Although we've now been to London a few times...including when the underground was bombed...it had to start somewhere. Back when Tim was in high school, we thought that Spring Break would be the perfect time to get our feet wet with some overseas travel. Come along with us as we make our very first trip to London and Europe.
We had always wanted to range out from the North American continent but were hesitant because of accessibility. Even Canada and Mexico are quite a chore in a wheelchair, what would lands farther away be like?
Finally, we took the gamble and booked airfare and hotel to London. I had read quite a few reports about how inaccessible the public transit was, save the taxis, and how there were not any curb cuts and few accessible buildings. Let me put to rest right here that London is inaccessible. It is very accessible and you shouldn't let a thing like your wheelchair stand between you and a great trip to this beautiful and historic city.
Come along and judge for yourself…
The hardest part about this trip is the flying. From Los Angeles it's a ten hour, nonstop flight…overnight! We chose Virgin Atlantic and paid a $40 premium over such U.S. carriers as American Airlines and United because many people had recommended Virgin to us. British Airways had a lower price but also charged for wheelchairs over 30 lbs. (we originally planned to take the power chair but changed to a manual when Lester Mfg. told us it would cost at least $200 for a voltage transformer that would work with the battery charger). Virgin had no such restrictions.
The seats are your standard small economy seats but the airline did seat us in the bulkhead seats for extra legroom. Virgin also supplies each passenger with a goodie bag that includes a sleep mask, booties, toothbrush & toothpaste, and earphones for the in-flight entertainment (no charge). The in-flight entertainment consists of over 300 hours of movies (all uncut and a range of ratings - parents have the option to lock out the more mature titles from their children), TV shows, documentaries, news, sports, and more. Each seat has its own individual video monitor so everyone gets to watch whatever they want
An on-board aisle chair provides access to the bathroom. On the 747 going over, the only modification was a small aisle in front of the restrooms that could be blocked by curtains. On the Airbus 340 on the way back, a full size accessible toilet was available - the biggest bathroom I've ever seen on a plane.
The plane landed at Heathrow International at 11:45am. A dour immigration official quickly stamped our passports and we were on our way.
Taxi companies wanted to make us take two cabs with the wheelchair and luggage (it's debatable whether we would have fit with our two bags…at least it would have been very tight). The Heathrow Express - a high-speed train between the airport and London - would drop us off on the wrong side of town at Paddington Station. I had booked our hotel, the Days Hotel Waterloo, specifically because it was near an accessible Tube station (Waterloo - 3 blocks), so we took the Tube.
From Heathrow, you buy your ticket and find a station attendant. They are easy to find as they wear bright orange vests. The attendant takes you to a lift where you can descend to the platform. You board a Piccadilly Line train…which has about a 6" step up into it…and change trains at the Green Park Station to the Jubilee Line. The Jubilee Line will take you to Waterloo. Cost was £2.80 compared to £13.00 for the Heathrow Express and approximately £50.00 for a cab ride…double that if you need to take two (on a subsequent trip, when the Underground wasn't working, it cost us the equivalent of $110 to take a cab from the airport - ed). After a 45 minute ride, we walked out of Waterloo Station and continued on to our hotel.
The Days Hotel is directly across the street from the Imperial War Museum in the Southbank/Lambeth (SE1) area of London. It's centrally located and has a couple of wheelchair accessible bus lines running by it and is a five minute walk from the nearest accessible Tube and train station. It's also within walking distance to Westminster Bridge and the London Eye.
There are two fully accessible rooms here (rooms 12 and 14), both on the ground floor, with roll-in showers although the sleeping area is rather small by U.S. standards. Each room will sleep three adults or two adults/two small children. On each floor above there are also larger "family" rooms with just a bit more room that will accommodate a wheelchair but have small, non-roll in, showers. Our rate was £407.25 for the week, or about $740.
We arrived at the hotel around 4pm. Too early for bed, even with our jet lag, so we went for a walk over to the London Eye to get our bearings.
Coming back to the hotel, we went to dinner at the Three Stags pub across the street from the hotel. Our first meal - at least for me - was to be the worst one of the trip. My wife enjoyed her fish sandwich, but the cheeseburger I had there was very bad. The hand-pumped ale was first rate, however. Luckily, the food only got better from here.
We hit the sack around 7:30 to get a good night's rest to start our trip on.
After breakfast, our first attraction was to ride the London Eye. This
Wheelchair riders get a discounted ticket and one person gets to go on free as an attendant (or "carer"). The current cost for adults is £
The Eye is completely accessible. The wheel is stopped and a ramp quickly deployed so you can roll right in. The capsule is big enough to roam the entire cabin in your chair.
There is not a hint of a thrill ride at all. The half-hour journey is silky smooth and gives riders a stunning view of London. I recommend you do this first thing as you can easily see where everything is and how far away the sights you want to see are.
You can buy a view guide for £3.00 at the entrance that points out the major landmarks while you're in the air. Two souvenir photos of your party on board cost £10.
American actor Sam Wannamaker came over in the 50's to find the Globe and was dismayed that there was little to mark or commemorate it. He made it his life's work to raise the funds, do the research, and rebuild the Globe.
Today, it stands along the Thames and still puts on performances from May through September. We popped in to take the tour. The cost is £
Even though it's an as exact replica as could be, the theatre is still accessible. Our tour guide, John Sheppard, takes us into the yard where three balconies overlook the middle ground where the Groundlings would (and still) stand to take in a cheap play. Standing in the open-air middle ground only costs £5 to see a play.
Being Easter, after the Globe we head over to Westminster Abbey. To get there we take the Jubilee Line Tube from London Bridge Station, about two blocks from the Globe, to Westminster Station. Both have lifts with little or no gaps between platform and train. Westminster Abbey is about 200 yards from the station exit.
Touring is strictly forbidden on Sundays here, but we go in for the Easter service. We get to listen to the marvelous pipe organ and hear the beautiful singing of the men's and boys' choir. We were seated right in front, about ten feet from the coronation spot where British royalty have been crowned for centuries. One poor chap behind me happened to open up a tour book and was reprimanded - that's how strict the Sunday tourism prohibition is.
I'm surprised that Tim found it very interesting, usually teenagers aren't thrilled to have to sit through a 70 minute church service. We'll come back later in the week for visiting.
For dinner, we found a very nice pub one block away from the hotel, the Bar Room Bar (or BRB) at the Tankard, which serves delicious wood-fired pizzas along with their ales and lagers. It also had a large, fully accessible bathroom.
Monday, April 12th
Today, we have plans from morning until night!
First, we have a traditional English breakfast of fried eggs, sausage, bacon, beans, and toast at the Waterloo Deli adjacent to Waterloo Station in the Lower Marsh market. The food is good- if a bit fried - and the coffee is like most English coffee…weak. The £3 price is very reasonable considering our hotel charges £6 for the same thing.
We take the tube from Waterloo to London Bridge Station. Cross London Bridge (just a basic bridge nowadays, nothing to write home about) and after a bit of a walk, we end up at the Tower of London. Again, we only have to buy two tickets because carers are free. I'm getting used to this! It saves us quite a bit of money with this policy.
After being escorted onto the grounds, we wait inside the gate for a Yeoman Warder led tour…better known as a Beefeater. The tour guide is very professional, knowledgeable, and - best of all - has a great sense of humor.
He is also sensitive to the wheelchair and makes sure Tim is in the front at all times.
First stop is Traitor's Gate where prisoners would come in from the river. We see the ravens and the site of the chopping block where such high-profile prisoners as Anne Boleyn were beheaded…more common prisoners were executed off of the grounds on Tower Hill immediately to the north. After explanations of all the buildings on the grounds, the tour ends in the chapel and we're sent off to the building next door to see the crown jewels.
There is quite a queue to get through but the jewels are pretty spectacular.
Next, we walk across the famous Tower Bridge (the one most people think of as London Bridge) and have lunch at a hot dog stand along the riverwalk. As with the burgers here, Londoners need to go a long way to make hot dogs as good as the U.S.
The afternoon is spent resting off our jet lag and in the evening we return to the tower. This time we take the Jubilee Line to Canada Water Station, transfer to the Docklands Light Railway, and take that to Tower Hill Station. It's an accessible route but we probably could have just taken an accessible bus line to get here quicker.
Dinner is at the Liberty Bounds pub across the street to the north of the Tower of London. We have a steak pie and fish and chips. Both are good but the pie is very heavy and we're only able to get about half of it down.
Afterward, we head across the street to the exit of the Tower Hill Tube station. We meet up with our Original London Walks tour guide, Donald Rumbelow. People come from all over the world to take a walk with Don because he spent 30 years in the City of London Police Force and became the world's foremost expert on the London serial killer commonly known as Jack the Ripper.
As the light of day fades, Don leads the pack of walkers (and one wheelchair) off into the dark streets of Whitechapel where the murders occurred in the 19th century. Although much has changed, a good portion of the area looks as it did at that time including the Ten Bells pub where the prostitutes hung out. The Ten Bells is still in business today.
Don tells of how the investigation was seriously botched by departmental rivalry. The City of London and Scotland Yard had competing jurisdictions. With the boundary line running through Whitechapel, the killer worked both sides and police didn't cooperate with each other…to the point where evidence was destroyed or ignored.
He points out the locations where the five victims were found and he dispels the myth of the happy, attractive London prostitutes as portayed in the movies. A vivid picture of 19th century London emerges during the two hour tour.
It's a lurid, graphically described tour through some haunting streets. It's also a lot of fun. I have to say that, like at the Tower, Mr. Rumbelow took great care in seeing that Tim in his chair had a front row seat the entire tour.
When it's over, we find an accessible bus route that takes us back to our hotel.
Stay tuned for Part 2 and Paris!
Copyright 2004 - Darryl Musick