Riding the London underground is a rite of passage. My first trip was aged seventeen, with my fellow country-bumpkin school friends, on our inaugural adult-less adventure to the capital. The tube was dramatic, dark and eerie. We nervously stood staring at the map on the tunnel wall, trying to decipher the squiggle of lines. When the first train pulled up, we all jumped on quickly; grabbing each other for fear we would leave someone behind. For hours we hopped on and off trains, as we visited places in all corners of the capital. After a full day of shopping and some lacklustre sightseeing, our legs throbbed from walking, our arms ached from carrying our treasures… but we stood taller. Navigating the underground was an accomplishment. We returned home full of pride, like we’d entered the world of grown-ups. It was the start of our independence.
Ever since that first trip, the London underground fills me with excitement. I use it so rarely, that if I’m off to the big smoke, then I’m off to do something exciting. Everything is alien compared to my normal country life. The roar and clanking of the train entering the station, followed by the eerie silence as it exits through the tunnel. Swarms of people rushing and pushing, racing and running. Never ending escalators going down down down. Mosaic stations, graffiti stations, glass stations, tiled stations. Long lonely tunnels filled with the songs of buskers. Even when I was older and able to understand the map myself, even when I no longer needed a friend to grab on to.. I still walked a little taller after every successful trip.
But like many things, getting ill put pay to any adventures in London. In the past four years, I’ve only ventured to the capital for hospital appointments or to visit friend’s homes. The stress of a train journey would cost precious energy I couldn’t spare, and the logistics of being on a mobility scooter and needing oxygen creates extra obstacles. So trains have long been abandoned, and Phil now braves the hellish traffic whenever I need to be in the city. However when the lovely Zoe suggested an exciting post Christmas girlie treat bang in the heart of Marylebone, I was suddenly torn. I was desperate to go, but Phil was reluctant to face the weekend tourist traffic. If I wanted to attend, I would need to take the long-abandoned tube train. Although some PH facebook phriends told me their underground horror stories and advised alternative transport, I wanted to experience the tube just once as a disabled person. So after a lot of psyching myself, I put on my fearless face, and agreed to try it. Phil would drive me to Ruislip tube station with my best friend Madi, and from there we would brave the underground together. Destination afternoon tea at The Langham Hotel.
With additional needs, catching the underground is complex. Every stage has to be planned carefully. Luckily Madi is a Londonite so researched our journey, and even emailed TFL to double check (who sent a helpful route description). Shockingly only around 25% of stations on the underground are classed as accessible. Furthermore half of those ‘accessible’ stations are not actually suitable for wheelchairs, due to ‘the gap’ between carriage and platform. The majority of fully wheelchair accessible stations are on the outskirts, there are very few in the centre, in fact just four in Zone 1. This suddenly restricts the number of places that disabled people can easily visit in London. It also makes our journeys longer and complicated as we can only change tube lines at fully accessible stations. The UK is one of the most disabled friendly countries in the world, yet the centre of our capital city is off limits if you need wheels to get around. For our trip, a direct route was not possible, and we had to meander. Even after going the long way around, the nearest accessible tube stop to our final destination was 2.5 miles away, so we had to catch a cab for the last part of the journey. Getting from Ruislip to The Langham Hotel for an able bodied person involves one train, and takes half an hour. As a disabled person it took two different tube lines, a taxi, and took us over an hour.
Despite the worry the night before and the panicked conversations with Madi in the lead up, it all went swimmingly! Each station had a wide barrier for me to enter and exit without trouble. The trains on the Central line were wide and empty; with disabled bays so my scooter didn’t cause a blockage in the carriage. One of the trains on the Jubilee line was very busy, but luckily my fellow passengers were very accommodating, and didn’t push or moan at me despite my scooter taking up a lot of floor space in a narrow compartment. And happily, not one person looked at me in alarm or panic when they saw I was using flammable oxygen in a train! As I was unable to use the escalators, we had to keep looking for lifts to get us from one platform to the next, or to the street. Luckily they were all fully signposted, so easy to find, but it did add extra time to the journey, and wasn’t as easy or quick as running up the escalators like the rest of the passengers. In the end, there was only two incidents in the whole of the journey- and they was due to our mistakes. On one outgoing train there was a raised gap between train and platform: we managed to lift the scooter off safely, but it wasn’t ideal, and I couldn’t have done it on my own. We were surprised as it was a fully accessible station from carriage to street. However, in some older stations, only sections of the platform have been updated and made accessible, and although clearly signposted, we’d not noticed! We didn’t make that mistake twice! We also made a faux pas by deliberately exiting at an inaccessible station; the nearest one to Madi’s house. Luckily Phil met us at the platform, so retrieved my scooter from the train, and carried it down the 50 stairs to the street, as there was no lift!
After a wonderful afternoon of cake chomping and catching up, my body felt tired and weak, my lungs were struggling to breathe.. but I stood taller. Braving the underground was an accomplishment. I returned home full of pride, like I’d had a glimpse again of the normal adult world, a reminder of my life before illness. Maybe this will be the first of more train journeys.