A month ago I finally got to go on a special train trip that I was originally supposed to do in 2017. It got cancelled then and in 2018 I couldn’t manage it but after much debate and my changing my mind twice we pulled it off in March.
I went to London for what turned out to be three nights (one at Stratford and two at St Pancras) and on one of the days I went down for a quick breakfast as soon as they started serving at 6:30 am and then dived across to St Pancras for 7 where I met a friend and we got the Eurostar across to Brussels for the day.
We went out of the second train of the day at 8:16 (if you need assisted travel you have to be there 75 minutes before the train so we didn’t think the 6 something was achievable) and then got the last train back which got back to London at just after 9:30 our time. We had about 9 hours in Brussels but that included the 75 minutes we needed to check in, sort assisted travel etc.
The Eurostar was very accessible on board, easy to get on and a spacious wheelchair space. They are in Business Premier and Standard Premier and both are the same price. Annoying, I couldn’t find any Business Premier wheelchair spaces on the trains we wanted in the week we were looking at going but Standard Premier was very nice, we got a light meal on board (wine on the way back!) and because of my chair we were allowed to go and wait in the Business Premier lounge regardless.
The staff were very helpful in both London and Brussels but the actual people getting me on and off the trains in London were a bit rubbish. I have always said that London stations aren’t great at assisted travel so some things never change! I was really impressed with the people who did the actual assistance on and off the trains in Brussels.
The very first thing that we did when getting off the train in Brussels was have a minor problem getting off the platform because of a broken lift. Again with the some things never change!
Looking back I did have a good time but I will admit that one or two parts of the day were tricky and I got a bit upset at one point wishing perhaps that we hadn’t gone.
I travelled abroad a fair amount with family as a child and a teen but I didn’t get my first powerchair until just after I graduated at 22. Although I have been abroad since then I hadn’t been abroad for over 10 years and this was the first time I went abroad using a powerchair (although I did briefly hire one abroad some years before I got my own, I was staying in a hotel that catered specifically to the disabled traveller at that point though).
Before we went I did a lot of research on accessibility and things to do. I found a particular s written by a regular traveller called John Morris who uses a powerchair especially helpful, that guide is here
I will add that one of the big problems we had was with a lack of dropped kerbs (I swear it seems like no one in Brussels, or at least the part we were in, has heard of such a thing). I reread the information John Morris had posted about what he calls “rollability of sidewalks” (he dedicates an entire post to this in his Brussels travel guide) on the train home and I have to say my experience doesn’t match his.
However I think confidence in your own abilities and that of your wheelchair goes a long way to making things accessible. I certainly got my chair up and down higher kerbs than I usually was and coped fine (although my friend did describe my chair as a stunt chair at one point). That half boosted my confidence, half made me worry about breaking my chair and getting stuck.
We did manage to get quite a lot done but there were a couple of things I’d hoped to do we couldn’t physically get too despite trying (rubbish dropped kerbs and a steep hill meaning I was concerned about not having enough charge). I struggled mentally with that and feeling like I wasn’t making the most of it at the time (particularly because it was windy, drizzly on and off and not warm) but afterwards, looking back and less tired I’m thrilled with what we did do.
We started off walking to Mannekin Pis which is a famous statue. Then we went to La Grand Place which is one of the Unesco World Heritage sites. It was a really impressive square with wonderful architecture but none of the buildings are wheelchair accessible. It’s still worth a visit though.
Next we had a relatively long wander around while trying to get to Mont des Artes which we didn’t managed to get to as I mentioned above. I did enjoy just seeing what was happening and the odd interesting thing we spotted. There is a large collection of street art in Brussels, particularly comic book murals. I love street art so we kept our eyes peeled and managed to see 9 or 10 of them with no effort which I was thrilled by.
Then we went to Galleries Royal Saint Hubert which is a shopping centre famous for it’s architecture. We went to a bar in there for our Belgian snack of choice (both glad for a rest by this point!) I had Frites and C, the friend who I was with had a waffle (I’m not a dessert fan so I skipped the traditional Belgian treat). We visited a couple of chocolate shops in their after our food.
Once we’d eaten we went on rather a hunt to find an accessible toilet and eventually found a Marriot hotel which C went into and sweet talked them into opening the accessible entrance (the main door was a revolving one and there was a locked regular door next to it) and letting me use the facilities. Usually McDonalds is the answer to that problem but the only one we found wasn’t suitable.
We went back to wandering for a fair while after that, saw a few interesting things and spotted some more street art but didn’t do or see anything specific. Then we made it back to the train station about an hour before we needed to, I got another snack and we just hung out until it was time to check in and we could avail ourselves of the business class lounge again. I’d drained my batteries from 10 bars to 3 by that point so I had to sit still while C went to investigate the food court at the station as I knew a low battery warning wasn’t far off and I had to get on the train and back to my hotel in London (it’s about a third of a mile). I was pleased to see the Belgian Eurostar business lounge had UK sockets so I could top my poor chair up (I had taken an EU adaptor but was glad not to need it).
All in all it was an exhausting but fun day. I’d definitely go on Eurostar again and I would probably go to Brussels again. I hope to do a day trip to Paris similar to this at some point although at the moment I must admit the lure of a trip to Amsterdam is higher. That would need to be a longer trip (more than a day) and would be trickier as you have to change trains in Brussels so it might be a while before that can happen (not this year).