“My eyes are empty bottles floating in the sea. . .
Above us is the sky; below us, all around –
I can’t remember colours, though my guide tells me it’s green.”
Blind Ramblers rely on sighted guides to help them when out walking. The Blind Rambling Club in London is run by Valerie Davies and her blind husband, David who is the coordinator. Together they arrange partnerships with local Ramblers’ groups.
Each week a different Rambling group may volunteer to act as guides. Today’s volunteers are members of the Capital Walkers who are part of the Inner London Ramblers.
The main task of a guide is to advise companions of approaching obstacles – things like overhanging branches, undulating ground and approaching stiles. Perhaps, too, to point out the features of the surroundings, such as colours, shapes and textures.
Today’s walk is a five mile circular along the Lee Navigation to Ware town centre, where we plan to have lunch. My walking partner for the day is Mafoud. Mafoud had full sight, until 2010 when his retina detached and he went blind. He says it has been a big challenge to get out and about, and he often wakes up extra early in the morning to map out routes before the rush hour.
With my arm firmly linked to Mafoud’s we set off on to the south-west tow path to reach the banks of the River Beane. It isn’t long before we come to a weir. The sound of the weir captures everyone’s attention, but, amazingly the blind ramblers are able to quote almost exactly its size and shape.
Crossing a footbridge we enter Lea Island, which eventually leads us on to the Lee Navigation. (Further upstream this changes its name to become the River Lea.) But here the lock is a fully operational navigation system to allow river traffic to ply between Hertford and London.
The sun shines brilliantly and we cannot wish for a better day. We walk on and soon enter the open space of King’s Mead Nature Reserve, the largest remaining grazed riverside flood meadow in Hertfordshire, covering 96 hectares or 237 acres, also a tranquil wildlife haven; 265 species of wildflowers have been recorded here, as well as 119 different bird species.
Cabbage white butterflies and a rarer Adonis blue butterfly bob happily by as we traverse the soft grass and clumps of drier, wild reeds.
Continuing eastwards, successfully tackling kissing gates we arrive at a railway line with a pedestrian crossing.
Although I see quite clearly, Mafoud has developed a really strong sense of smell and hearing. Two or three minutes before I hear the sound of an approaching train, Mafoud has already informed me that there is indeed one on its way!
Safely over the two stiles and across the railway line we continue on until we come to the New River itself. As we pause for a drink of water, Linda, another member of the London Blind Rambling club tells us how she listens out for the sounds and smells of the area – the noise of cattle or the distinctive woodland sounds. It’s fascinating to hear her stories.
Linda has a guide dog, Cara to watch out for her. Today Cara is able to enjoy a ‘free run’. It is wonderful to see and hear the dogs taking a dip in the New River, their tongues dangling sideways out of their mouths and then to feel them shaking their wet bodies against our legs.
As we continue our walk it becomes evident that Mafoud is something of a poet and requires some help to complete a line of a poem he’s just started.
“My eyes are empty bottles floating in the sea…”
“Go on,” I say.
“But I can’t remember colours,” he states stopping in his tracks.
Mafoud enjoys a very active lifestyle, takes part in pottery, supper clubs, yoga, gym, music as well as being a keen walker. He can write and read Braille and will, he says, perhaps write his poetry down once he gets home.
There is a feeling of camaraderie, and much banter passes back and forth as we approach the White House Sluice, a 400-year-old aqueduct built to provide drinking water to London. It reaches as far as Stoke Newington, 24 miles away.
Soon we are at Ware where there is a good selection of pubs lining the tow path. We choose the Saracen’s Head to sit outside to enjoy lunch as the weather is so good.
Mafoud tells me that guides are essential to the blind to be able to get out walking and to discover new areas. “Especially if we’re visiting a pub,” Mafoud tells me, “as I’ll need to go to the toilet.” I lead him to the door and Mafoud is an expert at feeling his way around, once inside.
It’s not long before we are all back on the tow path recapturing our steps, past the Broadmead Pumping station, a Grade Two listed building, built in 1885 which once abstracted water from a deep chalk well nearby, but is now disused. Its chimney is almost 20 metres high!
Once again over the Lee Navigation and back towards the River Beane and Hertford East station where our walk ends.
For a county that is land-locked I’ve been amazed by just how much water there is and how diverse the abundant wildlife is, or as, Mafoud commented: “how much there is to touch, smell and hear.”
JulieAdexter, August, 2016.