What if you and I were strolling through the grounds of Fountains Abbey, or some other national treasure, and I asked you what you most appreciate about the chance to visit to somewhere like this . What would you say? What about ‘I enjoy seeing…’, ‘It’s a chance to look at….’, ‘I like to watch….’? I know I would. That first sight of Huby’s Tower for instance, as I tramp down towards Fountains Abbey on a cold and frosty morning, or on a bright and promising summer day, or on a dusky day in late Autumn or Winter, never fails to stir my soul.
But what if I couldn’t see it? What if I were one of the two million visually impaired people who live in the UK? Would that mean I’d simply have to count myself out of a family trip there, stay at home and go without that experience?
At Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, we rather hope not. Last week, staff and volunteers alike crowded into the lecture hall to get a taste of what it’s like to live with visual impairment, and to begin to understand what kind of support this section of the population – only 4% of whom are fully blind – actually needs, in order to live rich and active lives. Afterwards about a dozen volunteers remained behind to begin a journey towards becoming Community Sighted Guides.
We thought about what ‘visual impairment’ means. To some, it means ‘seeing’ the world as if through thickly frosted glass. To others, it’s putting up with the limited view you would have if squinting down a drinking straw. Others find their view constantly defaced by blotches in their field of vision. And so on. We tried on special glasses which mimicked these effects, and experienced the frustration of never getting things quite in focus, or of not being able to get visual cues from conversations going on around us, of not being able to read the material there in front of us.
And then we thought about what we ourselves appreciate about visiting our own and other properties. We talked about listening to birdsong, to leaves and to gravel scrunching beneath our feet, to the River Skell tumbling and burbling past the monastic buildings. We remembered savouring the smells of the damp earth early in the day, the tang of wild garlic, the musky smell of dry Autumn leaves. We observed that we like to touch the ancient stones of the Abbey: to run our hands over tree bark, noticing how some trunks are smooth, some rough and knotted. We often sit down for a while on a rough wooden bench, a cold stone seat or the damp cool grass. So much to enjoy and appreciate, even without the use of our eyes. Yes, we’d like to come on a day out to Fountains Abbey, even without fully functioning sight, especially if we could put our trust in a volunteer sighted guide.
Then came the moment to put our trust in each other. We took it in turns to be blindfolded, and to be led by our partners through the carpeted Visitor Centre, along a tarmac-ed route, down a rather steep gravelled path, along a rather winding one, down some steps towards the Abbey. At first putting one foot safely in front of the other demanded all our attention. Gradually though, we came to appreciate our surroundings, and began to ask questions of our trainee guides, encouraging them to talk about the snowdrops in season, the trees we were passing, the other visitors who overtook us. As guides too we learnt to relax, and to offer simple companionship to our ‘visually impaired’ partner.
We’re a new team, so far untested. But we’re looking forward to gaining in confidence, and to having the opportunity to learn to share our appreciation of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal with another different audience .
With thanks to Lorraine and Anne from Guide Dogs UK for their inspirational training, and to Emma Manners, Learning Officer, FASR who arranged this training.