The thriving international city of London, with so much to see and do it can be overwhelming to make a start. Here, as with life in general, your experience will be largely determined by your perspective, and one way to get a different look at this grand old city is on a bicycle. Firstly, cycling in London can transport you to places you might otherwise miss, in a relatively short amount of time. Furthermore, London is very flat.
There’s also great cycle paths around the city and the traffic is not as bad as you might think. I lived in London for nearly two years and it wasn’t until I started peddling my way around the city that I began to find it immensely interesting. So, if you’re having any reservations about London, or you’re open to new ways of seeing, hop on a bike. Don’t be afraid, many people do it! You won’t regret it.
I recommend grabbing a book (small paperback size) on the history of London to help pique your cycling interest. A friend lent me such a book, which led me to memorable sights such as Londinium, the great Roman ruins (which I’ll mention later).
If you’re not sure where to begin, here’s one of my favourite cycle routes in London. Note: this covers near 20 kilometres, so if you’re not feeling up to it, just pick a section.
The West End
To get a feel for London’s eclectic crowd, start by riding to Hyde Park, in London’s West End. Take a seat on the grass and witness Speakers’ Corner and/or just take in the general atmosphere. The great thing about cycling in London is the freedom – your senses are firing on all cylinders and you’re in control. When you’re ready, head further east to Oxford Street and into the Soho district.
Tip: Don’t ride down Oxford Street at Sunset, or COB – it’s way too busy.
In Soho, pick a few alleys to ride down and take in London’s funky/naughty shops and architecture. Perhaps stop for a coffee before continuing further east towards Charing Cross Road. Head south down this London artery into arguably the heart of the action, Piccadilly Circus, where the old Monopoly board might ring a few bells. It’s busy traffic, but completely doable if you just take a few sensible precautions (stay alert and wear a helmet!).
Head further east into Covent Garden to the charming Victoria Embankment Gardens by the Thames. Stop here, lay back and watch the world go by, thinking about what life might have been like at this very spot, hundreds of years past. Then get ready for the next leg of the journey, my favourite part of London, where lies St Paul’s Cathedral and Blackfriars.
Still on the Monopoly route, ride along Fleet Street and the Strand towards Ludgate Hill – the highest point in London – to St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s a busy spot, being near the heart of the action, but there’s also plenty of interesting alleyways and fascinating history you’d probably miss on other modes of transport.
St Paul’s Cathedral was the site for Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill’s funeral and Charles and Diana’s wedding. The Great Fire of London, which engulfed London in the ostensibly ominous year of 1666, gutted nearly all of St Paul’s. Shortly after, the cathedral was rebuilt from London’s coal tax to create one of the finest architectural domes in the world.
From this spiffing spot, head back west towards Ludgate Circus, riding over the River Fleet – London’s largest subterranean river – parts of which lie up to 40 feet below the road. Continue towards New Bridge Street past sights such as Watergate – now a lane, previously an old river entrance to Bridewell Palace. Roll onwards into London Blackfriars, the region occupied by London’s Dominican Friars, where important parliamentary meetings were held hundreds of years ago.
From here you could continue east to the The Tower of London – one of England’s most haunted castles. The tower is also very near Cooper’s Row, which is a superb spot to see part of the London Wall – a captivating slab of moss-strewn rubble forged in Roman times (roughly 200 AD) – which stands in stark contrast to the surrounding modern glass buildings.
You could also roll back towards the west onto Victoria Embankment and peddle along the Thames, all the way to parliament. While taking roughly 30 minutes by public transport, this stretch can be peddled in a mere 10. Arrive near Victoria Station, take in Big Ben, parliament and those austere chaps with the tall, funny-looking, furry hats.
A few of my friends didn’t take to London, becoming depressed and/or overwhelmed by the vast smoggy, grey cityness of it all. If you’re feeling this way, cycling in London can most certainly help. You’ll never look at the city the same way again.