Many thanks to Geoffrey Hunter for the latest guest blog on cyclelifestyle.co.uk. Geoffrey is a lapsed cyclist, heritage enthusiast and occasional writer. His day job is Head of Parish Property Support for the Diocese of London and he is also on the board of the Heritage of London Trust.
Margaret Thatcher is apocryphally quoted as saying, ‘A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure’. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have found myself in the eight years since I was 26, I think it is true to say that if I were forced to travel by bus simply because I couldn’t afford to travel on the Tube, then I would feel a bit let down by two degrees and a lot of hard work.
And so I thought it was with bikes – the transport of last resort for the impecunious. At university I had an annual bike-mileage well into the thousands, with a daily commute from Kilburn to the Strand. My bike was part of my character, something my friends and family immediately associated with me, together with the accompanying anecdotes of idiot drivers and suicidal pedestrians. Then came my first job with a car attached and it all went to pot.
I’m now trying to work out why. Traffic conditions aren’t so much different now to how they were ten years ago. For cyclists there are more dedicated lanes and crossings than ever before; bendy buses are just a bad dream from a different time. And yet there is something that stops me from getting a bike and riding around town just like I used to.
The hassle of finding somewhere to lock it up, the sweaty shirts and aroma of effort imposed on colleagues, the circuitous search for the safety of quiet backstreets, the getting lost down deserted dead ends, the unexpected stumbling upon London’s hidden past, the thrill of learning my way round our capital city in a way more surprising and rewarding than any other... actually, I just remembered: I REALLY like cycling! So this year I have resolved to bury my fears and prejudices and be a bit more proactive in seeking opportunities to get on a bike and explore.
Being one of the sickening minority of Londoners privileged to walk to work, I have to find my opportunities where I can. I can say with honesty that, thinking back through my cycling years, my finest moments on a bike were not the obvious: Edgware Road to Parsons Green in 17 minutes; creaming past an overweight, over-equipped executive cyclist in Regents Park on my rusty upright while smoking a cigarette (to give him credit, he did laugh and say “fair cop Gov”, or words to that effect). These achievements are as nothing compared with the best memories of being on a bike in London.
The moments that stick in the mind are moments affected by the thrill (and I choose that word carefully) of discoveries that you would never make on a bus. The oasis of Shepherd Market, the narrow medieval lanes to the south of St Paul’s, the eerily quiet yuppie-infused backstreets of Wapping, the time-warp Victorian terraces of Bermondsey.
That is why I’m taking my call to arms from an event planned for 14 September this year. The Heritage of London trust is joining up with a wide range of churches in London to put on Ride+Stride. The event aims to raise the profile of churches as a part of our shared London heritage.
The idea is you plan a route round as many churches as you can (or other places of worship, such as temples and mosques; this is not a partisan event) and get your friends to sponsor you. You can nominate half the money raised for your favourite Ride+Stride building, and the other half goes to the Heritage of London Trust to go into a special grant fund dedicated to supporting all historic places of worship in London.
Many of these buildings are hidden in backstreets and rarely open to the public; yet they are all the ultimate expression of the architectural ambition of the communities that built them. From chapels, to cathedrals, to concrete blocks, many are listed buildings and none of them gets any direct state support to help with the cost of maintaining them for future generations.
The aim I have on 14 September, and the aim that I think should be cajoling all London cyclists into action, is the opportunity for serendipity to lead us into the unexplored backwaters of our City, or into a building you know well from the outside, but have never entered; seeing the everyday from the other side. That’s what weekends are for, right?
So how do I break the bad habit of recent years and get back in the saddle? Middle management largesse gives me the wherewithal to buy a brand new Bianchi and the Assos outfit and clip-ons to match. It also gives me some extra inches round the waist. I see the vision of that lumbering, park-bound executive looming up on my inside. No thanks!
It’s to the back of my mum’s garage for me, armed with spanners, inner tubes and a can of 3-in-1, to resurrect that rusty steed of all those years ago, together with the thrill of discovery that went with it. See you there.