An Accessible Odessey

  • 10/6/14
  • Richmond – Waterloo – Walk to Southwark – Greenwich – Emirates Airline
  • Emirates Airline – Greenwich Pier – Thames Clipper – London Eye Pier – Waterloo – Richmond

As a wheelchair traveller, there is always a certain tingle that runs up your spine, a slight quickening of the heart-rate, when you go somewhere new caused by uncertainty. I see myself as a modern day equivalent of a Victorian explorer beating a path through darkest unexplored Africa. Yes, it’s possible to do research, to read other people’s experiences, and you definitely need to find the official statements on accessibility. But there’s no substitute for actually experiencing it on the ground, and seeing whether the advertised promises actually meet reality.

Today I donned my figurative pith helmet and set out on a gloriously sunny London day. I’d been invited by TfL to talk to the in-house magazine about the importance of lifts and so headed to Palestra in Southwark. Ironically, the lift at Waterloo, my first stop, is long-term out of order for maintenance making the tube inaccessible. However, the short walk in the sunshine to Southwark was extremely pleasant.

The interview and photographs themselves were surreal, trying to get enough good footage between trains arriving and departing, and John Barnes making and recording station announcements in support of the England World Cup team. But after an hour or so we were done, leaving me free to explore for the rest of the day.

Given that I was in Southwark station, I decided the first leg of my journey was to jump on the Jubilee line to Greenwich. I’d not been this far east before and the Jubilee line is advertised as being very accessibility friendly as, I’m delighted to say, it proved. Like other parts of the underground, finding the lift was not always simple but then no explorer worth his salt would be put off by such a trivial obstacle. It’s very obvious that Greenwich station has been built to handle significant numbers of people heading to the Dome/O2 and there’s nothing that highlights this more than arriving in the middle of the day when there are few people using its cavernous concrete halls and concourse.

Having made it this far, I was positively emboldened to take a trip north of the river, after all, what decent explorer doesn’t fly at least part of their odyssey and so we set off to the Emirates Air Line. For those unfamiliar the Air Line is a cable car linking the north and south banks of the Thames, and one that advertises as being completely accessible. The operator offered to pause the cabin so that I could board easily, which I happily accepted but now feel guilty about. Something I’d noticed since leaving the underground station, but not fully appreciated, was that the wind was up. This fact was brought into sharp relief once we left the shelter of the terminus and the cabin began to sway gently. At this point I should say that I’m not afraid of heights. I am however afraid of plunging 200 feet to my watery death, into the cold, dark water of the Thames. As the cabin got higher and higher and the swaying increased I could almost feel Davy Jones in the water below waiting. However, the views both to the coast and into the city were very impressive.

I felt a palpable sense of relief when we touched down on the north bank where we stopped for a little light lunch and unexpectedly discovered the Crystal. This exhibition on the problems and possible solutions to the growth of cities is highly educational, entertaining, interactive, and well worth a visit. I’m pleased to say that it’s also completely accessible to wheelchairs.

The problem with flying to the north bank meant a return journey to reach the next mode of transport. The wind had not improved which meant my fear of dying definitely hadn’t. Surely this was the kind of fear that Livingstone was all too familiar with. Of course, my fears were entirely without foundation despite the journey back being bumpier. I did have one final discovery to make when I disembarked at Greenwich, and that was when the cabin is paused to let me on and off this paused every other cabin on the line leaving a number of poor travellers swinging in the breeze above the Thames. To them I can only apologise through this blog as I wasn’t going to wait around to apologise in person and risk their wrath.

Having successfully tried two new transport modes I was prepared to risk trying for a hat-trick. This choice had been prompted by Transport for All’s recent success in getting accessibility improvements on the Thames Clipper. I had not been able to join them on their celebration cruise so I decided to try this to get back to Waterloo. Getting down to the jetty was a painless process but unfortunately the same cannot be said for boarding the boat. The arch-shaped ramp, which seems to be the best design for linking a floating boat to a floating jetty, presents some issues of gradient to wheeled vehicles. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise just how steep the gradient was until after I’d boarded the boat.

This was also the point I realised that getting off would be much worse than getting on, but by then I was committed otherwise I would need to live out my days touring the Thames on a Clipper.

The journey itself was fascinating, it’s been thirty years since I was on the River Thames, not much has changed. Being on the clipper felt rather like being on a motorway in a powerful sports car. Every time the captain opened the throttle, we’d quickly find some slower boat blocking our way and he’d have to slow down or carefully go around. After about forty otherwise uneventful minutes, we docked at the London Eye and it turns out that the ramp was even steeper at this end. Had I not got off backwards, I’m sure there would have been a very nasty accident.

All that then remained was the very boring journey back to civilisation, or a train from Waterloo to Richmond, as it’s known.

I can highly recommend every stage of the journey to any other exploration-minded wheelchair users, just remember it’s now a trodden path, but moreover I recommend your own travel odyssey to everybody. The road less travelled offers more in the journey than the destination.


About Alan

I'm an Economist, Geek, Campaigner & wheelchair user who's been using all forms of public transport for 20+ years.
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