van rental, SatNav navigational system, Greenwich hotel, O2 Arena, Westminster Hotel, the Changing of the Guard, Buckingham Palace tour, the Royal Mews, Clarence House tour, Her Majesty's Theatre, Westminster Abbey, London taxis, The British Museum, The Imperial War Museum, Princess Diana memorial service, The National Gallery, Kensington Palace, Hyde Park, Christian Slater, Thames boat cruise, Tower of London, St. Paul's Cathedral, Southwark Cathedral, The Globe Theatre, The London Eye, Hampton Court Palace, Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum
Edinburgh accommodations, Calton Hill, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle, Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Loch Ness, Glenfinnan, Glencoe hotel
Windsor hotel, Windsor Castle, Salisbury Cathedral, Stonehenge
click on the symbol in the review for pic
By James Glasbergen
The United Kingdom has always been near the top of my list of places to visit, so I was excited to finally make my way there in August, 2007. Since it would be impossible to see everything there is to see in the UK in just 12 days, my plan was to take in some of the major highlights of England and Scotland. We started by renting an accessible van in London and making the long drive north to Edinburgh. August is prime tourist season in Edinburgh as a number of special events take over the city, so we spent a couple days taking in the attractions and the culture of Scotland's capital city. After an additional day driving through the Highlands, we said goodbye to Scotland and returned to "Jolly Old England" to spend the remaining time taking in the major attractions in and around London, including short side trips to Northampton, Windsor, Salisbury and Stonehenge. From the old Scottish castles and beautiful scenery of the Highlands, to the historic palaces, majestic cathedrals, and theatres of London, this proved to be one trip that was long overdue.
Upon arrival at London's Gatwick Airport, we made our way through customs before meeting up with the owner of the van rental company outside the baggage claim. We immediately went outside to retrieve the van that would be ours for the next eight days. It was a self-drive automatic van (, ) with a hydraulic lift (, , , ) at the back. Learning to driving on the left side of the road was not a big deal. The bigger issue, at least from the start, was adjusting to the narrow lanes which were not as wide as the lanes we are accustomed to in North America. Our van was also a little wider than the converted minivans we have in North America, so it took a little getting used to. Of course, driving over a couple curbs teaches you pretty quick, but it all worked out well in the end.
I made a last minute decision to rent a SatNav navigational system from the van company, which for 4 pounds a day may have been the best decision that I made the whole trip. Street signs did not seem nearly as visible to us as we are accustomed to in North America. They were usually written on the side of buildings, if in fact we saw them at all. Fortunately, we did not need to read street signs on this trip as we had this nice lady on the SatNav shouting out directions to us as we drove. Even when we took a wrong turn (and it did happen several times), we were never truly lost as the navigational system would just recalculate and set us back on the right path. Having driven around Europe with my friend a few years back where we got lost in all 11 cities we drove to, I can appreciate how much stress this gadget saved us this time around!
We checked in to our hotel in Greenwich to rest up for the afternoon after the long overnight flight from North America. We had a pretty nice accessible room (, , ) that included two beds and a roll-in shower in the bathroom (, , , ). After a short snooze, we were off to the O2 Arena to catch the Rolling Stones in concert. There was ample wheelchair parking near the O2, but it had to be reserved in advance (which we did). In fact, all of the parking had to be purchased in advance as space around the arena is very limited. The parking wasn't bad, although I was a little surprised that there wasn't any disabled parking a little closer to the venue. The accessible seating inside the arena was fantastic. There was a large wheelchair section right at the side of the stage which gave us all a great unimpeded view of the band. The concert was great too!
The next morning, we got up and made the long drive to Edinburgh, Scotland. I am not sure how long the drive should have taken us (MapQuest told me 6.5 hours), but it ended up taking us 10 hours. This is when we learned our first of two lessons on this trip regarding our navigational system. It was only after arriving that we realized it was set to "shortest distance" instead of "fastest time." I was told the drive normally takes about 8 or 9 hours.
Traveling to Edinburgh in August can be very hectic as there are two major events going on in the city, namely the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Both of them take place for a few weeks each August, and tourists from all over the world flock to the city to take in these events. Of course, this means that hotels are booked up early. This year was no exception, so we decided to stay in a nice accessible hotel just north of the city. We had a pretty basic room (, ), and the bathroom was a good size and included a nice roll-in shower (, ).
Since we only had two full days to take in Edinburgh, I decided to hire a private guide for the first day to show us the highlights of the city. We picked the guide up in downtown Edinburgh, and we immediately drove to the top of Calton Hill for a great panoramic view of the city. There was a parking area and a paved accessible pathway at the top that allowed us to get out and stroll around to take in various viewpoints overlooking Edinburgh.
Next, we made our way over to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, located at the end of Edinburgh's famous Royal Mile. The Palace is several hundred years old and unfortunately not very accessible. The biggest attraction at Holyroodhouse -- the apartment of Mary, Queen of Scots -- can only be accessed via a long, spiral staircase that includes 25 steps. Even though I could not get there, I felt like I saw more than I expected to see inside the Palace. We were escorted by elevator from the ground floor to the first floor, where we were able to tour through a number of rooms, including the Royal Dining Room and the Throne Room. There was also a new computer exhibit on display that allows people who cannot walk up the flight of stairs to see the apartment of Mary, Queen of Scots to at least view a small video and see what it looks like upstairs.
Outside of the Palace, we toured through the ruins of the Abbey, site of many coronations and weddings. It was constructed in 1128, but collapsed in the 1700s, leaving it in it's current state. There was a ramp going into the Abbey, and a mixture of stone blocks and gravel made it fairly easy to move around by wheelchair inside. Next, we took a walk through the Palace Gardens and around the whole palace. The path was completely accessible.
Admission to the Palace of Holyroodhouse was £9.50 per adult, but free for one person accompanying a person with a disability, referred to as a "carer" pretty much everywhere we went in the UK. In fact, most of the attractions we went to throughout the UK offered free admission for a "carer" of a person with a disability, including Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle, Althorp, Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, the Royal Mews, Clarence House, the Tower of London, the London Eye, Hampton Court Palace, and Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.
Next, we made our way over to the other end of the Royal Mile to take in Edinburgh Castle. The street leading up to the castle was lined with old cobblestone, making it incredibly rough. The grandstands for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo were set up on the castle esplanade, and we were allowed to drive the van right up to the esplanade and park near the stands while we toured the castle.
Edinburgh Castle is another Castle that does not offer the greatest access, although it is very doable for a wheelchair user with a little determination. The castle actually operates a courtesy vehicle (), which is a wheelchair accessible van that will take disabled passengers from the esplanade up to Crown Square inside the castle. There are actually no steps to get from the esplanade to Crown Square, but the pathway leading up is a rather steep hill consisting of very rough cobblestone (, , , , , ). I didn't feel like waiting for the courtesy vehicle and I didn't want to miss anything on the way up the hill, so I decided to give it a try on my own. It was a bumpy ride, but I didn't find it too difficult as long as I took it slow.
Like our experience at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount that I was able to see at Edinburgh Castle. From everything I had read prior to arriving, I didn't have any great expectations of seeing very much. To the contrary, I was able to get to a number of the castle's main attractions, including the Great Hall, St. Margaret's Chapel, and the Crown Jewels of Scotland.
We ended the day with a short walk through the Royal Botanic Garden. It was quite an interesting place to stroll around in, not to mention a quiet, peaceful getaway located in the midst of a bustling city.
The next morning, we made the 30-minute drive to Stirling to check out Stirling Castle. There was a fairly large parking area near the top of the hill just outside the castle walls. Like Edinburgh Castle, there was a steep cobblestone road leading from the entrance at the outside gate up to the inner courtyard of the castle. Also like Edinburgh Castle, there was an accessible courtesy vehicle available to take disabled visitors from the entrance to the main courtyard. Once again, I didn't feel like waiting around for the courtesy vehicle, so I just took it slowly up the path. It was bumpy, but not a big deal if you have the time. Once at the top, most of the noteworthy sites were quite accessible, including the Great Hall and Chapel Royal. The roughest part was navigating the Inner Close between the Great Hall and Chapel Royal, which was all cobblestone. It was definitely worth doing though.
We capped off our short stay in Edinburgh with an evening at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. This world-famous event takes place nightly for two weeks every August on the Edinburgh Castle esplanade. Performers come from countries all over the world to take part in the Tattoo. Tickets are not easy to get. Regular seats usually sell out in January already, so I was fortunate when I called up in February to get a couple wheelchair tickets. Like many of the other attractions, a disabled person is entitled to one free companion ticket for a "carer." The wheelchair seating was very good. It was actually located underneath the first row all along one side of the grandstand, which was great because it gives wheelchair users a cover in the event of rain. The Tattoo itself was great. I definitely recommend it for travelers considering a visit to Edinburgh in August, but it is important to make plans early as August is a busy month in Edinburgh. Not only do the Tattoo tickets sell out several months in advance, but hotel rooms in the city are booked solid as the 3-week Edinburgh International Festival takes place in August as well.
After a short stay in Edinburgh, we were off to experience a bit of the Highlands. We made the 3-hour drive north to the little town of Drumnadrochit, home to the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre. The Centre houses an exhibition that takes visitors on a video journey through the history of Loch Ness. Unfortunately, I found the video extremely boring, and I left feeling quite disappointed. I'm not sure what I expected to get from the exhibition, but I definitely expected more than just a video. We inquired about one of the sightseeing cruises on Loch Ness, but we were told that the only company with an accessible boat was in Inverness, which meant we would have had to backtrack 25 minutes to where we had already come through. Since it was already afternoon, we decided against it and continued on to Glencoe feeling somewhat disappointed by our Loch Ness experience.
We did not get to Glencoe until 5 p.m., so there wasn't a whole lot open anymore. Before heading to our hotel, we decided to make a quick trip to Glenfinnan to check out a couple attractions. The first was the Glenfinnan Monument, which marks the spot where Prince Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") raised the Jacobite Standard in 1745 at the start of the Jacobite Uprising. Access to the monument was not the greatest as the gravel path leading there was quite bumpy in sections (, ).
Across the street from the Glenfinnan Monument is the Glenfinnan Viaduct, well-known to Harry Potter fans as the railway that carried the Hogwarts Express. The view was not the greatest from where we were parked, although there was a big hill that you could climb where you could get a better view. It was not accessible though.
After the short stop in Glenfinnan, we headed for our Glencoe hotel. It had already been a long day which started out in Edinburgh in the morning -- we didn't realize that it was about to get a lot longer. What should have been a 15-30 minute drive ended up taking us a couple hours. We were about to learn the hard way for the second time on this trip that it's always a good idea to thoroughly check the settings on your GPS system when you are relying on it in an unfamiliar destination. In this case, we discovered too late that we should have checked off the option that would have given us directions that did not include ferry crossings. Instead of the fastest route to our hotel, we were taken down some extremely long, single lane road along a big lake. I have never seen so many sheep! Anyway, after coming to the end of what was starting to seem like a never ending road, we finally came to a ferry () that took us across the lake. From there, it was only a short drive to our hotel.
Our hotel near Glencoe was quite nice. There were two beds (, , ) and a spacious bathroom that included a nice roll-in shower (, , , ). Behind the hotel there was a sitting area where people could sit and enjoy the scenic lake and hills (, , ). Our room had a patio door that led out to this area, although there was a step going out the door (). We only stayed this for one night as we were off to Northampton the next morning. Before leaving the area though, we made a quick stop at the Glencoe Visitor Centre. Once again, I was a little disappointed. There was a lookout area at the back of the Visitor Centre that offered a good view of some hills, although we didn't find the view overly spectacular. In fact, we were a little disappointed in our trip to the Highlands overall. Based on what we read and people that we talked to, we expected to see spectacular scenery, but we did not come away overly impressed. The area near Glencoe was quite a nice drive, but that was the only area that stood out for us. On the other hand, I've also been told that to experience the true beauty of the Highlands, you need to drive north of Inverness, which we did not do.
After another long day of driving, we arrived at our hotel in Northampton. Their accessible rooms only have one double bed (, , ), but the hotel was kind enough to give us a complementary adjoining room as well since the accessible room was not very large. The bathroom in the accessible room was a decent size, and it did include a roll-in shower (, ).
We spent our only day in the Northampton area paying a visit to Althorp, home to the Spencer family for the last 500 years. It is most famously known as the place where Diana (Spencer), Princess of Wales grew up and is now buried. Her brother Charles now lives in the mansion and runs the estate. Althorp is only open to the public for two months of the year, during July and August. We found plenty of parking in a field across from the entrance to the estate. There was a fairly long road lined with trees that led from the main gates to the mansion and the stables area. They actually have an accessible courtesy vehicle () for those who have difficulty with the long walk, but the path was completely paved so it was not a big deal to wheel up the road.
The stables at Althorp are now converted into a big exhibition celebrating the life of Princess Diana. Visitors can tour through a number of exhibits that cover her childhood, the royal wedding, and her charity work. There is also a room that displays many of the famous dresses that she wore throughout her public life. After touring through the exhibits, we made our way over to the house, which will celebrate its 500th anniversary in 2008. Inside the house we were able to walk through several rooms. It was definitely no ordinary home. It looked more like many of the castles and palaces we had visited with old paintings on the walls and expensive furniture in the rooms. Finally, we made our way over to the Round Oval, a small oval lake with an island in the center where Princess Diana is buried. A pathway goes around the lake, and there is a small memorial to Diana on the far end.
After a few hours at Althorp, we made the 1.5 hour drive to Windsor to spend the night. We stayed a couple miles down the road from Windsor Castle. The hotel was fairly nice. Our accessible room included one double bed and just enough room for an additional rollaway bed. The bathroom had plenty of space to move around in and included a nice roll-in shower (, ).
We started the next day with a trip to 1000-year-old Windsor Castle, the largest occupied castle in the world and one of the Queen's official residences. There did not seem to be any disabled parking near the visitor entrance, so we parked at the bottom of the hill and made our way up to the castle on the sidewalk, which was not a big deal.
Upon entering the castle, we collected our audio guide and went to the Lower Ward to catch the Changing of the Guard, an event that usually takes place on alternate days at 11 a.m. The ceremony was a little long -- approximately 40 minutes, but still interesting to watch the new guard march in to replace the old guard.
Following the ceremony, we spent some time touring the grounds with our audio guides leading the way. We started with a visit to St. George's Chapel. We had to be escorted through a back entrance as the main entrance was not accessible. After a quick visit inside, we went back out and made our way over to the State Apartments. Like St. George's Chapel, there was an alternate entrance to the State Apartments for wheelchair users as the main entrance was not accessible. We were escorted by elevator to the upper floors where we were able to tour through numerous rooms. Access at Windsor Castle was great as there was very little that was not accessible for wheelchair users.
After a couple hours at Windsor Castle, we got back in our van and made the 1.5-hour drive to Salisbury for a short visit to Salisbury Cathedral. The cathedral was built in the 13th century and has the tallest spire in the United Kingdom. It is also home to one of the four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta. Tourists are able to see the Magna Carta on display in the chapter house.
Next, we drove 15 minutes up the road to Stonehenge. Stonehenge is located in the middle of a country field with very little around it other than more country fields. For such a famous monument, I expected there to be a little more fanfare in the area, but that was not the case at all.
There was a small parking lot across the street where we parked and purchased tickets. You can actually see Stonehenge quite well from the road, but you have to purchase tickets to go inside the gates and see it up close. We entered via a tunnel that went under the road and connected the parking lot to the field (). Once at Stonehenge, we simply took our time walking around the monument on a cordoned off pathway. The path did a full circle around the monument. Unfortunately, tourists can no longer go into the middle of Stonehenge like they used to. It was fairly easy to wheel around by wheelchair as the path consisted of a combination of fine gravel, hard grass, and a boardwalk.
After another long day, we made our way to London to return the van and begin our 5-night stay in the United Kingdom's capital city. We stayed in the Westminster area of London, a convenient location as it was only a short walk to Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the London Eye. The only negative was that there were not very many restaurants in the area, so we had to either eat at our hotel or go to another area of town to find a restaurant.
Our hotel itself was fantastic. The room was very large. There was a king-sized bed and plenty of room to accommodate an additional rollaway bed (, ). There was also a second room where we could store our luggage (, ). The bathroom was quite big and included both a bathtub and a roll-in shower (, , , , ). The only problem with the roll-in shower was that it was not very deep or wide. It probably was not even made for wheelchair users specifically as most wheelchairs would likely not be able to fit their whole wheelchair into the shower. However, if you don't mind your legs sticking out of the shower a little, it is doable. It worked for me.
We started our first full day in London by walking over to Buckingham Palace to take in the Changing of the Guard. The ceremony takes place daily from May to July at 11:30 a.m., and on alternate days thereafter. The new guard marches from nearby Wellington Barracks to the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, where they perform a brief 40-minute ceremony.
I did a lot of reading prior to our trip to make sure I got a good spot to view the Changing of the Guard, but unfortunately it didn't happen. Wheelchair users need to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the ceremony (which we did) to secure a good location as the Palace gates are wall-to-wall people by 11:30 a.m. While wheelchair users used to be able to sit inside the Palace gates to watch the ceremony, that is unfortunately no longer the case. So, the best place for a wheelchair user to view the ceremony is either against the very center of the Palace gates (right beside the gate where the guards make their entrance into the Palace forecourt), or around the corner on the Westminster side of the Palace gate (probably the better option). There is a section on the Westminster side of the gate where the wall is lower and a wheelchair user would have an unimpeded view of the whole ceremony. When we arrived, the area near the center of the gates was filling up already, so we found a spot just down a little ways (but still in front of the Palace rather than on the side). We thought we were in a pretty good position, but that wasn't the case at all. I could not see the guards marching toward the Palace at all because of all the people standing around me. Furthermore, no one in our area (including able bodies) could see much of the ceremony on the Palace forecourt as the ceremony took place right in the center of the forecourt and there were a number of pillars on the gates that prevented us from seeing anything since we were looking at it on an angle. Anyway, lesson learned for next time. Besides, the truth is that if you have seen the Changing of the Guard at Windsor Castle, it's all the same bag.
One other piece of advice if you are a wheelchair user -- it is a good idea to sit with your wheelchair sideways right up against the gate rather than straight on. If you sit straight on facing the gate (which would put your head and therefore your eyesight at least 3 or 4 feet away from the gate), people will soon be standing directly in front of you against the gate with no regard to whether you can see or not. Usually it is small kids who don't know any better, but speaking from experience, there is no shortage of ignorant adults who will stick their head in front of a disabled person in order to get a better look themselves. Technically, they are not standing directly in front of you, but rather beside you as they are standing directly beside your feet. You cannot see around them though, and they only leave a little hole for you to see straight ahead through the gates. You are better off sitting sideways against the gate so that no one can sneak in front of you and disrupt your view. You might have a little bit of a sore neck after a while from having to turn sideways to see the ceremony, but you will be glad you did it. No need to feel guilty about taking up 4 or 5 feet of space along the gate either -- people can find other able-bodied people to butt in front of instead of you.
After the Changing of the Guard ceremony, we went for a tour of Buckingham Palace. The State Rooms of Buckingham Palace are open to the public in August and September, when the Queen spends a couple months at her Balmoral estate in Scotland. I purchased tickets for Buckingham Palace a few weeks prior to our trip, which I definitely recommend rather than waiting until you arrive. I also purchased tickets for the Royal Mews and Clarence House at the same time. Tickets were free for a "carer" of a person with a disability at all three places.
To enter Buckingham Palace, we were instructed not go to the main visitor entrance on the Westminster side of the Palace as that entrance is not accessible. Rather, wheelchair users must enter through the main gate in front of the Palace. There were check-in agents at one of the gate openings along the front of the Palace gates. Once we showed them our tickets, a woman escorted us right through the main gates, across the Palace forecourt, and through the center gateway of the Palace into the inner courtyard. This center gateway is where the queen would normally be driven through into the inner courtyard, where she would exit her vehicle and go inside the Palace. I must say, I never expected to enter Buckingham Palace by wheeling right through the front gate and across the forecourt -- what an interesting experience that was! Once we were in the inner courtyard, we were escorted to the other side of the courtyard to an elevator, where we met up with the general public to begin the tour. The general public is not allowed in that courtyard, and we were not allowed to take pictures there--or anywhere inside the Palace for that matter.
Once inside the Palace, we were able to tour through the various State Rooms at our own pace with the aid of an audio guide. Most of the tour was completely accessible. The tour ends outside on the back terrace of Buckingham Palace, where visitors then walk through the Palace Garden and exit the grounds. The walk through the garden is a fair distance though, so wheelchair users have the option of ending their tour outside the main gate where they started, or--since there were steps from the terrace down to the garden--they could be brought by a small wheelchair accessible vehicle from the inner courtyard to the back of the Palace. We chose option 2, so they called for the vehicle, which wasn't much bigger than a golf cart. We were then driven back through the forecourt and around the side of the Palace to the back terrace, where we were dropped off to finish the tour. There was a long pathway that consisted of a fine gravel which went from the terrace out through the garden to the exit.
Upon exiting the Palace grounds, we followed the Palace gate a short way up the street to the Royal Mews. These are the stables where the horses are kept and trained for Royal ceremonies. The Queen's stage coaches are also kept there. Visitors are allowed to tour through the stables and see the many different coaches.
Next, we were off to nearby Clarence House for a tour. Clarence House is a royal residence attached to St. James's Palace. Once home to the Queen Mother, it is now the official residence of Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla Parker Bowles), and Princes William and Harry. There wasn't a whole lot to see on the tour. We were escorted into the house by a tour guide and guided around the five ground-floor rooms which are used by the Royals for official engagements and to receive international guests.
After a long day of touring, we made our way over several blocks to Piccadilly Circus for a quick bite to eat. Then it was off to Her Majesty's Theatre for The Phantom of the Opera. I ordered tickets a few months in advance, which is important as there is very little wheelchair seating at this theatre. The seating that they do have is not very good, either. It is located in the last row on the main floor, and there is a pillar that slightly obstructs the view of the stage. It is also important to note when ordering your tickets whether you will be arriving in an electric wheelchair or a manual wheelchair. They have different seats for electric wheelchair users versus manual wheelchair users. They apparently noticed their mistake after they sent me the tickets in the mail, and they ended up changing my seats to a couple seats over from where they first had me. Anyway, it's unfortunate that the seating is not the greatest, but at least the show was fantastic!
We kicked off our second day in London by making the short walk to Westminster Abbey. This famous church still operates as a regular church with regular services. It is home to the tombs of many kings and queens, as well as hundreds of monuments and memorials to famous historical figures. It has also been the location for every coronation since 1066. Since parts of Westminster Abbey are inaccessible to wheelchair users, admission is free for a wheelchair user and their carer. I found access to be pretty good inside. There were a couple places that I could not get to, but I was able to see the bulk of it.
Next, we crossed the street and took a stroll by the Houses of Parliament. Further up the street, we made a quick stop at Downing Street, home to the Prime Minister's residence. The whole street is gated off for security reasons, so we really couldn't get much of a view of the house at #10 Downing Street.
Given that the weather was cool and overcast, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon indoors. So, we hailed a taxi off the street and headed for the British Museum. One thing I love about London is that all of their black cab taxis are wheelchair accessible (). They are all equipped with ramps, so all the driver has to do is open the back (side) door and pull the ramp out. It was super easy, and I fit into the taxis quite well, which I had previously been a little worried about given my length and height. The only downside of the taxis is that I was never tied down, and some of the drivers we had over our stay drove like the wind with no regard at all to the fact that there was a wheelchair user in the back. I was fortunate to have my friend sitting in the back with me so he could hold onto my wheelchair around corners and make sure I didn't slide off too far. Even though the rides weren't the most comfortable, one could not beat the convenience of being able to hail any old cab off the street and be gone within a few minutes--no waiting for an hour for an accessible taxi. I've never experienced that luxury before!
One great thing about all national museums and art galleries in Britain is that they all offer free admission. The British Museum was no exception. The museum is home to many ancient artifacts, including Egyptian mummies and artifacts from ancient Greece and Rome. The most famous artifacts housed at the British Museum include part of the original frieze from the Parthenon in Athens, and the world-famous Rosetta Stone, which helped historians decipher the ancient hieroglyphic script.
After a short tour through the British Museum, we got back in a taxi and went to the other side of town to take in the Imperial War Museum. This is a good museum to visit for war buffs. The museum houses a large collection of exhibits, war memorabilia, old military vehicles and weapons. Like the British Museum, it was completely wheelchair accessible.
Our third day in London was an interesting one as the day marked the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana's death. To remember the occasion, the Princes William and Harry arranged a memorial service at The Guard's Chapel in London, with much of the Royal Family and some dignitaries/celebrities attending. The opportunity to see the Royal Family all in one place on one day doesn't come very often, so we thought we would go down and check it out.
We did not arrive at the chapel the earliest, so we were surprised to find that the throngs of people had not yet arrived and I was able to get a good spot along the barrier. On the other side of the barrier was the street, followed by the chapel on the other side of the road. Security for the service was predictably tight as there were police men and women absolutely everywhere, many of them displaying some pretty mean weapons. Finally, after a lot of waiting around with countless reporters asking onlookers what Diana meant to them, the dignitaries started to arrive. Princes William and Harry showed up first so that they could greet incoming guests. They were followed by a number of celebrities, including Elton John, Richard Branson, Bryan Adams, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Prince Edward and his wife Sophie also attended, as of course did Prince Charles. The Queen and Prince Philip were the last ones to arrive. While we had a pretty clear view of everyone arriving and departing, it is unfortunate that it was a little far away as we were on the other side of the street. Even so, it was still a pretty neat experience.
After the service, we walked over to Trafalgar Square for a little lunch. I'm not sure if there are any restaurants in the Westminster area of London, but if there are, we sure did not see any of them.
Following lunch, we walked over to The National Gallery, located right in Trafalgar Square. While I am admittedly not a huge art fan, I do find it interesting to see world-famous paintings close-up and in person. It is only then that I can actually appreciate the work that goes into creating them. I didn't recognize very many of the more famous paintings at the National Gallery though, so I didn't find the Gallery nearly as interesting as the Louvre in Paris or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Still, it was worth a quick walk around.
Next, we hailed another taxi to take us to Kensington Palace, located on the southern edge of Hyde Park. Given that Kensington Palace was home to Princess Diana at the time of her death 10 years earlier to the day, the Palace gates were predictably lined with flowers, cards, and people. The Palace grounds were open, so we were able to go inside the gates and walk around the side of the Palace. The grounds were quite accessible, although the inside at Kensington Palace is not very accessible on all. The state apartments are on the upper floor, and there is no elevator access to that floor. So, we had to forgo a Palace tour and continue on.
Walking north through Hyde Park, there were a couple interesting sites along the way. The first was Royal Albert Hall, an arts venue that was opened by Queen Victoria in 1871 and dedicated to her husband. A huge memorial in memory of Prince Albert stands across the street in Kensington Gardens.
Further on in Hyde Park, we came across the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain. This fountain was opened by the Queen in 2004 in memory of Princess Diana. It is completely accessible.
By the time we made it back to our hotel, we were pretty tired from a long day of standing and walking/wheeling around. I put a few miles on my wheelchair that day as we walked from our hotel in Westminster to Trafalgar Square, as well as from the southern tip of Hyde Park back to our hotel. So, we decided to relax at the hotel for a couple hours before heading out to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner. Just as we went outside and started to walk down the street, we passed by a man with a very familiar face. After a quick double-take, we realized it was actor Christian Slater standing by himself on the sidewalk. It looked like he was waiting for a ride, so he happily obliged us with a quick picture, and we continued on. You never know who you are going to meet on the street!
The next morning, we made our way over to the banks of the River Thames, where we purchased tickets and boarded an accessible boat for a cruise on the Thames. This company offers fully narrated cruises that go up and down the Thames making stops at four piers -- the Westminster Pier, the Waterloo Pier, the Tower Pier, and the Greenwich Pier. People have the choice of which pier they would like to start and end their cruise at, as well as whether they want to do a one-way or round-trip cruise. We chose to start at the Westminster Pier and cruise up to the Tower Pier. Along the way, we cruised by a number of notable landmarks, including the London Eye, St. Paul's Cathedral, The Millennium Bridge, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and the Tower Bridge.
Once at the Tower Pier, we got off the boat and walked over to the Tower of London, located right next to the pier. Unfortunately, the Tower of London is not very accessible at all. However, the little that is accessible makes the nearly 1000-year-old fortress/Palace worth a quick visit.
Upon entering the Tower, there is an accessible ramp leading down into the moat. At one time the moat was filled with water to help defend the Tower, but it is now completely empty and visitors are able to go down and walk along the grass to see some of the various exhibits going on in the moat.
Next, we made our way back up the ramp and through the drawbridge into the Tower grounds. The road leading into the Tower consisted of a very rough cobblestone () which made it a very slow entrance into the Tower courtyard for me. Once there, we were able to visit the Jewel House, the only accessible building in the Tower of London. The Jewel House is home to the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom, a centuries-old collection of crowns, swords, scepters, and other jewels used by the current Queen and past Kings and Queens during coronation ceremonies and other state functions.
After a short stop at the Tower of London, we decided to walk over to St. Paul's Cathedral. St. Paul's Cathedral is not as popular as Westminster Abbey when it comes to Royal events such as weddings and funerals, but it has hosted some notable events, perhaps most notably the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. It was a bit of a jaunt, but nothing outrageous. We just followed the sidewalks along the Thames until we ended up underneath the Millennium Bridge. Once there, there was an accessible lift () that took us up to the main road leading to the Cathedral.
The main visitor entrance to St. Paul's Cathedral is not wheelchair accessible, but there is an accessible entrance via the north side of the building. Once inside, we were able to stroll around the cathedral. The main floor of St. Paul's Cathedral is quite accessible, although the upper galleries, including the Whispering Gallery, were unfortunately not. The crypt is accessible though. There is a wheelchair lift that takes wheelchair users down from the main floor to the crypt. There was actually a lift going to the upper galleries as well, but wheelchair users are not allowed to use them for fire safety reasons.
Next, we made our way across the Millennium Bridge, an accessible pedestrian bridge that crosses the River Thames. The bridge starts near St. Paul's Cathedral and ends near Shakespeare's Globe Theatre ().
Once across the bridge, we made the short walk over to Southwark Cathedral. The road to get there was quite bumpy in sections due to the cobblestone surface, but it was manageable. Southwark Cathedral is the oldest Gothic church in London. The main structure of the Cathedral was built between 1220 and 1420. It was very accessible inside as I was able to wheel around quite freely. There was a ramp in one section and an elevator that took us to the upper floor. A noteworthy monument inside the cathedral is a monument to William Shakespeare. William's brother Edmund was actually buried at the church, although the exact location of the grave is unknown. Admission to Southwark Cathedral was free, although a donation was requested of us in order for us to take pictures inside.
To end the day, we went to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre to catch an evening performance of "Holding Fire". I purchased accessible tickets for the show prior to leaving for the UK. The accessible seating was quite good. We were located in one of the Gentlemen's Rooms located at the side of the stage. The show was awful unfortunately, but it was still pretty neat to watch a play in a replica of Shakespeare's official Globe Theatre.
We started our last in London with a visit to the London Eye. Located in Westminster on the banks of the Thames, the Eye is basically just a big Ferris wheel that offers a fantastic bird's eye view of London. Each capsule seats approximately 25 people and is completely wheelchair accessible.
Next, we walked a couple streets over to Waterloo Station to catch the train to Hampton Court Palace. We purchased tickets at the train station, and they made sure to notify workers on each end of our route that we were coming so that they could be ready with a ramp allowing us to get on and off the train (). It was quite an easy process.
Upon arrival at the Hampton Court train station, we made the short stroll over to Hampton Court Palace. The former royal palace dates back to the 1500s and was once home to Henry VIII. It is also home to one of the most famous mazes in the world. Upon entering the Palace Grounds, we immediately went over to the maze to check it out. We were surprised to be told by the ticket lady at the entrance that the maze was not accessible for electric wheelchairs, only manual wheelchairs. When we bought our tickets at the entrance to the palace, we were told that it was accessible, so I was a little irritated. She said she was not sure why it was only accessible for manual wheelchairs, so we were a little skeptical about her information. So, we asked if we could give it a try, and she had no problem with that at all. It turned out not to be a problem at all. It took us about 10 minutes to get through the maze, and while some of the corners were a little tight to get around, I had no problem wheeling through it at all. I'm not sure if a scooter could have gotten through the maze though, which is probably why she just stated that it was only accessible for people in manual wheelchairs, not larger chairs like electric wheelchairs or scooters. Most electric wheelchairs could definitely get through there though in my opinion.
Next, we entered the Palace to pay a visit to Henry VIII's state apartments. There was an elevator that took us to the upper floor. Once there, we were able to walk through the various rooms, including the Great Hall, the Palace's largest room. The upper floor was very accessible. The main floor was fairly accessible as well. We were able to tour through the Tudor kitchens and the Chapel Royal, where Henry VIII worshipped. Behind the Palace, there was an accessible tram () that took visitors for a free ride around the back of the Palace grounds, so we did that as well before heading back to the train station.
Back at Waterloo Station, we quickly hailed a taxi and drove over to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. It had already been a long day of sightseeing, but we wanted to give it a quick tour before leaving London. One of the perks of the museum is that a disabled person and their companion are entitled to free admission. You are supposed to show some sort of proof of your disability, although we did not have to show anything. We just had to sign our names. Once inside, we toured through the three floors of the museum. An elevator went to each floor, but it was a service elevator, so every time we wanted to go to a different floor we had to have one of the museum workers assist us with the lift. Other than that, access at the museum was good. It was an interesting visit as some of the wax figures are incredibly life-like.
That was it for our 12-day trip to the UK. Overall, I found accessibility to be quite good at most of the places we visited. I didn' t have high expectations prior to visiting a lot of the sites, particularly many of the centuries-old castles, but in the end I would have to say that I was able to see more than I expected to see at most of the historic sites. My only regret is that I wasn't able to stay longer to experience a lot more of Great Britain outside of London -- Stratford-upon-Avon, Oxford, York, Hadrian's wall...the list goes on. Oh well, there's always next time!
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