London Bridge, a grey atmospheric cloudy sky with sun breaking through.

A Blind American in London

My wife and I love to travel. We’re blessed to have the financial freedom to be able to do it, and her job working for American Airlines goes a long way towards making those travels happen. When we both have a week off, you can bet that we’re going to be on a plane heading somewhere.

Last month, we had one of those opportunities. In the past, we’ve gone to Dublin, Paris, and Barbados during our time off. This time around, we kicked around a few ideas, such as Tokyo and Buenos Aries before settling on going to London. It’s always been a destination high on both of our lists, so we decided to go for it.

We wound up staying in London for four nights, booking an AirBNB in a residential area about a half hour outside of central London. It was a one bedroom flat in what my wife said she thought was a mansion that had been turned into apartments. I think the best part of our stay may have been our roommate, Whisper.

A small black fluffy cat. The cat is sat down looking straight at the camera, a male hand pets the cat. Behind the cat is a fireplace decorated with ornaments.

I didn’t bring my guide dog, PJ, on the trip. I’m just not comfortable with making him spend that much time on a plane. Plus, he got a nice holiday getting to hang around the house with my mother-in-law and got a few days of just being a normal dog.

Wednesday: Landing in London

We landed at Heathrow about 2 PM after a roughly ten hour flight from Los Angeles. We managed to clear customs pretty quickly and made our way to the pickup area for Uber at Terminal 3. From there, it was about a 45-minute ride to our AirBNB. We got there, settled in a little bit, then walked to a pub and had fish and chips, as one does in London.

After dinner, we wound up heading to bed. We were both exhausted from traveling and we had an early morning coming.

Thursday: Bus Trip

My wife booked a bus trip to Windsor Palace, Stonehenge, and the Roman Baths for our first full day in England. We woke up early, got ready, and opted to get an Uber to Victoria Coach Station to make our 7:30 AM departure. We quickly found our bus and settled in. Our guide for the trip was an older Irish woman who really made the trip enjoyable. She had a great sense of humor and gave us a ton of information about the places we were going and what we drove by along the way.

Windsor Castle

Our first stop was Windsor Castle, and we were the first bus group of the day to get there. We quickly made it through security and walked over to St. George’s Chapel. Jen and I both love old churches, so we spent most of our time on the grounds there just exploring with the audio guides we were provided. I did get the chance to feel some of the wood carving in the chapel, and the amount of work that had to go into those carvings amazes me. We also walked through the State Apartments before picking up some sandwiches to eat on the bus.

Towers at Windsor Castle. The round crenelated turrets reach into the sky, with a round tower, and square building behind them. It's a sunny day with a blue sky

Stonehenge

Stonehenge. A light cloudy sky with peeks of blue coming through, the large monolith stones

We rode for about an hour and a half before we arrived at Stonehenge. Because Stonehenge doesn’t offer their own audio guides, the tour company distributed guides for us to use on the grounds, as well as maps. The players could play a certain piece of audio by running a part of the player over a number. This is hardly an accessible experience for someone in my shoes, but I didn’t mind since Jen was with me. When we got to the Stonehenge visitors center, we hopped on one of their shuttles up to see the stones and walked around for a little while. While up there, we struck up a conversation with a woman working security, who told us they had a few models in the visitors center that I could feel to get an idea for the layout of everything. We had a brief talk about their accessibility efforts and I mentioned my job working as an accessibility specialist for a college. She said she had an appreciation for the need in part because her mom is in a wheelchair. We did jokingly ask if I could touch one of the actual stones, and she responded by saying something along the lines of “Only if you want to be the first visually impaired person I’ve escorted off the hill.” We got a laugh out of that.

Justin leaning on an old stone, it's covered with white lichen. He wears jeans and sunglasses, leaning on the stone he smiles at the camera. Justin holds an american long white cane with the final segment in red.
Umm Justin looks like you got your hands on some of those stones!

When we rode back down to the visitors center, we went in search of the models, but didn’t quite make it. In the gift shop, however, we did find a few small models made out of porcelain (I think). I decided to grab one of the largest ones they offered for £20 (approximately $25). It’s on my desk at work to serve as an example of what can be done with tactile representations. Also, outside they had a full size representation of one of the stones made out of plastic, as well as smaller versions of both types of stones used at the site.

Roman Baths

From Stonehenge, we got back on the bus and went to Bath to tour the Roman Baths. The bus parked a couple blocks away and we walked over. We were given audio guides, and the staff there set mine up to provide extra description at some of the points along the way, sort of an audio description for the tour. I also was able to feel some of the carving here, and they had a few displays with some braille on them. When we were done with the tour, we walked around Bath for a little while and grabbed snacks for the roughly three hour bus ride back into London. My wife and I both dozed off for part of the drive back into town.

Roman Baths at Bath. Viewed from above, a large rectangular green pool, surrounded by a warm brown coloured stone colonnade. On top of the colonnade tourists look down into the pool.

Trying the Tube

When we got back to London, the bus stopped at a few different points where people could get off and go on their way. We got off at Victoria Station, the last stop they were making, and then decided to give the tube a shot for the first time

After I posted the above tweet, I got this wonderful response from Amy:

We wound up not opting for assistance, but the support was still reassuring. I used the Google Maps iPhone app to figure out the best route from Victoria station back to where we were staying, which was about a five minute walk from one of the stops on the Jubilee line. By the time we were heading home, the tube wasn’t very crowded and we had no issues getting back.

Friday: False Start

The next morning, we woke up and got ready, thinking it was the morning we had a descriptive tour booked at the Tower of London for 10 AM. The tour was one of the things that Amy had given me a heads up about when I’d told her we were coming to London. More info on the descriptive tour and their other services can be found on the Tower of London’s accessibility page.

It was a good thing that we’d done the tube for the first time the night before, because we wound up getting on it in the middle of rush hour this time around and it was crazy crowded. This was also my first experience with the people they have on the platforms making announcements during busy times in addition to the automated announcements. Some of them were… let’s say… interesting.

Amy would be glad to know that I was, on a few occasions during our tube adventures, offered a seat. I did decline the seats, however, as I don’t mind standing and my balance is still really good despite having almost no useful vision left. I always thanked them for the offer, though.

When we made it to the Tower Hill stop, we found our way out of the station. We had a little time to kill, so Jen grabbed a coffee just outside the station and we headed over to the Tower of London. We walked into the visitors center, introduced ourselves, and let them know we were there for a descriptive tour we’d booked by email. They seemed generally confused by this, and we were surprised. After some checking we discovered that the tour was actually scheduled for Saturday. Oops! We thanked them and told them we’d see them again tomorrow.

Taking a stroll

From there, we walked over to one of the hop on hop off busses. Jen had bought a two-day pass with one of the companies, and jumped on. We rode around for a little while, listening to the audio while riding, and got off at Buckingham Palace on a whim. I think we got there around the time of the changing of the guard, as it was really crowded. We made our way through the crowds and then took a stroll through St. James’ Park. Jen described some of the sights to me, including a yellow lab puppy that was terrorizing some ducks. We found a stand in the park and Jen got another coffee and I got a hot chocolate. We drank those, then continued our walk through the park.

About the time we finished our walk in the park, we were starting to get hungry. We walked around the surrounding area until we found a pub. I ordered a chicken and mushroom pie and Jen ordered fish and chips. The chicken and mushroom pie, served with sautéed green beans and mashed potatoes, was absolutely delicious. I know people complain that the Brits cooking is bland, but I’m a sucker for comfort food and the Brits do it very well.

Westminster Abbey

After lunch, we decided to walk over to Westminster Abbey. We managed to get there about 15 minutes before a guided tour of the Abbey was starting, so we opted to pay the extra £5 each to do the 90-minute tour. The tour, led by one of the vergers, was well worth the money. Our verger took extra care to be a little more descriptive than usual regarding things we encountered, and even allowed me to touch some of the things, such as the tombs, that they normally don’t allow people to touch. Again, it was really cool to be able to feel the intricacy of some of the work done there. Even without the extra description and being able to touch things, just the amount of knowledge the verger was able to share with us during our tour of the Abbey was amazing and well worth the price of admission.

A striking photo of Westminster Abbey. The front of the Abbey with it's ornate round windows, carved columns and pillars, arches and spires loom over the photo. Taken from underneath a tree a few leafy branches frame the picture echoing the architecture. A grey blue sky rises behind.

By the time we were finished in the Abbey, we were both starting to get tired and sore so we opted to head back to our AirBNB. We spent some time unwinding and giving Whisper all the attention she wanted, then called it a night.

Saturday: A Good Day

Saturday morning, we woke up about the same time and got ready for our day. We left a little earlier, so we decided to grab breakfast at a little place right outside the tube station. We both had omelets that were pretty tasty. We then hopped on the tube to begin the same trip we had made the morning before. This time around, the trip was way less crowded since it wasn’t a workday.

Tower of London Descriptive Tour

We arrived at the Tower a few minutes early and met our guide for the first part of the tour, the jewel house, in the visitors center. She told us that the other couple doing a descriptive tour was already inside and we’d meet them there. As we were walking to the jewel house, she talked a little bit about the history of the Tower of London and described some of the features we were walking by. When we entered the vault, she explained the history of the vault, including that the Olympic medals had been kept there when London hosted the 2012 games. When we came to the vault doors, she told us how heavy the doors were and allowed us to feel the thickness of the door and the size of the deadbolts, as well as the thickness of the surrounding wall.

She described many of the pieces on display and their history, which I found fascinating. While we weren’t able to touch the jewels themselves, they did have representations of some of the pieces that we were able to feel. Our guide, one at a time, would gently take our hands and guide them on the representations so we knew which parts of the pieces she was referring to as she described them. I couldn’t believe I found the jewels as interesting as I did, but I think how this part of the tour was done made it for me.

When we were finished with the jewels, we were handed off to another gentleman for our tour of the White Tower. When we went inside, he described some of the pieces of armor and weaponry on display, including cannons and swords. We were able to touch one of the pieces of armor, which turned out to be way thicker than I would have expected, as well as one of the cannons and some of the cannonballs. Again, our guide was very informative and patient and did a great job showing us around.

That was the end of the descriptive tour, but we were free to explore the rest of the grounds. We went through the bloody tower and one of the other ones, though I forget which.

An atmospheric photo of the tower of london. The complex of the palace is grey and shadowy, with different buildings, towers, turrets and spires rising above the thick wall. A watery pale winter sun hovers above the towers with thin veils of grey and white cloud misting over the blue skies. The photos is taken from a distance, with a low wall visible in the foreground.

I found that getting around some of the areas there was a challenge because of the steep and/or narrow steps, low doorways, etc., but I’d suspect that anybody with my level of vision loss would find that challenging. My wife and I had been debating if I’d have trouble with getting around some places in Egypt and Jordan, where we’d been considering going for a 12-night guided trip next year, and I think that experience convinced us that the places there, which would probably be even more challenging, might be too much for me.

British Museum

When we finished in the Tower of London, we walked to the hop on hop off bus and rode around for a little while, connecting to one of the other lines until we got to the British Museum. When we walked in there, I could immediately get a sense for how big the place is and we knew we could probably spend days in there trying to see everything. We went through the Egypt section, then decided we’d head back to the AirBNB to relax for a little while before our evening plans. I think we’ll probably dedicate a whole day to the museum whenever we come back.

Dinner With Some Special People

After kicking back and taking a quick nap, we departed on the tube again for our dinner plans, curry and drinks with Amy, her Other Half, and Charlotte. We met at the restaurant around 7 and settled in for tasty food and amazing conversation. We swapped stories. We laughed. We got to know each other so much better. Then came the bill and the one thing I was hoping to avoid: the debate about who’s paying for dinner. Jen and I had discussed it beforehand and planned on buying dinner and I wasn’t going to let anything different happen, so I threatened to take all my clothes off and run around the restaurant naked if they didn’t let us pay. That worked as well as it did when my cousin dropped that line at a family dinner ten years ago, though Amy and her OH did insist on buying drinks at the pub we were heading to afterwards. I could live with that.

We all walked over to the pub after we settled up, grabbed a table, and Amy’s OH put in our drink orders. We chatted for a while longer and Layla, Charlotte’s guide dog, wandered over to me under the table, sniffed my shoes for a while, and then insisted on some ear scratches I gladly provided. After what seemed like not nearly enough time, we walked over to the tube station together, but not before snapping this picture outside the pub:

The three amigos! On the left Charlotte with her light blonde hair holding onto Layla's harness. Layla is a black lab retriever cross. In the middle Amy with her light pink hair, green coat and holding a long white cane with rollerball tip. On the right justin, smiling wearing sunglasses and holding

When we were in the tube station, the goodbyes began. Amy and her O were heading a different direction than Charlotte, Jen, and I, so the first round of goodbyes and hugs were exchanged. The three of us that were left (four if you count Layla) then headed to the platform for the train we were catching, since we were all connecting to the Jubilee line.

When we got to the transfer station, we all walked to the platform for our onward trains, though we’d thought we lost Charlotte for a minute when we headed up the stairs and she and Layla went up the lift. We were quickly reunited once we got upstairs and walked over to the other platform and headed down the elevator. Since we were heading in different directions, we said our goodbyes and exchanged our hugs there.

I’ve always heard people say stuff along the lines of “never meet your heroes, they’re sure to disappoint you.” Well, that night I met two of mine and found that it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Amy and I have been following each other on Twitter for at least a year now. Before then, I just thought of myself as a normal guy who happened to be blind. I wasn’t involved with blindness or disability Twitter at all, and didn’t go out of my way to do anything blindness-related. Amy’s passion for advocacy inspired me to re-evaluate my own attitudes towards my blindness and all things disability. Additionally, the people I’ve met through her (like Charlotte) are an amazing group of people I’ve come to admire. We all have our struggles at times and none of us are perfect, but the community I’ve found consists of the most supportive, amazing folks I’ve encountered in my entire life. We celebrate each other’s successes, give each other shoulders to cry on, and lift each other up when we need that extra bit of support. I wouldn’t give up the friendships I’ve made because of Amy for anything.

Heading Home

I’m not sure what time it was, but when we got back to our AirBNB, I crashed out. We woke up in the morning, packed up our stuff, said goodbye to Whisper, and caught an Uber back to Heathrow. We went through security, grabbed breakfast in the Admirals Club, and then headed to the gate for our flight to Dallas, where we’d catch a connecting flight back to Phoenix.

Conclusion

This entire trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Having the opportunity to go to a place with so much history and soak it all in was just amazing. Getting to break bread with people I admire and respect may have been even better.

There’s just something about London that’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I remember an article Amy shared on Twitter a while back written by a blind person talking about how much things like the sounds and smells of London meant to them. I wish I could find that article and link to it, but that article stuck in my mind, and was something I wanted to experience. I completely understand the sentiment now. There’s just something special about London that’s so different from anywhere else I’ve ever been. Jen and I are already discussing taking a trip back next year just because there’s so much more to see, do, and experience.

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