New vision for a Victorian hideaway: Hotels for the visually impaired guests are now open to anyone
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Saturday 10 July 2010
Until recently, only the select few could spend a few days in the Lake District at a Victorian pile that used to be the holiday home of the Coutts family: Coutts, as in bankers to the aristocracy. But recently this exclusive establishment has opened its doors to the general public, particularly those who want to get away from it all with man's best friend.
Let me explain: Windermere Manor (01539 445801; visionhotels.co.uk ) is one of four hotels which – until recently – were open only to blind and partially sighted people. But in these days of inclusion, disability legislation and "access all areas", the concept of holidays that segregate disabled people from the rest of society seems out of step.
The four properties, owned by the charity, Action for Blind People, have been re-branded under the name Vision Hotels. Anyone is now welcome to check in, and because so many blind people use assistance dogs, the chain might have a particular appeal to those of us who want to holiday with our canines.
The first thing you notice when you cross the threshold at the Manor is that there is no difference at all from your average country-house hotel. There is wood panelling in abundance, friendly, helpful staff and the feeling that you have come to a place of rest and relaxation.
The manager, Chris Lawrence, led me into the dining room. He explained that this ornate room had once been the family's private chapel.
"There's a step-up at the end of the room where the altar used to be," he said. "I think it was a bit of a fad at the time because there are a couple of other, large houses round here which had their own chapels." Private worship was – it seems – the Victorian equivalent of a hot tub or a conservatory.
After the Coutts family had moved on to pastures new, the Manor had a number of other uses including being a convalescent home for wounded service personnel and a Borstal.
Unsurprisingly, the guest rooms were probably long ago stripped of their original fixtures and fittings. They now display all of the charm and style of a budget hotel room. I always request a walk-in shower, and therefore always end up with a wheelchair accessible room: the bathroom facilities would not be out of place in a hospital or residential home.
But it is in catering for four-legged guests that the hotel truly comes into its own. Not only is there a doggy loo – known as the spending pen – but there is also a grooming room, complete with shower. Dogs are provided with a feeding bowl, a fleece and can choose from around a dozen varieties of dog food – prescription diets catered for upon request. Guide dogs have the run of the place. Pet dogs are somewhat second-class citizens: they are expected to stay in their owners' rooms but are welcome to run around outside, especially in the designated "free-run" areas.
Mealtimes – for people, not dogs – are a little on the restrictive side: breakfast, for example, is served from 7.45-9.15am even at weekends, while last orders for dinner is at 8pm.
Most hotels in Europe and North America have to comply with minimum "access standards" to accommodate people with disabilities. Why, then, would a disabled person seek out a special disabled-only destination?
The answer is that facilities like those provided at Windermere Manor go way beyond what the law requires. Ramps, lifts and wider doorways are one thing, but no hotel chain need lose sleep about being sued for the absence of a spending pen. Others feel that they can relax rather than feel awkward about their disability.
"If you do something silly or you get lost, you just have a laugh about it," said one of my fellow guests, Mavis Brennan.
Geoff Adams-Spink is the BBC's Age & Disability Correspondent
Disabled people want to live in a world where they can stay anywhere. But with transport becoming more and more accessible, ever greater numbers of us will be on the move. Establishments that go beyond box ticking are always likely to prove popular. These are a couple of favourites of mine.
The little French resort of Berck-sur-Mer (00 33 3 21 09 50 00; berck-tourisme.com ), which is about half an hour from Calais, has set out to attract more older and disabled visitors. There are a couple of hotels that have a large number of accessible rooms, but it is in the town's infrastructure and culture that the difference is felt. There are plenty of disabled parking bays and shops and restaurants are more than welcoming. "I didn't get the usual stares that seem to follow me everywhere I go," said my Belgian thalidomide friend, Martine Olivier.
Those with mobility difficulties, who are looking for more than the standard wheelchair-accessible room, can sun themselves at the appropriately named Mar y Sol Hotel (00 34 922 750 540; marysol.org ) on Tenerife. The place was built by a German as a gift to his wife who had MS. Her doctors had advised that a stay on the island would be therapeutic. The hotel has 139 adapted rooms, all with walk/wheel-in showers. Guests can avail themselves of an assistance service should they need help with washing, dressing or eating; a nurse is on call 24 hours a day. There are three pools (all with hoists) and even the sunbeds are at the right height for transfer from a wheelchair. The hotel also has a disabled-friendly diving school, golf course-friendly wheelchairs and a therapy centre.
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