Never thought I’d see the day... but I’ve finally found faith. Or rather Faith has finally found me. I’d have been lost on South Promenade without her.
And possibly injured literally tripping the Lights fantastic while blindfolded.
Hazards are of ACME cartoon proportions: street furniture, lights, air hockey (before we are packed off into the night when South Pier’s amusement arcade closes), raised kerbs, billboards, no kerbs, grassy knolls – and character assassination attempts by fellow walkers.
Plus trams. Lots of trams. You don’t hear them coming, not in the teeth of a gale.
Faith does. And she’s my guide dog. For all of 100 minutes of unadulterated hell and high water on the Prom. Wish I could keep her. But I’m glad I don’t need her. Yet.
Faith is a 22 month old Labrador – small and black so already hard to see on a dark and stormy night. And it was.
She has bright eyes – as I spot before my own are blindfolded.
She has a wet nose, a very waggy tail and a tolerant nature.
I know because I have to find her halter – rather than just her lead – for it’s the tug and tension on both which alerts a non-sighted person to any hazards or obstacles. You drop the halter when your guide dog stops – in order to source what’s rattled her. Once done you relocate the halter, step back, say “forward” and off you trot. In theory. Faith is a trainee so over cautious, I am told.
It’s hard enough walking blindfold in Blackpool – even with a guide dog at your side - but finding a halter is a tricky process for a first timer.
I fumble for Faith’s head and work my way back with a few pats and good girls en route.
It goes horribly wrong when Faith turns while my attention is distracted by all those sounds and sensations.
The tell tale yip puts me back on track faster than you can shout walkies.
I’m at the wrong end.
Faith takes me for the veteran but has probably realised I’m an amateur after I tread on her paws and tail several times.
It’s all a rite of passage for a new partnership of pooch and person says Faith’s (and briefly my) trainer Charlotte Annable, herself a trainee guide dog mobility instructor.
Boss Allan Drysdale is along to keep an eye on us both. Guide dogs are matched to owners on temperament and other grounds, they tell me. (We’re going to need a bigger guide dog, I suspect).
Guide Dogs Week runs to Sunday which is why two locals have set the challenge to Walk My Way – puppy walker Brenda Wildish and Blackpool guide dog owner Stephanie Syson.
“You’re a very brave lady,” said Brenda. (She means Faith.) Steph’s like the Lara Croft of guide dog owners. Being blind is not going to stop her living life to the full. She’s already abseiled down the Tower, tackled extreme sports, is now learning archery.
I daren’t ask how many instructors she’s got through – having already asked the breathtakingly insensitive: “Why would you want to walk the Lights if you can’t actually see them?”
Answer: “I’ve got kids, why would I deprive them of the fun of seeing the Illuminations?”
Go Walkies takes over from where Guide Dog Week leaves off. On Friday, October 19, owners will meet at North Pier at 6pm to put our redesigned seafront to the test and raise awareness and funds.
Guide Dogs engagement officer Tony Cook has just visited Blackpool Town Hall to meet civic leaders from all three local authorities.
He said: “We need people to think about street furniture, about taking wheelie bins in, cutting hedges, that kind of thing. It can be a stressful experience for guide dog walkers, it can stop some going out.”
Steph agrees. She’s not keen on the new look Prom as the shared space concept means a near seamless flow from one feature to another and guide dogs struggle to spot the differences.
We meet at South Pier, head for Central Pier and back, then off up to the Pleasure Beach.
Trust in dog helps. But having hit my stride rather than initial shuffle at 4mph I suddenly lose confidence and drop the halter.
The combined assault of driving rain, howling wind, lost hat, dropped halter, and sounds and sensations beyond my ken proves too much.
A car cutting across our path is the last straw. It is utterly unnerving.
Having to listen for clues that it’s safe to cross is nerve racking.
A tram whooshes past. I whip the blindfold off – 50 shades of scared – and feed Faith a parting treat and head off on the trail of chips.
And you know what? They don’t taste, let alone, look half as good as they smell...
n It costs £35k to create a new guide dog pairing. Guide Dogs Week invites you into that world, whether by taking a blindfold walk, dinner in the dark, or other challenges. Or get along and support Blackpool’s Go Walkies. It’s an eye opener. Visit www.guidedogs.org.uk/fundraiseforus or call 0870 600 23 23