31 May 2009

Humber Bridge is herm sweet herm

I'm up in Hull again, where I grew up. It was famously adjudged Britain's Most Crap Town in 2003 - narrowly edging out Cumbernauld and Morecambe – though that was followed by a counter-chorus of support from people who'd had good student times there and were rather fond of the place. (Well, yeah, but... I had a great time as a student in New Cross.) It's now best known to many as the Premiership side that didn't quite get relegated this season, which is a step up I suppose.

It's also touted as a cycling city, with 12 per cent of journeys to work made by bike according to the 2001 Census. As I've never actually had a job in Hull, like all too many of its inhabitants, I can't comment on the feeling of rush-hour on Alfred Gelder Street. But that figure is four times higher than London's. So take that you poncy load of southern soft-lifers, with your cappuccino machines and organic tofu and four-grand road bikes. You want real cycling? Then ditch your helmet and migraine-coloured jacket and pedal a creaking house-clearance Raleigh Wayfarer to a chip shop on Hessle Road.

But watch out. Within the hour you'll be picking up that lercal accent where you say er ner, me merbarl phern's bin sterlen. It happens to me, too: gradually my central RP vowels shift erver to the East Cerst, and that bland BBC intonation resorts to a windswept Holderness lilt.

Anyway, Hull still offers a world-beating experience: to ride across the Humber Bridge. When it opened in 1981, it was the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world, with towers 1410m apart. Today it’s only fifth in the main-span league table. But if you turn up on your bike hoping to cross the Akashi-Kaikyo in Japan (1991m), Xihoumen in China (1650m), Great Belt in Denmark (1624m), or the Runyang in China (1490m), you’ll be turned away, because they don't allow bikes.

Well, sod the lot of them! Come to the longest bridge in the world that welcomes cyclists instead! The estuary may be the sort of brown usually found on stray dogs; the most vertical points on the surrounding scenery may be the distant hazy smokestacks of Grimsby and Immingham; and it may only join a city of 300,000 people on one side with some turnip fields on the other. But you can enjoy it by bike!

And cycling is, in fact, the ideal way to enjoy the world’s fifth-longest – but still best – single-span suspension bridge. In a car you can’t stop to admire the engineering; on foot it’s just too damn far across. But bike pace, as usual, is just right. You feel the awesome scale and precarious isolation in the middle, but you’re only a few minutes from coffee and cairk.

The north side – with Hull on it – has gorra large car park and viewing area right next to the tower. There’s alser a friendly information centre, and thuzza cafe wot's erpen every day. Therra some sarns worrell tek yer to the shared pedestrian-cycle footpath on the west saird. Thuz another path ont' east saird burrit alwez seems ter be clersed these days. The path's quite ward and smooth anywair. And thuz them big towers wot look like rocket launchers.

Ah ner it dunt look owt, burrit's the second merst daingerous shippin lairn in't werld aftert' Orinercer. It's cuz of all them sandbars wot keep shiftin. Y'ner all them berts wot ger past? Well, thev gorra stop at Spern Point and wairt for Umber Parlot ter cummun gerron an' tek it upt' river to Goole. Teks yiyas ter becum a Parlot.

Thuz a lerd more ont' bridge in me book, 50 Quairky Bike Rards.

30 May 2009

Tate tete-a-tete at 8

Hooray! Tate Modern is evidently letting us stick our bikes on the railings outside the main entrance again, after their recent mystery ban.

The railings are much handier than the official bike shed, and more flexible, with multiple locking points. They're used much more.

And then you can go up to the bar on Floor 7 for one of London's best evening barstool views: a half-panoramic sweep of the Thames with St Paul's, the Wobbly Bridge etc. You can always grab a spot by the window, the wine's not too expensive, and you can watch the townscape watercolours change as the sun sags low and pink.

The inverted camera-obscura view through a wine glass is particularly enjoyable. And your transport home is right outside. We like biking round London.

29 May 2009

Pet project: bike to work via a cemetery

Biking was the only way to get into work today anyway on such a glorious sunny May morning. But on a bike you can do extra stuff before work in a way that would be just too damn tedious by tube or bus or car. We had an 8.15am appointment in Hyde Park, and getting there via the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Wellington Arch, was a delight.

(And, incidentally, at Parliament Square bikes and buses can now turn right directly from the north end of Westminster Bridge into Whitehall. Saves having to go round four sides of a square. And having to identify the latest lot of protesters and deciding what's outrageous and has got to stop this time.)

In Hyde Park we were meeting with someone from the Parks to see the Pet Cemetery, one of London's quirkier hidden gems. It's not open to the public; you have to email the Parks and they fix up a private view for you. It's just inside the park in the garden of Victoria House, opposite Lancaster Gate tube, now a private residence. You can't see much from Bayswater Road though you can glimpse the headstones through the railings.

The Pet Cemetery provided an informal burial ground for dogs and cats of wealthy Londonites and operated from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. The last animal grave is dated 1956.

Not much into pets, me: sheepdogs yes, lapdogs no. But there's something gently touching about these memorials to once much-loved companion animals. Here lie Titsy, Fluff, Quex, Ba-ba and Phisto. This is the final resting place of Wobbles, Topsy, Chips, Pippin, Scum and Smut. Beneath us are the mortal remains of Scamp, Yum Yum, Tosh, Bogie, Flossie and Punch. In this spot is commemorated Ginger Blyth of Westbourne Terrace, not some wartime air-ace, but King of Pussies.

It was an invitation to ponder on mortality and the looming nemeses of HGVs turning left. All I could think of was breakfast, though.

28 May 2009

In search of Henry VIII

There are several Henry VIII exhibitions on right now, marking the 500th anniversary since he became king in 1509. I've been doing various things for the British Library's website for their Henry VIII exhibition, including this Google map of a bike tour taking in some Henry-related sites, and sights, in London.

Unfortunately, like the monasteries, there's not a lot of them left. Greenwich Palace, where he was born, for example, is a fabulous place to visit by bike, linked to central London by a characterful riverfront path - but Wren's magnificent old naval college you see today is a century and a half post-Henry.

View Henry VIII, Man and Monarch in a larger map

Traces of Henry's boyhood home at Eltham Palace remain in the shape of the Great Hall, but almost everything else there is 1930s (and it costs £8.30 to visit, and isn't an enticing bike ride). Syon House, a dissolved monastery in Brentford where Catherine Howard was imprisoned, is all a relatively recent rebuild.

Parts of the great Tudor Whitehall Palace, including the real tennis court, remain inside the Cabinet Office at 10 Downing St as part of a warren of secret tunnels and hideyholes. But you'll only ever see that if you become a cabinet minister. Despite Mr Cameron's kind invitation to me to stand as a Tory MP even without political experience, I think it's unlikely. There are other things higher on my wish-list, such as undergoing root canal work without anaesthetic.

You can cycle out west along the Thames Path to Hampton Court. Half of this was Henry's palace (once he'd nicked it off Wolsey) and he'd definitely feel at home there today (in fact he'd probably try to nick it back off Historic Royal Palaces). The other half is a baroque addition, which any fool can see is post-Tudor architecture. So, not the Daily Mail's picture caption writers, then. ('Looks just as regal five centuries after its construction', they say of the patently 200-year old part.) That's also a lovely ride, which you might combine with some Thames Crossings. Entry to Hampton Court Palace is £14 but you can spend a whole day there and they seem well-disposed to cyclists. They also have some temporary and permanent Henry exhibitions on.

In today's central London, though, our map has only four places that Henry would recognise: the Tower; Lambeth Palace; Westminster Abbey; and St James's Palace (above right).

Henry must have had fond memories of the Tower (right), partly because he lived here briefly after his father's death, but mainly because he had Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard executed there (More...).

The Tower is Bloody £17 to visit, though apparently if you turn up on a Sunday and say you're going to the church service, they have to let you in free. Inside the walls, the Tower complex has the feel of a half-quaint Sussex village. We think it's a bit overrated, in the way that locals always do about tourist tick-boxes. You can feel the atmosphere from your bike without going in by cycling north across Tower Bridge. Come off right and double back on yourself to go under the bridge, then pedal-cum-push west along the riverfront path in front of the Tower.

Lambeth Palace (right), facing the Houses of Parliament, is said to be the most complete Tudor building in London you can see from the roadside.

Come in the evening when its earthy red bricks glow in the fat orange sun and then sit outside Pico Bar, down by Vauxhall Station, for a cheap and cheerful tapas dinner, and you can glow too.

Westminster Abbey (right) is very much as Henry would remember it, and he'd be delighted to see all those dead people inside. He married Catherine of Aragon here in 1509 (and lest we forget, stayed married to her for 20 years, which these days would be long and faithful enough to be in the local paper).

To go inside costs a whopping £15; if you just want the atmosphere, wander with your bike through the alley of Dean's Yard, behind the grand facades on the south-west side, into the Oxbridge-college-like quad of the school behind. Don't expect bike parking though.

St James's Palace (right), round the corner from Buckingham Palace, is still officially a 'working palace'. If that's work, Harry and Will, I wouldn't mind doing it for a living. Its main gate on Pall Mall (right) is pretty much as it was when Henry had this as one of his 54 second homes; his expenses claims have kept historians amused ever since.

Round the side (very top right) is a picturesque lane that gives you the idea of what cycling would have been like in Tudor times. However, the sporty, slim young Henry happily used to spend eight or nine hours out hunting on his horse, so he would probably have been a road cyclist rather than a tourer.

27 May 2009

Lies, damned lies, and Euston cycle parking

Boris Johnson was in Trafalgar Square yesterday, 'kick-starting London's cycling revolution' according to the Transport for London press release. (Er, guys, you don't kick-start a bike. You kind of push it off, put your bum on the saddle, and grab the handlebars with elbows pointing out... but you do have to know the difference between arse and elbow...)

Some events we knew about already (such as London Freewheel coming on 20 Sep). But the main news was the £111m budget promised on a series of radical, visionary and entirely new cycle infrastructure projects, such as Boris's London Bike HIre Scheme and Boris's Cycle Superhighways. Funny, I thought we'd been promised all these in February 2008, except that then they were Ken's London Bike Hire Scheme and Ken's Cycle Superhighways... and that the budget then was £500m.

I know the difference is paltry these days, but a third of a billion here, a third of a billion there - it can add up, you know. But as we all know, 91 per cent of statistics are just plucked out the air. The only new figure in the press release was TfL's assertion that an 'estimated' 545,000 journey are now made by bike per day in London, and that cycling levels have gone up by 9 per cent in the last year.

Now, I doubt those figures come from published, peer-reviewed research - more like PR-reviewed, as real cyclist Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column might say - but look: it certainly feels like cycling levels have nudged up in the last year, and if we can quote that figure to councillors or developers when trying to persuade them to remember cyclists, that's fine by me.

Boris says in the press release that his intention is 'making London a city where two wheeled, pedal-powered transportation is the norm, and not the exception'. Great, but there's still a long way to go: only 3 per cent of trips in the capital are made by bike. My intention is to have a career where being on holiday is the norm, not the exception; but I've a long way to go there too.

But a positive thing from that press release to end. It mentions 138 new cycle parking spaces in Euston station. They were evidently unveiled yesterday, and were already filling up when I nipped round in the early afternoon to have a look (all pics).

They're more mechanical than we're used to, to the extent of needing instructions. Given the problems most of us have assembling a flat-pack office desk I wondered if it was a challenge too far, but people were evidently getting the hang of it OK.

Now, 138 is nowhere near enough (and St Pancras up the road is still woefully and disgracefully short of cycle parking; its paltry few dozen spaces were only installed in the face of a cycle protest the day the international station opened). But something's happening, and figures show that, 95 per cent of the time, it's better for something to happen than nothing.

The latest gossip on the Boris lorry story, by the way, is that it was a tipper truck (paid by the load, and hence incentivised to go like hell) whose back doors were being held shut by a coat hanger, which was dislodged when the driver did his Dukes of Hazzard thing over the speedbump.

If so, this was a stupid and dangerous use of a perfectly good coat hanger, which should have been in its proper place - that is, impromptu replacement for a stolen radio aerial on a 1978 Ford Capri.

26 May 2009

The Boris lorry story

The story of Boris Johnson's group cycling trip nearly being mass-murdered by a lorry grew over the weekend from internet gossip, to a Guardian politics story complete with video, to a BBC Sunday evening main news item, in between Susan Boyle getting promoted and Newcastle getting relegated.

I've little to add to what others have said. After being nearly crushed twice yesterday evening on the way home, once by a French lorry and once by a bendy bus, I'm not in the mood. And it particularly irritated me that not until I got home did I remember the French for 'Oy, *****! **** back to Clermont-Ferrand and **** your **** with a *****'.

Still, at least the French guy spoke reasonable English, which is more than could be said for the bus driver.

Freewheeler's blog has a worthwhile summary of the Boris incident and reactions. It doesn't allow comments, so I've responded to him below.

Elegy for a worn-out wheel

Something was puzzling me over the weekend. My front wheel was going thp, thp, thp: one thp per revolution, especially noticeable when braking.

Usually this is down to a broken spoke that causes the wheel rim to go slightly out of shape. To find which spoke is broken you play the wheel like a harp, producing the sort of twink-twonk-twink-blup melody that you get a first for in Goldsmiths composition classes, whereas if you write a piano sonata you only get a 2:1. The blup is the dodgy spoke, and you take it to Bob the Wheel Builder on Walworth Road and he fixes it for a fiver while you wait and off you go.

But all the spokes were fine, twink-twonk-twink-twonk like a prize-winning etude for rubber band. It was only when I looked at the rim that I saw the problem. The wheel rim itself was worn out and had started to disintegrate. The thp-thp was caused by a rapidly-growing buckle and split at its edge, and the rims themselves had been worn concave by four years of daily braking.

Wow. Maybe time for a new wheel. Like, this morning. And maybe take the bus to work.

25 May 2009

Car-free Oxford St? Not my cup of tea

London was delightful for cycling round this weekend: lovely weather that made you regret forgetting your sunblock, and streets half-deserted by the Bank Holiday stampede out of town.

And the western half of Oxford St was closed to all traffic last Saturday (right). But we hope they don't do it this way again. Because it was a thoroughly unenjoyable experience.

It was never conceived or described as anything but a commercial operation. It wasn't to make Oxford St more pleasant, only more lucrative. Anti-car? No! Don't worry! Westminster laid on two thousand free parking spaces to encourage drivers into central London before their shuffle across to assemble large bags from Selfridges, Jaeger and Dorothy Perkins.

There was no humanising of the road space. No pavement cafes, play area for kids, places to sit, temporary tubs or lawn. Just stalls selling tat, endless tedious promo booths for Night at the Museum 2, a few street bands and some horribly loud piped music. Peevish stewards with loud-hailers bawled in vain against the din trying to herd around the bored families.

Oxford St normally is a bit of a challenge to cycle down. It's one long scrum down with lines of impatient buses on a narrow street pockmarked with chicanes. But that's far preferable to this grim experience.

The street band were gamely plugging through Human League covers on stilts. It summed up the dated, 1980s feel of the Oxford St pedestrianisation day nicely. Don't, don't you want me? Actually, no, thanks. I'll find a much better place either with or without you.

And that much better place was Hanover Square Gardens, one block south of Oxford St. It was pleasant, sunny and quiet.

Too quiet maybe: a cafe or bar stall here would have done a roaring trade. As it was, the caff at the taxi-driver's stand was shut.

Shame, as we could have had the six-sugar cup of tea evidently favoured by cabbies (right). No wonder some of them are so hyper behind the wheel.

24 May 2009

Jigsaw's parking spot puzzle

Jigsaw, the women's clothes chain, has a promo campaign on now using spotty bikes. They're rather cute and I wouldn't mind one. The spotty bike on the right is in their Strand branch window. A PR team somewhere is no doubt congratulating itself in a press release that goes on in marketingspeak about how they embody freedom, style and individuality for the key demographic. It also probably recycles our favourite dodgy stat about cycling in London having gone up by 91 per cent since, er, the last dodgy stat.

Unfortunately Jigsaw have spoiled it by leaving too many of the darned things out on display, locked to racks that are meant for public bike parking. This one, for instance, is on Great Marlborough St in Westminster, just off Oxford St, where cycle parking is in shockingly short supply - as the triple- and quadruple-occupancy of some of these stands demonstrates. (It's not a bike in use, as its broken brake cable and skewiff handlebars show.) They've been annoying other people round London too.

Bike rack space is stolen from us too much as it is. Vauxhall Station bike racks regularly host council rubbish carts, and this ladder (right) spent weeks taking up a park just off Strand.

Jigsaw, please stop it. Otherwise I'll spread a rumour round a few choice south London pubs that your spotty bikes are collector's items worth a grand each. The bolt cutters and angle grinders will be out before you can say Brick Lane Market.

23 May 2009

Frozen out by bad bike parking on Old Kent Road

There are two problems with buying a fridge by bike. Neither is getting it home.

The first is finding a place to park. Old Kent Road is our nearest place for white goods, but its retail badlands were designed exclusively for car drivers. Currys, for example, has no cycle parking at all. Zero.

As so often happens, the staff are sympathetic and do their best to help. The Currys lot said Yeah, silly isn't it, tell you what, bring your bikes inside, no problem, Desmond here will keep an eye on them. And I make my usual rubbish jokes, if anyone tries to buy mine, don't take less than fifty quid, ha ha. What about fire regs, well if there's a fire, the first person to the bike will be fastest out of here, ho ho.

It's kind of them, but you can't really lock your bike to that horse-box-sized fridge-freezer, and it's not a sustainable parking solution. It's like saying to a driver there's nowhere to park, but if you ask that bloke who lives there he might let you leave it in his front yard.

We had a bit more luck at Comet up the road. Only a bit though. The nearest cycle parking to Comet is at B&Q next door, painted a jaunty orange (top right). We know all about this parking because it took a couple of years of pestering emails to B&Q management and to the landlords to get it put in. It's not perfect, but it's OK and it's there, so thanks guys.

The management attitude of retail stores and sites when you suggest they should install bike parking is all too often one of puzzled arrogance. Look, they say, we're fed up of being nagged for cycle parking by tofu-guzzling nutcases, how many times do we have to tell you people, there's no demand. If you want a dishwasher, then sod off and buy a car first.

Now, this may come as a shock to them, but people without cars wash clothes and drink refrigerated milk too. Some of these people, I'm told, even watch television and use mobile phones occasionally.

But with bike parking you're often banging your head against a brick wall. I don't mean metaphorically. At Old Kent Road Halfords, they've put in toastrack parking so close to the wall that you do just that (right). It's actually impossible to lock your bike to properly, so some people resort to using the barriers by the entrance (below right).

Which is clearly dangerous. Let's hope there isn't a fire here. Because if there is, I'll be under suspicion for arson now that the Home Office is monitoring all our Internet activity.

And if you want to fill up your new fridge at Old Kent Road Asda... well, they do provide parking (bottom right), but it's not great: pesky triangles placed too close to the glass wall to park properly. Do stores ever consult anyone before installing bike parking? Note to managers: Cambridge Cycle Campaign's excellent site is a good place to start.

Even if you find a park, your troubles are not over. The second problem is getting served. Say you've tried cycling upmarket from Old Kent Road - any direction from Old Kent Road is upmarket - to a well-known store that prides itself on customer service. The assistants look you up and down and think oh, cyclist, probably just here to whinge about bike parking, with nothing in their pocket but a giro and a CCJ. Then they go and serve someone else in the hope they're an MP on a farewell expenses spree.

OK, Mr Cheap Suit. I came here to spend three hundred quid on a fridge-freezer, but as you ignored me I'm going to push off and buy it somewhere else.

Finally, finally, you get round to deciding which damned model to buy. Then your problems really start. Frost-free? Reversible doors? Fast freeze? Too wide, too deep, too high? Transparent drawer fronts? Safety glass shelves? Ice-cube-dispenser? It's all explained in our helpful 32-page booklet, 169 Ways to Make Buying a Fridge Simple. I think it's easier just whingeing about bike parking.

22 May 2009

Wild about free exhibitions

London's full of excellent free stuff, and usually the best way to enjoy it is by bike. One of our favourite freebies at the moment is Wild Poland, an outdoor exhibition of fabulous wildlife photos along the riverside at Gabriel's Wharf (between the South Bank and the Oxo Tower). Any exhibition you can cycle through is worth a detour and you can go at any hour of day or night (as I did early this morning on the way into work). It's on until 7 June.

A few yards downriver in said Oxo Tower is the the.gallery, which runs free exhibs too. The current one (until 31 May) features classic 1970s rock album covers by Pink Floyd et al - yes, including the 'burning man handshake' on Wish You Were Here and the prism on Dark Side of the Moon. Much of it, frankly, looks a bit lame and airbrushed now we all know someone who can Photoshop the boss's head seamlessly onto a picture of Michelangelo's David in their coffee break; Genesis's Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is one of the few that holds its own.

No bikes in this exhibition, though. You'll have to lock up just outside, and neither is there a mention inside of Pink Floyd's whimsical Syd Barrett song Bike. A recluse in his later years, Barrett was nevertheless a Real Cyclist: both the bicycle of his song, and his own bike, had a basket and bell, and - like many in Cambridge, England's cyclingest city - he had no need for a helmet. But then it could be pointed out that Syd had never taken much care of his head's contents.

21 May 2009

A rose is a rose is a cyclist

A golden rose has been unveiled at the Chelsea Flower Show, on this week, named after the Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton. There's a short feature about it on the website of Beds, Bucks and Herts, which sounds more like a dating agency than a BBC local radio station.

Golden rose for a golden girl is all very well, but you can't push the parallels too far. A (possibly apocryphal) catalogue entry about the Maria Callas rose allegedly read 'Maria Callas: Bright, bold display. Good for bedding.' Internet searches don't appear to bring up that description, but one rose catalogue describes Maria Callas as 'susceptible to a variety of diseases and pests', which is bang on.

Thousands of roses are named after famous people - Diana, Dolly Parton, Chaucer, Bing Crosby et al - but I couldn't find any honouring other cyclists, unless you count Audrey Hepburn. Not even any famous Tour de France winners ('hardy and tough, but may require complex chemical treatment'?).

Anyway, we can't afford to go to Chelsea Flower Show, but who needs it when you have a Plantlock (picture)? I'm going to put Victoria Pendleton in there with Audrey Hepburn and Dolly Parton.

20 May 2009

HGV Awareness, or How to make a policeman disappear

Bike commuters were being stopped by the police this morning on St George's Road, just north of the Elephant and Castle, for a quick HGV Awareness session.

It's interesting stuff. You get the chance (right, see bigger pic) to sit in the cab of a lorry (in this case, a dustcart) while a copper wheels a bike as if a cyclist was coming up on the lorry's inside.

With three cycling deaths in London in the last month - all female, all caught on the inside of passing lorries, the latest being a hit-and-run in Greenwich last week - this sort of initiative is more important then ever.

At first it's fun in the cab, steering the wheel like a kid, pretending to be a set of airbrakes and making tschhhh-tssssss noises, eating an imaginary Yorkie bar, and waving an imaginary Agyness Deyn in an imaginary open-top sports car through in front of you.

But then the copper does his bike-wheeling thing (above and below right, see bigger pic) and, wow! Just as he gets alongside your passenger door, the bike disappears. As invisible as the Invisible Man wearing an Invisibility Cloak, on a day of particularly bad visibility. And this is in a vehicle bristling with more mirrors than an Abba-tribute disco.

Of course we're all assertive and experienced cyclists and we don't go burrowing up the inside of lorries anyway. But, by gosh, it's sobering to see things from the driver's point of view.

There are some fun things at these HGV Awareness events too, though.

Thanks to a Dr Bike in attendance you can get a quick free mechanical check. A sunny Southwark Cyclist was handing out those nifty free TfL maps, free newsletters, and plugging free bike training.

And you can amuse yourself watching hamfisted cycle bloggers struggling to put up canvas signs in the breeze with the finesse of Mr Bean tying his shoelaces on a windy ski-slope just before the ad break.

Anyway, this morning, business was brisk (right, see bigger pic). The vast majority of cyclists seemed quite happy to be stopped by the police. Perhaps it was simply relief when they realised it wasn't to be arrested under Section 44 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, it was just to have some air put in their back tyre and be plied with a free map.

Only the one chap got shirty, and ranted pompously about how he couldn't stop because he was in a hurry. For ten minutes. I finished my Yorkie, made my excuses and left.

Thames Crossings home page up

I've put up a home page for the Thames Crossings series that's just finished on this blog on the website for my book, www.bike99.com.

The home page summarises all 33 ways you can cross the tidal Thames with a bike, from Teddington to Tilbury via central London - a fabulous little two-day trip of 20 miles/four hours' leisurely cycling each day.

There's also a Google map to help place them all.

19 May 2009

Bicycling baronet to cycling Speaker?

We already have a cyclist mayor of London in Boris Johnson, and a potential cycling Prime Minster in David Cameron. Now, according to the BBC, one of the candidates to replace Michael Martin as Speaker of the House of Commons is Sir George Young, the 'bicycling baronet' who has a history of positive contributions to cycling legislation.

There are some backbench cycling MPs (such as Emily Thornberry) too. But we'd have to go some way to return to the kind of cycling levels among members of the House at the turn of the 19th century. A column in the Pall Mall Gazette of Saturday 13 August 1898 had this to say about the Parliamentary recess:

Parliament is away, and, to a large extent, awheel. In popularity with members of Parliament the bicycle can give many points to the motor car and yet beat that mechanical atrocity hollow. Nor is the passion for wheeling confined to any section or any party in the House. The Lord Advocate of Scotland is enthusiast enough to essay to travel northwards and homewards from Westminster by this agreeable means, though we doubt whether he will complete the journey in this way; Mr. William Field, whose robust brogue is the delight of the House of Commons, is one of the latest victims of the prevailing epidemic, while Mr. Healy's partiality for the cycle led him to defend the privileges of its riders with quite remarkable vigour in the House the other day. Sir John Gorst's lurid machine, coloured a Post Office red, is an object of daily wonderment in the Session, as he wheels gently down Victoria-street. Mr. Stuart Worley is a constant and careful rider; and Sir Howard Vincent is greeted with a benevolent grin by hundreds of his blue-coated former subordinates as he careers about the West End. The officials of the House, too, have quite taken to the exercise, and one of them, Mr. Archibald Milman, is at this moment covered with honourable bruises sustained in the too eager pursuit of this kind of pleasure. But the cycle is no respecter of the persons of its riders.

Thanks, as ever, to the comprehensive, searchable British Library website of digitised newspapers (it's paid-for with some free content if accessed outside the library, but all free inside).

Bonnie wee flowers

Chelsea Flower Show, running from today until Saturday, is apparently using special bike-powered irrigation to water the plants. As anyone who's toured with me knows, I've watered a few plants myself on bike trips.

18 May 2009

MPs: pedallers of lies?

Moats, chandeliers, jaffa cakes, bikes... In the media frenzy over MPs' expenses, Norman Baker was pilloried in the press last week for attempting to claim for a new bike off the taxpayer in 2004. (Of course, if the House of Commons does a bike-to-work scheme then Mr Baker could always buy one cheaply that way.)

But curiously, while Mr Baker's request was refused, another MP - David Maclean - successfully scored a £3,300 quad bike off the public purse in 2007.

Now, remind me. I have two bikes: a Specialized that I use all the time; and a dirt-cheap chain store model for emergencies. Which do I designate as my Main Bicycle in order to claim for a new tyre on the Specialized?

17 May 2009

Snow in May? Must be Dr Who

I know we should expect a few weeks of rain. It's Bank Holiday month and the test match season has started. But snow, in May?

We were a bit taken aback on Friday night, going along Cook's Road near the Elephant and Castle, to see one of the council-block plazas covered with a localised Snow Event. A localised Christmas Event, in fact: the balconies and shopfronts were festooned with coloured lights and illuminated Santas.

Ah. Filming, of course: make-believe December in May, for a yuletide Dr Who special. The floodlights were still on, and technical crew were standing around smoking and telling locals that oh they couldn't possibly reveal anything about David Tennant's replacement it's all a secret we can't tell you anything blah blah blah when actually no-one had asked. There was no evidence of constructive activity, so we thought they must still be filming, but in fact they'd finished for the week.

The Tardis was there and we had a peek. It was smaller inside than I expected, somehow.

I nipped back next morning to take a snap (right). They were clearing up the sn... er, the cotton wool. A local man, thinking I must be an official because of my high-vis jacket, demanded to know when all this would be cleared up. Oh, I said, we have to jetwash away what's left, and then we're turning it into a rainforest for the next Bond film.

16 May 2009

Thames Crossings 33: Tilbury-Gravesend Ferry

Downriver from the Dartford Crossing is the final traverse of the Thames before the sea: the Tilbury-Gravesend Ferry. It runs every half hour. Singles are £2.70, returns £4.10, and bikes go free.

Getting here is a bit of a journey, but you have a choice of banks. On the south bank you can follow National Cycle Route 1 from Woolwich via Dartford (report). On the north side a good new traffic-free path follows the north side of the Thames; it was opened early this year, and runs from Rainham in Essex to Tilbury. (Roadside cycle paths lead from Woolwich to Rainham alongside the A13; see report on the 30-mile route from Woolwich to Tilbury.)

15 May 2009

Thames Crossings 31 and 32: Dartford Crossing

Downriver from Woolwich Foot Tunnel, rather a long way, is Dartford Crossing. It consists of a tunnel, effectively the northbound crossing of the M25; and a bridge, the southbound. You bike it either way by turning up at the Crossing Control and getting a free lift across in a Range Rover painted like a poisonous insect. The exciting process is covered in detail in a recent post.

It's a mile or two from Dartford town centre. You'll have to find it by the traditional cycle-touring method: misread a map, ask people who don't know, and stumble on it by chance going the other way to what you thought.

The tunnel was started in 1938, opened in 1963, doubled to two tunnels in 1981, and finally augmented with a bridge - the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge - in 1991. Cycle paths connect the northside Crossing Control with civilisation, and Essex, but there isn't much to do so you'll probably come back over the bridge quite swiftly and return to the south side.

Retrace your steps to Dartford town centre and take a grateful train home. This is a good place to end of the Thames Tidal Crossing bike trip: 32 cycle traverses between Teddington and Dartford by bridge, tunnel and ferry, staying alongside the river virtually all the way, most of it traffic-free. The whole thing is a lovely way to explore London, and makes a great two-day trip, split somewhere in the very centre around Westminster Bridge.

If you're up to collect the entire set, there's one final estuary crossing. From Dartford town centre it's 8-10 miles along National Cycle Route 1 (not alongside the river, though) to the Tilbury-Gravesend ferry.

14 May 2009

Boris's cycle highways will start with Southwark

Hot news from last night's Southwark Cyclists meeting. Routes for the first two of Boris Johnson's proposed 12 cross-London cycle superhighways, distinguished by blue asphalt, have been decided. Apparently they're to be ready by May 2010 (when the London Bike Hire scheme is also to being operation).

One will go through Southwark (A24 - A3 - Merton - Tooting - Kennington Park Road - Elephant and Castle improved bypass - Southwark Bridge Road - Southwark Bridge - City.

What precise shape the route will take through the Elephant's notorious double-roundabout, given the stalled redevelopment works, is still to be decided.

The other pilot route is City - Cable Street - east out along the A13.

More details when we have them.

Thames Crossings 30: Woolwich Foot Tunnel

Downriver from Woolwich Ferry, only a few yards, is Woolwich Foot Tunnel. It's very similar to Greenwich Foot Tunnel, with similar drawing-room lifts and round entrance huts, but the addition of a few barriers to hinder attempts to cycle. (Shame! They allow it in the Tyne Tunnel, which has a dedicated tunnel for bikes.)

It's a bit longer than Greenwich at 504m, was opened later in 1921, and is a bit leakier.

From here there's no sensible or pleasant way downriver on the north bank. On the south bank, though, is National Cycle Route 1, which takes you all along the riverside, traffic-free, as far as Erith.

Immediately after the tunnel is Firepower, an artillery museum, which has a cafe. The building complex is the old Woolwich Arsenal, which gave its name to a football team which used to be in London. There's a bunch of life-sized metal male figures that look like Gormleys but aren't, presumably standing around waiting for Woolwich to gentrify. They're very rusty.

Just a few hundred yards on, London feels to have come to a sudden stop, and the scenery gets suddenly broad and estuarial. After Erith you go past a sailing club and alongside fields with horses and get your first view of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge shimmering hazily in the distance. A pebbly track cuts inland and then, leaving Route 1, it's a couple of miles of roads into Dartford town centre. You'll have to head north up a hill and through housing estates to find the cycle path access to Dartfor's bridge/tunnel crossing system. From Woolwich Foot Tunnel it's about 12 miles to Dartford Crossing.

13 May 2009

Stopped by the police? Here's what to do

Shortly after taking snaps and video footage of Rotherhithe Tunnel the other day, I was stopped (under Section 44 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, no doubt) by the police, who asked me what I was doing.

Yes, yes, I know, it's awful and shocking and what have we come to and it's worse than Stalin's Russia. The coppers were following up a complaint by some idiot member of the public. (What evil plot did said idiot member of public think I was planning? Fly the tunnel into the Houses of Parliament? Flood it with radioactive custard?) Such paranoia - fostered by that ridiculous Met poster campaign, of course - depresses everyone except Jacqui Smith. It's on the rise and yet, of course, it has never resulted in a single arrest of a terrorist.

But that's not what this post is about. It's to suggest a reliable way of dealing with the being-stopped thing.

The officers who stopped me were perfectly polite, a bit apologetic, and a bit bored. They don't want to be wasting their time on harmless nutters on bikes taking photos of tiled walls. They want to be doing what they joined the force to do: sit in a car and do the Mail crossword with a BK Flamer.

And my instinctive reaction proved effective for getting rid of them.

Yes, officer, I have been taking pictures. Certainly, no problem, here they are.
Here's an interesting one. See that road sign? Ha ha ha ha ha it doesn't conform to Statutory Instruments 2002 No. 3113!
I've lots more on this other memory card. There are some particularly interesting ones of mistakes in signage for contraflow cycle lanes. Would you like to s...?
Oh, well maybe some other time.
Are you a cyclist yourself, officer?
Well, perhaps you should buy my book. Here's my card.
Are you on Twitter? You can follow me there, and I do a blog too, www.realcyc... officer...?

They couldn't drive away fast enough.

Thames Crossings 29: Woolwich Ferry

Downriver from Greenwich Foot Tunnel is Woolwich Ferry. And there's no charge for using it. So there really is such a thing as a free launch.

The ferry (two boats on weekdays, one at weekends) runs every ten minutes (15 minutes at weekends) from 6am to 8pm. Outside these times you'll have to use the tunnel a few yards downstream.

The ferry is a proper, chunky affair, built for 500 passengers and 200 tonnes of vehicles. Or, if they ever build the Thames Gateway Bridge and so flog the boats off to ply some churning third-world straits, 2,500 passengers and 600 tonnes of vehicles.

In one form or another the service has been going since 1889. It’s free because it’s the aquatic link from the North Circular to the South Circular, and its short approach roads carry regular queues of cars, lorries with CLEAN ME fingered in the grime on the back, and the odd bus. (Any other British bus routes involve ferries? Discuss.)

On a bike you can head straight up to the front of the road queue and be first on the car deck when they let you on. If you wheel your bike along the footpath they’ll let you on the ferry with the passengers, but you’ll have to schlepp it up and down some stairs; the road approach is better, and the car deck has better views.

It may not be San Francisco or Hong Kong, but it's got a grimy charm and you can see the Dome's sleeping hedgehog, Canary Wharf's inscrutable towers, and the Thames Barrier's alien landing-craft upstream. And it's free, so ha! Take that, Sausalito Ferry ($7.45)! Take that, Star Ferry (HK$6 plus HK$18 for bike)!

As the boat pulls away from the jetty, there’s a safety announcement telling you what to do in case of an emergency on the five-minute crossing. Seasickness is unlikely to be a problem.

If you get time to go downstairs, you’ll find it looks much like a ferry down there: a maze of metal doors and portals to empty rooms marked No Entry, boxes of mystery equipment for survival adrift, and framed lists of regulations in microscopic 1960s type. And no, there's no bar or buffet.

Should you be taking advantage of the freeness by doing a return trip immediately, you’ll be asked to go off and come on again.

From here it's only a few yards to Woolwich Foot Tunnel.

12 May 2009

A word from our sponsors

Tim commented on my recent post about the Hilton Docklands Ferry querying the name. "Are Hilton sponsoring Docklands?", he wondered. "What next - the Absolut West End? The Lehmans City?"

I think there's lots of potential in corporate sponsorship of famous bits of London. The Specsavers Eye. The Branston's Pickle Gherkin. The Pedigree Chum Isle of Dogs. The nPower Spike. The Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Scoop. The Colgate Toothpaste Tube. Let me know if you can do even worse...

Thames Crossings 28: Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Downriver from the Hilton Docklands-Canary Wharf Ferry is Greenwich Foot Tunnel. The 370m-long tunnel opened in 1902. You're not allowed to cycle in the tunnel, even though it's part of National Cycle Route 1 linking Dover with Inverness: you push through what feels like a tiled drinking straw. On a hot day the iced-drink coolness of the tunnel comes as a relief.

The tunnel is free and open 24 hours a day. You enter by a small brick roundhouse at either end (bottom right). Access during the day is through two splendid wooden-panelled lifts more like Edwardian drawing rooms. They should have a piano and aspidistra in them, and attendant with a waxed moustache reading the Penny Illustrated Paper. There is an attendant, but he'll be reading The Sun. Outside these times, or if the attendant has seen you cycling in the tunnel on the CCTV and refuses to let you in the lift, you have to lug your bike up a long spiral staircase. You're not supposed to take photos inside the tunnel (right) either.

From here along the north side there's no riverside path to Woolwich, only scruffy roads up to the Lea Crossing and then the strange Singaporish new development of Victoria Dock, with its floating hotel, beach and airport. The south side is fabulous though: a traffic-free riverside path that takes you past the wonderful old Naval College, characterful old pubs, dilapidated old factories, the O2 dome and Thames Barrier, with the three huge towers of Canary Wharf looming over you from the other side like wickets in a celestial game of Twenty20. There's a Google map of both routes between here and Woolwich on the website of my book. Either way it's about six miles from here to Woolwich Ferry.