Tag Archives: London

London by bike. Why?

Amsterdam is a beautiful, perfect cycling city. I escaped to it last week for a couple of days of work, savouring the sensation of emerging from Centraal station into the busy bike-filled streets. Complimenting everyone I met on the wonderful atmosphere for cycling, I mentioned the stark contrast between it and London. Cycling in London is, as a wise person once wrote, a contact sport. The friendly, clever international bunch of people that I was with shuddered visibly at the prospect of it. London, they concluded, was the worst place they could think of to cycle.

For a few days on returning from Holland I wallowed in the unpleasant contrast, stuck in a dream of cobbles, canals and those Dutch bike locks that render the bike immobile, but not immovable. Despite Boris Bikes and emerging proper bike lanes rather than lines of blue paint, this city presents a formidable challenge to anyone with the temerity to want to ride around it.Yet London is my city, and I cycle in it most days, and have done since I was able to. Something is missing from this picture.

The other day I was happy to find a copy of Jon Day’s Cyclegeography. It has been a serendipitous find. An account of his time as a bicycle courier, it is is a sort of Waterlog for London cycling. He describes with vivid energy the flow and challenge of the British capital from a bike. The tiny openings just a handlebar wide, lunatic weaving through traffic. The sudden space and vantages of the city’s bridges. It also lifts the lid a little on the life of a courier, which sounds as mental as I’d always imagined it to be. At one point I though that might be my dream job, were I a millionaire and had no need to worry about actually making any money. It is a terribly hard way to earn a living.

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed the book so much is what he describes is so similar to most of my  lifetime’s bike riding. Yes, I’ve done some wonderful rides in southern Africa, the Outer Hebrides, Belgium and all over England, but most of the time it;s the daily grind into central London. I first started cycling properly to ride to school each day, a hateful ride along the pavement next to the North Circluar Road. One day aged 15 my wheel drifted into the guard fence and I found myself on the floor covered in cuts and very confused. With traffic rushing past there was little to do but get back on a wobble to school where I showed off scabs all day. When I started at Lonely Planet I rode over Muswell Hill and Highgate to Kentish Town, those rides bringing my first dust-ups with Highgate West Hill, still the great Alp of the imagination of the north London rider along with it’s haunted neighbour, Swain’s Lane. Invariably I ride in rush hour, with everyone else, with vans and trucks for company, trying to ignore how vulnerable I am in comparison to them.

It was these formative experiences that helped me to retain my sanity during endless rides to and from Gunnersbury earlier this year. Finchley – Golders Green – Cricklewood – Willesden – Harlesden – Acton. Through the rush hour. A candidate for the worst ride in the world if ever there was one, six times a week for three months. Hugging the gutter and dodging the potholes for 14 miles of traffic-choked suburban drear. I stopped doing the Gunnersbury run soon enough to retain some residual curiosity about the areas I passed through, not least the former Greyhound land of Queen’s Park, enough that Iain Sinclair’s London Overground gripped me as he trudged from one station on the ‘ginger line’ to another, passing from Willesden to Cricklewood with the same grey-faced horror/wonder that I had every day.

But I’m no courier. Jon Day’s tales of alleycat races across the city and a strange community of single-speed outsiders were glamorous and exciting, but never my world. Nor is the weekend club rider’s. Cycling in London is a solo pursuit. There’s no room for a partner or a conversation. Every other cyclist is out for the same patch of space that I am, so head down nudgey-nudgey beats  the camaraderie of rural rides. It’s also one that introduces you pretty quickly to the reality of the city. I’ve owned (by a quick tally) nine bikes in my life. Three are under lock and key right now. The other six were all stolen in London. All locked up at the time. There are thieves and bad people, and they’ll have your stuff. Switch your wits on.

With traffic, lights, potholes and omnipresent danger, weekly miles are hard-won. My friend who lives in Wiltshire once expressed envy at the ease at which a commuter knocks out such a distance while making no impact on home life. He then hopped on this bike and rode off to the Cotswolds, or Salisbury Plain, or some other idyllic country spot. But I don’t want what he has either. I am hooked on the hard-to-explain delights of riding round home.

Random brawls in medieval London

A History of London Life by R J Mitchell and M D R Leys is a lost classic of London historical writing, dating from 1963. It takes the reader on an admirable journey through the history of the city at street level, looking at Londoners and their lives through the ages. You can find it on abebooks. I am indebted to friends who picked up a copy for me in upstate New York, a long way from home but couriered with great thought and care.

Passages feel like a forerunner to the way that Ackroyd and Sinclair seem to effortlessly pull out breathtakingly obscure documents of London history. One of the best examples of this is a passage taken from the Londoners’ Pasttimes chapter, detailing a thirteenth century scrap that evidently got well out of hand:

Teams of Londoners played games among themselves and also against the neighbouring suburbs; in the summer of 1222 a wrestling match with the youths of Westminster had a disastrous sequel. The city men won, and a return match was fixed for a week later, but this time the Steward of the Abbey armed the home side so that the Westminster men set about the Londoners and caused many casualties. The irate Londoners went home to gather strength and, ignoring the advice of the Mayor, rushed to Westminster and pulled down the Steward’s house. When the Abbot came to complain they seized his horses, beat his manservants and stoned him out of the city.

The Abbot in question, if the dates are right, is either William de Humez or Richard de Berkyng (of Barking), most likely the former as Richard did not take his position until October. The High Steward of Westminster Abbey today is a ceremonial position held since June by Tory peer Lord Luce.

And what of the over-exuberant boys of the City, and of Westminster? Well, chances are they weren’t roughed up by their wrestling, which seems to have been an exercise in endurance grappling rather than the Giant Haystacks kind of wrestling we may think of today. That might also explain why the Londoners had enough about them to pull someone’s house down after a bout.

It might be worth considering next time you stroll down the Strand that both parties – and the aggrieved Abbot – would have stomped their way down the same route which was then a little more than a rural track.

In 1222 John III Doukas Vatatzes was crowned Emperor of Byzantium, the European discovery of America was still over 200 years away and Henry III was King of England. And in a small, thriving city a bunch of blokes had a good old scrap which got quite out of hand.

London Swimming Review: Serpentine Lido

For a city with a generally unimpressive number of indoor swimming pools, London makes up for it with plenty of more surprising options for a quick dip.

Swimmers ready for the plunge at Serpentine Lido

I’ve written warmly (don’t let that word confuse you about the temperature) before about Highgate Ponds, with separate men’s, women’s and mixed bathing ponds. The latter is ideal for those of mixed sex. Nearby Parliament Hill Lido makes for a lovely alternative, and there are other marvellous outdoor lidos at Brockwell Park, Tooting, London Fields and Hampton. The last two are let down a little by being heated.

Paddling pool...

...and children's play area

Until this week, however, I hadn’t tried the most central of the lot. The Serpentine Lido, right in the centre of Hyde Park, promised a dip in untreated water in the heart of London. The Serpentine is a large man-made lake created in 1730 by the waters of the River Westbourne but now fed by the Thames. It’s a haven for bird life and is the sort of lake which you’d normally hire a boat to row on a summer’s day. Unusually there’s swimming here, and has been since 1930.

View across the Lido from the bridge. Yes, you really are in central London...

Unlike Highgate Ponds, which offer a wonderful and deliberately spartan experience, there’s plenty here to make you feel like your £4 entrance fee is well spent. There are changing rooms, lockers (20p, refundable) and, once you get upstairs, a large lawn, paddling pool and playing area for kids. Nippers catered for, swimmers cross a bridge over the path – attracting odd looks from tourists at the cafe next door in the old Lido building – and go down steps to the water’s edge. The lake has sloping sides, so diving’s a no-no, so there’s a jetty to stroll, then steps to descend. As it’s late June the water is a balmy 18c, and as there’s no-one else in the water there are a few onlookers gawking from the cafe ensuring no prevaricating on the water’s edge.

Once in, the water is lovely, fresh and cool, and with plenty of space makes for very relaxing swimming. If you’re doing back crawl or breast stroke you can take in some of the landmarks of London visible from the water – the London Eye and the Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament are two to look out for. Upon exiting (cold shower at the waterside), you’re back in the land of normal non-cold-swimming types very fast, especially if you hop on one of Boris Bikes conveniently stationed nearby. The warm glow from such a lovely dip will stay with you on your travels around the British capital.

Incidentally, this was the second Olympic venue I’d been able to try out, having test-rafted the Canoe Slalom course at Lea Valley Watersports Centre in May. I’ll upload my report from this over the next few days. The Serpentine will host the 10k open water swimming race, which, having managed a few lengths of the 110m buoyed area, sounds like incredibly hard work.

Keen swimmers may wish to join the Serpentine Swimming Club, a hardy gang of enthusiasts who use the facilities right through winter.

An early summer visit to Craven Cottage

Craven Cottage
In one corner stands the cottage, unique
A reminder of an earlier age
An age before the violence
Before the air was full of vile oaths

Opposite, sits the brash new stand
Overlooking the Thames
Smug, expensive, empty
There’s an electronic scoreboard to gaze at when the play gets dull, which isn’t often
Fulham play an attractive brand of football
£4.50 to get in* and the beer is great

Three English Football Grounds by I, Ludicrous

I, Ludicrous may have written these words in 1987 but I’m sure Craven Cottage would get a glowing write-up again today should the boys decide to pay another visit**

In one corner does indeed stand the Cottage (rear view)

As football in London goes it doesn’t get much better than an early or late season trip to Craven Cottage, the home of Fulham. There’s lots to enjoy about coming here: the lovely walk through Bishop’s Park, with the green, narrowing Thames to your left; London’s oldest football stand fronting the Stevenage Road entrance to the ground; the prospect of a waterside beer at half time and the old-fashioned layout which generally ensures a large and vocal away following.

One English football ground (Stevenage Road Stand to right of picture)

The most recent addition to the attractions of the area is surely the oddest sight at any English league venue. The statue of Michael Jackon, erected by Fulham’s owner Mohammed Fayed, is a long way from the usual bronze effigy of ex-legend found at Old Trafford (Best, Charlton, Law), Elland Road (Bremner) and the Britannia Stadium (Matthews). For starters it’s in colour, and secondly, Michael Jackson may have attended a few Fulham matches but he was hardly known for his extensive Panini sticker collections. No matter, says Fayed, who walks on water in these parts after bankrolling the club into the Premier League and returning Fulham to the Cottage after converting the ground to all-seater for the start of the 2004-5 season. It gives travelling fans a giggle, which is no bad thing as they’re much less likely to come away with a result than they used to be. Fulham are no mugs at home and are an established Premier League club. Not bad when you consider that Fulham were second bottom of the entire Football League in January 1996, and lost away to Torquay United, the one team below them. Cha mon indeed.

For various reasons I failed to get a photo of the statue – there are plenty here – but some waggish Arsenal fans’ song, produced below, raised a smirk:

Your statue is shit
Your statue is shit
It should have been Jedward
Your statue is shit

A large and vocal away following, today

The other famous feature of the ground is the Cottage itself. This unique pavilion is as old as the Stevenage Road Stand and dates from 1905. Legendary stadium designer Archibald Leitch put it up after forgetting to build changing rooms into his plans for the ground. I’ve never been inside but I hope they bring you cucumber sandwiches and tea at half-time.

Earl's Court platform indicator...

...and Putney Bridge station's elegant facade are two things to keep an eye out for on the way

*It costs rather more than £4.50 to get in to Craven Cottage these days. The beer is cold, which remains shamefully the best you can hope for inside any football ground in Britain.

**In fact, of the three grounds reviewed in the song, Craven Cottage is the only one still standing. Burnden Park and The Den, the homes of Bolton Wanderers and Millwall, have both been replaced by modern all-seater stadiums. Fulham FC kept their terracing later than any Premier League club to date, with standing in the Stevenage Road paddocks and at both ends until the end of the 2001-2 season. I paid the ground a visit in 2001 for the first time since 1994 when Arsenal visited, coming away with a 3-1 win that was closer than the score makes it sound. As with other visits to grounds with terracing it weren’t like the old days.

A grand theft at Westminster Abbey

The eyes of the world are on Westminster Abbey, the pivotal location in the history of royal London, England and Britain for over 1000 years. So old is the Abbey that England did not exist when it was founded in the era of Mellitus, Bishop of London from 604-619. It was built on an island that is no longer extant, known as Thorn Ey or Thorney Island, created by the dissipating channels of the now-buried Tyburn river. Fancy a dip in the Tyburn today? It’s waters tip into the Serpentine, site of open-water swimming at the 2012 Olympics and open to the public for bathing during the summer months.

Westminster Abbey: built on cheerless marshes

The Abbey’s handsome west towers, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and built between 1722 and 1745, are one of the more recent additions to this Gothic wonder that, rightly, ranks highly on most London tourist itineraries. Like other icons of the capital, many Londoners pass by frequently, vowing one day to brave the crowds, then never do. They’re missing a treat. Monarchs like Henry V, Richard II and Elizabeth I are interred here, along with Chaucer, Newton, Kipling, Handel and Dickens. An afternoon in the company of the greats of Britain can only be a fascinating one.

Sir Walter Besant, Victorian novelist, historian and a great Victorian who lived all but one year of his life (1836-1901) under the Queen’s reign, had plenty to say about London, and Westminster received special attention in his 1895 book of the same name.

A review of his biography of Sir Richard (Dick) Whittington noted “Mr Besant is an enthusiast about London, and revels in its archives, its traditions, its historic associations and its literary memories. He loves the town, not exactly as Dr Johnson loved it, but somewhat in the manner of Leigh Hunt or Charles Dickens.” That’s not a bad epitaph.

I’ve tried and failed to find a digitised copy of Westminster online, but found one at a second hand book sale and hid it from a lurking old man with a beard who was admiring it. That, reader, is how I have it now and how I can bring you this marvellous anecdote from it. I should point out that I did, at least, pay for it.

Inside is an anecdote which reaches through the centuries from 1303. At the turn of the fourteenth century Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots and the man who built the Eleanor Crosses along the route of the funerary procession of his wife Eleanor of Castile was King of England and had just signed a peace agreement with France which allowed him to focus on whacking those north of the border. His treasure trove, the Royal Treasury, was kept at Westminster Abbey, and was a pretty hefty hoard, having been built up to pay for his Scottish campaigns.

Edward I: not someone likely to be delighted to find out someone’s walked off with his treasure

Things were not going quite so well for Richard de Podelicote, a merchant, “probably”, Besant notes “an unsuccessful trader in foreign wares.” Unsuccessful, but not without cunning. Besant picks up the story:

“…he observed that the small gate in the wall which led from the Palace to the Abbey (at the door now by Poet’s Corner) was unwatched and neglected. At this time the King himself with a great army was on his way to Scotland: the palace was therefore deserted…the strictness of the rules about watching those who entered or went out was relaxed.”

The Chapter House at the Abbey

Podelicote broke in by placing a ladder against the Chapter House windows and, possibly with the assistance of whatever night-watch was in place as an accomplice let himself into the Cloisters. He proceeded to pilfer silver cups from the Refectory and, having reversed his route, hid for the rest of the night simply walked out of the Palace-Abbey complex the following morning. He spent the proceeds and came back hunting for a greater prize.

A bag of swag from the Refectory was one thing, but the Royal Treasury was, as Besant notes, “a far more serious job…the Treasury was a chamber with stone walls of great thickness, cemented firmly, only to be dislodged by being taken away piecemeal with infinite labour: and to carry out whole sacks and hampers full of treasure was impossible for one man unaided.” Then again, given the ease with which he pilfered the Refectory it can’t have been too hard to rope others in.” Besant goes to lengths to question whether the monks of the abbey were involved, and though there’s no evidence it would be remarkable, given what he was up to if he hadn’t at least paid a few of the residents off

This grand theft took place over several nights at the end of April 1303, exactly 708 years ago, the climax of months of diligent work to access the Treasury. His confession noted some of the booty: “pitchers, cups with feet and covers…a pitcher with stones…three pouches full of jewels…a great crucifix and jewels…two little pitchers of silver….spoons, saucers, spice dishes of silver, crowns, girdles and other jewels.” He took all this “out of the gate near St Margaret’s Church and left nothing behind within it.” And nobody stopped him!

As is sometimes the case, the facts of the discovery of Podelicote’s brazen theft of the finest treasure in England is not clear. Edward Longshanks, it can be assumed, was far from happy when he learnt about it in June. It must have been an interesting task for the messenger who broke the news to one of the most fearsome monarchs in history to do so.

Westminster suggests that “many of the criminals were caught in actual possession of the spoil.” but also says “the history of this wonderful case is unfortunately incomplete. The fate of the ringleaders is unknown…it is, however, quite certain they were hanged, most likely with pleasing additions to hanging which prolonged the ceremony and gave it greater prominence.” A load of monks were sent to the Tower of London.

With that, the doors of history slam shut and Podelicote exits stage left. Perhaps Princess Kate should watch that his ghost doesn’t whip the tiara off her head.

Charing Cross and the centre of London

London is full of interest, but where does it end and begin?

The capital’s edges are ragged, a straggly series of fizzling out suburbs and streets on the fringes of the Green Belt, sometimes escaping the London Orbital, at other times giving way to fields surprisingly early. Take the Northern Line to its north-eastern edges at High Barnet or, better still, Mill Hill East and you’ll see the countryside unfold around you. It’s a trip to the countryside for a bleep of an Oyster card.

Where it begins is only slightly easier to answer. Most schoolchildren, or at least those who’ve spent time on long car journeys, will tell you that distances to and from London are measured from Charing Cross, but what does this mean? After all, there have been roads and measurements from London for longer than there have been railways.

The answer is, of course, that the Charing Cross in question is not the station, but the cross itself. Edward I’s crosses, erected across England as a memorial to his beloved wife, plotted a route that terminated at Westminster Abbey. The last was at the then-hamlet of Charing, a pit stop for merchants, aristocrats and pilgrims moving from London to Westminster. Various sources suggest the explanation of the name Charing as deriving from Cher Reine (Dear Queen) is a misnomer, and that Charing more likely comes from Cerring, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning bend. A cross stood here until 1647, when it was torn down by iconoclastic Puritans. And it was from this point that distances were measured. The lovely mural on the Northern Line platforms of Charing Cross Station by David Gentleman depict the construction of the cross.

The Victorians, being well-intentioned and aware of their past, built a fine and over-large reconstruction of the Charing Cross which still stands in the forecourt of the station. It was designed by E.M. Barry who also came up with the plans for Charing Cross station. Stop and have a look when you’re next passing – it’s remarkably easy to miss despite its size, with taxis and London traffic roaring past. This cross, however, is not in the original location. By the time they got round to building the reconstruction another memorial to another monarch was in situ where Charing Cross stood. It’s still there, in fact: the equestrian statue of Charles I, guarding the entrance to Trafalgar Square from Whitehall. Charles I’s statue pre-dates Trafalgar Square and was built in 1675, standing in the Royal Mews. Today it feels very much like the centre of London, surrounded by honking traffic and overlooked by Nelson’s Column, the National Gallery and facing down Whitehall to Parliament.

Wenceslas Hollar's drawing of Charles I

However, if that same schoolboy who is passing time on long car journeys gets the map out and follows older roads from their inter-city origins through the M25, the circular roads and the old Ring Road deep into the heart of London he will discover something. Rather than stop at Charing Cross the A1 starts and finishes at London Wall. The A2 will come to rest in Borough, while the A3 and the A10, the old Cambridge Road, both terminate at the northern end of London Bridge, at the junction of Cannon Street and King William Street, the A3 crossing London Bridge to do so.

Central central London

Why do these roads reach their end at the junction of Cannon Street and King William Street? The answer is to be found on Cannon Street – once called Candlewick Street – in an innocuous-looking window behind a painted grille. Here is a chunk of ancient rock. The London Stone is of deep and unknown antiquity, possibly as old as London itself, and may have been part of a Roman building or the mile stone from where Romans measured distance all over Britain. You wouldn’t know it to walk past it today but the stone once occupied a place in the hearts of Londoners akin to how Scots feel about the Stone of Scone. The truth is lost, like so much of London’s history, in the mists of time.

We shouldn’t feel too bad though: no-one knew what all the fuss was about when John Stow was writing about London at the end of the sixteenth century.

Free the London Stone

I don’t know why the centre for measuring distance shifted west from the Stone to the Cross. At a guess, at some point an official designation had to be made for government administrative purposes and Charing Cross was chosen as it was near to both King and Parliament, rather than continuing with an ancient convention for its own sake. If anyone knows I’d love to know.

Other countries have interesting marks as their centre. Paris, and France, has Notre Dame Cathedral as Kilometre Zero, while the zero milestone in the United States is close to the White House in Washington DC. Rome goes for the top of Capitoline Hill. What’s the centre of your town?

Spotted on the Regents Canal East London Line crossing

This probably counts as slow graffiti. I wonder what daring type managed to do this, dangling over the shallow water of the Regent’s Canal while on the lookout for trains?