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.