Imagine yourself as a needle that threads through your environment.
Even if you live in a city as big and as rich as London, unless you are a well-funded flaneur (if only), you will find that the paths you thread through the city will often overlap. Home, work, school, favourite kebab or falafel shop, usual pubs, usual haunts and the usual paths to get to and from all of these places–the thread you make weaves through the city as you go along, most often along familiar roads through familiar means.
‘Familiar means’ is important, because in London, there are different ways to get from point A to point B, and whatever your preferred option is the one that affects your conception of space in the city.
As someone who a few months ago bought a bike and began riding it pretty much on a daily basis, travelling around on the bike has been somewhat of a revelation, outside of the fact I am in woeful physical condition. I have begun small, cycling my granny bike around Hackney, primarily from my house to work and back, via Newington Green Fruit & Veg or The Cock Tavern. Even still, this manages to be interesting as, on a single-speed bike for someone who has failed PE in high school, one becomes very aware of the topography, particularly when cycling up an incline. That little dip up from Sandringham Road as it meets with Kingsland High Street? Nothing you may much mind to when walking on foot and it’s hardly something of note if you’re just passing by on the 149 or 243.
I know it’s there now, though.
Cycling hasn’t just made me hyperaware of my lack of stamina, however. It has also, with help from Citymapper‘s cycling route suggestions, enabled me to see pockets of London I haven’t explored or have underexplored due to my reliance on bus and Overground travel.
For instance, when cycling from work to an event near Old Street, Citymapper guided me through a path in De Beauvoir, with sections specifically marked off for cyclists. It was like moving through another world, enhanced by the opulent cherry blossoms weighing down the branches of their trees.
More recently, when cycling back from my first excursion into West London on my bike, I came across a steep road (which I couldn’t cycle up, in the end) and at the end of it, a square: Lloyd Square. The houses were beautiful, and a very detailed history of the area, plus photographs of the houses I tried to cycle/walked past, can be seen here.
In addition to cycling through new-to-me paths, I’ve also had a couple of nice walks with the Bishopsgate Institute. One was a walk around the East End tracing photographer C A Mathew’s walk over a century ago. You can read more about C A Mathew and see some of his photos on Spitalfields Life. The walk we did was very interesting and we learnt a good deal about the area, particularly its history during C A Mathew’s time. It was interesting to compare his photos with the environment we saw now in front of us–to see what remained, and what has been lost.
Last week, I had the stupidly amazing opportunity thanks to the wonderful folks behind Google Local London to go up the BT Tower. Which is insane.
Of course the view was amazing.
But in addition to being up high, seeing London spilling out all around you and spotting other London monuments such as The Shard, St Paul’s Cathedral, Alexandra Palace and Battersea Power Station, the experience provided a fascinating perspective on the city. The jumble of buildings, the swathes of green, the trees, the lights all were fascinating to study from this new height. From atop the BT Tower, one could see the little mews buildings and the secret squares behind the street-facing buildings in surrounding Fitzrovia. One could see how flat and uninspiring Euston Station is, the austere, brutalist beauty of the Barbican Towers in front of the glittering buildings of the City of London.
Moving from day to night was watching London put its make-up on. The London Eye, Centrepoint and the City towers all shone, as did the traffic from cars and buses along Euston Road, and the local car and bicycle traffic down below. Other buildings grew dark and quiet in comparison to the glitz of other buildings and of traffic.
It was an extreme privilege to have been able to see London from this different viewpoint, but it’s worth looking at other views of London from Parliament Hill and Primrose Hill, St Augustine’s Tower in Hackney, as well as from some restaurants located in some of the taller buildings around London. Feel free to share your favourite views in the comments–I’d love to know of them.
Looking across and below from the BT Tower, I was struck at how much of what I saw before me I was unfamiliar with, much as how I am fascinated with the cycling paths through the city I am only just beginning to learn. As I get a better handle on riding my bike around, I look forward to the new stretches of the city I will now pass, and the shortened distance of time and space it will be for me as I get around more by bike.
Assuming I’ll eventually not have to rely on looking at my Citymapper app every 5 minutes to figure out where I need to turn or if I’ve cycled past where I needed to go, of course.