July 2017 Favourites

Large blue whale skeleton hanging in the large hall of the Natural History Museum. Its mouth is open and it looks like it's diving down towards the crowd below.

Hello again, hope you’re doing well! This has been another busy and very enjoyable month, most significantly including my first experiences of audio described museum tours, along with more social events, festivals and some other nice walks. So I hope you enjoy this latest roundup!


Audio Described Museum Tours

This month I had a few audio described tours at museums, which were all wonderful, as they greatly enhanced my experience of looking at the items on display.

Museum Of London Docklands: Sailortown

Mum and I had a wonderful tour of the Sailortown exhibition at the Museum Of London Docklands this month, which we had seen listed on the VocalEyes website. And it was particularly special because, much to our surprise, it turned out we were the only people who had booked! So we got a personalised tour with our very generous guide Peter. We thought perhaps he wouldn’t bother if there were just two of us, but he was very happy to take us round, and he was really friendly and knowledgeable. Plus it is quite dark in there, so it was certainly useful to have someone to describe what was going on.

It was really interesting hearing about how the sailors and workers at the docks used to live and work, without any health and safety of course. The mock-up of Sailortown village was also great, with a little bar we sat in for a bit, and even a pet emporium. Sailors used to bring back animals of all sorts, which people had never seen or heard before, so it was a massive trade – you could buy elephants, lions, tigers and all sorts of other things.

The amount of destruction that went on during the war is also hard to comprehend. And another disaster was the sinking of the SS Princess Alice paddle steamer ferry, which was hit by the coal ship Bywell Castle off Tripcock Point in 1878 with over 650 people killed. It’s the worst disaster in the history of the Thames, but we don’t hear about it because the Princess Alice victims were just working class and thus unimportant at the time, whereas those on the Titanic were rich people.

There were also a lot of fires in the docks at the time, because everything was constructed out of wood, there were lots of flammable materials around including alcohol, and the firefighting abilities at the time were nothing like we have today. Some fires could last for a couple of weeks, which seems incredible today.

As well as hearing all the interesting history and stories, we were able to touch, hold and smell lots of things too, including a huge capstan that was used to reel in ships to port. It’s a massive round structure with lots of large square holes around the top. Wooden blocks were inserted into these holes, with ropes attached to the ship. The men would then push the capstan around, causing the ship to be pulled in. The strength the men had back then was incredible, and they had inventive ways of using ropes to move and lift heavy things.

We also got to feel a wooden boat, pet cages, a small kettle and a large piano in a living room of the time, trolleys for transporting items, a bomb that was dropped during the war, and a steel column that turned into molten metal due to the sheer heat of an incendiary bomb.

We also got to sit in a very small, round, metal shelter, with slits above your heads to let in air, that was used by police, firemen, etc during the war (not the general public). You wouldn’t survive if a bomb landed directly on the shelter, but it was good protection from things like shrapnel. They also had telephones in there, because if they were aware of the Germans flying over, they could ring their bosses to let them know where they were coming from and where they were headed. Every little bit of information counted at the time, as radar wasn’t always that precise. It was amazing to see how small the shelter was, it was really cramped with both Mum and I sitting in there.

So we thoroughly enjoyed the tour, which lasted about an hour altogether. I’ll definitely have to go back to the museum to look around it in more detail, as they have lots of exhibitions there. And it would be cool to go on more descriptive tours they do, both there and at the main Museum of London.

British Museum: Hokusai

The other audio described tour I went on this month (without Mum this time) was at the British Museum, where I went to see Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave (Hokusai being a very influential Japanese artist). This was advertised and put on by VocalEyes, so they had a describer there, while a curator of the exhibition came round with us as well.

And it was fascinating. I haven’t explored art galleries before, and I’ve always wondered if I’d find them a bit dry or boring. But this really brought it to life for me. Firstly we had a handling session, so you could see and feel the woodblocks that he used, including one that was carved out with the design of the painting that was going to result from it. It was so intricate and detailed. To feel that, along with all the brushes, paper and materials that he used to produce his imagery, really helped to underline how creative he was, how intricate his work was, and how complicated it was. And that made us appreciate the artistry all the more when we then explored the exhibition itself.

We didn’t go through every single image in the exhibition of course, as that would have taken way too long, but we focused on quite a few of the key ones. They were described in detail to us by the VocalEyes describer, and then the curator was able to give us all the context and meaning and other information behind it.

So the audio description and the extra information really gelled and connected together nicely. It really brought it all to life and made it interesting. So much so that I actually got a DVD all about it as well. I never thought I’d buy an art DVD, but this one proved to be very interesting when I watched it on my computer. Especially because it has close-ups of paintings like The Great Wave and others, so I could spot detail on screen that even on the day I couldn’t quite see.

But on the day I was able to use my monocular to look at the paintings, which helped too. We also had a large print guide there as well, which I was using in conjunction with the audio description. And that was useful because, as well as large print text, it also has large versions of the paintings. They’re slightly simplified drawings of course, but still quite complex nonetheless. And they have labels on as well, pointing to the different areas of the image. So by using that, it was basically a map for me. By comparing the large print drawing with the actual painting, using the labels to guide me, I could find and focus on elements that I might otherwise have missed.

So using all those different tools – the audio description, the curator’s description, the large print guide, and my monocular – really helped me to understand and appreciate it all much more. And that’s the kind of thing you need with art I think. It’s easy to look at paintings and think that they look nice, but it’s quite another experience to actually hear the stories and meanings behind them. It does make it all the more interesting.

After the tour I also took part in a focus group session, with a couple of students from the University of Westminster who are doing a PhD in the use of audio description for visually impaired people. And we had some sandwiches, drinks and other nibbles to keep us going as well. They split us into two groups, so I was with 4 other people (2 couples), and the student we had was really nice and friendly too. So we had a good long chat for over half an hour, which she recorded on her iPad, and we’re also going to be sent a follow-up questionnaire by email soon. We all emphasised the importance of multiple layers in the description – not just how the image looks, but the stories, meanings and emotions behind it to put it into context and appreciate it more. So hopefully they got plenty of useful information from us.

As for the people I was with in that group, they were two couples who I had befriended during the day, hence we were all put together as they knew we got on well and could chat freely together. And the most significant person among them was Jess, who is a project co-ordinator at South East London Vision (SELVis). So she knew Bhavini, who runs the East London (ELVis) group that I’m a member of, but also said that I’m welcome to attend some of the SELVis events as well, which I didn’t realise was possible. So I’ve given her my email address in case she wants to get in touch, and we’ll see if anything happens there. It’ll be fun if I have another group I can meet up with!

So it was a very enjoyable day altogether. If you’re visually impaired and think that art is boring or inaccessible, I would strongly suggest looking on the VocalEyes website for museums near you, and just trying out a tour like this. Because you might be surprised – I certainly was!

Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum was the first museum where I ever got to experience audio description and handling objects, when I had one of my first outings with East London Vision a few months ago.

This time I didn’t have an in-person tour, but I saw on the museum’s Access page that they have a few recorded audio described tours available, which you can listen to on your smartphone while walking around the galleries. So I enjoyed trying a couple of those this month.

The first was for their main Hintze Hall. The most obvious attraction here is the massive skeleton of a blue whale called Hope, which replaces Dippy The Dinosaur. You can see it better from up above I’ve found. From below it’s quite dark on the underside, because of the way the lighting is coming from above. But when you go up on the balconies, so you can see the light shining down on it, it does look amazing.

And then I also tried the audio tour of their Human Evolution gallery, which takes you through the 4 sections of the gallery, focusing on one or two specific things in each area to describe in detail. It worked pretty well too, as it was easy to follow the directions to find each exhibit, the information was interesting, and you could feel quite a few of the model skulls as well, which helped to understand what they were like.

I also went to their Whales: Beneath The Surface exhibition. This one didn’t have audio description available, but it did have a large print guide. Unfortunately it wasn’t always easy to find out which way to go, because the route jumped around a little bit, and it was also bound back to front, so you had to read the pages in reverse order! There was a sort of logical order to it all, but I did have to hunt for the next exhibit on a few occasions. There was also a little section where you were given different types of prey that were hunted by the different types of whales, and you had to lift a flap to find out which whale hunted each type of prey. The large print guide told you what the items of prey were, but then didn’t tell you what you’d find if you lifted the flap! It just repeated the “Lift the flap” instruction. So the guide could have been much better, but otherwise the exhibition itself was really good. And incidentally, if you want to hear about other things that frustrate me sometimes, check out my recent post and video called Room 101 – My Visually Impaired Frustrations!

Finally, I also had a look at their displays of Birds and Fossil Marine Reptiles. They don’t have audio description or large print guides, but they’re still well worth a look, as they have a lot of fascinating specimens, and it really showcases just how beautiful and varied the natural world is.

Newham Events

I live in the Newham borough in East London, and these are a couple of local events that I attended in early July.

VIPON Fundraiser

The month started with an enjoyable event in aid of the Visually Impaired People Of Newham (VIPON) group, who are part of East London Vision.

I was sat at a table with 4 people I’d never met before, including a visually impaired member of the VIPON committee board, a fully-sighted volunteer, and a couple of people from a different London Vision group. They were all really nice and friendly, and it was great to chat to them, so hopefully I’ll see them all again. I also got to say hello to various people I had met at previous events as well of course.

The event got underway with a quiz, where we answered questions on a variety of topics, under our team name of No Eye-Dea that I’d come up with. There are better names out there, but my teammates seemed to like it, so that was good. And we came second in the end, out of the 6 teams in the room, which we were very happy with.

After that the volunteers brought round loads of stuff from the buffet for us – cheese sandwiches, ham sandwiches, little pasties and sausage rolls, big slices of pitta bread, a vegetarian pizza, samosa and more. We had also been allowed to bring alcohol with us, so I’d brought along 4 cans of Kopparberg cider, while a couple of people on my table had beers with them. And they also got out a bottle for all of us to try called Limoncino (a branded form of limoncello). It was a very strong (30% volume) lemon liqueur, which really hits you quite powerfully, so you can only take little sips of it. It’s not something I’d buy for myself, but it was nice to try it.

We then had a session of karaoke. As people couldn’t see well enough for a karaoke screen, people were just invited to nominate a song that they knew the lyrics to. So I did Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love, as that’s quite an easy one. The microphone wasn’t very good though – you could hear some of the ladies fine, but other times you could barely hear the people singing, if at all. But still, we all enjoyed ourselves. There were plenty of photos and video clips being taken for social media as well, so I don’t know if the clip of me singing will end up online or not, including the bit of air guitar I did!

Apart from the karaoke, music was playing for most of the 4 hours we were there, and the guy being the DJ has good taste in music. He had also helped out with the quiz by doing a music round at the end, playing a few snippets of songs we had to guess. My team managed to recognise 4 out of 5 there, including Groove Is In The Heart by Deee-Lite, which I was pleased to get. The name of the song was easy, but it took me ages to remember the artist! I managed it just in time though.

The final part of the evening was the raffle, and there were lots of prizes. Some were donated by Clarity, where one of the guys at our event works in a supervisory role. They basically employ visually impaired people to help them make things like toiletries and beauty products. There were also 2 complimentary tickets to London Zoo, some bags, toiletries and cosmetics donated by Boots, a Wilko voucher, and a few prizes of £5 cash. There were also a few books donated by WHSmith, one of which I won, but I gave that to someone else as it wasn’t a title that interested me.

I did come away with some mini-chocolates though (a packet of small Cadbury treats like Fudge, Twirl, etc), which we got as a complimentary prize for coming second in the quiz. We had eaten our way through some of them, but as nobody else wanted to take them home, I did instead. Can’t waste chocolate after all!

So it was a lovely evening, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. And there were about 50 people I think, so it was a great turnout.

Newham Carnival & Show

The Mayor’s Newham Show is an annual community festival, so as a new resident it was only right to check it out. And it was good fun. I got some footage of some of the performers too, which you can see by clicking the links in the following couple of paragraphs.

On the first day I started off by finding a space to watch the carnival which was very colourful and took about 15 minutes to go past. Then I walked to Central Park where the main show was being held, and spent the rest of the afternoon there looking around. I saw the tennis courts that had been turned into a beach, ate a Belgian waffle covered in maple syrup and whipped cream from the Waffleland stall, and watched some of the bands on the main stage and in the cabaret tent. I spent an hour in the cabaret tent in particular, firstly catching a fire act called Big Grey and a contortionist called Claudia, before watching the full set by the Bikini Beach Band (a guitar instrumental group playing various tunes that I knew, while the children had fun on the dance floor in front of them).

I then went back to the park the following day as well, where they had a further variety of different performers on the main stage and in the cabaret tent, including The Gatsby Dancers, the London School of Samba, an Elvis Presley tribute act, some reggae and more. And after having a Belgian waffle the previous day, this time I opted for a traditional large ice cream cone with a flake, which is always nice.

So it was a good show over both days, and a nice way to spend the weekend. There were lots of people there, but not too crowded. It was easy to get right up to the railings in front of the main stage for instance, which I hadn’t expected initially, but then we weren’t watching hugely well known acts so they were never going to get a huge turnout. But it was a very nice atmosphere and everyone was having fun. It was great entertainment, in gorgeous weather, all for free and not too far from where I live, so it was ideal!

Other Events

Thinking Bob: Never Mind The Bob-Cocks

This was another fun quiz night with the Thinking Bob social group. And this time it was a music quiz, as the name suggests, being a nod to the TV show Never Mind The Buzzcocks. So of course it sounded right up my street.

As it turned out, and not entirely unexpectedly, many of the answers were relatively modern songs or artists that I didn’t know. But there were still some answers that I did know too, so I was able to contribute a fair amount.

The quiz was held at The Castle in Farringdon again, which is good as that’s a pub I know quite well now, or at least the upstairs part. I was in a team with 3 people I hadn’t met before – Jen (who works in an administrative role in shipping, making sure that everything’s in order), Lynn (who used to be a teacher but now works in social services) and Dave (who works on creating maps of the sea floors, which apparently sounds more interesting than it actually is!). We all got on really well, and we called our team The Nth Degree – because initially it was just me, Jen and Lynn, and we all noted that we had n’s in our name. Dave has the letter n in his surname as well though, and he was happy to go with it.

There were 6 rounds altogether:

  • Round 1 was intros, where you had to name the artist and song from just the introduction.
  • Round 2 was music videos by artists whose names began with the letters A to M, so you had to name just the artist in each case.
  • Round 3 was all about lists, with tracks on Ed Sheeran’s latest album Divide, Beatles number 1’s, artists who have had 5 or more number 1 singles, and the top 20 best selling tracks of the 1990s. The tricky thing here was that, although you got 1 point per correct answer, your score for a list would be completely wiped out if at least one answer was wrong. So you had to be careful!
  • Round 4 was music videos by artists from N-Z.
  • Round 5 was a selection of varied questions, including the song used as the theme for The Office (Handbags & Gladrags), a track that was played backwards, another track that was a mash-up of two different songs, and a track that was a cover of an older song (meaning you had to identify the track and both the current and original artists).
  • Round 6 involved one member of the team standing up and describing artists for the rest of their team to guess.

We did pretty well between us, and I was pleased that I could get some of the answers. In the intros round, for instance, my teammates were impressed at how quickly I identified Africa by Toto, and I also got Rhythm Is A Dancer by Snap!, plus one or two others. In round 5, for the cover song I knew that the original was Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes, but I didn’t know who the cover version was by (Brandon Flowers from The Killers, apparently). In the last round I got Lynyrd Skynyrd, thanks to Lynn giving the clue of Free Bird as one of their songs. And I was able to give other answers as well. So everyone was able to contribute, it felt very equal among all of us, and we all enjoyed it.

Liberty Festival

The Liberty Festival took place in the Olympic Park this month, alongside the World Para Athletics Championships that were being held in the stadium at the same time (and have been good to watch on Channel 4). So I spent a couple of hours having a look around there, and it was very nice.

There were plenty of people about, but it wasn’t crowded, so it was easy to get around. There were also plenty of activities for children and families to get involved with, including sports like golf, wheelchair basketball, cheerleading, cycling, hula hooping, boccia, tennis, and so on. And I also saw a couple of the music acts on the stage. One was Signmark, a deaf rapper from Finland who had a guy doing sign language along with his lyrics. I’m not a big rap fan, but they were good, performing songs that had a very positive and inclusive message, ideal for the occasion. And then a bit later I saw Monica Vasconcelos, a visually impaired Brazilian singer, performing songs that had a mix of bossa nova, jazz and general Brazilian influences. She was ok as well – even if you can’t understand the lyrics, the music is still good, and she had a good band with her.

So it was a nice afternoon, and you can see a few clips I recorded on my Youtube channel.

Lambeth Country Show

This was another free festival that I thought I’d check out on a whim for a few hours. It was held in Brockwell Park, about a 15 minute walk from Brixton station at the end of the Victoria Line, so it was easy enough to get to.

The park, and therefore the show, were both absolutely massive – the space is easily the biggest I’ve been to for any festival yet. I would say. There was so much going on, and it was packed with so many people, but you could still move around easily enough. There was a big main stage with a huge crowd in front of it, hosting various musical performances, as well as a couple of other smaller stages dotted around the park. There were also markets and stalls galore across the site, arts and culture areas, workshops, animal displays (horses, dogs, sheep, birds, etc), a flower zone, sports areas, a big funfair (with free entry – though I expect you have to pay for the rides of course), and so on.

So I spent some time there looking around. I saw one of the acts on the main stage, Teshay Makeda, who was ok. I heard a few other musical performances nearby as I was wandering around the site too. And I also saw a sheep shearing display, which was fun. Plus I had an ice cream with a flake, though it was a whopping £3 for a large one and £2.50 for a normal size! And weather-wise it was cloudy with a few little sunny spells, and warm as well, though not as hot as it has been recently.

So it was another good afternoon out, and over on Youtube you can see my videos of the sheep shearing demonstration and other sights from the show.


As well as all the events above, I also found time on a couple of days for little strolls around other parts of London.

Canary Wharf

I was due to meet a friend here during the month, but when they fell ill I decided to go there anyway to have a look around. So I spent a nice few hours wandering around some of the streets and along the docks, taking various photos of statues, fountains, buildings and scenery along the way, as well as some video clips that I’ve posted on Youtube.

Thames Barrier & Royal Docks

The day after Canary Wharf I decided to go for another walk close to the water, this time heading to the Silvertown area of Newham. This was the site of a massive explosion 100 years ago, the anniversary of which was marked earlier this year. It’s also in an area that is only served by the Docklands Light Railway, so it was another good excuse to go on that again, as I’ve done a few times this year now. It makes a nice change from the Tube and the views are great – especially if you can be right at the front of course, so you can pretend to be the driver!

So I got off the DLR at Pontoon Dock and walked to the Thames Barrier Park just around the corner. You enter on walkways above the impressive gardens, which have curved hedges and flowers arranged in a very interesting and beautiful way. There are paths to walk among it all, but they seemed to be closed off, so I just got a top-down view instead, but it was still nice. And at the far end, of course, is the Thames Barrier, so I was able to look at that too. And there were planes flying over fairly regularly, as London City Airport is nearby.

After exiting the park the way I came in, I walked to Factory Road to find the Tate & Lyle sugar factory, as they had been on the news recently (it sounds like they’ve been doing well, and they want to try making different golden syrup flavours). It’s a massive building, though not too exciting from the outside. And there wasn’t much to see further down that road, so I doubled-back and walked towards the Royal Docks area instead. I thought perhaps I would just get an overhead view, because the map suggested that the bridge goes right over the water. But actually, the pedestrian path takes you down and under the road, so you can walk to the edge of the docks and look out of it, so that was nice. The ExCel Arena is there as well. I didn’t go to have a close look at that – that can be something for another day, and it wasn’t obvious how to actually get to it from where I was – but I’m glad I saw it.

I then had another little walk, finding a quiet tree-lined footpath called Jake Russell Walk along the way, before making my way to Prince Regent station to get the DLR home. So I had a nice couple of hours walking around Silvertown altogether, and you can see a few video clips on my Youtube channel.

TV Shows

There isn’t much to mention on the TV this month really, so there are just a few bits to mention very briefly. I’ve mainly been enjoying The Last Leg, 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Mock The Week & Dara Ó Briain’s Go 8 Bit as usual, all of which I’ve mentioned before. But I did also buy a couple of Blu-rays. I got the steelbook edition of Doctor Who: Series 2, just like the upgrade for Series 1 I did earlier in the year, plus The Rolling Stones: Olé! Olé! Olé, which is a documentary about their Latin America tour. I still don’t have a Blu-Ray player yet, but the pile of discs I’m building up will give me plenty to watch when we get around to buying one!


And that’s it for another busy month, I hope you enjoyed going through all of that. The museum tours were particularly fun and fascinating, and I enjoyed seeing a few festivals and friends again. So do be sure to join me again next time to see what else I get up to over the summer!

Author: Glen

Love London, love a laugh, love life. Visually impaired blogger, culture vulture & accessibility advocate, with aniridia & nystagmus, posting about my experiences & adventures.

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