The Natural History Museum: London! Tring! Yes, the NHM is only half based in posh Kensington. It has another branch in Tring, Herts, 40 minutes north from Euston by train.
We went up there today, bike-and-train being the best way to go and see it from London. Because the museum itself is a couple of miles from the station - too far to walk comfortably, too tedious to do by bus, but too far from London to do by car.
And make no mistake, NHM Tring is no dusty old warehouse of provincial junk. It's got an astounding collection of stuffed mammals, birds and fish that you knew from books but which are amazing when you see them life size in front of you. There's a Scrabble-player's resource list in the bird section alone: ani, shama, coleto, trogon, motmot, piapiac, aracari, gonolek, minivet.
You can see stuffed examples of a Bengal florican, a Wonga pigeon, scaly-breasted lorikeet, Temminck's tragopan, or the splendidly named noisy pitta. The Victorian galleries deafen you with excited kids shouting and running up and down, and mums saying 'Look George, that animal comes from Kenya. We went to Kenya, didn't we?', and dads fretting 'Amber, stop that RIGHT NOW'.
It's great fun. And it has a pair of fleas in costume. And it's all free!
It's a fine day trip from London, and Tring is fun to nose around. As you'd expect from a place that sounds like a Bakelite phone, it has some handsome olde houses and cottages and picturesque back-lanes like Akeman St, the old Roman Road. Get to the town centre from the train station by the signposted roadside cycle path, and go back along the Grand Union Canal (pictures) and drop in on picture-postcard Aldbury, a village a mile east of Tring station.
We did what everyone does when exploring a new town, and consulted the windows of the local estate agents to see how much houses cost. Half a million quid, is the answer, which made us think: Wow! We could sell up in London and come to live here. If someone gave us half a million quid. Except we might be a bit bored by, say, the second day.
But if you do go to Tring, take a side-trip of an hour or so to visit one of England's few magnetic hills: a geographical optical illusion which makes a downhill road look like an uphill road, enabling you to freewheel magically uphill (right). For a few dozen metres, anyway. The physics-bending place is Dancersend Lane outside Aston Clinton just west of Tring, and there's a chapter about it in my book.
The bill would require motorists to maintain a five-foot distance when passing cyclists, and would give right of way to cyclists where a bike path intersects a street, among other things.
It seems unlikely to become law, as it won't be allowed through the House, rather like my bike after a muddy towpath ride. But even if not, hooray for Senator Matt McCoy, the man behind the bill, whoever he is.
At both the New Kent Road and Peckham stores, they'd sold out of all the items I wanted (bike computer, lights, tools). If they'd ever had them.
It was pants. Literally. That was the only thing they had on offer. There were a couple of other cyclists forlornly rummaging through the baskets of unwanted legwear in vain too.
No doubt the promise of cut-price cycle accessory bounty was all a cheap ruse to get me in to the store, thinking that I'd take out my frustrated desire-to-acquire by instead buying some three-quid bottle of US Ruby Cabernet with a suspiciously foamy look about it.
Momo, the cycling dalmatian, appears in this 45-second clip - which seems genuine - for a Japanese TV programme.
The surtitles, as far as my rusty Japanese can tell, are: 1. Honto ni jitensha o koideru!! (genuine-ly-bicycle-[objective particle]-pedal: 'Actually pedalling a bike!!') 2. Jitensha ni noru inu Momo (bicycle-on-ride-dog-Momo: 'Momo [Peachblossom], the dog that rides a bike') (picture)
Momo may not look all that comfortable, but note that she is a Real Cyclist: no helmet, no lycra.
Hooray for Lambeth. The borough is first off the mark with its proposed list of locations for docking stations in London's definitely-happening Bike Hire scheme. We went to see and comment on a presentation of the proposed sites last night (right).
A map of the proposed sites is on the Lambeth website. Not all these sites will go through (which is why there are some clusters - they're alternatives).
The whole scheme is being pushed through in some haste from the top: work has to start in May 2009 and the first bikes have to be available by May 2010. So, for Lambeth and the other eight central London boroughs involved, coming up with the list of docking sites has been a frantic cross between Pin the tail on the donkey and Countdown.
We enjoyed a short promotional film in which Boris enthuses about the scheme and calls for our support. It's actually pretty good, giving the right sort of reasons and portraying cyclists in the right sort of way.
In the film, the scheme is imaged as a convenient, quick, easy, instant alternative to tube and bus, which are already at bursting point. Cyclists are portrayed, hooray, as not all wearing helmets, bright jackets and lycra, like mobile belisha beacons; but as normal people, unhelmeted and in jeans and skirts and everyday shoes, just getting from A to B.
(Helmets will not be provided as part of the bike hire, and quite right too. Boris stresses in the film that all research shows that more cyclist on roads means better safety. More cyclists on the road, many of them novices. Some road users won't like that. Well, get over it.)
So now starts the horse-trading over where docking stations can go. They are supposed to be every 300m or so, but some of the 'obvious' sites - such as on Belvedere Road, behind the old City Hall - are on private land. And private landowners sometimes have an attitude problem to two wheels. Such as when they block cycle lanes with planters the size of a small car, as they have done on Belvedere Road.
But we're very positive about the scheme. We take the simple approach: anything that gets more people cycling more often is good. Lambeth has set the pace; now, come on Southwark et al.
The mosaics are in Carlisle Lane South and Centaur Road, brightening up a nondescript area a few hundred metres from the station.
Exploring them all was yet another of those experiences perfect for bikes: too dull and attenuated to do on foot; unparkable by car (though this yellow Volvo, above right, somehow managed it in the bizarre Zen street mentioned below); too intricate and costly by public transport; but a modest delight by bike.
There are also some enjoyable mosaics in Boyce St, in front of Waterloo station, which reference Boticelli, Seurat, and possibly the Ribblehead Viaduct, though I'm not sure (right).
But I was just as intrigued by the status Boyce St itself, which seems an even Zenner street than Leigh Hunt St, mentioned in a previous post. It clearly exists, as this detail (right) of a Lambeth council map shows, and indeed was cited as the venue for the ante-station mosaics in various emailouts to us.
But it's invisible to Google, to Microsoft Live Search, to Multimaps... to everyone. It's just a walk-through under a railway arch (right), without buildings, without a road surface, without even a name plate. London's Zennest Zen street for cyclists.
'Even the queen bicycles' in the Netherlands, enthuses another recent article about how cool Cloggie cycling culture is. (It comes in the wake of January figures showing that in Amsterdam, bike use continues to increase, and bike journeys per person have just overtaken car trips.)
For the nearest approach we've had in Britain between 'queen' and 'bike', see Mercury, F. et al: 'Bicycle Race' (London: EMI, 1976) - but it's an entertaining thought, isn't it?
Tavistock Place's separate cycle lane is like visiting an ageing relative who always tells the same old stories. You spend ages trying to get through to them, then when you finally do, they won't let you go.
Getting on it, for example. My natural route is to join it from the south and turn right, the same direction as this van is turning in the photo. But thanks to it being a separated cycle lane, I have to cross not one, but three lines of traffic; to wait for a simultaneous gap in not two, but four lines. It's like waiting for planetary alignments. I end up coat-tailing a taxi and making the sort of nervous, promiscuous eye contact you get in a student disco.
Then after a couple of hundred metres I turn left. Except that the way the lights are phased, the traffic turns left first, across the cycle lanes (next photo). What you get is the mild chaos of the above student disco at chucking out time: some cyclists wait patiently; others jag out right to rejoin the car lane and turn left across the two cycle lanes, strictly adhering to the lights; others plough straight through regardless.
So this particular separated cycle lane, as I've banged on about before, only makes things worse in my opinion. As does every other particular example I can think of (such as the fiasco at Waterloo roundabout that plunges you into a bus-stop lagoon). Not only do they create problems at every interface with the rest of the traffic, they also suggest to drivers that cyclists 'ought to be' out of the way.
What I'd like to see more of is permeability, something of a current buzzword. More blotting paper streets, more capillary action, more ease and spontaneity and ability to use any combination of side roads and alleys. That means, essentially, making every one-way street two-way for cycles as of standard. The recent announcement that five City one-way streets will be made two-way for bikes as an experiment this summer is therefore a welcome first step, but a pitifully small and timid one.
As, no doubt, I'll cover in some future post... rather like that loquacious old relative. Nurse! Nurse! They've stolen my clothes!
Southwark Cyclists' mailing list, first with the news as ever, has just drawn my attention to this new TV ad which features Welsh singer-songwriter Duffy riding a bike (right).
Hooray! Another victory for Real Cycling! No helmet or lycra nonsense, just a good honest generic bike. Shame it doesn't have a rack or panniers, though. And not sure I'd recommend trying to ride through convenience stores.
Lance Armstrong's got his bike back, reports Bike Radar. It was stolen three days ago from the back of a truck in Sacramento, California.
Good that it's been recovered, but how unfortunate that it was stolen in the first place. And a few simple precautions could have prevented all this.
First, expensive-looking bikes will get nicked. Many owners of such bikes in London daub the frame with blobs of paint; such distressing does seem to be a deterrent to the Brick Lane gang.
By displaying sponsors' names prominently, you see, you're telling the thief that you have a costly machine. Better to paint them out, or consider replacing them with downmarket brands (processed cheese, all-you-can-eat diners, pound / dollar stores, etc).
And Lance, always use two locks. Maybe in some areas you can get away with one; in London you need two sturdy Abuses. But don't just leave your bike unlocked in the back of a van, which is what was reported in this instance. There is a slight weight consideration, but it surely won't trouble someone as fit as you.
And was your bike registered with immobilise.com? I bet not.
Lance, you'd have been far better off with an inexpensive commuting bike - ideally one unattractive to thieves, with three hub gears and a basket at the front.
Just noticed this on greenmuze.com: a US cycle mechanic turned furniture maker who recycles old bits of bike and turns them into stylish (for which read 'uncomfortable') things to sit on or knock your shins against.
Come to think of it, this is the perfect use for those eighty-quid 'mountain bikes' you see advertised in the paper.
The Daily Mail ran an item yesterday about Top Gear presenter James May being spotted on a bike in London.
'It's not exactly a Harley!', the headline helpfully informed us - though it seems no-one at the Mail could identify a Brompton, one of the most distinctive bike brands in the world. All they could say about it was that it is 'green', but as we know the Mail has excellent colour vision.
"The green bike even came complete with a bell, so he'd be able to warn anyone who got in his way", marvelled the newspaper. "And the presenter also appeared to be carrying a small parcel, which he had attached to the back of the bike."
Whatever next? Web-savvy, Twittering guru Stephen Fry seen posting a letter? ("The letter appeared to have a stamp attached to it...")
I'm a bit puzzled as to why this is news. Getting around on a bike is a perfectly sensible way of getting round London, regardless of your relationship to the motor media, so I'm not in the least bit surprised that the presenter of an amiably daft programme about cars should cycle here and there. It's simply not worthy of comment. Except that I've just scuppered my argument by commenting on that very item here.
Anyway, I commend Mr May on his excellent choice of bike. He looks to me like a Real Cyclist, too, given that he's happily trundling along helmetless and in his civvies.
In the current situation, it's nice to report something that should give you a bit of a lift.
In fact, it is a lift (right). It's just next to the wobbly bridge, which splendidly links St Paul's Cathedral and Tate Modern. It doesn't wobble any more of course, but 'Millennium Bridge' is a boring name.
Even more boringly, you're not supposed to cycle across the bridge. But it's an easy and pleasant push across, and you can bike your way along the south bank for one of the world's greatest cityscape cycling views.
And if you want to get down with your bike on the north bank to the riverside footpath, you don't have to schlepp it down the steps. This 'Inclinator', as it calls itself - imagine a greenhouse doing an impression of the Lynton Cliff Railway - will shuttle you and your bike between levels.
There's no good reason for using it. Except that it's there, and you can, which is good enough.
York, this is York. Please ensure you have all of your belongings with you when you leave the train.
What, all of my belongings? There’s racks of CDs in our house, and boxes of stuff up in my mum’s attic...
But today I was in York for work, so I just had to check out the station’s cycle parking (right). It puts the London termini to shame: Sheffield stand after Sheffield stand, as far as the eye can see.
The station also boasts this historic tilework map (right: click on it to see it in detail) of the rail network of north-east England as it was in the olden days, circa 1900.
You could get everywhere in East Yorkshire by train; most of it was uprooted in the Beeching era, and quite a few of them are now railtrails (Hull to Hornsea, part of the Trans Pennine Trail; and the wonderful Scarborough to Whitby, one of the country’s most underrated).
There's a discreet notice on the map warning you it might not necessarily reflect the sparse coverage of today, just in case anyone turns up thinking they can get to Withernsea without facing a very long ride into a cold easterly. And finally... thanks to Northern Rail for opening up the bike closets (right) in their two-carriage trundlers, such as those plying the Hull-York backwaters. Previously, the space you see was closed up. Getting a bike in - especially one with handlebars the size of the antlers on a Highland manor's trophy head, like mine - was as cumbersome as trying to get a bike with handlebars the size of the antlers on a Highland manor's trophy head into the bike space on a Northern Rail train.
And finally and ultimately... hooray for National Express East Coast, whose website makes it easy to book not only your ticket, but also your bike reservation: all you have to do is tick a box.
Except of course it books you into Coach B, quarter of a mile away from your bike at the other end of the train. Not the most convenient situation when you get to Doncaster with only 30 seconds to sprint down to your bike. I couldn't run a four-minute mile, even with a considerable shortcut.
Tavistock Place, paralleling Euston Road to the south, has a separated two-way cycle path. I’ve had my doubts about it before. To me this bicycle flume creates more problems than it solves, like the uncle whose fussy, jumbled puncture-repair lessons simply confused you when you were little.
So I was delighted when I cycled past this bit en route to Kings Cross on Saturday morning. You’re assaulted by arrows, as if being attacked by anticyclones from a BBC weather map (above right).
True to form, Tavistock Pl’s bike experience makes even going in a straight line complicated: a chiasmus that switches you from drive-on-left to drive-on-right. You half-expect passport control and customs.
It reminded me of another celebrated change of side: Savoy Court, off Strand (right). It’s one of the chapters in my 50 Quirky Bike Rides book. This is the only unseparated road in the country where you legally drive both ways on the right (though strictly speaking it’s a private road, not a public highway).
Hence my pleasure at finding this additional two-way wrong-side stretch in Tavistock Place: a Place where you can experience what it’s like cycling in the Netherlands.
In terms of which side you cycle on, anyway. Obviously not in terms of the cycle path quality.
We had a Cycle to Work scheme evangeliser pop in to work this week. The scheme lets you buy a bike through work for virtually half price, and a chap called Michael from Halford's brought a bike and some kit along to our staff room (right) to tell tempted employees what was involved in cycling to work.
In fact, as you might imagine, the British Library has a fairly strong contingent of pedalling employees; the generous covered staff bike parking is three-quarters full on an average day. And it's not just the student interns or gnarly IT boys who wheel in: many suits-and-meetings managers cycle in too, which is clearly a good thing. A convenient staff shower helps. Well, it helps them. I don't cycle fast enough to break sweat.
Anyway, I went along to chat to Michael, posing as a normal person, to see what he said. He was a dead ringer for former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan, so I expected him to start well and then throw it all away just as he got going. I'm very wary of 'advice on cycling' I've had from chain store employees, which feels as reliable as legal advice from that bloke in the pub, or financial advice from a investment banker.
But guess what: Michael said all the right things. First thing you'll need is rack and panniers and mudguards, he said. Biking to work is fun, fast and makes you feel good, he said. He didn't scaremonger about the risks but he gave the right sort of cautions. He said pretty much what I'd say, with some minor differences of emphasis (he's a bit keener on neoprene overshoes than me, for instance, and a bit less keen on football-stadium illumination, but there you go). He was enthusiastic, pitched things at the right level for the thinking-about-it waverer, was good on the details and benefits of the scheme itself, and was generally a very good evangeliser for biking to work.
Michael, who cycles everywhere every day and clearly loves it, knows what commuter cycling is. And yet (as I moaned in a previous post) go into Halfords, or any other chain store, and try to find a commuting bike: you're struggling. Stock instore and online caters for what people think they want - mountain bikes and road racers - and marketing reinforces that. An ounce of good personal advice is worth a ton of marketing. I like the sound of that phrase: I should set myself up as a business guru. All I need is some advice on how to market myself.
London's Bike Hire Scheme - loosely modelled on Paris's Vélib model - is definitely going to happen. It's a great scheme, and we're all in favour of it.
It will be up and running by May 2010, and preparations are under way. Indeed one borough, Lambeth, has already released a list of proposed locations for 'docking stations'.
On Wednesday evening, Southwark Cyclists had a presentation on the scheme by Gary from Transport for London, the body running the scheme. Bike Show presenter Jack Thurston was there, and his blog entry this morning helpfully summarises what we learned about the scheme, saving me the trouble of doing any hard work.
I was intrigued to be described in his blog as 'the quirky Rob Ainsley'. This probably comes from a radio interview-ride he did with me on the release of my book last year - you can hear it all on the Bike Show website. So it's official now: I am the King of Quirk. The Prince of Peculiar. The Baron of Bizarre. The Sultan of Singular. The Caliph of Curiosity. The Wazir of Weird.
So what's quirky about the Bike Hire Scheme?
First, it will have its own roundel, just like the other 'proper' modes of London transport - underground, bus, boat and so on. The colour and wording are yet to be decided, but they could do worse than my suggestion (above right). So they probably will.
Second, the bikes don't have racks. Otherwise passengers sit on them, apparently.
Third, they will have baskets at the front. I'm a fan of baskets. They carry things like picnic wine and a baguette and pate, or a library book, or a small dog. They make you think of an arty 1960s film featuring a chance meeting between students. Very real-cycling.
Fourth, the docking-stations network. A subculture of esoteric knowledge will grow - the most photogenic, the quirkiest, the hiddenest, the one with the best pubs and restaurants and cafes. There'll be a whole family of new routes to explore London, based on the network. No doubt you'll be able to follow it all here.
There's a narrower London alley than Brydges Place (London's shortest streets post, a couple of days ago). Phillip Barnett emailed me with the exciting news that Emerald Court (right), off Theobald's Road in WC1, is narrower.
I dropped in on both alleys this crisp, sunny morning, equipped with a tape measure. And I can confirm that Brydges Place is 33 inches wide at its narrowest point, funnelling you into St Martin's Lane at the side of English National Opera's Coliseum.
Emerald Court, however, squeezes down to just 26.5 inches at its north end, which squirts you into Rugby St. It's barely wide enough for my handlebars.
It starts at its south end as Emerald St, a promising-looking turn left north off Theobald's Road. It's quite possible you'd find yourself cycling up here, if you'd just missed your turn left up Lamb's Conduit St. It's also quite possible that you'd naturally keep going north, through the (pedestrian) alley which it narrows into, the Ozly-named Emerald Court.
So (unlike Brydges Place, which offers no plausible reason to go through with your bike) Emerald Court is currently our top candidate for the narrowest alley in London you'd reasonably go through with a bike. Unless, of course, you know different...
Thanks Phillip; I'll update the previous post, by the way, and add Emerald Place to the Google map.
Between the two I also checked out Lazenby Court, off Rose St, in Covent Garden. It's another very narrow alley, perhaps 36 inches at its narrowest, and it was very busy with commuters shuffling into single file. One of them had a Brompton; nice to have a bike that you can shrink down if the going gets narrow.
I'd nearly made it to the Library this morning when I was stopped by a damsel in distress. She was a young lady (younger than me, anyway) with the improbable combination of a Brompton and a Christiania (right, a Danish-made ice-cream salesman's bike, except that where the Mivvies usually go, you put your child, or dog). Her Christiania's chain had come off; could I help?
I was into Bicycle Repair Man mode instantly. It took me a few minutes - the back-pedal brake meant you could only pedal forwards, restricting your options; plus the chain was metric, and my fingers are imperial - but I managed to ease the chain back on to the rear sprocket.
As an encore I helped her fold up her Brompton. No, I don't know why she was carrying one of those, but at least she wasn't carrying her seven-year-old instead: I know how Bromptons work much better than I do seven-year-olds.
This roadside repair episode worked out more successfully than last time I was hailed from the pavement. On that occasion, it was the author Will Self, by Battersea Park. (I'm actually rather a fan; Great Apes is one of my favourites.) He was scything away at the atmosphere with his pump, which wouldn't fit the valve on his flat tyre, trying to attract help.
I stopped and gave him a quick crash course in Presta and Schraeder fittings, perhaps in more detail than he had in mind. I had the wrong fitting too, but luckily the next cyclist along had the right sort of pump. We fixed up Mr Self's bike and off he went to Television Centre.
He didn't use any words like 'susurrating' or 'ratiocination' in our brief exchange, but I suppose that's the professional-private dichotomy thing. Like famous TV comedians who don't tell jokes when you meet them in Specsavers. Or bankers who don't steal your wallet when you get chatting to them in a pub.
Anyway, the delightful and friendly young lady I helped this morning was rather more grateful and impressed than I deserved. But it was a pleasant little encounter to have on the way to work on a sunny morning. We both went off cheerily, and she even posed for this blog (right). What nice people cyclists are. Well, most of us, anyway. Me, obviously. And her. And you.
My impromptu mechanics meant I got to work looking dishevelled and grubby. Which was lucky, as nobody noticed any difference.
London's streetscape changes, exhilaratingly, from day to day. New buildings go up; new roadworks take you to excitingly unfamiliar routes; new potholes form. The streets have an entire tectonic system of their own.
I've been keeping my eye on this growing monster on Waterloo Bridge. It's on the northbound side, near the north end, by the bus stops. It's been patched and filled before, but it's a losing battle. The rock-cracking temperatures of the Snow Events last week, and the sledgehammer bus wheels, keep quarrying away at the Waterloo lithosphere.
It's a whopper! An opencast mine. An extinction-event crater. A rift valley lined with fossils of uncharted taxonomy. It took me five minutes just to clear out the geology field trip from inside it, so I could take a picture.
Well, it's quite big, anyway. Large enough to drown a small mammal in, at least. And I've reported it.
You can report this sort of thing online quite easily. The CTC have a pothole site for example, fillthathole.org. Alternatively, FixMyStreet.com is another high-tech general-purpose reporting website, and allows you to upload photos (always a help).
FixMyStreet also apparently offers an iPhone application: point the iPhone camera at the pothole, fill in a short form, and the iPhone's GPS senses where you are and which council area you're in, and magically sends the complaint with the photo to the relevant officer in the council. Then creates a Facebook group and organises a party to celebrate.
However, according to people who know about these things on Southwark Cyclists' e-group, you're likely to get quickest action on a 'red route' (controlled by Transport for London, usually denoted by red instead of yellow lines at the side) if you report it directly to the TfL website - otherwise it might go to the council instead and involve a delay.
It's a shame the road is so busy, as otherwise it could provide untold adventure-leisure opportunities - boating, bungee jumping etc. Though actually, maybe cycling over Waterloo Canyon is enough of an extreme sport, thanks very much.
Another miserable morning, with cheesegrater drizzle and a sky the colour of undergraduate laundry, so I cheered myself up en route to work with a visit to a Zen street.
Leigh Hunt Street (right), off Southwark Bridge Road in SE1, is hard to find on the map. In fact, Google and the London A to Z don't acknowledge its existence at all.
Maybe it hides Southwark council's nuclear bunker, or an underground weapons research establishment. But more probably its anonymity is because it's only 27 feet long, has no buildings on it, and goes nowhere: the street equivalent of one hand clapping. Presumably, it used to go somewhere, but was truncated when the park was created.
The street is listed on the excellent SE1 news website, so maybe it has just enough Internet validity for you to use it as a false address next time you have to supply one for an Internet competition. (The postcode, to judge by a search on the Land Registry's find a property facility, would be SE1 0EY or similar.)
It was being used as a car park on my visit this morning, but you can get an idea of its brevity from the pic. Until recently it was little more than a brick gazebo, as the image on one visitor's photo website shows ("eine absolut notwendige Strasse", he notes pithily - "a vital street").
It's nowhere near the shortest street in Britain (that's Ebenezer Place in Caithness, which is less than 7ft long, and has an address on it).
But is Leigh Hunt St the shortest in London? Curiously, a leading candidate for the 'genuine' shortest street in London is Clennam St, which is virtually next door. I paced it out: 18 strides, so around twice as long as Leigh Hunt. But Clennam St is a proper thoroughfare (for now: it's due for pedestrianisation) and even has a good pub on it - the Lord Clyde, which bizarrely is at no. 27. (The strides were paced out before going to the pub.)
There's something about Leigh Hunt's minimalism that I like, though. And for such an elusive thoroughfare, it has something of a history: it used to be called Lombard St, apparently.
A pleasant thing about taking in semi-arbitrary diversions like this is that it forces you to do a familiar journey by an unfamiliar route. In London that's always fun.
So, this morning, instead of my usual scoot over Waterloo Bridge I came over Southwark Bridge, which had some entertaining roadworks (right), and found myself going towards St Paul's up historic Watling Street - which, leading as it does to Holyhead, is a bit longer than Leigh Hunt.
As threatened yesterday, here's a summary of what the Cycle to Work scheme magazine, Cycle Commuter, recommends as biking gear (usually their cheapest recommendations), and the Real Cycling Alternative.
(They say the most popular purchase choice under the scheme is the Specialized Sirrus Comp at £650. My bike – a Specialized Crossroads – was donated as an unwanted gift.)
Accessories: Blackburn EX1 rack (£30); Agu Yamaska 475 rack pack (£40) Real Cycling Alternative: Better get a bike with one in the first place, but Blackburns are good. Instead of rack pack, buy panniers (Ortlieb Classics, £100 a pair but you can go shopping with them - mine are almost as new after five years of heavy daily use). They don't mention mudguards, which will be £20 or so (but why not get a bike with one in the first place?).
Lock: Abus Granit X+, £60. RCA: Yup, you have to get a really good lock, but one's not enough. You need two – get an additional Abus, perhaps one a couple of notches down that's longer to give more room to shackle up with. Lock inflation is running at about 6% per year (1950s, nothing; 1970s, pocket combination lock; 1990s, one sturdy D-lock; 2000, two sturdy D-locks). By 2040 you'll need three D-locks, laser shields, CCTV and a robot Jack Russell.
Lights, reflective vest: Cateye Opticube Uno plus Smart LAM317R, £40; Altura Night Vision, £20 RCA: Fine. But look out for Aldi's cheap mayday sales. Even if they're not doing their five-quid sets of perfectly decent lights this year, you might pick up some bargain Croatian-brand baked beans or Latvian-made shoe-horns.
Computer: VPO MC1.0+, £80. RCA: You'll only lose it, get it nicked, or launder it by mistake in a trouser pocket. Get a cheapo one (such as the sub-£10 models in Aldi's mayday sales). Or better, don't bother with a computer and do what most people do to measure their mileage – lie about it.
Helmet: Specialized Chamonix, £30. RCA: See 'helmet scepticism' post earlier this week. A woolly hat from the pound shop is all you need, and then only on cold evenings (£1). Plus you can wear it inside Aldi or Lidl to blend in with the other customers.
Glasses: Endura Shark, £30. RCA: You'll only ever wear them on top of your head, and then lose them in the pub or sit on them in the cafe. Get a pair from the pound shop (£1).
Gloves: Altura Night Vision, £20. RCA: You'll only leave them in the pub or on top of a fence while you stop to take a photo. Or, even more frustratingly, leave one of them in the pub or on top of a fence. Get a pair from the pound shop (£1). Or perhaps two pairs, just to be on the safe side.
Jacket, trousers, shoes, socks: Altura Nevis, Endura Humvee, Shimano MT32L, Polaris Merino, £155 the lot. RCA: The jacket, trousers, shoes and socks you're wearing. £0. Sure, they'll get scuffed and grubby and you'll wear an embarrassing hole in the back of your trousers, but that's what TJ Hughes and Peacocks are there for.
Now, you don't necessarily have to go to a pound shop. It doesn't have to be that expensive. I was up Kingsland Road the other day and the recession is obviously moving things downmarket. Next door to the poundshop is a 99p shop. Next door to that is a 98p shop. Seriously.
But here's the final score. Cycle Commuter's (mostly cheapest) recommendations will set you back £505, and you still won't have a set of mudguards, or enough locks or luggage capacity. Real Cycling's recommendations supply what they missed, and yet cost only £313, and are much better suited to commuting.
And you'll expand your repertoire of budget baked bean and shoe-horn buying choices.
Why does nobody seem to know what a commuting bike is like? As I'm fond of saying during controlled experiments on salad-making, it's not actually rocket science.
Chris Hoy is not going to ride it. It doesn't have to cross the Darien Gap. It just has to take you, your laptop and a sandwich to Islington in the rain.
Where's the difficulty in that? A commuting bike has mudguards. It has a rack or a basket or a saddlebag. It's easy to get on and off in a skirt and high heels, depending on what you wear to work, or perhaps at weekends when you go under a different name.
Some shops in London, bless 'em (Bikefix, Velorution, among others) know exactly what I'm talking about.
But you try buying a bike like that. Go into your local chain store. It'll be full of mountain bikes, hybrids, road bikes – but (folders aside) hardly anything suited for commuting without modification or addition.
Even if you do find one that comes pre-equipped with a rack and mudguards, it'll have far too many gears. Three's enough for London: one for starting off at the lights, one for coasting along, and one for hurtling after the bus that's cut you up so you can get the registration number. Dammit, it's Southwark Bridge, not the Stelvio Pass.
For instance, my employer does a Cycle to Work scheme, that nifty piece of accounting sleight-of-hand that lets you buy a bike at half price through PAYE. (You must have 12 months' contract at least, which rules out hand-to-mouth scavengers like me.) They do it through Halfords, who are kindly coming to do a talk to prospective schemers.
And guess how many of the 56 bikes offered on Halford's website last time I looked have rack and mudguards? TWO, that's all. It's the same if you go to other chains, and ask one of their helpful gap year students from Venezuela about an ideal bike for going to Wetherspoons on the Elephant and Castle on a rainy evening.
Well, you might say, you can't blame the chain stores. They're only flogging what the public wants. And what the public wants may not be what's best, as anyone who's watched Strictly Come Dancing knows. What the public needs is education.
A nice free magazine, say, commissioned by the Cycle to Work scheme, produced by cycle journalists with a top track record. You could call it, say, 'Cycle Commuter', and it could give prospective schemers some useful tips on commuting, and especially on what sort of bike to consider.
Well, guess what, that's exactly what they've done. And guess what sort of bikes they review and recommend? Yup: mountain bikes, hybrids, road bikes, a few folders. And how many of them have racks and mudguards? One, that's all (and that's one of the folders).
Sorry, guys, it's a very well-produced magazine. But apart from the folders, those bikes you've highlighted are not commuting bikes.
You make it worse by filling the publication full of exhortations to buy stuff. Lots of stuff. Buy a Sirrus for £649, you tell us, and then pay more for a rack and whizzy shoes and a computer and GPS and pricey gloves and costly jackets and a helmet. Anyone reading the magazine will go away thinking that you need an expensive, hi-tech, fast bike, for going really fast with, fast. And that you can't wear a skirt or boots or have a hairstyle and cycle as well. And that you need to be white, young and male. (Compare with the cover of LCC mag, which reflected real-life Londoners, in all colours, shapes, sizes and ages.)
All this industry-serving thing does is perpetuate the idea that cycling is dangerous. And specialist. And expensive. You must spend money. Lots of money. Otherwise you will die.
Tomorrow I'll do an item-by-item run down of all the stuff they say I should buy in order to commute, and what I actually have bought, what it cost, and why it's better and cheaper.
But for now I'm just too cross to go on, so I'm going to have a nice glass of wine and and feel reasonably good about Hull's draw at Chelsea today.
I wasn't at Stamford Bridge; I was doing a survey of a possible route from Herne Hill to the Elephant and Castle with some Southwark Cyclist experts. We were admiring facilities such as this one (right) on Old Kent Road, where the bike path helpfully supplies a phone box.
There were five of us, all very experienced in commuting and Real Cycling, a range of ages and genders, some on top-quality bikes, others on cheap'n'cheerful ones.
And guess how many helmets? Zero. Racks? Five. Pairs of mudguards? Five. And degrees in Rocket Science? Zero.
Three firms of architects gave presentations of their daring, ambitious, exciting plans to an audience of locals, single-issue fanatics such as me, and men in suits who were other architects, to judge by the way they weren't talking to any of the locals. We fill in feedback forms, and one of the three firms will be selected to come up with some watered-down compromises instead.
I thoroughly recommend these social-event public consultations. You can snag free wine and canapes, challenge the presenters about their schemes, and fill your feedback form with complaints that they haven't taken enough into account the needs of locals/ foreigners/ commuters/ buses/ cyclists/ wheelchair users/ skateboarders etc.
It was an entertaining evening. Architects at these events say what the bloke who bodges your fireplace says, only in middle-class English. Translated into Builder, the thrust of their presentations was: Who done all that? Terrible workmanship, that is. See that raandabaat they put in? You couldn't get away with that naah. All those underpasses, they'll all 'ave to come aht. The lot. You want a big public square? Pffff.... They done that in Milan, see, an' it was a total disaster. Total. Disaster.
Most amusing is the question time. Some local people, let me stress, ask sensible questions and make pertinent, compact points, which seem genuinely useful.
Others, enjoying the novelty of being listened to, refuse to put the microphone down despite having no apparent point: "What I wanna say is, I've been 'ere FORTY YEARS. And you sit there, you don't know nuffin, and I'm tellin' you, cos I've been ere FORTY YEARS, we come 'ere, and you sit there, and what I wanna know is...is... what abaht us eh? Eh? What I'm saying is... I've been 'ere forty years, like I said..."
And there's always a mad old woman in a ludicrous hat who heckles everyone with mysterious petty grievances.
I asked the shortest question of the evening: "I cycle this route every day. How will your particular scheme benefit cyclists?". The three firms said oh yes well cycle parking obviously is important and erm cycle lanes and um the needs of cyclists are of course paramount and er I often cycle myself actually so erm yes absolutely.
Not much, then.
I couldn't really decide between the three firms. DSDHA had a whizzy 3D fly-past presentation and were the most touchy-feely. EDAW were the only ones that specifically mentioned bikes in their plans (that's their illustration up on the right). Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands had the most impressive presenter (Alex Lifschutz) who also - crucially - was the one who looked most like an architect.
So it was a result all round: free wine; free grub; a bit of knockabout comedy; and whoever gets the commission I don't really mind because Waterloo will probably end up as unpleasant for cyclists as it is now.
Which is just as well, as they probably won't be able to read my writing on the feedback form.
Cyclists not wearing a helmet could be guilty of contributory negligence, according to BikeRadar's news item the other day on a recent court ruling (Smith v Finch, 2009). The case dealt with a cyclist who had sustained head injuries after being hit by a motorcyclist. He got the full damages he was seeking, but Justice Griffith Williams ruled that he could have been found partly liable if wearing a helmet would have prevented or reduced his or her injuries.
In some ways this doesn't tell us anything new. The Highway Code says you 'should' wear a helmet, so the possibility of a lawyer arguing this contributory-negligence thing was there before the ruling. (it also says you 'should' wear reflective clothing in the dark – anyone know if this has been the subject of a contributory negligence claim?)
But the ruling nevertheless makes my head hurt. There should not be an ounce of compulsion on people to wear helmets, and there should be no shifting of blame from the person who caused the accident.
My stance on helmets is simple. Wearing one is quite legal, and I suppose it should stay that way. According to the law, you can put one on your head and ride out in public and nobody can stop you. You are also entitled to wear a kilt or a Manchester United shirt or a schoolgirl outfit if it makes you feel better.
Many (usually the ones who didn't get the previous paragraph) would put it differently. They'd say helmets offer protection in case of an accident, therefore you should wear one. Well, the first half of that is debatable, and the second doesn't follow at all.
The first half is at least based in fact. Under certain restricted circumstances, helmets may offer some protection. They are designed to cope with impacts of 12mph or less on a smooth flat surface – essentially, falling off a stationary bike and bumping your head on the road surface. But no more than that. And in my experience, accidents tend not to happen when I'm stationary.
Something you often see on messageboards is along these lines:
"I had a accident and hit my head, the helmet was TOTALLY WRECKED, phew that could of been my HEAD"
But this is less convincing than it sounds (and actually, it's often hearsay – the experience of a friend or a relative). The helmet probably crumpled because it's a flimsy shell not designed to cope with that situation. If you'd been wearing polystyrene cup on your head that would have crumpled too.
So I don't wear a helmet. I never have on a British road. It simply doesn't make me feel safer. I did when I was cycling in Australia and New Zealand, where they are compulsory, and it was irritating and cumbersome and offered me no safety benefit. If you feel safer, then fine, that's up to you.
However, it's the link to compulsion that is the big problem. Simply because something may offer some safety benefit in some circumstances is not a reason to enforce it. Stab jackets may offer some protection, but nobody, surely not even Jacqui Smith, would think they ought to be compulsory. In fact, when Harriet Harman donned one last year on a police walkabout, she was attacked in the press. Yet Boris Johnson, by nature a non-helmet wearer, openly moans that he has to wear one because his advisors say it would be political suicide not to.
So try this: any assertion you'd make about a helmet and cycling, make it about stab jackets and walking, and see if it sounds defensible. If it isn't, then I suggest you haven't thought through the helmet argument.
Take, for example, this typical pro-helmet messageboard assertion:
"If you dont ware a helmet your stupid, its better than risking your head smashing open, ha ha see you in the darwin awards"
"If you don't wear a stab jacket you're stupid. Better than risking your chest being ripped open."
The riposte to this is easy. We don't enforce stab-jacket wearing for obvious reasons. Despite what alarmist press says, your chance of being stabbed is very, very, very small. Even then they'd only offer very limited protection, and be no help if you were stabbed in the thigh, punched in the face or hit with a baseball bat. They'd be cumbersome, expensive and deter people from making simple trips. They would create a climate of fear on our streets. They would, in fact, only encourage gangs, by removing decent citizens from the streets and creating no-go areas.
And the notion that you were partly to blame for being stabbed because you weren't wearing a stab jacket would be outrageous.
Some cyclists seem to regard helmets as a magic spell. They give no signals, they cycle unpredictably, they don't have lights at night, they squeeze up the inside of HGVs at lights. These are things that cause accidents, not the presence or absence of a plastic melon on your head.
There's a culture of lazy, automatic pro-helmet thinking which I despise. These people writing the council leaflets, the junior hacks writing a 'get into cycling' feature for the local newspaper, those odious advisors to Boris and Dave, that all take it as read you should wear a helmet – what's their evidence? What do they actually know about the subject? Very little, I suspect.
And I suspect that many cyclists wear helmets without thinking. They see other cyclists wearing them, they think they're being good and responsible by doing the same. Well, I disagree.
You can't put my non-helmet wearing down to ignorance (I've read the lot: case studies, magazines, messageboard rants, even Wikipedia).
You can't put it down to laziness (in darkness I have enough lighting and reflective gear to illuminate a small rock concert, which takes time to put on and take off and is cumbersome to cart around, but I happen to think it makes me safer. A lot safer).
You can't put it down to inexperience. I have been cycling virtually every day of my life: 40 fantastic, helmet-free years. Experience shows that I fall off about five times a decade. It's not your head that takes the damage: it's your knees, elbows and wrists. If you really want to protect yourself, wear those robot-like extremity guards that inline skaters use. Ah, but that's too cumbersome, isn't it? That's like wearing a stab jacket.
Yes, I did hit my head once. I required stitches, spending two nights in a hospital in Oxford in May 1984. (Most of that time was taken up patching holes in my legs. I was unable to play football very well afterwards. But then I was unable to play football very well before.)
Would a helmet have made any difference? No. A more effective way of preventing injury would have been if I'd had lights on my bike and if I hadn't had half a bottle of vodka shortly beforehand. I was probably too pissed to put a helmet on anyway.
And don't worry, I learned my lesson. I stick to beer and wine now.
But you get the point. People (usually, but not always, drivers) cause accidents. Head injuries are rare. Helmets make little difference. They're a distraction, diverting attention from the real issue. Forget them.
Because evidence overwhelmingly shows that the way to make cycling is safer is not to legislate on helmets (Australia has famously become a more dangerous place to bike since making them compulsory).
It's not even to make snazzy cycle paths.
It's getting more cyclists on the roads. The more people cycle, the fewer accidents there are - not relatively, absolutely. Look at the Netherlands, the developed world's best cycling culture: you'll see about as many people wearing helmets as stab jackets.
Well, time to go to work. I hope I don't slip while walking on the pavement. It'll be my fault for not wearing cross-country skis. Contributory negligence.
Just heard of a text analyser, Typealyzer, which attempts to describe your personality based on the text in your blog. Nonsense but fun.
According to Typealyzer, the Waltham Forest blogger is the "active and playful type ... they might be very impulsive... they might have a problem with sitting still". Our correspondent in the Netherlands, David Hembrow, is the "independent and problem-solving type... they enjoy adventure and risk such as in driving race cars or working as policemen and firefighters".
While I, according to Typealyzer, am a rather tipsy woman with boots, sipping champagne at a bar: "the entertaining and friendly type... especially attuned to pleasure and beauty and like to fill their surroundings with soft fabrics, bright colors and sweet smells... qualities that can make it hard for them in management positions". Well, very good about not being in a management position.
We got chucked out of work yesterday afternoon at 2pm. Rather dramatically, as we signed out, there were foil survival blankets (right) available for us to take home.
This presented something of a dilemma for a Yorkshireman. On the one hand, I couldn't do anything so self-pitying and wussy. The only survival bag you'd admit to having in God's country is a Spar carrier full of crisps and lager.
But on the other, it was free. And that trumped everything. So I took two, telling myself it was OK because I might be cycling somewhere really dangerous one day, like the Stelvio pass in winter, or the Norwegian arctic, or Middlesbrough.
Anyway, I got home OK. The way back was easier than the way in, with very little traffic. I got snowballed by a gang of teenage schoolkids off the leash in Cleaver Square. It was a bit intimidating at the time, though I can laugh about it now. I didn't engage with them because you never know, things might have got nasty, and I might have pulled a knife on them.
I cycled in to work again this morning. The side roads were as uncyclable as yesterday, caked in hard, uneven grey ice. I pushed. It was, in fact, like walking on a glacier. (I was surprised when walking in the Alps for the first time that glaciers are not silky-smooth and translucent blue like virgin mints, but are actually moon-rock dirty and cobblestone bumpy.)
The main roads were fine for cycling though, wet but melted of all ice and snow. In the sun, the tarmac looked sleek, warm and glossy. There was a hard shoulder of slush, ice and snow all the way along the side, though. Occasionally a taxi or bus passed too close, as if they thought I should be off 'their' bit of road and humping along the ice. Not without huskies I wasn't.
But those few impatient drivers notwithstanding, cycling across Waterloo Bridge (right, middle two pics) was elating. It was far preferable to walking on the pavement, which was still carapaced with acned ice and snow.
Tavistock St, running parallel with Euston Road just to its south, has a separated two-way cycle path. I'm getting less keen on using the separated path even in good weather, because it seems to create chaos rather than order at its many junctions. But using it today was out of the question anyway: while the road was fine, the cycle path (right, bottom) was icebound, impassable without crampons. Councils have a duty to keep roads roadworthy, but don't have to do anything about cycle paths, and it shows.
Still, on the way home, if I see any commuters slip and fall and need keeping warm while they wait for the ambulance, I'll be well equipped.
And if not... well, when summer comes, I've got a couple of insulating bags for keeping my beer cold.
Snow? Call this snow? I can hear Geoff Boycott now: In Yorkshire we call this frost! That's no excuse for skiving off work!
All this is, according to the BBC weather team, a 'Snow Event'.
Or, as we used to call it, 'Snow'.
(Perhaps this neologistic tautology is a bit like 'Binge Drinking', which we used to call 'Drinking'.)
Well, whatever, London was blanketed by white overnight. Our garden looked like the Perry Como Christmas Special this morning, with a foot of fat fluffy stuff on everything. There was that delicious, velvety quiet.
The streets round our house were one mighty, shin-deep squeaking duvet. Smothered cars lay neglected, giant cottage loaves risen out of their tins. As I walked my bike round to the main road, the wheels creaked like bedsit floorboards.
Usually, my route up to the British Library involves back-streets, lanes, alleys and cut-throughs. It quickly became obvious that this was a bad idea. They all had that nightmare surface of snow compressed by just one or two vehicles into a hardpack of ice. Applying brakes turned my bike into a vertical sled.
Where I could, I took main roads. Waterloo Bridge and Southampton Row were just about OK, with grooves channelled out by cars as if imitating a cross-country skiing piste. Anywhere where the traffic thinned, such as the three-sides-of-a-square detour round Russell Square, you were in ice-hockey territory.
At junctions there was a lot of tricky stuff that might have delighted Robin Cousins but was scary for cyclists. Euston Road was just slushy, but the traffic close up on one side of you and the bank of unploughed snow on the other made for an unpleasant experience.
There was little traffic. Most noticeable was the absence of buses, all cancelled because of the Snow Event, and the extra waves of pedestrians, dark matchstick figures soft-shoe-shuffling their way along the bleached pavements like extras in a Lowry painting.
Most vehicles were driving reasonably sensibly. Even the taxis. A few, though, must have been absent in science lessons when they did coefficient of friction, because they hadn't twigged that this ice stuff is quite slippery - icy, in fact - and offers all the purchase of a Teflon wok. I saw at least three cars brake, only to slide on gently a few feet over the junction with wheels locked.
I ended up walking a lot of the way; a journey that normally takes 25-30 minutes took me just on an hour.
Still, when I trooped into the staff car park, I saw to my delight that I was the only person daft enough to have cycled in. (There were other bikes, but they'd obviously been left over the weekend.) Yes, they're my footprints and tyre tracks in that picture.
But I can be pleased that, having battled in to work, I can make sure the website is updated. With the news that the Reading Rooms are closed and that there's no hot food - even in the staff canteen. Oh...
We're promised another Snow Event tonight. Which sounds rather fun, actually - you rather imagine skating rinks, snowman contests, and stalls selling mulled wine. Maybe I'll leave the mulled wine until I'm safely home, though.