Lynn Atkinson-Boutette: England 2013

Disability Dreaming - Travels by wheelchair


After bouncing and bumping over cobblestones from London to St. Ives and then Canterbury in my power wheelchair this spring, it was a pleasant surprise to reach Bath and discover that the spa was completely accessible. Thermal pools, including a rooftop pool with stunning views of Bath Abbey, all had lifts into the water. My sore muscles were treated to a two-hour soak, and aromatherapy massage. I felt like the pampered Roman goddess Sulis Minerva for whom the original baths were named.

In many ways Bath typifies how far England has come in making its 1000+-year-old country accessible. Since my last trip to England 23 years ago when I rode in the baggage car on the train, services and facilities have improved significantly. Many of the old Roman/Georgian buildings have ramps and lifts or both, and sightseeing and city buses plus many taxis are accessible. Now through the newly instituted National Accessible Scheme NAS, visitors can find accessibility to suit their needs. According to VisitEnglandorg, the national tourist board of England, people with disabilities and health conditions or impairments spend over £2 billion a year in England (Source: UKTS 2009 and IPS 2010). In 2009 almost half a million people from abroad visited England with their companions. (Source: International Passenger Survey 2010).

I had decided to take my electric wheelchair because I didn't want my husband pushing me everywhere for two weeks although I was anxious about how I would fare. I didn't regret my decision. It gave me the freedom I wanted despite the cobblestones. Happily I found services and attitudes for the most part had improved, since I rode in the baggage train car back in 1990. (Improved that is, discounting the 'black cab' taxi driver and the bus driver who refused to take my chair. The taxi, because he said it would break his ramp although the weight limit clearly printed on the ramp was 300 kg - me in my chair weigh about 180 kg. And the bus driver who refused to let me board because a woman with a baby stroller was in the space - a policy that was recently challenged by a wheelchair user who took First Bus Group in Yorkshire to court and won an unlawful discrimination suit.)

We traveled by train which was expensive and complicated to figure out but once we got the hang of it, we were all right. Travelers who need ramps or assistance boarding the train should call 24 hours in advance of travel. If you are not sure on which railway you are traveling check online. Rail cards are only available to UK residents with disabilities but, tourists with disabilities are eligible for 1/3 off "anytime" day tickets as is the travel companion, although sometimes it may be cheaper to buy an undiscounted Off-Peak or Advance ticket. Whatever you decide, remember it pays to check and double check.

We stayed at the inexpensive London School of Economics (LSE) Grosvenor student residence. Although basic, the room was large with roll-in shower and cooking facilities. Right next to Covent Garden and the theater district, it proved ideal.

Getting around London is relatively easy as most streets have curb cuts plus we took public buses everywhere. Most museums and galleries are accessible, sometimes through a side entrance. Wheelchair users are admitted for free with companions paying half price. For an overview of the city we took a 'hop-on-hop-off' bus that accommodates wheelchairs. An excellent way to see the sights, we found it best to buy a two or three day pass so that we could stop and explore the attraction we wanted to see without feeling rushed.

Four days later, we walked/rolled to Paddington station where we boarded the First Great Western, the Cornish Riviera express, for the five-hour trip to Cornwall. Speeding across the low-lying Somerset Hills was a relaxing way to see the countryside. As we came in sight of the sea, London seemed far away.

Although I was warned that "St. Ives is NOT accessible," this picture-perfect English Riviera town has a paved walkway by the sea and the cobblestones and steep hills were no problem for my electric chair. While few of the shops were accessible we found that some restaurants, the Tate art gallery and the Barbara Hepworth sculpture garden all had ramps. Our day trip was sunny with bathers (even a beach wheelchair), and surfers.  The St. Ives September Festival bagpipes serenaded us through the cobbled lanes and at a local pub one evening, Capt. Roy entertained us with stories of his 90 foot fishing boat that had served at Dunkirk and even helped to sink a U-boat during the war.

When it came time to leave, unfortunately we learned too late that accessible taxis are difficult to find away from the major centers. (We stayed in a B&B in the countryside. Wheelchair users considering staying in Cornwall would be well advised to stay in a larger place such as Penzance and taking a day trip into St. Ives.) "Welcome to the world of disability," I said to B&B host Sally Jones after she volunteered a frustrating hour trying to help us. Eventually a lift-equipped Penzance taxi came through which was a boon, as most black cabs we had taken thus far had had very steep short ramps better suited to manual wheelchairs. Lack of lowered floors or raised roofs in black cabs also made for less visibility, plus the space behind the driver's seat and the fixed rear passenger seat is quite small making it difficult for a power wheelchair to maneuver.

Kent on the east coast, was a step back in time. We took a tour of Leeds and Dover castles with Jane Martin of Tours of the Realm. She had never taken a person in a wheelchair before, but found an accessible taxi to drive us around for the day. It was expensive but well worth it. Jane had arranged everything including lunch at a restaurant overlooking the white cliffs of Dover.

Canterbury was the culmination of a kind of pilgrimage for me; it seemed fitting that I should celebrate my years of overcoming obstacles in the place I had begun my travels nearly 25 years ago. I'll never forget lying in bed looking out of the hotel bay window at the soaring towers where Archbishop Thomas Beckett had been murdered in 1170 A.D. My wheelchair travels had come of age.

Accessible info.

Accommodation with roll in showers

London -

Cornwall - Note: Rowan Barn is soon to become self-catering although the wheelchair suite will remain a B&B

Bath -

Canterbury -


Rail -

Accessible Taxis

Bath -

Cornwall -,

Accessible Sightseeing etc.

English countryside - and

London -



Kent/Canterbury -


- Cotswolds taxi tour  You Go First!"

Cornwall -

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