I cycled for the first time in two months yesterday. I’ve been taking the bus and walking, following an unfortunate tumble on Blackfriars Road that resulted in a broken collarbone.
It’s been nice to rediscover the pleasure of reading novels on the bus, or of walking through the mazy alleys of the City. But yesterday I picked up my bike at Waterloo and cycled back to Dog Kennel Hill, along my usual back route.
I remembered why this is such a delightful way to travel. First of all, it’s quick – half the time I’d spent on the bus in the morning rush hour. And my bag is on the pannier rack, so I don’t notice the weight of books or food shopping. But best of all, I revisited places I never see from the bus.
Past the Stage Door of the Old Vic, past clusters of London South Bank University students standing and chatting in autumn sunshine on Keyworth Street. (The buses run along the parallel London Road, where the pavement is crowded with people waiting for buses and everyone is in a grumpy bustle.)
Straight across the Old Kent Road, and then along a short section of cycle path, with a little swerve around the phone box. It would be great to see a segregated cycle path along the whole of the Old Kent Road.
Past the building sites around Elephant with their chirpy slogans. Peculiar balconies like bay windows without glass have appeared on the block of flats being built at the corner of Rodney Road and Content Street – evoking Victorian mansion blocks, a kind of ‘facadism’ without an original building.
Instead of going straight down Portland Street, I make a quick diversion to the Walworth Road, for
snacks supplies from Baldwin’s health food shop. A loop past the Newington Library, sadly still boarded up after the 2013 fire and I’m back heading south on Portland Street, past the almhouses and the place that sells parcel packaging and coffee – I always mean to stop there one morning. Past Nursery Row Park, East Street market and Faraday Gardens.
A sign on the Giraffe House at Burgess Park advertises collage sessions all week. I pop in to say hello. On the table in the centre, there is a huge, inviting heap of pages torn from magazines. On the walls, funny, inventive images of the future made by local children: superstars and chimeras and football pitches.
The meadow by the Burgess Park lime kiln is steeply banked, displaying a rich, messy variety, studded today with purple and gold. It’s always a joy to see, the colour almost unreal on a grey day.
Past Caspian Street allotments and Brunswick Park. On Wilson Road, a tree turning red – I stop to take a photo and catch the scent of winter jasmine hidden in a hedge.
Finally, I make it up Camberwell Grove, the steep climb made easier without rush hour drivers nudging my rear wheel – at the moment the road is closed at the railway bridge.
This little journey reminds me of the pleasure of crossing the city under your own steam. The route leads me past a whole alphabet of small personal landmarks. Once I’m on the bus home – especially if I’ve got a seat – I rarely feel like getting off to run an errand and having to wait for another bus. But on the bike I make all sorts of brief stops, say hello to friends, do some essential (or inessential) shopping … I remember how leafy the city is away from the main junctions, my route taking in four parks and avenues of huge plane trees.
Southwark Cyclists have been running a free Bike Train on Wednesday mornings to share this route with people who want to try cycling into central London (reducing to monthly services through the winter – the next one is on 16 November).
I first found the route described here on an LCC map showing the London Cycle Network: it reflects years of small improvements, dozens of interventions that start to make the city more ‘permeable’ to people on foot and on cycles while discouraging motor vehicles from rat-running down back streets. For example, Keyworth Street is closed to vehicles at one end; there is a 3 second advance signal for cyclists at the junction of Webber St and Blackfriars Road; and a light for cyclists to cross Newington Causeway (although it needs a few tweaks). There’s a lot more to do to make the route feel really inviting and safe (as Quietway 7) but on a sunny autumn afternoon, it was pretty nice. Cycle superhighways are very visible transformations – and I love the new segregated path from Oval over Vauxhall Bridge. But the best thing about cycling is that it’s not just about getting from A to B, but also B, C, D … X, Y and Z.