Wheelchair Access Day (and the kindness of strangers)

On 10th March 17, Sesame was invited out for a sophisticated night out (pub crawl) with with their friends at Blue Badge Style to celebrate Wheelchair Access Day. The aim was to spend the whole night in a wheelchair, including travel to and from London. The only dispensation was that we could stand up to go to the loo. The challenge was set!

Sesame was interested in doing this as we were intrigued as to how easy / difficult it would be. How easy would it be to wheel yourselves round the pavements? Would someone be there to get us on the train on time? How would members of the public treat us? How on earth do you get served at a bar when the barman cant see you because you are sitting? Would we get dog poo on our wheels? Would all the arm pushing finally tone up my bingo wings?

So we hired our wheelchairs from Staines Mobility (£10 per day – bargain), had a free ‘Wheelchair Access Day coffee from Cafe Nero (thank you Cafe Nero!), and took on the challenge.

Cafe Nero offers a free drink for Wheelchair Access Day

This is the tale of our adventures, with Fiona Jarvis CEO of Blue Badge Style, Sean (Canadian) and me (Alison) (Sesame employees) and Brenda on foot to give us a push when it all got too much.

The first challenge was to get into London (Ashford Middlesex to London Waterloo) on time to meet Fiona, without getting out of the chair. So we needed a ramp to get onto the train. This was pre booked by a very nice chap at South West Trains (SWT) passenger assistance, 24 hrs in advance. We had to book the exact train there and back, which was fair enough.

On arrival at Ashford Station, there is a bridge with steps over to Platform 1 to London, and no lift. euch. So we had to do the long route over a road bridge and along a flat path to Platform 1. This was hard work on the arms and the pavements had a camber towards the road but we got there eventually.

The adventure begins at Ashford Station

Steps at Ashford (Surrey) Station

The 17.42 train arrived on time, and we sat on the platform waiting hopefully for our SWT assistance. But it didn’t arrive. The train doors started to close and I thought we would have to wait another half an hour for the next train and be late to meet Fiona (very annoying). However, the other passengers were incredibly helpful and sprung into action. One passenger kept the doors open for us whilst another passenger ran along the platform to find the guard. After a few worried minutes, the guard got off the train and sauntered over to us. She immediately told us we were waiting in the wrong part of the platform (I had no idea) and then, with an annoyed manner, put down the ramp so we could push ourselves onto the train. Not great customer service, but the great British public saved the day for us here. Thank You.

Safely on the train, in the disabled bay with breaks on, the journey to Waterloo was fine. The disabled bay was next to the loos which was a bit unpleasant. However, other passengers often asked if we needed any help which was really nice. A different guard was there immediately with a ramp to help us embark at Waterloo, so that was much better.

We had to negotiate our wheelchairs through the packed crowds at Waterloo, to find a lift to the lower ground level and the pavement. The man at Staines Mobility told me that people tend to walk into people in wheelchairs by accident because they have their head in their phone. So I was half expected a commuter to land on my lap at any moment. But luckily it didn’t happen. When we eventually found the lift, it was out of order (arrhh!). But we called customer assistance and they answered immediately and told us where another lift was which was working.

Trying to find a working lift at Waterloo Station

Disabled Access lift out of order at Waterloo Station

We then had to make our way to Sommerset House to meet Fiona. As this was just on the other side of Waterloo Bridge we stupidly thought it wouldn’t take long to wheel ourselves there. What an understatement. Particularly bad was that our wheelchairs had a mind of their own and constantly veered left towards the busy road. Nightmare. It was really hard work pushing ourselves along the pavements and up the bridge. A stranger on her way to Waterloo in the opposite direction, asked if I would like a push up Waterloo Bridge which I gratefully accepted. My bingo wings were killing me. The push was a fantastic help and well appreciated. Thank you so much. (Top tip – if you see someone pushing themselves in a wheelchair, please please ask them if they would like a push. I think it would be greatly appreciated).

Trying to push our wheelchairs over Waterloo Bridge

40 minutes after leaving Waterloo we finally arrived at Pennethornes Restaurant at Sommerset House, with tired arms and ready for a drink. We stayed there for dinner which was lovely. The staff and food was great and it had easy disabled access (flat and level). However, the disabled loo was outside, round a corner and down a steep ramp so we held on for the next venue.

Fantastic food and disabled access at Pennethornes, Somerset House

Next venue was Be at One, Covent Garden. Fiona had called ahead the day before so they were expecting us in wheelchairs. However, when we got there, they wouldn’t let us in as they said it was too crowded. Very irritating. The doorman was helpful though.

Plan B was The Maple Leaf Bar, West End. As this was a Canadian Bar and Sean was Canadian, we thought we would have no problem getting in. Fiona had also pre-arranged with the bar that we were coming and that we would be in wheelchairs, which we were assured was not a problem. However, when we arrived at the door they said it was too busy and they wouldn’t let us in. Annoying.

No room for wheelchairs at Be At One bar #disabledaccessday

No room for wheelchairs at The Maple Leaf bar #disabledaccessday

So we thought we would wheel along the pavement to see anywhere that would take us in.

Rules Restaurant (34 Maiden Lane) looked nice and relatively empty with level access, so we were helped inside by their doorman. The Maitre D confirmed that we needed to go to the 2nd floor for drinks. We pointed out that we were in wheelchairs and we couldn’t fly up stairs (they had no lift) so please could we have drinks downstairs. No we couldn’t was the reply. He pointed out that it was a Grade II Listed Building and they couldn’t install a lift. Well actually you can put disabled access into a Listed Building.

Slightly deflated and needing a cocktail to raise our spirits, we stumbled upon Mabels (30 Maiden Lane). What a fantastic place and wonderful staff! Although the bar was very crowded, the manager shuffled some tables around to give us space for our 3 wheelchairs. So the next few hours were spent in there, drinking cocktails, dancing to the fab music and having a great time. Thank you Mables for your wonderful hospitality!

Great music and hospitality at Mabel’s Bar and Kitchen, Covent Garden #disabledaccessday

Happy Days at Mabel’s

We had missed the last train home, so we decided to have one last drink before a disabled accessible black taxi home. We couldn’t get into Ping Pong so went somewhere else (I have no idea where 🙂 ) for a last cocktail.

Then black cab home and a sore head in the morning.

So how was the night out in London for Disabled Access Day? It was annoying that, even though Fiona had taken time to arrange ahead with the venues, many of them wouldn’t let us in on the night. It was incredibly difficult pushing oursleves around the streets (particularly in wheelchairs that veer left). But the overriding positive was the kindness of strangers who helped us along the way. From holding open doors, to pushing us up bridges and having a laugh with us in Mables, the Great British Public made the night much easier and great fun. And well done to Pennethornes and Mables for great access, fantastic staff and a brilliant night out.

I am also pleased to report no dog poo on my wheels and I am sure my bingo wings are slightly smaller now.

Hope to see you out with us next year on Wheelchair Access Day 10th March 2018.