Travelogue 1 – Derby

At the start of 2012 I promised myself that I would try to see more of the great country I live in. It seems that February really kicked started this goal, with a series of trips all over the UK in my diary.

The first was a visit to Derby to write an article for Disability Now magazine on the photographer Rei Bennett’s Beauty from Damage project, which will be in the next issue of DN. I have been to Derby a few times in the past but as a singer with various bands, as it is a great place for live music. The only problem with seeing anywhere when you’re touring is that you don’t get to see it. You arrive, sound check, have something to eat, do the show and retire to a hotel for drinks and passing out. The next morning you’re back on the road with a place name ticked off your tour itinerary, but with no actual knowledge of what that place is like. So I wanted to experience what Derby had to offer, and with this in mind I booked a hotel room for my wife and I the night before the interview.

We stayed at the Cathedral Quarter Hotel in St. Mary’s Gate, which was a great choice. It’s a really nice high quality hotel, that came at a very reasonable price. From the minute we arrived outside it was obvious that the Cathedral Quarter was going to be accessible too. While it is an old building, the Old County Offices, it’s wheelchair accessible through out. Our room was nice too. Not massive, but superb for the price paid and very swish. The bathroom was very accessible too, with a walk in shower and handrails galore. The whole hotel was a superb combination of designer chic and historic features, including stained glass windows on the sweeping stair case in the lobby. The staff were really helpful and very friendly.

In fact everyone we met in the city were friendly and chatty. So much so that it made the whole visit even more enjoyable. It’s funny how your experience of a place can be so heavily influenced by it’s people, but it only becomes clear when you visit somewhere where everyone is so nice. But not only has Derby got great people, it’s also a really great place.

At this point I must mention the thing about Derby that really impressed both me and my wife… just how accessible for disabled people it is. In fact it is so accessible that I would say that Derby should be a shinning example to other towns and cities. In the past I have always given the example of Barcelona as proof that a anywhere can be made accessible, but Derby equally proves it and is here in the UK. Derby really is that good. It starts with the pavements, with large areas being pedestrianised. I know that many people find the idea of shared spaces frightening, but Derby demonstrates that these fears are unfounded. The changes from pavement to road area are marked with noticeably different coloured paving, and have a small dip to make sure people with visual impairments are safe, while ensuring a smooth surface for us wheelie types. Pretty much all the shops had ramped access, and everywhere had lifts and toilets. They had even made most of the cobbled areas accessible by smoothing off the surfaces of each cobblestone. Anyone who uses a wheelchair knows how truly evil cobbles are, but Derby has cracked the whole issue. Keeping the historic nature of the cobbled areas while making them usable for all people. If you are disabled, a trip to Derby is a must if only to witness how accessible it is.

When you are a wheelchair user like me, how accessible a place is can really effect how you experience what is on offer when you visit. I have lost count of the number of holidays and trips out have been ruined by crap access. With Derby being so accessible it became clear that our one night was not going to be enough. We arrived early, as I am a sticker for time keeping, and after we unpacked in our room, we went out for a walk around. I love shopping, and in Derby I could feed my addiction very nicely. We did pop into the Westfield shopping centre briefly, but much preferred the myriad of shops outside. Something that is noticeable about Derby is how many of the shops inside the centre are repeated outside. Thus saving shopping centre phobics, like my poor wife, from the horror of being stuck in the unnatural environment of Westfield and the like. On top of the usual high street fair, Derby has loads of little boutiques selling high quality items. From local designers to designer labels there’s something for everyone. I found some great jewellery shops too. Hmm, that’s good shopping.

While I love to shop, Diane loves to stop for a coffee and watch the world go by. Derby has many lovely coffee shops and restaurants, catering for all tastes. Top quality gourmet food, local produce and high street chains are all there. We tried out a couple of little coffee places, a cheese and bread place just next to the hotel and Pizza Express. All yummy with great food and really great staff.

Even if you don’t fancy shopping and eating (are you still alive?), you can easily enjoy just wandering around the city. Being an architecture buff, I found the many architectural styles of Derby fascinating. It has spans the most of industrial history, from Georgian and Victorian grandeur through 30’s and 60’s modernism to recent new developments. Definitely visit Waterstones. It’s a glorious old building with loads of original features, with an amazing 30’s building opposite, currently housing spa. In most of the centre of the city I got to combine my love of shopping with sight seeing lovely buildings, especially in the side streets off St Peter’s Street. Check out Pictures of Derby to see what a treasure chest of buildings the city is. I’d also advise a walk down by the river. Romantic and beautiful.

If you haven’t been, I would advise you give Derby a try. I fell in love with the city after one day and know I want to go back, soon. I know it has a thriving arts scene for one thing, and I want to taste some of the creative offerings Derby has to offer, as well as it’s other delights.

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The "Social Model" strikes back!

Now I didn’t really want to write a yet another blog that is heavy on the disability issues agenda, but recently I’ve had a bit of access bother that really grinds my gears! I live in Camden Town and as everyone knows it is a shopping Mecca for those of us who like life on the alternative side. I first came to Camden from my home town of Luton back in 1983, and soon became a regular at the Camden Palace. and the Electric Ballroom There were always issues about enjoying Camden in a wheelchair. Whether it was crawling down stairs to get to the dance floor at the Palace, or fighting to go to the toilet in the Ballroom, it was always kind of do-able. But however hard it was to experience Camden in the 80’s, there were two things that made it bearable. One was that the rest of London was equally as bad, and the other was that things would obviously have to get better in the future.
So let’s leap forward in time 27 years, to today. While other areas of London, such as Islington, Covent Garden, The South Bank, Spitalfields, Kensington and pretty much the entire East End, have made steps towards building access into the environment, Camden seems to be going backwards. If I was to list the problems individually this blog would be a mile long, so instead let’s look at this in a more general fashion.
Where should I start? Well to get around a place you have to use the pavements. Paving in London is in a shocking condition, even in some of the areas listed above. Here in Camden the council have just re-paved Camden High Street, from outside the tube station (let’s not get started on accessible transport just now) right up to where it meets Chalk Farm Road, and there are plans to re-pave that part of Camden too. So wheeling on new paving should be like wheeling on glass (not broken of course). No chance! Large areas of the paving is concrete with slab pattern etched into it, which makes the surface bumpy. Even though it has only just been laid, it has already been dug up by a power company and they filled the holes with tarmac, that has sunk to cause great big holes that you hit in a wheelchair on pain of death. There are trees planted at regular intervals with huge areas of earth around them. These will turn into quagmires when it rains and will be equally dangerous to anyone with mobility issues. Then there are areas for delivery vans to park on that are paved with cobbles. COBBLES!
Cobbles in themselves have there own place in hell, and are the bane of anyone living in or visiting Camden in a wheelchair, pushing a pram or even wearing high heels. They are everywhere, and are even being promoted as a paving material by the council’s planning department. The Henson Building, a new housing development in my street, has been paved right up to the front door with cobbles, and not even well laid cobbles at that. So you’ve had it if you want to buy or rent a flat there and you are in a wheelchair. Huge areas of Camden have been paved in cobbles. Almost all the Stables Market, and the Dingwalls Market are cobbled as well as bits through out the borough. Now I’m currently advising the Stables Market’s owners on how to improve their access, but they informed me that they were told to lay cobbles during their re-development of the site by the council. Even if every cobble in Camden was lifted and re-laid and re-pointed so they are a level surface, they are just not suitable for high traffic areas. As the cobbles stand at the minute, with their uneven surface and massive gaps between them, there are places in Camden that are dangerous for Olympic athletes to get round, let alone those of us with mobility issues.
Lastly, so many of the shops, bars and restaurants in Camden have steps up to get into them. Not only that but some places have had their access made worse during recent re-furbishments. One bar on the High Street has had it’s disabled toilet turned into a cupboard, and a restaurant near my flat has had it’s level entrance replaced with steps. Has the council pointed out that this not only breaks the Disability Discrimination Act but also building regulations? Have these venues had their licenses revoked for barring disabled people? Of course not. This week I visited a cafe/bar that used to have a fantastic wooden ramp outside that was so good I used as an example of good practice to other businesses in the area, only to find the ramp had gone. When my wife asked the staff in the shop, she was told they had removed it after the council had told them they couldn’t leave it on the pavement, as it blocked foot traffic. To put it back the shop needed to apply for planning permission, even though it was a temporary ramp that was laid out when they opened and removed at closing time. If that is the case, why have so many places in the area got folding signs, with menus and “2 for 1” drinks offers advertised on them, outside on the pavement? They cause people to have to avoid them just as a ramp would. But then most places in Camden don’t even have a portable ramp that can be put out when needed, which is now required by law. Time and time again I get the “Huh?” response when I ask how I get into a shop or cafe.
I thought that council’s all understood the social model of disability, and how it is our environment creates our disabilities. So why is it that Camden council seems hell bent on making Camden less inclusive? Let’s face it, in less than two years time there is going to be a massive influx of disabled people into London, thanks to the 2012 Paralympics. Does the council want them to visit Camden and feel excluded due to the terrible access? Do they want disabled people from Third World countries to come here and think “Hey it’s a bit like the pavements back home”? Whatever the council think, it’s time that we disabled people say no more. So come on everyone, let’s stand up to this injustice and tell them we’re not going to take it sitting down any more! (wheelchair joke to end on!).

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