The nightmare of visiting Peterborough city centre if you are disabled

Tears, despair and exhaustion - three words which sum up trying to navigate around Peterborough city centre if you are disabled.

By Joel Lamy
Thursday, 10th June 2021, 4:56 am

Others could also include “frightening” and “battleground” - two of which were used by non-disabled people who were horrified by what they witnessed after seeing first-hand just how torrid an experience it is to make a trip to the heart of Peterborough if you have additional needs.

As part of our new ‘Peterborough Unlimited’ campaign, the Peterborough Telegraph joined several people with differing disabilities on a tour of the city centre after hearing how difficult a place it is to navigate.

And the 90 minute experience left us in no doubt that changes need to be made to make the area accessible for all.

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Julie Fernandez trying to get down Bourges Boulevard

During the tour, we witnessed:

. Several vehicles heading through Cathedral Square, forcing people with limited mobility to move out of the way

. Adults and children in wheelchairs unable to navigate steep slopes, making it almost impossible to get into Queensgate.

. Struggles to access the city centre’s only fully accessible toilet, situated at Car Haven Car Park

Moving vehicles in the city centre

. Street furniture which is hard to navigate around.

After we had finished the tour, PT photographer David Lowndes summed up: “For the normal person in the street, coming out for a bit of retail therapy is a pleasant experience. But if you’re disabled it’s a battleground.

“Every few yards you have street furniture or al-fresco dining furniture or traffic coming down a pedestrian area. You can’t relax for one moment.

“If it was me in a wheelchair I would go to Spalding.”

Graham Barnes navigating the steep underpass slope EMN-210406-101731009

To begin with, we all met up in Cathedral Square before heading down Cowgate, but it was not long before several vehicles began to come our way, forcing adults to hurriedly move their children to one side.

One issue which was quickly flagged up was how the street blocks were the same beige colour as the paving on the floor, an issue compounded by the outdoor seating at restaurants including Pizza Express and Five Guys.

Julie Fernandez is the former project development manager at Disability Peterborough and a prominent campaigner, as well as an actress who starred in hit sitcom The Office.

She said: “For people who have a visual disability these blocks are the same colour as the paving, so it would be really hard for some with a visual impairment to be able to ascertain that they are even there, and then they can knock into them and fall over and hurt themselves.

Julie Fernandez showing how items from Pizza Express are the same colour as floor paving, which is a problem for people with limited mobility

“It’s really simple, put a colour band around them - something bright.”

Autism campaigner Nazreen Bibi was joined by daughter Mirdy (22), who is severely autistic and epileptic, and Aly (25), who is severely autistic and has ADHD.

She said: “There’s no quieter table where they can eat. They are noisy and people move away.”

The most eye-opening experience came at the end of Cowgate, where Graham Barnes, who has cerebral palsy and relies on a wheelchair, attempted to wheel his way up and down the underpass towards the station.

Graham (34) is a fit man, but even for him the strain of trying to navigate the steep slope was obvious.

The pain was also felt by those watching him, including leader of the Green group on Peterborough City Council Cllr Julie Howell, who herself has multiple sclerosis - a condition that can affect the brain and spinal cord.

Street furniture makes Cowgate narrow for people in wheelchairs

“It’s a bit like an Olympic sport to try to get to the station,” she remarked.

“I hadn’t appreciated as a pedestrian just how steep it is around here.

“Seeing people in wheelchairs really struggling to get up street pavements, and then going hurtling down a hill at frightening speed, and they are just trying to get to the train station which is something I’d always taken for granted. 

“It’s frightening to think this is what disabled travellers are faced with when they just want to get to the station.”

But if navigating the underpass was hard enough, going from Cowgate into the bus station was on another level, with even Graham commenting that the path is “too steep,” meaning he had no choice but to take an alternative, and much longer, route.

Julie Fernandez went one step further: “This is definitely unsafe,” she remarked as she eyed up the journey past moving buses.

“Crossing over isn’t accessible as the pavement is uneven. Then you have to cross over to another section and there’s no drop kerb. And look how steep it is.”

Rebecca Stannard is 12 and has spina bifida.

She said: “It’s pretty bad. If it was my first time using a wheelchair, and it was a big one, I would probably fall.

“It’s probably too steep for me.”

The slope and the noise from the buses proved too much for Rebecca who would not even attempt to head towards the bus station and sadly burst into tears, with mum Hayley having to comfort her.

The experience was eye-opening to Cllr Howell, who commented: “That’s a really, sudden, steep hill. I’m stunned - I hadn’t realised.”

While we decided it was not worth venturing towards Queensgate, Graham had headed through the underpass to the rail station to highlight the poor choices people with disabilities have when deciding how to get into the shopping centre.

These are: navigating the steep underpass towards Cowgate, using a car park lift before going across a footbridge, or crossing Bourges Boulevard and either navigating stairs or having to find an alternative entrance.

After we rejoined Graham, he acknowledged just how tired he was, and he was not the only one as by now we were all feeling exhausted.

So having gone back through Cowgate and navigated past the street furniture, we reconvened outside St Peter’s Arcade which at the time was shut, although it has since re-opened.

By now the experience had become too much for Rebecca, so she left with her mum, while the PT was soon speaking to another person who wished to remain anonymous, who told us: “We need new signs for adults and children with additional needs.

“There is also nowhere for them to get changed.”

This was a message relayed to us by Nazreen who we joined on a trip to the only Changing Places toilet in the city centre at the Car Haven Car Park, behind the Town Hall.

Changing Places toilets provide extra equipment and space for people with profound physical and learning disabilities.

With St Peter’s Arcade shut, apart from to allow outdoor seating for Argo Lounge, it meant travelling down Bridge Street which was extremely busy despite it being a weekday, and as Julie Fernandez noted: “There’s paraphernalia everywhere.”

What was worse, heading from Bridge Street to Car Haven (where there are Blue Badge parking spaces) required using the pavement on Bourges Boulevard which has been cut back due to building works.

The irony was not lost that St Peter’s Arcade (a much quicker route) had been closed for social distancing reasons, which meant diverting us to a much narrower path where people heading in opposite directions could not get past each other.

For Nazreen, it summed up the difficulty in getting her daughter to a toilet she can use.

“It is a long, long walk, especially if you are in a wheelchair, and there’s no signage,” she said. “And when you get here there’s no hoist or a bed for an adult to lay in to get someone changed.

“There’s just about enough space for two people.

“The disabled toilets are not fit for purpose.

“And people who are autistic will struggle to know where the nearest toilets are. There are no signs anywhere. People would not know where to go.”

By now we were all relieved to call it a day.

Samantha Stokes, operations manager and case worker for Disability Peterborough, had joined us on the trip, and reflecting on what she had witnessed she told the PT: “For me it’s the lack of signage for basic places like the bus station or train station which are not accessible.

“For visually impaired people it’s the baigeness of things like the blending of obstacles which is something easy to rectify and cheap.”

Julie Fernandez added: “For 30 years I have worked in the field of disability and rights - as a disabled person myself it has always been really important to me.

“The fact that I am still communicating the same issues 30 years on is frustrating and I hope very much that Peterborough City Council will recognise that investing in accessibility will support everyone and is not something that can or should be ignored.”

Graham trying to get from the rail station to Queensgate via Bourges Boulevard
Vehicles regularly came down Cathedral Square
Nazreen Bibi at the Changing Places toilet at Car Haven Car Park