by Barbara Pierce
Those who are familiar with my history know that my husband Bob is a retired professor of Shakespeare and seventeenth-century poetry and prose. We have twice lived in London for a year, and together we have visited the United Kingdom eight times. We made our most recent trip as soon as I had put the December 2009 issue of the Braille Monitor to bed. I reasoned that, if I were going to cease being Monitor editor, I had better remove myself from the temptation of meddling with Dan Frye’s first days of Monitor editorship. Since I am going to continue helping him with the publication, I had left him a good bit of material for the January issue, but I didn’t think he needed to have me leaning over his shoulder, offering advice.
So on November 30 Bob and I left for London with no computer for checking email and no phone number where I could be reached. In the last decade or so I have been impressed with the strides in access that tourist-destination and transit personnel in the U.K. have made. The London Underground system is a good case in point. Our son, who lives in England, had warned us to buy Oyster cards and put money on them before we left the airport. This plastic card can be used on the London Underground system and a number of commuter trains. By next July travelers will also be able to purchase all train tickets using this card. When entering a transit station, the traveler swipes the card across a reader—always on the same side of the turn-style lane--and then does it again when leaving the station at the other end. You can leave the card in your wallet or small purse during this transaction. The correct amount for your journey is deducted from the amount you have deposited on the card. A blind traveler who cannot read an LED display and who needs to know how much credit is left on his or her Oyster card must ask an employee for help because the machines that provide this information do not talk. My experience is that plenty of transit workers are always around, and they are pretty constructive in offering help or information.
When we landed, we traveled directly to Salisbury, a cathedral city west of London, and toured the cathedral that afternoon. I have been told that every cathedral in the United Kingdom now displays a tactile model and a raised floor plan of the building. We discovered this fact several years ago in Winchester Cathedral, and I was delighted to find that Salisbury had a model available as well. These displays are immensely interesting and helpful. The only problem is that sighted cathedral guides want to hurry the blind visitor along so that they can get to what they consider the good stuff. Salisbury did not have a Braille pamphlet with tactile line drawings of the fan vaulting, windows, and pillars as Winchester does, but the floor plan and model were very interesting. The Salisbury Cathedral chapter house had a copy of the Magna Carta on display. This was the agreement that King John signed at Runnymede in 1215, which is considered to be the earliest British step toward democracy because the king ceded to his barons some of his authority, undermining the absolute monarchy.
The next day we took a tour bus to Stonehenge even though the weatherman promised nothing but rain. This was a double-decker bus with an automated tour of the area as we drove through it. At Stonehenge visitors were handed audio-guide speakers in their preferred language. I received a guide for blind visitors. It was similar to the general audio guide in English except that it gave more detail and the information was designed to be used by a blind visitor without a human guide. The huge stones are now roped off, and the tour instructions for the visually impaired depended on trailing the ropes, but at least the ropes in question had not been strung especially as guides for the blind. I must admit that early on Bob and I stopped our trudge through the downpour and stood under our umbrella listening to our taped descriptions. The rain was unremitting, and juggling umbrellas and listening devices in the cold and mud was more than either of us could be enthusiastic about.
On the way back to Salisbury we stopped to spend a bit of time in the Roman and then Medieval city of Sarum, built on a high hill above Salisbury. On this wet and windy winter day it was easy to understand why the monks in the eleventh century decided to move their cathedral down to the valley, where they would be somewhat protected from the cold and damp. We trudged up the hill as far as the tourist shop, where they promised us a sip of mead or mulled wine when we returned from the ruins. We appreciated the offer of a warming taste of something, but it seemed a bit early in the day for alcohol, and we had little heart for sliding on the wet grass and mud of the hill ruins, so we retreated to the bus stop and returned to Salisbury to dry out.
The following day we went to Bath, where we stayed in a bed and breakfast owned by a woman who once worked as an assistant housekeeper at Buckingham Palace. Before we set out on a guided walking tour of the city, which goes back to the Roman occupation, we explored the Abby Church of Bath and made a dinner reservation at the restaurant pictured above, which is housed in the oldest building in Bath. A building stood on the spot when Romans walked the streets of Bath, and the current structure was built in the fifteenth century. In 1680 Sally Lunn immigrated from France because of the French persecution of the Huguenots, and she settled in this house and started a baking business. She developed a bread that became famous as a Sally Lunn. In the photo here you can see the front of the restaurant with a Victorian sedan chair on display. The rider climbed in through the front and sat on a bench seat. Then two chairmen lifted the contraption and carried it through the streets to the person’s destination. Our tour guide told us the chairmen received eight pints of beer a day as part of their pay. One wonders how often they staggered into the ditch while working and what happened to the passengers trapped inside the metal boxes.
On our walking tour we visited the Royal Crescent, where wealthy and famous people have lived for centuries, and the assembly rooms and the Gravel Walk, both made famous by Jane Austen. I understand that one can actually still drink the waters and bathe in the hot springs that have made Bath famous for two thousand years, but the Pierces were not inclined to do so. Standing in the Assembly Rooms, it was easy for me to conjure up the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century ladies and gentlemen who gossiped and promenaded in the mornings and danced in the evenings in these beautiful rooms.
We spent the remainder of our vacation in London. We enjoyed a spectacular Messiah performed by the English National Opera orchestra and chorusat the Coliseum; Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the recently renovated Covent Garden Opera House; and Bertold Brecht’s Mother Courage with Fiona Shaw in the lead at the National Theatre. All of these were memorable productions by world-class performers.
We stayed with friends in South Kensington, within easy walking distance of Kensington Palace, the residence until her death of Princess Diana and still one of the Prince of Wales’s residences.
One of the most memorable things we did in London was to tour the Houses of Parliament, which somehow we had never done. On a whim I called Lord Colin Lowe’s parliamentary assistant to see if he could arrange a tour of the House of Lords and the House of Commons for us, and to my delight he agreed to show us through these buildings himself. Lord Lowe, who has addressed the NFB convention and is the retired CEO of the Royal National Institute of the Blind and Visually Impaired, was actually at the American Printing House for the Blind at the time we were in London, but his young assistant, Will Moy, was charming, well informed, and endlessly patient with our questions. Again we found a model and raised-line floor plan of the buildings that comprise this historic complex. Outside the House of Commons chamber, flanking the door facing the Members’ Lobby, the Central Lobby, and the House of Lords chamber, are statues of the two twentieth-century war prime ministers, David Lloyd George and a determined Winston Churchill standing, arms akimbo, on the rubble of the bombed out House of Commons during World War II. I was permitted to reach up to investigate these figures as high as I could reach, which was about to the knee of each statue. Encountering all this history was very exciting, and we were grateful to have the experience.We had a delightful time visiting England even though the weather was cool and often damp. It may be that, because I was with my husband almost all the time, I did not find the public as difficult to manage this time as I have in past years. No one balked at my climbing independently to and from the top of double-decker buses. One finds twisting staircases everywhere in this country full of historic buildings, but no one grabbed me or warned me about the narrow treads. Perhaps they noticed that I was hanging on to the banisters for dear life, having no desire to travel home with a sprained ankle. England’s green and pleasant land was indeed still green in early December. Its gardens still included some roses, and its people were friendly and interesting. We spent a wonderful ten days and, as always, are eager to return soon.