Post date: 
Friday, 23 March 2018
Exterior of Canterbury Cathedral

Tony Giles has been blind since birth, but this hasn’t stopped him from globetrotting for over 20 years. In this blog, Tony talks about why Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most sight loss-friendly landmarks he’s visited yet.

I was born with a rare eye condition called cone dystrophy and have been partially deaf since I was six. I’m now severely deaf and use digital hearing aids. I also have photophobia, which means that my eyes are very sensitive to bright light.

I’ve never been able to see colours, but because I have my rods (the nerves that allow people to see in dim light), I could see black and white objects from a very young age. As I got older, my light sensitivity has decreased and I now see nothing, apart from occasionally being able to sense bright sunlight.

But none of this has prevented me from travelling independently.

My passion for travel

Growing up, I listened excitedly while my father told me about all of his adventures at sea when he was in the merchant navy. When I turned 16, I had the opportunity to visit the US with my school. I enjoyed the new surroundings of a foreign city; the different accents, talkative people, wider pavements. I wanted to discover more.

The accessibility issue

Since then I’ve visited many places, but a lot of them were not very accessible and at times were instead frustrating and disappointing.

A staff member at the famous house belonging to the family of Juliette (of Romeo and Juliette) in Verona, Italy didn’t allow me to ascend the building’s inner steps to visit the house and museum. The lady was apparently “worried” about my ability to manage steps, but when I tried to explain I was more than capable she still insisted I needed a companion and refused.

A sight loss-friendly landmark

Earlier this year, my partner (who is also blind) and I visited Canterbury Cathedral, the Mother of the Anglican Communion. The cathedral is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England.

Even though I’m not religious, I still love visiting historical churches as they are a fascinating part of British history. And unlike experiences I’ve had in the past, this was one of the most pleasant and accessible places I’ve ever visited.

What makes it so accessible?

Canterbury Cathedral is not only interesting for its size, architecture or stained glass windows, but also its magnificent tactile maps and audio guide.

The free audio guides are available in English for all visitors with sight loss and the devices have tactile buttons to help make navigating them easier. Inside the building, there is a detailed 3D model of the cathedral alongside a tactile floor plan. If you’re unable to find any of these, speak to a member of staff and they’ll be happy to show you.

The audio guide has a detailed description of the model and floor plan. You can follow the directions along the cathedral by running your hands over them while listening to the guide. This helped me to form an impression of the inner layout of the building in my mind's eye and to better understand the true size, scale and layout of the cathedral. It made navigating the huge monument much easier and more enjoyable.

The tour descriptive commentary is full of rich and intriguing information. It was great to be able to have full access and to not feel like we were missing out.

My partner and I were able to gain a basic understanding of the cathedral’s importance in British history and religious culture, the same way a sighted person may.

Allow several hours to fully explore the place. I could notice just from the way that the building echoed that it’s huge. Unfortunately we were rushed for time so I'm going back for a more detailed exploration later in the year.

It would be great if other significant buildings and monuments throughout the UK could follow suit and also deliver similar tactile models and audio descriptions to the Canterbury Cathedral. I believe that it would greatly enhance the enjoyment and gratification to any blind or partially sighted visitor.


Further information

  • Tony Giles is the author of the following travel EBooks: “Seeing The World My Way” (available in RNIB’s Talking Book Library) and “Seeing the Americas My Way".
  • Canterbury Cathedral can be reached relatively easily from any major city in the UK. The closest train stations are Canterbury West and Canterbury East. From there, both are approximately a 10-15 minute walk to the cathedral.

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