Saturday, 30 June 2007

Bells and feathers

This morning as I lied in bed reading, I heard bells jangling beneath my window. I got up and peered through the blinds to see people walking just a few feet below, dressed in black with odd, feathered caps. The men had black face, like in the old minstrel shows. There were so many, they just kept rounding the bend. My husband was still dozing, and I told him what I'd seen, and that from my vantage I could see the tops of the men's black hats -- painted in white on one was a pentagram, a skull on another. "It's a strange country," he said, and went back to sleep.

Later, I went into the living room and looked out the windows -- there were more of the strangely-clad folks walking on the river-walk area across the water from our building. I grabbed my camera and took a few shots, as I knew I could never adequately describe the scene. This time, following behind those dressed in black, were people in white trousers, red jackets, and white straw hats. They had trims of red, white and blue and looked like masters of ceremonies from some 1950s Fourth of July celebration.

I have no idea what these groups were, but it must be some kind of traditional thing. Is it a holiday? A commemoration of some type? A festival? I have no idea. Please share if you know the secret of the oddly-dressed wanderers!

UPDATE: I've heard that these were Morris dancers (at least the ones in black, still not sure about the others).

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Tanyalee Davis and a night in London

Earlier this week (May 29) I took my first trip to London since moving to England. I'd spent a fair bit of time there as a tourist before I moved to England, but that's when I could walk everywhere. It was quite a different experience this time.

I went to see my friend, Tanyalee Davis, in her new one-woman show, "Little Do They Know " at the Soho Theatre. She's a comedian, and the show tells how she has dealt with having dwarfism and how she made her way into stand up. It had a lot of humor and serious moments, too. I really enjoyed the show, and enjoyed just going to London.

However, it wasn't easy or cheap to get in to London. Due to my knee problems, I can't walk far, nor can I risk trying to walk in crowds because I can't move out of the way and I sometimes stop suddenly if I get a sharp pain. That in mind, I arranged for journey assistance at the Reading train station. That means you book assistance the day before, and when you arrive, you find an employee, give him your name, and they send someone with a wheelchair or golf-cart sort of thing to pick you up and take you to your train. Sounds great in theory. It was a little rockier in practice, and I wouldn't recommend trying to get journey assistance if you're traveling alone unless you are on a mobility scooter or your own wheelchair and all you need is someone to bring a ramp out for you to get on the train. Luckily, I had my husband with me.

Basically, there isn't seating just inside the doors in either Reading or London Paddington. There was seating within say 40-50 feet, but that's a long way for someone with mobility problems. Also, in Reading they weren't very on the ball with providing the pre-booked assistance. My husband had to hunt a guy down both when we left Reading and when we returned (waiting 20 minutes the first time, only to have the guy show up without a wheelchair! But he was very friendly, and I think the problem was with the lady who booked assistance, not the man who came to help). That said, the train ride was nice; I've always enjoyed watching the countryside go by.

We got to London and to our pleasant surprise, the buggy/golf-cart thing was waiting to pick us up! It took us out to the exit near the cab stand, and we just hopped into a cab to the theatre.

After the show, we got another cab and went back to Paddington Station. There the fun began again. There was nowhere to sit anywhere near the door, so I sat at the base of a statue while my husband tried to figure out where we were to go. We were told to go to the first aid station, but we couldn't find it. It turns out my hubby walked past it a few times -- the sign was tiny on a wall and was very easy to miss.

An expensive country

The total cost of our journey? $52 for two standard-class round-trip train tickets from Reading to London (that's a journey of about 35 miles) and about another $64 for cabs to and from the train stations in Reading and London. That doesn't include tips.

Add to that our dinner. We had a very no-frills dinner at the burger joint next to the theatre. My hubby had a burger and fries and a coke, and I just had a burger. The total cost? $25. This country packs a big sticker shock when you translate costs into dollars!

For other disabled travellers

I enjoyed going to London and seeing Tanyalee, but at those prices I don't plan on making many trips. Perhaps with a personal scooter I'll go in more, but even then it's hard to get around -- especially since most of the trains that operate out of reading are by First Great Western, and that train company will only let you bring a scooter on board if you can *carry it on*! They won't let you use a ramp with a scooter; they said the ramps were unstable! This is not a disabled-friendly country, despite some recent changes and many claims by official Web sites to the contrary. Virgin trains do a much better job (probably because they are newer and Virgin tries to be competitive), but no Virgin trains go from here to London. For those with a disability, be aware that this is not the most accessible country to visit, and many of the things that claim to be accessible really aren't in practice (as in taxi and bus ramps often don't work, even though you'll hear how every bus and taxi in London is now accessible). But don't get me wrong, this is a wonderful place to visit -- if you're mobile. You can go everywhere by foot, bus and train. There's no need to rent a car or even take a cab. It's still possible to see many things if you've got mobility issues, but it'll probably cost more as cabs are your best bet to limit walking. If you're in a wheelchair and can easily navigate a block or two to and from stops, a bus will be your best low-cost option, though you may find that some have broken ramps. The Tube should be avoided, as not all stations have elevators (lifts), and you never know when a lift will be out of service.