Access in England Is Improving by Lynn Atkinson-Boutette © 2013
Lynn Atkinson-Boutette at
After bouncing and bumping over cobblestones from London to St. Ives and then Canterbury in my power wheelchair this fall, it was a pleasant surprise to reach Bath and discover that the spa was completely accessible. Thermal pools, including a rooftop pool with stunning views of Bath Abbey, all had lifts into the water. My sore muscles were treated to a two-hour soak, and aromatherapy massage. I felt like the pampered Roman goddess Sulis Minerva for whom the original baths were named. In many ways Bath typifies how far England has come in making its 1000+-year-old country accessible. Since my last trip to England 23 years ago when I rode in the baggage car on the train, services and facilities have improved significantly. Many of the old Roman/Georgian buildings have ramps and lifts or both, and sightseeing and city buses plus many taxis are accessible. Now through the newly instituted National Accessible Scheme NAS, visitors can find accessibility to suit their needs. According to VisitEnglandorg, the national tourist board of England, people with disabilities and health conditions or impairments spend over £2 billion a year in England (Source: UKTS 2009 and IPS 2010). In 2009 almost half a million people from abroad visited England with their companions. (Source: International Passenger Survey 2010). I had decided to take my electric wheelchair because I didn’t want my husband pushing me everywhere for two weeks although I was anxious about how I would fare. I didn’t regret my decision. It gave me the freedom I wanted despite the cobblestones. No trip is without its problems however, and we had a few. On arrival at St. Pancras terminal in London the driver of the black cab that pulled up wouldn’t take my wheelchair. He said it would break his ramp even though the weight limit clearly printed on the ramp was 300 kg (my chair with me weighs approximately 180 kg). And on departure, when we had to take a bus to catch the Heathrow Express to the airport, the bus driver refused to let me board the bus because a woman with a baby stroller was using the space. We ended up taking an expensive taxi. (This policy was recently challenged by a wheelchair user who took First Bus Group in Yorkshire to court and won an unlawful discrimination suit.) (Visitors to England should remember that black cabs do not have lowered floors thus increasing the steepness of the ramp, and putting the wheelchair passenger higher than the other seats which makes for less visibility. Also, black cabs are better suited to manual wheelchair users, as the space behind the driver’s seat and the passenger seat is quite small which makes for difficult maneuvering.) When we finally did get a slightly larger Mercedes black cab, a short ride took us to London School of Economics (LSE) Grosvenor student residence. Although basic, the room was large with roll-in shower and cooking facilities. Right next to Covent Garden and the theater district, it proved ideal. Getting around London is relatively easy as most streets have curb cuts plus, wetook public buses everywhere. For an overview of the city we took a hop-on-hop-off’ bus that accommodates wheelchairs. An excellent way to see the sights, it’s best to buy a two or three day pass so that you can stop and explore the attraction you want to see and then get back on the next bus to finish your journey. Note: Most London museums and galleries are accessible, sometimes through a side entrance, and they admit wheelchair users forfree with companions paying half-price or going for free. Four days later, we walked/rolled to Paddington station where we boarded the First Great Western, the Cornish Riviera express, for the five-hour trip to Cornwall. (Travelers who need ramps or assistance boarding the train should call 24 hours in advance of travel. If you are not sure on which railway you are traveling check online. Rail cards are only available to UK residents with disabilities but, tourists with disabilities are eligible for 1/3 off “anytime” day tickets as is the travel companion, although sometimes it may be cheaper to buy an undiscounted Off-Peak or Advance ticket.) Whatever you decide, remember that rail travel in England is expensive and complicated to figure out to so it pays to check and double check. Speeding across the low-lying Somerset Hills was a relaxing way to see the countryside. As we came in sight of the sea, London seemed far away. The hotel in St. Ives that we had selected according to the National Access Scheme was booked by the time we decided on our flight, so we stayed at a B&B near there. St. Ives is a salt-encrusted barnacle of a town with a picture book harbor that has bewitched generations of painters. Crying seagulls, and the bagpipes of the St. Ives September Festival serenading us through the cobbled lanes completed the picture perfect English Riviera. Although I was warned that “St. Ives is NOT accessible,” the walkway by the sea is paved and the cobblestones and steep hills were no problem for my electric chair. While few of the shops were accessible we found that some restaurants, the Tate art gallery and the Barbara Hepworth sculpture garden all had ramps. Our day trip was sunny with bathers (even a beach wheelchair), and surfers. And at a local pub Capt. Roy entertained us with stories of his 90 foot fishing boat that had served at Dunkirk and even helped to sink a U-boat during the war. When it came time to leave, unfortunately we learned too late that accessible taxis are difficult to find away from the major centers. St. Ives taxi who had obligingly taken us into St. Ives, was not prepared to come back and to take us to the train station, nor was the other accessible taxi company, so we ended up incurring a hefty bill and much wasted time on the phone trying to find a taxi to our next train stop. “Welcome to the world of disability,” I said to B&B host Sally Jones after she volunteered a frustrating hour trying to help us. Eventually Penzance taxi came through. (Wheelchair users considering staying in Cornwall would be well advised to stay in a larger place such as Penzance and taking a day trip into St. Ives.) Boarding the train to Canterbury in Kent, we were caught short on arrival as the ramps were delayed although we had prearranged this with the train. When they came we walked into town to Canterbury Cathedral Lodge which is located right beside the Cathedral and owned by the diocese. Our room was small but with a roll-in shower. I’ll never forget lying in bed looking out our bay window at the soaring towers of the Cathedral, one of the largest in England and an important pilgrimage center linked with the murder of its most famous Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170. It has good access. Be sure and take in the choral every day at 5:30 PM except Sunday. As in London, and Cornwall and Bath, the guided walking tours led by locals are excellent. Although castles in Kent have varying degrees of accessibility, you can’t go there without experiencing one or two. We took a tour of Leeds and Dover castles with Jane Martin of Tours of the Realm. She had never taken a person in a wheelchair, but found an accessible taxi to drive us around for the day. It was expensive but well worth it. Jane had arranged everything including lunch at a restaurant overlooking the white cliffs of Dover. Leeds Castle, with its strange mix of owners from Henry VIII to an Anglo-American heiress, is set on an island surrounded by a moat and beautiful gardens. It has a wheelchair transport vehicle, accessible toilets and there is a stair lift elevator and video for the inaccessible floors. After touring the gardens we headed to medieval Dover Castle, much more rustic and not quite as accessible. More interesting than the castle however, were the secret tunnels and hospital deep underground that were used during World War II to plan the evacuation of Allied troops from France. These were all accessible including the tram between the castle and the tunnels. Interestingly, although the town of Dover was heavily bombed during the war, the castle escaped damage as our guide said because Hitler wanted it for himself after the war. The multimedia event complete with sound, projected operation ‘Dynamo’ on the walls of the tunnels. (Some accommodation sponsored by VisitEngland.org) Accessible info. www.visitengland.com/en/Practical-Information/Accessible-England/National-Access ible-Scheme Accommodation with roll in showers London – http://www.lsevacations.co.uk/Accommodation/Grosvenor-House/Grosvenor-H ouse.aspx#sthash.NivpcdCk.dpbs Cornwall – www.rowanbarn.co.uk/ Note: Rowan Barn is soon to become self-catering although the wheelchair suite will remain a B&B Bath – http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/united-kingdom/hilton-bath-city-hotel-BA THNHN/index.html Canterbury – www.CanterburyCathedrallodge.org Transportation Rail – http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/stations_destinations/disabled_passengers.aspx Accessible Taxis Bath – http://www.bathnes.gov.uk/services/business/taxis/taxis-disabled-access Cornwall – www.anytime-taxis.com, www.StIvestaxi.co.uk Canterbury http://www.andycabs.co.uk/ Accessible Sightseeing etc. England – www.accessiblecountryside.org.uk and www.walkswithwheelchairs.com/UK/stop London – www.theoriginaltour.com/ Bath –www.thermaebathspa.com/ www.visitbath.co.uk/things-to-do/tours-and-sightseeing/mayor-of-bath-honorary-gu ides-p43001 – www.bathbuscompany.com/tours/bath-tours Kent/Canterbury – www.toursoftherealm.com/ – www.canterburyguidedtours.com/ – Cotswolds taxi tour You Go First!” firstname.lastname@example.org Cornwall – http://www.visitcornwall.com/maps/accessibility
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