Sunday, 20 July 2014

London (again)

Dusting this off as I have something to say again.

We had another short visit to London last week and I wanted to write something about using public transport in London when disabled.  I lived in London on and off for a few years, until about 15 years ago and I used to visit occasionally, for work and leisure, when I lived in England.  One of the reasons I started to dislike London was that as I became less mobile, I found travelling there more difficult.  The Underground is (or was) notoriously inaccessible and buses were confusing unless you used them regularly.  

Lots was obviously done in the lead up to the Olympics, two years ago, to make London more accessible and lifts (elevators, if you are American) have been put into the underground platforms at most of the mainline stations and some others.  Central London is still a bit of a blackspot, due to the age of the network.  I have some sympathy with Transport for London (TfL) in this regard - retrofitting lifts to a 150 year old station can't be easy and in some cases the use of escalators means the surface station and the platforms aren't anywhere near each other.  Going Underground has a great post on this - this classic diagram of Bank illustrates it well.  


South Kensington is one station I often have call to use, these days, since a trip to London inevitably means a visit to the Science Museum.  We were hoping to also see the Natural History Museum this time, but unfortunately so were several thousand other people and standing in a queue for several hours is not the Small Scottish Boy's idea of fun, nor mine of comfort.  So back to the Science Museum it was.  Now, South Kensington Station is not at all accessible, especially from the Piccadilly Line.  Long banks of escalators and then stairs to street level.  Then to get to the museums, a long subway (for American readers, this means a pedestrian walkway that is under a road or similar, not a train, which is of course the Underground, or Tube) to the museums.  

Luckily, TfL have a solution. Their website has a brilliant journey planner which allows you to plan a route using any of the city's many transport options (including walking and cycling - it even shows the locations of the famous "Boris Bikes" you can hire all over London).  You can customise accessibility options to show routes which avoid stairs, escalators or both and specify your walking speed and maximum walking time and it'll let you save these preferences for future use.  If you don't want to venture underground you can also ask it to use any combination of transport or specify which ones you want to use - you might just want to use the DLR or buses, if going underground is a particular problem.   It takes into account real time closures, delays, etc on the network - we used it on the Sunday when there was a closure on the DLR and it gave details of the replacement bus.  The app works really well on the mobile site (screenshots below) so you can use it on the move - although if you are on the Tube, do put your phone onto airplane mode to stop the battery going flat quickly! 


The solution to the South Kensington problem was to take the Jubilee Line to Green Park and then a bus (there were several options) to just outside the Natural History Museum.  A word of caution - Green Park has lifts but is one of those stations where the platforms are a long walk from the entrance.  Buses might have been better.  

As an aside, the Piccadilly line at South Kensington actually had lifts, once upon a time.  The station was originally built with lifts instead of escalators (as is still the case at Covent Garden and Russell Square) but due to capacity problems (now a massive problem at Covent Garden) the station was converted to escalators in the 70s.  The Abandoned Stations website has details here.  That site is a complete time-sink, by the way.  

A few years ago TfL were looking at redeveloping the station to include lift access to the Circle and District Line, but not the Piccadilly Line or the museum subway.  

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

London - part 1 - Legoland

This post got stuck in draft, so I am posting it now - slightly too late!  I suspect part 2 won't ever get written!

Our second summer holiday of the year (the first being a bargain week in Corfu in July) was a short visit to London in August with one of my best friends, her husband and their three kids.  Their son is just a few weeks younger than the small Scottish boy, although they'd not seen each other since they were three years old as my friend lives in Ireland.  We shared a 3 bedroom apartment near the centre of London and whilst the apartment was lovely, I have learnt a lesson - just because a place says it has a lift, don't assume there's not a dozen steep steps before you get to the lift!

I was a bit nervous about the travelling around in London, because my memories of it (I lived there in late 90s) was of a place which was not at all disabled friendly.  When I checked things out I was surprised to find that there was no lift access to far more tube stations than had been the case - including all the platforms at Kings Cross, which was a good start since that was near where we were staying.  This meant I was able to get the tube in from Heathrow (we flew down as the boy had a hospital appointment - nothing serious - that day).  The nice man from BAA collected me at the plane door in a nifty wheelchair which had room for our carry-on case, which saved the boy from having to pull it and escorted me all the way onto the tube train itself.

Our first stop was Legoland.  I'd been once before - in 1991 and in Denmark - and the rest were newbies. All the kids were big Lego fans though!

First off.  Do not think it will be "easy enough" to get to Legoland from central London.  It took ages.  Stay near the park.  If you are travelling from outside southern or central England and don't have a car, this is easier said than done.  There's the park hotel, but that was full when we booked.  Much scouring of websites failed to find anywhere close and accessible by public transport, but we got to Slough and discovered there is a Holiday Inn by the station.

Anyway, we survived our public transport journey and hit the park.  It seems much more real than Disney, and that's a big plus for me.  As I described it to my friend's husband: "you see that hedge there, it's just an ordinary, slightly scrappy looking hedge.  At Disney, it would be perfectly manicured and there would be a fountain making it look like a single drop of water was bouncing along the top of it".   It's also better value.  Entrance fees were reasonable (as a group of 7 we paid about £22 each) and the food was as well.  After 4pm, there was an all you could eat buffet deal for I think £20 per adult.  Since we got one kid free for each adult, we ended up paying £10 a head.  For £6 you could buy a refillable drink bottle, with free refills all day long, so we shared a couple of those.

The problem is that it's also really not designed with mobility in mind.  It's built on a steep hill.  Most of the attractions are at the bottom and there is a funicular railway down the hill, but it's still far from level.  As a result I stuck with my crutches, which made me tired and sore by the end of the day.  It would be good if they could hire out scooters.  They do have a priority entry system for disabled people, but as a group of 7 there were too many of us to use it.  I could only bring 3 people with me and we had 4 kids with us.  Can you imagine the fights! What the staff were happy with, however, was for the rest of the group to queue and for me to join them at the front.  It meant I still waited just as long, but could sit down while doing so.

Our first day was damp.  The couple of times rain threatened we were able to duck into indoor rides so no one got drenched.  Like Disney, each area is themed - Lego City, Lego Castles, Lego Pirates, Vikings.  The rides are a great mix of tamer ones for little kids and wilder ones for older kids, for example in the Castle section were three rollercoasters - each suitable for different age groups.  The youngest member of our group (4 year old M) went on all of them.  Lego theme is not over powering.  Our second day turned out to be the start of a heatwave (which left me wishing we were staying longer).  The kids accidentally discovered the splash pad, which meant an hours wasted while they ran about in their knickers getting soaked.  Then we dashed around catching up on the rides we had missed the day before - ending up with the wet rides.  I was thoroughly teased for insisting on wearing my raincoat. We may have even forgotten to feed the children!


The small Scottish boy is not, it turns out, a big thrillseeker, but still enjoyed most of the rides.  Since the park is aimed at 4-12 year olds, nothing was too hard on my back, except perhaps the pirate ship.   He loved panning for gold (well, fool's gold) and some of the tamer rides, but his absolute favourite was the driving school.  I think I am still disappointed that I was too old for that when I was at Legoland in 1991.  My favourite was Miniland, of course.  Isn't it everyone's?

Update on Barney

We went up to the local Cat's Protection League shelter just before Christmas, to take some food up to them and see how Barney was getting on.  He wasn't there, because he had just been rehomed with a family about 15 miles from here, who have sons aged 4 and 7.

They told me that he very quickly turned into a loving cat, who enjoyed sitting on the table and getting fuss.  I suspected he would, but was very pleased everything had worked out and surprised it had taken them less than two months to get him healthy, used to being with people again and to home him.  One of the volunteers commented that it's cats like Barney that make the job really worthwhile.

I still feel a bit guilty that I couldn't look after him myself, but I'm pleased everything worked out.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Now a two-cat household once more.

For most of the year this has been, at least to some extent, a three-cat household.  The chap on the left turned up in March, at first just hanging around and looking plaintively in the window at us, but eventually very actively trying to move in.  Since I already have two cats, a third cat was really not an option.  A third cat that was semi-feral and an intact Tom was definitely not a good idea in a household with two neutered males.  As a result I tried to discourage him  from coming in and when that didn't work, I started trying to rehome him.   


I contacted our local branch of the Cats Protection League for advice and was told that unfortunately they have a fairly long waiting list for rehoming, especially for adult cats in no immediate danger, which was the case with this guy.   They provided me with a supply of paper collars, which I put my phone number on, in the hope that if he did live somewhere they would contact me.  No one responded.  A quick visit to the vet confirmed that he was not microchipped, un-neutered and in good health, if a bit skinny.  I treated him for fleas and ticks and wormed him, then let him go again.

It turns out he was not only quite determined to move in with me (and mark his territory accordingly - I can recommend Urine Off) he was also trying to move into another house three doors along - but with three cats they could not take him on either.  My neighbour found him upstairs, curled up on her spare bed looking like he owned the place.  Likewise, he once tried to climb up on my bed to sleep in the middle of the night - to the surprise of both me and my other cats, who were already there.  He's clearly a cat who has known a home at some point.

Over the summer he continued to hang around and I provided a bowl of food at the back doorstep when I saw him.  So that we had no more marking issues and to provide my own cats with some peace, I kept the cat flat closed.  A few weeks ago the Cats Protection League called me back to say they had a space available and inevitably he was nowhere to be seen for several weeks.  Last Monday morning, however, he was waiting at the back doorstep with my two, asking to be fed.

So this week, I have taken my life (or at least my soft furnishings) into my hand and left the catflap open again for the first time since spring.  Sure enough we started getting through a lot more food again, so on Friday night I left the catflap so that the cats could get in, but not out.  Yesterday at lunchtime I was sitting at the table when our friend here sauntered out from under the futon in the family room.  Here he is looking a bit annoyed at having discovered he couldn't get out (I'd also just treated him for fleas and ticks, which was easier than it is with one of my permanent cats).

He spent the rest of Saturday locked in the bathroom, to keep him in and away from the others (and there was nothing he could mark in there).  He had food, water and an old rug tucked by the radiator.  On Sunday morning he happily climbed into the carrier when I put him in front of it (again, not like my own cats!) and I took him off to the wonderfully appropriately named town of Fishcross.  He's settled into Cats Protection League's rehoming centre there, and they'll make sure he has his vaccinations, is neutered and get him back to health.

We never named him, so yesterday he acquired the name Barney.  It's appropriate in a way - I've just about had a barney with one of the neighbours over feeding him a couple of times!  It's been worth it, he'll need someone with a bit of patience, but he shows all the signs of wanting to be someone's pet.  Hopefully he will have a home sometime soon.  

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Maps. And Volcanoes

I've always been a bit in love with maps.  As a child I used to spend holidays away with my grandparents on their yacht (no, we're not that posh, it was a cramped sailing yacht with really basic facilities) and I remember spending hours looking at the charts with my grandfather.  I still credit him with instilling a near infallible sense of direction in me.  I could navigate with a chart by the age of 8, yet somehow the maps and charts part of the Girl Guide syllabus prevented me getting my silver award at 12, but that was because our leader couldn't assess it.  But I digress.

Last week I took a night off from studying to go to a talk by Mike Parker, who used to present Radio 4's On the Map (which I wish they would repeat).  The topic was national identity and mapping, which obviously links into the independence debate which is raging here at the moment.  It was a really entertaining talk and as a result I have bought Mike's book, Map Addict: a tale of obsession, fudge and the Ordnance Survey.  He even used a few of my favourite maps.  If he's speaking near you, I recommend him, although I suspect the subject matter was tailored to a Scottish audience.

Inevitably it got me thinking about my favourite maps and I have finally decided what to do with the vast bare wall of my hall.  Maps.  First up was one I have been looking for for ages.  As it happened I was telling my friend Morag (another Scottish-Kiwi) about it as we waited for Mike's talk and googled it on my phone.  There it was at the National Library of Australia - I'd been looking for it in NZ libraries and archives.  I now have a poster sized one ready to go on my wall.  It's German geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter's map of the volcanoes of the Auckland Isthmus.   Drawn in 1859, the map shows the extent of all the cones, craters and lava flows of the Auckland field before they were quarried and built on.

It's a fairly frightening thought that almost a million people now live in the area covered by the map (the city now extends further to the north and west, away from the volcanic field.  That's the city centre in the middle and I grew up near the three crater lakes/basins on the northern shore of the northern of the two harbours.

The Auckland Volcanic Field consists of at least 50 volcanoes, either as cones or craters, and it's monogenetic, meaning each volcano usually erupts once (they did find a second eruption site in the Panmure basin, which is the large basin to the right of the centre of the map, a few years ago).    The most recent eruption was only 600 or so year ago and created Rangitoto the large island at the top of the map.  It was apparently bigger than all the previous eruptions put together.

The Auckland volcanic field is active, just dormant.

Oh and thumbs down to the University of Edinburgh, for closing the accessible entrance to the building Mike's lecture was held in.

Friday, 12 October 2012

The Open University

One of my current time sinks and the reason I haven't been the world's most prolific blogger is that I have been doing an MA in Social Sciences via the Open University. The OU, as it's known, is a rather wonderful institution which was set up to enable those who missed out on higher education first time round a chance to study at home. It was immortalised in the film Educating Rita and one of its famous alumni is the British comedian Lenny Henry. In the early years, it used a mix of printed materials and middle of the night TV  broadcasts. The latter have largely been replaced by DVDs and online resources but their TV and radio presence remains in the many excellent programmes they co-produce for BBC TV and radio.

 Having had a fairly directionless experience of higher education (three and a half years of study, mostly in Scandinavian Studies, at three different universities and an FE College), I enrolled as an OU student in 2002 and started my first course in early 2003. Five years on, I graduated with BSc in Social Sciences with Social Policy with first class honours. It was a turbulent five years - my older son was born and then died that first year and the small Scottish boy came along in my third year.  Here we are at my graduation in 2008.   He'd just recovered from chicken pox and we both needed haircuts.

I'd caught the OU bug and 18 months later I signed up for the MA in Social Sciences.  It's been a bit tougher than the BSc  The work is more challenging, of course and life through some more curve-balls at me (in a case of history does repeat, my mother died, four months into the first course), but here I am, something approximating two-thirds of the way through.  Perhaps a bit more.  I've passed three courses and have the exam for the fourth on Monday.

My last course is a double credit one, so it will complete the MA.  It's Understanding Children's Development and Learning - officially part of the MA in Education and a bit of a new topic but the materials I have so far look very interesting and hopefully it will be useful to me at work.  My current course has been a bit of a hectic one - three assessments due within 8 weeks over the summer holidays, so the slightly slower pace of an 11 month long course (6 assessments including the final one - no exam) is a bit of a relief.

One of the things that I like about the OU is that there are intermediate qualifications along the way.  I've already gathered up a Post Graduate Certificate and if I pass the exam on Monday I'll have the Post Graduate Diploma in Social Sciences.  I can't quite figure out if the last course will give me a PG Cert in Education (as well as counting towards the MA) but if I do one more course, I will definitely qualify for a PG Diploma in Education.

But I won't be doing that.  No, I won't.  This is it.  No more studying.  I'll be glad to get my life back.

Although, some undergrad modules, just for fun, might appeal.  Maybe some French.  Or history.

Be warned.  The OU is addictive.

Now, I'd better get on with studying and stop procrastinating!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Those breast cancer "awareness raising" memes

It's that time of year again and the breast cancer memes are coming out. Your shoe size, the colour of your bra or how long it takes to do your hair are not going to raise anything other than a snigger. If you want to raise awareness of breast cancer, link to something informative, that increases women's knowledge of the signs of breast cancer (or other cancers). 

I'm going to start with this ad by Elaine C Smith which is running on Scottish TV at the moment. The message is to look for more than a lump - and that's a very important one. Oh and for non-Scots, she says "three kids later ones", not freaky...

Friday, 21 September 2012

Sometimes, this disability thing feels expensive

This post is brought to you, mostly, by the ominous squeak coming from one of my crutches.

I've blogged before about my crutches. Before I could buy the whizzy spotted ones, one of my first pair of folding crutches, the fetching red ones from the picture with my son, had it's elastic cable overstretched and rattled as a result. This was hard on my wrists, so I ended up replacing them. The replacements are 20 months old now and it looks like their time is up. I have another pair that are fine - a pair of fixed red ones - and they're actually the most comfortable. But the folding ones are my day to day crutches because it's hand to be able to tuck them away and folding helps that. They're essential for travelling as well. Although they only fold in half, if I shorten them as well they're short enough to strap to a bag (for example, it means I can use one crutch, attach the other to the front of a wheeled suitcase and walk short distances like that). It looks like there's a few choices. I've noticed that the range of crutches available here is improving although the prices still don't compare well with what they pay in France. My first two pairs were Vilgo ones from Chic Aid Crutches.

They seem to have another brand for sale now (on the left there), which I have to say look great but are expensive (£145 EACH) and I am not sure I fancy having to adjust them, both, to the same length, in two different places, every time I need to stow them somewhere. Even if they would hang on a table, which looks very nifty indeed.  Maybe when I am feeling a bit richer!

I am a bit perplexed by the picture of one on a bike. Bike-riding crutches user seems a niche market!

So, I think I'll give these OPO ones a try.  That's them on the right, and they are similarly priced to the Vilgos. That's another £80-ish quid but at least I'll get the VAT back. Just as well I'm gainfully employed. Meanwhile, a bad experience with an awful borrowed wheelchair at the SECC (who also charged me £6 to use the disabled car park, as it happens) in Glasgow has left me contemplating buying a lightweight folding wheelchair for occasional use. I don't think that's going to be cheap, somehow.

Meanwhile, if anyone knows someone who uses just one crutch, I have a growing collection of quite expensive single crutches I am happy to pass on.  On top of all those mentioned here, I am down to one burgundy (same as the grey in the previous post on the matter) the other has cracked.