Another delight in spending winter in Paris is how much there is to do and see around this great city. Including taking a few hours on the train to visit London.
Paris to London via Eurostar (Gare du Nord to St Pancras stations) is just under 500 kilometres (just over 300 miles) taking two hours fifteen minutes. It would take almost six hours by car.
Eurostar is absolutely our favourite way to travel (outside our own barge!): incredibly efficient in use of our time, good space on board, excellent service at all stages with good ramps on and off. Stewart has asked them many times, “when are your extending your service to Australia”.. needless to say he gets a rather blank look.
The last time we stayed in London was the year our boat was built, in 2008, when we moored at Limehouse marina over Christmas 2008 and New Year 2009. We loved the Limehouse area but found the many cobbled roads, the buses with automatic ramps (for the wheelchair) often didn’t work, and it was a big sprawling city compared with Paris making it difficult to get around.
This time, we were staying at Westminster in a hotel (the Doubletree by Hilton) that promised to be very wheelchair friendly, given they promote it as such and have 23 ‘wheelchair accessible’ rooms. There must be one that would suit us. In fact, they were all identical so when we found we had a tiny room with tiny bathroom and on their own admission, much of it non-compliant, we were extremely disappointed. We had a battle on our hands to get the toilet seat raiser fitted, which we’d purchased ourselves knowing the hotel loo would be way too low down. In the end they reluctantly sent up a roll of gaffa tape so we could ‘fix it’ ourselves.. they didn’t want to do this because they may have been liable if we injured ourselves! Never mind, somehow Stewart coped; we knew most hotels would be similar and it would have been a huge upheaval to find another one.
We were here in London to enjoy ourselves .. and wow, did that happen! Westminster is a fabulous location, we could walk to many of the places we had on our list, every taxi was accessible so we could hail one just like everyone else, and the buses were accessible with the automatic ramps now modernised (although we didn’t have a need to try them this time). Also, this area of London didn’t include as many cobbles as the Limehouse roads!
The fun started soon after the disappointment with our hotel when we took a taxi to the Royal Albert Hall for our first concert: Ron Sexsmith, a Canadian folk singer-songwriter. We’ve enjoyed his music for many years but it seems not many know about him as the vast Albert Hall was only 50% full, a challenge for the organisers. We were invited (or in fact directed) to take seats closer to the stage although with wheelchair access it meant a limited choice but we ended up with a great position. When Stewart booked the tickets he also booked pre-concert dinner at one of their restaurants. A few days later he was contacted telling him they had to use this venue (the Restaurant) for a Gypsy Jazz performance so would we please choose another restaurant. This we did, and at the same time Stewart decided the Jazz would be a great idea too. Logistically a little tricky, we had to duck out of the Ron Sexsmith show just before the end to be five minutes late for the Gypsy Jazz, by then getting on for 11.00pm.
What a contrast, folk and then jazz with The Robin Nolan Trio, led by Robin Nolan based in Amsterdam. That was a brilliant first night in London!
The next day, in the rain (relatively light) we headed off to the British Museum on foot and as we passed Westminster Abbey and the very long queue of bedraggled people we paused and wondered if we should go in. Too wet and cold we thought. But as we passed further along we could see a sign with a wheelchair logo on it. As we approached this sign the ‘traffic’ handler (security) abruptly stuck his hand up to the people finally entering the Abbey and told them to wait as he unhooked the barrier rope and waved us through. We weren’t sure we wanted to go inside but were sort-of directed there. The cashier happily helped us to the next door and when asked how much (we could see the sign Adults: £18 Concession £15), nothing we were told.
Westminster Abbey is crammed full of amazing sculptures (memorials), all dedicated to one incredibly ancient and significant person or another, starting with Edward the Confessor in 1066. William the Conqueror (later in 1066) became the first monarch to be crowned at the Abbey creating a tradition which continues today. Many people will be familiar with Poet’s Corner which started back in 1400 when Chaucer was buried there.
The Abbey is a Royal Peculiar, a place of worship that falls directly under the jurisdiction of the British monarch, rather than under a bishop. The concept dates from Anglo-Saxon times, when a church could ally itself with the monarch and therefore not be subject to the bishop of the area and were not abolished in the English Reformation. Wikipedia tells more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Peculiar
Touring the Abbey (with audio guide) was fantastic, although a bit exhausting, and the day hadn’t really started yet. We were aiming to get to the British Museum for the ‘Ice Age Art’ (10,000 to 40,000 years ago ) exhibition showing art created tens of thousands of years ago alongside modern works by Henry Moore, Mondrian and Matisse who were influenced or certainly fascinated by them.
We had to wait until late in the day to see this exhibition (we should have bought tickets beforehand) so we picked out a few “Not to be Missed” objects placed throughout this huge museum, such as the Parthenon Sculptures, the Rosetta Stone and the Lewis Chessmen.
Our timing was perfect. As soon as we’d feasted ourselves on our tour and absorbed ourselves in the Ice Age Art, we hopped into a taxi arriving at the Gielgud Theatre in good time for the fantastic play, The Audience. After a day of seriously interesting history and art, we could sit back and relax. The Audience (with Helen Mirren, Edward Fox, Richard McCabe and other highly acclaimed actors) was well publicised before we left Paris and luckily Stewart managed to book tickets. It tells the story (imagined) of Queen Elizabeth II’s audiences with eight of the twelve Prime Ministers of her long reign of the past 60 years. We loved the wit, pace and excellent acting; the reviewers loved it too and probably it’s heading for a sell-out season: http://www.theaudienceplay.com/home/.
We were almost exhausted but were little over half-way through our long weekend. Saturday was go slow, with a matinée performance of Old Times by Harold Pinter (at the Pinter Theatre), http://www.oldtimestheplay.com/. Thank goodness we had heaps of time to absorb the words, performances and atmosphere of this quite complex play, which also received rave reviews.
Getting into the wheelchair accessible section of the Pinter theatre was a very interesting exercise. When the doors were opened and we looked at where we thought Stewart’s power wheelchair would enter all we could see were steep steps leading down to rows of seats.
Then our ‘fire warden’ (as he was named by the ushers), who was the one given the task of putting down a ramp to help us enter the building, stepped up to us, put his hand up to stop everyone trying to enter the theatre and pulled out a huge aluminium sheet with a curved edge to it. This he placed over the first few steps to allow Stewart to very carefully turn his chair and position it into the back row of the theatre. We have never seen a system quite like it (custom-made) but at least it meant we could see this great play.
We finished our London visit with family and friends. Brother Dean, nephew Ben and Nicky, joined us at the nearby White Swan for long chats and celebrations: Ben and Nicky have their first baby on its way, due in September. And we met up with our friend Kate at the Tate Britain (next door to the hotel) and could take one last art exhibition. Then back onto the excellent Eurostar and Paris by the afternoon. Where we found, to our shock, deep snow.
A hectic and wonderful time in London – we feel more positive about that great city than ever before and would happily revisit. Although we’d keep the schedule slightly more laid back, perhaps!
That was a few weeks ago now .. the snow has melted and we’re about to leave Paris.