I was sat on Tower Bridge on a wet June afternoon. I was annoyed with the Polo driver who had moved his car so that I couldn’t squeeze past the bollards, so instead I just looked up.
There I was in a tourist mecca with a fantastic view of the Tower of London, the river Thames, Docklands to my east, and on an iconic bridge. People travel halfway round the world to see our capital city, yet for me London had become something to get through rather than to be enjoyed.
But now I was seeing it with fresh eyes, and it made me feel like I was part of the lifeblood of one of the world’s great cities. Watching tourists loving the views down the Thames made me realise just how lucky I was to be perched on a bike in a great world city. That’s when the idea occurred to me that as an ex-dispatch rider I could lead a group of friends and colleagues around London’s highlights.
All of the White Dalton trainees have either ridden or pillioned round central London with me. Manchester girl Natalie Vickers, one of our current trainees, was delighted when I took her on a little circular trip from the High Court, including Trafalgar Square, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Marble Arch. For non-Londoners in particular it’s a real buzz. So I led a band of seven bikes, with my wife and a couple of others riding pillion, into the home of the only known predator of eels, the Cockney. (For pedants, yes, we went as far as Aldgate East, which is within the sound of Bow Bells.)
Our original plan was to take in 20 or more sights, but on the chosen weekend Hyde Park was closed. Whatever route you plan, somewhere will be shut, whether by accident or design. And you may end up scaling down your plan on the day if the weather turns very hot or very wet. Our eventual route was just about right for us.
Riding east along Fleet Street, passing Temple Bar and looking down the old heart of the newspaper industry, and seeing the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Gherkin and the Shard framed on each side by the buildings that overlook one of London’s oldest streets is an experience very few non-motorcyclists will be able to have.
For the classic “Hollywood” shot of London, ride north across Westminster Bridge, and to your left will be the magnificent tower of Big Ben, in front of the Palace of Westminster. Then you ride past Westminster Abbey. Riding across the bridge you can see parts of Parliament, including the terraces which few other people will be able to see. Below you will see the Second World War ship HMS Belfast, and as you ride over Westminster Bridge, two great figures of British history, Queen Boudica and Winston Churchill, come into view.
You’re in your own giant Monopoly board. Ride around Parliament Square and up Whitehall. You will see the poppies on the Cenotaph, the gates to Downing Street, and we passed two mounted Royal Horse Artillery King’s Troop gunners in full ceremonial dress, surrounded by the traditional gaggle of giggling teenage tourists taking pictures.
The view then opens up to take in Nelson’s Column, with the backdrop of the National Gallery behind it.
And then there’s the cooler air and less touristy bustle along Victoria Embankment, home to some little jewels such as Cleopatra’s Needle, which has its own fascinating story, plus modern landmarks like the Millennium Bridge and the Millennium Wheel.
We stopped for lunch at a little cafe in Victoria Embankment Gardens, virtually opposite Cleopatra’s Needle. A decent meal and a cold drink left with us with change out of £10 each.
Worried about safety? You need to have your wits about you, but London is a pretty safe place for bikes. We are everywhere, and in my experience car drivers keep a better look out for bikes in London than just about anywhere else in the UK.
Despite my encouragement, some of our group were nervous about riding in London for the first time. It was a bit artificial in that they were being led around by an experienced London rider – but this advantage was probably offset by the size of the group. But in the event even novice riders were confident in central London. Honestly, it isn’t scary. It turned out to be one of the summer’s hottest days, and we all genuinely enjoyed ourselves.
Part 1, Courier riding secrets, combat biking in London
November 2013 Issue