Last Thursday I properly “did” the sights of London.
I saw St Paul’s cathedral, Smithfeilds market, The Strand, Trafalgar Square, The Savoy, Green Park, Hyde Park, Regents Park, Marble Arch, The British Museum, Covent Garden. Buckingham Palace! I was like a ninja tourist, no sight left unseen… except I hadn’t actually planned to do any of that. All I really wanted to do was to get from Hoxton to Hyde Park, swim in the lake then meet my man and then head to Charring Cross to get a train home. This plan does not involve a victory tour of St Pauls.
It turns out I’m not half so good at navigating round London as I thought I was.
I hadn’t planned to go anywhere near to St Pauls Cathedral but when it unexpectedly appeared round the corner I realised I was travelling in totally the wrong direction. Instead of heading West I was steaming back towards the east end like some sweaty homing pigeon on wheels.
I’ve been cycling round London for 5 years and naively thought I was pretty good at it. Thursday taught me that where central London in concerned I’m a total amateur. I know approximately 2 and half routes that get me west of the Barbican and into the posh bits of London. The half comes about because I can only do the third route in one direction. ( I tried to do it backwards last week and that was how I ended up on my unexpected sightseeing tour).
Because I’m so at home cycling round the east end I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a newby cyclist in London. I’ve forgotten the hours of my life spent getting lost and turning up late for work in the past to pay for today’s inside knowledge of Hackney’s backstreets.
I’m always encouraging friends to cycle in London – it’s quick, healthy and saves money. When the weather is as good as it is today it’s completely joyful cycling round. It’s also possible to be a teeny bit smug knowing that you’ve avoided a stifling tube or bus journey with your face squashed into a strangers sweaty pits. But the problem is it’s a nightmare learning your way around. Most of us navigate by bus routes, pubs and main roads (err perhaps that’s just me!). Cyclists tend to navigate by quite backstreets, canal towpaths and secret shortcuts. Unfortunately if you are more of a pub and bus route navigator these can be difficult to find. Quite often a helpful blue cycle route sign will point out an amazing back street out to the unsuspecting cyclist. If you follow this sign I can put money on the fact that once you are far enough from the main road or bus route you recognise then the blue signs will vanish and leave you lost and confused in an unknown area of London. That was my experience last Thursday and it made me realise just how effective the Parkers London Cycle Map would be to make cycling round london more accessible.
Cyclestreets is a totally kickass website which has given me some of my favourite routes through London. plug in your start and end point and it will calculate 3 different routes balancing speed with danger. Where ever possible it picks routes that a cyclist will enjoy cycling on but it gives the user the option to select just how much traffic they are happy to put up with. The problem with cyclestreets is that it needs a bit of planning. I’ve learnt routes with a print out of directions which I refer back to every few minutes – I’ve found myself running after that precious sheet when it’s been blown out of my basket is sheer panic knowing I’ll be stranded in the middle of nowhere if I lose it.
Basically If you don’t know the area then learning a new route on a bike can be stressful with the added excitement that slowing down to check a street sign or run after your escaped map might get you run over by an impatient taxi.
The idea behind the London Cycle Map is that navigating London on a bike would be just like navigating on the tube. You check the map and pick your route paying particular attention to which “lines” you are planning to travel on and when you need to change “line” – apparently most routes would take less than 3 “lines” or two changes – then all you have to do is then follow the signs for the first “line”. Keep following the signs until you see a sign for your next “line”. You change line by following these signs instead. Bosh. If it was put into practise then it would open up London for cyclists and non cyclists alike. Anyone not in a car could navigate an unknown area to get to their destination.
The only problem is that the network will only work with consistent signage. If my tube train dumped me at White City when I was trying to get to Ealing then I’d be lost. I’d probably cry, stamp my feet and never take the central line ever again. (I’m no drama queen honest)
The same goes for Cycle map signs. At the moment there is some serious behind the scenes lobbying going on in order to get all the boroughs of London to sign up to signing up. By signing their petition you could help make the network a reality. You might even help stop me circling St Pauls Cathedral in a sweaty mess. Thanks!