Country Matters: Ears were made for walking

Why bother to go out into the country if you're blind? Is it not a waste of time if you can't see the woods, the fields, the hills, the trees and flowers?

On the contrary, says Eric Sayce, who lost his sight in his late fifties, after a successful career as an international salesman. "There are all these other factors. When you're walking, the exercise, the smells, the animal and bird sounds all make it a very enjoyable experience. If I want to examine a tree, I go up to it, put my arms round it and hug it. I can tell from the bark, and from the feel and smell of the leaves, what kind of a tree it is."

Eric has a splendid guide-dog, a German shepherd called Harry, who leads him unfailingly on routes that the pair of them have learned. But on any new trail in the country that Harry does not know, Eric needs a human guide, and prefers to walk holding one end of a white-painted broom-handle. As he says, "a sighted person gets the whole picture in a second. We have to build that picture block by block, using other senses."

To help in the process, a small charity has begun to pioneer the creation of audio cassettes for use outdoors. The Dog Rose Trust, based in Ludlow, was founded in 1996 by Julia Ionides, an architectural historian, and her husband Peter Howell, an architect. Until recently they concentrated on making high- quality recordings to guide blind people inside cathedrals and other historic buildings; now they are working on a project called "The Accessible Marches", which seeks to make the Shropshire countryside more rewarding to people who have sight problems. The aim of an interior recording is to capture acoustic ambience, which varies greatly from one part of a building to another, according to the height of the roof, the texture of the walls, the amount of glass, the floor covering, and so on. A commentary which reproduces all these differences accurately can give blind people a very vivid idea of their surroundings.

Outdoor recordings present greater problems. How do you capture the ambience of an open field? Yet, as Eric Sayce and many others testify, sounds are an enormous help. Birds singing, sheep bleating, wind in the leaves, water running over falls or rapids - all help to create images in the mind.

As part of their research, Julia and Peter went to the Downton Castle estate, near Ludlow, where, at the end of the 18th century, the antiquarian and collector Richard Payne Knight had himself built an acoustic walk. A path follows a stretch of river that contains many rapids, but as you move along it, a rising wall gradually blots out the sound. You then enter a man-made cave, where you cannot hear the river at all but, as you emerge at the other end, you pick up the full noise of the water again.

Valuable ideas emerged from Downton - as they did from an experimental visit to Shropshire made by members of Eric Sayce's group VISTA, the Visually Impaired and Sighted Tandem Association, who came over from Coventry, rode a dozen miles with a sighted pilot up front on each machine and a blind "stoker" helping with the power, then walked along a muddy trail and had lunch at the Plough, the pub- cum-brewery at Wistanstow.

Before the outing, several of the group were extremely nervous because they had not done much walking in the country and feared they might not manage; but at the end they were all exhilarated by their sense of achievement.

Now Julia is aiming to make tapes covering three walks in the spectacular hill country around Clun, Bishops Castle and Craven Arms. On a grey morning I walked out with her and Peter along one potential trail to the prehistoric stone circle known as Mitchell's Fold. Compared with Stonehenge or Avebury, the monument is modest, with only 15 medium-sized stones standing in a ring about 30 yards in diameter; yet its high, wild setting is infinitely more exciting than the downland of Wiltshire, and blind people would surely be stirred by a good description of it.

What else might a tape give them? Birdsong, for a start: skylarks were trilling away all around us, and pipits were cheeping as they flitted about the rough heather.

In a farm far down the valley a dog was barking. A recording might include an account of how the circle came to be built, three or four thousand years ago, and some speculation about its purpose. Was it the scene of ceremonial and ritual activities, and/or a bronze-age market place? Later history could mention the Mercian princes who used to rule here on the borders of Wales, and the lead-mining that flourished in the Middle Ages.

Another essential ingredient would be the folklore attached to the place. The central legend describes how a magic cow once gave milk to all the good people in the neighbourhood until a witch crept up and milked her into a sieve. The cow then vanished, but the witch was turned to stone, and a circle of other stones was built to keep her in. Semi-professional story-tellers, who abound in the area, could add further narratives, and local composers would contribute music inspired by the surroundings.

Research is needed into the best methods of using such a recording. Obviously, a blind person could listen to it before setting out on a walk, but it would have greater impact if tape or CD players were activated by radio signals from beacons deployed along the trail, so that when the carriers reached various points, they would hear descriptions of their immediate environs.

Tapes apart, the pioneers are talking to the Forestry Commission about the possibility of introducing Braille information boards and plates to put up on marker-posts - the tactile equivalent of the colour-coded posts that already mark many trails. Having been lucky enough to see the glorious country around Mitchell's Fold, I agree wholeheartedly with Julia and Peter when they say that blind people deserve all the help that a combination of imagination and technology can give them.

The Dog Rose Trust is at 83 Greenacres, Ludlow, Shropshire SY8 1LZ, Tel: 01584 874567

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015