But there was another, happier, reason we couldn’t visit: Tintagel Castle was closed for construction because English Heritage, the charity that manages Tintagel and more than 400 other historic properties, was building a footbridge linking the mainland to the headland where the ruins are located, finally allowing visitors with walking disabilities to bypass the steps and experience Tintagel Castle up close.
The new footbridge opened Aug. 11, just three days after my mom, Chloe, and I returned home from our British adventure. Although it’s made of steel, local Cornish slate and oak, the new structure isn’t a modern intrusion. Instead, it re-creates a narrow land bridge that was used during the Middle Ages until it was lost to erosion sometime in the 15th or 16th century.
“It means that for the first time, visitors can experience the castle as a whole, as it was originally conceived, and crucially without having to tackle the steep steps which were the only option previously,” Liz Page, a historic properties director for English Heritage, said via email.
Tintagel Castle isn’t alone. We discovered that all the ancient sites we visited in England are actively working to add features to increase accessibility without compromising the historical integrity of their buildings or landscapes.
Retrofitting existing structures for handicap accessibility can be challenging under the best of circumstances. But when those structures and sites are millennia-old places of worldwide historical importance — that are also protected by laws like the U.K.’s Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act of 1979, which limit the changes that can be made — the task is even more daunting.
Take the Tower of London, where the entire site is protected — including its buildings, archaeology and even the cobblestones — Alfred Hawkins, historic buildings curator for Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that manages the tower, said via email.
Besides, the Tower of London wasn’t exactly built with friendliness in mind. It was, among other things, a prison, after all.
“As a fortress, its architecture has been designed with the single requirement of making access difficult or impossible,” Hawkins said.
Indeed, of all the ancient sites we visited, the Tower of London was the most difficult to get around with crutches and a wheelchair, even with the help of the detailed, nine-page “Access Guide” we received on arrival. There were uneven, cobbled surfaces, tight spiral staircases, and buildings that were almost completely inaccessible, like the White Tower, built by William the Conqueror and today housing an armory, where elevators only access the basement. We also tried to follow the Yeoman Warder tour, included with the ticket price, but quickly lost sight of our red-jacketed Beefeater guide when he took a route that included stairs.
Luckily, Chloe wasn’t interested in suits of armor, swords or tales of beheadings. Instead, her heart was with the opulent, glittering crown jewels, which we visited without trouble.
“The Jewel House exhibition is fully accessible for anyone with mobility issues, which is really important for us at the Tower,” Nicole Stockton-Davies, visitor services assistant manager at the Tower of London, said via email. “We have a powered lift up to the viewing platform, and the direction of the moving walkways [is] regularly reversed for wheelchair users, so they can still have a 360-degree view of the Crown Jewels.”
Outside of London, we found accessibility success at other sites, too, including ones that are even older than the nearly 1,000-year-old Tower of London, like the Roman Baths in Bath.
“The Roman Baths and Temple Precinct were built 2,000 years ago and were never designed with disabled people in mind, and as the city has been built above the ruins over the centuries they are below current street level,” Katie Smith, visitor experience manager for the Roman Baths and Pump Room, said via email. “This makes the site very difficult to open up to everyone.”
Despite those challenges, Smith noted that 90 percent of the site is now step-free and accessible to wheelchair users, thanks to “clever solutions” that are permissible within its protected ancient status. For instance, workers suspended a new walkway over the Temple Precinct with “very thin superstrong wire strands from the ceiling” instead of resting it on the Roman stonework, and its four elevators were “squeezed into spaces without disturbing anything of historic importance.”
For our family, even the step-free access at the Roman Baths was challenging, but manageable. Although the uneven stones around the Great Bath were difficult for the transport chair to move across, Chloe had no trouble walking over them using her forearm crutches, while I continually implored her to “Be careful!” and “Slow down” as she zoomed ahead of me on the slippery stone.
Smith knows the uneven Roman pavement can present a mobility struggle.
“We have been looking into buying some more wheelchairs with wider, softer wheels which should be more comfortable to use,” she said.
Also coming in 2020 is a newly excavated area next to the Great Bath, “which will have accessible interpretation and fully accessible walkways,” she said.
The site with the best accessibility was also the oldest: the Neolithic Stonehenge, which is about 5,000 years old and opened a new visitor center in 2013 that Page says allowed English Heritage to “radically improve access.”
“Now, all the visitor facilities and exhibition space are accessible to wheelchairs, pushchairs and small mobility scooters, while state-of-the art buses, adapted for wheelchairs, transport all visitors to the stone circle itself, from where there is a level circular route right around the monument,” she said.
Traveling to and around Stonehenge was not just possible for us, it was easy. We also experienced the site the same way every other visitor did, rather than having to take special, circuitous routes or traverse makeshift ramps.
Of course, accessibility isn’t just about mobility, which these sites also understand. That’s why you can find accommodations like descriptive tours for the visually impaired and “hidden disability” lanyards for visitors to wear at the Tower of London, and British Sign Language tours on handheld devices and free off-hours events for families with autism at the Roman Baths.
The accessibility at some ancient sites was better than others — it was good at the medieval University of Oxford but nonexistent at Glastonbury Tor — but overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily accessible most historic sites were to us and other visitors with disabilities, especially since that hasn’t always been our experience at home in the United States (city of Boston, take note). Plus, most of the sites offer free “carer” tickets for someone accompanying a person with a disability, so I paid admission for Chloe but not for myself.
“In striving to reach everyone, we have to understand that a range of barriers are placed in the way of some people accessing our palaces, our stories and the experiences we offer,” said Stockton-Davies. “Whilst we can’t go back a thousand years to intervene in William the Conqueror’s planning ambitions, we can, at Historic Royal Palaces, consider how our decisions in 2019 affect our broad range of visitors with this in mind.”
Pecci is a writer in New Hampshire. Her website is alexandrapecci.contently.com.