TRAVEL / Have wheels, will travel: Where can the disabled go on holiday? All over, it seems. Vic and Ann Hancox get a carefree break at a centre near Southampton.

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The Independent Culture
AS OUR hire car drove us away from Netley Waterside House just outside Southampton, staff and volunteers stood in the doorway cheering. They looked relieved] I wonder why.

My wife, Ann, and I have cerebral palsy. Somebody seeing us for the first time would say we were 'severely disabled'. They'd be right, but to us and our friends that word 'severe' does not exist.

We have been married for 20 years and live in our own self-contained flat in a sheltered community of disabled people, with a little outside help.

Being confined to wheelchairs does not deter us from leading full and active lives; we sit on various committees and enjoy travelling, not only in this country, but around the world. We have invaded places such as Hong Kong, and the United States as well as many parts of Europe. Our motto is 'Have wheels, will travel'.

Many of these holidays were with able-bodied groups and we had to get our own helpers. In our minds, we are as 'normal' (whatever that means) as the next people. We enjoy doing things like walking (or should I say being pushed) across the Downs, or even helping to sail a tall ship. Our disability is the last thing to bother us.

To live such an active life, we need to take short breaks throughout the year. And when we go away, our independence takes a break too. We rely on friends, volunteers or staff to help us while we let go for a time.

For years we used to spend a quiet week in the spring and autumn at a bungalow in Norfolk. The owners provided holidays for disabled people and we became great friends. Then they had to give up, and we looked around for somewhere else to go.

We had heard of the Winged Fellowship, a registered charity which organises holidays and provides volunteer helpers, but it did not appeal to us immediately; we liked to go on holiday with people we knew. Trying to explain to a stranger about what help we need in a new environment can be tiresome. Both Ann and I have speech difficulties, though we can make ourselves understood. At first, this can make some helpers think we are not capable of knowing what we want.

When we could no longer go to Norfolk, we thought again about the Winged Fellowship. Other people who live in our community had tried it and thoroughly enjoyed themselves, so we thought we'd give it a go.

Our first taste of a Fellowship holiday was at the end of February last year. We live in Eastbourne, so it was not a long journey to Southampton and to Netley Waterside House. (Well, not a long journey by our standards.) This is one of five Winged Fellowship holiday centres dotted around the country, the others being in Southport, Nottingham, Essex and Surrey.

On our arrival at Netley Waterside we felt nervous to the point of making sure that we had our car driver's phone number in case we didn't like it. He was amused at this, as we have had many new experiences - so why not make this one work?

We were met at the door by a member of staff who helped us out of the car. After some time sitting in what we learnt was the bar area, Stan, the senior nurse, noticed us and became concerned that we had not been seen to. He made us feel at ease. While waiting for help he took us into a corner to fill out forms. He said he knew we were independent and could look after our own medical needs. This gave us confidence. We told him that we did most things for ourselves when at home, but wanted help here. He understood perfectly, and arranged for us to be taken to our room.

Netley Waterside House is a modern building on the banks of Southampton Water. The grounds are on a slope, and from our window through the trees there was a panoramic view across the water.

At the evening meal Darren, the deputy manager, sat with us. He soon got used to our speech and by the end of the meal we were chatting like old friends. We are very inquisitive and asked him a lot of questions. We learnt that Netley Waterside House was built for disabled people in 1977 for the London Borough of Lambeth, but was soon closed through lack of funds. In 1990 the Winged Fellowship joined forces with the charity Refresh, which was already established there. Refresh helps people with respiratory problems.

Together, the two charities provide specialist help for two areas of need. One wing of the house has two flats and two large bedrooms for the Refresh guests. The other wing has 16 single and five double bedrooms for the Winged Fellowship guests.

The Winged Fellowship was started in 1963 by Joan Brander. She had been working for the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and was asked to find five hospital beds for disabled people, so that their full-time carer could take a much needed break. At that time the hospital was the only option for disabled people needing respite care. She failed to find the beds, and the carer had a breakdown.

It was this episode that led to the formation of what became the Winged Fellowship. Why was it so named? Because once, when someone was being pushed in a wheelchair by Mrs Brander, he remarked that going on holiday was like being given wings. This phrase seemed perfectly to capture the spirit of the breaks she wanted to offer.

The Winged Fellowship relies on volunteers, and many new ones arrived on our first afternoon at Netley. The ones we met were young people from colleges who were all new to the idea of being with severely disabled people. Each volunteer was given a guest to help during the week.

The first night and morning, as we were being helped, we explained that at home we did all this by ourselves. 'We know,' they said, 'but you're on holiday, aren't you? So relax and let us help you.'

It was great not having to get up early. At home we have to rise at 6.30am to be ready to face the world by 9.30am, when I start to paint and Ann to write. The staff at Netley even brought us a cup of tea every morning. This was luxury indeed.

The week was very well-organised. In the lounge was a large notice-board with the week's wide-ranging activities. Netley Waterside House owns a lot of vehicles, ranging from a minibus to an adapted coach - and an outing was planned for every afternoon. I am an artist, painting with a brush fixed to a helmet on my head, so going to places like the New Forest was an inspiration. Some days the weather was bad, but we still went for a ride.

There are few hard and fast rules concerning time at Netley Waterside House. Breakfast starts at 9am and the guests get up when they choose. If they miss breakfast, that's up to them. Likewise, they can go to bed whenever they wish.

If there isn't a trip to a cinema or theatre, then a group of entertainers comes each evening when the bar opens at 8pm. They either sing, or organise competitions such as bingo. Nothing is compulsory, however, and if some helpers are willing (you can bet your life they are) a short walk down the road to the local pub is welcome.

Netley is a small village, but there are things to do. Next door to Waterside House is Netley Abbey, and at the other end of the village is Victoria Park. The Southampton area has plenty to offer, including the New Forest and trips to the Solent. Salisbury and Winchester are also within reach.

We enjoyed our stay at Netley Waterside House so much that we went again at the beginning of November and picked the right week for scenery. The leaves on the trees were at their best; everywhere was gold and yellow. While my body was having a rest from the everyday coping, my mind was working overtime, taking in new ideas for painting.

On one night, a bonfire party with fireworks and music was planned. It was not only for the guests, but for the whole village, who paid to come. I thought it was a good idea, both to make money and to have a good time. It enabled the local people to meet the guests - and the bonfire offered a chance for the gardeners to get rid of their rubbish. The grounds were in the process of being re-landscaped.

Of course, every place has its good and bad points. When we book a holiday with the Winged Fellowship we never know what the other guests will be like. For instance, during our November week a group of elderly people were there. It didn't bother us, but the staff felt sorry that there was no one of our own age.

On both these holidays we made new friends. We felt especially lucky in November, when a young woman came to sit with us at the first evening meal. Her name was Yvonne, and from our first meeting we hit it off. She then realised that she was our helper for the week. Since then we have become great friends, phoning and visiting each other.

Above all, the Winged Fellowship offers respite care to help the disabled person's carer have a rest. Although Ann and I do not have carers, we still need that rest from helping each other - and from the everyday coping with life. Netley Waterside House provides us with that rest while we refresh our minds.

For details of Winged Fellowship holidays, write to them at Angel House, 20-32 Pentonville Road, London N1 9XD. They also organise holidays abroad.

(Photographs omitted)