The Government has launched an independent review of how the assessment for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is working. This follows a previous independent review of PIP in 2014.
PIP, alongside Disability Living Allowance (DLA), is a payment that provides working-age disabled people with support to meet the extra costs of disability. Our research shows that these costs amount to an average of £550 a month.
These costs might include expensive items of specialised equipment such as wheelchairs, spending more on things like energy to keep warm or taxis to get around, and even certain types of insurance.
A call for evidence has been launched as part of this review to gather the views of individuals who have claimed PIP for themselves, or on someone’s behalf, about their experiences of the process. This includes new claims and DLA reassessment claims, both under normal rules and Special Rules for terminally ill people. In particular, they are interested in the following:
How effectively further evidence is being used to assist in making the correct claim decision.
Data sharing within the Department for Work and Pensions and across government, including the way information gained from the PIP assessment is shared with other organisations to improve health and care services.
The general claimant experience.
Sharing your views will help to inform the review’s final conclusions on the effectiveness of the PIP process, which will be presented to government.
How to respond
This call for evidence closes on Friday16 September 2016, 5pm. You can respond via the online form.
Alternatively, you can submit a response in the following ways:
Post: PIP Independent Review Team, Department for Work and Pensions, Floor 4, Caxton House, Tothill Street, London, SW1H 9NA
This call for evidence is available in a range of formats, including large print, Easy Read, audio, British Sign Language (BSL), Braille, large print, audio cassettes, CDs and BSL DVDs.
To request any of these formats, please use the email and post contact details listed above.
Tell Scope about your experiences of PIP
Scope will be responding to this call for evidence. We are keen to include the experiences of disabled people who claim PIP as part of our response. You can tell us about your experiences in the following ways:
Last week Channel 4 released the new ‘Superhumans’ advert promoting the 2016 Paralympics. Guy Llewellyn, a horn player and Virgin Media employee, starred in the ad as part of the big band. Here, he tells us the impact music has had on his life and the best bits of taking part in the filming. #YesICan
I originally trained as a professional horn player at the Royal College of Music but, after a brief freelance career, I joined one of the pioneering cable companies based in Cambridge, and have been working as an access network planner for the best part of 23 years! Although I decided that a full-time career in music wasn’t for me, I still kept playing at a professional level.
Unfortunately, in 2010, I had a bad fall at home and broke my back. The fall left me paralysed from the waist down and meant I would use a wheelchair for the rest of my life.
It was important to remain positive
At the time, it seemed like both my career in music and at Virgin Media might be over. But, with the help of friends, family and Virgin Media, I was able to find my feet again and continue to work and play.
I cannot stress enough how important it was for me to remain positive and to motivate myself to keep going and beat the doubters.
This was a key message in the Channel 4 “We’re the Superhumans” advert in which I took part.
Being one of the ‘Superhumans’
I was absolutely astounded to be asked to take part in the film, and at one stage doubted whether I was going to be able to juggle all my commitments. I also have a wife and 4 daughters to think about! However, with support from Virgin Media and my family I was able to join the band.
I knew that this was going to be once in a lifetime opportunity, and one that that I will now never forget.
Nothing had prepared me for the complexity of this project and the sheer amount of tireless work by the dedicated crew. Not only was it a huge logistical challenge, (some of my fellow musicians had come from America and New Zealand), but the project also demanded meticulous attention to detail. This meant that the shoot days were pretty long with a fair bit of waiting around. Yet, despite the long hours, I found the whole process fascinating.
The ‘best bits’ from filming
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of doing the project for me, as a musician, was the opportunity to record the soundtrack at Abbey Road Studios. Not only that, we also got to record in Studio Two, where the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd recorded ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.
Of course, there was a lot of waiting around, but just to sit in the Abbey Road canteen and soak up the atmosphere was a truly awesome experience.
Most importantly, the team work I saw unfolding in front of me on the other side of the lens was nothing more than astonishing. We were also very well looked after and, despite some of the crew sometimes working 20 hour days, everyone kept smiling, and shared a real belief in what we were trying to achieve.
The release of the advert also came at an important time. For instance, it coincided nicely with the recent Charity Week and Virgin Media’s renewed commitment to recognising and improving the workplace for all of its employees.
“Watch the advert and let it speak for itself!”
Unfortunately, time and space constraints mean I cannot possibly describe all the amazing things that happened and all the amazing heroes I met. But if you watch the advert I am sure you will see just how important the work of Virgin Media and Scope is in making positive changes to people’s lives.
We would love to hear your thoughts on Channel 4’s Superhumans ad. What were your impressions or reactions? Tweet your response using the hashtag #Superhumans.
It’s World Emoji Day on Sunday (17 July) and we’re celebrating by releasing a set of 18 emoji designs featuring disabled people and Paralympic sports.
Billions of emojis are sent every day on social media and on messaging services like Whatsapp. Despite ongoing efforts to make emojis more diverse with different skin tones and same sex couples, there is just one to represent disability – a wheelchair-user sign, often used as an accessible toilet sign.
We think this isn’t good enough. So we hope that our 18 new emoji designs will inspire Unicode, the organisation that oversees emojis, to represent disabled people in a positive way.
Check out our emoji designs below. You can download the images on a desktop by right clicking on them and clicking ‘save image as’. You can then share your favourite emojis as an image on social media.
These aren’t proper emojis just yet, but you can still share the Jpegs. Alternatively, just share this blog post.
Celebrating the Paralympics
The latest emoji release in June included Olympic sports and medals, but no recognition of the Paralympics.
With Rio 2016 fast-approaching, our emojis feature a number of Paralympians, including a wheelchair tennis player, modeled after Jordanne Whiley, Britain’s most decorated tennis player of all time and recent Wimbledon doubles champion, and a swimmer inspired by four-time gold medallist Ellie Simmonds.
Team Paralympics GB’s Jordanne Whiley and her partner, Japan’s Yui Kamiji, were crowned Wimbledon champions in the women’s wheelchair doubles last weekend.
Jordanne, who has brittle bones disease, says that she loves her wheelchair emoji:
“Emojis are so popular – everyone uses them, so everyone should be represented. It’s shocking that there’s only one character to symbolise disability.
When I was growing up, I didn’t see people like me on TV, in magazines or in films.
I want young people to see that it doesn’t matter what shape or size you are; you can still be successful. You don’t have to look a certain way to fit in.
It would be great for disabled people to be reflected in the wide range of emojis.”
Sorry, but one emoji is not enough!
We asked more than than 4,000 Twitter users whether they thought that one emoji was enough to properly represent disability: 65% said it wasn’t.
Our campaign manager Rosemary Frazer agrees:
“From crème caramel to two types of camel, emojis offer a colourful array of more than 1,800 characters to help sum up how you’re feeling.
So it’s disappointing that disabled people are represented with just one emoji – the wheelchair user sign.
As a wheelchair user, I’m shocked by the lack of imagination. This one symbol can’t represent me and the disabled people I know.
To truly represent the world we live in, disabled people should be included in a way that reflects the diversity of our lives.”
We hope people will use our emojis to support team ParalympicsGB during this year’s games in Rio and beyond. Too often disabled people aren’t included when we talk about diversity.
Let’s change that.
Download and save the emojis above and help us spread the word by using them on Twitter and Facebook.
You can download the images on a desktop by right clicking on them and clicking ‘save image as’. You’ll then have a Jpeg to share on social media. Alternatively, just share this blog post.
Kris Saunders-Stowe is one of the stars of Channel 4’s new Paralympics TV advert. As the Superhumans return to an uplifting soundtrack of Sammy Davis Jr’s Yes, I Can, Kris talks about his passion for dance and how the Paralympics show the importance of focusing on what disabled people can achieve.
My parents always encouraged me to try new things. I loved watching Come Dancing, which was primetime Saturday night viewing back then and my aunt and uncle were competitive ballroom and Latin American dancers.
I remember visiting my aunt and she would be surrounded by bags of sequins, netting and brightly coloured feathers, busily making costumes for their next competition.
I started learning ballroom and Latin American dance when I was seven. I was hooked – progressing through all the levels to ‘gold bar’ – my teacher thought I had potential and wanted to coach me to become a professional dancer.
But sadly outside the studio things were not as positive.
My mother, proud of my achievements, sent me to school loaded with my medals and certificates, and I’d be called up on stage during assembly to share my success.
The intentions were good, but I became the odd one out. I ended up being bullied quite badly, which changed me and how I saw myself. So I gave up dance in a bid to stop it, but the bullying carried on throughout my school life.
I’ve often wondered what my life would be like if I’d carried on dancing. But as my health deteriorated and I lost most of the function in my legs due to a progressive degenerative condition, the idea of dancing again faded away.
Using a wheelchair it felt like I was taking back control
When I started using a wheelchair it felt like I was taking back control and regaining my independence. I became a fitness instructor and I was able to enjoy music and rhythm again through teaching aerobics. I learnt wheelchair dance and qualified as an instructor through the Wheelchair Dance Sport Association.
A few months ago, I was invited to audition for a part as a wheelchair dancer in an advert. I found out after the auditions that I’d been chosen to be part of Channel 4’s Paralympics advert, which was fantastic.
The experience has reignited my passion for dance and opened up further opportunities to do so. I let the bullying end my dreams of dancing and when I first became disabled I felt like I ‘couldn’t’ dance, but now I can because of my disability. I met many new friends through working on the ad, there was a great mix of personalities and we share being part of something iconic.
Yes I Can
The ad for London 2012, which was created by the same director, was dynamic and punchy, conveying the passion, drive and commitment of Paralympians. This year’s will share those qualities, but it also features disabled people, not just Paralympians, doing a wider range of sports, playing music and other activities. It sends a simple message to everyone who thinks or is told they can’t do something: Yes I Can.
When I work with disabled clients as a fitness instructor, I always focus on what people can do rather than what they can’t. I believe we all have the ability to do anything we want in life. Often we can lack confidence in ourselves and so when someone tells us we can’t do something we accept they are right and never achieve our full potential. Yet if we truly believe in ourselves and are encouraged to explore we can change those ideas and perceptions.
When I began my career as a fitness instructor, I attended a course to become an aerobics instructor. The course tutor assumed that because I’m a wheelchair user I wouldn’t be able to fulfil the course criteria, she said I “should be on a special course”. It’s fair to say I proved her wrong, my main career is as an aerobics instructor and I work to challenge people’s perceptions of what disabled people can achieve. Can I teach aerobics in a wheelchair? Yes I can!
It’s human nature to pigeonhole people based on first impressions. But disability comes in so many shapes and forms, visible and invisible that no one person can be considered the same. The same is true for people who aren’t disabled. We’re all the same because we’re all uniquely different.
Too many people look at the impairment, at what they think or assume someone can’t do, rather than what they can do. One of the things I like about Channel 4’s new ad is that it shows what disabled people are capable of, not just on a Paralympian level, but as people taking part in everyday activities that lead to a healthier, enjoyable and more independent life.
What do you think of Channel 4’s Superhumans ad? Tweet your response using the hashtag #Superhumans.
Scope for Change, our training programme for campaigners, is supporting a group of disabled people to launch their own campaigns. To help them on their way, we invited Kajal Odedra from Change.org and Lucy Ann Holmes from No More Page 3 to share their campaigning experiences and expertise.
“Campaigning is a marathon, not a sprint”
This was one of the key messages which emerged from a training session on Saturday 9 July when disabled campaigners involved with Scope for Change came back together for the first time since their residential training weekend in early April.
Since the training weekend, the campaigners have been developing their strategies, tactics, and creating change through their exciting campaigns.
The campaigners taking part in the programme come from all over the country and are aged between 18 and 25 with a wide range of impairments.
Coming from a variety of background with varying degrees of campaigning experience, the campaigners are focusing on very different issues and are using different methods to achieve their goals.
The training day was to give everyone the opportunity to meet up, compare their campaigns and share their experiences.
Diverse campaigns for a diverse community
There are nearly 12 million disabled people in the UK. The Scope for Change group reflects that diversity within the disabled community. Some of the group are focusing their campaigns on making train transport more accessible, while others want to raise awareness of hidden impairments.
A number of the campaigners are working together on a campaign to end domestic and sexual violence against disabled women. Other campaigners are focusing on making museums more accessible to people with autism, making wildlife reserves more accessible and improving access to gyms for disabled people.
Many of the campaigns have a very local focus, as the campaigners want to play role in improving their own communities.
A packed agenda
We had a full agenda with presentations from Kajal Odedra from Change.org who spoke about building your campaign support. Lucy Ann Holmes from No More Page 3 gave her own personal story of running a campaign and discussed the various challenges she faced.
Other workshops covered areas such as the importance of robust research to help your campaign succeed and advice on fundraising techniques, as well as advice on how to sell your campaign to the media.
Jack Welch, who’s running a campaign to make museums more accessible, told us how he was going to use some of the more practical advice:
“It was brilliant to have some of the most experienced and prolific figures in the campaigning circuit. What especially struck me was that the more authentic and connected you were to your cause, the greater chance it is to be successful. For me, I’ll personally have to take Lucy’s advice that doing too much in such a short space of time can quickly exhaust you – the impact will be much better if you spread your efforts over an extended time frame. ”
Sarah Troke had been following Lucy’s No More Page 3 campaign from the start, and thought it was really useful to hear about her positive and negative experiences first hand: “It was really inspirational to hear from someone who had succeeded on such a big campaign, but was also important to hear how she learnt to be realistic and how to deal with ‘campaign burnout'”.
A strong support network
It was great to catch up with everyone and see the progress they have made with their campaigns. It was wonderful to hear the campaigners talk about how being part of the Scope for Change programme has given them the confidence to speak publicly about their impairments for the first time, and explain the impact this had on their lives. Being able to share their experiences has strengthened their resolve to address the negative attitudes and discrimination that affect them and other disabled people.
The campaigners are working hard to improve the lives of other disabled people, including those who may not be able to campaign on their own behalf. Many of them have said that being part of the Scope for Change community has given them a sense of solidarity with other disabled people and boosted their confidence. No longer feeling like they are working alone, the campaigners are part of a group that is struggling for equality and for the same life opportunities that so many of their peers can take for granted.
This is the first time Scope has run this type of training programme. We will be working closely with the current group of campaigners to plan for the next stage for the programme in 2017. We want to improve upon what has been achieved this year so watch out for applications to open for the next Scope for Change.
Lauren is 23 and recently began her first job as an administrator for a social enterprise. At the age of 13 Lauren lost the vast majority of her sight to a rare genetic disorder and is now registered blind. In this guest post she talks about the long and difficult journey to find a job, the difficulties disabled people can face and how she found success at last.
Looking for work
I graduated last year with a 2.1 degree in theology and began a long and difficult job hunt. I was under the illusion that with a good degree, a strong CV due to all of the volunteering that I’d done, and a lot of determination, I would find a job with minimal difficulties. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.
I applied for over 250 jobs in a variety of roles but I had no response from about half of them. I had some interviews but I didn’t get any further despite them giving me positive feedback and saying that they hoped I found a job soon.
Disclosing my visual impairment
I made the decision to disclose the fact that I was visually impaired on almost all of my applications and on my CV. My impairment nothing to be ashamed of so I wanted to be honest and open from the start.
I’m almost certain that some of the reason for not hearing from a lot of the jobs that I applied for was due to the fact that they underestimated what I could do because they knew that I was blind. In interviews I often spent most of my time explaining that, although I was blind, I could do the job just as well as anyone else who had applied.
Finally finding a job
I applied for my current job through the CharityJob website. After uploading my CV and a cover letter, I heard back from them the next day. Their email was extremely positive, asking how they could help make the interview best for me, if my guide dog would need any water and what they were to be like around her.
I went to the interview on a Monday and was told that I would hear back from the company on the Friday, but I heard back from them the same afternoon! They invited me for a taster session the following Thursday so I could see how they worked and for them to see how I worked.
The taster session was extremely positive, the team were lovely and I immediately felt like I fitted in. I heard from the team the same day offering me a job and I was delighted to accept!
The right support is essential
Access to Work have helped with my transportation and getting me the equipment I need to do my job. On my first day I had an assessment to understand what I needed and then we were given the go ahead to order the equipment.
For example, Jaws for Windows which is a screen reader, a braille labelling system and a splitter box which means I can simultaneously listen to my screen reader and the telephone. Having this equipment will ensure that I can do my job as well as my sighted colleagues and that my visual impairment doesn’t mean I’m at a disadvantage.
It’s a really good scheme but the process is slow and has too many stages to it. It would be far better if it didn’t take so long to sort out because for the first month at work I was unable to do my job and had to sit with other people to listen to what they were doing and this was at times frustrating. I just wanted to be able to get on with my job.
I also have very supportive friends and family who were there for me through the no’s and celebrated with me when I eventually got the yes that I had been so desperately waiting to hear.
My employer has been incredible
It’s a varied job and I’m really enjoying what I am doing. They have never had a disabled employee before but they supported me from the beginning and asked me what I needed. They were very supportive and fully participated throughout all of the Access to Work stages.
Now I have everything that I need, I am settling in with my team and getting to grips with the work that I need to do.
Feeling disabled by society
I feel that society’s view of my disability disables me far more than my actual disability, which I find incredibly difficult.
The unfortunate statistic is that two thirds of people with a visual impairment are unemployed and I was determined not to be. I was unemployed for 8 months and I remember feeling at times that I was never going to get a job and feeling pretty useless. I’m very glad to have a job and I’m keen to use my experiences to help others.
How attitudes can improve
I feel that people in many cases don’t look beyond a person’s disability and look at their limitations rather than the unique advantages that employing someone with a disability brings. People with disabilities in many cases are resourceful, determined, outgoing and want to work.
It’s time that there was more awareness about people with disabilities in the work place. We shouldn’t be overlooked just because we’re disabled.
Have you ever felt really let down? Like there’s no hope? A year ago, that was me. Like so many disabled people, I was constantly being overlooked by potential employers. I kept applying and applying for work. But I kept missing out. At first I didn’t let it get to me. But after a while I got so stressed. I started to think there was no point.
“Employers judged me, without finding out what I could do”
I’ve always been a people person. I’m not shy, I like talking and I’m good at understanding people. I love the theatre and have done some acting and backstage work. So I knew I had lots of skills to offer. But, when employers found out about my learning disability they judged me, without first finding out what I can do. I even started one job, but they let me go with no warning. I didn’t believe in myself at all. I felt really down and useless.
Everything changed for me when I met Jo from Scope. She encouraged me to join a work programme where I learnt about everything from how to tell an employer about my impairment to time management skills.
“When I finally got an interview with Morrisons I was so nervous”
I worked on a new CV and learnt how to fill in application forms. My confidence was really low because I’d been rejected for so many jobs. But the support I got made me realise that there are many jobs I can do, which helped improve my confidence a lot.
When I finally got an interview with Morrisons I was so nervous but I had a lot of help with my preparations. I practised and practised answering questions. When the interview day came, I remembered what I was told. And I got the job! I was so happy and excited, I couldn’t wait to tell everyone I knew. The support I got helped me get my job at Morrisons. With your help, other young people can get the right support too, and show employers what they can do.
“My life changed because of the support I had”
I’ve been working at Morrisons for 10 months now. My supervisor helps me remember the things I need to ask customers, like if they have a loyalty card. He says I’ve taken to customer service like a duck to water. I know they want me to succeed here because they do everything they can to support me.
Now I’m earning my own money, I’m saving up to move out from my parents’ house into my own place. It’s great that I can see a future where that happens. I want all employers to be as supportive as mine. My life has changed because of the support I had and now every day when I go to work I feel confident and independent!
Harrison’s story shows how with the right support a young disabled person can get a new start and chance to achieve their dreams.
The Tech4Good awards were created by the charity AbilityNet with the help of BT to highlight the empowering influence of digital technology – whether it’s at home, at work, in education.
There were lots of great ideas this year but here were some of my favourites that used technology to make the world a more accessible place for disabled people.
Accessibility Award winner Wayfindr is an audio-based, open source app that allows visually impaired people to navigate the world independently. It uses smartphone technology and offers directions for stations, hospitals and shopping centres. In the future the project aims to provide navigation wherever you are in the world!
OxSight have created ‘Smart Specs’, an augmented reality display system that allows people to regain a sense of independence. It helps make sense of the physical environment by simplifying the ambient light, translating it into shapes and shades so that people can discern physical objects and perceive depth.
The NHS has estimated that 3-6 million people manage reduced continence due to medical or health reasons. Public toilets are a necessity, but with funding being cut, they can be difficult to locate, and are often not accessible. The Great British Public Toilet Map provide a database that allows you to filter results to suit you, including finding accessible toilets and baby changing.
South London Raspberry Jam
Inspired by his love of coding, and his Tourette’s Syndrome diagnosis at the age of seven, Femi Owolade-Coombes set up a crowdfunding campaign for an Autism and Tourette’s Syndrome friendly ‘South London Raspberry Jam’. As a result, Femi has introduced over 100 young people and their families to coding – all for free, and all at the age of just 10 years old.
But the overall winner of Tech4Good is aged just nine years old! Arnav Sharma has an aunt with asthma and set out to find out more about the condition and how he could use tech to help. Using Raspberry Pi, gas and dust sensors, Arnav’s AsthmaPi kit can help parents of children suffering from asthma. Using email and text message alerts, patients receive prompts to take medication and reminders for review visits.
If you thought running a marathon was impressive, try tackling a 112 mile cycle and 2.4 mile swim as well. Cat Alabaster, our Challenge Events Manager, will be taking on the challenge of a life time as she enters the IRONMAN Weymouth on 11 September.
With just three months to go, writing about my inspiration for taking part in IRONMAN 2016 in Weymouth fills me with a mixture of emotions.
For me this really isn’t about the race itself but about the ‘journey’ to get to the start line. Working at Scope has given me the environment and inspiration to take on this challenge. Having always struggled with confidence and low self-esteem, this was my way to prove I’m as strong as I can be physically but more importantly mentally.
My challenge and preparation
The IRONMAN is a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile run, raced in that order and without a break. No wonder it’s known as the ‘toughest one day event in the world’
I train six days a week and frequently twice a day. Obviously the bulk of the sessions are focused around swim, cycle, run but there are a number of strength and conditioning, yoga and physio sessions thrown in for good measure.
I’m heading out to do a half distance race (70.3 miles) in Budapest at the end of July. I’m hoping this will give me a glimpse into IRONMAN event day, plus I’ve heard the beer is super cheap over there for some post-race celebrations! After that it will be six weeks until race day.
Why did I choose Scope?
Simply because of the people who are supportive, motivated but most importantly extremely passionate. The desire to help create a better, fairer society for disabled people and their families is infectious. Not only do I have the chance to impact Scope’s work in my day to day role as Events Manager, but taking on this challenge means I can hopefully broaden the awareness of Scope and its vital work even further.
It’s my friends, particularly my colleagues at Scope, who listen to me complain and give me the belief in myself that I can do this. And there is definitely a lot of complaining, particularly as I fall off my bike nearly every time I go out!
I’m really excited to take part in the IRONMAN. This is my personal challenge of growth and acceptance, and for me that will probably be harder than the physical challenge itself. I’ve learnt I’m so much stronger than I thought, and with the right people around me I am able to realise my dreams and push myself further than I ever thought. My mantra is ‘Don’t wait until you’ve reached your goal to be proud of yourself. Be proud of every step you take towards reaching that goal.’ So in case you’re thinking of signing up to IRONMAN, here are three things you need to know:
It becomes all you think, talk and dream about
You will need to eat more food than you ever thought possible
You will meet some of the most incredible people along the way to an utterly life changing experience.
If you’re feeling inspired to take on an IRONMAN, or something a little less challenging, find an event that’s perfect for you at scope.org.uk/events or email the events team firstname.lastname@example.org.
Howard’s cerebral palsy required him to make big efforts to learn to balance and walk on two legs, but he found his true calling on two wheels. Howard has now cycled across over 60 different countries, taking him from Albania to New Zealand
In this blog he tells us of his adventures and how his bike helped him live an independent and intrepid life.
The date is December 26.
My third birthday.
And lying at the bottom of the stairs? The gift that is going to change my life!
A bright red Gresham Flyer trike!
Maybe a year earlier the weakness in my muscles, the lack of flexibility and co-ordination had been ascribed to my being affected by cerebral palsy.
But soon I would discover that the legs that were failing me in my struggles to stand, balance and walk would quickly be capable of pushing pedals….and they have been doing that now for six-plus decades on an almost daily basis!
Strange to say, but balancing on two wheels was to prove so much easier to accomplish than trying to do so on my two uncooperative legs! This ‘graduation’ to bicycles took place when I was about nine-years-old, but not before I had made many, many wobbly manoeuvres and rather destroyed some privet hedges in our local park when I used them to stop myself, or just fell in!
The door to ‘adventure cycling’ had now been pushed slightly ajar but confidence and competence to ride myself into ‘unknown territory’ would yet take a couple more decades.
And so it was that very gradually my cycle commuting as a student, first in Leicester and then latterly in Glasgow was ‘spiced up’ with short adventures in Scotland and Ireland. And I must confess that it is the big dollop of uncertainty which tends to characterise my ‘roughly planned expeditions’.
Give me a map and I will quickly devise an adventure! My early ones took me to the Faroes, Nordkapp (the northern tip of Norway), Newfoundland, Turkey, Greece – travels which embraced me with trials and tribulations, frustrations as well as joys – but inevitably a huge store of stories and anecdotes.
My total of countries ‘explored’ by bike is now in excess of 60, including a circuit of Iceland, crossing the Canadian Rockies, New Zealand and less well known places such as Macedonia and Albania, Jordan, the Balkans at the ‘tail end’ of the war there, and many others.
Notes roughly scribbled along the way were transformed into diaries which have permitted me to relive those days on the road and nights camping wild in ‘obscure isolation’.
To Latvia and back (and back again)
Liepaja is a modest sized city of about 72,000 people, set on the Latvian coast some 200 kilometres south of Riga, the capital; a port and major naval base in the era of the Soviet Union.
On a very hot Sunday afternoon in August 1997 I am cycling leisurely through its quiet streets, dusty with the pollution from the massive steel works here, and following roughly the tram route leading me in from its northern boundary.
At the southern terminus, beside a sprawling but very neat and heavily tree-shaded cemetery, there is gathered a vibrantly colourful flower market. I linger here awhile, before pressing on south towards Lithuania. But before long I have selected for myself a lovely secluded spot to camp for the night, tucked in among the pine and birch trees which populate the dunes on this unspoilt coastline of fine, white-sand beaches. Nearby a gaunt watch-tower speaks of much less cheerful times!
I do not expect that I shall ever visit Liepaja again.
Almost 10 years after my ‘Baltic Odyssey’ I find myself hosting ‘V’ and ‘N’, two Latvian ladies making a very brief visit to enjoy the attractions of both Glasgow and Edinburgh. And they come from Liepaja! Not believing that I know of their home city, let alone having cycled through it, I show them my diary account, rather unflattering as it was! And also perhaps a little unfair of a place that has been struggling to free itself from its Soviet legacies.
But my brief encounter with them is to acquire a most unexpected dimension when, a few months later, V’s daughter Anna appears in Glasgow to register to study at the University, a University that I know had made a big impression on her mother!
Family friendships develop and by the end of that Summer I am indeed back in Liepaja!
I can see that enormous changes have taken place…..and I quickly decide that they make the best confectionery I have ever tasted!!
But perhaps the biggest surprise of all is to discover that their family home is less than 10 minutes’walk from that memorable tram terminus, just where the city meets the countryside!
I have since returned a number of times and the creation of many kilometres of cycle tracks has greatly elevated it in my estimation since that first casual pedal over its bumpy, pot-holed streets!
‘Where do you think he is now?’
When my mother would ask of my father ‘Where do you think he is now?’ he could only and honestly reply ‘I’ve no idea’!
But then she had at least attained her ultimate goal of getting me on my feet (in quite the literal sense!) and to live an independent life.