Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Visit to Newhailes, by Edinburgh

Newhailes is on the outskirts of Edinburgh and way beyond the London Freedom Pass boundary.  If you travel to Edinburgh by train you will pass it and it is only a short distance from the A1.  Newhailes is a house well worth visiting and it is not on the tourist trail.  I didn’t go here on my own, but it’s technically possible to get there by public transport as the Number 30 bus passes by.  Railway stations are Musselburgh and Newcraighall, which can be reached from the main Edinburgh station.  The visitor centre is located in the stables area and includes a shop, cafe and the usual facilities. 

New Hailes House

Newhailes is a beautiful house which is based on a design by James Smith, a Scottish architect and businessman who had studied at the Scots College in Rome before giving up any chances of becoming a priest and fathered possibly 32 children.  When in Rome he had come across the villa designs of Palladio and the first house on the Newhailes site, built in c1686, faced north towards the Forth estuary. 

The location of Newhailes is at the extreme south eastern corner of Edinburgh and the property is near the main London to Edinburgh railway line, former coal mining villages and the ancient burgh of Musselburgh.  Technically the property is in East Lothian.  As a child I would travel along the Newhailes Road, which skirted outlying districts of Edinburgh on the way to an ice-cream shop known locally as Luca.  At the time, I was oblivious as to what lay behind the walls of a very dull road which emerged at the Fisher Row Harbour, where I learnt sea-fishing or rather failed to learn. 

James Smith, the original owner, was forced to sell the house as a result of a business failure with a mining investment.  Mining was an important activity at the time and many of the large houses in the area and around Edinburgh were built on coal mining in the Midlothian and East Lothian coal fields.  With the ending of deep coal mining in the Lothians, there has been some regeneration of the former villages and the adjacent village of Newcraighall has a huge retail park – Fort Kinnaird and Kinnaird Park - connected to it, a regenerated railway line, a marina nearby and there are great plans for the Newhailes estate as a whole. 

The house was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in 1997.  The Trust purchased the contents of the house from money raised from grants, fundraising appeals and arm-twisting  and within the last few years has been able to open the house to the public.  The result is a real gem and one which contributed to the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th centrury through the Dalrymple family, which included Lord Stair and Lord Hailes.   

Lord Hailes or Sir David Dalrymple was a Lord of Justiciary in the 18th century and a prominent figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.  Sir David was the fifth son of the 1st Viscount of Stair while Sir David’s older brother John was the 1st Earl of Stair and was Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Advocate and Secretary of State over a distinguished career.  Lord Stair is the writer most cited in Scots Law when trying to prove a point.  However, this is way beyond the brief of this blog. 

In the 17th and 18th century, there was a lot of political intrigue in Edinburgh following the two unions with England and the two Jacobite “uprisings”.  The Dalrymple family, being lawyers, were usually on the right side of events and though the house had a major refit and reorientation in c1730, it remained more or less unchanged over the years before it came into the guardianship of the NTS. 

There are thus many original features such as wrought iron railings, stairways fireplaces, carvings, furnishings, paintings and bookcases (the books are at the National Library of Scotland so the bookcases are bare).   Shortage of money prevented any wholesale modernisation through the years so the house offers an original look at 17th century Scotland and of a family who, while not at the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment, were certainly in correspondence with and knew the likes of David Hume, Adam Smith etc.    The house also has works by famous painters such as Alan Ramsay.

I went round the house on a guided tour last year and at the weekend went back.  I was greeted with “I remember you from last year!” and my luck was in as I had another tour of the house from Jenny, who had guided me the year before.  We met in the stables and walked to the southern aspect of the house.  I could make out the Palladian lines of the original house and the ‘wings’ which were added by the Dalrymples in c1730.  I then walked up the entrance stairway and Jenny remarked that the wrought iron railings were original and had not been renovated but that the fine filigree work, though rusty, had nonetheless worn well. 

View from grounds at New Hailes House across Forth to Fife
© Professor Whitestick

The house is located on the raised beach which separates Edinburgh from the coastal fringes of Leith, Portobello and Joppa, so that there is a view of the Forth estuary and the hills of Fife which I could just about make out - though admittedly I am familiar with the landscape.  The rooms boast a lot of fine plasterwork which was crafted in 1742 by Thomas Clayton and features many scallop shells.  I found that I could make out many of the geometric lines in the plasterwork and carvings throughout the house in much the same way as I could in a Robert Adam property, though Newhailes predates Robert Adam by a few decades.  In the dining room, which is in the older part of the house, there is some original 17th century panelling, which again I could make out.  Fireplaces in Newhailes are one of the major attractions, with both the fireplace decoration and the grates made locally.

The library wing of the house was completed in 1722 by Sir David Dalrymple and this is a stunning piece of architecture with furnishings to match and a fine Italian chimney piece.  The library housed so many books that it indicated both the influence and knowledge of the owner of the house and was doubtless a status symbol at the time.  The bookcases are bereft of books and this allows examination of the unique structure of the bookcases which surround virtually all of the wall space.  This is not something that you would buy in the nearby retail park, fit on top of a roof rack and then assemble with an allen key at home!

The Great Apartment mirrors the library wing.  In the dining room, there are Ionic columns which have wooden fluting round the supporting pillars illustrating the extension from Smith’s original villa into the 1730s expansion.  There is another fantastic chimney piece in the adjacent drawing room and so now I’m becoming an ‘expert’ in 18th century chimney pieces as well as tactile crossings and movable bus shelters! 

The tour continues with two stairways of different designs and one can tap ones way down and feel the banister going up and down.  There is an opportunity to go backstairs within the house and visit the kitchen in the basement.  This has remained unchanged since the 1950s and was originally sealed as the kitchens were usually the cause of fire in the 18th century.  The house is exited via a servants’ tunnel and I returned to the stables. 

The visit was a real treat and it was very kind of Jenny and the other staff who had remembered me from the year before.  If you are in the Edinburgh area and you have given up on the overrun tourist sites in the city, I would recommend that you persuade someone to take you to Newhailes.  There are other houses worth exploring in and around Edinburgh and I hope to be reporting on these in due course.  Again, many thanks to Jenny, who is normally on duty on a Sunday afternoon. 

Useful websites:

National Trust for Scotland:
Local transport:

I have recently posted on Hailes Castle.  Lord Hailes took his title from this estate.  The post is linked here:  A branch of the Dalrymple family is based at Oxenfoord Castle in Midlothian and I have included a brief discussion and picture of Oxenfoord Castle in a post on Walks in Midlothian:


© Professor Whitestick

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Circular Trip to Windsor and Eton

Windsor and Eton are around 20 miles west of London and can be reached by train from either London Waterloo or from London Paddington to the Riverside and Central stations respectively. I used to live on the other side of Windsor Great Park in Surrey and stopped saying that I lived “near Windsor”, which is a euphemism for Slough (known locally as Sluff).  There are direct trains from Waterloo and you can join the train at Clapham Junction or Richmond via the London Overground as well as the Underground and other rail services. 

Though I can get out of both Waterloo and Paddington stations, I have never tried buying a ticket and finding the right train and platform. I could probably do Waterloo, though I think Paddington would be more of a problem than Liverpool Street as it is more cluttered with construction works and has a wide circular approach with bay platforms.  The Heathrow Express also leaves from Paddington so there is a lot of international baggage attached to the passengers. 

I managed to negotiate the subway at Clapham Junction and went back to Platforms 5 and 6 for the Reading destinations. These services are run by Stagecoach’s associate South West Trains. Announcements were clear enough though being a Sunday there were delays and alterations. The Windsor and Eton service follows the Reading route and turns off at Staines. The line appears to get more rural but this an illusion as the landscape is manmade. There is a level crossing at Datchet which brought back memories of my being stuck every morning at 7.50 am on trying to get round Slough. 

Stations are “immovable” in the main and it was reassuring to note that little had changed in over 34 years. (Bus stops are prone to being moved, diverted and closed at short notice)  Crossing the River Thames on both routes gives an impression of the “untouched” rural idyll that is Greater Heathrow. While Windsor can appear to be cluttered and busy it is worth the trip to wander around the River and Eton. Windsor and Edinburgh can be full of the most awful tourist tack but you might like a day in “history”.

Windsor is usually packed with tourists and is a tourist trap.  Eton across the River Thames is more tranquil and can be approached by a pedestrian bridge giving access to the river and towpaths. Eton College is famed for its former pupils and the college was founded by Henry VI before the Reformation. The college retains many original features and there are tours of the college. While the grounds of the College Chapel can be explored (wear a hat) it is best to join a tour and go inside the chapel and visit the museum, classroom and cloisters with a guide.  My visit to Eton was inspired by the painting in the National Gallery Room 38 of the college by Canaletto.

Thanks to Clapham Junction ticket office, platform staff at Clapham Junction and Slough, passengers on busy trains and London Underground for checking that I was OK in finding the Bakerloo line at Paddington.   Thanks also to Eton College for including me in a tour of the college. 

Familiarise yourself with changing stations at Clapham Junction and Richmond and go to Windsor and Eton Riverside. Ticket “says” Windsor and E Riverside  cost £4.15 off peak return with Railcard.  Ask for the Eton direction and stroll over bridge. The college is on the right side of the road.

If you are feeling very brave go back and keep Windsor Castle on left and you will find the Central station which is a theme park and you might even find the shuttle train to Slough where you will have to change. I was lucky and followed passengers and found some helpful staff, though they are not as “visible” to us as the Underground staff usually are.

I was lucky in getting a fast train to Paddington so missed the intermediate stops though apart from Ealing I doubt there are many other interchange points.  There are too many Actons on the map, few of which are connected easily. Things will improve with the Cross Rail development and looking to the future interchanges with HS2 and Heathrow may be real improvements.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Guest post: Audio Describing for TV by Neville Watchurst

In my post about my visit to the National Theatre touch tour and audio description of The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov, I met the audio description team led by Ros Chalmers, Head of Access.  Neville Watchurst is training to become a describer and has experience in television and film.  Neville has a fascinating insight into how one can relate television and film into meaningful description terms for those with sight loss.  There are also attitudinal problems which can be summed up as "political correctness" in regarding what the blind shouldn't hear.  In this regard it is similar to attending a dance routine of an erotic nature without knowing what's going on! 

I asked Neville to write a piece for the blog and he has kindly done this.  I'm posting it below.  Neville is on Linked In and describes himself as a “freelance audio describer and voice artist”.  


People are often very envious when I explain to them what I do for a living.  It usually ends with them saying, with an edge of incredulity, “So, basically, you watch TV.” Well, yes... but it’s not quite as simple as that.

I started working for BSkyB in 2002 – cutting my teeth on a range of pleasant but not massively challenging travel and sports programming, moving through documentaries, and finally arriving where I wanted to be – which is describing movies and drama series. I have described several series of the labyrinthine “24” starring Kiefer Sutherland, the stunning Spielberg/Tom Hanks-produced “The Pacific”, and many others. Highlights from the hundred odd movies I have described for Sky include, The Godfather, Cinderella Man, Toy Story 3, Casino Royale (with Daniel Craig), Spielberg’s Munich, and Brokeback Mountain. Many “lower-profile” films also have stayed long in my mind – such as Danny Boyle’s delightful Millions, the wickedly black comedy In Bruges and The Weatherman, starring Nicolas Cage. A movie can really get under your skin when you’re describing it. And that goes for the ones you don’t like, as well!

I have, through long practice, become relatively fast and efficient in my description work - but it is rare for me to be able to cover more than ten minutes of a drama for every hour spent in front of the computer. When something is heavy on action sequences, or full of long, meaningful silences, I can be looking at covering only five minutes of screen-time per hour. To write a first draft. And there’s still the recording to be done.

So, yes, I do watch TV for a living – but very, very slowly!

We are assisted by the fact that the DVDs we receive to work from have a visible time-code – showing the frames, seconds, minutes and hours so that we can note on our script precisely where to begin and end any piece of description (aka “cue”) when we come to the recording stage.

The challenges of describing a film or drama are many – which can perhaps be summed up in large part by the phrase, “So much to say and so little time to say it!” The describer is like someone desperately looking for that little break in a conversation so as to be able to discreetly join in. And one has to choose one’s words carefully and prioritise, which of course means that it’s rarely (if ever) going come over as perfect in everyone’s opinion.

Once the describer has located a suitable gap, a good rule of thumb to follow is “Say what you see.” This helps one to remain objective. It’s not my job to say what I feel, about a character or a scene. Nor is it for me to edit what’s happening on the screen in order to spare people’s blushes or to protect them from, say, horrific violence. Saying what you see in a register which suits the production is also important. If the film is a bawdy comedy, you don’t want to come across sounding like Mother Teresa, nor, however, should you risk offending people by using gratuitously crude language.

For me, the most important element is always going to be helping the blind or partially-sighted viewer make sense of what’s going on – for example, by pointing out which character is speaking, where the action has moved to (often very suddenly), how a character is silently reacting to the words or actions of another. Then comes the need to describe as vividly and succinctly as possible, significant events of the drama which are not made clear through dialogue or sound. Finally, aspects such as what a character is wearing, the fabric of the sofa they are sitting on, or the beauties of the scenery can greatly enhance the experience for the viewer, but, unless there is a specific significance or remarkableness about a piece of costume, or the director is clearly wishing to draw the audience’s attention to the setting for artistic reasons, I would always regard these as “bonus elements” to be conveyed only of there is the luxury of time. Few viewers want to be constantly bombarded with information. It is important to allow some “air” into a script.

The aim should, I believe, be to produce an audio-description script that really melds with the visuals and the dialogue – unobtrusively supplying the requisite information and taking the listener’s attention to the appropriate person or place at the right time, like the camera does for the sighted viewer. I am always delighted, for example, when I can time an audio description cue to lead seamlessly into a dramatic music cue – you know the sort of thing;
“He pulls back the curtain, revealing a severed head.” DUN, DUN D-U-U-N!

Sometimes, of course, the space is just not available at absolutely the right moment. However, if there is a piece of information the audience simply MUST have, then a work-around has to be found –  by supplying it either pre-emptively or retrospectively - as close as possible to the moment the sighted viewer receives it.

There are numerous other strictures the describer is up against. Everything goes out of the window when characters are speaking a foreign language with subtitles. The rule is, quite rationally, that we have to convey what’s being said. However, that pretty well precludes any other proper description being given. Then, there are the other rules - never using phrases such as “We see”, for example, for obvious very good reasons. Others are less obvious. Until relatively recently we were constrained by an embargo on using colour words. Happily, once, at a meeting with representatives from the RNIB, they said – “No, give us as much colour as you can!” Likewise, cinematic terms describing camera angles were a no-no – which, among many other things, made the incessant aerial shots of American drama series a nightmare, but also denied blind and partially sighted audiences nuances achieved through techniques such as the close up or the slow camera pan. Orthodoxy is changing on that front now, and those cinematic terms felt to be in common use are starting to be permitted if used judiciously.

Most films or dramas throw up at least one quandary I’ve never faced or considered before. However formulaic a series might be, no two episodes are ever the same. Audio-description is a constant judgement-juggle – which is what I find so interesting about doing it. It’s also why, as I mentioned before, you’re never going to please all of the people all of the time.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

East Croydon to East Grinstead

East Croydon has proved to be a handy station for connecting trains. There are three island platforms with 6 lines. I have changed here a few times and checked out the station. Accessibility has been much improved and it is a good place to change trains if you want to avoid Victoria and London Bridge.

I reported my trip from East Croydon to Tonbridge in a previous post and on Tuesday, I went to East Grinstead. I arrived at East Croydon, headed up the ramp, went through the ticket barrier and entered a maze for the ticket.  I bought a boundary zone 6 return to East Grinstead and headed back to the ticket barrier and asked where to go.  It was Platform 6 and I had a few minutes to wait.  The station staff on the platform were very helpful and have all sorts of information which they can rattle off, such as the number of coaches in relation to where you are standing.  This is useful as the position depends on your starting point.

East Croydon is a busy station and you need to be aware of commuters on the ramps. I changed from the Thameslink at St Pancras going south and on the return changed at City Thameslink. Both interchange stations have platform staff who can arrange help at your destination. The new Thameslink trains have automatic announcements but you may have to ask “Where are we” on the older rolling stock. 

East Grinstead is on the Oxted line and it possible to change at Oxted and get a train to Uckfield. The journey is pleasant and I spent a few hours in East Grinstead. There is a lot to do once you have found the town centre. The town is old with many Elizabethan, Tudor and Jacobean buildings. There is a museum which was closed when I went on a Tuesday. There is also the Sackville College, a Jacobean alms house which is open at certain times. I went to St Swithun's Church, which I found after instructions from a member of staff at Boots, the chemist, where I had bought a sandwich, selected by staff.

Some locals gave me directions to the library where I met Simon Kerr, the Tourism and Information officer of East Grinsted. Simon was a mine of information. Before I lost my sight I had been to East Grinstead and had been on the Bluebell Railway. Simon told me that this steam railway would be connected to the Network from 2012 so it will be easier to do this on your own from next year. The current connection is via a bus which was not running when I went.   Simon also mentioned that the town had a 350 seat theatre based at the Checkermead Centre.

In my short trip I found St Swithun's which is well worth a visit and I was sorely tempted to pull a bellrope which was hanging from a tower! An 18th century alarm bell which I have pressed in trains, planes and elevators (lifts).  I had lunch in the Bar Kuba which is on the High Street with a side door near the Museum. I could make out the impressive skyline of the buildings and picked the timber framed buildings with my peripheral vision. The information which Simon gave me was read to me later and I found that I had covered most of the sites and sights though I had not appreciated them at the time.  I would put East Grinstead in the same rank as St Albans. Another pleasant town which can be done on ones own.

Navigation Tips

Ask East Grinstead Station staff for instructions to London Road and High Street. There is an awkward roundabout which is best approached anti-clockwise. East Grinstead has two tone tactile crossings of high quality and reliable alignment. London Road has the usual stores with logos which I can recognise from the colour and “script” such as Boots, Clarks and Santander. It may be worth refamiliarising yourself with some changes. People often offer directions naming a cafe or a bank or a mobile phone store or even a charity shop. I recognised the British Heart Foundation in London Road. A mix of logo and colour (I can see some red now!)

In summary, a good trip near London.  Return rail fare £4.75 with Freedom Pass and Railcard.  Thanks to:
- the lady at Boots who helped me pick a sandwich and advised me on what to visit;
- the people in St Swithun's, who helped me pick some postcards;
- the staff at Bar Kuba for help with lunch;
- the lady in the street who told me what the Stone House was and where to find the library;
- the Southern Railway staff and other staff at stations enroute at East Croydon and City Thameslink.

Finally a very big thank you to Simon Kerr. If out and about it can often be difficult to get local information.  This shows the importance of our library and museum services around the country Use them or lose them!


Comments received from Simon Kerr at the East Grinstead Tourism Initiative (  Used with permission.

Thank you for the kind words …  I loved your expression about ‘a serendipity trip’ which I think I shall borrow for our future publicity material, if you don’t object.

I was also heartened by your remarks about the two tone tactile crossings here, and if you don’t mind I would like to pass on your comments to our County Highways Department –
I’m sure they would welcome some positive feedback.

 interestingly we are due to have a brand new station here and the ‘First turn of the spade’ ceremony will take place this coming Monday, so we might at long last have a brand new station to greet you soon.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Blog's Progress

Update (20th July 2011): 

I have finally received a response by email and a letter from Justin King of Sainsburys referring to my problems at one of their stores on the 5th of May this year.   Mr King expressed that he was "sorry to hear of the poor service" I "received in our Finchley Road store" and went on to state that the store's staff had been provided with retraining both in pricing goods and dealing with customers.  It is interesting to note that as a blind person being able to tweet about this has probably garnered more attention.  At any rate, I had made my personal peace accompanied by a friend to the store on the same day we went to St Albans, which seems a long time ago.  It is also nice to note that Sainsburys has been tweeting in Scottish Gaelic! 

It’s been two months since Professor Whitestick launched his blog and with about 1300 visits to the site and within grasp of a 100 followers on Twitter, it’s probably about time to review the progress or lack of it in some areas.  While I have tended to illustrate that people with sight loss can participate in social discourse in matters such as the arts, history, literature and yes, trainspotting, I haven’t as yet touched in any great detail on the sciences and politics – apart from my first post regarding the perception of blind people within some Christian communities, I haven’t said much.  To put it another way, the jury is out, though I have had some favourable responses from some quarters. 

Regarding science, I must take some of the blame because when I lost my sight I more or less put my previous life on the shelf.  It was reminiscent of the scene on an aeroplane movie where the captain of the plane walks up the gangway with a guide dog, much to the consternation of the passengers.  I paid a visit recently to the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), having been a member for 30 years and was surprised to find from the librarian that I was only the second person in her 18 years experience at the library in Burlington House who had sight loss.  I have since returned to the RSC twice and have been welcomed back, most recently at a debate hosted by the RSC on nuclear energy.  You can follow the debate on:  Some 36 hours after the debate someone had spotted me on the video.  I will be reporting on aspects of science more frequently now that you might know I have a PhD in Chemistry. 

I’ve remarked favourably on many of our public services and can comment on a wonderful audio tour which I had on my own with the aid of the staff at the help desk of the British Museum (BM).  This visit was made two weeks ago to the “Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe” exhibition running from 23 June – 9 October (  I will post on this exhibition separately, but would encourage anyone using a long cane to try this exhibition out on their own  if you have a little sight.  The audio tour and the player are really good and there is a big surprise if you use your long cane to navigate within the exhibition.  The tour has 20 objects which are described in detail and though some are visible, e.g. a mosaic one metre square at least, some are very small but you can establish what they are by the description.  I was at my 15th object out of 20 by the time I twigged how the exhibition worked.  It’s really imaginative and the guides and guards are really helpful if you’re on your own: a big thank you to the BM staff and Kinga at the Help Desk for suggesting that I try it out.  The BM has other tactile exhibits in the various departments, but it was refreshing to find the Help Desk making suggestions and in such an imaginative way. 

Below I’m posting two comments received in my personal email, which was destined for the comments section but there have been problems with the Blogger system.  The writer of the first comment has known me over the years.
Comment 1:
‘Professor Whitestick's experiences in galleries like the National and the Wallace make interesting reading.  It was inspiring to read about the innate kindness and natural good manners exhibited by those members of the staff who went out of their way to help you.  I really hope that the directors of both those great institutions as well as those who run other galleries will get read about your experiences.  I have to say, too, that it was instructive to learn more about the nature of blindness - that being blind does not necessarily mean the loss of all sight or the ability to see shapes and colours.  This is fascinating blog on lots of levels, but the main thing is its originality - I've been involved in one way or the other with museums and galleries for 40 years and have never before read an account by any member of the public (let alone one who is visually impaired ) describing a visit that is as vivid as yours.  Good luck and keep up the good work.’

Comment 2:
I've been reading through your blog, and it's been fascinating to read the art/theatre reviews and see how institutions respond and cater to patrons with reduced vision, especially because I've been working in the museum field. It's been pretty enlightening for me, so a big thankyou.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Osterley House and Park

Osterley is on the way to Heathrow Airport and is accessed by the Piccadilly Line on the London Underground. Coming out of the station turn left and left at an intersection and proceed until the park. The property is a National Trust site and there is a lot to do. There is a shuttle golf buggy from the car park to the House and Stables.

In the grounds at Osterley
The grounds are very attractive with a lake, willow trees and a striking image of the house itself which was designed by Robert Adam (the visit was inspired by a tweet mentioning that Robert Adam had been born on 3rd July).  Robert Adam also designed Kenwood House and this is well worth a visit you're in the Hampstead area, accessible by bus number 210.

There is a designed audio tour for the visually impaired and this was freely available and the operation of it was explained. Some rooms were closed for filming otherwise the audio guide makes you independent, though the guides and volunteers are there to help with the usual question “Which room is this?” 

On my peripheral vision I could make out much of the designs on the staircase, the White Library and some of the state rooms.  The only room which foxed me was the tapestry room and it is coincidental that this was designed by Boucher.  It may be that the fabric of the tapestry doesn’t allow any clear lines.  There are no obvious obstacles if the audio tour is followed.  The controls are fairly easy to understand and if for example an instruction is given press the red button the guide actually tells you where the button is.  I found this method of audio tour very accessible and there were options in learning more about the house itself.  Robert Adam and the Childe family who owned it.  I visited this house in the late 1970s and it was in a sorry state, but it is now fully restored and the guides and volunteers are very knowledgeable about the house and though I got lost a couple of times, I would recommend this audio tour.  IT can be stopped fairly easily and you can always chat with the volunteers who may have some extra information on the history and objects in the house. 
Afternoon tea at the Stables at Osterley
There are facilities in the stables for meals, teas and coffees. There is a shop, video display, separate gardens and a gallery.  If you are a plane spotter, you can detect all the different aircraft as they are quite low on the approach to Heathrow Airport.  The sound is quite interesting if you are sitting in the middle of the courtyard of the stables, as the echoes give a nice sound picture – though I’m not very good on the difference between a Boeing and an Airbus. 

This is a pleasant place for a visit and many thanks to all the National Trust and Osterley volunteers. Carol has been insistent that I visit on the Bank Holiday Monday in August 2011. On this occasion the guides will be in costume for the Ball. While tempted I can only say that other Robert Adam buildings are available and who knows?

Review of The Cherry Orchard at The National Theatre

I mentioned before that I had booked a touch tour and audio description for a performance of The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov.  This has been playing at the National Theatre (NT) - .  So, with all the booking arrangements made, I went to the NT on my own via Waterloo Station. 

I was pleasantly surprised that all the staff at the NT, including the cafe and Information Desk, were aware that the touch tour for 12:30 on Saturday 9th July assembled at the second floor box office of the Olivier Theatre.  I was escorted to a cafe then the box office and met William who gave me the earphones for the audio description.  The earphones are based on an infra-red system which only works in a specific theatre within the NT complex.  I had visions of being in The Cherry Orchard listening to something else, such as a News of the World hack!  William pre-set the channel and explained that 15 minutes before the performance the audio description would outline the play.

Having been kitted out, the group assembled and we went back stage on to the set of The Cherry Orchard itself.  Ros, who is Head of the Access Department at the NT, gathered us in a semi-circle and then introduced us to Kenneth Cranham.  I recognised the voice instantly -it’s sort of gravelly and you can hear him on the John le Carre Smiley series from the BBC.  He plays Inspector Mendel.  Kenneth talked about the play and was joined by Zoe Wanamaker and other actors.  We discussed aspects of the roles within the play and the construction of the play itself, with comments on the background to Russia in 1904 and the general decline of landed estates, the coming of the railway, communications such as telephone and telegraph and electric light.

We then met the stage management and the wardrobe department and I was shown some of the incredible detail such as wallpaper, photographs, books, and a bookcase which is central to some of the action.  It was interesting to note that the NT makes some of its furniture and this bookcase had been ‘distressed’.  I could feel the candle wax on the surface and go inside some of the bureau compartments.  One of the stage management showed me the 'Russian' newspaper peeling from a rear wall which could only have been noticed by a few in the auditorium!  I was also told that the matchboxes were authentic as was the paper money.  The significance of the telegraph post was useful as a landmark which my peripheral vision could pick up.  Some of the costumes were also available to inspect and we then met the transcribers: Ros, Bridget and Neville (I think).  They explained how they interacted with the action on the play and as they had to do this on a live basis, it couldn’t always be scripted. 

The tour lasts about half an hour and there is about an hour before the performance so it’s possible to get a snack or rejoin your friends, if you’re sitting in the auditorium with others.  There is no need to sit in a designated area as the infrared earphones work in the auditorium.  I was assured that the earphones do not interfere with other peoples’ enjoyment of the play, so I didn’t notice a mass exit of the audience around me.  I was escorted to my seat and got a programme which I will have to ask someone to read, but wanted as souvenir.  The NT has large print cast lists and a version in Braille is available.  Information can of course be found on the NT website. 

I’m not going to go into much detail of the play itself, but only to say this was Chekhov’s last play before he died and it reflects the usual issues of the interaction between family, class, money and developers.  These themes haven’t changed over a hundred years, so the play is still topical.  When chatting with the audience, I was able to remark that the describers indicated the name of every new character and used a variety of names by which each character is known in the play, for example: Mark Bonnar plays a character who is referred to by a first name and a patronym, so this is a possible double confusion which the describers neatly avoid, though Mark’s Scottish accent is genuine (I heard an American remark how wonderfully his Scottish lilt had been rendered in the play ... in much the same way as Scottish accents are used in some of the Aristophanes comedies whenever a Spartan is playing). 

I found I could take the earphones off as you can hear the theatre audio line directly.  As the play begins, I had a 45 degree audio line, which opened up to about 80 degrees when the set on the Olivier was fully opened.  The play starts very much in the form of a Greek tragedy, with a scena and a door and this is transformed into an open stage during the first part of the play.  As we had passed through the backstage area, we had been aware of the props and these were described as they were used in the play itself at key moments when the dialogue would not be so helpful.  Having the headset under my own control meant that I could take it off and on and I usually put it on when there was a music cue or a lighting change, which I can detect. Without giving away the ending of the play, I would say that the final 10 minutes should be used in conjunction with the earphones.  I find I can be a pest when asking ‘What happened?” at the end, but it’s not always obvious and unlike the Seagull, there is no additional sound effect. 

A very big thank you to the NT Access Department for both the touch tour and the audio described performance.  This certainly makes going to the theatre on one's own viable, but also socially enjoyable.  You don't have to ask friends to read the programme notes and can concentrate on the bar instead!

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Haptic Cow, Westfield Touchscreen encounter and some interesting research

On Tuesday I went to Haptics Day at the British Library in London.  Haptics is a term which involves the sense of touch and there were several exhibits both on display and available for touching.  If you’re squeamish I wouldn’t read or listen much further, but if you’re a keen Archers fan on BBC Radio4 you will realise that a vet will do a certain procedure with a pregnant cow regarding a check up. 

Passing this knowledge on from vet to student has been rather difficult and the Royal Veterinary College has developed a Haptic cow which resembles the feeling a vet would get in making ‘an examination’ of the animal.  Not only do you get to ‘feel’ the insides of a cow, but the programmer can vary the status of the cow so that the sensor on your finger gives a touch representation of what is going on inside and which would of course be invisible to the vet. 

While waiting for my turn to ‘observe’ the displays, there was a sound of a cow mooing in the lobby of the British Library.  Many a manuscript researcher could have been dreaming of writing a script involving Ruth Archer and the Ambridge vet regarding the state of Bluebell’s insides.  For those of you on Twitter, you may remember I tweeted about this on Tuesday evening. 

Another demonstration of the use of Haptics involved the training of an anaesthetist in delivering an epidural.  If this hurt the patient, a scream could be heard and when it came to my turn one of the students commented that I had done better than an anaesthetist in having delivered a pain free injection at the right point.   I did explain that as a recipient of lumber punctures 10 years ago, I was well aware of being given a needle between the vertebrae. 

A very interesting exhibition and I hope this develops into some benefit for all of us.  Haptics has many applications for making what is unseen accessible by touch.  An obvious application of this would be in the consideration of touch screen information boards and even tablet computers.  Instead of an audio prompt there could be a virtual touch prompt in the same way that Braille gives users an alphabet feel for a word. 

I can’t do Braille but I did ‘run’ into a large touch screen information point at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherds Bush in London.  Getting to Westfield is easy enough as both the London Underground Central Line and London Overground stations are near. 

I drifted into the Westfield Village which is a modern shopping mall, with lots of glass, very metallic and monochromatic.  In fact on late Wednesday afternoon it was surprisingly empty and the absence of colour means it’s difficult to recognise with my limited vision if one is inside or outside a given shop.  The background mood music is pervasive and there were no apparent ‘manned’ help points apart from the touch screen which I enjoyed poking with my finger.  I noticed the screen change but hadn’t a clue what I pressed and didn’t know what the answer was. 

The centre is interesting enough if you’re into retail therapy, but I would prefer central London or one of the suburban high streets any day to this.  It’s obviously relatively safe and traffic free, though it seems to lack a sense of community.  Maybe I was unlucky and visited on an ‘off’ day.

Now here is a bit of encouraging news.  Through Twitter, I have met a research at Loughborough University involved in a study of accessibility for primarily wheelchair users, though of course we all benefit from the tactile markings, crossings and dropped kerbs which make crossing the road safe for us.  The project is called the Free Traveller project ( and the section below has been extracted from information I received from the project leader Christopher Parker:

“The project is the ‘public front’ for an experiment which I am running, researching how different forms of information influence the user in terms of information quality, authority and usability.

...  the aim of the experiment is …  to understand how different forms of information effect the user. However, by choosing a ‘vulnerable’ user group, the results of the experiment will also be useful in influencing accessibility planning…

While blind people were considered as a potential user community since they experience similar (but different) risks when travelling, it was deemed a little too complex for this experiment. This was because while wheelchair users may be easily categorised by the mobility provided by their wheelchair (easy to group participants), it may be difficult to assess the level of visual impairment in a group of participating blind persons. Also, there is a potential complexity with running the experiment online. While I am aware that a good proportion of those registered blind in the UK would be able to access the website successfully, their experience of the information would be partly dependent upon the degree of their visual impairment. This would introduce a hard to verify and control variable, relative to the online experience a wheelchair user may have.

I would however like to point you towards a project which I am involved with, which will hopefully be able to make use of the outcomes from this experiment; Access Advisor. …

At the moment the project is in its infancy, but within 6 months it will be launched properly and is definitely worth following.”

Arcola Theatre: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

When I did my review of The Seagull at the Arcola Theatre I said I would go back there on my own.  So I did: I got on the London Overground and got off at Dalston Kingsland.  On leaving the station, turn right and you can tap towards a tactile crossing, cross the road, turn right and continue until there is a large construction site.  Turn left here and follow the construction wall (it’s a blue hoarding) and you will arrive at the entrance to the Arcola.  There is a Shiloh Pentecostal church opposite the theatre.   This might be a better known landmark in the area.  After checking in I was given a re-useable plastic ticket and you can ask the staff to reserve a space for you in either of the studios, as there is free seating. 

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was in Studio 2 and the audience sat on opposite sides of a square forming the scene for the drama.  The play is easy to follow as there are usually only two, sometimes three, actors with speaking roles on the stage at the same time.  I also find Ibsen’s plays easier to follow than Chekhov on a talking book reading of the play. 

In this production of A Doll’s House the audio line is about a 130 degrees and as the back story unfolds, there really isn’t much need for an audio description of the play without some knowledge of the story which concerns betrayal, deception, blackmail and money.  To that extent this production is very accessible in following the play and is a thoroughly enjoyable performance. I remember having to study Hedda Gabbler at school and going to a local performance at the theatre. The Scottish Education Department thought that Ibsen would be edifying.   

In a previous post, I made a rather rash statement in saying that dance was the least accessible of the performing arts to those with sight loss.  I may have been wrong as the actor playing Nora has to do a Tarantella and you can definitely hear the dance steps and even experience the swirl of the dancer since you’re only a few feet away.  In fact, you have to walk through the set to get to your seat.  I was near a couple of props and tried to stay at least a foot away! 

The sound effects are really good and add to the drama.  In one of the early scenes something was dropped and as I had no warning I jumped when I heard it fall to the ground. 

This production had opened the day before and there is a 15 minute break.  The start time is 8 pm and it finishes around 10:30. There is a train from Dalston Kingsland to Richmond about 10:55, though you ought to check out times from Dalston Junction, as it is possible to connect to the underground at Highbury and Islington. 

This performance is well worth a visit and the Arcola Theatre has pay-what-you-can days (Tuesday).  There is a bar and snacks area.  There were quite a crowd of theatre goers using the London Overground and it is encouraging to see this part of London being made more accessible for everyone’s benefit.   

Arcola Theatre:
Box Office Telephone No: 020 7503 1646

Arcola Theatre
24 Ashwin Street
E8 3DL