I was walking round the supermarket yesterday and suddenly realised that a) I was wearing my mask, and b) everyone else I could see was also wearing masks. My mind then suddenly exploded into a spider diagram of related realisations: we are still currently in the midst of a global pandemic; nothing is normal; some things seem normal; but nothing is normal.
I have been, and remain, very lucky (or privileged? I don’t know if there’s distinction between these concepts) that my sudden existential Covid crises are rare and that, by and large, I am not directly affected by it on a day to day basis.
I remember having similar, sudden realisations earlier on in the situation which were much bleaker: I would suddenly rememember *everything* that was unfolding from the street I live on to across the world, and fall headlong into an abyss of despair. It rarely lasted long, but it was a very unpleasant sensation. Again, it is hard to overstate the privilege I have that this is as unpleasant as it has gotten for me.
With this in mind, I’ve been looking forward to the return of the Tour de France with very mixed feelings. The postponement along with almost every other sporting/cultural event this year felt inevitable and right. When the new date was announced for it to be held in late August and early September it definitely felt too soon. In fact, I can’t remember when the new date was announced, but it came at a time when those dates seemed like nothing short of arrogance or, at best, a gamble.
But here we are. It’s the 1st of September and I’ve enjoyed the first few stages of a semi-normal large-scale sporting event, complete with crowds and TV coverage and teams from around the world descending on one place. As a small(er) scale analogue for the Olympics, it’s fairly apt.
It’s been enjoyable so far – the coverage has been good despite the split production teams. Only a reduced number of press can report from the location; ITV’s main team are based at Leeds Castle – in Kent – just to add to the geographical confusion.
The TV pictures have been great – the camera and production team behind the Tour de France are world-class and are just so good at their jobs. The TV pictures are one of my favourite elements of the whole event. The aerial shots, the pictures from the intrepid motorbikes on the road, and the macro and micro shots of French scenery just make it so epic.
And the sporting action has been great. Clearly there are a lot of riders who have been champing at the proverbial to get back on their bikes and there have already been some incredible efforts – while for others the timing has not worked out and some big names are missing from this year’s race.
It’s obvious to me that extrapolating any of the logistics behind an event like this to one on the scale of the Olympics makes it immediately clear that the postponement of that for a whole year was the right decision.
I’m glad that the TdF is back, but it still feels slightly like a guilty pleasure – for this spectacle to take place, a huge number of risks have to be taken for a huge number of people across a variety of locations. And all trhoughout a country which is carefully watching as its case counts rise again.
The elephant in the room is whether the Tour will complete all 21 stages and have its trademark finish on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in three weeks’ time. I don’t know. I feel like it must, and I expect that although they will be taking a lot of precautions, there is too much momentum behind the event to stop it. But when one considers what else has been stopped this year for the same reasons… We’ll see?
Okay, it’s actually getting hard to remember how many weeks we’ve done this for. And I know we (the lucky, privileged ones who are just sort of doing things differently but are basically fine) are all probably kind of grieving in a small way for our previous lives, work or otherwise. Maybe that’s too strong a word, but there must be something psychological going on when you suddenly stop doing the stuff you normally do, or seeing the people you normally do, or whatnot.
Here’s some stuff that I have been doing.
I had my first functional Zoom meeting with work colleagues, which actually worked once I sorted out the wifi my iPad was using. I had initially run my iPad over wifi to a router in not just a different room but on a different floor. Not ideal for low latency communications.
My top tip for anyone with precisely my own setup is this: if you are near a desktop computer with a wired connection to your router, you can use your desktop machine to share a wifi connection (much like tethering with a mobile phone to share your 4G connection to other wifi devices).
I hadn’t realised this was was possible, much less that you can just enable it in Windows 10’s Settings under Network & Internet > Mobile hotspot. Pretty sure I used to do something similar with my MacBook back in the day as well.
Once I got this set up, my Zoom connection seemed rock solid, and it was a strangely useful/pleasant exercise. It’s not something I want to do permanently, but it’s good to have the option.
TeamViewer has also been rock solid for our entire office for the past few weeks.
Some of our functions can be done through browser access to webmail and so on, but we need access to our shared files and some bespoke software that isn’t available outside our office machines in any easy way.
TeamViewer has made this very easy. I have found the connection very reliable, and as I am using the same OS at work and at home, with TeamViewer in fullscreen it really is just like I’m sat in front of my work machine.
Homewise, we have kept ourselves amused by rearranging the lounge furniture and keeping an eye on the local bird population.
We have a friendly local pair of robins who are either building a nest or feeding and housing young chicks, and they’ve taken to our selection of sunflower seeds and fat balls, visiting the patio (handily, also the view outside my wfh window) scores of times a day to collect food or nesting material. It’s been a real joy.
I can often be found sat gazing out the window with my dSLR and 70-200mm lens in hand like some sort of Rear Window cosplayer.
We had a power cut on Monday night at almost exactly midnight. I wouldn’t normally notice a power cut until the next day when any old digital clocks might be found blinking 12:00* but we have a noticeably noisy extractor fan near our bedroom for the services in our building. We have naturally gotten used to the low hum it emits constantly 24/7 – so when it stops for whatever reason, it’s really quite noticeable.
* I tried to wrap this in blink tag HTML code but, no dice.**
** Apparently the'code' HTML tag works, though.
In this case, the power was out for about five minutes. Just long enough for me to stagger round to the window to check and see – yep – it had affected other properties in our street, and even the street lights, which I thought was unusual. Pleasingly, this was also the night of the April supermoon, and it was front and centre as I twitched at the curtains to look out into the street.
We basically don’t get power cuts any more. I remember them happening what felt like quite often when I grew up. But in the past decade or more I can’t remember a power cut lasting more than a few minutes, and more often they’re a brief flicker.
Rearranging the furniture seems to be very lockdown from what I’ve seen online. And even on the streets it’s been clear people have been having a clear out from the piles of unwanted stuff on garden walls.
The rearranged lounge has been especially pleasant as we now have a plethora of plants which rejoice in the sunshine that streams in most of the day, and our TV unit is now in a shadowy corner which makes it easier to watch, like vampires, while the aforementioned sunlight pours in, attempting to disturb our lockdown viewing.
Such viewing has this week included:
National Theatre Live’s Jane Eyre which was a very enjoyable and inventive production with real heart. It took me about half an hour to get over my initial feelings of not being able to fully get into it until I realised I was able to enjoy the production for what it was and how it made use of the set etc., and the story could come second. Unsure if this is how theatre is meant to be enjoyed, but sort of don’t care.
Jesus Christ, Superstar (which I spent the preceding days confusing with Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat – but apparently that was streamed the week earlier, so perhaps it wasn’t entirely my fault) – this was a weird one – a huge, vast, arena-sized production which mostly worked and made use of the giant stage, and benefitted massively from some good cameo performances and Tim Minchin absolutely bossing it as Judas.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which I was *delighted* to see was added to Mubi this week (it’s on Mubi in the UK for the next few weeks – if you need a code for a free trial, why not use mine?), especially having missed it in the cinema not so long ago. It was as beautifully shot as I’d hoped, and I loved it. About two thirds of the way through I noticed how weird it was – sorry – how there hadn’t been a single man in the cast. This made it no less enjoyable. Actually probably made it even more enjoyable.
Race Across the World on BBC iPlayer, which I hadn’t seen before, but seems like a cross between maybe The Apprentice and Channel 4’s Hunted except with more realistic restrictions, and has been great fun. Watching people romp around South America while we’re stuck inside has definitely increased our wanderlust.
In non-viewing, I was delighted that Radio 3 re-broadcast the live performance of Max Richter’s Sleep from a few years ago at the Wellcome Collection. Sleep is an eight-hour(!) piece of music designed, as you might guess, to fall asleep to.
It was broadcast from 11pm to 7am, and I found myself stirring – as I often do during the night – and quickly finding the constant musical companion pleasant, before nodding off again. Really wonderful. That’s available on the BBC Sounds app/website for the next few weeks too – I really encourage anyone to stick it on at bedtime and give it a whirl.
It reminded me that I used to fall asleep to a pretty ace playlist consisting of Stars of the Lid, Jonsi & Alex, some Peter Broderick stuff… It was a good playlist.
In fact, Stars of the Lid’s And Their Refinement of the Decline is something I stick on in times of anxietal need, including sleeplessness and on flights.
Finally, Easter was… weird. But, well, we made nice food and drank nice wine, and even ate and drank some of it sat outside on the patio – so it was a pretty great Easter, actually. We didn’t have much chocolate as, when we’ve been able to get out to the shops recently, it felt frivolous to stock up on essentials as well as the least efficient way to store and carry chocolate.
This isn’t just lockdown fever: in previous Easters I have been much happier buying a few Chocolate Oranges (by far the cheapest/best value chocolate by weight) and some bars of decent choccy rather than wanting any actual eggs.
Instead of chocolate eggs we drank nice red wine, and I ordered one of those home deliveries of craft beer that doesn’t work out very economical apart from the first box, and I liked a fair few of them. I’m not a craft beer lover, but it’s nice to try a few different ones selected by someone else from time to time.
I’ve also been managing to get out for a ride or run every 2-3 days which is keeping me sane. Most other days I get out for a stroll, and it’s been nice walking nearby roads I don’t know, remarking at some really quite interesting residential architecture.
On Good Friday I rode my bike down to the river and it was… Weird. Pleasant – what with the roads being clear enough – but eerie, what with the city being basically empty.
We’re quite good at ’empty the freezer soup’ and ’empty the cupboard’ type meals in general. When the time comes, it’s good to have a clear out, and the results can be surprising.
I say all this because we’re letting our Amazon Prime subscription end – it’s the sort of thing that’s nice to have over Christmas for deliveries, and for a month or two at a time to catch up on film and TV that’s currently available.
And with only a few days left of Prime, I’ve found myself scanning around for unwatched stuff to check out before the subscription runs out. Mostly I’ve been chowing down on Bob’s Burgers most recently, which I’ve sort of dipped in and out of before. It’s very fast and colourful and fun. It feels like a 21st-century Family Guy, I guess.
I watch a lot of YouTube which means I sit through a lot of terrible mistargeted ads. I briefly considered a YouTube Premium subscription to make the ads go away, but it turns out that it costs £12 per month — double the cost of a basic Netflix plan. What.
Indeed! For some time last year I had a three month free trial to YouTube Premium. I tried out YouTube Music very briefly, which was a confusing mishmash and not at all as straightforward as Spotify (which has its own usability issues, and introduces new ones every few months).
But I watch… probably a few hours of YouTube content a week. I’d like to see some stats, but I suspect approximately half my ‘slumped in front of the telly’ time is spent on YouTube with the other half split between stuff recorded on Freesat and streams or Blu-rays.
When I had that free trial, watching YouTube without ads felt wonderful. Firstly, there are no ads, which is of course nice. But you also don’t get ads inserted mid-video, which so often just get placed arbitrarily rather than (as is my understanding) at a convenient point selected by the creator.
So it was overall a nicer way to experience YouTube, and it was a shame to lose it once the trial ran out. But the cost of £11.99 a month was just too high for the ‘nice-to-have’ of no ads.
This week I noticed the day length, the sky being a certain colour, and the interesting light and silhouettes you get at walking-home time in these parts. Stark building silhouettes against icy blue skies; golden rays highlighting trees and buildings just before the sun dips below the horizon.
It’s lovely. A good time of year, even despite the changeable weather: we’ve had a winter storm rolling over every weekend for the past three weeks, and this week it tried to snow for an hour or so in north London.
I also like that at this time of year it is nice to be aware of the sunrise and sunset times – sunrise recently shifted before 7am and sunset moved later than 5.30pm. These are good boundaries to have crossed, and spring rolls ever closer.
The Norwegian connection is clear from the wording on the packaging, and from the information helpfully included by the re-seller which tells you how to reset the device from the default Norwegian language to English.
I’ve had mixed successes with portable DAB/DAB+ radios in the past, but this thing is lovely. It’s tiny, and feels nice in the hand. About the size of a fat pack of gum. There are just three buttons and an on-off switch.
Reception is solid, with the earphone cable acting as an aerial. A scan in north London pulls in 100-150 stations, and it doesn’t struggle to hold onto a station if it is found on a scan. It charges via USB, and battery life is decent – 4-5 hours or so, which isn’t bad for the size of the device.
It’s got a decent and responsive menu/interface, which is also something I’ve learned not to take for granted with cheap portable radios. And this one is ridiculously cheap – the POP Nano can currently be purchased from Amazon for either £9.99 or £14.99, depending on whether Amazon has included some sort of e-voucher.
Alas, the other day I noticed the menu/select button was no long clicking, rendering it unusable aside from the station it was tuned to at the time. Unfortunately for me that was something called CDNX which seems to be some sort of Camden Market-related ex-NME jukebox station which I was briefly checking out after I learned of its existence on the London Trial multiplex.
I say unfortunately mostly because the bitrate of CDNX (48kbps – albeit via DAB+, so stereo AAC) is pretty awful, especially for a music station.
Anyway, the re-seller has been responsive and I’ve sent it back for (hopefully) exchange with a new unit. I don’t hesitate to recommend it – in the hope that my fault is a one-off. But who knows? And I hope I will soon have a new one and it won’t face a similar fate in three months’ time! I will try to update this if I get another and it proves to be a common fault.
I’ve recently been reading A Golden Age of Cycling, a lovely (if slightly under-done) collection of diaries from a British cyclist in the 1920s and 1930s. The author breaks down his cycling holidays day-by-day, telling the reader all the little places he visits, where he stops for bread, cheese and ale, and what mileage he clocks up.
It’s a lovely thing to read at bedtime, as he writes with a jolly demeanour, and it makes for easy daydreaming, putting together little routes through the Cotswolds to get from village to village.
And so for a while I’ve been wanting to remind myself that it is still possible to cycle through the countryside, village to village, and for cycling to be so much more than just a slightly anxious, functional and frantic pedal from home to work on busy London roads.
So on Sunday, after hatching a plan for a while, I took my bike out on the Thameslink train north into the countryside for a spin.
I had previously identified Harlington as a decent candidate hitting the sweet spot between ‘decently served station’ and ‘small place surrounded by countryside’. I then used Komoot to find a route someone had uploaded that started not far from Harlington – before using one or two other apps/websites to convert the GPX file into an app I could actually use for navigation.
There are many thousands of words I could write about this weird, broken, paywalled landscape of ‘apps that allow you to find cycling routes’, ‘apps that allow you to create and/or share routes’, ‘apps that allow you to navigate routes’, ‘apps for converting one such app’s route into another format for another app’ and so on and so on. But I digress.
I struck very lucky with the weather, it being bright and dry, if a little chilly. The wind was a bit much in places – with the usual weird sensation of wind blowing from nearly 270 degrees in all directions rather than one single direction. Whenever I had a brief respite from the wind, it really hit me when I got buffeted again.
I had aimed for 50-55km as a decent distance to test myself out. This loop saw me head out east from Harlington, kissing the edge of Hitchin, then heading south a bit, before heading almost straight back north west towards Harlington, via Emily’s Tea Shop – a nice little cycle-friendly cafe – at Whitwell.
I ended up doing just over 60km, and this was perhaps a stretch. It was my first big ride in a while – save for a couple of rides in the meantime, I hadn’t ridden this sort of distance since France last August.
And thank goodness it wasn’t a particularly hilly route, as I found the last few hills a real struggle. It is heartening to note that the final phase of the ride really did see me climbing and climbing and climbing – albeit not very high. But still. The creaking in my knees in the days following this ride have at least something to blame.
Anyway, wind and ‘hills’ aside, this was a mostly very enjoyable route. I passed a great number of riders – some individuals and a fair few groups. In fact I may have even seen more bikes than cars, which is always nice to see.
There’s something quite reassuring about following a route created and shared by someone else – a hope that it must be reasonably pleasant and doable. If I sat down and programmed my own route, I’d inevitably misjudge a busy junction or completely fail to check the contours and gradients.
I did use Google Maps to navigate the last few KMs back to the station as the Komoot loop would take me instead to a random car park. Ironically, Google led me down some field track bridleways rather than roads, which was a pleasant diversion, but not as easy riding.
I was pretty exhausted by the end of it, but really pleased with my efforts. I may have slightly underestimated how hard a ride of that distance would be, but it’s nice to have that done so that my thoughts can turn to the next route and I am a little more confident of my own potential.
On Monday I had a longstanding appointment with Eon or one of its contractors to fit a smart meter for our flat. Exciting stuff. I’d arranged this with our building manager as the meters are in a communal cupboard. And I’d checked with Eon that this would all be fine.
The day came and… their contractor couldn’t find anywhere to park. Which is ridiculous. Was this the first such appointment they’d done on a London street? The chap was friendly enough but phoned and asked where he should park and I told him I really had no idea. He ended up doing laps and then waiting at a nearby pay and display until no spaces became available and he cancelled the appointment. This was all after our building manager confirmed to me that under no circumstances could the contractor park his van either in the turn-off to the building’s underground ramp, or indeed in the empty underground parking area.* Insert joke about smart meters and stupid policies/people.
* We were told that although our building, built five years ago, was built with a basement capable of housing probably fifty cars, it cannot be used for this purpose for an unspecified period of time due to local authority planning regulations, ostensibly to put people off owning cars? Not sure. It also means that bicycles cannot use the (gated) vehicle ramp to access underground secure bicycle storage, and muddy wet bicycles must be wheeled in through main, carpeted entrance and taken downstairs or in a lift. Marvellous.
Fortunately after all this kerfuffle, in the evening we had a performance of Hamilton to look forward to. And golly it was excellent. My previously-mentioned act of bankrupting myself in December to give us stuff to look forward to in January and February continues to pay dividends.
I can count on one hand the number of theatre performances I’ve been to since living in London, but I always enjoy them when I go. I guess I’m mostly put off by the ticket prices, but I know there are ways around that.
ANYWAY the theatre itself is beautiful and, I understand, recently refurbished. The seats were great and comfortable, and of course the show itself was just fantastic. Funny, sharp, and a great mix of lighthearted and serious.
I am already making plans to grab some cheap seats again in a few months’ time to see it again. (I hear that Disney is filming a performance featuring the original Broadway cast, mind you, so that might do.) And I have inevitably become the sort of person who now listens to cast recordings in his spare time. The same happened with The Book of Mormon too, in fairness.
We got a Sodastream for Christmas, and thus have spent January enjoying carbonated beverages of various varieties, including some very posh ones that came with it, are made in New Zealand(?) and apparently cost £8 for a bottle of 500ml of what is essentially squash. Mostly we mix the fizzy with cheap squash or elderflower cordial, and it’s lovely.
The first gas cartridge finally ran out – I was becoming anxious about this as I wasn’t sure if it would sort of slowly run out or just stop one day. And… yeah. It just stopped one day. So that’s good to know for future. The weird thing with Sodastream is that you exchange the gas cartridges, and the cartridge has a sort of deposit system so to buy a full one costs x and to swap an empty one for a full one costs y.
There’s something inherently novel about using a Sodastream. We had one when I was a kid and I can still remember the a) glass bottles, b) the horrible fake cola/lemonade/whatever flavoured syrups, and c) the odd yellow and white plastic colour scheme. I suppose it was probably a late 70s/early 80s model.
Anyway, we were without gas for a couple of days and felt bereft. But now we have one full one and one empty ready to swap next time. Sodastream anxiety levels normalised.
It’s nice having a Sodastream – our main reason for getting one is so that we can avoid transporting (either ourselves or as a grocery delivery) bottles of carbonated water, which we drink a ton of. We already have a tap that dispenses water, so why not get one that dispenses bubbles of fizzy? So that’s what we did.
The rest of the week was anxiety about work stuff and anxiety about our impending exit from the EU. Both completely unrelated but equally head-fuggying and frustrating. That’s about all I have to say about that.
Luckily the weekend was better. I accidentally discovered that Seinfeld was to leave Amazon Prime at midnight Saturday/Sunday, so I had the whole of the last season to try and get through. And damnit if I didn’t almost manage it. But I still have two episodes left – including the double episode which is presented as one on Prime – ironically if I’d have started that 50-minute episode at just before midnight it will have played all the way through. But alas.
Anyway I can’t yet report on what the long-term effects of watching ten hours of Seinfeld in one sitting are, but it kept me amused all day at least.
I definitely make strange Kramer-esque noises from time to time, and I do wonder what would have happened to me if I’d grown up watching him on Seinfeld as I was so influenced by slapstick, physical comedy and the antics of Tom & Jerry etc. that I just know his eccentric movements and sudden entrances would have appealed to me massively.
Sunday saw another bike ride. I eyed up a few routes into central London and joined the dots between the local routes I know and the more distant signposted/highlighted cycle ‘super highways’ (are they even still called that? It’s a very weird name).
We rode down towards Kings Cross, stopping at St Pancras Old Church which I’d never even seen before let alone popped inside, and then carried on down to the river before doing a little loop and an explore around London Wall and heading back pretty much the way we came. It was a mostly satisfying little excursion.
I have to remind myself that cycling in London, even when planning a decent, joined-up route, is s-l-o-w. I am so desperate now for a ride where I just set out and get 20-30km out of the way without stopping, and ideally doing it at a steady 20-25km/h. Riding in London I’m lucky to get my average speed to hit 20km/h – it’s actually often nearer 15.
Anyway, that’s another week out of the way. 2020 is motoring along. I guess that with planned activities, decent weather for being outside, and being busy at work, I’m just basically quite busy? And that’s good? It’s making the time fly past at a decent pace anyway. Let’s see what February brings.
At some point towards the end of the year, I decided that January should be filled with interesting little things to look forward to, and we began week four thusly: attending a Michael Palin event at the Owl bookshop in Kentish Town. I had discovered the event by browsing the Daunt Books website, and just assumed I had missed out and barely considered looking to see if tickets were still available – and they were.
I try and go to see Michael Palin doing whatever he might be doing in London – book readings, Q&As, screenings of films he helped make, or whatever. He’s just very good value no matter what he’s doing. This one was a reading slash re-telling of his North Korea trip a couple of years ago which spawned a TV show for Channel 5 and a book of his journals.
I’ve seen Palin do his own talks by himself, and I’ve seen him do a sort of double-header with another writer or broadcaster, and I’ve seen him ‘in conversation with’ a host of sorts. Fortunately this was him on his own – other events can be a bit disappointing as they can stick to the script a bit, or worse they exist to inflate the host’s ego as they ask knowing questions and don’t give their guest a chance to shine.
Palin stood for an hour and delivered a funny, informative, sharp and very accurate telling of the trip he embarked upon to North Korea and it was just lovely to be in his presence, telling his own story at his own pace. There followed a brief Q&A, and then a chance to get signed copies of the book. I had brought along my own, itself a gift from M which she had already inscribed. She pushed me to get it signed and I’m glad she did.
As we neared the head of the queue, we could see that he was signing the title page, but M’s inscription was on the inside front cover. We thought it would be fun to get him to sign that page – and indeed it was, as he added a nicely personalised note referencing the fact that he was barging in to sign it along with M’s own message, but that it is his book after all.
While he did this, I badgered him briefly about my diary project that I had done for my degree – along with a number of other correspondents, Palin had contributed to the project by completing an online survey about diary-keeping habits. Amongst the tick box responses were longer free text boxes for responses to open questions, and it had been a thrill to get his Palin-esque responses to my project questions along with those of the others.
Despite me just being one of a number of people queuing up to get a book signed, he thoughtfully responded to my diary ramblings by asking if I knew about the projects run/housed by the Bishopsgate Institute, which was really great to hear.
It was a great evening, and the bonus was seeing just how healthy and sharp he is, and I’m so grateful that these events happen with the regularity that they do and that I’m able to attend some of them.
It was all the more poignant, then, that later that week we learned that Palin’s good friend Terry Jones had died after a slow decline. Sad news indeed. Always a knock to the heart to hear of heroes and legends passing on.
Later in the week, with tensions in the office running a little high for my liking, I scoured the map for a route to stroll at lunchtime.
To my delight, just ten minutes away from my office is, if not quite open fields, a small farm and a field home to two friendly goats.
I spent a few minutes introducing myself.
The walk had taken me past an impressive statue called La Delivrance (known locally as ‘the naked lady’, and a nickname so well-established that the information board even says so, rather damning the imagination and culture of the locals, I’d say).
I had forgotten how important it is to strike out and discover new places nearby when your mind is starting to get a bit clogged up with more familiar issues. It wasn’t all goats and bronze breasts and buttocks though, as another version of this lunchtime walk merely led me along the length of a filthy, flytipped water course delightfully named Mutton Brook but looking for all the world like a rainwater drain leading from a municipal dump.
Regardless, I will continue to try and find new paths to follow in familiar places. I found a neat online map that attempts to show you how far you can roam from a central point using various types of transport including walking.
(Related: I started following the #fieldrecording tag on Instagram and saw a nice post from a guy reflecting how he used to take lunchtime walks from his office in New York or San Francisco – round trips of an hour – recording the sounds along the way. Perhaps I’m missing the point but I fear if I did that, all I’d get is the full drone of traffic and the occasional honking horn – but it struck me as an idea worth considering.)
At the weekend, driven by this desire to look at maps and forge routes, I sketched out a rough cycle route from home heading north and away from the city, through suburbia to a place near Cockfosters tube station which had surprised us with its rural beauty on a previous London LOOP walk.
This cycle route north had been floating around in my head for some time and the thought was catalysed by re-reading some notes in my notebook from a visit to the London Metropolitan Archives a year ago.
Whilst flicking through copies of a century-old local newspaper that covered the activities of local groups looking for evidence of Charles Wade’s involvement with amateur dramatics, I found reference to a 1915 cycle ride from Golders Green to Letchworth – from the Garden Suburb to the Garden City – taking in Welwyn on the way as a point of politeness, as well as other stops en route.
I was captivated by this striking out, this group of cycle pioneers hitting the road one Sunday to head north through open country, touch base with their distant cousins, and head back in time for supper.
I just had to plot this route in Strava, hoping that there might still be some remains of the route they must have taken. I’m not an idiot – I know the roads have changed enormously in a hundred years, particularly in north west London – but I wanted to see if I could game the route-finding software a little to uncover the kinds of smaller roads they might have used – and which might still be usable today.
Inevitably it followed a route I sort of recognised, past work, and on upwards to the north. To my delight, it passed near to Monken Hadley, the charming stretch of village and countryside to the west of Cockfosters that I had hoped to revisit by bike. This was all the encouragement I needed to try out a bike ride like this – and I thought the full Letchworth round trip of more than 100km in one day was possibly something best left for a later date.
This led, ultimately, to M and I setting out from home, cycling my route to work, then up and on into the unknown. Unfortunately, though there are roads leading in almost any direction one could wish for from these parts, they tend to be badly potholed, busy (even on a Saturday), and full of buses and other traffic. They are, for the most part, not built for cyclists.
Occasional cyclist-friendly bits are found, but these little oases are few and far between, and the lasting memory is of roads unfit for all the traffic that is capable of using them, and occasional instances of actually having to dismount to cross in order to safely navigate a junction. It can feel a little demeaning.
There were, of course, nice bits. Parts not retro-fitted into including a cycle path, but merely decently-wide roads that were quiet and smooth and pleasant to ride, with good signposting and big, safe junctions to cross. At moments like those, it was made slightly easier to imagine the Sunday ride from a hundred years ago.
But we made it to Monken Hadley, after various north London high streets and dips in and out of suburbia. And it felt great to have returned to a place that we’d before now only taken a tube and a walk to. This is a feeling of satisfaction I’ve found in various unexpected places – as though ‘conquering’ familiar places where before I had had to rely on public transport or the kindness of others to visit or pass through. Getting there on your own two wheels can feel like such an achievement.
The carrot on the stick of this endeavour had been the silky, open roads through Monken Hadley and its neighbouring settlements and countryside. The irony was that the worst parts of the journey were the ones that took us longest to navigate. The good bits flew by as our pedals spun. We headed straight into the woods to retrace the London LOOP where it became a bridleway. Our last visit had been towards the end of a long day, and with the light fading we kept up a quick pace towards the tube station and home. This time we found a body of open water alongside a golf course and ate our sandwiches in the drizzle as a family walked past in wellington boots and waterproofs.
The ride back was, as it so often can be, a bit smoother, with familiar roads and the known elements of the trip feeling less unending than the unknown had on the way up.
Despite the annoyances, it did still feel like a small achievement. I’m sure I’ll try and do something similar again. Plus, the desire to take the bikes out on a commuter train to the home counties and hit the road is always there.