Sunday, 26 June 2011

Umbrellas, down the River Thames, Greenwich Fair (GDIF)

The National Gallery featured The Umbrellas by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (about 1881-6, oil on canvas).  This painting is quite famous, but I hadn’t been aware that it spends 6 years in London, then 6 years in Dublin as part of a legacy settlement.  The National Gallery holds its “Arts Through Words” talks for the visually impaired on the last Saturday of the month.  There were about 30 people there with a speaker and two helpers from the gallery.  There are a lot of different shades of blue in this painting and some yellow and red, so I was able to make out some of the detail and also the perspective lines in the painting.  A really nice touch by the National Gallery was a clump of brightly coloured umbrellas which I picked up on my peripheral vision.  Some people had travelled quite far to be there and I remember some from last month.  We were all able to chat with the gallery staff and each other and compare notes about what we could make out.  I think we decided that the lady’s basket or hat case was empty!  There was also the mystery of an extra shoe or foot in the painting and I couldn’t resist telling the story of the origin of “it will cost you an arm and a leg” – said to have been employed by portrait painters when painting their subjects: arms and hands were extra, as it involves a lot of skill and time!  (I heard this story at the Georgian House in Edinburgh.)

On leaving the Trafalgar Square area, I headed for the Embankment and got on one of Thames Clippers to Greenwich Pier.  This time I sat on the right - I suppose I ought to say starboard - side of the boat and had another view of the right bank.  I could make out the London Eye, the South Bank Centre, a huge skyscraper known as The Shard (I noticed this from travelling by train from Charing Cross)and Tate Modern.  Bridges are familiar as the boat follows the Thames down river.  After Tower Bridge, the boat speeds up and it wasn’t long before I was at Greenwich Pier.  Thames Clippers staff were all very helpful and though the boat was quite busy, there is no need to feel intimidated by other passengers, as it is quite orderly. 

On disembarking at Greenwich (the tide was out, so it seemed quite steep going up the ramp), I took a left turn by a massive building site and found myself in the Greenwich Docklands International Festival (GDIF) or Greenwich Fair as it was known.  There was something for everyone here and it started at one of the security stewards who briefly went through: what was going on; what might be of interest, did I like music, theatre, acrobats etc. 

There was quite a large crowd gathered at what turned out to be a high-wire act called Heartland presented by Candoco Dance Company in collaboration with Scarabeus and Nicky Singer.  (This information has been taken from the programme.)  A pleasant surprise was one of the stewards explaining to me what was going on.  Dance is one of the least accessible performing arts for the blind and it was encouraging that another person could explain what was going on.  The lighting was quite good, a bit of blue sky, the Royal Naval College, the King Charles Lawn and a line of trees.  I could just about make out the domed frame and the movement of the performers, which obviously defied my sense of gravity. 

Timing at these events is fairly critical and a performance by Nutkhut of Bespoke was about to take place.  I wandered onto another lawn and a few minutes later the stage manager of Nutkhut came up to me and warned me that I was heading into their drama if I wasn’t careful.  We chatted briefly about their show, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  It’s very slick, a lot of movement, and didn’t appear to be amplified, which says a lot about their voice projection as I could make out all the jokes, even though the odd plane went overhead and other street theatre was quite audible.  A very nice 20 minutes or so and when I took my programme and asked about Bespoke giving the time, the name of the company popped up and I was able to tweet them my comments.  They’re going to be appearing in Stockton before going to Edinburgh and they’ve asked if they ought to include a podcast on their website.  I think this is very encouraging.  ( and @nutkhutuk on Twitter)

The Greenwich Fair was a really fun mid-afternoon visit and a big thank you to all the above and as usual to the DLR and London Underground for getting me home.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Train trip to Horsham

There is roughly 1 train per hour which goes to Horsham via Dorking and this line is particularly attractive from Leatherhead South.  There are stops at Box Hill and Dorking, and from memory both are worth a visit, though you will have to be fit to climb Box Hill.  I didn’t!  I did stay on the train to Horsham and worked out the layout of the station before returning the same way.  Trains usually go through Horsham via Gatwick Airport and not being a plane spotter or a fan of travellers and their suitcases, this is a nicer way to get to parts of the prettier towns of Surrey and Sussex.  I’ve already done the pleasant cross country journey from Redhill to Tonbridge, and Tonbridge is well-worth a visit on a day trip basis.  To get to either Dorking or Horsham, you can use your Freedom Pass as far as Ewell East and get a ticket to Horsham which will be marked via Dorking.  If you want to do a circular trip, you can get a Boundary Zone 6 ticket to Horsham and return via Crawley and Gatwick Airport – though this is really just airport and urban sprawl and not particularly scenic.  The Dorking to Horsham service is hourly, the station staff at Horsham and Sutton are particularly helpful and the Southern trains have automatic announcements in intelligible English and as trains are frequently coupled and de-coupled, do not be alarmed to find yourself in the fifth carriage when you started out in the first! 

Price of tickets:   Ewell East:to Horsham  £ 6.45 with a railcard.  It is always worth asking for a cheap day ticket as there may be off peak fares which are not picked by the National Rail Fare computer. Also check for local promotions and let me know. I am intending to describe both useful and nonsense ‘signposts’ when out and about.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Arcola Theatre: Hertford Castle – trips by train.

On a visit to the British Library I joined a discussion at a Growing Knowledge presentation.  The theme of the series is serendipity and the British Library has a visionary look at the future (excuse the tautology) and a historian’s view of previous serendipity.  I heard about ‘crowd sourcing’ and ‘crowd verification’.  I think as a blind person we might have a different aspect on crowd verification.  One train conductor told me to triple check platform announcements and timings and if you’re not sighted you may find yourself being triangulated away from the truth by what is technically known as a ‘duff’ piece if information. 

Serendipity # 1

Arcola theatre – The Seagull by Chekhov 18th June

The Arcola Theatre is located very near two London Overground stations: Dalston Kingsland and Dalston Junction.  There are pedestrian crossings near each station and the accessibility at Dalston Junction is excellent.  Accessibility on the Overground has been improved. 

I went to a matinee of The Seagull by Chekhov.  There are concessions and this applies to someone going with you as well.  The performance cost £11 per seat (reduced from £17).

I mentioned Chekhov in a previous post in connection with The Cherry Orchard, which I am going to see at the National Theatre next month (with touch tour and audio description).  I had a seat right at the front of the Arcola Theatre and there is virtually 180 degree audio sound from left ear to right ear, and a ‘balcony’ vignette, so there is above the sound line ‘noises’ and a dramatic finale which I will not spoil. 

This is a superb production and you almost feel as if you’re included in the drama.  The plot is complex with a play within a play and some ‘lampooning’ of actors and the performance is really slick.  There is a lot of material about the production on the Arcola Theatre website and reviews of this production are also available.

I would certainly recommend that anyone within striking distance of the London Overground, i.e. from Clapham Junction, Richmond, Watford, Barking and West Croydon (sorry if I’ve left someone out) could feel safe in attending this excellent production.  Yes – I forgot Stratford! 

The theatre crew are very welcoming and though I went with a friend I would feel safe going back there on my own. 

Serendipity # 2

Hertford – afternoon trip by train

A trip I can remember taking when I was sighted was to Hertford East from Liverpool St returning from Hertford North to Kings Cross.  The geographers among you will note that this is anti-clockwise and there is probably a good reason for doing it this way.  I hadn’t been to Liverpool St since I lost my sight and I went there on my own, having intended to go to Whitechapel but changed my mind. 

The station concourse at Liverpool St is a bit of an obstacle course with many international passengers heading to Stansted Airport.  There is quite a large ticket office with a ‘maze’ entry system, which you might have to navigate your way round.  The staff were friendly and I got a ticket from Boundary Zone 6 to Hertford stations - £3.30 with a Freedom Pass plus a Disability Railcard.  This means you can go into one station and visit most of the town centre and leave from another station. 

Hertford East has a helpful ticket office and a helpful member of staff, so I got directions to the town centre.  I found the museum, though it was closed.  I had a coffee and got directions to Hertford Castle, which was having an Open Day.  This was a real treat and I was taken round the castle, which has a long history.  There is a video with an excellent soundtrack outlining the story of the castle through the ages until it was presented by the Cecil family to the town in 1912.  (I think) 

The Friends of Hertford Castle were very enthusiastic and they were all informative and there is quite a lot of interest to those with limited sight.  Ask to experience the herring bone brickwork in the Council Chamber and a five-pointed star (you have to negotiate a spiral staircase, which is fun) and there are also other rooms on show and a trip to the cellars.  During the Open Day I met some of the staff from the Tourist Office and they have a nice selection of souvenirs, and I bought a couple of books – though I’m not sure when I’ll get them read. 

The castle is in a beautiful park and the town itself is fairly compact with good pedestrian access and tactile crossings.  Directions to ask are the following landmarks which might be useful in planning your visit and finding your way round: museum, castle, Hertford Theatre, Hertford North and Hertford Hospital.  Everyone I asked was happy to help, including the lady in a clothes shop when I got lost.  People are really helpful in shops if you head for the till. 

One of the friends of Hertford Castle is a fellow ‘railway enthusiast’ and I managed to share tales of the London Overground with Alan - a big thank you for taking me and telling me about the way to Hertford North.

Tip: There are stairs at Hertford North and the service is run by First Capital Connect (minimal announcements).  If you exit at Kings Cross, I would follow the flow to the ticket barrier and turn right heading for St Pancras.  There is too much construction at Kings Cross and if you’re concerned about the stairs, it is flat from Hertford East – though you might have to negotiate Liverpool St. 

For railway enthusiasts this is a tale of three termini and two Hertford stations.  Hertford is one of those towns near London which is relatively easy to get to in the same way that St Albans and Tonbridge are.  You can go one route and come back another, and Hertford is also accessible from Seven Sisters and Finsbury Park with other connections to London Underground.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Wallace Collection and some more trainspotting

Last week I went to a short talk at the National Gallery with visits to six landscapes.  I couldn’t make out anything on the Sisley painting, but could make out quite a lot on a painting by Peter Paul Ruben’s called Het Steen.  The partner of this painting (The Rainbow) is in the Wallace Collection.  Sadly I had never been to the Wallace Collection when I was sighted, but there was something in the Ruben’s painting that made me want to see The Rainbow.  So I went! 

I got off a bus at Portman Square, where some kind people took me to Manchester Sq and I entered the Wallace Collection and realised that many years ago I had walked past it, and in fact had driven round it.  I mentioned Rubens 'The Rainbow Landscape' and the man at the desk told me where it was.  Someone else offered to take me in the lift, but I wanted to try the stairs to make out the 2 paintings on the landing by Boucher.  I couldn’t make out much walking up the stairs. 

I had clear directions and found myself in the Great Hall (I think).  I approached one of the guards, who took me to the Ruben’s and we chatted about it and then I was more or less taken round the room and saw a Poussin, a Gainsborough, The Laughing Cavalier, a Titian and a lot of paintings that I'd heard about but obviously had never seen in the flesh.  (The Wallace Collection does not travel.) 

The guard (Bill) turned out to be a real gem, with amazing detailed knowledge on the paintings.  I commented that some paintings of the sailing ships reminded me of Turner and we had a pleasant chat about landscapes, portraits and what colours I could make out.  I then worked my way back and asked a guard in another room about some paintings - I think it was by someone called Bonington. 

More sailing ships and he in turn took me to see what I could make out from a couple of Della Croix.  I then went back to the landing, where I spoke to another guard about the Boucher paintings viewed from the landing itself, but I still couldn't make out anything!  I was then taken down in the lift to the Canalettos.  I saw the Venice:the Bacino di san Marco, then had a quick bite in the garden restaurant before browsing in the shop, where I got some postcards. Finally, I was taken outside and given directions to the Wigmore Hall, which I managed to find! 

I found the visit to the Wallace Collection very encouraging and though the Collection may appear to be 'cluttered' with furniture, I didn't find it at all intimidating and the Collection is one that I would happily drop in and spend an hour or two on my own as I did today.  All the staff and guards were extremely helpful.

Visiting art galleries might explain why I enjoy sitting on a train going through the countryside, with my peripheral vision picking up the railway tracks, the sky and the landscape as it changes.  Many artists can produce a trompe l’oeil or ‘deceiving the eye’; in my case, the peripheral vision picks up the perspective, though of course I don’t see anything if I look at the object itself.  Some people with central vision sight loss can use their peripheral vision in a form of reading known as eccentric reading.  To give you an idea of how much peripheral vision I have, I know that road markings have either look left or look right, but I can only sense these road markings when  ‘looking’ straight ahead.  A trip on the train, facing the engine, sitting on the right side frames a landscape with the other tracks and the odd chimney or pylon helps to frame the landscape in much the same way as a sailing ship would figure in a seascape. 

Short trips by train (Freedom Pass plus Railcard):

London Boundary zone 6 to Tonbridge - £4.30
Watford Junction to Bedford - £12.20
Amersham to Aylesbury - £5.70
Aylesbury to Princes Risborough - £3.05

All the above trips were done connecting through parts of the London Underground and London Overground network, with London Midland, Southern Railways and Chiltern Railways.  No problems at all! 

As always, many thanks to the railway staff at Harrow-on-the-Hill, Amersham and Aylesbury stations. 

Tip:  If travelling north, get any Metropolitan Line train at Finchley Road if you’ve connected on the Jubilee Line and change again at Harrow-on-the-Hill – but ask, as old Metropolitan trains make few announcements.  The new trains are excellent. 

Friday, 10 June 2011

South of the River

To many people living in London, the River Thames is a frontier between north London and south London.  Paris might have ‘rive gauche’ (left bank and right bank); in London, however, the River is treated as a straight east-west axis, though of course it meanders through the city with some parts of south London being further north than parts of north London.  Many people who live in London describe crossing the river as a visit to another world and it’s almost like crossing the River Styx.  Luckily the modern day Charons offer return trips, so it’s not all a case of Orpheus and Eurydice.

I referred in a previous post to a trip on the River on Thames Clippers.  If you have a Freedom Pass, check for discounts.  Crossing the river by bridge is also interesting as there are several road and rail bridges across it and you can get a good idea of the Thames as an artery when the tide is in and a bit of a mess when the tide is out.  If you have a hat, hold on to it as the bridges can be very windy and Waterloo Bridge in particular can make you feel very cold and exposed – and it is a lot longer than it might appear.  Hungerford Bridge used to be an assault course, but in its modern state, together with the South Bank developments, means it is much more accessible.

I made my first solo trip on Tuesday across the bridge from Charing Cross underground station.  You can get off at the Embankment, but I know my way out of Charing Cross on my own though always ask for help in getting back into the underground system.  The bridge is a pleasant walk and will lead you over to the South Bank, which is celebrating 60 years since the Festival of Britain in 1951. 

I wanted to find my way into the Royal Festival Hall (RFH) and had completely forgotten how to get in.  In these circumstances you can usually find a restaurant or a shop and if you hear the sound of money, you can be sure that someone will be able to direct you.  In my case it was the bookshop and through a few questions of the ‘where is the box office’ variety, I found myself at the said box office, where on a whim I got a ticket for Tuesday night’s performance by the Royal Philharmonic with Charles Dutoit conducting and Nikolai Lugansky (piano) with a programme of:  Berlioz/Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. 

The box office staff were extremely helpful and checked my requirements including that of the dog with their accessibility database.  The concession is a half price ticket and one for a guest at the same price.  So, two of us went to a programme which ought to have included Martha Argerich, but she had cancelled.  Incidentally, the concert was broadcast on Radio 3.  There is only one box office on level 2 of the RFH, and the staff generally are very helpful and will guide you to your seat.  If you’re meeting someone, there are tables and chairs and comfortable sofas near the box office and it is good as a rendezvous point (if you haven’t got a Smartphone).

After having booked a ticket, I decided to explore the South Bank and was attracted by a lot of bright yellow, which is one of the few colours I can make out reliably.  There is a lot going on here and the site is currently laid out resembling a beach or lido with deck chairs, beach huts and boating exhibitions. 

I managed to find the National Theatre, entered it and gravitated towards the box office.  Again, they were very helpful, put me on their accessibility list and, once again, inquired about the dog.  I was also told about the current programme and told them that with the help of a friend I had booked into a touch tour and performance of The Cherry Orchard by Chekov. 

This news was of interest to someone else, who told me that Chekov had written precise instructions regarding stage direction and props, and that most productions of Chekov, wherever performed, tended to adhere to the playwright’s directions.  This was news to me, though I can remember seeing The Cherry Orchard at Edinburgh many years ago.  

A couple of transport comments: 

Accessibility for wheelchairs is not something I have commented on and is beyond my competence.  Obviously, access at some stations is restricted, though ramps and lifts have been installed at many stations.  I’ve recently been changing trains in East Croydon, Watford Junction, Bletchley and have been to Bedford, Tonbridge and St Albans Abbey on research.  There are no staff at St Albans Abbey station, but it does provide easier access to the Verulamium.  Unfortunately, it was a rainy day when I went and though I did find the Verulamium, I should have taken a waterproof reel of cotton with me.  It was Theseus without Ariadne, though I think I could just about manage to retrace my way on a good day. 

Some of the junctions I’ve mentioned can be useful as interchange rather than using the London termini, though a word of warning on some First Capital Connect services – there are often no announcements on the train so you may have to ask ‘where are we’.  I would advise that you check in with the station staff if using this line as the timetable is also more complex than it would appear.  Service on Southern Southeastern and London Midland, on the other hand, have regular announcements if not automatic ones, and the railway staff are obvious.  

As mentioned before, there is a lot of construction work on Thameslink services.

London Overground : services are frequent, there are announcements and the station staff have always been a useful source of information on tickets beyond the London zonal system, as well as arranging for onward help at Watford Junction (staff there also extremely helpful).  Remember, your Freedom Pass will take you to Watford Junction so you can buy a ticket for beyond, if you feel adventurous! 

A Couple of RNIB Campaigns

A recent visit to the RNIB, a few emails and a phone call have given some of the details on the RNIB activities in terms of campaigns for access to reading, library facilities.  These can be followed on RNIB sites  and I am just consolidating some links and contacts in a separate post for any one who is interested in these campaigns.  The information given below has been kindly provided by the RNIB.  

To be honest, listening to websites all day long is not a lot of fun, so a volunteer has consolidated the links on the one page.  For the benefit of those using a screen reader, the links are listed in full so that you will hear where you are going on the web.  If  you are sighted and viewing this ‘we’re sorry about our appearance’, but this is what we have to listen to’ and for academic purposes one should of course, give the full citation and reference!
Books Beyond Borders

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) conference will be discussing intellectual property and copyright issues.  You can find out more on

The RNIB has a team there which will be campaigning for the European position of ‘books without borders’.

Make a Noise in Libraries Fortnight

This started on the 6th of June and runs till 19 June. The RNIB have issued a list of what they would like supporters to do, as follows:

1.       Contact your local library. You can do this by phone or by calling in, it's up to you. Find out whether they offer an ebook service and what you have to do to join.

2.       If your library does not offer ebooks, ask if they have any plans to do so and let RNIB know what they say.

3.       If your library does offer ebooks, please join up and provide feedback on all or some of the following areas:

- How easy was it to join? Were the staff helpful and supportive?
- Does your library offer ebooks in audio, text or both?
- Log-in process
- Searching for books and choosing what to read
- Downloading a book
- Reading the book. Tell RNIB about your experience. For example, did you read it on your PC or did you download it onto other devices?  If you downloaded the book to your PC at home, did it work with your access technology?
- Please add any other comments or observations that you would like to share.

You can find out more about Make a Noise in Libraries Fortnight, including a list of events taking place, at

For more information you can also contact: Megan Gilks on 0161 355 2080 or email

Friday, 3 June 2011

National Gallery, British Library: positive about inclusion

In my first post I reported how thrilled I was with the National Gallery’s attitude towards people with disabilities.  In the last few weeks, I have spoken to people within visually impaired charities and the arts world, and while many of them thought the offer of assistance in bringing food to a table was a gold standard, they’ve all been pleasantly surprised by the coffee cup size option.  I had said at the outset that the National Gallery was totally unfazed by my walking in off the street and asking about viewing a Canaletto painting I had seen in the past. 

The National Gallery runs a programme on the last Saturday of the month called “Arts Through Words”. (  I had been to this in the past and enjoyed it, though it’s often difficult to keep your dates and diary up to date and occasionally one forgets what day of the week it is.  I made an effort to get to the discussion on 28th May and a friend came with me.  There were about 30 people at the meeting including some tourists.  Two of the staff were on hand and the discussion was based on William Hogarth’s Marriage a la mode.
As is the case of many ‘blind groups’ the meeting starts with those present introducing themselves so that one put a name to the voice!  A reproduction of the painting is provided along with some enlargements of details.  The presentation is interactive and positive, and a wide mix of attendees provided interesting contributions on the mores of the time.  (c1740s)  The characters and features in the painting are described in relation to the background to the work, the artist, and the setting.  After the discussion we were encouraged and guided to the actual painting which is part of a series. 

This is where the WOW factor really came in for me.  There was a spectrum of people with little or no vision and when we were ‘looking’ at the painting in the setting of the gallery, one felt as if one was an art critic for a newspaper!  It’s amazing how much more one can make out if you’re guided there.  This is one event which I have recommended to friends and in fact it was a coincidence that a member from one of my local blind group was also there. 

British Library (

The British Library is another part of British culture andlike the National Gallery is fully inclusive. It’s located next to St Pancras railway station and is not far from  the RNIB in Judd St.  On a nice day, the coffee shops are attractive and there are usually events going on which can be enjoyed on one’s own or with friends.  I have gone into the British Library on my own from time to time and whether one wants just to investigate the Magna Carta or some of the permanent displays, you only have to ask. 

On one occasion, a guard took me round and provided me with information about the exits, the various ways of getting into the site, and where the escalators and all the facilities were.  I also enquired about facilities for people with sight problems and the British Library positively encourages researchers to apply for a Reader’s Pass.  As in the case with many institutions, you need to know what you want and to be able to express it.  Another institution within the British Library is the sound archive, which should be on a visit programme if you’re in London. 

The attitude of the above institutions in London indicates the level of inclusion practiced across a range of services.  I would juxtapose this with some organisations and regrettably many companies who have a ‘disability corner’ attitude with various parts of their ‘service user’ profiling.  This sort of language and attitude usually results in failure, with me at any rate. 

I can give a couple of examples: in one hall, a blind person with a white cane was plonked next to me without so much as an introduction and we were both totally ignored.  I doubt if either of us went back to that meeting. 

On another occasion, at a meeting regarding health care issues, a blind lady was plonked next to me, though we knew each other, and in turn three wheelchair users were plonked next to us.  We were all furthest away from the speaker and too far away to add anything beyond allowing the organisers to tick a metaphorical box that we had been there. 

At the other end of the spectrum, I can recall very happy and pleasant moments with a former official from the local council’s ‘Boulevard Management’ committee.  There had been a campaign led by the guide dogs organisation to do with shared space, clearing the clutter form pavements, sidewalks, and street safety transport and obstacles.  This official was keen to involve everyone and I have even assisted in painting bollards around parts of London in order that some of us don’t crash into them.  This is an example of a council doing the right thing by listening and acting; and challenging those who thought our two-tone ripple texture drop kerb were not aesthetically pleasing. 

Finally, a brief mention of the RNIB “Books Beyond Borders” campaign.  While this is a matter for the UK government, I know that there are some non-UK visitors to the site who might be interested in the outcome of an international meeting (World Intellectual Property Organisation) concerned with intellectual property.  This affects copyright issues way beyond the scope of this blog, but if you feel able to lobby the minister, Baroness Wilcox, at the House of Lords (,
I would be thrilled if you could do so.  Similarly, you might care to lobby your own government regarding issues concerning the right to read books beyond borders, and accessibility issues on the web and in the public sphere.  
( ),