Tag Archives: cycling

London: a cycling city

I wrote about the challenges facing cycling in London for The London Magazine

Every time I hear that another cyclist has been killed on one of London’s many lethal junctions, I pray to a god I don’t believe in that it isn’t one of my friends. The idea of cycling in London terrifies me. That’s partly because I haven’t ridden a bike more than twice in 20 years, and partly because I have seen so many incidents, altercations and near fatal collisions involving cyclists during my walks around the city.

 

I’m aware of the figures – the fact that cycling is overall a pretty safe form of transport, even if it could always be better – but it’s hard to shake off that impression that it’s anything but. I’ve seen cyclists get hit by taxi doors and narrowly avoid getting squashed by buses. I’ve seen them shouting with rage and fear at drivers who’ve turned out of a side street in front of them without looking. I’ve seen them cycle headlong into pedestrians who weren’t looking where they were going (and vice versa). I’ve seen them getting into squabbles with bus drivers about ownership of bus/cycle lines that end with blows being traded. I’ve seen them picking themselves and their bent bikes off the pavement after minor crashes. And I’ve seen the blood getting washed off the road after major ones. It looks anything but fun.

So despite the fact I see people cycling quite easily and happily on London streets every day, I still think it’s one of the last things I’d ever want to put myself or my family through on a daily basis.

That is something that needs to change if London is ever going to be a cycling city, which it desperately needs to if it is to remain in any way a human and pleasant place to live in. People like me need to be persuaded that London cycling is safe and that a trip on the bike to the shops won’t result in a serious injury or a shouting match. As Mike Cavenett of the London Cycling Campaign admitted to me “the striking thing is that Dutch cyclists just look like Dutch people”, by which he means you see the elderly and children, men and women, all cycling in their normal clothes – not like London, where cyclists wear tight, bright clothing and manage to look simultaneously over and under dressed.

When London’s cyclists start to look normal, that’s when we know we are heading the right way. And for that to happen, London needs better infrastructure, streets on which cyclists feel safe and are able to relax, making the whole experience better for everybody. Everybody I spoke to – including Andrew Gilligan, the Mayor’s cycling tsar – seemed united on this and agreed on the direction that London needed to go in. Whether it actually happens, whether there is the political will to spend the cash to keep the promises, remains to be seen. But here’s hoping it starts to happen, because a cycling city would be better London for everybody.

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HG Wells, My White Bicycle and hygienic seats: a brief history of cycling in London

This piece is in the current issue of BMI Voyager. The photo of Herne Hill Velodrome is via Adrian Fitch

It’s unlikely that any of the world’s top cyclists will be thinking about London’s history with the bike when they set off from the Mall for the gruelling 250km Olympic road race on Saturday (July 28th), but if they do pause for thought, they’re starting from the right place. The route will take cyclists through Putney, Richmond and Hampton Court deep into the scenic Surrey countryside of Woking and round Box Hill, but it starts and finishes near Hyde Park, which is where cycling in the UK first really took off.

Cycling had premiered in Battersea Park in the 1880s, but it was in Hyde Park that the great Victorian cycling craze went overground in the 1890s. London was still a horse-happy city at the time, so when 2,000 cyclists – mainly women, dressed demurely with natty bonnets– formed a parade to cycle round the park in the spring of 1896, those on horseback didn’t know quite what to make of it. Bicycles were still a new thing. Penny-Farthings had been around for a while, but were about as common a sight in Victorian London as they are now, and it took the invention of the ‘safety bicycle’ – one with wheels the same size and pneumatic tyres – in the 1880s for that to change. Indeed, such was the enthusiasm with which women took up cycling, that Victorians were torn between trying to find ways to make money out of it, and trying to ensure it was morally appropriate. With typical Victorian ingenuity, they managed to do both – the Chaperon Cyclists’ Association supplied female escorts for solo women cyclists for 3s 6d an hour, while to avoid any dangerous friction you could purchase special ‘hygienic’ bike seats, which had a modest dip in the area where a lady’s genitalia would usually meet the saddle.

Hygienic seat or not, this was, almost without exception, a hobby enjoyed by the upper classes – the Lady Cyclists Association of 1895 was founded by the Countess of Malmesbury – and the Olympic road race aptly passes through some of the poshest areas of London, along the luxury-lined Knightsbridge and down through the smart streets of Chelsea to Putney Bridge. In 1896, the Countess wrote wittily in The Badminton Magazine about the dangers of cycling around these very Belgravia streets thanks toa new sport’ devised by Hansom Cab driver: ‘chasing the lady who rides her bicycle in the streets of the metropolis’ excited by the ‘petticoat which “half conceals, yet half reveals”… I cannot help feeling that cycling in the streets would be nicer, to use a mild expression, if he’d not try to kill me.’

It wasn’t until 1934 that a solution to this perennial problem arrived, when the UK’s first bike lane was opened not far from where the road race course makes its progress through West London. This specialist cycle lane stretched for two-and-a-half miles alongside the Western Avenue and was a belated response to the scarcely believable statistics that recorded 1,324 deaths of cyclists on British roads the previous year. Despite these awful figures, cycling groups opposed the innovation, arguing bikes should not be forced to give up their place on the road to the new-fangled motor car. It’s not an argument they were ever likely to win.

Roads will be close to traffic on July 28, however, and as the Olympic cyclists make their way towards the river, they will pass Kensington Olympia, the huge exhibition hall built in 1883 and used for all manner of spectacular entertainment –promoters would think nothing of flooding the arena to recreate Venice In London, for instance. Anything fashionable was fair game and cycling races were held here during the 1890s. A mixed-tandem race – one male rider and one female – attracted huge crowds in January 1896. Weird events like this were common at the time –the Crystal Palace in Norwood hosted a bicycle polo international in 1901 between Ireland and England (Ireland won 10-5).

After crossing Putney Bridge, the race continues through Putney, where one of London’s many Victorian velodromes was once located, drawing crowds of 10,000. Putney also featured in one of the first cycling novels, The Wheels of Chance, by HG Wells, a writer who always had an eye for a new invention. In it, the hero, Mr Hoopdriver, leaves his dull job in Putney to go on a cycling holiday on the South Coast following a route out of London very similar to the one that will be taken by the Olympic racers. The race later passes through Woking, where Wells lived and set part of War Of The Worlds – Woking has boasted a huge statue of a tripod since 1998.

From Putney, the cyclists whizz through lovely Richmond – mind the deer! – before hitting the river at Twickenham, where they pass Eel Pie Island, nexus of London’s mid-1960s rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Numerous legendary bands played shows at the charismatic old dancehall on this tiny island in the Thames, including the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart. Among them was Tomorrow, one of England’s first psychedelic bands (featuring Steve Howe, later of prog-monsters Yes), whose 1967 single “My White Bicycle” was a big counterculture hit in 1966. This splendid slice of trippy frippery was written in homage to the pro-cycling scheme launch by Dutch anarchist collective Provo, who left 50 unlocked white bicycles all over their home city of Amsterdam in 1965, inviting the public to enjoy ‘free communal transport’ and rid themselves from the tyranny of the automobile. The Dutch police swiftly impounded the offending bikes, but the idea finally caught on in recent years in the form of the Paris bike-sharing scheme, Vélib. This idea was appropriated by London in 2010 and came to be christened Boris Bikes after London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, who inherited the scheme from his predecessor Ken Livingstone.

Boris Bikes can be hired by anybody with a chip and pin card at around 500 docking stations in central London. The bikes come without helmet or lock and are pretty hefty, but they are a fairly common sight in London. Although there is an ‘access fee’ (£5 for a week), the first 30-minutes of any ride are free, so smart users hop between docking stations and effectively ride around London for next to nothing. It’s all part of a belated attempt to make London a more-bike friendly city – four giant bike lanes, the blue-painted Cycle Superhighways, have alsobeen created in key commuter routes, with four more planned for 2013. If you want to borrow a Boris Bike to follow the 2012 road race route be careful, as there are few docking stations outside central London and costs soon mount if you go over the initial 30 minutes – while the fines for a late return are high.

From Twickenham, the race heads through Bushy Park and passes the Tudor palace of Hampton Court, before disappearing into the Surrey countryside. After a tour of the Surrey hills, the cyclists will then make the return journey, via Kingston, to the Mall. Sadly, then, there is no time to head to south-east London, where there are a couple of other prime London cycling landmarks. The first is the Herne Hill Velodrome, tucked behind suburban houses down a quiet street near Dulwich. This is the last stadia from the 1948 London Olympics still in use today. Built in 1891, the velodrome had all but closed during the Second World War but was brought out of retirement when London was awarded the 1948 games. It’s had a few scares since then – the gorgeous Victorian grandstand has been a no-go area for years – but was recently awarded £400,000 of Olympic legacy money and plans are afoot to construct a new grandstand, cafe and gym. The venue has played its part in nurturing the latest breed of British champion – Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins raced here.

Herne Hill Velodrome

While Herne Hill lives on, the velodrome at Catford was demolished in the 1990s. Like the stadia at Putney and Herne Hill, this was built in the 1890s, when it attracted a very special guest. Absinthe-soaked dwarf artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is usually associated with the Montmartre area of Paris, but in 1896 he turned up in the particularly drab suburb of Catford. Lautrec was a cycling fan, and had been asked by a company called Simpson to design a poster for their bike, which used a new type of chain. Lautrec was taken to the newly built Catford Velodrome to watch the bike in action during special races, set up by Simpson to advertise their product, and he produced a couple of images during his visit. The poster was one of the last he designed before his death in 1901, just as the Victorian bike craze was coming to an end.

Secret London: Toulouse-Lautrec in Catford

Say what you like about South London, but it clearly has something about it. Why else would a trinity of the world’s greatest 19th-century artists have come here?

You probably know about Vincent Van Gogh’s time in Brixton because of the play from a few years ago. Van Gogh lodged in Hackford Road, Brixton in 1873 and regularly walked from there to Covent Garden where he worked as an art dealer.

This is the only surviving picture he sketched during this period It’s of the Georgian houses on Hackford Road itself.

Van Gogh also lived in Isleworth in 1876, at 160 Twickenham Road, when he later returned to London as a teacher. Hackford Road now has an English Heritage blue plaque for Van Gogh, and there used to be a Van Gogh Cafe on Brixton Road, but it’s closed down.

Camille Pissarro painted around a dozen pictures of Sydenham and Dulwich during his time in South London in 1870. I particularly like this one, of Lordship Lane Station.

As Michael Glover writes in the Independent: ‘The painting shows us a new kind of modernity. Here is London being mightily transformed by the growth of housing and the ever onward thrust of the railways in the second half of the 19th century.’ Pissarro lived at No 77 Westow Hill and then on Palace Road, and married at Croydon Registry Office. He returned to London a number of times. Lordship Lane station was demolished in 1954. A non-English Heritage blue plaque adorns the site of his house on Westow Hill and a restaurant called Pissarro is in Chiswick, but I’m pretty sure that’s named after his son Lucien.

Best of all, though, is the fact that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec did time in Catford in 1896. The diminutive brothel-loving soak was a huge fan of cycling and in 1896 was asked by a company called Simpson to work on a poster for their new bike, which used a new type of chain. This, according to Wiki, ‘was composed of linked triangles forming two levels. The inner level was driven by the chainring and the outer drove the rear cog. Instead of teeth, the chainring and cog had grooves into which the rollers of the chain engaged.’

I’m not sure what that means, and probably neither did Lautrec, so he came to the newly built Catford Velodrome to watch the bike in action during special races, set up by Simpson to advertise their product. Lautrec produced a couple of images during his visit. The poster was one of the last he designed before his death in 1901.

The velodrome was knocked down in the 1990s and there is no trace of it left (it’s location was approximately around Sportsbank Road), but there is at least a brasserie in Kennington called Toulouse-Lautrec.

But perhaps Toulouse-Lautrec had more influence on Catford than we may have thought?

Consider this, a famous poster advertising one of Lautrec’s favourite clubs by one of his contemporaries and very much in Lautrec’s style.

And this.

If you do not wish to go all the way to Catford to pay homage, an exhibition of Lautrec’s work goes on display later in June at the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House, where you can also see Pissarro’s lovely picture of Lordship Lane Station.