Recently I made two trips into central London while down there on a visit to watch Wimbledon. There were pros and cons in terms of transport I used for each journey and I thought it would be interesting to rate each element of both journeys on their accessibility and giving each an overall grade out of 10.
Journey One. Wednesday, 12th July 2017.
The first show I had booked to see was the London production of my favourite musical – Wicked. I saw the national tour in 2015 and I'd seen it on Broadway in 2016. More importantly though from an accessibility perspective even as a very casual fan of musical theatre this was the first time I'd been to a theatre entirely on my own.
1. Brief car journey.
Starting from the borough of Teddington where I was staying with my godparents we had to take a brief car journey to Teddington station.
+ My godparents know me well so they have a good idea of what works most effectively in terms of getting the wheelchair in car etc.
- the journey was so short that I got the distinct feeling that we could have walked/self-propelled it if we really wanted to.
1.2. Journey into Victoria.
Following our successful parking at Teddington station we had to get on a train from Teddington to Victoria one of the biggest stations in London.
+ Overall train service from a disability perspective was very effective and efficient for the most part. Ramps appeared to always be accessible/available across all the train journeys I took during these two trips into central London.
- There were some occasions where it took the staff on the station platform a while to get out the ramp and then place it down effectively in the gap between train and the platform edge. All the ramps I came across were manual and often into separate sections that had to be laid down together this can be somewhat disconcerting when you're in the middle of hundreds of people trying to get off the train at one of the busiest stations in London. Even with that being said, service was still generally very effective.
1.3 The Apollo Victoria Theatre.
We arrive at the Apollo Victoria Theatre the home of ‘Wicked’ in London. From this point I am entirely on my own.
+ One thing I immediately noticed was that the lady who came up to greet me had a list of all the various people with disabilities who had booked for that performance. This is not something I tend to see on the occasions that I've been to the theatre in Aberdeen but is massively appreciated. Gives me a good impression that they know what they're doing in terms of dealing with those with disabilities. It's probably a factor of a show this popular pretty much taking up residency at this theatre since London production first opened.
+ The same lady looked after me during the performance. She made sure I comfortably found my transferable seat and was always there if I needed anything during the performance. She came back to check on me and was very friendly and keen to talk to me about my love for the show and what I was planning to do for the rest of my time in London. Overall one of the best examples I've seen of dealing with those with disabilities effectively. I don't know what else they could have done to make me more comfortable.
1.4. The journey home.
The journey home was uneventful. We took the same route back home as we did getting there and there are no particularly major positives or negatives to add.
Overall Journey Grade. 8.5/10
Journey two. Friday 14th July 2017.
The other show I had booked to see was School of Rock: The Musical. This is a musical adaptation of the much loved Jack Black film from 2003 (and one of my personal favourite films.) The musical had been getting consistently great reviews since it opened the previous November and as a huge fan of the source material I thought it would definitely be worthwhile to check it out.
2.1 The train journey.
There was slight difference in the train journey as this time we had to go to Waterloo station in order to get to the theatre.
+ I did notice a slight increase with the efficiency of dealing with the disability ramp between Waterloo and Victoria.
- Disabled ramps were still manual items that required two parts to be put together. My hope is that in future we will have the technology for disability ramps built into trains. However, from what I can see, this is not the case in 2017.
2.2 What Happened Next.
Unfortunately we had not done enough research as to what was the best way for a someone who uses a wheelchair to get to the theatre. Rookie mistake. We were kind of stuck as to what method of transport to use and this was pretty stressful for me.
+ We did eventually get there in enough time.
- What I learned from this journey is that unless there is accessible public transport that goes straight to where you want to go you should make absolutely sure that you're taking the correct route before you leave wherever you're staying.
2.3 The New London Theatre.
I had actually been to the theatre before when it was home to the absolutely incredible National Theatre production of War Horse but this was the first time on my own and the first time using the assistance provided by the theatre for those with disabilities.
+ It turns out that when I advanced booked for the show I was not given a wheelchair accessible seat. However a member of staff from the theatre sorted this out very quickly and I was given a transferable seat. I was very grateful for this.
+ Very much a similar setup the Apollo Victoria Theatre. Someone looked after me and came and saw me during the interval.
+ The show was fantastic. Comfortably exceeded my expectations
- Perhaps not up to the very high standards set by the Apollo Victoria. Accessibility, facilities and comfort still very good but I got the distinct sense that people were very effective at their jobs rather than wanting to engage with audience members like at the Apollo Victoria.
Grade 8.5 /10
2.3 The journey home.
+ Once you know the route you need to take to get home it’s a lot easier and a lot less stressful. A wheelchair accessible bus with an electronic ramp turned out to be what got me to the theatre on time. It was just a case of taking the same bus to get the train home.
Overall Journey Glade . 7.5/10.
The experience of these two journeys has definitely proven to me that they are not that difficult to do in a wheelchair as long as you have an idea of where you're going beforehand. I hope to do more journeys like this in future and hopefully the accessibility will be broadly speaking just as good.
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My wife and I were frequent visitors to London before we moved to France - I was born there and one of our sons lives there. Our usual visit was a "long weekend" of 3-4 days duration as trundling round any big city (at least the way we do it) can be pretty wearing and generally tiring.
We have stayed in a variety of hotels across the city and found most to be "generally OK" when it comes to wheelchair access both in the room and throughout the hotel's public areas. One or two hotels we wouldn't book again due to things like lifts that are too small or difficult access, for example, to the restaurant or breakfast room.
Before I became disabled I was an even more frequent visitor to London (work called me there for 2-3 days most weeks) and I always used to love walking across London - at any time of day or night. Like most cities, it's best discovered 'on foot' (should that be 'on wheel' these days?). Our usual itinerary involves a mix of sightseeing (I'm an avid photographer) a little shopping and catching a show or concert.
We have walked/rolled across the city enough in one day to completely flatten the batteries of my wheelchair. Fortunately, there are better way to get around and across the city if needed. Here's a quick summary of our experiences:
+ Bus: Most, if not all London buses are wheelchair accessible with an on-board ramp that slides from the bus onto the pavement and the drivers are generally very well trained and helpful. As buses can be found on almost every street in London and the London Transport website provides a very useful map and route planner this is our favourite way of getting around. The negatives are (1) there is only ONE wheelchair space per bus - if it's already occupied you have to wait for the next bus (2) the dedicated wheelchair space is often used by other passengers to store luggage, baby pushchairs etc - normally no more than a cause for delay as these items are moved but it does occasionally let the 'nastier' side of city life become visible.
+ River Bus: Yes - the river buses are wheelchair accessible - even to the heaviest electric wheelchair! The staff are unfailingly helpful and this is a great and very comfortable way to get across the city. Just beware that at low tide the floating pontoons from which you board the boat might mean that the access ramp becomes VERY steep. I once had a main fuse blow while trying to climb a very long, steep ramp from the pier near Borough Market. That is an unusual problem though and the helpful staff will advise you.
+ Taxi (Black Cab): Can't speak for ride calling services but ALL London Black Cabs are wheelchair accessible - again, yes , even to a large electric wheelchair. The drivers are unfailingly helpful and - to our amazement - will even stop when flagged down on the street. No anti-wheelchair bias we've ever seen and all the drivers we've encountered have been unfailingly cheerfully helpful while assisting me in and out of the cab. Slight concern I've seen reported elsewhere though never encountered personally, unless you call for a cab (say by phone) the meter is not allowed to be turned on until all passengers are aboard. Negative: a large electric wheelchair just about fully fills the space in the passenger compartment - if you have someone with you, they'd better be pretty 'bendy' as there'll be nowhere, for example, to put their feet! Also, the height of an electric wheelchair (at least mine) means that I can't sit upright while in a cab but must spend bent forward - something to be wary of if that is difficult for you.
- Underground (Tube): Never tried it as last time I looked (admittedly about 4 years ago) few stations and platforms are wheelchair accessible. LT promise that the situation will improve - but as the "problem" was supposed to have been completely solved in time for the 2012 Olympics I won't be holding my breath - especially when more comfortable alternatives are available.
? Trains: I've only used the InterCity services to get to London (and around the UK). My experiences have been variable. At best, you can book online, fill in a questionnaire describing your needs turn up 20 minutes before the departure time and helpful staff escort you to the door nearest your place and help with the temporary ramp need to get on board. At worst, the ONE space (yup, it's a disgrace!) available per train has been double-booked and you get told you'll have to take your chance waiting for the next train - unlike buses maybe 4 hours rather than 4 minutes away. If faced with this situation, there is another wheelchair space in First Class - don't be afraid to *insist* that the company honours your ticket and upgrades you. I've also had experiences where train staff have been trying to board me and other passengers fight to get on at the same time (clearly, they don't understand trains have other doors) - I've had people truly climbing over me in a corridor and injuring me while dragging luggage across me.
? Own car: On the plus side if your car is taxed in the disabled class it is exempt from the London Congestion Charge (NOTE: just carrying or displaying a blue badge is no good - this is a case where the CAR is exempt - not you). On the negative side, traffic moves V-E-R-Y slowly in London and parking charges are astronomical. But if you want to drive to London from elsewhere, park at a hotel then use public transport to get round the city (as was our usual practise) this works very well.
+ Getting round: Generally speaking, I'd award London 8.5/10 for accessibility. Most pavements are adequately ramped at every junction and throughout all the 'touristy' parts of the city ground is flat, paved and easily accessible. Parks, public spaces, shops, concert venues and theatres are almost universally accessible - with the few that aren't being the exception. Some can be a little "challenging" to access (eg; Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club) but staff are helpful and some, sadly, make no attempt (I'm talking about you - Comedy Store, Leicester Square - I used to be a regular ... no more!) - larger theatres are generally (though not universally - see my rant elsewhere on this site about one such) accustomed to wheelchair patrons and access and seating is usually good - though as ever it pays to book in advance and make sure you SPEAK with somebody (ie; don't just book online or at a ticket agent) to make sure arrangements will meet your needs AND you will be placed somewhere you can see the show!
If you are someone who needs a wheelchair to get around and wants to visit London I'd say get on and do it. Of course, do some research but among large European cities London is pretty good - maybe not as "Barrier Frei" as Berlin but a whole lot better than many French cities or other towns and cities across the UK.