Mrs TBF and I have just returned from spending a nice relaxing few days in London, not only celebrating our anniversary, but a chance to be away from work – and in this blog’s case politics.
Thus with this in mind, I’m keen to leave aside temporarily the political problems of the “Westminster bubble”, and begin with what can be described in an unusually English upbeat observation that London as a city to explore and visit is, in my view, one of the finest in the world…albeit with some understandable failings.
I have visited London on so many occasions since my childhood and have frequented not only most of the usual tourist parts, but sporting venues, conferences and other copious personal related ventures. Yet it constantly amazes me that no matter how many times I visit, there are always great areas and places that I have never been to or even heard of.
One of the reasons, and the most obvious, is that London is rather large, not as much as some other world cities admittedly but its size is significantly disproportionate to the size of a relatively small island. But alone this cannot describe London’s appeal. Los Angeles is also a large sprawling city yet it is the worst in my experience I have ever visited – in short it’s a dump.
Many tourist city guides tend to recommend visitors stay in relatively safe ‘tourist areas’ – with a dash of common sense – and in contrast warn of the dangers of completely separate “never visit after dark” areas. LA manages to combine the two along just one street (Hollywood Boulevard) …epitomised by the Hollywood film Pretty Woman, where the film attempted to glamorise the best bits of LA by having Julia Roberts play a prostitute. So size is clearly not everything.
Another advantage with London is that it simply has a lot of history; peppered as it is with thousands of historic properties, as well as four World Heritage Sites (Greenwich, Tower, Kew and Westminster) adding in scheduled ancient monuments and historic parks. What other major world city has such a comprehensive and informative blue plaque scheme allowing casual visitors to connecting buildings with the past?
This is the city I have long known, yet despite being largely familiar with London it was interesting that on this occasion it was the first time we visited the capital properly while utilizing a wheelchair. Navigating a city with the limitations that a wheelchair poses reveals a different aspect of a city, its culture and all the nuances which emerge. Not all of it initially obvious.
In our post in June last year criticism was made of wheelchair access regarding Brussels and in particular – and rather ironically – EU buildings. In contrast it can be safely argued that wheelchair access on London’s public pavements is largely spot on in comparison.
Gently sloped dropped kerbs with tactile paving are abound. It’s worth noting that tactile paving not only helps those who have sight disability to find the edge of the kerb but also acts as “foot traction” for those pushing trying to tame a ‘runaway’ wheelchair on a slope in wet weather which could otherwise lead to slipping and falling over.
And blimey isn’t London ‘hilly’- perhaps memories play tricks but it isn’t as flat I had always thought it was. I guess it should be obvious that being on a flood plain, and much of it being built around the Thames, that areas of London unsurprisingly slopes significantly towards the river, but it doesn’t truly become apparent until you have to push a wheelchair away from the river – essentially uphill.
Whenever I have previously visited London I have opted to use the Tube to travel around London. For obvious reasons on this occasion due to better accessibility we stuck to London taxis. I’d forgotten how good they were.
Each taxi came with its own ramp, the drivers were unfailing polite and helpful and they put themselves out to the most extraordinary inconvenience to drop us off to make Mrs TBF’s life a little easier, to the extend of holding up a road of busy traffic. Another ‘interesting’ feature of them, as Bill Bryson noted, is they cannot drive more than 200 feet in a straight line before charging down another obscure street you never knew existed.
Another attraction of London, and a major tourist one is its pubs. Old London pubs can be a particular nuisance if you are tall, as most of the toilets are ‘downstairs’ which requires not only navigating restricted stair access but low ceilings when in the facilities.
Invariably also these same pubs have steps outside the front door which provide a further obstacle for wheelchair bound customers. Yet many pubs were helpful with ramps and lifting. However it’s with some irony that the more modern pubs which had removed steps for a slope for the front door didn’t carry on that thinking for the rest of the pub.
A classic example was the Slug and Lettuce in Leicester Square, despite no steps into the premises, all of its ‘wheelchair access available seating’ was of the tall chair variety, pictured below:
And that helps a disabled person how? We suspect it’s not malicious just a lack of thought- undoubtedly they’ve figured out, along with many other ‘concept’ pubs, that tall chairs and standing increases the alcohol consumption.
Public buildings, in contrast tend to be better and go out of their way to help even if for very obvious reasons medieval ones like cathedrals and castles do not lend themselves fully to those who don’t have complete mobility. Here Westminster Abbey was no exception.
Of all the major London attractions I’ve always been reluctant to visit the Abbey in the past due to its ongoing standing prohibitive cost, despite being someone who greatly admires and extensively enjoys visiting medieval buildings. The Abbey, even by London standards, is expensive. It is sad that this is the case for anyone interested in British history, architecture and as an active place of worship. The expensive entrance price doesn’t allow photography inside even without a flash.
However for a wheelchair user, along with a carer, the entrance was free – mainly due to large parts of the building being inaccessible. Thus, after many years, I was able to take in, and appreciate, the internal architectural delights of the Abbey (in the absence of the somewhat overpriced entrance fee I gave a voluntary donation).
The volunteers within the Abbey though couldn’t have been more helpful, even with little details like providing, without prompting, a hands free version of the audio guide to those whose hands are tied up with pushing wheelchairs.
So what to make of Westminster Abbey itself? Oddly despite its religious heritage, and more recently the wedding of William and Kate, the Abbey really feels more like a memorial to Britain’s more famous figures than a place of worship.
What is noticeable from the outset is the incredible number of memorials, plaques and statues to famous rulers, artists, and poets that has been packed into the building. In this sense no other Abbey or Cathedral in England is like it and as consequence the religious imagery is much less noticeable here.
Given the overwhelming tributes within the building to leaders of establishment – Prime Ministers, Kings etc – it leaves us puzzled why the tribute is not reciprocated in the form of formal contributions to its upkeep:
What is less well known is that Westminster Abbey receives no regular funding from the Crown, the Church of England or the government.Neither a cathedral nor a parish church, Westminster Abbey was established as a ‘Royal Peculiar’ in 1560 by Queen Elizabeth I. The Abbey is outside the jurisdiction and responsibility of the Church of England and the Government. In short, this means we must seek our own financial support.
So instead an overpriced ticket paid for by the hoi polloi it is. The Abbey, among many others, serves as the final resting place of Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, and Laurence Olivier, and also features memorials to William Shakespeare, Admiral Horatio Nelson, Jane Austen, and Oscar Romero (who are all buried elsewhere – Jane Austin for example in Winchester).
My personal view having wandered around is this desire within an Abbey to have so many plaques, especially in Poets’ Corner, largely of non-religious nature contrary to its function becomes borderline tacky and I would include, slightly controversially, the grave of the Unknown Warrior pictured above. More a tourist existence than a dignified tribute.
An interesting architectural feature, and again rather unique and largely unseen on television coverage of royal occasions, is use of iron stabilisation bar supports around the central part of the Abbey to prop up the pillars which disappointingly suggests a fundamental instability of the original Gothic structure.
Anyway I’m glad I’ve seen it and equally pleased it didn’t cost Mrs TBF and I £40 to enter.
Moving on from Westminster Abbey, just along the road, we had a quick look at New Scotland Yard. Not surprisingly for a fortified Police Station the place was adorned with CCTV, fences and intimidating looking Policeman guarding every entrance. They probably guarded the front entrance as well but it was hard to tell where the front entrance was. Unwelcoming NSY was, and as I’ve noted before much can be garnered from a building about an institution’s culture.
But still there was always the iconic revolving triangle sign to observe:
Which now appears right in the middle of a public pavement; outside the confines of NSY, on its own, which at the time I visited was patrolled by a PCSO:
So the iconic sign is in a public space with plastic plod to look after it, but the rest of the building is not easily accessible by members of the public and is guarded by proper plod. It’s not quite how it looks on television. We should know our place.
Ultimately though London, despite its quirks, is pretty kind to those who are wheelchair bound, including the British public who were very helpful.
Mrs TBF and I rounded off a pleasant few days by going to see Shaun the Sheep The Movie – this review is pretty much right. What a delightful, funny and ‘British’ film it is.
Essentially it is a 90 minute silent stop motion film made for under 10’s which is an impressive feat in itself. It’s obviously been made with loving care and to keep the adults amused it sneaks in plenty of references to films such as Taxi Driver, Shawshank Redemption, Silence of the Lambs and Chopper.
After it had finished we caught a cab only to hear Farage on the radio regarding a little local difficulty in Rotherham.
And so back to the real world with a bump…