In January of this year, I found myself back in Greenwich, England, where I was born and raised, with my trusty Bike Friday, exploring the streets I last rode in 1972. Since I had lived in the Northwest for 40 years and not visited England for 25 years, London had changed enormously in my absence. So I looked on the web for a local cycling club that might have casual group rides further afield. I found that Greenwich Cyclists were strictly non-competitive with rides every month — the next was billed as a “Twenty-mile jaunt across the River Thames.” That looked interesting because I had never biked much on the north side of the river.
According to the write-up, some of the points of interest along the way included two bike cafés, the old Italian quarter of the inner city, and some lesser-known historical sites. I was quite content to let someone else lead the way: this would be a mystery tour in my home town! However, when I showed up at the meeting point, the famous sailing ship Cutty Sark, I was a few minutes late and the group was nowhere to be seen….
Luckily, I did remember the first direction the ride was taking, under the River Thames via the old foot tunnel, built around 1900. I hurried into the entrance of the old circular building that stands over the shaft and was delighted to find the new elevator was finally in operation. But when the doors opened, I had to wait because out poured a crowd of tourists heading off to discover “historic” Greenwich. I moved aside impatiently until the way was clear, pushed my bike inside and dropped smoothly down to the lower level.
I exited onto the gloomy subterranean footpath that descends further before leveling off 50 feet underground for a flat stretch of about 300 yards. I ran and scooted through the tunnel and up the ramp to the other elevator, but was dismayed to find it was still out of order. Now I was forced to carry the bike up the long spiral staircase as fast as I could go! I emerged into the daylight of the Isle of Dogs gasping for air and was relieved to see 15 riders were still there getting organized.
I found the leader and introduced myself. There was no need to sign away my rights or promise to wear a helmet, etc., as “liability” is apparently not an issue under English law. There was time for one more surprise before we got properly started: this ride was actually not led by Greenwich Cyclists but by the neighboring Lewisham Cyclists, as they combine their event calendars.
Off we jolly well went, following the River Thames bike path upstream on the north shore past the imposing modern apartment blocks as the rain clouds turned to blue sky. I had ridden this path alone the previous year, but was completely unaware I had crossed over the Regent’s Canal, so I tried (unsuccessfully) to memorize the tricky route through a small park then down a narrow ramp to the old Limehouse Basin.
This area was excavated in 1820 to unload small coal-carrying ships from the northeast coast that delivered coal to fuel the booming English capital. And there on our right was the first lock and the narrow towpath, complete with hand-operated gates. It was a real piece of history running north with the gleaming office towers of the Canary Wharf rising like a mirage above the quiet waterway.
The canal is like a linear aquatic park in the heart of the busy city, so it’s also popular with joggers and walkers — many with dogs. We worked our way single file carefully along the towpath where horses once plodded along, harnessed to the canal boats. Where the canal was wider, we passed moorages full of traditional barges called “narrow boats” because they are just seven-feet wide but up to 70-feet long to fit the original locks built in the late 1700s.
The canal narrows at the many bridges to make the span smaller (and cheaper to build by hand), so you have to make a sharp turn and duck your head when passing underneath — there are only inches between you and the vertical edge — all while watching out for oncoming traffic. After about half an hour, we all rode up a ramp and onto a back street, turned onto a busy road, and arrived at our first stop, Lock 7. This is reputed to be the first real “bike café” in London, where visitors can sit and watch the street or turn around and see the bike mechanics hard at work. This was our leader Jane’s idea for the perfect Sunday breakfast “while you sip good coffee and chew your fresh croissant.” It still seems to me like a great opportunity for bike-crazy cities in the Northwest!
Back in the saddle, we followed the canal as it turned west as far as the Islington Tunnel, where we paused to wait for stragglers and considered just how tough those old bargemen must have been. There are no tow paths in the tunnels so their horses were led over the top of the hill by a boy while the bargemen laid on the cabin top on their backs and “walked” the barge through the tunnel with their feet against the roof! We had only ridden a few miles on the towpath, but it certainly felt like a long way after negotiating nine locks and ten bridges.
There we left the canal and turned south towards Clerkenwell through elegant Myddleton Square, then stopped to view the ancient Saxon Clerk’s Well, rediscovered in 1924 and oddly visible through the big glass window of a modern office building. We were soon onward again to see what is left of London’s old Italian quarter, where trades such as organ grinding, mosaic and terrazzo laying were bought from Italy in the early 1800s. When paid holidays were introduced in the late 1800s they found a market for another Italian specialty — ice cream — at seaside resorts, which was how they began to move up the economic ladder.
However, when WWII began, many British-born Italians were interned and sent to Canada on the SS Arandora Star, which was sunk by a U-boat. Over 440 Italian internees died, and there is an impressive plaque commemorating this at St. Peter’s Italian Church, built in 1863 and modeled on the basilica of San Crisogono in Rome. All of this and several other plaques along these old streets opened up a completely new side of London’s history to me.
It was soon time to move on to a late lunch. “Look Mum No Hands” really is the name of a bike/sandwich shop that does excellent soup and sandwiches and was busy on a late Sunday afternoon when all the other cafes had closed. There were still more historic places to visit, including the priory church of St. Bartholomew the Great, parts of which were built in 1123 by the son of William the Conqueror. It is hidden away at the center of a block of medieval buildings and is so well known as a movie location that it was the first Anglican Church to charge tourists for admission!
This area near the Smithfield Meat Market is also one of the few parts of old London to escape the Great Fire of 1666 and then the Blitz during WWII. There were a couple more intriguing side streets and paths to explore before we turned south for home past the imposing outline of St. Paul’s Cathedral, across the Thames on Blackfriar’s Bridge, and through Trinity Square and Southwark.
After a few miles of back streets, there came another surprise when we turned into Burgess Park and onto the route of the Surrey Docks Canal, which once allowed sailing ships’ cargos to be transferred onto barges and floated into the heart of South London. It was filled up in 1974, and all that remains now is a long straight trail through the park. It then makes a sharp turn south and continues as a linear park with a few of the old bridges crossing overhead. We emerged from this time warp at Peckham Rye, a name that was only vaguely familiar to me from my distant youth. This working-class shopping area was crowded even on a cold Sunday afternoon.
It was a relief to ride through a part of London’s Green Belt on Peckham Common for a while before we cut southeast past Telegraph Hill towards Greenwich on streets that I had last ridden on my daily commute to college in the late 1960s. By the time we returned to Greenwich, on our roundabout route, I had seen a side of London I had never known, and been transported back to the swinging ‘60s, thanks to my Bike Friday and the people and clubs affiliated to the London Cycling Campaign (LCC), which all work to improve facilities and organize rides around England’s capital.
Editor’s note: Take your bike and discover your town by picking up a visitor’s guide and creating your own tourist route. Slow down, keep your eyes peeled and you may discover places you wouldn’t normally go to if it weren’t for the convenience of traveling by bike.