Saturday, 19 January 2019

Alnwick Gardens - Accessibility Review


Alnwick Gardens is one of my favourite days out, not just because of the stunning landscape, but how accessible it is for me. It's one of the world's most contemporary gardens in the heart of Northumberland which also consists of the famous wooden treehouse, interactive water features, bamboo maze and poison gardens. I visited the gardens during Calvert Trust Kielder's 'Northumberland' themed respite week and thought it would be a great place to start my accessibility reviews.

Spencer and I at the stunning entrance by the water features

Like many main attractions these days, there is a concessionary rate for disabled guests which allows a ticket for one free carer. Some of the staff have had extra training in disability awareness, BSL and Next Generation. Every time I have visited Alnwick Gardens, I have found the staff extremely friendly and useful as they've talked me through the best routes to take with my wheelchair. The attraction also provides wheelchair and mobility scooter hire on top of a space to charge your power chairs and scooters. I will talk about the layout of the gardens soon, but I would recommend if you are elderly or self propel a manual chair that you take advantage of the scooter hire scheme. Parking is very easy, with a separate section of the car park free for blue badge holders and allows you easy access to the entrance.

Spencer on a swing in the Orchard

When visiting, you are given a map with the best accessible route to take. If you were to self propel your own wheelchair, some of the gradients would still be very difficult so I would recommend hiring a scooter for the day. Even with a carer pushing a manual chair, the gardens are on quite a steep slope so it's worth keeping in mind that it is a long and potentially hard push. We went up through the orchard which was beautiful, they had just put up swings throughout and it's always my favourite part in Spring when the trees blossom. However, the path wasn't at it's best condition so some of the potholes were a bit problematic, but, overall it was a nice ride up. Once we got to the top, there was a flat garden to look around and then we descended on the opposite side by the water fountains. 

Bamboo maze

The water fountains were one of my favourite parts. They were interactive and one was at floor level so you could get soaked (if you wish!) in your wheelchair. Others allowed you to wheel up and touch the moving water which is amazing as being in a chair you usually miss out on things like that. Next, we went through the bamboo maze which was also wheelchair accessible. This blocked out the noise of the gardens so was really relaxing until we got lost! Finally, we warmed up with a cuppa from the cafe. I loved seeing that they went the extra mile with the accessibility in there too. They had large print menus, wide contrast coloured automatic doors and a selection of food to suit any dietary requirements. The shop was a little difficult to manoeuvre around with my large chair, but I was happy to see they had a Changing Places toilet, although it was on the smaller side.

The famous treehouse

On this trip, we didn't do the treehouse but I have been in there plenty of times before. This by far is one of my favourite things to explore! The treehouse is the largest one in Europe and it has a selection of swing bridges which cascade through the treetops. What's even greater about this is that you can take your wheelchair across the bridges as they have been built to be wide enough and stable enough for scooters. It's a truly magical place, especially in the evening, and if you're very lucky you can dine in the treehouse too.

Overall, I would thoroughly recommend going to Alnwick Gardens if you are a wheelchair user. They have gone the extra mile to cater for all disabilities, from making sure that plants are at different levels to you are able to smell them in your wheelchair to building a wheelchair-friendly swing bridge. This would have a 5* rating from Spencer and I, so we look forward to visiting again soon!

For more information and accessibility info about the gardens click here

Kate x

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Accessibility - Newcastle Theatre Royal


I started off 2019 at Newcastle's famous pantomime. For us, it's a family tradition. And like us, for many, it's a personal highlight of the Christmas period. Now, I'm not here to review the pantomime itself but what I will say is that it is honestly 100% worth seeing. From the comedy to the supporting magic acts, it's phenomenal and you can see why it's a sell-out so often!

Since I was small, I was lucky enough that the Theatre Royal was a regular trip out for me. I have always been a theatre lover, and before becoming ill I was training to become a professional dancer, so my parents took me to countless ballets so I could watch what I had aspired to be. Becoming disabled hasn't stoped my love for theatre itself, but often I have had negative experiences with theatre trips right from booking tickets all the way to seating. Which is why, when I have a positive experience especially, I want to share it.

The theatre has what I would call 'standard practice' for many things. This includes:

  • A booking system (which includes text if deaf) that allows you to bring a free carer if you fit their criteria. In the past, I have also purchased a discounted box when I needed extra room when I had all my family and was particularly unwell so needed to lie down at intervals. 
  • 9 wheelchair spaces which are well spaced out which allows for reclining chairs and general room. Sunderland Empire try and fit that number on one side of their auditorium and trust me, it doesn't work. They also have wedges so that your wheelchair will be on the flat instead of the slope.
  • Disabled toilets which include the 'not all illnesses are visible' sign (another well done)
  • Allow all working dogs and have the correct signage
  • Sound enhancement which can be used with or without a hearing aid. Headsets can also be borrowed.
  • Captioning and audio descriptive performances 
  • Lift to all floors
  • Button on entry to open doors
  • Relaxed performances

Then, the theatre has what I would call 'enhanced practice' for a few things. These are what I would personally class as a place really going above and beyond to cater for disabled people.

  • Dog sitting service. Now this is what I really wanted to talk about. The theatre has an area where they look after your working dog (free of charge!) whilst you are in the performance and bring him/her out to you at the interval. I was nervous of trying this today as Spencer does suffer with separation anxiety, but, he had a full 2 hours playing with all the theatre staff as well as so many cuddles that when we left he put him paws up on the counter to give them all a kiss bye. This stopped him from being stood on at a busy performance and with a lot of loud special effects he will have been much more settled out in the foyer.
  • Content notes which include times of noise, lights & effects. As someone who has to wear earplugs at every performance, knowing where the loud bangs were going to be really did help ease both my anxiety and I could prepare. I often have to wear sunglasses with the lights and if my asthma is bad a smoke machine could trigger an attack (which is why I carry my mask) so being able to skim through the content was so useful to me. I know this would be useful for anyone who was attending with someone with additional needs when it wasn't a relaxed performance too.
  • Staff which care. The staff were superb to both Spencer and I today from looking after us to changing our seats last minute so I could stay in my wheelchair as my blood pressure was bad today. Accommodating, friendly and approachable. Just what you want.
So, I know overall they are amazing, but I wouldn't be an honest review without featuring a few points to keep in mind:
  • They have one small lift which can just about fit a standard wheelchair + carer, or a large wheelchair. A lot of people use this lift as it goes to all floors, which is why I recommend that even though they are more expensive tickets that the stalls are always your best bet. I've sat in the grand circle before and it took me along time to get down, so keep that in mind.
  • The parking is difficult. Not the theatres problem, but the council got rid of the disabled spaces right outside the theatre (thanks a lot). You now have to park in Dene Street car park (free for disabled) which only has 5/6 spaces but is one heck of a push for manual chairs. That's if you can't get parked on the main street but I've never seen a space there. Ever.
  • Their toilets are not 'changing spaces'. It's 2019 and I've got a feeling that changing spaces are going to grow. The disabled toilets at the theatre are okay, they have all the correct equipment it's just they're not particularly big. I couldn't get my (very large mind you) power chair into it easily so decided to walk and saw a carer struggling helping another adult. I know we can't magic up space but that's my only criticism.
Theatre Royal, you have been wonderful to me (and my dog) so thank you for making what usually is a stressful outing so much easier. We can't wait to come back again. If you want to see what they have on, check out the theatre's website here

Kate and Spencer x