Visiting London: Accessibility Across the Pond

Wheelchair users can visit the home of Big Ben with confidence

Article Highlights:
  • London is a very good destination for tourists in wheelchairs, especially those taking their first trip abroad, advise these experienced travelers.
  • Public transportation in London is wheelchair friendly and most attractions are accessible.
by Barbara and Jim Twardowski on October 1, 2011 - 11:03am

QUEST Vol. 18, No. 4

The prospect of traveling in a wheelchair to London, a city steeped with history dating back to the Romans, filled me with trepidation.

Visions of cobblestone streets, buildings without elevators, and entryways with massive stairways had my heart racing with anxiety as I planned our first trip to London.

The London Eye observation wheel
The London Eye, the world’s largest observation wheel, is wheelchair-accessible. It has 30 pods and takes 30 minutes for a complete rotation, offering myriad views of London, including Big Ben and Parliament, shown here in the distance.

London more accessible than Paris, Rome

Before booking our trans-Atlantic flight, I spoke to accessible travel experts. Ann Litt, the owner of Undiscovered Britain, has been arranging accessible travel abroad since 1997. She reassured me that it is quite easy to get around — all the taxis have ramps. In addition, her company arranges wheelchair-accessible vans and drivers for travelers who want to venture beyond London to places such as Bath or Stonehenge.

“London is much easier for a wheelchair user than, say, Paris or Rome,” says John Sage, who uses a wheelchair himself and has visited more than 50 European cities. London is an ideal city — especially for someone who is traveling abroad for the first time. “Almost all the tourist attractions are wheelchair-accessible. Transportation by taxi or bus allows wheelchair users to remain in their own chairs,” says Sage, who owns Sage Traveling.

Both Litt and Sage agree that booking an accessible hotel takes extensive research. Many hotels are in historic buildings or were simply built before the United Kingdom established access guidelines. Hotels near the major attractions are expensive but much more convenient.

Reassured by the professionals, I bought our airline tickets and travel insurance.

Long flights, short connections and a warm welcome

To my delight, London is an extremely accessible city. The biggest headache is getting there. Actual flying time is about 11 hours. We spent an additional nine hours driving to the airport, arriving the recommended two hours before departure, changing planes, getting through security and customs, and traveling by train and then taxi to our hotel. From the time we left our home in Louisiana until we checked into our London hotel, it was approximately 20 hours.

Although I use a power chair at home, I traveled in my manual chair and needed Jim to push me because of the weakness in my hands due to Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT). The poor man also had a backpack, a large suitcase on wheels, and a carry-on bag strapped to the larger suitcase.

It was not possible to book a direct flight from New Orleans to London, and the most difficult portion of our trip was catching our connecting flights.

Going to London and returning home, we had less than two hours to change planes. On both occasions, we almost missed our connecting flights. Jim ran through the airport pushing me as fast as he could. Panting and perspiring, he dashed up to the counter as the plane was being boarded. Instead of being the first on board we were the last. (An aisle wheelchair is provided by the airline for boarding.)

Seven straight hours of sitting on a plane without a wheelchair-accessible bathroom is no picnic.

Our flights landed in and departed from one of the busiest airports in the world — London Heathrow. The assistance Heathrow extends to people who use a wheelchair is incredibly impressive. When we arrived in London, an airport employee met us as we exited the plane and escorted us through the airport to customs where we bypassed the long lines and presented our passports. Next, our escort accompanied us to the Heathrow Express platform, waited until our train arrived and helped Jim load the bags.

The author boarding a London taxi equipped with a ramp
Although the traditional London taxis have short ramps built into their floors, the minivan cabs’ ramps are steeper and more difficult to access. Barbara is shown here being assisted into one such vehicle.

Getting around London with a wheelchair

Taxi: The taxis in London do have ramps. Traditional black taxis usually have short ramps built into the floor of the vehicle. Some taxis are mini vans and the driver has a portable ramp. My wheelchair measures 25 inches across — anything wider probably would not have cleared the door or fit on the ramp. The ramps can be extremely steep, and I needed the assistance of a strong companion to push me inside the vehicle.

Bus: Buses are a wonderful means of transportation for a wheelchair user in London. Simply push a button on the exterior of the vehicle and a ramp extends out to the sidewalk. Also, wheelchair users ride for free. (Your companion will need to buy a ticket. Cash is not accepted.)

For us, the most difficult aspect of public transportation was deciphering which bus to board and locating the appropriate stop. Whenever possible, we confirmed with our hotel’s concierge before departing. Every bus had a ramp. Occasionally, a mechanical failure occurred and the ramp would not work properly. Luckily, it was a short wait before another bus came by.

Tube: The Tube is the oldest underground train network in the world with some parts dating back to the 1860s. More than a billion people a year travel by tube. However, less than one-fourth of the stops are wheelchair-accessible. Frequently, sections are closed as they work on upgrading the service. If you are willing to try the tube, maps of step-free lines and more information can be found on the Transport for London website.

Walking: Most sidewalks are wheelchair friendly. Heavily trafficked pedestrian areas along major streets have ramps and cutouts at intersections. Going off on side streets to explore small sidewalk cafés and shops, one can encounter steep curbs without wheelchair access. The city is undergoing a great deal of road construction, which often means taking an alternate route or walking single-file down a path.

London's Hyde Park
The authors enjoyed an afternoon stroll through central London's famous Hyde Park.

Most London attractions are accessible

London is filled with massive museums, terrific theaters, pristine parks and spectacular shopping. Detailed information on the location of accessible entrances, availability of bathrooms, and what, if any, areas are not accessible by wheelchair usually can be found on an attraction’s website. Spending time in advance reviewing this information can spare disappointment later.

Major museums and galleries, such as the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Modern, Imperial War Museum, Science Museum and Natural History Museum are huge and wheelchair friendly and have accessible, unisex restrooms. Some places, such as the Tower of London, have limited access due to their historic significance and age.

Like New York City’s Broadway, London has Theatreland (also referred to as the West End). Many of the theaters are more than a century old. Not every theater can accommodate a wheelchair patron, but most do.

During our visit, we saw eight shows. The ease of access varies at each show. It is imperative that you review the accessibility information before buying tickets. One theater could not accommodate a wheelchair that is wider than 27.5 inches, and another requires wheelchair users to be accompanied by an able-bodied companion. At every performance we attended, the staff was well-trained and escorted us to our wheelchair-accessible seats.

For a fun way to see spectacular views of the city, hop on the London Eye or take a river cruise. Strolling through Hyde Park or Regent's Park is a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The biggest crowds we met were when we shopped. The world-famous Harrods has 15 million guests each year. Navigating through the merchandise and shoppers is difficult, but worth the effort.

Recommended accessible hotels

The number of wheelchair-accessible rooms available in London is growing as hotels undergo renovations and as new properties are built. Every hotel within a particular brand may not be accessible. Before you place a deposit, call the hotel directly to discuss your needs.

If you need a hotel room located on the first floor, be sure to ask for a “ground” floor room. An elevator is called a “lift.” Hotels rooms in London are usually much smaller than American counterparts. A “single” room contains a twin-size bed.

Most hotels limit the number of people who can occupy a room to two. While many hotels have “family rooms” that permit children, we were unable to find any that were also wheelchair-accessible. Ask if the hotel can provide a roll-away bed.

Among the hotels we recommend is the new Park Plaza Westminster Bridge. The hotel has 54 accessible rooms. Located on the South Bank, it’s an easy walk to some of London’s best attractions.

The newly opened St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel is a beautiful restoration of the Midland Grand Hotel, established in 1873. The Gothic structure is said to be the most romantic building in the city and is near the Eurostar, the express train that can whisk you to Paris in less than two-and-a-half hours.

The InterContinental Park Lane is less than a 10-minute walk to three wheelchair-accessible museums and the posh department store Harrods.

Each hotel has a roll-in shower with a wall-mounted seat and plenty of grab bars. Every hotel also includes an emergency assistance pull cord in the bathroom.

Loving London

London is one of the most accessible cities we have ever visited. Wheelchair users planning to attend the 2012 Olympics in London can go with confidence.

Getting around London is easy — the difficulty is choosing what to do and see, as there is so much.

I hope we get to return again someday because we fell in love with London.

The Twardowskis are freelance writers based in Mandeville, La.

Access in London, Gordon Couch, William Forrester and David McGaughey. Fourth edition 2003, ISBN 0-7475-6933-9. A new book will be published before the 2012 Olympics.

SageTraveling.com and UndiscoveredBritain.com
These sites offer wheelchair-specific resources for traveling in the United Kingdom.

VisitLondon.com and VisitBritain.com
These official tourism websites for the city and the country provide excellent information on accessibility, attractions, hotels, restaurants.

William Forrester
Forrester is a museum lecturer and a Blue Badge Guide (a member of the Guild of Registered Tourist Guides. He leads tours in London for groups and individuals. Entertaining and informative, Forrester is an excellent guide who can be reached at +44 (0) 1483 575401.

Park Plaza Westminster Bridge
200 Westminster Bridge Road
London SE1 7UT
United Kingdom
Reservations: +44 (0)844-415-6780

InterContinental London Park Lane
One Hamilton Place, Park Lane
London W1J7QY
United Kingdom
+44 207 4093131

St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel
Euston Road
London NW1 2AR
United Kingdom
44-20-7841 3540

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