Life's a beach: Fleetwood Beach Wheelchairs on making Lancastrian sun, sea, and sand accessible again
One morning in the summer of 2018, Mick Gray was looking out over the Promenade towards the sea from his Fleetwood home when he noticed something.
“I saw people on the beach having a nice time, playing, and having picnics,” explains Mick. “Then, sitting on a bench on the Promenade itself, was a child in a wheelchair as dogs and runners and skateboarders and cyclists all went by.
“It just didn’t seem right to me.”
Suddenly grasping the sheer inaccessibility of the beach for disabled people and those who rely on wheelchairs to move around, Mick resolved to do something to rectify the situation.
Having seen them used elsewhere, he knew the concept was viable and was soon able to put on a demonstration using chairs provided by Adventure Mobility.
For some of the individuals involved, it was the very first time they’d been able to go on a beach in their entire lives.
“Families with a disabled relative would arrive for a day on the beach and the disabled person would have to sit on the Promenade when all the family went off and had a great time,” says volunteer Janet Simpson. “Mick thought ‘there’s got to be some way of getting these people on the beach to enjoy the sand and the sea and have a great time, too’.
“He found out about beach wheelchairs and, after navigating a lot of red tape, we got up and running,” she adds, with the initiative given the green light in spring 2019 and securing charity status the year after.
“As a retired chartered physiotherapist, I wanted to get involved as a volunteer and it’s practically become a full-time job since then. I absolutely love every minute of it.
“Putting smiles on people’s faces and seeing them making memories together as families gives you a lump in the throat.”
Having been operating since the autumn of 2020, Fleetwood Beach Wheelchairs is run entirely by its 30-odd volunteers and now boasts seven chairs, which are suitable for all ages, sizes, and most levels of physical mobility.
Making a real difference to people’s lives, the specially-designed chairs are completely free to hire and allow people the chance to enjoy the beach safely with friends and family.
“We want to get the local schools and colleges involved so kids can have a bit of a field trip down at the beach as part of a group experience if possible,” explains Mick of the charity’s hopes for the future. “I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved. It’s so humbling to see the effect you can have.
“It’s been a long and winding road to get to where we are, but to see the joy that people get is priceless,” he adds, with the chairs even able to be taken into the shallows so as to allow people to have a paddle.
“It’s just the most fulfilling thing. We have kids going onto the beach for the first time, people rekindling memories, and elderly people able to play with their grandchildren.
“It’s so, so nice.”
Always on the lookout for new volunteers and ways to enhance the experience, FBW also provide binoculars and art materials for people looking to enjoy the stunning local scenery and draw.
The service has been a huge hit so far, with people coming down most days to try out the chairs according to Janet, who says it’s fantastic to see FBW so well-loved by the local community.
“It’s such a lovely thing to be a part of and we’re growing all the time,” she explains. “It’s fabulous and totally life-changing for so many people - people who have never thrown a stone in the sea, never had the sand between their toes, or felt the water lapping at their feet.
“It’s just so fulfilling to be involved.”