Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"He got on his bike and looked for work..."

Well, that's the first time I've used a Norman Tebbit quote as a blogpost title.  The noble Lord and I may disagree on some issues, but I feel he might approve of how I spent my day yesterday.

Along with the other effects of losing office, I found myself in the cold light of defeat contemplating the loss of my Councillor's allowance - the modest payment from taxpayers for such services as their elected representatives are presumed to render.  In recent years I have had what could be described as a 'portfolio career': Running a small think-tank and researching my PhD thesis alongside my local government duties. Treating the latter as the equivalent of a demanding part-time job, I devoted considerable time to the role - as many others do- and spent what remaining time I had on other work to help pay the bills.

So whilst losing my seat has freed up some time, it also presented me with the opportunity (and requirement) for what we might call a rebalancing of my personal economy.  I needed, in other words, to look for work. Having found it, I yesterday fulfilled the other part of the Tebbit edict, and cycled into Westminster, where I will now be working a few days a week in Parliament, alongside my ongoing commitments to the Centre for Opposition Studies and my academic research.

Fascinating though such changes in my professional life may be, the point of this post is to say something about that bike ride.  Commuting in on two wheels is something I did last time I worked in Parliament, so it seemed an appropriate time to resume the habit.  Some people (not least my mother) regard the idea of cycling in London with some trepidation - isn't it all busy, dangerous  roads and exhaust fumes?  Well, not quite.  Here, in the gushing purple prose beloved of old guidebooks, with full-colour illustrated plates (click to enlarge), is my journey to work:

Setting off early, along the becalmed back streets of Eltham, the intrepid cyclist is brought via the leafy affluence of Kidbrooke Gardens to the first of the morning's pleasing views, as he crosses Blackheath and espies the city skyline in the distance. From there, he ventures forth into the bucolic charm of Greenwich Park, passing the silent bandstand before hurtling - in a controlled and responsible manner- down the hill into the town, where the masts of the Cutty Sark can be observed at the other end of King William Walk.

After negotiating the busy traffic along Creek Road [OK, it isn't all peace and quiet], a right turn takes the determined pedal-wrangler via empty streets to join the Thames Path at Deptford Strand.  The day's first proximate encounter with the river is heralded with a superb vista across its dull expanse to the looming glass and steel monuments to commerce that point upwards to the Turneresque skies above Docklands...

 OK, I can't keep up that level of hyperbole - but it must be said the first view of the river at that point is rather special, and marks the beginning of the scenic journey along the Thames Path, which takes you next along past Greenland Pier, where the Thames Clippers stop to pick up commuters before roaring off towards Canary Wharf.  Next to that is the marina at Greenland dock, where you have to cross the lock via a narrow bridge with a sharp turn in the middle that requires some skill to navigate with your pride intact.

It isn't an exclusively  riparian perambulation (oh, heck - there I go again) - and at several points the route veers inland, but never back onto the busy streets.  Instead, there are some really charming parks and patches of woodland, plus a narrow stretch of inland water populated by ducks and rushes before you rejoin the riverside at Rotherhithe. When you do so, there are more treats in store, with the attractive cobbled streets and rather lovely and historic St Mary's Church.

But it is the next encounter with a river view that is really stunning. This is the sight that greets you as the river turns again towards the City:

Pretty good, eh? I stopped a good while to allow my eyes to feast on it (go on, give it a click). Something about the calmness of the water, the familiar landmarks standing out against the sky- and that sky itself, with clouds beginning to disperse to reveal hints of blue sky. And in a poetic twist, that pleasure craft moored in the foreground is named 'Eltham'.

Pressing on, you soon pass an historic site of which I was, perhaps shamefully, unaware. The ruins of a manor house built by Edward III in the 14th century as a riverside base, now abandoned in the midst of a housing estate, but with an information board to mark its history.

Onwards, through the back streets and old warehouses around Tower Bridge, then another quick burst of traffic by London Bridge station before a right turn leads you under London Bridge and back toward the Thames path, past Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral.

You then rejoin the riverside by the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern, passing under the Millennium footbridge with the familiar dome of St Paul's rising opposite, still holding its own alongside the ever-growing cluster of towers in the City.

From there it is a straightforward ride along the South Bank, sharing the path with pedestrians and joggers, and with a few 'cyclists please dismount' bits at pinch-points. Past the Royal Festival Hall ("a new day has dawned, has it not?") and you are rewarded with your first sight of the Palace of Westminster, now framed to one side by the London Eye.

Destination sighted, there is one last inland detour along the back of County Hall before riding in triumph over Westminster Bridge, with the newly-renamed Elizabeth Tower doing what towers do and towering over you as you approach. If you are going to work there, Parliament's clock tower provides a fairly indisputable verdict on whether you are late to the office.

For me, there is one last moment to savour- rounding the corner onto Parliament Square, security pass now around my neck, a few tings on the bell and an arm out to indicate left prompts the police on the gate to warn pedestrians to make way, and with a cheery 'good morning' to them, it's over the finish line and into New Palace Yard. It's a pretty good way to start any day, and was a great way to start a new job.

The serious point (does a post like this need one?) is that despite encountering quite a few joggers, I saw hardly any other cyclists on the Thames Path.  On the busy roads - at Deptford and London Bridge - there was a veritable peloton, hurtling alongside the lorries amid exhaust fumes. The scenic route takes a little longer, but is surely worth the effort.  It's cycling how it really should be, safe and largely separated from traffic.  With some modifications at various points it would be a perfect commuter route. Or perhaps I should just keep quiet and enjoy it all to myself.


methers said...

Glad you enjoyed your ride!

Can I ask you how long it took? I would take a more direct route from Westcombe Park to Parliament Square, expecting it to take about 40 minutes.

Nigel said...

It took over an hour, but that was at a really very leisurely pace, stopping to take photos and so on. The more direct routes along the main roads get you there more quickly, as you say - but I reckon it's worth leaving earlier and having a more relaxed ride by the river when you can. Certainly on the way home it's nicer to take your time.