We planned a fun day out in London visiting my cousin who has a new baby and also a FANTASTIC exhibition at the Tate Modern (Olafur Eliasson – it’s AMAZING, if you’re in London go see it now!).
It was our first ever train trip together, and I thought I had planned it well – on the 10am train to London, coming back at 2.50pm, on a weekday/normal working day, not school holidays etc. Figured it would be quieter and easier to travel with a small person.
Apparently not – both trains were packed! On the way in I had a seat booked but the reservations system didn’t seem to be working so there was someone in my seat and the train was chock-full, and there was no space for the buggy anyway so I decided to just keep the kid in the buggy and stand in the corridor.
So much for off-peak!
We had agreed to meet at the Tate Modern gallery 11.30am as we needed to have timed tickets to the exhibition, and I’d assumed that half an hour was plenty of time to get from Paddington to Southwark.
However I’ve never done it with a buggy before, and while on the train I started looking at journey planners, trying to work out step-free access and which stations had lifts etc. Suddenly a 15-20min tube ride was apparently going to take 57 minutes, as if you want step-free access you have to take a tube to here, a bus to there, another tube to here, etc. Quite the palaver.
Fretting that the others would be waiting for me and I really should have thought about it all much sooner, I started googling “Can you take buggies on an escalator?” and working out how many stairs would be involved in a number of different routes.
An extremely nice Pakistani gentleman named Iqbal standing next to me in the corridor of the train struck up a conversation and offered to help me figure out a route that would work – it involved going up and over a platform on arrival at Paddington but after that no changes until we arrived at Blackfriars, which has a lift. He very kindly offered to help me carry the buggy off the train and up and over to the correct platform, which was terribly sweet.
Of course on the way off the train and through the station we had the usual conversation “Do you work in Oxford?” “Yes but I’m currently on maternity leave” “Oh how old is she?” “She’s two” Blah blah blah, she’s recently adopted, no, no husband it’s just me…. I honestly need to come up with a better deflection method! Anyhow he was very nice, and once at the tube, I stopped to check my Oyster card balance (it was £8.50, plenty to get me where I was going) but Iqbal insisted on topping up my card with £10 just in case – I told him I was fine and could do it myself but he very gallantly insisted. It was so sweet I almost teared up a little bit. I’m not sure if I was flattered or offended that he clearly saw me as a damsel in need of rescue, though I suppose once you’ve got through the whole “I’m a single parent who adopted a kid” perhaps he assumed I needed all the help I could get. I tried to accept his kind offer gracefully, though it’s quite hard to accept the role of damsel in distress when you’ve been a strong independent woman for as long as I have..
Then we carried my sleeping girl in her buggy up and over and down about 6 flights of stairs, and onto the circle line at Paddington. Iqbal said he wasn’t in a rush and would happily come with me and make sure I got there ok. He kept saying “Please say if you are not comfortable and I will leave you alone, I really don’t want you to feel uncomfortable, just let me know if you are not feeling ok and I will leave.”
Poor man clearly didn’t want to be seen as a perv harassing a single mum!
We chatted away on the tube, and I felt awful that he was going significantly out of his way to accompany me (which at this point really wasn’t necessary) – turns out he was going to Liverpool Street so he just stayed on the train (after asking if I’d like any additional help getting to the Tate, which I assured him I did not). So he basically rode pretty much the whole circle line all the way around on my behalf!
Of course, what started out as an incredibly sweet, gallant, kind gesture one rarely sees in a big city anymore gradually became a bit odd, as he started asking if he could have my number, and would I like him to assist me on my way home after the museum, or maybe he could come to Oxford to visit sometime, and would I like to have lunch with him another time. I honestly can’t tell if he was hitting on me or just a very kind, quite lonely man looking for company. We politely exchanged numbers (it was the least I could do after all he had done for me) but I remained non-committal about what time I was going home, and where I lived etc just in case.
The experience made me realise just how incredibly difficult London must be to navigate for people in wheelchairs. Unlike many other large cities there are really quite limited stations with step-free access, and the journey planner showed it was an average of 3 times longer to get anywhere, so you would really have to plan your day well in advance. I can only imagine the added nightmare of trying to access the tube in a wheelchair at rush hour if you happen to work in London (makes me shudder). At least with a buggy I can commandeer a passerby or train staff to help me carry it up and over the stairs, whereas wheelchair users don’t have that option. I understand that Transport for London are doing their best to increase access at tube stops, but I imagine for a lot of Central London the tunnel systems are so old, and the real estate above ground infinitely valuable and immoveable so I suspect it is never going to be all that accessible.
It would be an interesting experiment to make everyone travel as if they were in a wheelchair for a day – not physically, but to have to plan your journey as if you were, to see how many challenges you might face. Food for thought indeed.
Certainly it has put me off the idea of more regular jaunts to London while on maternity leave, and with a couple of upcoming train journeys planned a real conundrum – most trains have limited baggage space let along buggy space, and as she travels free I can’t book a seat for her, so it’s all suddenly a bit daunting doing longer journeys by rail (I was thinking of going by train to Edinburgh next year but now a little scared of it all – mind you a grizzling screaming child in a car for 8 hours is equally unappealing – I can see why people with kids rarely go anywhere!).
Anyhow, to finish here are some fab pics of the amazing exhibition we went to at the Tate – if you are in London do go and see it!