having previously been in Brussels and elsewhere – it’s at St Mary’s Church, Castlegate, next to the Jorvik Viking Centre.

The main event is the 35 minute Immersive Experience where you are, indeed, immersed in 360° projections of Van Gogh paintings accompanied by music and some voice-over. They are not just static paintings though: windmill sails rotate, trees and flowers blow in the breeze, rain falls, a train passes through a sunny landscape and yes, you become enveloped in a starry, starry night. They make imaginative use of the space, sometimes projecting different pictures between the pillars, at other times one picture fills the room and you are part of the landscape.

360° projections at the Immersive Experience (Visityork.org)
360° projections at the Immersive Experience (Visityork.org)

I think their website said that it was wheelchair accessible but didn’t have information about who could get a concession and whether an accompanying carer could go free. I e-mailed them to enquire and they asked me to forward my booking confirmation so they could make a note that I would be accompanied; this all seemed a little complicated so I suggested they update their website information to make all this clear and they have! Result! The staff on duty at the venue were very helpful.

Entrance to the Immersive Experience
Entrance to the Immersive Experience

There is ample Blue Badge parking fairly nearby in the Castle Carpark by Clifford’s Tower. The route between the two is a bit bumpy but not too drastic – we came via the road as it’s a quiet one and the dropped kerb at the top of the slope near the church is quite a good one. If your wheelchair is too big to manoeuvre around to the entrance, you could go in the exit. The seating was mainly deckchairs which was a jolly idea but many people were struggling to get in and out of them, plus there were a couple of wooden benches.

360° projections at the Immersive Experience
360° projections at the Immersive Experience

Unfortunately, the second part of the experience was in a room up a small, steep little slope that my chair couldn’t cope with (I think the stabiliser wheels back got caught in the angle as it was so steep). What we missed was mainly some activities for kids, so that didn’t matter to us but there was also some virtual reality headsets (at an extra cost) which I was really looking forward to as I’ve never tried virtual reality so I was very disappointed but I guess it can’t be helped: it’s an old building. It might be that they could have tried a bit harder, though, it was a really steep slope for anyone on wheels.

Reproduction of Van Gogh's room at Arles
Reproduction of Van Gogh’s room at Arles

Afterwards, as the rain held off, we had a look round Coppergate Walk as I have not been there for years. It was very busy and I don’t want to do York down, but it was a bit scruffy, very commercial, with pop-up food outlets and somewhat rubbish strewn. The sloping pavement meant that the entrance to the Body Shop has a small step so wasn’t accessible. I wasn’t worried about The Whisky Shop, the jewellers or the umpteen cafés but we were able to pop into Boots and Fenwick’s which has changed mightily since I was last there. The fabulous selection of greetings cards that they used to have on the ground floor has now been moved to the lower ground floor and wasn’t quite so fabulous anymore but there is a very spacious lift to get you there.

Van Gogh at the Immersive Experience (Visityork.org)
Van Gogh at the Immersive Experience (Visityork.org)

I have mixed feelings about being in town: it was good to see some once-familiar places, but on the other hand a lot of the things you can get in town, you can also get out of town where, as well as being more accessible, is a lot less crowded. We used to be a bit snotty about out-of-town shopping but now realise how incredibly convenient it is for anyone other than the very mobile. On the whole, I can live without looking round shops anyway!

Do visit the Van Gogh if you can – it’s beautiful, it’s different and it’s fun.

Other accessible places to visit.

Rowntree Park looking lovely!

Rowntree Park

Roses, lupins, clematis, goslings… there’s plenty going on in Rowntree Park!

Rowntree Park
Rowntree Park

It looked more well-tended than sometimes when we visited the other day and, as ever, the mix of tree types is very striking: copper beeches contrasting with the greenery. There have been some improvements in the pathways, various uneven bits have been smoothed.

Love the contrasting colours!
Love the contrasting colours!
Goslings, Rowntree Park
Goslings, Rowntree Park

There are always plenty of interesting things to look out for. On our visit there were goslings, moorhen chicks and ducklings and all the installations which make the park so varied such as the duck house on the pond, the ‘chess-piece’ horse that small children love to scramble on, the totem pole and the helmet. There is of course, the more traditional play equipment and the skateboard park and there is even a boat selling ice creams across the river!

The ice cream boat!
The ice cream boat!
The Millennium Bridge
The Millennium Bridge

I used to always use my scooter when we went to the park, but actually my Powerchair handles all the surfaces absolutely fine, even the slight bump at the flood barrier.

Rowntree Park
Rowntree Park

Lovely as The Homestead is, you can make a longer visit at Rowntree Park because of the paths by the river. These are a little rougher than the paths within the park and the cycle path heading out of town is rather bumpy with tree roots but not too bad. I understood that was going to be fixed, perhaps it will be soon.

Riverside paths
Riverside paths

It’s always a pleasure to visit Rowntree Park and the riverside paths.

More accessible places to visit.