Monday 25 July 2016

A ride on autopilot, a famous cricket ground - and why I feel more optimistic when I'm on my bike

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.

Canary Wharf's towers loom over the neo-classical
splendour of maritime Greenwich: symbols of London's
endurance and its adaptability
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.

My experience doesn’t feel like a merely practical lesson in getting around London. I’ve come to feel that it’s telling me something wider about the metropolis as a place. London is in some ways peculiarly resistant to change - or at least has a great propensity to preserve the past. While St Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan feels almost miraculously old for dating from before 1776, I rode my bike to church partly down a road first laid down by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. I currently cycle daily past the Tower of London, whose construction started after the Norman Conquest 950 years ago, in the same year that the last Viking kingdom in England was defeated.

The Walkie Talkie, Cheesegrater and Gherkin:
what London's new towers' names lack in grace
they make up for in memorability
Yet the city also feels peculiarly adaptable. While the Tower has changed little in parts since the 11th century, several of the most prominent skyscrapers - including the Cheesegrater and Walkie Talkie - have sprouted just in the four years I’ve been away. While I didn’t want to leave New York, London’s mixture of stability and flexibility makes it a peculiarly comforting place to be living at a time when the world is descending into turmoil. I cycle daily past reminders that the city has withstood the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague, levelling by fire, the horrors of The Blitz and the vast IRA bombs of the early 1990s. If London spoke like a New Yorker, it might be asking fate, “Is that all you got?”

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

The relative mildness of London’s response to change, of course, reflects partly the city’s being a less bracing place than New York. The crowding of the key bits of New York onto small areas of two islands in New York Harbour produces greater density and a greater propensity to eradicate the past. But it also propagates an impatience with anything that’s not immediately useful or profitable. That certainly helps to encourage some negatives - the dreadful driving standards, for example, or the peculiar anger over any effort to reallocate street space away from car parking. But it also produces an energy and buzz that aren’t quite there in lower-rise, lower-stress London.

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 riots in many parts of the city in 2011 suggest many members of poor minority groups feel little stake in London’s wellbeing. Some of the UK’s poorest people continue to live in such jarring proximity to members of the global super-rich that it seems remarkable the city has maintained such relative social peace.

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
Nevertheless, I am reconnecting with the city’s distinctive spirit. I rode down on Saturday, for example, to Greenwich through the Isle of Dogs. I cycled part of the way with a group of boys whose accents were a strange mixture of Caribbean, South Asian and traditional cockney. Given the mixture of the language and their own ethnicites, their term for each other - “bruv” - sounded like a strangely universal embrace.

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
These positive feelings, of course, could prove fragile. As the UK’s wealthiest, most international city, London has far more to lose from the economic pain of leaving the European Union than some other parts of the UK that, unlike London, voted in favour of leaving. Having experienced the trauma of the July 2005 terror attacks on London, I know that the city’s relative calm could be tested if the successor to the Nice or Munich terror attacks takes place on London streets.

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.


  1. "But most people barely seem to notice the staff at all."

    Yes, some things have not changed at all since Victorian times.

    1. Kevin,

      Thank you, as ever, for the comment.

      I guess the big change is that in the Victorian era not many of the staff would have come from Romania. And few of the residents would have been IT specialists from the Indian subcontinent, who seem to make up a fair proportion of the people at the place I'm staying.

      All in all, it fits in with the picture of change in a context of wider stability.

      All the best,


  2. London seems to be an international "Polaris", a beacon of sorts.
    No matter what it goes through, or how much of whatever that may be it endures, London will still "always be London".

    ...or something along that line ...


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