When Alan Irons went on a walking holiday for the visually impaired, his sight guide Heather was there to help him stay on track. But fate stepped in and the couple, who are now married, walked off into the sunset.
They tied the knot at the end of May after meeting three years ago in Camino de Santiago, in northern Spain, on a trip organised by a specialist tour operator for the visually impaired.
Alan, who began losing his sight in 2013, had always been an avid traveller and hoped the trip would rekindle his wanderlust but he never dreamed his guide would later become his wife.
“I had a place out in Mallorca for many years, so I resorted to going out there for fairly extended periods of four to six weeks but it was becoming more difficult,” explained Alan, 79, who has a condition called pathological myopic macular degeneration, and lost his first wife around the same time his vision began to deteriorate.
“It just so happened, at Christmas 2017, I met a chap who had just returned from a sighted guide holiday with Traveleyes to Kerala in India.
“He said how terrific it was that all the visually impaired people in the group could go around the market and enjoy the smells and the sounds without actually being able to see very well – or at all. So, I thought it might be something worth pursuing.”
“Neither of us had really planned on the holiday,” continued Heather, 77, who was the director of a residential outdoor education centre before she retired.
“I had booked a Nordic walking holiday to Swaziland that got cancelled, and about three months later the organiser asked if I would like to go on the same holiday but as a guide for the visually impaired.
“I desperately wanted to go to Swaziland, so I said yes and that was my first trip with Traveleyes. Then, later, when the trip to Camino came up I knew it was something I had always wanted to do – I thought, ‘Well I’m not getting any younger so why not?’”
It was in the romantic setting of the Premier Inn hotel at Gatwick airport that the pair met for the first time, and later decided to sit together on the long coach journey to the walking pilgrimage. Although, romance was – at least at first – the last thing on their minds.
Heather added: “Almost the first words Alan said to me were, ‘I don’t want to live with anybody, and I don’t want to get married again’ and I said to him, ‘Well, that’s fine because neither do I’. And now look at us.” At the end of the trip, Heather and Alan decided to stay in touch, despite living at opposite ends of the country.
At the time, Heather was living in Swanage, on the Dorset coast, almost 500 miles from Alan’s home in Glasgow but, luckily, the pair had no reservations about travelling, and began making the trip back and forth.
In between, they would spend an hour on the phone chatting every night, and it was only when the pandemic began, and flying became trickier, that Heather decided to sell up and relocate to Scotland.
“What sealed it for us was March last year when I flew down to Southampton on the second-last flight out of Glasgow before Flybe went bust,” explained Alan, who has two daughters and six grandchildren. “Lockdown came in a few weeks later, so I stayed in Swanage for about 10 of the 12 months in 2020.
“We reckoned that if we can survive lockdown, and everything that came with it, that we could just about make it together.”
“I think another flight had been cancelled and I’d had to reorganise travel arrangements yet again and I said to Alan, ‘I just think I’ll sell up and move to Glasgow, is that OK?’,” laughed Heather, whose daughter lives in Surrey.
The couple then married in a small ceremony at Alan’s local church on May 28 this year, surrounded by 20 close family members – exactly three years to the day since they first met at Gatwick Airport.
Smiling, Alan said: “There didn’t seem to be too many arguments against it, really, and our family were all delighted – there’s now someone else to look after dad.”
Just back from a walking holiday together in Glencoe, the happy couple’s advice for anyone looking for love is to seize every opportunity because you never know what life has in store. Alan, who has lost most of his vision, knows that more than most.
Alan continued: “Sadly, there is nothing that can be done about it. As one consultant said, ‘It’s going to become worse and there’s nothing we can do for you, full stop’.
“It’s difficult to accept that your eyesight isn’t suddenly going to become better, but there’s a huge amount of technology available now, and there’s also local Blind Associations in every area, which really are a great place to go for advice.
“I wished I had known how to use my smartphone a bit better. But it’s amazing the range of things you can still do.
“I’ve been sailing, driven a race car and continue to travel, while others go rock climbing, play guitar and cycle.”
Heather added: “It’s not always the situation you are in – but how you respond to it.”
The couple’s story features on the Rewirement podcast by Legal and General here.
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