Julie is the author of a number of guidebooks, including 'Melbourne's Best Bush Bay and City Walks' & 'Melbourne for Dogs' (with RSPCA). Read more of her adventures at her walks blog: walksmelbourne.com
Published December 15th 2012
Getting around when you can't
I have just had a week's touristing in London with a son on crutches. London, it has to be said, is not particularly disabled-friendly: very few of the older tube stations have lift access - instead there are hundreds of stairs and long elevators, in fact, there are stairs everywhere. Having limited mobility - even temporarily - really changes your perspective on the whole shebang, but with a bit of homework, and the occasional splurge, you can get as much out London as most tourists. While not a guide for wheelchair users, hopefully this article will assist those who are not nimble on their feet to help you along the way:
1. Stay somewhere very, VERY central. Ah! I hear you cry – who on earth can afford to stay in central London? Well, actually, my hands down winner was staying at the budget (but still nice) chain Premier Inn inside London's County Hall, directly opposite Big Ben and steps from the London Eye. I advance-booked online a very generously-sized family room (they also have disabled access rooms) for just GBP99 per night (usually double that if you don't book in advance)– which included a double bed and two singles and fresh and modern ensuite bathroom. A winner. And kids up to the age of 16 eat free at the generous buffet breakfast. There were about 10 staged steps up into the reception area, which might be a barrier for some, though the rest of the hotel was accessible via lifts and ramps.
County Hall is home to Premier Inn Hotel, right near Westminister Bridge & the London Eye
2. When you arrive into central London, splash out on a black cab to get to your hotel If you catch a train into London, the over-ground trains or Heathrow Express are usually disabled friendly (though check in advance your departing train stations – some of them have overpasses of many stairs to get on the London side platforms – we went from Beaconsfield instead of High Wycombe for example, to avoid this problem). Once you arrive into town though, with luggage, grab a London-cab – they are roomy, spacious and the easiest way to get to your hotel. Many of them also have fold-down steps to make them easier to get into, and can also take wheelchairs. Yes they can be expensive (try and time your arrival for non-peak hours), but they are most definitely worth it.
3. Try the hop-on/hop-off bus to get around.
If you have plenty of time, and can get on and off a bus, this can be a good alternative to the underground, and it also means you get to see a lot more than if you are on the tube. Luckily for us, there was a stop on Westminister Bridge, about 200 metres from our hotel. You can often get good value tickets which can include an additional 24 hours for free if you ask, or book online. Be aware that the bus stops are not always right next to the particular attraction you are wanting to see, so perhaps ask in advance. We found we were usually 100-200 metres walk from each attraction. Drivers are usually very patient for slower customers, though don't expect them to assist you on or off the bus.
4. Try the River Boat In contrast to the bus option, the staff on the river boats could not be more helpful and accommodating. Access to the boats (for example at the London Eye and Westminister piers) is by long ramps, with good grip. The boats are walk-on/off with no steps and are very roomy. They drop you off at the entrance gates of the Tower of London, which is very convenient (though the Tower attraction itself has extensive cobblestones and no elevator access into the White Tower, just lots of steps – nevertheless it is worth the visit, and access to the Crown Jewels doesn't involve steps). The River Boat also goes all the way down to Greenwich, or back east up to Kew Gardens. Definitely our favourite, most stress-free way to get around.
5. Jump on the London Eye The London Eye is highly accessible – ramp access and they stop the usually continuously-rotating wheel to allow wheelchair and disabled access. On a clear day you will be able to see almost everything. You can get deals which include the Hop-on/Off bus, the London Eye and River Boat access in a package which are much better value than buying them separately.
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben from the London Eye
6. Visit the Harry Potter Studio Tour. With myself and 3 kids, we couldn't have been more impressed with the Harry Potter Studio tour at Leavesden Studios near Watford Junction. We rang in advance and booked a free manual wheelchair; the whole site is single-level access or ramped, and if you are registered disabled in the UK, your carer gets a free ticket. The staff bent over backwards and could not have been more accommodating. Huge thumbs up. We went on the train from Euston Station which connects to a double decker bus from Watford Junction Station, which wouldn't work for those in wheelchairs, but you also have the option to drive by car, and there is very good and free carparking in the studios.
Harry Potter Costumes, at the Harry Potter Studio Tour
7. Explore the Southbank As a fairly recent development, compared to the hundreds of years of history and architecture to work around on the north bank of the Thames, the south bank has been developed as a highly accessible, stair free pedestrianised area, full of market stalls, rides, restaurants and art and theatre (including Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the National Theatre, and my all time favourite, the Tate Modern at Bankside). There is a great buzz along here, even throughout the winter, and for those in wheelchairs, or for whom steps are hard work, this is a great part of London to hang out.
With a little bit of extra thought and perhaps more modest aspirations, even those with limited mobility can get a great deal out of a visit to London. I'd love to hear your ideas and tips as well!