The Trials and Tribulations of being a Disabled History Nerd

Published Date
14/03/2018
Emma outside Highclere Castle.

As an American in the UK, it’s difficult to not become fascinated with all the history on display – but sometimes it’s even more difficult to access it when you’re a wheelchair user! Accessibility is an issue I encounter all the time and it makes me furious when buildings aren’t accessible when all they’d need is a portable ramp.

I love anything historic; from any TV period drama to fun facts like Benedict Cumberbatch being distantly related to Richard III. When look into accessibility of historic attractions, quite often you get told that it is a “listed building” and it can’t be made accessible. But is this always true?

I’m going to take you on a journey through time and space to all of the historic places I’ve been in the UK and rate them on accessibility! The scale will be 1-5 (1 being not accessible and 5 being completely accessible.)

*I use an electric wheelchair so I can’t say whether these places would be suitable for manual wheelchairs.*

Ely, Cambridgeshire ♿♿♿ .5 wheelchairs

I went to Ely for a day out and planned to see Ely Cathedral and get afternoon tea. (Yes I am 80!) As we were driving around looking for places to park, we saw lots of tearooms and tried to see which ones were accessible. We were told by a wheelchair user we bumped into that the most famous tearoom, Peacocks, was accessible so we made our way only to find there was a small step to get in. The managers did their best to look for options but with a 200+ kg chair it is pretty much impossible to get in if it isn’t level. They promised they’d order a portable ramp so perhaps I’ll try again in the summer. With no delicious scones in our stomachs (L) we went to Oliver Cromwell’s House and Ely Cathedral, both of which were 100% accessible. I’m talking ‘priest put out a ramp for me’ accessible! (Yes this actually happened.) I’d highly recommend both of these places to anyone with an interest in history or architecture. But we aren’t any closer to answering our question I’m afraid…

Chatsworth House, Peak District ♿♿♿♿♿ wheelchairs

As a Pride and Prejudice fan I had to go to Chatsworth House in the beautiful Peak District. My parents and I went for a day trip and had a wonderful day learning about the house and the Cavendish banana. I was so so impressed with the efforts made to make the house completely accessible for wheelchair users. They installed lifts that matched the aesthetic of the house and every room had level access – even the hedge maze was accessible! (Though I was not clever enough to find my way out!) All the staff were attentive and helped us get around with no problems. The house was gorgeous as were the grounds so I would definitely recommend you go see it! Chatsworth is a great example of how you can make a historic attraction accessible without taking away from the look or authenticity of the house.

Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey), Hampshire ♿♿ .5 – ♿♿♿ wheelchairs

I tried to visit Highclere Castle a few years ago but was told it was inaccessible to an electric wheelchair user. Needless to say I was devastated (my friend photo shopped me into a cast photo to make me feel better.) I tried again when grandma from the States was visiting and was then told if I was able to transfer into one of their manual wheelchairs I could get around the ground floor. The reason for this was they were worried about chairs causing any damage to the house. I was hesitant as I have all my equipment mounted on my chair and I prefer to drive my chair myself rather than be pushed. I decided to try it and have my dad push as I really wanted to see the house (although I am obviously the better driver!) The house was smaller than it looks on TV and I did really enjoy seeing it with a thousand other American tourists! I couldn’t help but think I could have manoeuvred my chair around just fine and would have been more comfortable but it was better than the answer I got years before. I wasn’t able to see the bedrooms upstairs which was a tad disappointing but not everywhere is Chatsworth…

Roman Baths, Bath ♿♿♿♿♿ wheelchairs

The Roman Baths are the absolute gold standard when it comes to accessibility of historic attractions. They are about 2,000 years old and I could see everything! The Baths had been renovated not long before I visited and lots of this work was to make it more accessible. Ramps had been installed and lifts put in to ensure wheelchair users were able to enjoy and see everything. I could not be more impressed with the effort they made and I now find it laughable and frankly unacceptable when places tell me they cannot be made accessible without detracting from the integrity of the site. These Baths are older than any of the other attractions and has been made fully accessible and remains completely authentic (with the added bonus of someone walking around in traditional dress speaking Latin).

Other places I’ve been:

York and York Minster ♿♿♿♿ wheelchairs

York Minster was completely accessible and absolutely stunning. I watched Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell before visiting to I was a tad disappointed when the statues didn’t come to life though. The City of York was beautiful but had lots of unique shops I would have gone in but they had large steps and no ramp. I’m fairly used to this living in Cambridge so I can’t complain too much, but I also can’t give York the coveted five wheelchairs. If/when they make the Guy Fawkes Inn accessible, I’m there!

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire  ♿♿♿♿ .5 wheelchairs

I fell in love with Blenheim Palace as soon as I saw it on some period drama, which if you know me and my lavish taste you won’t find surprising. In my opinion it is the most beautiful Stately Home in England. We went on a guided tour of the Palace which was both accessible and fascinating. I was able to see pretty much everything at Blenheim from the comfort of my own wheelchair and we had a great day.

 

It is places like the Roman Baths and Chatsworth House that make wheelchair users feel truly included and valued as customers and sightseers. Having ease of access is not something wheelchair users are used to, particularly in old buildings, so being able to go around a Stately Home and Bath House with no issues whatsoever is pretty incredible to me. If you love history like I do, I’d recommend you contact the place you’d like to go and talk to them about your accessibility needs. Never assume that you won’t be able to go because it’s a listed building or it’s 2,000 years old! To all of the places that say they can’t be made accessible, I’d recommend you step up your game because there have got to be other disabled history nerds who’s money you’re losing out on.

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