London by Boat
How foul weather failed to dampen a capital day out
The man who is tired of London is tired of life - or perhaps just of terrorism and speed cameras. But this didn't apply to the 11 riders and two pillions rolling out of Avon Forest eager to explore the capital, rain or shine. With gales and rain forecast from the south-west, north-east was the way to go, although the bid to escape them didn't succeed.
The route to the metropolis was kept simple to avoid the need for marking - just follow the A3 all the way to London Bridge. The only scenic stretch, around the Devil's Punchbowl near Hindhead, was marred by diesel spills that left no concentration to spare for the surroundings. The Kingston By-Pass has more cameras than lamp-posts, and a careless speeder could lose their licence twice over in ten minutes. Perhaps the ghosts of ton-up boys still enjoy a burn-up along this relic of 1960s road-building.
Hugh Williams led us past City landmarks into the East End, to the Prospect Of Whitby pub. Dating back to the 1520s, it was frequented by the notorious hanging Judge Jeffreys, also famous for the Bloody Assizes at Dorchester. Had the weather been better, we might have enjoyed a Thames-side stroll, while Hugh rode off to round up a straggler whom the marker system had failed. Whatever did we do before mobile phones? (Another failure was to occur later.)
Next came the first of two river-crossings that were new to many of us - the Rotherhithe Tunnel. This two-lane road tunnel is not to be confused with the Brunels' earlier engineering marvel, which now carries the East London Line. Well surfaced and, unlike the world outside it, completely dry, it has a 20mph speed limit enforced by numerous cameras.
Unfortunately half our party, despite strict use of the marker system, had become mislaid by this point. In fast-moving urban congestion it can be all too easy to overlook a marker, whose choice of position is limited by the conditions. We were not to see them for two hours. Some said they'd been via Dagenham, some Dartford. Perhaps both.
The remainder ate lunch as planned, in the Pavilion in Greenwich Park. Another location that would have benefited from better weather, but it provided hot food, radiators for our gloves, and a view of the Old Observatory.
Like going on holiday, but not as sunny. The Dome in the background
Expertly guided through the traffic-calmed maze that is Greenwich, we re-crossed the Thames by the Woolwich Ferry. Not only does this offer the excitement of boat travel - like going on holiday - but it's also free of charge, and has a bikes-off-first disembarkation policy. Whilst awaiting the boat we took in some of the modern sights of London: the Thames Barrier (home of cormorants, though none were visible in the murk), the Millennium Dome (as was), Canary Wharf, and the London City Airport where regional jets appear to touch down on a small industrial estate.
After exiting the Ferry we rendezvous'd with the missing personnel. The plan had been to make a further stop to visit the no-longer-wobbly Millennium Bridge, but being behind schedule we omitted it. Instead, a thrilling non-stop dash via Canning Town, Poplar, Limehouse, Aldgate and the City, Parliament Square and the Embankment, Chelsea, Earl's Court and Hammersmith, before stopping for fuel and dispersal at Apex Corner. The speed and density of traffic and information in those few miles made a great exercise in urban riding. The marker system worked well and we enjoyed making positive progress under congested conditions on an unfamiliar route.
This was the first major BWAM social ride of 2004 and, thanks to Hugh's meticulous planning and tireless leadership, sets a high standard for the year. It was also my first major non-work ride on my new bike, which pleased me with 250 comfortable miles, good protection from the all-pervading moisture, and stability in the buffeting gusts and cross-winds that whistled across London's river.