THE country’s first ever specialist centre to open up access to the countryside for wheelchair users and those with mobility needs – as well as horse riders, cyclists and walkers – has opened at Oxfordshire’s Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve.

The National Land Access Centre, located in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, has been designed to demonstrate the use, maintenance and installation of gaps, gates, and stiles meeting the new British Standard for improved countryside access.

The centre has been developed by Natural England, in partnership with The British Horse Society, Centrewire and the Pittecroft Trust, to ensure those who usually struggle with access to the countryside can access the natural environment and enjoy the countryside.

Natural England research shows that every year there are around 519 million visits to paths, cycleways and bridleways in England.

But more than 20% of the population cannot use public rights of way, either because they can’t use stiles or kissing gates themselves, or they are accompanying someone who can’t.

Lord Blencathra, deputy chair of Natural England, said: “This project is the culmination of many years of partnership working and determination to ensure that our countryside can rightfully be enjoyed by everyone.

“Improved access will help to connect more people with their natural environment, giving them a chance to enjoy our countryside, its open space and fascinating wildlife– all key aspects of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.

“I am delighted that Natural England has played a key role in the partnership responsible for developing the National Land Access Centre, which has the potential to make such a difference to people’s lives.”

Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work Sarah Newton said: “Getting out into the countryside is an experience that many of us take for granted, but for disabled people it can often be much more difficult to access nature. The National Land Access Centre will play an important role in ensuring everyone can enjoy the outstanding natural beauty our country has to offer.”

John Cuthbertson, chairman of the Disabled Ramblers charity, said: “I’m over the moon. Open access has got the ability to transform lives. We look forward to using the centre to test the new structures, helping to shape the future of access to the countryside.”

Mark Weston, director of Access for The British Horse Society, said: “The centre will help to ensure the new British Standard becomes a reality, securing safe open access to the countryside not only for horse riders but for all users of the outdoors.”

Landowners, land managers, rights of way officers and other users will be able to book onto training courses at the centre to aid understanding of the new standard and its application. This will involve testing new equipment with a view to installing it across the nation.

Visitors to the centre will be able to access specialist equipment, try out new designs and touch and test real examples in situ to fully understand this new equipment in operation. They can learn about its installation and maintenance, and see what compliance with the British Standard looks like in practice.