Your voice: Our trip to London by train to see a play

In this personal account, Les, who lives with Motor Neurone Disease, shares how he and his wife, Angie, planned a recent trip to London to go to the theatre.

This was Les’ first trip away since his diagnosis, and as he learns to navigate life with reduced mobility, he shares a step-by-step account of what he did and who he contacted for information and support.


We were listening to the radio and heard Matthew Kelly being interviewed about the current play he is in, Noises Off, at the Phoenix Theatre. It sounded like a great play to go and see. Although we did not know quite how we were going to get there, we thought we would try and plan it and if possible, go and see it before it finishes.

Les and his wife Angie

Apprehensive

As an MND sufferer, I was apprehensive about our first overnight trip away from home to anywhere other than to stay with friends and family. At the time of planning, I only had a manual wheelchair with four small wheels and no brakes on the handles for my wife to be able to stop the wheelchair. This is no use for outside journeys. I have had to get a manual wheelchair with large rear wheels and brakes for Angie to use.

I also have a mobility scooter which is excellent for getting round our local village and just about manageable for Angie to break down and put in the boot of our Skoda Yeti. Unfortunately, my ‘Vantage’ mobility scooter is too long to be allowed on the London buses. The maximum length for use on buses is 100cm length and a turning radius below 120cm, the vantage is 120cm length and a turning radius of 152cm way outside the limit. Most companies will let you on the train with your mobility scooter, though it might have to comply with certain limits, typically 300kg (including your weight) and less than 1.2 metres long. To travel with a scooter you could also have to have a permit supplied by the rail provider. These aren’t hard to get hold of but you could end up having to get a few to make your journey possible.

Travel

First off, how do we get to London? We live in Lincolnshire and our nearest train station for London without changes is Grantham to Kings Cross. Secondly, where were we going to stay? We have been to London several times over the years but now we had to consider travelling as a wheelchair user. Thirdly, how were we going to travel from the Kings Cross to the hotel? We have always walked round London, never caught the bus or used a taxi. We have used the underground but this time we were intimidated about using the underground. Fourthly, how were we going to get tickets for the theatre and get there from the hotel. Finally, as we were going to be stopping overnight, we would need to arrange somewhere to have our evening meal.

As a non-disabled person, I would simply have booked return train tickets for a long weekend in London, contacted the theatre ticket office for tickets, planned routes to walk while in London, booked a hotel central to the main area we would have chosen to spend the weekend and booked somewhere nice for our evening meal on the first evening. As our car is registered with the DVLA for use of a disabled person, I found our Skoda was exempt for Congestion and Pollution charges, but the thought of driving round London was not an option.

I went onto the internet and typed in ‘Grantham to Kings Cross’. It brought up several ticket companies and I was able to find out times and costs. I also enquired about access for wheelchair users. The train operator in our area is Hull Trains. I phoned their customer services and spoke to a lovely lady who explained we could get wheelchair accessible seating with a companion seat for both legs of our journey and that we would also get assistance both at Grantham and Kings Cross to get on and off the train.

Theatre

We looked at hotels nearest to the Phoenix Theatre and one of the closest was the Travel Lodge in Drury Lane. We were able to book an ‘accessible room’ and breakfast. I went onto the Phoenix Theatre website and clicked to book tickets and was redirected to ATG Tickets. I found it a bit of a struggle trying to find out about tickets for disabled access. There was plenty of information on the site but it was rather an overload of information. I phoned the disabled helpline and spoke to a very helpful lady who explained the process and looked for available seats on three different dates. The lady explained I could apply online for an Access Card but it would probably be better if I applied direct to Nimbus (0330 808 5108).

Nimbus is a charity organisation dealing specifically with disability needs to allow people to enjoy attending over 2,500 venues in Britain. Whilst this card does not guarantee tickets to anywhere, it does provide the venues with information as to disability needs and assistance required. I did visit the Nimbus website (www.nimbusdisability.com) but reading through the different questions, I thought it easier to speak to somebody, to better understand what information was required and what assistance I might be able to get. As a wheelchair user needing my wife to push me, I found I my needs were level access wheelchair user and ‘+1”. There are nine different levels of disability covered, such as difficulty standing in queues, wheelchair access, difficulty using steps but able to walk, through to less visible disabilities …. there is a complete guide on the Nimbus website.

It took about four days for my Access Card to arrive but I was then able to return to the Phoenix Theatre website and book tickets through ATG (Accessibility Assistance Line on 0333 009 5399). The telephone number only deals with customers with disability issues. There is also a TypeTalk / Textphone 18001 0333 009 5399. The lady were extremely helpful. I was able to book tickets for two seats with a transfer from the wheelchair. There was an access door specifically for disabled access with members of staff to meet and help me get to and from our seats.

Accommodation and food

We stopped at Travel Lodge in Drury Lane. The hotel sits about 15ft above the roadway, but there is a ‘Zig Zag’ ramp at the rear for wheelchair access. It is quite steep but Angie was able to push me up the ramp. The staff at Travel Lodge were very friendly and helpful. We certainly would stay there again. We stopped in room 270, which is an accessible room. In the unlikely event of evacuation, provision was made for staff to evacuate me by evac-chair. We booked a meal at Zizzi, Central St Giles, only about four minutes walk from Travel lodge and only about five minutes walk to the Phoenix Theatre. On arrival we were offered different places to sit and a chair was moved so I could remain in the wheelchair. The meal was lovely and the staff were extremely helpful. There are notices stating the toilets are downstairs, but on asking I was directed to a disabled toilet on the same floor.

Reflection

Grantham and Kings Cross stations are run by LNER. The assistance given at both stations was first class. We went to the customer services desk at Grantham and directed to a waiting room where we then met a member of staff who took me onto the train. At Kings Cross there were three members of staff waiting for us and got us off the train. The return journeys were just as simple and the staff on the trains were equally as nice and helpful.

We decided not to take public transport to the hotel or the theatre as Kings Cross to the Travel Lodge is only 1.3 miles. The weather was fine, so Angie decided to push me to the hotel and catch the bus if it became too difficult. We managed the whole distance … (only nearly got tipped out twice due to uneven footpath). It was lovely to be out and about. While we were making our return journey to Kings Cross, the next morning, we were walking along the footpath when a TFL bus drew up alongside us and the driver actually notioned to us to see if we wanted to get on the bus.

The Phoenix Theatre is very well set up to receive disabled visitors. We go there early and were met by staff who helped get us into the foyer out of the cold. We asked if we could see the box set aside for disabled visitors who cannot be transferred to seats. We were taken to the separate entrance for disabled visitors and taken into the box. It is a restricted view but the website and ticket office site does explain that fact. From the box we were taken to our seats where we were offered a service to book interval refreshments. This we did and during the interval ice creams were brought to our seats.

As first time travellers with a wheelchair, I have to say our experiences were excellent and we will certainly be looking to return to London to explore other venues and return to our hobby of photography. 


Since his diagnosis, Les has found support from the Motor Neurone Disease Association (MND Association). The charity funds research, improves care and provides support for people with MND, their families and carers. Call the MND Association Connect helpline on 0808 802 6262, or access support online: www.mndassociation.org

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