A weekend in the Big Smoke
On Saturday 29th September Dan and I headed down to London with his sister Kirsten, and her partner, Ben. We were going for the London Tattoo Convention and planned to visit to the British Museum too. Kirsten is an incredible tattoo artist and the weekend was also a networking opportunity for her. Dan decided he’d drive there, because he’d previously had some awful experiences on the London Underground. The tube is NOT wheelchair friendly. Lots of the stations don’t have lifts up to street level- so wheelchair users are stuck once they get onto the platform! The drive was ok and Dan found a secure car park five minutes from Wombats City Hostel, where we were staying.
The hostel’s main entrance has steps, so when we arrived a member of staff let us in through a side door with a ramp. Dan had stayed in the same hostel last year, in one of their private wheelchair-friendly, accessible rooms. He was disappointed to find that apart from the level access and spaciousness, the bathroom was totally unsuitable for a wheelchair user. It wasn’t what you’d expect from a specifically accessible room; it didn’t have any aids- not even a single grab rail (which is a basic must-have). Dan sent an email to the managers after that visit, explaining the need for improvements. This year we were impressed to see that they’d implemented all the changes and Dan had a much easier time. Wombats City Hostel is actually a real bargain- clean, comfortable and a brilliant, quirky building. Now that the accessibility has been improved we’d have no trouble recommending it there.
At the Tattoo Convention
Once we’d dropped our bags off, we went to the convention, at Tobacco Dock (an impressive venue, full of history). It’s only a ten to fifteen minute walk from the hostel, but there’s a few kerbs and steep-ish hills to negotiate, so Ben helped Dan where needed. The ground outside Tobacco Dock is cobbled and quite uneven, but Dan could still self-propel his chair around most of it. I was glad about that because we’d recently had a horrendous incident involving me tipping Dan head-first out of his chair, whilst I was pushing him (I’ll be writing about that soon!).
Tobacco Dock was bursting with tattoo enthusiasts and amazing artists from around the world. Exhibitions for artwork of all mediums, live music, dancers and fire breathers were just some of the things to take in. It was a visual feast! Unfortunately, after a few hours, Dan and I decided that we’d had enough; the crowds became far too tightly packed. The busy swarms made Dan feel that all he could see was people’s backsides (which was pretty similar for me, being slightly vertically challenged!). Negotiating our way around became tiring and unpleasant. He’d been to the convention twice before, but said it’d never been as busy as it was this year. It honestly felt like Tobacco Dock was filled beyond capacity, and it became quite uncomfortable. The other irritation was that the two visitor lifts inside were broken. The entire, large venue only had one working: the ‘goods lift’ (right at the end of the building). Dan said this was the also the case last year- had the lifts been fixed at all in the year between the two conventions?
Meals on wheels… Literally.
At about half five, Dan and I left to grab some food, whilst Kirsten and Ben got ready for the convention’s afterparty. Because of my severe nut allergy, eating out is difficult (as recently highlighted in the news by several allergy deaths, including the two Pret tragedies). A safe bet is McDonalds, and there was one a couple of minutes’ away. When we arrived, it was odd; it was a walk-through only- we didn’t even know they existed! Not being able to go in and sit at a table was fairly awkward; it was busy and there was only one bench free, with raised seating so Dan couldn’t get up onto it. Eating outdoors, in his wheelchair at the side of a busy London road, wasn’t exactly the fine dining Dan enjoys. Dan has diabetes, which is a complication of FA, and doing a finger-prick blood glucose test without a table to put things on, made it fiddlier than usual. After eating, we decided to go for a drink at a local pub. We got an Uber XL, which had a boot big enough to fit the wheelchair in without having to take it apart, making things quicker and easier.
A historic riverside pub & a lively hostel bar
We went to The Prospect of Whitby, in Wapping- the oldest riverside pub in London (dating from 1520). It’s sat right on the edge of the river Thames, has great views and is full of character and history. There’s level access in to the pub, and an outdoor courtyard area which was also easily accessible. There is an accessible toilet, but it was also being used as a store room, making it a tight squeeze- not ideal. Thankfully, Dan just about managed in there, but it was harder than it should’ve been. Despite that issue, we really enjoyed our few hours there and the atmosphere was great. If you’re in the area, it’s worth a visit to absorb the views and the history of a five-hundred year old pub.
We finished off the evening in the bar back at the hostel. ‘WomBar’ is at basement level and there’s lifts as well as stairs to get down there. The bare brick walls, exposed pipework and industrial lights are offset by huge comfy sofas and colourful padded seating areas. There are plenty of tables as well, as they also serve the breakfast in there. The friendly bar staff, the games (including a pool table), and the music creates a perfect atmosphere- fun and lively, but somehow also laid-back! I had a bit of a negative opinion of hostels, having only stayed in one previously. Wombats City Hostel managed to really changed my mind.
Being tourists- route to The British Museum
The next morning, we all went to Victoria Docks, got some drinks and walked up to the river, near Tower Bridge. After that, we made our way to the British Museum. There are a handful of blue badge car parking spaces available there, if you pre-book one, which Dan had. As instructed, we reported to the main gates on arrival. When the car slowed down and Dan drove towards the entrance, there seemed to be a sudden rush of staff. We pulled up in front of the gates, and two security guards hastily approached the car. When Dan put his window down and said he’d got a parking space booked, the security guard blushed; he told us that they’d thought we were the VIP that they were expecting! Dan’s car is black with tinted windows and is quite big, but it definitely wasn’t carrying an eagerly anticipated VIP! As they let us through, several tourists, (obviously also thinking the same as the guards had) ran towards the car before being intercepted by the staff. It definitely gave us a laugh! Unexpectedly, the parking space wasn’t in a small car park hidden around the back somewhere, but was right outside the front of the museum.
Unfortunately, when it came to access, after arriving and parking, not everything continued to go as smoothly. The museum is an incredibly impressive building, inside and out. It’s accessed by twelve steps, which span almost the entire width of the entrance. Either side of the steps, there is a self-operable, open-top lift. We tried the first one but it wasn’t working, so we went to the one on the other side. This one was working, but the door seemed a bit temperamental and it took a few tries to get in. Once inside the museum, we explored the ground floor, where there are some fascinating artefacts and exhibitions, including the Rosetta stone. We then tried to get to the other areas/ floors of the museum, but were told by a staff member that the lift going to the other galleries wasn’t working- we could only access the areas we’d already seen. It was disappointing that we had to miss out on quite a large portion of the museum.
However, we still enjoyed it, and couldn’t complain too much as admission is free; the museum just asks for a small donation. When we left, we had yet more trouble with the lift (which seemed to be the general theme of the weekend) and Dan ended up stuck in it for a few minutes.
A meal that left a sour taste…
Finally, before going home, we went for lunch. This is when we had the worst access experience I’ve been involved in since being with Dan. We went to eat at The Plough on Museum Street, a short walk from the museum. The pub was heaving, as expected due its location and it being a weekend, but staff found us suitable seating. The first problem arose when ordering our food. I was abruptly and bluntly informed by the staff member that they couldn’t tell me that anything on the menu was safe for a nut allergy sufferer. They gave me a guide to look at, which listed any allergens in their food. Still though, they told me it was at my discretion if and what I ate. Even if I chose something that had no allergy warnings, they couldn’t say that there’d be no cross contamination in the kitchen. So I ended up eating a bag of crisps for lunch. It angered me that the ‘chefs’ in a busy London pub didn’t know how to avoid cross contamination when preparing food, or they couldn’t be bothered to. To be unable to cater for a nut allergy sufferer in a standard ‘pub grub’ type place was really disappointing, and quite frankly a bit ridiculous.
After everyone else had eaten their food (which by all accounts wasn’t great), Dan needed the toilet. I went to ask about the accessible toilet, and the barmaid said she’d take Dan to show him where it was. She then told him they didn’t actually have an accessible toilet, but he could use one in Amarcord Museum- the bistro next door. Dan asked me to go with him in case he needed help getting in. How they thought this was a solution, I don’t know… The small restaurant had a big step to get in (just under a foot high) and no ramp. With the help of someone stood outside, we managed to lift Dan in his chair up the step. We then went through the restaurant and were greeted with another step, this time smaller and more manageable. When we found where the toilet was, there were yet more steep steps, but this time going down. It was a really small, tight space with a sharp turn through the door at the bottom of the steps- completely unsuitable for a wheelchair. Even if Dan had been able to get into the toilet room, once in there, there were no grab rails, and nothing about it was accessible. Understandably, Dan was really irritated, and I hated not being able to help. We were now about half an hour on and he was bursting! Although there was a long queue to use it, we finally found a properly accessible toilet in a coffee shop five minutes down the road.
Admittedly, by the time we left, Dan (and therefore I) was feeling a bit deflated. Frustrated by lifts, toilets and the lack of understanding from the pub staff, we were pretty tired, and looking forward to getting home. Thankfully, by the time we’d got back, any negativity had subsided, and we were reflecting on what was a really good weekend overall. Dan has a super-positive attitude, and I’m quite stubborn and determined, so we reckon we make a pretty good team. Despite Friedreich’s Ataxia, so far we’ve been on some amazing trips, had some unforgettable dates and a lot of laughs- and we intend to carry on that way for a long time!