It was a curious feeling to ride my bike home from church this Sunday along the back-street cycle route that used to be my regular route between home and work. I felt a superficial unfamiliarity - it was my first time back in the area since spending four years living in New York. But at the same time so little had changed on many of the roads that a kind of auto-pilot took hold of me. I followed a complex, twisting and turning route with the instinctiveness that comes from having gone the same way literally thousands of times before.
The feeling reflects much of my wider experience of returning to living and cycling in London. There are some big, welcome changes - the new, segregated cycle superhighways being the most obvious. But I’ve been surprised in the last week to find that routes I’ve been using since 1997 - many using facilities designed to encourage cycling by the outmoded method of pushing cyclists towards back streets - still work surprisingly well. I’ve been navigating byways in Covent Garden and quaintly-named alleys in the City of London financial district with almost the same ease as if I’d never been away.
|Canary Wharf's towers loom over the neo-classical
splendour of maritime Greenwich: symbols of London's
endurance and its adaptability
|The Walkie Talkie, Cheesegrater and Gherkin:
what London's new towers' names lack in grace
they make up for in memorability
I encountered an excellent example of the city’s spirit during my ride back from church. I emerged from a back street onto a stretch of Harleyford Road in Kennington in the shadow of the Oval cricket ground. Surrey County Cricket Club’s ground hosted the first ever international cricket test match in 1880. Traditionally home of the last test of each English season, it is steeped in the history of acts of late summer sporting daring. Yet Harleyford Road - once the highest-stress part of my daily commute - has been enhanced with a new, two-way protected bike lane that carries cyclists all the way over the once-terrifying Vauxhall Bridge into Pimlico. The juxtaposition of the cricket ground’s Victorian grandeur and the bold new transport experiment was striking.
|The glory days of Jack Hobbs, Surrey's master batsman,
are a thing of the past at the Oval, over the brick wall in this
picture. But so, thankfully, are the days of death-defying
cycling manoeuvres over multiple lanes of traffic
on Harleyford Road
I don’t mean, either, to sentimentalise London. I’ve noticed since I returned that my younger colleagues are living further and further from central London, pushed into more and more obscure outer suburbs by crazily spiralling housing costs. I’m protected from them only by the good fortune of having bought a house 12 years ago.
|A graffiti mural in Park Slope, Brooklyn: a reminder of
New York's more frenetic street life
The city’s tolerance of change and incomers is perhaps the flipside of a rather English reserve about them. In the serviced apartment complex where my family, my bike and I are currently living, no-one seems perturbed that the staff all speak Romanian to each other. But most people barely seem to notice the staff at all.
|The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid - formerly the Spitalfields
Great Synagogue, formerly London's Huguenots' Neuve
Eglise: symbol of London's flexibility
Our temporary accommodation, meanwhile, is near the Brick Lane Mosque - a building famously built by Huguenot refugees, subsequently taken over by Jewish refugees and now a place of worship for east London’s Bangladeshis. Its history seems mainly to be a source of some pride, rather than anguish over what has been lost.
|Striking juxtaposition: a man rides down a few months old
cycle track, past a tower whose origins go back 950 years
But I ride daily amid a city that feels as if it’s flourishing, despite the abundant evidence of past catastrophes. The ground below Upper Thames Street where I ride each morning contains piers abandoned by the Romans when they left the city in ruins. To my right as I ride to work is the monument to the dead of the city’s 1666 Great Fire. A mere recitation of the grim facts of London's current situation makes it feel as if it's undergoing another historic disaster. But, riding a bike amid the ghosts of past horrors overcome, it's far easier to feel optimistic.