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London City Cycling.
Guest Post by Anna Van Leemputten:
I love cycling and have been a bit spoilt, living in an area of the country where I can enjoy outdoor pursuits involving water, wheels or running, by simply stepping out of my front door. However, I’ve not always been a country girl as I studied in London and always lived close to the hidden canals and backwaters, created during the industrial revolution, which perhaps your average tourist wouldn’t be aware of. Thus I decided to choose a route that allowed me to see how ‘towpath’ culture had developed since I left.
As I was travelling from the west of London I decided to do one of the suggested routes in reverse, starting in Camden. I also decided to use a ‘Boris bike’ (so called because they were introduced by the last Mayor of London, Boris Johnson) instead of my own, because of the issues of taking it into London on the train. You’ll see the bike stations all across London – badged with the name of their sponsor, currently ‘Santander’.
The easiest way from Paddington using the tube is to take a Bakerloo Line to Regents Park and then take a leisurely stroll either through the park or along the outer circle, watching the many road bikers and runners who use the area at weekends to train, whizz past, up to Gloucester Gate. The first Santander bike station is on this road into Camden, but don’t rush to get a bike just yet. Camden on a Saturday is bustling and has everything you might expect of an area which has been famous for its music, lifestyle and joie de vivre – the MTV studios replete with green wall, are here. It’s a good place to grab a coffee and a bite and get your sense of direction and to also take in the canal.
I collected a bike from Greenland Road, the location of the bike stands being easily found using the downloadable app. Renting a Boris bike is straightforward, though the wording regarding charges can be confusing. Activation to use the bikes in any given 24 hours is £2. It is then free for the first 30 minutes to use a bike. If you go over that 30 minutes, you will be charged another £2 per 30 minutes. It is, therefore, possible to swap bikes every 25 minutes and not be charged anything other than the initial £2 registration charge. The bikes aren’t particularly fancy, having only three gears, and are quite cumbersome given the sit up and beg nature of the handle bars, but the seat height can cater for all sizes.
Out of Camden, it is important to note all the one-way streets and to not go out ‘too fast’ as you can easily miss your turning. I headed towards the Royal Veterinary College, aiming to nip round the back of St Pancreas hospital via Granary Lane and Camley Street, along which is Camley Street Natural Park, a hidden and well-protected haven of wildlife that has somehow survived the regeneration and railway development of Kings Cross.
The towpath for cycling is on the north side of the canal, and this was my first sighting of the ‘new’ area in front of Central St Martins. This is a natural amphitheatre to the river and has several restaurants overlooking the water. Just a little way along from here is the Canal Museum and a hired bike can be dropped off just before and another picked up just after if you wanted to make this a stop on your route.
Taking a bridge over the north side of the canal I easily dropped down to the tow path and immediately fell in love with the idea of living on the water (some of the boats were for sale). The river has been cleaned up and local schools have created gardens along the path. It was Saturday and there were people walking and running but no-one seemed phased or upset by a cyclist. One of these gardens, a narrow strip of land just above the opening of the Islington tunnel, detailed the bee-loving plants that were there. Everywhere it seemed that people were making an effort to utilise the space available and create a community.
The Islington Tunnel is a unique piece of Victorian engineering where boats originally were untethered from the horses that were towing them and then pushed through the 878 meters of the tunnel, in pitch darkness, by the watermen ‘walking’ along the tunnel walls. At this point, there is no towpath and it is, therefore, necessary to either turn right and cycle round via Wynford Road into Islington or to follow the Jubilee Greenway footpath. This is sign posted by special pavement markers – blue roundels with a squiggle pattern in them and the Jubilee Greenway crests. The Jubilee Greenway was created in 2012 to mark the Olympics and the Queen’s Jubilee and is part of an interesting set of walks, created by Transport for London. Along these paths, you should dismount from the bike and respect other pedestrians.
I parked my bike up outside The Islington on Tolpuddle Street, which is directly above the canal tunnel and walked into Chapel Market. This is a traditional London market where everything from fresh fish to single speed bikes are sold. At the end of the road is the new Angel Islington shopping centre, with its landmark sculpture. If you don’t want to walk through the shopping centre you can pick up another Santander bicycle from here. However, there are some interesting independent shops across from the centre, including an Antiques arcade on Upper Street. There is even a taxidermist near Islington Green, though the Islington Arts Factory is unfortunately not close by, being in Holloway.
Re-joining the towpath from Duncan Street and the end of the tunnel it is a couple of kilometres until Broadway Market, Haggerston, where there is bike stand on the tow path. Being Saturday there was a bustling market and the bikes were in demand – if you find you park your bike and it’s immediately snapped up you can always take a break to hunt down The Viktor Wind Museum of Curiosities, which overlooks the towpath.
Victoria Park is the next major landmark and has a tarmacked ring road. I watched people on rollerblades skating alongside families enjoying the good weather, as I cycled in the opposite direction. If you want to stop then it’s best to hop over the bridge where Roman Road crosses over Mile End Park, and park the bike at the stand there, and then take a walk back over. Mile End climbing wall is based in this park.
Along this stretch, there are sculptures by the side of the river and the bank is more open allowing you to cycle side by side and perhaps chat to a local on his way home from the mosque, or watch kayakers paddle past on the canal.
The canal ends at Limehouse basin, passing under the main A13 road bridge, where it is possible to hire a kayak from Moo Canoes or pick up a book from the book exchange. Limehouse is the gateway to the Thames and much larger sea-going cruisers are based here.
Then over the top of the Rotherhithe tunnel entrance and onto the cycle super highway CS3– the big blue route. This takes you away from Wapping and the Tobacco dock area, but if you want to get to spend some time at Tower Bridge then this is the fastest route. If you want to take a break, then make a detour to St George in the East, a hidden gem of a church, with Venetian mosaics and a strong parish ethos.
Nothing quite beats cycling across Tower Bridge, especially the day before the London marathon, with all the distance markers up. Here again it was good to be on a bike because the cycle path allows you to go up Tooley Street, against the traffic, and avoid the crowded pavements.
Cycling has become a normal mode of transport for the daily commute and the bike racks around London Bridge were packed. There are three Santander stands around London Bridge and Borough Market. Two were completely full and the one I eventually found a space at was hidden away underneath London Bridge, requiring me to have to take the bike down a stair case. This wouldn’t deter me from taking that route again as the phone app handily shows you the available spaces at stands close by.
Borough Market was packed, because of the Marathon. It was like being at a festival. I, therefore, walked further down Borough High Street towards Borough tube station and had a well-deserved Falafel wrap from Shrigley’s Moroccan Café.
Stunning ride starting and finishing in two areas where good food and all-encompassing culture can be found
Supporting community initiatives and feeling like a local
Lots of possibilities for veering off the route and returning to it easily.
Boris bikes can be a bit temperamental
British weather means you need to plan for all eventualities as if you decide to curtail the route at Victoria Park you are not close to a tube and would have to walk a short distance.
For more on this route and others, check the Expedia City-Cycling pages
Disclosure: Expedia very kindly offered to pay my expenses for the day to test a couple of their cycle routes across London. All content is editorially given.