I have toured in Latin America on a Bike Friday every winter since 1997, when I turned, 50. But this year, with my 65th birthday approaching, I decided it was finally time to change gears and visit my home country of England, where I lived (and cycled) until I was 24.
I grew up in Greenwich in SE London, and had not returned for more than 20 years. Fortunately, I still had one old friend I could rely on for a welcome and a place to stay — in a city that had become one of most expensive in the world.
Luckily, Andrew could take time off to meet me at the airport, on the outer west side of the city, so I didn’t have to lug the Bike Friday and my backpack through three train rides to Greenwich on the south-east. As he drove across the city, I was stunned — or â€œgobsmackedâ€ to use the local vernacular — by the speed of the traffic on the narrow winding streets and the number of tall contemporary-styled buildings, many close to the historic monuments I still remembered.
Although it was January and close to freezing outside (and not too warm in the spare room of Andrew’s narrow 200-year old family house) I soon had the bike assembled and was out and about in old Greenwich, cautiously re-tracing routes I hadn’t taken in 40 years.
In less than five minutes, I was on the bank of the River Thames by the famous clipper ship Cutty Sark, which was undergoing a huge $80 million re-build after the fire that nearly consumed it. (There is never a lack of funds for historic preservation in the UK.)
The old ship was being lifted 10 feet into the air, and surrounded by a glass roof to simulate sea level, and was closed until the grand re-opening by the Queen in April. But right next to it is the grand campus built for the Royal Navy in the late 1600s as a palatial seamen’s hospital and retirement home with two impressive domes. Since 1875, this architectural wonder had been an officer training center and was closed to the public. So, throughout my youth it could only be glimpsed through the iron stakes of a tall fence that completely surrounded it.
But in my absence, it had finally returned to public use as the home of the Trinity College of Music, As I rolled past the imposing historic walls, I could hear strains of music drifting down from practice rooms.
Remarkably, that very street is so well preserved it is easily converted to an authentic film set for street scenes in the time of Charles Dickens, and the great painted hall can pass for a stately backdrop at any time in the last 400 years. So movies from “The Pirates of the Caribbean” to “The Iron Lady” had scenes filmed there.
My first short loop-ride continued across the high street and into Greenwich Royal Park, which had barely changed in the 40 years since I had seen it last. It is still the site of the old astronomical Observatory (the baseline for the prime meridian of longitude) and the magnificent 1635 Queen’sHouse — England’s first palace in the Italian Palladian style. But I was no longer alone in my exploration, as I was as a boy: all of this history was enough to make the area a UNESCO World Heritage site and a real tourist magnet.
Even when it was snowing, visitors thronged the viewpoint outside the Observatory and marveled at the site of the Canary Wharf office towers across the Thames — the tallest in Europe.
But there were already signs of another incredible make-over about to happen in the spring: the flat space in front of the Queen’s House would be turned into into the equestrian arena for the 2012 Olympics, with seating for 20,000 and stables to house nearly 200 horses and grooms!
With all this and a dozen more historic buildings to explore in the area, I might have been content with short daily rides.
But my web search for a local club soon found the Greenwich Cyclists web page — the local arm of the London Cycling Campaign that welcomes anyone and everyone. I jumped at the chance to join them on a 60 km (37 miles) ride all the way around the capital on a cold Sunday. (It was only later that I learned this route had actually been planned as a legacy project to connect all the Olympic venues, and encourage urban biking.)
We met on a cold clear morning beside the Cutty Sark — a group of about 20 of all ages riding everything from fixies to commuters … to a Bike Friday! For the first hour, we followed the Jubilee bike path upstream (west) along the Thames past and through) ancient warehouses and the ultra-modern tower blocks built where the old Surrey Docks once stood — now re-developed around the old waterways to fill the insatiable demand from people working in the city’s huge financial sector.
Eventually, we reached the iconic sight of Tower Bridge and the fabulous South Bank area, opposite the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral and the old inner city. The broad promenade was packed with locals and international visitors, but our leader assured us it was legal ride at a cautious speed.
I knew I would have to return another day to stop and visit this amazing cityscape with sites like Shakespeare’s re-created Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern Gallery in a huge converted power station, and the giant Ferris wheel 135 meters (443 ft) tall called the London Eye.
(I did return a few weeks later on my own to ponder the strange twist of fate that my first job in 1964 was as a junior clerk in an office a few yards from the giant wheel. That office is now an Asian buffet, and from the doorway, I had the same view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.)
Our ride grouped back together here, and we hit the streets again, winding our way past Lambeth Palace, the Tudor residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. To this point, I was vaguely familiar with the route, but when we crossed over the Thames and rolled merrily north, past the government ministries in Whitehall, I was completely lost … until we arrived at Buckingham Palace. Everyone seemed to take the palace as was just another roadside attraction — except me. I wanted to stop and stare for a minute, but the peloton wasn’t waiting for me! Oh well, they all live here, I reminded myself.
I didnâ€™t know it at the time, but on this stretch we would pass near many Olympic venues. The cycling road race and marathon finished down the Mall, and the Horse Guards Parade would be transformed into the sandy courts for beach volleyball; into Hyde Park we rode beside the Serpentine where the Olympic 10km open-water swim and triathlon took place. No time to stop at famed Speakers Corner either, but we finally paused at a tearoom beside the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playgrounds.
Now I had a chance to talk to the leader, who explained that we were on the Jubilee Greenway Path, a project to mark the queen’s 60th year on the throne that opened a bike route that circled the entire central city.
“Stay close,” he warned before we set off again. Now we zipped around more backstreets, this time in the toniest part of London. We meandered past the Georgian mansions and many embassies in the Bayswater district, before turning abruptly off the street and through a small gap in the hedge. (I picture it now as a magical doorway into a forgotten world.) Down a narrow ramp we rushed and onto the towpath of the Regent’s Canal.
Now the pace was relaxed, but the conditions demanded full attention, as there were many people, children and dogs on the narrow path. We passed beneath the aviaries of Regent”s Park Zoo, through Little Venice, and on to the exciting atmosphere of the famed Camden Lock Market, where the Sunday crowds were so tightly packed it was a miracle we could thread our way through to the locks.
Back on the towpath below street level, there were no notable sights on this leg and time seemed to stand still until we emerged from the waterway an hour later at the east end of London. We were at Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets–an area that was totally foreign to me. I vaguely remember we crossed over some major roads and the River Lea, where we rode south alongside the Olympic Park and saw the big stadium, velodrome (where the home team dominated), swim pool, etc and the tall jagged metal sculpture called the Orbit that stands 377 feet high, making it the largest piece of public art in Britain.
Then we climbed onto an elevated gravel road that ran for miles on top of the main sewage system north of the river, our leader explained with a grin. Eventually, we came to the London City Airport, set on a long strip of dock land between two long pools that was once the main cargo terminals. Somewhat the worse for wear, we reached the next landmark — the Woolwich Ferry across the Thames.
The group had dwindled by now, and when we rolled off the ferry with the old walls of the Woolwich Arsenal downstream, only four of us were returning to the start.
As night fell, we wove our way through familiar territory dotted with amazing modern structures like the Thames Flood Barrier, Charlton Athletic FC stadium (my home team), and the huge imposing but ugly Millennium Dome now called the 02 Arena and the Olympic gymnastics and basketball venue.
When we finally returned to the Cutty Sark, I felt like a had ridden a century. It had been a very long, very hard day, which had only whet my appetite to see more of the ever-changing face of London on my own.