Every now and then I have to travel across the City of London to Mile End and Whitechapel for work. I used to take the tube, but it was a hideous journey. These days I grab a Boris bike and off I go.
Riding through the City to East London is always fascinating, certainly not something you can appreciate on the underground. In the space of a couple of miles you traverse an enormous cross section of British culture and history, not to mention the architecture and some of London’s most prominent landmarks. Although I have an established route east, my westward journeys always seem to follow a different path, so no routes given here, besides without a fixed route you will see and discover more. And there is much to discover!
I usually collect a Boris bike outside the Barbican. Arts centre and listed landmark, I’ve worked in its shadow for several years. To begin I thought it ugly, but over time its visionary walkways and towers have grown on me and today I rather like it. This view looks down Beech Street. It is fuggy to ride through, so I prefer to head past Fortune Street Park and Whitecross Street Market.
Crossing Finsbury Square, I follow the quite roads behind Liverpool Street Station and into the sterile shade of Broadgate Tower and Exchange House. Whatever the time of year it always feels like winter beneath these massive glass and steel towers.
Crossing Bishopgate you soon make the transition from the extreme wealth of the City to the relative and often real financial poverty of Whitechapel. Proof, if it were still needed, that the trickle down effect of wealth is a theory only.
The geographic transition is brief, but it is far from straightforward. Although East London maintains a fairly grim facade it has undergone its share of gentrification, or perhaps trendification is a better term. Boutique and upmarket high street shops dominate the City fringes and Old Spitalfields Market.
A short distance from the Market, down Hanbury Street, you cross Brick Lane and are into the estates of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel.
The final stage of my eastward journey is along Whitechapel and Mile End road. This is a broad road and features one of London’s Barclays Cycle Superhighways. If you have never seen one, these are metre wide lines of glossy blue paint along the side of the road. In other words a wider than usual cycle lane. Cars still park in it, buses sit in it and its planners clearly gave up at Aldgate roundabout.
Riding back along Whitechapel road is usually fine and not without its landmarks. You pass the East London Mosque. Further along is Altab Ali Park, renamed in memory of a young Bangladeshi murdered in a racist attack. On the opposite side of the road is the Whitechapel Gallery with its gold leaves, reminiscent of Vienna’s Secession House.
Riding onto Aldagte Roundabout, the City doesn’t immediately welcome cyclists, or indeed any traffic, back into its confines.
Which canyon do you take? I usually aim for Leadenhall then Cheapside, although I often go left here and end up looping south around St Pauls.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, a lot of major building projects were put on hold. Things must be picking up for some though. Today, Leadenhall Tower, also known as the ‘Cheesegrater’ is starting to rise up and will soon compete for attention on London’s skyline.
On my most recent trip I observed Olympic fever starting to grip the City. None other than sinister cyclops City Wenlock is providing Olympic inspiration to the Square Mile’s office workers.
There is always something new to discover in London, it is one of the pleasures of cycling there. After stopping to look at Wenlock I tried a new side road, and came out opposite the Guildhall, a building I have never before visited. Nestled among the contemporary concrete, steel and glass avenues the medieval building was looking unusually patriotic, for an English City, with Union and St George’s flags hanging across the entrance way.
Around the corner was another, sportier, Wenlock. I then discovered a small garden with a bust of Shakespeare mounted on a plinth. However, rather than being dedicated to the bard it is a memorial to John Heminge and Henry Condell, the two men who first published Shakespeare’s plays after his death.
Throughout the City there are many small pocket parks and gardens. They are universally well maintained and, clichéd though it sounds, are charming and peaceful oases providing a much needed place for respite.
Next time you have a spare half hour in London or need to travel from A to B, hire a Boris bike, ride around and sightsee. It beats standing against a sweaty armpit and I am certain you will discover and learn something new.