Strangers on a train

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“I just wish I could be spontaneous.” This was said by another wheelchair user on the train to Dawlish on Thursday.

He had decided to travel by train, the first time in years. In common with all wheelchair users he was forced to plan ahead. You can’t just leap on a train in a wheelchair. Well, you can’t leap for a start. To begin with there are only two or maximum four wheelchair spaces. Two being the most common, four on the very long trains. When there are four, two are in first class.

Wheelchair spaces double or is it treble use anyway, as pushchair and large luggage areas. Why is there no other space on trains, or buses for that matter for pushchairs or large luggage? Are wheelchairs really just an afterthought? On a train at least you can usually book the wheelchair space. So, you have some right to the space. On a bus you rely on the goodwill of the other passengers to move. No law forces them to move. That’s right, there is no law enforceable about wheelchair spaces. A wheelchair user can be left stranded if an intransigent passenger refuses to move their stuff from a bus or train space. There needs to be a change in the law. Wheelchair users have no option to fold up their chair and sit themselves on their knee as a parent does with a child in a pushchair. Wheelchairs don’t fit down the aisles as luggage does. The wheelchair space is an essential, not a nicety.

One of the many wheelchair space layouts on a train

Back to our trip to Dawlish. Yesterday was the first time I have travelled with a second wheelchair alongside. We do tend to travel at less popular times and have only travelled Taunton to Dawlish. It was an odd experience, two wheelchairs in the two spaces make it tight for turning. I know its supposedly designed for two, but I have a large power wheelchair. Fortunately, the other guy had a smaller push wheelchair. The other wheelchair user was very chatty. What struck me most was his observation that I have heard before and noticed myself. People often think that the fact you are in a wheelchair gives them the right to offer advice. I suppose it’s a natural step on from the help folk offer, people are often very helpful. But advice is a mixed blessing, especially for this chap. He got the same unwanted advice repeatedly:

“why don’t you get a power wheelchair?”

He also got lots of offers to be pushed. As an independent young man, he particularly disliked that. He just wanted to be treated normally. Of course, that’s not going to happen. You can’t be treated normally in a wheelchair; our world is not setup for wheelchairs. Everywhere you go there are steps and narrow doorways. Doors that need holding open, tight corners, toilets that are too small or don’t have hoists etc. In a wheelchair you can’t do housework without a lot of adaptations and help. Kitchens need complete redesigns to be accessible, likewise bathrooms. I understand his desire, but reality is going to fight him. He has the muscular and physical strength to do the things I can’t and is still limited by his surroundings.

For myself I get lots of offers of help, Mary isn’t very tall, so folk can see she struggles operating my chair. I don’t mind that although I find it a surprise when people smile at me, men and women. I don’t mind the women. I guess it’s to be encouraging and positive. The last time this used to happened was many years ago when one of my sons was a baby and I was carrying him on my back. But I guess all the young ladies were smiling at him, not me. It’s just that his head was so close to mine… I wonder if there is a baby just behind my head in the wheelchair these days.

Our trip to Dawlish was to visit my 92-year-old father in law. He has made an amazing recovery after an emergency operation a few weeks ago and a time in ICU. He is an inspiration, how he has pulled round after that. We were out on the sea front walking and wheeling in the unexpected sunshine. What does BBC weather know anyway? On our way to Coryton Cove, it’s one of our favourite jaunts and a place Dad walks to most days. Now the weather has improved, the café at Coryton is open, so we stopped there for a coffee.

I grabbed a table; it was trying to run away. I had a choice of two, one next to a group of French ladies, just drying off from a swim and enjoying a fairly loud chat and even a sing. As we were still recovering from the train ride where just six ladies had impersonated a crowd of several thousand, I was not keen to choose that table. I looked to the other at the far end. It had a mixed group around it, equally loud. The table between the two had people sitting at it. In the end I chose the table near the Gallic ladies. I’ve always enjoyed the odd spattering of French, especially a good song. I have never been able to speak French, my French teacher at school threw her hands up in defeat. I was surprised though as I thought an F in French O level meant fantastic, but apparently it meant fail.

Mary and her Dad were buying the coffees, hence my agonising over the choice of tables. The position I had taken placed the rear of my wheelchair towards a slight step. I kept saying to myself, “don’t forget, do not go backwards.” Fortunately, I didn’t. The coffee was very nice for a paper cup, portable cabin coffee. The wind was light, the sun warm and the company wonderful. We then travelled to the URC Church for lunch.

On route to the Church, we saw the famous Dawlish black swans. They were next to the fountain near the viaduct. I was commenting to Mary on how the wind looked like it was blowing the water from the fountain towards the path, when it hit me, the water that is. Mary decided to stop a moment and enjoy looking at the swans. Not in anyway related to me getting a light shower. How refreshing on a hot day to get a light splash of fountain water, is what I wasn’t thinking as I asked Mary to move on.

Sausage and mash, is there anything better? Yes, sausage and mash without broccoli and cabbage! I couldn’t believe it, I ordered sausage and mash at the URC Church café and expected either onion gravy with peas or baked beans. But not gravy, carrots, broccoli, and cabbage. What is happening to the world? I know there are some serious issues, but I didn’t know it had got this bad. Still at least I could leave the cabbage and broccoli. The URC Church café do a main, pudding and drink for £5, seems good value. It’s also a nice big space for my wheelchair and has a ramp access. They let me have a cheese scone as my pudding as I don’t eat sweet stuff. It’s a choice I made a few months ago. The easiest thing to do when you are mobility limited is to eat. The easiest things to eat are sweet things. I can eat a packet of biscuits, or a bar of chocolate at one go. So, if I don’t have those things at all, it stops me gaining weight. That way I won’t end up needing an extra-large wheelchair or bed. Doesn’t stop me fancying sweet stuff, but I can just about keep off them.

After lunch we had a short time to visit Dads flat before our train home. Dad’s flat is a tight fit for my wheelchair, but just about possible. I was able to sort out his laptop for him. Nothing major, such things would be beyond me now. Just checking why the internet had lost connection. Then it was time to head to the station, the required twenty minutes before the train. You can’t arrive last minute when you have assisted travel.

The sun was really beating down on our trip to the station and on the platform. If you don’t know Dawlish station it overlooks the sea. In a storm the sea overflows the station. We looked out at the flat, glistening ocean. A beautiful end to a very enjoyable day.

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How the station looked when we were there
This is what can happen to Dawlish Station in a storm

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