30 April 2009

Stunt riding, 1869-style

Stunt riding is nothing new. Edinburgh BMXer Danny Macaskill has propelled himself to fame with a much-downloaded YouTube video of him doing unbelievable things on trees, street furniture and even the top of iron railings.

But 140 years ago, the earliest cyclists were pushing the envelope. Presumably the one with the details of their hospital appointment inside.

For example, in the Penny Illustrated Paper of 1 May 1869 under the snappy heading VELOCIPEDE ENTERTAINMENT, there's an account of some mid-Victorian Danny Macaskills wowing the crowds at Liverpool Gymnasium with what was called "fancy riding, in which the riders performed a variety of manoeuvres upon their machines". (It's on page 2 of that link, not the one first displayed.)

Bikes were much heavier, so we can't expect aerial loops or bus-driver handlebar-twizzling. Today, people try to text on the move; but in that letter-writing era, things were more scholarly. "Mr. Franghiardi, while his machine was proceeding at full speed, took a piece of paper and a pencil, and wrote for about a minute, guiding the vehicle unerringly during the time", we are informed.

"Another gentleman stood upon the saddle, holding the handle, and retained that position until the machine came to a standstill"; also "several others raised both feet upon the frame which projects on each side of the front wheel", proving that those footstand things on BMX front wheels have a long pedigree.

As at any modern BMX event, such as the one we cycled past in Peckham on Sunday, there were plenty of tumbles, all of them shrugged off: "During this rapid circulation of bicycles in all directions, two or three general collisions occurred, which brought about a dozen riders and their machines pellmell upon the floor; one was accidently hurled among the spectators, but in no case was any personal injury done, or any sustained by the machines, some of which were very valuable".

As we say in English, plus ça change... All this comes from the British Library's excellent British Newspapers site, which has just gone online to the general public. It offers text-search access to thousands of papers from the 19th century, covering the early days of velocipedes to the high point of the Victorian bike boom.

Most access is paid for, but there's also loads of free content (such as that trick-cycling item). If you can come to the British Library, access to the entire site is free (including the otherwise paid-for content). If you do come to the British Library, come by bike, but please don't try to write while doing so.

Thames Crossings 15: Vauxhall Bridge

Downriver from Chelsea Bridge is the 1906 steel-arch structure of Vauxhall Bridge. Cross over the wide, fast cement savannah and you might think it's central London's most boring crossing.

But of course you're on a bike, not in a car or on a bus, so you can stop to look over the side. If you do, you'll see all sorts of quirky stuff.

And we don't just mean the Pink Floyd view of Battersea Power Station's dead sheep to the west, Tate Britain on the north bank, the Eye and other postcard-London goodies downriver, or the Stalinist-cake architecture of the SIS (aka MI5, MI6) building at the south end (right).

No. We're talking about the eight large female figures depicting the arts and sciences that adorn the upstream and downstream sides of the bridge. They're all flowing art-nouveauish graces that could be advertising a safety bicycle in a 1900s-Paris poster by Mucha.

One, for example, holds a palette and a little sculpture of a person (above right, who may be holding an even littler sculpture of a person, etc, in a Borges-style recursion).

But the best one is Miss Architecture 1906, who holds a model of St Paul's Cathedral (right). There must be some sort of pub-quiz-question you can ask here, such as, 'From which bridge can you photograph both the MI6 building and St Paul's Cathedral?', or, 'Why are you arresting me, officer?'.

From here it's busy dual-carriageway Millbank (past Tate Britain) on the north side, or a riverside promenade (past the SIS building, from where security monkeys will have binoculars trained on you) on the south side; access it via the upriver side of the bridge. Now we're getting into serious tourist-view territory. Lambeth Bridge is about half a mile away.

29 April 2009

Thames Crossings 14: Chelsea Bridge

Downriver from Albert Bridge is Chelsea Bridge. Finished in 1937, it's a suspension bridge that looks like a giant metalwork project. Slightly surprising is that the main pillars are not joined horizontally with crossbars, which looks a bit modern, and you wonder how they don't fall down sideways (like that Second Severn Crossing, which we hate because it has no bike path).

From here on the north bank it's a half-assed shared-use cycle path that fizzles out when the going gets difficult and turns into a fast dual carriageway. On the south bank you have to cut away from the riverside. You skirt round Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, a refuge for lost apostrophes, and the upturned coffee table of Battersea Power Station. After that there there's top-class entertainment in the shape of one of Britain's funniest - that is, worst - cycle paths, detailed in a previous post. Either way, Vauxhall Bridge is about a mile from Chelsea Bridge.

28 April 2009

Thames Crossings 13: Albert Bridge

Downriver from Battersea Bridge is the festive metalwork confection of Albert Bridge. Opened in 1872-73, it was named after Prince Albert (the deceased husband of Queen Victoria, that is, not any other sort of festive metalwork confection – though come to think of it, it is particularly effective at night).

At the moment it's decorated with red and white traffic bollards, making its narrow lanes look like something from Jeux sans frontières, but is one of London's quirkiest and most enjoyable bridges to cycle across. (Unless it's bucketing down like it was when I was there.) In fact, it resembles the entrance to a pleasure pier more than a major estuary crossing. You half-expect it to have a 'What the Butler Saw' machine.

For maximum English eccentricity it has a statue of a naked lady and a red phone box at its south end. There is also a sign warning soldiers to break step when crossing, in a jokey typeface more suited to say 'You don't have to be mad to work here but it helps!!'.

From here it's a trundle along the embankment promenade shared cycle path on the north side, or through Battersea Park along the riverside path on the south side, about half a mile to Chelsea Bridge.

27 April 2009

Death, darkness and a cycling queen

Three snippets gleaned from this morning's Googling.

First the bad news. In the report that came out the other day (PDF) recommending borough-wide 20mph zones in London (hooray) there were some disturbing figures on road casualties in Appendix 2. Road casualties as a whole in London have been declining, but those for cyclists have been going up. There were 340 dead or seriously injured in 2004, rising to 461 in 2007. The report speculates that it may be due to the increase in cycling (which they put at 6 per cent between those dates), which doesn't quite square with the general wisdom and research, that more cyclists means fewer accidents. We hope this is a blip.

Second, a dim review in The Stage for a play in Birmingham, 'Home of the Wriggler'. It is lit by bicycle-powered generators. As the stagehands powering the bikes get tired towards the end of the performance, the set gets gloomier and gloomier.

Third, to cheer us all up, a picture of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands riding a bike on holiday in 1967, looking rather like my nan. She abdicated in 1980 and her daughter Beatrix took over. Queen Bea is also a cyclist, apparently, though there don't seem to be any pics of her doing so online. We don't approve of hereditary monarchies, but ones that get around by bike will be given cushy desk jobs when the revolution comes. This was the mistake the Romanovs made.

Thames Crossings 12: Battersea Bridge

Downriver from Wandsworth Bridge is Battersea Bridge, London's narrowest at 40 feet wide. Opened in 1890, it's another Bazalgette design. It replaced a structure painted by Turner and Whistler. They were impressionists, so we have no idea what the old bridge looked like, but we know how it felt.

The late Victorians generally get a bad press, being portrayed as a bunch of misogynist empire-grabbers who sent kids up chimneys, covered up table legs, and wrote terrible popular songs. But - and here I'm with otherwise ludicrous buffoon Jeremy Clarkson - they brought an engineering vision and passion to serve all society. Not just the rich educated white middle class, but all educated white middle class.

Battersea Bridge for example may be an overengineered, clunky thing bristling with lampposts and fussy faux-gold designs, but it's lasted, it's reasonably handsome, and it's a whole lot more characterful than the 20th-century concrete yawns of Twickenham or London Bridge, say.

The greatest achievement of British Victorians was of course the standard diamond bike frame with pneumatic tyres, which dates from exactly the same period as the bridge – the late 1880s – and is similarly unchanged, sturdy and reliable. So I can forgive them their rambling piano concertos and absurd facial hair.

On the north side you can cycle along the embankment promenade the couple of hundred yards to the spidery ironwork of Albert Bridge. On the south side you have to take a road away from the riverside.

26 April 2009

The race to get car-free Sundays

Every Sunday from 7am-2pm, Bogota's 'ciclovia' scheme shuts 110km of roads to cars, freeing them up for skaters, pedestrians and cyclists. There's little chance at the moment of persuading London to do anything similar - the nearest is the annual London Freewheel, which will probably take place this year on Sunday 20 September. Southwark Cyclists are considering if it's worth lobbying for a regular local version of such car-free Sundays in some part of the borough; we'll let you know of any progress.

Anyway, some roads were shut in the centre today because of the London Marathon. So thanks to all those people in banana costumes, traffic levels dropped to that of a bank holiday. That made cycling round south London in the sun today sheer delight.

Part of that delight was stopping on Commercial Road in Peckham to admire (from the street) this BMX race meeting. It featured everyone from four-year-olds to 50-year-olds, and several likely 2012 medallists. (Interestingly, in several races girls and boys were racing together.) Not quite the quite incredible tricks of Edinburgh BMX acrobat and YouTube sensation Danny Macaskill, but impressive nevertheless.

All this BMX stuff is great and anything that persuades kids on to their bikes is good, but traffic-free Sundays would be better for encouraging sociability, mobility and fun. And you wouldn't have to rattle a tin around your friends, or wear a banana costume.

This means war

Which is worse, war or cars? The latest edition of New Scientist magazine has a short item comparing the annual number of deaths caused by the two.

Cars win hands down, with twice as many - at least according to the correspondent in this issue, who bases his figures on World Health Organisation data. They show that 1.2 million people around the world (mostly pedestrians and cyclists) are killed directly by motor vehicles every year. About the same amount again die from traffic-related air pollution.

So perhaps the government could set up some sort of scheme where you can scrap your car and get £2000 towards financing a war.

Thames Crossings 11: Wandsworth Bridge

Downriver from Fulham Railway Bridge is Wandsworth Bridge. The distinctive blue iron sides date from 1940.

On the south side is a roundabout with a sculpture that looks like the logo of a mid-range saloon car, or a pretzel, or something that comes out of your washing machine when you try to fix it.

From here the north bank is Chelsea roads and lanes. On the south bank it's all new development, spiffy waterside steel'n'glass blocks with upmarket bars and 'convenience outlets', which means shops, only more expensive. There's a promenade that you're not supposed to cycle along. It eventually ejects you into the streets and lanes going up to Battersea Bridge, about a mile away.

25 April 2009

Thames Crossings 10: Fulham Railway Bridge

Downriver from Putney Bridge is Fulham Railway Bridge. It dates from 1889 and has a footpath, accessed by three or four flights of steep metal steps at either end. Not a problem for featherweight fixies, but no easy task on a solid tourer with panniers full of shopping.

Past the bridge, on the north side it's wiggly roads up to Wandsworth Bridge. On the south side it's cycle paths towards and through Wandsworth Park, and then wiggly roads to Wandsworth Bridge.

24 April 2009

Thames Crossings 9: Putney Bridge

Downriver from Hammersmith Bridge is Putney Bridge. The bridge is the nominal start of the annual Boat Race, the one in which Oxford and Cambridge always get through to the final.

There are churches at both ends; St Mary's, on the south end, was where the Putney Debates took place in 1648 to determine the shape of England's new republic, following the deposition of Charles I. You can debate what should be the fate of the monarchy there now too, in its coffee shop. The church is part of the Taking Liberties exhibition bike tour, featured in a previous post.

Continuing from Hammersmith Bridge, you have a few hundred yards of streets and lanes on either side which take you to the access stairs of Fulham Railway Bridge.

23 April 2009

Thames Crossings 8: Hammersmith Bridge

Downriver from Barnes Railway Bridge is Hammersmith Bridge. The historic and distinctive suspension bridge went up in 1887 on the foundations of a similar previous bridge, and has been repainted its original pea-soup colour.

There are bike lanes but they do what bike lanes always do: separate you from the traffic fussily but safely, only to dump you into a narrow stream of traffic on the bridge itself. You aren't allowed to cycle on the footways.

It was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the great Victorian engineer whose new system of sewers in the 1860s helped take raw sewage away from millions of London households. His great-great-grandson Peter is a leading figure in TV, whose popularisation of formats such as Big Brother and Deal or no deal has done just the opposite.

Continuing from Hammersmith Bridge, the north bank has no riverside path, only a web of side roads. The south side is a pleasant riverside path and finally a tarmac lane past boathouses that takes you to Putney Bridge, about a mile and a half away.

22 April 2009

Thames Crossings 7: Barnes Railway Bridge

Downriver from Chiswick Bridge you cycle a few hundred metres along a lane and then riverside path. Go just under the railway crossing of Barnes Bridge and hoik your bike up the two flights of steps to platform level in Barnes Bridge station.

You can wheel your bike across the footpath. The structure was built in 1895 and is Grade II listed.

From the bridge you'll see a blue plaque on the wall of a handsome riverfront house with a latticework balcony (right): it was the home of Planets Suite composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934), who was a keen cyclist (and very English, despite the name). Once he had to deliver a score to a colleague on the south coast, and decided to cycle there. When he turned up at the front door, the wife of his colleague assumed he must be a mere delivery-boy, rather than the celebrated composer of the Planets. We all know the feeling.

She sniffily directed him to the tradesman's entrance round the back. Unfazed, Holst went round the back to meet his colleague with a cheery 'delivery for you, sir'. A lot of Holst's music is appealing and modern-sounding thanks to its odd metres, robust rhythms and haunting melodies: try the Perfect Fool suite, and the Hardyesque bleakness of Egdon Heath.

Down the steps on the other side, turn right and cycle along the riverside downriver past sports grounds and boathouses. There's one little set of steps to lift your bike over but the rest is cyclable.

There are refurbishment works going on from now until 'early 2010' which will involve the bridge being closed for a few weeks at a time at various periods, so don't bank on it being crossable for a while. If the bridge is closed, or if you don't fancy coping with a lot of steps, then cut out both this bridge and the similar Fulham Railway Bridge a bit downriver.

Between here and central London's South Bank, it doesn't make much difference which side of the river you're on – there's not always a 'best side', and you'll often be nosing your way round streets away from the riverside. So if you have to miss out a bridge, it doesn't matter. The trick you can pull is that later on, when you cross the Jubilee Bridges, you can count them as either one or two crossings (as they're two separate bridges but feel like one). Choose whichever option ensures that you're on the South Bank after the Jubilee Bridges, or it'll all go wrong at Woolwich.

Whichever side you're on downriver from Barnes Bridge, continue along the riverside path up to Hammersmith Bridge.

21 April 2009

Britain's strangest ride: What's the point of Spurn Point?

One of the oddest places in Britain to cycle is Spurn Point, a long sand spit no wider than its single-lane road, that takes you three miles out into the North Sea.

I wanted to include it in my 50 Quirky Bike Rides book, but didn't in the end, because logistically it's just such a challenge. It's a 50-mile round trip from the nearest train station, Hull, across landscape of monosyllabic tedium: flat, dull, bare.

This is the Holderness Plain. And it certainly is plain. Welcome to Ironing Board World. You'll be pining for the lush scenic drama of Doncaster or the vibrant cosmopolitanism of Hull.

View Larger Map

However, it can sort of work as an alternative ending to the Trans Pennine Trail. That route takes you 215 miles or so right across England, east from Liverpool to Hull. The usual ending is an old rail trail to Hornsea, on the east coast. But in many ways Spurn Point is a more interesting way to round off the TPT. That's what we were doing over the weekend.

After the steely Baltic sweep of Hull's marina, and the imposing sharky profile of its excellent Submarium, you hack out a few miles on a cycle path alongside Hedon Road. There's an old railway path that you can cycle from Hedon all the way to the small town of Patrington. It's excitingly situated on the Greenwich meridian, shown by a plaque.

Winding roads take you to Easington, with its floral wind-turbines (above) and gas terminal. Finally comes Kilnsea, which is little more than a pub and a cafe. Thanks to Europe's fastest coastal erosion, the cafe gets a better and better sea view every year (right).

And from here you have one of the strangest geographical cycling experiences in Britain. Three miles of sandy single-lane takes you out in a gentle curve to the very end of the spit, into the middle of the mouth of Humber. The restless strand keeps moving and they keep having to reposition the road. You see lots of places where the old tramlines jump out the sea, slash across the road into the estuary side, and then cross again further on.

A middle half-mile section of temporary road is very bumpy, made apparently out of concrete lego, but elsewhere it's flat and smooth. Cars can drive to the end for three quid, so you often have to stop and let them past.

The spit bulges at the end, and is big enough to have one of England's remotest communities: the seven households who make up Britain's only permanently-stationed lifeboat crew (along with a few on the less remote Thames). They work on a rota and are on call 24/7. There's one rescue a week on average.

The coxswain's wife runs a small cafe in a caravan and will tell you about life here over a cup of tea. After twenty years she still loves it. Food shopping and secondary school is at Withernsea, 17 miles up the coast; big stuff, returning a toaster perhaps, needs a trip to Hull.

Out on the end is a surreal shipscape, a twitcher's delight of wading birds, and a smokestack horizon like the stumpy aftermath of a distant forest fire.

Spurn grows over a 250-year cycle, after which it is breached, washes away, and starts growing again from further upriver. The latest dissolve is years overdue. The groynes can't hold back the sea forever, so go while you can. Yes, it's awkward to get there by bike, but it's a reminder that there's plenty of Weird Stuff to see without flying anywhere.

And it's better than the alternative way of visiting Spurn, which involves getting into difficulties on your smack in a mountainous sea, and being rescued.

Thames Crossings 6: Chiswick Bridge

Downriver from Kew Bridge is the rather lovely sequence of Strand on the Green, a succession of well-to-do characterful period cottages overlooking the riverside path (right).

Then comes Chiswick Bridge, which disconcertingly looks the same as Kew Bridge. (Odd: it was built in the 1930s compared to 1903 for Kew. Clearly some anagrammatic connection.) It's that same here-we-go-again feeling you get when you realise omigod, it's Christmas/ Easter/ our anniversary, surely it isn't a year since a year ago?

South over Chiswick Bridge takes you a few hundred metres to a road and riverside path to Barnes Bridge, a railway crossing with a path on the downriver side.

20 April 2009

Let them eat bicycle cake

It's about time we had a picture of some cake on this site. Thanks Ruth, who made them for the Southwark Cyclists' stall in the Silver Festival at Dulwich College yesterday.

Thames Crossings 5: Kew Bridge

Downriver from Richmond Lock footbridge, the bridges are starting to look much the same from the side now. Kew Bridge is another structure of Twickenhamesque mundanity if you only see it from the road, dating from 1903. The shared pedestrian/cycle path dumps you onto a complex but safe swirl of crossings on the north bank.

Head for the riverbank and follow the series of characterful footpaths through an area called Strand on the Green for a mile and a half. Most of it you can physically cycle, but you're supposed to push most of the way, so use your good judgement. There's plenty of delightful period riverside cottages and houses and some historic pubs, which can help break up that long walk.

The riverside path leads you up to Chiswick Bridge.

19 April 2009

Comedy Cycle Lanes 3: Cardigan St, SE11

This cycle facility is in Cardigan St, in Lambeth, south London, not far from the Oval cricket ground. The car is parked legally in a marked bay.

Once you've squeezed past it, you're then in a contraflow street cycling against the traffic, such as the taxi coming the other way.

Thames Crossings 4: Richmond Lock footbridge

Downriver from Twickenham Bridge, a few hundred yards along the riverside lane, is Richmond Lock. You can wheel your bike across the ironwork pedestrian bridge over it except at night, when the bridge is closed and anyway you should be tucked up in a pub. There are several steep steps up to and down from the bridge. It's a Grade II listed structure, built in 1894 with a lot of nuts and bolts.

Your map here is London Cycling Guide No. 6, one of the excellent TfL series available free in bike shops or online.

Cross the bridge to the south bank and continue along the gravelly towpath. You go past several riverbank views that look more Severn than Thames, and eventually see across to Brentford's redeveloped marina area. On your right is the Old Deer Park and then Kew Gardens; you might hear the screech of parakeets flitting about the trees, and of children who have fallen off their bikes on a family ride. Across the water is Syon Park. Join Kew Bridge on its upriver side. Or its downriver side.

18 April 2009

Thames Crossings 3: Twickenham Bridge

Downriver from Richmond Bridge, about a quarter of a mile along the towpath past Richmond's handsome period riverfront buildings, is rather boring Twickenham Bridge, a fast unpleasant road bridge dating from the 1930s. Both sides have shared pedestrian/cycle paths.

You have three options for accessing Twickenham Bridge:
1. Use the stairs both sides – four brief but steep flights.
2. Go by road, a ten-minute detour away from the river on both banks to join the bridge (from Richmond involves a short-cut through a car park)
3. Skip Twickenham Bridge and Richmond Lock footbridge (which also involves a few steps) and just carry on along the south bank.

Confusingly, the south bank is the north bank here, and vice-versa, because of the way the river bends. So the two sides are sometimes called the Middlesex and Surrey banks, after the two fictional counties that play cricket.

Cross the bridge to the north (ie south) side and find your way back south (ie north) to the riverside lane on the north (ie south) side. It's only a few hundred metres (ie yards) to Richmond Lock footbridge.

17 April 2009

Thames Crossings 2: Richmond Bridge

Downriver from Ham ferry, about a mile along the towpath past well-to-do moorings, is the splendid Richmond Bridge. It's the oldest surviving bridge in the whole London stretch of the Thames, built in 1777, and is Grade I listed. (They widened it in the 1930s, but used the existing stonework.)

Cross south over the bridge and enjoy a free-refill weekday coffee at the cafe in the arch, directly under the bridge (turn right and go back on yourself), which will be full of young mums and their children who are all, they will inform you, very bright for their age. Or try Steins, the sociable Bavarian Beer Garden just a bit upriver where you can practise your sausage, Kartoffel and prost skills.

Continue along the towpath a short distance to Twickenham Bridge.

Bike boom? No, says Social Trends 39

Social Trends 39, the latest snapshot of UK life in figures from the government's National Statistics office, has just been published. The data go up to 2007. Many newspapers, and the BBC website, followed the office's press-release headline of 'one-third of men live with their mums', but in the transport section there are several entries about bikes and bike use that are worth downloading the full report (3MB, PDF) for.

For example:
* The number of reported stolen bikes was 0.4m in 2007-08 (out of 10.1m reported crimes overall): about the same as the previous three years, compared with 0.2m in 1981 and 0.7m in 1995.
* Car use has more than doubled since 1971 while bike use has stayed the same. Total passenger kilometres travelled by car rose from 313bn in 1971 to 689bn in 2007; the bike figure stayed constant at 4bn. (Bike boom? What bike boom? Maybe it's just a London thing...)
* Over the last dozen years, distance travelled by all forms of transport has stayed about the same, though bike use has dipped a bit and rail use risen noticeably.
* Richer households do three times as much mileage by car as poor households (so it isn't true that more expensive motoring 'hits the poor harder')
* Motoring costs overall have nearly doubled since 1987, with cheaper cars offsetting big rises in tax, insurance and petrol. Rail fares have nearly tripled. They don't give prices for bikes but a rough guess suggests it's cheaper or about the same.
* Since 1981, the chances of a fatal accident by distance travelled has halved for cyclists, walkers and cars. In 2007 the rate of cyclist deaths was 31.5 per billion kilometres, compared with 2.5 for cars, 106.7 for motorbikes, and 35.5 for pedestrians.

So, you can expect to cycle 30m kilometres before a fatal accident. Which means, even cycling everywhere every day, I should be OK for the next 4,000 years.

16 April 2009

Thames Crossings 1: Ham Ferry

Downriver from Teddington Footbridge, the first cycle crossing of the Thames is Hammertons (or Ham) Ferry, which connects Marble Hill Park and Ham House. It's a tiny, on-demand shuttle boat that runs February-October, 10am-6pm.

It costs £1 per adult plus 50p per bike. That works out as something like £30 per mile, which is more expensive than the Orient Express, so go on and treat yourself.

You ride a bit of history here as you cross to the north bank. Hammertons Ferry was set up as a rival to the nearby Twickenham Ferry in 1908. A legal battle established the right of Hammertons Ferry to operate (more detail in the comments below).

Its victory was celebrated in a song that was published called 'Ferry to fairyland', which seems to us a rather ambitious description of Marble Hill. Still, the Twickenham Ferry's chief claim to fame hitherto seems to have been a tedious mention in Dickens's Little Dorrit, which clearly couldn't compete with a comic music-hall ditty.

Continue a mile or so past all the smart moored boats along the towpath on the north bank to Richmond Bridge.

15 April 2009

Thames Crossings 0: Teddington

I spent a couple of days over Easter cycling all the cyclable crossings of the Thames, east from Teddington Lock – the tidal limit – to Dartford Crossing, mentioned in yesterday's post.

The rules of the ride are simple:
1. Start on the north bank at Teddington, cross here and head downriver.
2. Cross whenever you can.
3. Stay as close to the river as possible.

The Teddington crossing is actually just above the tidal limit, so I've numbered it zero, but it's the best place to start. Going downriver from here there are 30 more separate cyclable crossings, ending with that tunnel and bridge at Dartford.

The whole 31-crossing trip (bridges, tunnels, ferries) is best done over two leisurely days of about 20 miles (four hours' easy cycling) each, breaking it somewhere in central London. Most of the route is traffic-free, it's all flat, it's a fabulous mix of rural, suburban and cityscape scenery, and there is absolutely no shortage of cafes and pubs. And what wind there is should be behind you.

I'll cover one bridge per day on this blog over the next month.

Getting to Teddington is easy: there are plenty of trains from Waterloo, and the station is a few hundred metres from the bridge down High Street and Ferry Road. The bike map for this bit is London Cycling Guide No. 9, one of the excellent TfL series available free in bike shops or online.

Teddington's crossing is a pair of charming little Meccano-like bridges: a suspension (top right and middle right) and a girder (bottom right), which meet on a small island in the middle.

They were built in the late 1880s, paid for by local subscription. That was the beginning of the bike boom, but they were clearly designed as footbridges, with some steep steps. However, a couple of years ago, wooden ramps were added that give you and your bike smooth passage over the whole crossing.

From here it's a couple of miles of smooth traffic-free riverside tarmac or gravel along the south bank to the next crossing, a tiny passenger ferry.

That Waterloo pothole is back: Hippos take note

It's nice to get back to work after the Easter break and see old friends. Such as this pothole at the north end of Waterloo Bridge. It hasn't been this big since, oh, as far back as February.

They patched it up then, but it's back. Following the torrential rain last night, it could serve as a watering hole for African megafauna again.

So I'll be engaging with another old friend: TfL's pothole-reporting web page. (For non-TfL roads try FixMyStreet.com or the CTC's FillThatHole.org.)

14 April 2009

Cycling above and below the Thames at Dartford Crossing

I cycled the Dartford Crossing yesterday. Sort of.

It consists of a tunnel (for northbound traffic) and the Queen Elizabeth II bridge (southbound). In all but name it's the bit where the M25 vaults over, or dodges under, the Thames Estuary, linking Thurrock in Essex with Dartford in Kent.

Neither the tunnel nor the bridge were built for bikes. However, thanks to paragraph 27 of the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Act 1988, cyclists have to be transported free of charge.

(A reliable source tells me this was inserted by our bicycling baronet chums in the Lords, after the evil anti-cycling House of Commons tried to push it through without pedalling provision.)

In practice this means you cycle to a control-point car park at either end, and stand around until a chap in a tie and high-vis jacket pops out and asks you if you want a lift across. A lurid, op-art Land Rover suggestive of a Zandra Rhodes migraine turns up; your bike goes on a rack on the back and you're whisked across.

The facility works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each Land Rover can take up to three people at a time. They have a big bike trailer for cycling groups, though they need a phone call in advance to set it up.

On both my north and south trips I had a friendly and chatty lady driver whose knowledge of the relative merits of Bluewater and Lakeside shopping centres, on opposite sides of the estuary, was detailed and comprehensive. Up on the Thurrock side I had a couple of pints in a rather shabby Essex pub populated by Fast Show characters where everything was either sticky, broken, or nailed down.

The southbound journey, across the bridge, is impressive. You're pretty high up (180 feet, my likeable cabbie informed me in between observations on the new John Lewis food court in Bluewater) and get a commanding view of the refineries, ships and marshy sweeps. Splendid, in a Netherlands sort of way.

But being in a vehicle, you can't stop, and it all flits superficially by, a glimpsed estuarial zoetrope. If only they'd built a bike lane... like they did with the Humber Bridge, which is much better because you can therefore dawdle and stop and enjoy the panoramas of mud, sand and chimneys.

Neither bike access point is easy to find by bike. Signage is sporadic and the route not obvious. Your final mile or two will be spent in narrow strips of tarmac alongside what are effectively motorways. The most convenient way to do the crossing from London is to cycle out on National Cycle Route 1, which runs virtually all along the south bank of the Thames from the centre to Dartford. (Reckon on 20 miles/30 km taking about four hours.) There are regular trains back from Dartford to London Bridge/ Waterloo/ Charing Cross (40 minutes).

And doing it all by bike has a great advantage: there is no chance of you following the siren calls to Bluewater or Lakeside and being suckered into buying a sofa.

13 April 2009

Bad bike lane in the dock

The cycle route to the Museum in Docklands, where we went yesterday, is very clearly signposted.

Just follow the bike lane and you can't miss it.

12 April 2009

Information for tourists: Bike is best

The best way to tour virtually anywhere is by bike. Obviously there are exceptions – Atlanta, the Gibson Desert, McMurdo, Mars etc – but most places any of us are likely to spend time and money in are most satisfyingly done on the saddle.

So there's something rather satisfying about London's three mobile Tourist Information Offices that happen to be bikes too. (Yeah, yeah, trikes, whatever.) We saw this one yesterday while investigating the Slow Food Festival on the South Bank. (Visit a Slow Food Festival when you're hungry and with a twenty quid note fresh out of the ATM, and both of those burdens will rapidly disappear.)

These pedallable tourist info boxes can get to places of heavy tourist footfall where vehicles can't reach, such as here under Waterloo Bridge, by the National Theatre (showing a free exhibition of utterly gorgeous rural England photos by James Ravilious), next to those fab outdoor bookstalls.

Each bike is apparently branded with a local landmark – this one, for example, has the outline of the nearby London Eye painted on the side of the pod. So the pleasant couple in charge of the bike told us in between helping tourists with queries, anyway.

So we like this a lot. We're sure this sort of thing will catch on. And if not... well, we'll snap up at least one of the bikes. We could use its rear pod to transport large items. Such as our booty from the Slow Food Festival.