Archive for January, 2011

Lesson 11: London’s not just a city

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Just before the end of last year I got myself a shiny new bike: the Trek 1.1 C 2011.

I’d been hankering after a proper road bike for a while now and with the winter snow all gone, it was time to put it (and me) through its paces properly. I commute to work on it, but my journey is only three miles each way and takes 15 minutes – it’s not quite the workout I need with my extra Christmas weight. Something more challenging was needed.

Enter Highgate Hill. I’d heard it mentioned before with some trepidation by walkers and cyclists alike. This Guardian article highlighted it for me, and I reckoned it was just the test for my new bike.

I set off this morning into a fairly muggy London to see what I could do. London traffic is always quieter on Sundays, to the point where cycling on the roads isn’t quite as painful as it can be normally (in terms of crowdedness). I made my way up to Kentish Town tube station where the road to the hill begins.

The Guardian article had primed me for the experience with the sentence “after the gentle leg-stretcher of a ride up Highgate Road from Kentish Town station, you are suddenly on a hill you won’t forget in a hurry”. These words quickly rang true as I started my first “hard” ride since moving away from Yorkshire. Grunting and grimacing I tried to avoid standing on the pedals as much as I could, heaving my way upwards. London’s not really known for its hills so this is why Highgate is famous. On the way up I passed a few other cyclists whizzing past down the hill, but none going up it. A few joggers were half walking, half jogging along the final stretch, where it steepens to an even higher grade than the previous part.

Long story short, in about ten minutes I climbed it and reached the top, slightly confused because I misremembered a work colleague telling me the pub “The Flask” was halfway up (it’s actually at the top). I rode around for a few more minutes trying to find the rest of the hill, then realised I’d done it and turned, euphoric, to zoom back down. Before I departed I noted the weird but beautiful petrol station at the top:

It was ornately decorated and didn’t look like a petrol station, more like a boutique shop or someone’s house. Very cool. Highgate itself was nice too, almost felt like a Yorkshire spa town in parts. Another reason I love London – the sheer mixture of locations, all in one city.

Anyway – soon it was time to zoom (carefully) back down the hill. I had my hands on the brake levers all the way down – the hill has speed bumps which aren’t much fun at speed, and a couple of corners that might be risky to attempt to negotiate at 30mph+. The graph below shows my elevation (green) and speed (blue), with the elevation peaking (no pun intended) at 430 feet  and speed at 33mph. I’ll be up to do it again sometime very soon, perhaps approaching from a different side.

Today’s lesson? Love London for its variety. Even if you get bored of the white knuckle adrenaline rush of cycling through the centre of the city, you’ve still got green, gorgeous streets and hills to challenge your legs with, if you’re brave/foolish enough.

Lesson 10: New Year in London

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

It was with some trepidation, but mainly excitement, that I approached New Years’ Eve in London.

We’d decided quite a while back that we’d like to stay in London for NYE 2010, passing over our other options of Merseyside, Nottingham and Brighton. For years I’d seen the epic Thames fireworks on TV and thought that given how close we are to the river, it would be a crying shame not to give it a look at least once.

The informed opinion amongst ever-cyncical Londoners seemed to be to avoid the river and the fireworks like the plague. Tales abounded of unlucky punters stuck in alleyways between streets, unable to move for the crowds and spending their NYE alongside industrial wastebins and grimy warehouse walls. Other people talked about the ridiculous queues, inability to see anything, and badly-behaved crowds. With this in mind I was starting to regret inviting four of my friends to come down and spend the weekend with us.

As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. We made plans to eat after work and head up to the river after a few drinks at the flat. This almost proved tricky in itself: my friends were driving down from Nottingham and it took them an hour just to travel the few miles from Hyde Park to Kennington, so busy was the traffic into London on NYE.

Once we were ready to go, we headed out for the river sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 pm. The streets were busy but not crazy and we comfortably made our way to Westminster Bridge, finding a neat spot alongside the London Eye and in view of Big Ben himself.

Admittedly, this meant we were three hours early for the big event, but we’d sneakily brought some DIY drinks (no glass was allowed, so we poured a bottle of whiskey into a 2 litre bottle of coke, and passed it around subversively). McDonalds was inexplicably open so some of us sloped off for some dirty chicken nuggets. This took less time than the queue for the toilets, which was about 45 mins by our estimates.

The atmosphere was quite exciting – the crowd was buzzing and TV helicopters were passing by frequently. There was music playing somewhere on the northern side of the river and some inane DJ banter, but we couldn’t really hear it  (and didn’t care).

Soon it was approaching midnight – the crowd began to get worked up into a frenzy. Apparently the bridge was closed off at both ends, so perhaps if we’d been foolish enough to try to get there after 11, we might have experienced the frustrations other people had warned us of.

Finally the countdown came and although, disappointingly, we couldn’t hear Big Ben over the roar of the crowd, the wonder of the fireworks made up for everything. I don’t normally care for fireworks – seen one, seen them all. In this case I was proven wrong as the show was incredible – the end was so seriously over the top I half expected the Eye to explode. This BBC video puts it better than I can, although bear in mind it was filmed from directly opposite the Eye, whereas we were stood directly to the right of it (from the angle of the video). Still, we were about as close as we could get to the fireworks themselves, which was awesome.

So what’s the lesson here? Well, the same as everything else I’ve learned about London so far: figure it out for yourself and don’t just believe what you’re told. Don’t leave it too late, but don’t stress too much about it. As long as you’re with friends and having fun, the location’s not that important anyway. Although those fireworks were pretty damned cool…