I lost my ability to walk, then my husband – but I was determined to fulfil my promise to him


This time last year, I was enjoying a fresh start. I believed that 2021 would be the year that we would finally say goodbye to a period of time that totally floored the country. I was wrong – in more ways than one – and by the end of June, the bottom had fallen out of my world.  

My husband, Andy, a fit and healthy man who loved hill walking and was out on the fells every day, began to feel unwell, struggling with a pain in his shoulder. Innocently, we thought that it was nothing more than a frozen shoulder. When a couple of sessions of acupuncture had no effect, he went to see the GP. More and more tests were ordered until one day we found ourselves in a small consultancy room no bigger than a broom cupboard in Carlisle hospital. “This isn’t easy for me to tell you,” the consultant said as he leaned forward in his chair. “You have an aggressive form of cancer… and it is terminal. Go home, write your will and live your life.” 

That was it. The news that no one wants. We were speechless. From that day Andy’s health went downhill rapidly. But even with the diagnosis that he had only weeks to live, Andy was determined to fight for life to the very end – and to fight for my life beyond his death. 

In 2008, aged 47, I was ­diagnosed with spinal degeneration and became a wheelchair user. It was only with Andy’s support that I eventually returned to the hills that I loved – wheeling where others walked. Since then, I’ve been campaigning for a more accessible countryside in Britain for all. 

During his last few weeks, Andy and I created a list of all the things that we wanted to do – all the places we wanted to go. It was strangely cathartic. The last thing that he said to me was that no matter what happened, I was to continue to have adventures and to forge ahead in my goals. I promised I would, but felt uncertain of how I would do it alone. 

On June 29 2021, Andy passed away in my arms. My happy life was upside down; I was broken. The idea of future adventures seemed impossible. How could I go on? How could I complete our list of adventures without my soulmate, my friend? 

One day, I couldn’t ignore my promise any longer. “This girl will travel,” I decided. The time for grief was over, and the time for adventure had come. But fear and anxiety gnawed away inside of me – fear of the unknown, anxiety of being alone and a sense of self-doubt. 

So I started small and bought myself a campervan. My first adventure was a mini one – a night in a field in County Durham. It was a very bizarre experience. I thought I had booked myself on a campsite, but it turned out to be no more than a farmer’s field – and no one else was there.  

Trips to Arran

Debbie North in the yellow jacket

As the sky turned dark, my nerves kicked it. What the hell was I doing, sitting in a tin can in the middle of nowhere? I locked the doors, had a whisky, nursed the bread knife (in case of intruders) and tried to sleep. When sleep finally found me, it was a huge relief, it was like I had been wrapped in a cocoon – I slept better than I do at home. I’d started to fulfil my promise to Andy. 

Having successfully faced my fears of a solo trip, I decided to head further afield – I was ready for a proper adventure and decided to tick the first one off the list I’d made with Andy. I was Scotland-bound. Specifically, the Isle of Arran, off the west coast – a place I’d always wanted to visit. 

I booked a campsite and the ferry, but to keep a lid on the anxiety, I swore that I wouldn’t put any pressure on myself to go. Even on the morning of departure, I was unsure as to whether I would make it out the front door, but I took it in stages. If I made it to the ferry port at Ardrossan and didn’t want to sail across to Arran, then I would turn around and head back home. But I didn’t give in to the anxiety and as the ferry departed, my shoulders began to drop and I slowly started to relax.  

Lochranza wildlife, Lochranza castle, Arran holidays

Red deer stag at Lochranza

Credit: Alamy

It was dark by the time I arrived at the campsite at Lochranza, but I’d let the warden know about my situation and even though the reception office had officially closed for the night, he waited up for me. He showed me to my pitch, which was close to the facilities, connected the electric hook up to the camper and even filled my water container for me. Within minutes I was all set up and preparing something to eat.   

Though the sky was dark, I could just make out the silhouette of the mountains before me. The campsite was silent, but for the calling of the deer from inside the forest. It was all so calming and I was so excited that I’d made it; I knew deep in my heart that coming here was the right thing to do.  

Waking up early in the morning was nothing short of a delight. As I opened the camper door, Torr Meadhonach was shrouded in mist – a view that brought a smile to my face. It had rained heavily during the night, a soothing noise that had cradled me off into a deep slumber, but the morning brought with it a fresh, crisp air. A herd of deer had come down the hillside to feed off the green lush grass. 

Lamlash, Arran holidays

Debbie in Lamlash, a village on the Isle of Arran

They had no fear of sharing the field with the campers – a sentiment that I now shared, my fear of being alone almost completely dissipated. A feeling of joy I’d hardly dared to imagine I could feel again spread through my soul. I was ready to go exploring, I was ready for my next adventure. 

How to do it

Where to stay

A night at Lochranza campsite (01770 830 273; arran-campsite.com) for a campervan costs from £21, including electricity. 

If you’d prefer not to camp, opt for a night at the accessible Douglas Hotel (01770 302 968; thedouglashotel.co.uk), a striking sandstone beauty near Brodick ferry terminal; double rooms cost from £119pn. Read the full review here.

More information

Debbie is a member of the The Caravan and Motorhome club (01342 326944; caravanclub.co.uk). She lets the wardens at the sites know that she is alone and has a disability ahead of all visits. 

You can pick up a leaflet about walks without stiles at the visitor centre in Brodrick. This is provided by The Arran Access Trust (01770 302462; arran-access-trust.org.uk).

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