Earlier this month I was invited as part of a group of individuals to Wimpole Estate in Cambridge. My role was to take part in a tour of the farm and to mention and discuss any access issues that arose.
I’d never heard of Wimpole Estate before, even though Cambridge isn’t that far from where I live in Norfolk. So I did a bit of googling and discovered that it’s a National Trust property which consists of a hall/house, gardens and farm. I purposefully didn’t do too much digging. I wanted my first experience of the Estate to be when I arrived and undertook the tour. I saw that there was an accessibility section on the website but didn’t even read this before my visit as I wanted to arrive with no expectations.
Very unusual for me we found Wimpole Estate first time, mostly main roads other than a small winding county lane as we neared our distinction.
Google maps informed me this was a 70 minute drive, and as usual Google knows all. We arrived punctually, just as the others were arriving. Which was handy as I wasn’t really sure where I was going!
With rain threatening (after a rather rainy drive the sun was breaking through), we headed off on the walk from carpark to farm. I was pre warned it’s a little bit of a trek, I quite enjoyed the walk (wheel) though, I like a bit of the outdoors, the pathways are surrounded by trees and foliage. Even though I live in Norfolk, which a lot of people presume is full of grass, trees, rivers and country bumpkins (I’m sure there are plenty of all those too!) I actually spend the majority of my day to day life around concrete, brick and duel carriageways in either Attleborough or Norwich, ‘A Fine City’ it is indeed! So being amongst the greenery is a pleasure for me. The pathway of the walk was a little bumpy, the surface a kind of thin tiny stone dustiness. Nothing to cause issue.
There is the offer of a large golf buggy to transport people to and from the carpark, Hall and farm. This isn’t wheelchair accessible, but could be handy for people that tire easily or struggle to walk long distances.
I could smell the animals before I caught a glimpse of them!
Entering through the door labelled exit (for accessibility reasons) we were gathered and given a brief summery of what the farm is all about. Wimpole is a working farm, which means that most of these animals will become dinner. I did not realised this, and maybe bringing my vegetarian PA wasn’t the best plan! Although this can be a bit unsettling to some, seeing an animal and being told the rough date of its demise, I feel that it’s an important aspect of the tour. Every meat eater knows where their steak started out, learning about what you chose to eat can only be a good thing in my opinion. Saying this, I am a meat eater and I did feel a pang of guilt looking those cows in the eye!
Majority of the animals at Wimpole are rare breeds (expensive burgers!) and apparently breeding them for produce (food) is a good way of keeping each rare breed in existence. Being able to sell and make money from the animal allows it to keep being bred…..?
This is too much for my little brain, and it’s not my job, so let’s just focus on how amazing and cute the animals I got to meet were. Although it’s a working farm and the cows etc are magnificent, there’s also a sprinkling of petting animals for good balance.
The cuteness and beauty of these animals is best relived in photo form, rather than a long stream of awwwwwwww from me!
So here you are….
Farms are germ and bacteria parties, so understandably you’re asked not to pet some of the animals due to cross contamination (especially those being bred for food). As you’ve seen there are some animals to touch, plus just wiping a hand across a gate or barn can spread germs. There are facilities to wash your hands as entering the pigs barn, however I couldn’t use these. They were low down and enclosed in. I mentioned how this isn’t very easy to use for someone in a wheelchair, and that an over-hanging sink might be more accessible. You’re probably thinking, like me, what about that hand gel stuff they use in hospitals? I did enquire about this, and it was discovered to not be very effective. It’s ok to keep clean hands clean, but not suitable for the kind of dirt that can be picked up around a farm.
One of the major issues for myself, and the rest of the group actually, was the uneven paved surfaces.
Although mostly cement, it is probably quite an old job, wasn’t done to top notch standard and has warn away in areas. The ramps into and out of barns and buildings seem to be laid very haphazardly. With some being very steep and others with untidy lipped edges.
Although these lipped edges do jolt my neck and I have to take them with ease, they are manageable for myself and my hunk of a chair (as you know from my previous Latitude blog, a bit of off roading doesn’t stop me!), but there are people more delicate than myself, people that are new to this life with wheels, and people without battery power fuelled wheelchairs. I noticed that those being pushed in a manual wheelchair found it quite a struggle. As well as being nerve wracking for the passenger with the horror of being thrown on the floor, this is tough going for the pusher and their back, wheels jutting against lips and getting stuck in between lumps bumps and drains.
This is such a simple issue to solve, yet one that would make a huge difference to somebody’s experience of the farm. Some neater, more graduated slopes, that blend in to the grounds surface, and just an overall smoother ground would solve some of the biggest access barriers in my opinion.
I’ve noticed that some places offer wheelchair and mobility scooter hire, I enquired about this when discussing any access improvements that could be made. Wimpole does actually have some available to hire (it says on the website had I of looked!) but could maybe make this clear when you are there. Not everybody researches an attraction before they go, upon seeing somewhere on their travels they may spontaneously pop in, explore, so might be an idea to have some information about this upon arrival or being informed of the option when entering/booking/paying. This could be beneficial to semi annulment or manual chair users, to assist them with getting around on the unpredictable terrain.
After discussing our findings over tea and biscuits the group dispersed their separate ways. I needed to use the ladies, so was pointed in the direction of the farms current accessible toilet. At the top of one of the steepest, awkward angled man made ramps I’ve ever encountered were the bathrooms. Ladies, Gents, Baby changing, and Accessible (finally a place that separates babies and accessible toilets).
As accessible toilets go this was adequate but very small, a tight squeeze with myself and a PA, no turning space. It wasn’t the cleanest of bathrooms, but we were on a farm, and the important things were clean. One observation I have is that the emergency cord is very short, not tied up or anything. Just a very short cord that couldn’t be reached if you were laying on the floor.
There are rumours that there are discussions about a Changing Place being built at Wimpole Estate. Which would be brilliant and maybe lead the way for other similar attractions to do the same. (Read more about Changing Places and other accessible toilets I’ve encountered here).
On my return to the car I detoured to the Hall/House. I’d enquired earlier with the lady leading the tour, as to whether I’d be allowed access to the Hall while I’m here.
Now I love stately homes, anything with a hint of Downton Abbey and I’m there! I studied historical buildings and the memories hidden within their walls as part of my MA, and have been fascinated ever since. The lady kindly said yes I would be allowed access, the only problem being I can’t actually access it. She apologetically told me there were many steps to the main entrance and a few to the basement. I was offered the assistance of some staff lifting myself and my chair into the building (I can’t recall how many times I’ve been offered this in various situations), but let me inform you, it is never a good idea, however lovely your intentions are, to offer to lift somebody and their powered wheelchair up any amount of steps! My wheelchair is a lot heavier and expensive than you would imagine, and the thought of being carried in my throne like some ancient Pharaoh is terrifying!
I was still determined to see as much of the building as possible, even if that just meant the exterior, (and see the access obstacles for myself, always convinced there must be a way) so I followed the signposts clearly stating the direction of the Hall.
As I neared the Hall my pathway became shingle. One of my many enemies, shingle is one of the most difficult surfaces to wheel through. Even in my strong powerful wheelchair shingle quickly turns to quicksand. The further I travel, the deeper I get. I sank my way as close to the building as I dared, as it seemed to get deeper and thicker the closer you got, and could see the inaccessible entrance.
A beautifully grand building with an equally stunning entrance, there were at least 20 steps each side leading to the door. I’d describe myself as a practical and logical thinker, almost always thinking of alternatives and ways around an obstacle. Yet without defacing this magnificent, historic building (which isn’t going to happen and in ways I agree) by making some hideous long cement ramp, or attaching an ugly lift, I can’t see how I’m ever getting in (sad face).
I welcome any ideas, thoughts or examples of other similar buildings that have achieved accessibility.
Upon nearing the carpark I noticed an archway with a lovely little courtyard inside, housing small shops selling plants, books and a quaint looking cafe. I wouldn’t usually let cobbles stop me (even though they can be a bit painful on the back and neck) but the rain kept threatening and we felt drops fall on us.
Wimpole Estate was a great experience, I enjoyed my first trip to a farm as an adult, and possibly my first trip to a working farm at all. I have to say I left slightly disappointed that the House was completely inaccessible to wheelers. However I feel it’s brilliant that Wimpole has invited people with varying disabilities to consult on how things could be changed and improved. I hope my visit has been beneficial to their future renovations. More places should get their visiting public involved, and I would sure be up for doing more of this!