A wheelchair user with his dog at St Aidan's

Inclusive Walking with Experience Community – St Aidan’s

We first met Pete at Oakwell Hall Country Park in Kirklees, there to try out some of our adaptive equipment. He was looking for new activities to do after a mountain bike accident in 2014. This had left him in a coma, with a life-changing spinal cord injury. The accident meant he had to begin to use a wheelchair and try new things: he was no longer able to enjoy his main hobby of scuba diving and underwater videography because both his lungs had been perforated in the accident.

RSPB St Aidan’s Nature Reserve in southeast Leeds was somewhere Pete discovered after his accident. He was invited to visit the reserve by friends because the paths are quite suitable for wheelchairs, except for a climb from the wetland area back up to the car park and visitors centre. The site was once an open cast coal mine, flooded in 1988 after the riverbank collapsed to form a lake.

One of the many bird at St Aidan's
A cormorant at St Aidan’s – Photo by Pete Lau.

Pete now visits two or three times a week. It’s the wildlife, particularly the birds, that attracts him the most – he got interested in birds after his accident. He told us his fondness for St Aidan’s was because “it’s such a big site, it absorbs people and once you hit the trails you can find an empty spot. There are several trails around the site and the best track to take is to the lagoon where there are several lakes, all with accessible paths to them.”

A Great Crested Grebe at St Aidan's.
Great Crested Grebe – Photo by Pete Lau.

“Two of the lakes have reeds and there are lots of birds living and nesting amongst them. The lagoon area is also great for waders and geese.”

Pete explains that “it’s a special site because 25% of the UK population of black necked grebes, a rare bird, live on the site. You also get bitterns, which, 10-15 years ago, were not found in Yorkshire. There are some stunning and quite rare birds.”

Recently, a Slavonian grebe was spotted. These birds, according to Pete, tend to live further north. “There are only 12 or 15 sighted in the UK each year.”

A Slovonian Grebe visiting St Aidan's.
A Slavonian Grebe visiting St Aidan’s – Photo by Pete Lau.

St Aidan’s has four signposted trails, with the Trans Pennine Trail and the Leeds Country Way also passing through. Pete told us that “the tracks are all good quality and wide, with room for runners, horse riders and dog walkers. There is plenty of space for everyone, particularly at the moment as we’re having to keep our distance. There are also certain sections where you don’t see anyone, which is great as you see a lot more wildlife!” 

Pete uses an electric wheelchair attachment to get around the site. “I usually do between 3.5 to 5 miles on each visit. The electric attachment allows me to go further than if I was manually pushing. As a result, I can walk my dog Merlin 3-5 miles an hour, something very difficult in a manual chair. I can also carry heavy photography equipment in a rucksack at the front, easily accessible if I see something interesting.”

He also told us that while he can access the site independently, he sometimes goes with his wife Debbie or meets up with friends to walk the dogs. “The benefit of being outdoors for my wellbeing is fantastic, keeping me sane. You never know what you’re going to see. Sometimes you don’t see much depending on the weather but I’ve seen common cranes, short-eared owls, red kites, buzzards, and deer.”

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Pete has spent a lot of time at St Aidan’s and other nature reserves. He has also set up his own blog, Accessible Nature.

RSPB St Aidan’s is located between Castleford and Leeds. There are several disabled parking bays, which are free to blue badge holders, a small café and disabled toilets.  

A group of Mountain Trike users at St Aidens.
An Experience Community Mountain Trike Ramble at RSPB St Aidan’s.

You can visit Experience Community for other walk ideas and short films about access and facilities at a variety of locations throughout Yorkshire.

If you have a disability and would like to share your favourite walk with us, please do get in touch through our social media networks. You can also email us at info@experiencecommunity.co.uk

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