It was not only my first time in the UK and in London, it mainly was my first time after 6 years meeting Erik again, a former volunteer in our group during my first year in Marburg, who now lives and works in London with his girlfriend Anne.
I stayed with them for one night and then moved to Robert’s place in Slough and had an awesome Couchsurfing experience with him and Georg, another couchsurfer from Germany, who also stayed at his place. But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Because I went to London by train at 6:27am from Frankfurt, I therefore decided to consult booking.com for a place to stay nearby the central station of Frankfurt to get enough sleep before heading to London, and I happened to find a hotel pretty close to the central station just across the street.
After that was sorted out, I realized that booking an assistance for my trip was a little more complicated… First, I called up Deutsche Bahn who were able to arrange assistance in Frankfurt and Brussels Midi, but I had to call up Eurostar for further assistance from there, which turned out to be a little more complicated; in order to make sure that I actually have a ticket, they wanted to know my reference number. However, the Deutsche Bahn reference code was not valid in their system and apparently, DB is unable to give you a reference code for the Eurostar ride itself. The ticket was cheap, of course, but you won’t be able to book any extras to your Eurostar ride without providing them with a reference code, and this doesn’t only conclude assistance; they in the end just emailed Brussels and London to inform them about my arrival. Problem solved!
My final destination, however, was West Hampstead Thameslink, so I additionally called the National Railway hotline to find out which company is responsible for the assistance and they transferred my call to Thameslink so I could arrange the assistance with them.
After all that was out of the way, I was ready for departure. One last thing though: As I was not familiar with the train station of Frankfurt and its surroundings, I tried to arrange assistance to get to the hotel. The Bahnhofsmission agreed to pick me up if I would arrive after 9pm and they not only picked me up and guided me to the hotel; the nice lady also helped me with the check-in filling in a form for guests so they know who you are and what you’re up to – just a formality. She also showed me my room and some other places close to my room. About half an hour later, she even called me up and said that it is not possible for them to pick me up from the hotel the next morning so I wouldn’t wait for them to show up, which I really appreciated. When I called the reception to ask for directions to the central station the next morning, they told me that, since they are just a business hotel, they cannot provide assistance outside the hotel. Anyway, they offered me to pick me up from my room to guide me to the reception at the time of my desire, and they also set up a wake-up call for me the next morning. I ended the day at the hotel bar (I was quite surprised that I found it so quickly without really knowing the hotel, but the elevator was braille-labeled and I could hear the clinging of glasses on the ground floor, so I was just assuming that the bar is also not far off and guess what, I was right!).
The wake-up call worked as planned and they called me once again to ask whether my plans were still up to date which I confirmed. After checking out at the reception, as I was assuming that I had to find my way on my own, I was asking the receptionist for directions to the train station. To my surprise, he just guided me to its entrance and two random guys who also entered the train station helped me finding a service desk to claim my assistance. A stop at Lecrobag for breakfast and another while later, I found myself on the ICE train to Brussels Midi.
Arrived in Brussels Midi, I was picked up and guided to the Eurostar section of Brussels Midi, where the hand-off would take place; because Eurostar staff is available in Brussels Midi, the local staff will only guide you to the check-in desk where the Eurostar team takes over.
A security check followed after which I had to show my ID to the border-control team. After a short break, they again picked me up to help me board the train and find my seat; obviously they boarded me ahead of the others. After a non-stop ride of about 2 hours, I arrived at London St. Pancrass International; thanks to the time-zone change, we got an extra hour.
The Eurostar staff was standing by to guide me out of the Eurostar section to hand me over to the local staff.
It took a little longer for the local staff to arrive, as they were busy helping another handicapped person boarding a train; as a result, I couldn’t catch the train I was actually scheduled on when I claimed my assistance. Nevertheless, they boarded me on the next train and two stops later, I found myself in West Hampstead Thameslink, where Erik picked me up at the entrance. After getting something for lunch, we went to his place to eat and stow the luggage.
We haven’t seen each other for 6 years, so we had a lot of stories to tell and talks concerning the crazy stuff we have done together in the past.
Together with Anne (who joined us later on) we decided to head into the city by underground to explore some places.
There are two common and cheap ways of traveling by public transport in London:
– The Oystercard is similar to the Dutch OV-Chipkaart system I am already used to: Top up your card with money, check in at your starting-point and check out at the destination of your desire.
– Alternatively, thanks to contactless payment, you may also just check in and out with your debit- or credit card at the barriers.
In comparison to other cities I’ve been to so far, I was surprised how heavily crowded some of the places in London could be; let’s just say that I used phrases like “I’m Sorry” or “Excuse me” a couple of times a minute on average.
Back in Stockholm, I was talking to a Dutch couple from Amsterdam who did not recommend Amsterdam to me, due to its crowded streets and squares. Well, given that I have just been to Amsterdam for my first time in early September myself, I can conclude that Amsterdam is nothing against London! In fact, I can’t remember that I have ever bumped into anyone in Amsterdam, whereas I stopped counting the people either I have bumped into or who bumped into me in London.
Before we went back home, Anne and Erik surprised me with the Dovetail, a Belgian pub with Belgian beer and delicious snacks for both of which I can’t resist wherever it is available. 😉
Back at home, whereas Anne met some friends at a restaurant, Michael, one of Erik’s friends, joined us and we had a talk about this and that, chilling in the living-room for a longer while before we went to sleep.
As only two days in London are a little less in my opinion, I decided to either book a place to stay or find a Couchsurfing host for a night or two. I created a public trip in early September and just a few days later, Robert got in touch with me to offer hosting. He already hosted more than 200 couchsurfers from different countries and, except for five negative references, all the other references were positive and we also had a few chats on Facebook to get to know each other a little better.
I even got a spontaneous backup-host who contacted me shortly before my stay at Robert who offered to host me for one night, just in case I didn’t yet find a host or something went wrong. To be honest, if she was able to host me for two nights, I would even have switched over to stay at her place, as she lived in the actual city of London; Slough is a little further away.
Anne and Erik dropped me off at Oxford Circus on Sunday afternoon where I met Robert. Before we went home though, we took a walk to explore different places we came along on our way.
Should you, Robert, or anybody else living in or near London read this: I am terribly sorry that I can’t really remember the places by their names anymore; it for sure doesn’t mean that I disliked them at all.
We came across a square where a Japanese festival took place and Robert did his best describing things accurately. There were also quite a few sound impressions (I started recording later on), such as musicians playing typical Japanese music.
After a short stay, we went onwards and had another stop on a bridge at the river thames which, additionally to the footways, also comes with a section for trains (it used to be a train bridge only about a century ago, Robert told me). According to what we could hear and see on the bridge besides the trains, there was a lot of traffic on that part of the river.
Before we had a coffee break, Robert introduced me to a place (he had no idea what this place used to be) occupied by skaters, which was also an interesting sound experience.
We eventually went to the nearest tube station to catch a tube to get to the place where Robert parked his car. In comparison to the Metro and undergrounds in other cities I’ve been to, rides on the London underground can be quite bumpy (kind of like a roller-coaster) and especially noisy as hell!
It was also a quite interesting experience sitting in the drivers-seat of Robert’s car; however, the stearing-wheel was missing.
Of course I’ve been sitting in the passengers-seat, but cars in Britain have their stearing-wheel on the wrong … uhm … left side I mean. Never mind, my dear British friends, I’m just teasing you a little… 😛
Anyway, even though I already knew about this little fact long before, it was still a little confusing when people pushed me towards the front left door instead of the front right door during my stay in the UK.
A 20-minute car ride later, we arrived at Robert’s place in Slough where he helped me getting familiar with the most important places in his house. During the first evening of my stay, either Robert or Georg (whom Robert picked up after we had dinner) helped me getting back on track when I got lost, but the more I got familiar with the house, the less Robert or Georg had to help me.
After a talk about how visually handicapped people cope with life and a short demonstration of Apple’s VoiceOver feature, we went to sleep a little earlier, as Robert offered Georg and me to take us to uxbridge so we could head into London by underground.
We departed the next morning after breakfast at 7AM, because Robert went to work right after dropping us off in uxbridge.
We did some grocery-shopping before we took the underground to go to Westminster to visit the London Dungeons. As they offer discounts for blind people, we only paid for one ticket, whereas the companion got a ticket free of charge.
I have already been to the Hamburg Dungeons twice and it was rather difficult to scare me, but this time, I must admit that they managed to scare me a little more often.
After we left the dungeons and a lunch break, we were on our way to Kings-Cross.
Before we visited the dungeons, I was in touch with Andre Louis whom I asked for locations or possible attractions in London that blind people should check out. He recommended the RNIB shop near the train station Kings-Cross; so that’s where we went. However, although it was quite a walk indeed (Robert still thinks we got to be insane), Georg and I decided to walk instead of taking the underground.
This way, we spent less money and got a little more familiar with different parts of the city we probably wouldn’t have seen if we went by underground, ESPECIALLY the tea shops we stopped by on our way.
The cool thing about one particular tea shop was that you could get yourself a small plastic mug and taste different kinds of tea, coffee or hot chocolate.
In comparison to other blind-specific shops I’ve been to in Germany or elsewhere, the RNIB shop seemed to be bigger and the shelves were, as far as I could see, all braille-labeled, even with the prices of the products.
Because I didn’t really know what they actually offer and where to find what, I asked for help at the service desk. The guy gave me a short summary on what they offer and I eventually asked for braille card games and cane-tips, which turned out to be both way cheaper than in Germany, so guess what I bought there. 😉
Next, we went to Belgo (guess what, a Belgian restaurant chain!) for a Belgian snack and a drink, after which we finally went to Kings-Cross to travel back to Uxbridge. It was quite a long ride; I didn’t realize how far it was when we head into London in the morning! We texted Robert when we passed Ruislip which is about 10 minutes away from Uxbridge so he could already prepare to pick us up when we arrive in Uxbridge.
Finally in his car, it was surprisingly silent; Robert either became very serious or angry, maybe both or perhaps I just got it wrong.
Anyway, about 2 minutes after we got in, he asked me: “So, Georg wasn’t offering you enough assistance, right?”
Today I think we can laugh about it; but the reason why he was assuming that was because when Robert guided me the other day after Anne and Erik dropped me off, my cane was stowed in my pocket and I didn’t find it necessary to take it out.
When I walked with Anne and Erik, I walked with people I trust and it was kind of useless in the crowded streets anyway.
When Robert took over, we walked slow and – as far as I know – there were no obstacles really (such as small steps or gaps on the streets I could have tripped over). Also, we didn’t really walk a big distance.
The next day, however, we had much longer walks with a couple of stairs to climb, nasty gaps or small steps on the streets I didn’t want to trip over. Furthermore, when I unfolded my cane, people more likely avoided us – instead of bumping into us – when they saw my cane. And whether my cane comes in handy or not at certain times, it just sometimes gives me a little more confidence, regardless of who is guiding me.
Long story short: it was a misunderstanding Georg and I could fortunately clear up very quickly, and we all became more chatty again afterwards.
At home after we had dinner, Robert introduced us to different kinds of cheese to taste and in return, we told Robert what we did during the day in London and showed him the things we bought.
As for Tuesday, Robert suggested that we should go to Windsor (just a short car ride away from Slough and also close to Heathrow airport) for some more sightseeing. However, since we got up early the day before, Georg and I decided to rather relax at home and sleep longer, as we were not really in the mood to go sightseeing anyway.
Also, I was in touch with Ian, who offered to meet up on Tuesday before my departure. He additionally offered me to drive me to Heathrow and help me claiming my assistance.
Ian actually lives in London most of the time, but organizes Couchsurfing meetings in Marburg from time to time when he is around, so that’s how I got to know him.
He showed up at Robert’s place in the late morning and drove Georg and me to Heathrow. Well, actually I would have driven if Georg hadn’t guided me to the front left door because I was about to go around the car to get to the front right again. Whereas Ian and I went to the terminal, it was time to say fare-well to Georg who took the underground to head into the city.
During the time we were waiting for my assistance to show up, security officers showed up in the waiting area to – in beforehand – ask the passengers whether they had any liquids or anything else to worry about in their hand-luggage, which is actually a good way to prepare the passengers what they are up against before the actual security check takes place.
Later, the assistance took me through security and instructed me to wait for the boarding to start at the gate. The flight wasn’t late, but they showed up a little later anyway to board me in the middle of the boarding process.
It was apparently a good decision to reserve a seat in the back of the plane. Firstly, it was less noisy back there and the stewardesses were also not far, just in case.
While taxying to the runway, the usual security briefing took place and I must remark that British Airways has a hell of a great security film that comes with a lot of typical British humor!
We landed in Hamburg ahead of our scheduled arrival, so yay on the one hand! On the other hand though, nobody was standing by to pick me up from the plane. As a result, I joined the crew in the front of the plane near the exit and they offered me a drink whilst waiting. In the end, as they had to prepare to fly back to London, somebody (presumably some sort of airport staff) picked me up and instructed me to sit down amongst the waiting passengers with destination London because the red cross staff wasn’t available at this time.
In the end, my mother – who picked me up by car – had to wait in the terminal for more than an hour until they finally picked me up, helped me retrieving my luggage and eventually guided me into the main terminal.
I had a pleasant 3 and a half days in the UK meeting a lot of awesome people and getting familiar with London, its surroundings and the British culture.
Especially the Couchsurfing experience at Robert’s place was very remarkable and Robert learned how to cope with hosting me as a blind person very quickly; in fact, as I told him in beforehand, it was easier than it sounded like in the beginning.
To sum things up: Thus, another trip on my own into a country I have never been to before had come to an end and for me, it was another great step towards my personal independence abroad; and of course, this for sure wasn’t the last trip to an unknown place I went on, so stay tuned for more!