Nev Judd: Online and out there

London on two wheels

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London Bicycle Tour Company guide, Tarik de Vries, in his element at Trafalgar Square.

My first job after leaving school was a stone’s throw from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Every day, I’d herd on to British Rail with a million other commuters for the 10-mile trip to Cannon Street. Not once did it ever occur to me to ride a bike.

A lot’s changed in London since 1985. British Rail’s been replaced with private train operators and fares as confusing as they are expensive. Buses don’t accept cash: Oyster cards and credit/debit cards only. Motorists pay a daily congestion charge (about $20) for the privilege of driving in the capital. And, as I write this, London’s Tube train drivers are on strike.

Again.

No wonder cycling is so popular now, and not just with Londoners; tourists, too.

Berners Tavern, at the London Edition hotel, is the sort of place Agatha Christie might have set a mystery. Nikolas Koenig photo

Berners Tavern, at the London Edition hotel, is the sort of place Agatha Christie might have set a mystery. Nikolas Koenig photo

Almost 30 years after that first job, I returned to my old London haunts this summer as a visitor with my family. We stayed a night at the London Edition in Fitzrovia, an artsy neighbourhood of galleries and upmarket stores. Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Rimbaud used to call this area home back when it had a decidedly more Bohemian edge. Accommodation was probably more affordable then, too.

The Edition is pricey, but memorable. Oak floors, wood-paneled walls, and silk area rugs make the guest rooms feel like a sophisticated hunting lodge. The hotel’s restaurant, Berners Tavern, reeks of opulence with a high ornate ceiling, decadent chandeliers, low lighting and almost every square inch of wall space covered by framed art. The staff are young and beautiful. It’s the kind of place Agatha Christie might have set a mystery.

Walking the quiet backstreets of Marylebone, Fitzrovia and Soho we first noticed just how popular cycling had become in the capital. Along with numerous people riding high-saddled, three-gear road bikes with baskets on the front and panniers on the back, we saw lots of ‘Boris Bikes’ – London’s ubiquitous hire bicycles nicknamed after Mayor Boris Johnson. Similar to North America’s Bixi Bikes, London’s hire-scheme sponsored by Barclay’s Bank supplies 10,000 bikes from 720 stations around the city. The sturdy, three-gear bicycles feature puncture-resistant tires and LED lights, and can be rented by credit/debit card for 30-minute rides.

A fleet of 'Boris Bikes'. In London, there's usually one just around the corner.

A fleet of ‘Boris Bikes’. In London, there’s usually one just around the corner.

With two days to see London, we booked two bicycle tours: the first, a Central Tour with the London Bicycle Tour Company; the second, an East End Tour with Cycle Tours of London. The Central Tour is a good place to start because it covers just about every London landmark on a tourist’s must-see list. The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square and St. Paul’s Cathedral are among the highlights of the Central Tour, timed perfectly by our guide Tarik de Vries so we could see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

While we watched soldiers in scarlet tunics and bearskin hats march down The Mall, Tarik regaled us with tales of over-zealous tourists bugging members of the Queen’s Guard. Soldiers standing all but motionless on guard are used to people posing for photos next to them. When that becomes a nuisance either because of physical contact or shouting, soldiers first stamp their feet, then issue a warning.

“When they raise their rifle, that’s considered a final warning,” said Tarik. “Next you’re detained.”

My favourite stop brought us to Westminster School, the only part of the tour I hadn’t visited before. Plenty of parks offer an escape from London’s crowds but the school, which stands in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, feels like a village. The streets are cobbled and on three sides of the green stand the school buildings, some of which date back to the 11th Century. Set back on the fourth side is Westminster Abbey, the traditional site for coronations and burials of Britain’s monarchy.

The peace and tranquility here – so remarkable in the centre of a city home to seven million people – contrasted dramatically with our ride to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Our approach from Smithfield Market (London’s central meat market with some absolutely gruesome history!) past the Old Bailey was busy enough before turning onto Ludgate Hill where traffic was so congested we cooled our heels on the equally congested sidewalk for a while. Congestion charge or not, motorists and pedestrians all appeared to have slowed down to admire Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece.

Shop, browse or chat - whatever floats your goat - at Spitalfields Market.

Shop, browse or chat – whatever floats your goat – at Spitalfields Market.

While Tarik covered London’s essentials, Mathew Tregaron’s East End Tour was a decidedly more offbeat excursion from a tourist’s perspective, making it all the more interesting. Tower Hamlets, so long synonymous with poverty and overcrowding, featured prominently in the tour, which also covered Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Southwark Cathedral and – a personal highlight – a ride across Tower Bridge.

Shortly after Tower Bridge we were at another old haunt, St. Katharine Docks. My dad, a marine engineer, used to bring the family here for boat shows and tall ships festivals. That was in the 1970s, shortly after St. Katharine’s warehouses were demolished and the area was commercially redeveloped. The stylish flats, yachting marina and pubs and restaurants are all still here. So, too, is the Tower Thistle Hotel, a corpulent, concrete monstrosity that epitomizes the worst of 1970s London architecture. But that’s just me.

In contrast to St. Katharine Docks, a failed attempt at gentrification is just a short ride away at Tobacco Dock. More than 200 years old, this abandoned brick and timber warehouse was turned into a shopping centre in 1990. Surrounding development failed to take off and dreams of creating an East End version of Covent Garden failed to materialize. The place has been abandoned for more than a decade. Yet until recently, piped music could be heard inside Tobacco Dock. A security guard still patrols the empty premises and, according to Mathew, spotless public toilets used to make this a timely stop on cycling tours.

Mathew Tregaron (right) of Cycle Tours of London stops for a breather at deserted Tobacco Dock.

Mathew Tregaron (right) of Cycle Tours of London stops for a breather at deserted Tobacco Dock.

Infinitely more compelling is Cable Street and a mural depicting one pivotal day in London’s political history. For centuries, Tower Hamlets, with its close proximity to the city and the Thames, attracted waves of foreign immigration looking for employment. In 1936, looking for scapegoats for the country’s perceived ills, the British Union of Fascists targeted the community for a march. Despite the protection of some 6,000 police officers, the BUF’s supporters, known as Blackshirts, more than met their match. United under the rallying cry, “They shall not pass,” as estimated 300,000 residents prevented the BUF’s entry to London’s East End, but not without considerable bloodshed.

The Battle of Cable Street mural, begun in 1976 and restored in 2011, vividly depicts the violent confrontation of that Oct. 4 day. We propped up our bikes and lingered to admire the colourful tribute to this community’s resilience.

Following French Huguenots in the 17th century, Irish in the 19th century and Ashkenazi Jews into the 20th century, Bangladeshis form the main group of immigrants living here today. On nearby Brick Lane, clubs, pubs, markets, and some of the best curry restaurants in the UK compete for space. On weekends it’s packed. On a quiet Tuesday afternoon we cycled down the middle of Brick Lane just wishing we could stop for a chicken tikka masala.

A pivotal day in London's political history is vividly depicted in the Battle of Cable Street mural.

A pivotal day in London’s political history is vividly depicted in the Battle of Cable Street mural.

Before we returned to Mathew’s bike store on Shoe Lane, we stopped at Postman’s Park, once a popular spot for General Post Office workers. In 1900 it became home to the Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. Thirteen years earlier, an ardent socialist named George Frederick Watts had first proposed a park commemorating otherwise ordinary people who’d given their lives attempting to save others. Fire, drowning and train accidents dominate the brief but brave stories documented on glazed Doulton tablets.

Like so many of the stops on Mathew’s tour, Postman’s Park felt like a refuge from London’s bustle. It was only as we left I realized that first job of mine was just a few streets away. I might have found it sooner with a bike.

If you go:

  • The London Edition recently launched a family package, featuring a loft or loft suite plus complimentary connecting room, with “big kid/little kid” treats, including a movie night and a London-inspired in-room tent. Rates start at $920 a night. For details of this and other packages visit edition-hotels.marriott.com/London
  • Cycle Tours of London’s East End Tour takes about three and a half hours and costs about $35. Details of this and other tours at biketoursoflondon.com
  • The London Bicycle Tour Company’s Central Tour takes three hours and costs about $43. For details of this and other tours, visit londonbicycle.com
  • For more information about cycling in London, check out visitlondon.com
Street art pervades Brick Lane and adjoining streets like Hanbury Street, where the giant crane by Belgian artist ROA is hard to miss. Community uproar dissuaded Tower Hamlets council from covering it with a banner before the 2012 Olympics.

Street art pervades Brick Lane and adjoining streets like Hanbury Street, where the giant crane by Belgian artist ROA is hard to miss. Community uproar dissuaded Tower Hamlets council from covering it with a banner before the 2012 Olympics.

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