Not many people agree with me when I wax lyrical about the smell of the London Underground. For me the combination of hot rubber, industrial detergent and all manner of human odours is strangely comforting. Yes, I do like it. What I struggle with is the fat slug of passengers clogging up every inch of space from the ticket barriers to the platforms. Somehow you’re supposed to find a hole in the slug’s body and dive through it to the other side, as if your life depends on it. If you happen to misjudge this move there’s a risk that you’ll get swallowed up into the slug’s huge digestive system and end up being spewed onto the wrong platform somewhere far away. Timing is crucial when you’re negotiating the London Underground. One false move and you find yourself being swept along in the wrong direction, feet flailing, arms flapping, heart sinking.
As a visually impaired person, dodging the giant human slug in the Underground is a heart attack in the making. Last week when I attended the Guide dog of the Year Awards I had to face the beast head on. Luckily I was accompanied by a travel-wise mate. Having a savvy mate by your side is a fantastic help, but if you add a hoovering Guide dog and an overloaded rucksack with wheels that don’t wheel – the best made plans crumble into chaos. My rucksack with the dodgy wheels was kindly adopted by my companion for the duration of our London trek. All I had to do therefore, was to steer The Hoover.
We would have been fine had it not been for the aforementioned slug of tourists and commuters. This giant beast wedged its great body between us numerous times, which left us frequently calling to each other desperate not to get separated forever. Trying to listen for directions with a hoover-in-harness eyeballing every grain on the ground was no mean feat. Our stress levels quickly peaked. The effort of remaining calm whilst being swept away by a perpetually moving monster would test the nerves of the most accomplished traveller. “Where are you?” I’d call. “Over here – in front of you!” was the disappearing answer, and we’d be lucky to reunite within the next five minutes. We lost count of the number of times we had to hunt down an unoccupied space and simply “take stock”.
Another major bane was escalators. Those massive metal mountains which move up and up and up…! Guide dogs cannot travel on escalators because of the risk of their paws getting trapped, so every time we encountered an escalator we had to hunt for a London Transport staff member. This was not straightforward. When I lived in London in the early 1990’s there was no such thing as Help Points, so it was mere chance that my mate came across a circular white disc at Euston fitted with Help and Emergency buttons.
We didn’t expect any joy when she pressed the Help button, so when a disembodied voice answered our SOS call it was extremely heartening. London Transport staff were mostly very helpful once we’d located the Help Points. But there appeared to be no logical system as to their whereabouts, so searching for Help Points became a quest in itself every time we chanced upon a dreaded escalator. And once the offending escalators were halted hundreds of steps needed climbing. There was a moment at Oxford Circus when my companion sailed by on a parallel escalator (there has to be some perk for being the luggage carrier!), and I was seriously beginning to wane. The steps seemed to be endless, and my legs were growing heavier by the second. As she passed by she called out to me “Come on Claire!” and somehow I found a spurt of energy that I didn’t know I had. I’m not sure if Trudy felt more tired than I did, but her front paws were definitely sagging by the time we made it to the top. It might not have been so bad had we not had to repeat this exercise at least ten times!
On our second day we decided to be tourists and visit Buckingham Palace. Green Park was possibly our trickiest tube station, but we did not know this when we hatched our plans over breakfast. Puffing our guts out ascending Green Park’s stationary escalator might have seemed worthwhile had the sky not decided to empty its latrine bucket over our heads just as we exited the station. Playing the tourist in London invariably gets you soaking wet – as we discovered the hard way. London rain is hard, relentless, back-stabbing, rib-jabbing pain. It literally penetrated our bones as we traipsed through Green Park, vaguely taking in the scene of mounted Police and majestic trees. I decided to give Trudy the chance to have a free run despite the fact that we were almost drowning. A group of excited Japanese tourists pelted past laughing at the force of the downpour. We were unable to share their merriment.
Trudy was dashing about with the bells on her collar jingling in time to the rain. She seemed oblivious to the cold shards of silver being hurled from the sky. Herein lies the sorriest part of my tale. Trudy used her freedom wisely and performed a “busy” on the grass as we neared Buckingham Palace. I dutifully pulled a bag from my pocket in order to deposit her offering in the nearest bin. All the while the rain was continuing to assault our bodies and we were hunched over double. I turned towards my rucksack with the dodgy wheels and expressed concern that it might look “unattended” while we were retrieving Trudy’s “busy”. At this point I wondered where the “busy” actually was, for it had seemingly disappeared. In fact it had not disappeared at all – it was under my shoe. This was quite possibly the lowest point of our London experience. There was a poignant moment of despair and self-loathing, but once my shoe had been washed in a series of puddles the hilarity of the situation took over. Laughter is truly a great medicine. Hence we were able to reach our destination, Buckingham Palace, where we lingered for about thirty seconds. The rain was still venomous, so we decided to head back towards the shelter of Green Park station.
As we neared the station we came across a Marks and Spencer, and the prospect of a sandwich tempted us in. Dripping pools of water onto the floor we took refuge behind a huge pillar in order to try to organise our sodden belongings. Trudy, who was hoovering up crumbs, shook her waterlogged fur all over a smartly dressed lady . If that smartly dressed lady happens to be reading this, I apologise on behalf of my soggy hound. Throughout the watery chaos we were being watched by a store detective who must have labelled us “suspicious persons” right from the moment we entered. Against the odds, we did manage to buy a sandwich and that kept our spirits afloat as we headed back towards the mayhem of Green Park station. Many escalators, steps, platforms, crowds and near-heart attacks later, we were sitting on the train at Paddington about to start our homeward journey.
Hereford and London are two vastly contrasting places. When you’re in Hereford, London seems magical, exciting, buzzing, and alluring. But once you actually hit that heaving hub of humans, the magic fades into unease, and slowly that unease changes to all-out panic. After just 24 hours of city strife I was longing for the pure oxygen and grassy hills of Herefordshire. Now as I sit at my desk I smile as I remember pouring over Tubeplanner early last week. It is a great online resource for would-be Tube travellers, but memorising the stops on the Bakerloo line whilst sitting in your living room does NOT prepare you at all for the brutal reality of the London Underground. Having said that, I have not ruled out another trip at some point in the future!