Clever bicycles on a sunny Sunday

Saturday, March 17, 2012

I was supposed to go on a bicycle tour of the City a week earlier than I did, though this was not because I was particularly burning with desire to do a Sunday morning cycling tour of the City of London.

(I suppose here I need to explain the difference between the City of London and the city of London, which is something I don't think I've done yet.  The city London, or Greater London, is the whole shebang, (or conturbation, a word I just learned, thanks to the crossword...).  Generally meaning anything inside the M25 motorway, Greater London's population is about 7.7 million.  The City of London, usually just called The City or sometimes the Square Mile is the historic centre of London, originally settled by the Romans, whose boundaries have remained almost unchanged since the Middle Ages, and which is now the financial, legal and business hub of the UK.  Sometimes people say "The City" in the same way they say "Wall Street".  The City also has some odd political differences, like the fact that is has a Lord Mayor, and its own police force.  More about The City's oddities in another post perhaps.)

So as I was saying, I booked and paid for a cycling tour of the City not because I was particularly burning with desire to do a Sunday morning cycling tour of the City of London.  I booked it because this particular tour is conducted on Brompton folding bicycles, and I am dead keen on Brompton bikes.  I'm seriously thinking about getting one, but realised I'd never actually ridden one before and figured it might be a plan to do that before forking over the usurious sum of £800, which is the going rate for a basic Brompton.  And then I discovered that there's an outfit here called Spoke 'n Motion that does cycling tours on Brompton bikes so I could try the bikes, get a tour, and maybe squeeze a blog out of the whole thing for a relatively measly £19.  And when I discovered that the tour ended with a free pint in a nice pub... well you can imagine it didn't take me long to get out my wallet.

(I was going to have a little rant here about the grammatically dubious "n" bit of Spoke 'n Motion... and then I got it... ha!)

So as I say, I was all set to go a week earlier, and even SET THE ALARM ON A SUNDAY MORNING to get there on time, but when I woke up and heard the rain and then checked the forecast for the rest of the day my heart sank a bit.  Cold, rain, drizzle, mist, and then a bit of a downpour, just for variety.  No matter, I steeled myself and decided to go anyways.  London is the kind of place where you just have to accept that you're going to get wet some days.  Then as I was eating breakfast my phone rang and it was the guy who owns the company calling to tell me that if I wanted to skip the tour and take a refund or a credit, then that was totally fine.  How's that for customer service?  I was happy for the reprieve that day and toddled off to the Science Museum for the afternoon, which I intended to blog about, but which honestly didn't really fire me up much.  I told Ian (Mr. Spoke 'n Motion) that I'd take the credit and see him on the next sunny Sunday.

So I set the alarm again the next week, which promised to be a much finer day, and rode my normal, boring full-sized bike out to Bermondsey, where the tour started.  Ian was there, as promised, along with the only other participant in the day's tour, a pleasant but quiet guy from Singapore whose name I don't remember or wasn't told, so he shall henceforth be known as Singapore Guy.  First, Ian introduced us to the bikes, which were my main reason for being there.  Bromptons are exceedingly clever, and Ian demonstrated the famous folding system.

Singapore Guy and Ian, with my partially folded loaner Brompton, named Helga, in the foreground.  Ian's unfolded light blue bike is in the background.  When practised a bit the whole folding action takes about 20 seconds to go from functional bike to suitcase sized package. Watch the video on the website!

We walked over to where the bikes were stored, and I got to have a go at the fold, and take a short spin to get used to the riding characteristics of the bike.  Since the wheels are so tiny (just 16"! Cute!) a Brompton handles a bit differently than a bike with full-sized wheels.  They're not as stable, but are definitely what most people describe as "responsive" and "zippy".  It took a little getting used to, but soon I was totally comfortable.  Other interesting features are the fact that, because the main framing bar is so low, it's really easy to get on and off the bike, and they don't need a kickstand because that half-folded state pictured above - which takes as long to achieve as it takes to deploy a kickstand - will stay upright on its own.

So, in a word, the bikes are: cool.  But what about the tour?  Also, in a word: cool.  Though it was billed as a tour of the deserted City, we started on the south bank of the Thames and wended through a few interesting spots there before crossing into the City on Southwark Bridge.  We learned that Patrick Stewart (yes, THAT Patrick Stewart) was a nearby resident and part of the fight to prevent a giant new sewer outfall from besmirching the riverbank in the neighbourhood.  And we stopped at St. Saviour's Dock, where the subterranean river Neckinger meets the Thames.  It's also the site of the infamous Jacob's Island, a notorious Dickensian slum made even more infamous as the site of the fictional death of Bill Sykes, the villain in "Oliver Twist".

The Neckinger at low tide, and the buildings of modern-day St. Saviour's Dock.  Now it's super-expensive real estate.  Just to the left in this photo is apparently where a famous scene in "A Fish Called Wanda" was filmed.  It's the one where Kevin Kline dangles John Cleese out the window.  Ian even pointed out the exact window in question.  

We also stopped at another interesting site on the South Bank, near Tower Bridge.  However, it was so excellent and quirky that I think it deserves a blog all its own, so you get nothing more here beyond that tantalising snippet.  I will tell you that we also saw the only bar in London that does not require a liquor license.  Known as a "free vintner" the Boot and Flogger is allowed to sell wine (but not beer or spirits) inside the City and three miles beyond, and claim to have been granted that privilege in 1567 by the first Queen Elizabeth.  I know I say it over and over again, but these are the fun, interesting, offbeat things that crop up all the time in London.

Once we finally made it into the City we hit a lot of the usual hotspots.  Since I've done quite a few guided tours of one sort or another many of them were places I've visited before.  For instance, we stopped at St. Mary-le-Bow church, home of the famous Bow Bells (ironically, closed on a Sunday, like most churches in the City).  The Bow Bells are famous because, in order to be a true Cockney, it's said you have to be born within the sound of the Bow Bells.  (By the way, Bow rhymes with grow, not how.  Just so you don't embarrass yourself the next time you're there.)

We also had a stop at Postman's Park, which only recently reopened after being closed due to the Occupy movement protest near St. Paul's.  Many of the lovely small patches of green in the City were closed during the protest, to prevent people from pitching tents on them.  However, you loyal GWPL readers have been au fait with Postman's Park for ages, so no need to flog (or blog) that horse again here.  And of course you'll all recognise this landmark:

Looking particularly fetching on a sunny afternoon, I must say.

We also pedalled over to the Smithfield Market area, near St. Bartholomew's Hospital.  Barts, as the cool kids call it, is the oldest hospital in London, having been founded in 1123.  Famously, it is the site of the first meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (in "A Study in Scarlet").  More recently, it was the scene of the (apparent) suicide of a modern-day Holmes in the oh-my-God-sooooooo-good-you-must-watch-them-all-NOW BBC series "Sherlock".  The Barts/Smithfield areas is also the place of the martyrdom of the famous Scot William Wallace, who was hung, drawn and quartered in 1305.

Ian, ably demonstrating the "hung"part of hung, drawn and quartered, next to the plaque commemorating Wallace's execution outside Barts.

I haven't mentioned Smithfield Market before here - it's the city's main meat market, and has been so for, oh, 800 years.  Many shops and restaurants in London get their meat at Smithfield's, which is the only "grand" market left in central London (Covent Garden flower and produce market and Billingsgate fish market moved out to larger digs ages ago).  It operates from 4am to noon every day and nearby are the only pubs in London that are allowed to sell alcohol in the morning - for workers coming off the night shift.  There's also a pub called the Fox and Anchor which serves a breakfast so popular that you need to make reservations to secure a table.  Along with the usual full English breakfast offerings, it adds things like lamb's kidney's, calf's liver, kippers, and other Smithfieldian treats for a eye-watering £16.95.  Vegetarians beware.

After wending past a few more familiar spots like Guildhall and the Gherkin, it was finally time to turn our snazzy little bicycles southwards across Tower Bridge.  The whole tour took a little more than three hours, and though I'd visited many of the spots before, Ian had a lot of new stories and facts that I'd never heard.  And though the morning started out a bit grey and chilly it ended up being a glorious sunny day.  So when we got back to Bermondsey and Ian stowed the bikes away for storage and asked if we'd like to go down the road for a pint, which was included in the cost of the tour... well I think you can guess what the response was.

From left to right: the Thames, my beer, Ian's beer, Singapore Guy, Ian, and in the background, the Angel pub, Bermondsey.

I haven't made any decision yet about whether I'll be buying a Brompton bike.  But the Spoke 'n Motion tour definitely whet my appetite for them, so I think I'll plan to rent one for a week so I can see how those tiny wheels fare on my eight and a half mile commute and what it's like dragging the folded bike onto the train when I simply can't face the ride.  And the fact that I got to try one out, and have a very well curated tour of the City and a credible pint of real ale in the bargain means that I can heartily recommend a Spoke 'n Motion tour the next time you're in London and looking for something a bit more interesting than the same old hop-on hop-off double decker bus tour.


Ian Timshel said...

Those glasses, obviously very clean, lacy heads, real ale and a day filled with fun. What a fantastic score.

Anonymous said...

Wes and I will try to squeeze this bike tour into our visit in June. Thanks for the wonderful tourist tips. Cheers, rh

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