A chance sighting on Cleveleys beach inspired Michael Gray to set up Fleetwood Beach Wheelchairs, which has now been nominated for a Lancashire Tourism Award.
Most of us can enjoy a trip to the beach, with the biggest downfall being sand lingering in-between our toes, in our shoes or in the car afterwards.
But for some people navigating a sandy or pebbled beach in a wheelchair or mobility aid is impossible.
It’s something Michael Gray, who lives on the Fleetwood promenade, was appalled to witness when he spotted a family with a child in a wheelchair setting up a picnic – on the edge of the beach they were unable to access.
Just yards away, on the sandy beach, was another young family enjoying lunch together. The only difference? They could all walk.
The cruel, stark contrast horrified Michael, so much so that he contacted his local council and Rotary Club to see what could be done to make the beach accessible for all.
“The seed for my idea was planted in 2017 when I was at Cleveleys beach and I saw the family on the pavement, scooters, joggers and bikes rushing by, and another family was setting up with their towels on the beach,” Michael told LancsLive.
“I thought it was wrong. Why can’t this family with a disabled child get on the beach? It was outrageous and I just felt I had to do something about it.”
With the help of the Healthier Fleetwood Partnership, which helps residents to live happier and healthier lives, the Rotary Club, and the Fleetwood and Wyre councils, Michael gradually grew his vision from an idea into reality.
To gain more knowledge and understanding of what setting up a safe wheelchair accessible service for the beach would mean, he spoke to North Berwick Beach Wheelchairs in Scotland, a thriving scheme which has been running since 2015 and now has sites in Edinburgh and East Lothian.
Following thorough trials in 2018 and 2019 using chairs borrowed from Newcastle-based Adventure Mobility and successfully applying for charitable grants, gaining sponsors, receiving personal donations and setting up as an official charity, Fleetwood Beach Wheelchairs was born, operating for the first time on September 12, 2020.
And despite a period of closure because of coronavirus restrictions, since May more than 400 people have used the Central Promenade-based service, which is run entirely by volunteers and the first of its kind in the north west.
The ambition was to get three chairs in the first three years, but due to the service’s popularity, there are currently nine available, with a 10th arriving soon.
The impact it has had for families, who are now able to take their adult children on the beach for the first time or the grandparents who can can help their grandchildren to build sandcastles, is immeasurable.
Michael said: “The benefits it gives to families is tremendous but it is also so rewarding or our volunteers, especially coming out of lockdown and wanting to give back to the community.
“Families have been in tears when they’ve seen their adult child go on the beach for the first time in 35 years – it’s bucket list stuff for some people.
“I can walk out of my front door and go on the beach and it doesn’t cost a penny, and the same should be the case for them.
“It’s about making memories – just to see the sheer delight on their faces and it’s so impactful to bring that joy to someone.”
Michael and his team of volunteers can facilitate and support a wide range of disabilities, with adaptable wheelchairs, a hoist for carers to transfer loved ones from one chair to another, pummel seats, neck braces and lumber supports all available.
The service relies heavily on volunteer availability and weather conditions but visitors are welcome to contact the freephone number when they are at the beach or prior to their visit to book.
It is also open weekends 10am to 4pm and as much as possible in school holidays.
Michael now hopes Fleetwood Beach Wheelchairs will inspire other schemes to open in seaside towns across Lancashire and beyond, with visitors currently travelling from Cumbria, Yorkshire and Merseyside to use his.
The service was recently named as a finalist in the Accessible and Inclusive Tourism Award category for the Lancashire Tourism Awards 2021, alongside Brickhouse Farm Holiday Cottage and Mrs Dowsons Farm Park.
Michael is “delighted and thrilled” to receive a nomination, which he says is recognition of the volunteer team’s hard work and dedication.
“It is recognition that we are providing a unique service – there is nothing else like this in the north west,” added Michael
“Hopefully others will be inspired and take the plunge and help to meet the demand for disabled people, because there is a lot of it out there.
“It doesn’t cost me a penny to walk out of my house and onto the beach and disabled people should be able to go on the beach for free too.”
Award winners will be announced on Wednesday, February 22 and the full list of nominees can be found here
For more information on Fleetwood Beach Wheelchairs, to make a donation and to book a session, click here or call 03000111003.