I decided to cycle down to my parents’ house in Sussex, from my house in Hampstead. So despite encountering bemused skepticism and gung-ho support, I took it easy on the booze on Thursday night and searched for ways to get there without having to cycle alongside any motorways. I don’t mind heavy traffic, I actually quite enjoy it. It gives me a thrill to ride alongside buses and lorries, although I often have little aggrieved scenarios running through my head in the form of declamations (press interviews, court appearances, that sort of thing) about cyclists’ second-class citizen status on London’s pitted, potholed and builder’s-van-choked roads. Then again, because of my saintly refusal to run red lights, cycle on the pavement, etc., I can see how people come to hate cyclists – they’re everywhere, knock-kneed, gormless, cycling with their insteps, paddling their grey loafers like skinny whales.
After searching for information about routes, I found the Sustrans site had a description of National Cycle Route 21, which goes from Greenwich to Crawley. I say description, because frustratingly there’s no map – you’d think you could click on those route signs wouldn’t you? They’re begging to be clicked! But no. It took me a long while of searching before I found a map on a site called Gravity Storm, which sounds like a TV Gladiator from space, but is based on the Open Street Map, a free, editable map of the world.
I offered thanks to my patron deity, Malenkwe the Legless Spider God, and set about committing the route to memory. Of course, if I’d printed it out I would have avoided the ensuing PROBLEMS. But how the hell was I to know that? What kind of a weirdo prints out his maps anyway? What kind of a weirdo owns a printer anyway?
A bonus was that my trip was to be on Good Friday, when all God-fearing men and women would be in church, leaving the streets of the capital free of everything except kebab papers and giant, hormonally-enhanced super-rats. Plus, since I always ache more the second day after tremendous exertion, I would have the whole weekend to recover and then, if I wanted to, I could cycle back, at least part of the way, on Monday. How could this plan fail?
After work on Thursday I cycled up into town to get everything I needed, including a second lock because I had to leave the bike somewhere in Central London while I went out carousing for the evening. I got a couple of extra tubes, a puncture kit, the lock, and tried to find a decent pump. I’ve already got a track- or floor-pump (with the dynamite-type plunger) which makes it easy to inflate my tyres to high pressure without busting a blood vessel, but I have to carry it in a big rucksack with the handle sticking out the top. I wanted something that could fit on the frame, or that I could just stash in a small bag. No luck.
“Never mind,” I thought, “I’ll leave it till tomorrow!” and had a nice night first at the Black Horse (almost empty upstairs, you wouldn’t know it from outside. There were about nine of us, and everybody had a meal. The sausages were advertised as award-winning, and… yeah they were nice. But there was an overpowering stench of cleaning product from the bucket in the corner of the room where the cheerless waitress/barperson was swabbing the cutlery with a pair of old knickers.) and then the Duke of York, where everyone was far ahead in the booze stakes (my attempt at humour, reasonable in hindsight, I think, was met with affront from one guy: the birthday girl had a friend who was taking pictures with a large, expensive camera and was worried that everyone thought she’d hired a professional photographer for the occasion. “Don’t worry,” I said, “everyone probably just thinks he’s a pervert.” I could see this guy’s eyes swimming in horror and rage behind his glasses and I swear he was reeling towards me to tear my head from its moorings. So I scarpered upstairs. It was a look which I will carry to my pauper’s grave.)
I managed to get home having had only three pints thinking I’d done okay – if I have more than two I just can’t sleep – I wake up at 4 or 5am hungover and overheated, and thrash around until the afternoon, then get up in a huff because somebody has the nerve to be thundering around the place doing stuff like breathing. But I hauled myself out of bed on the Friday morning determined to get going. I cycled up to West Hampstead to the only bike shop I knew in the area, to find it closed. Of course.
Would I leave without a pump? Would I carry my unwieldy one with it knocking against my head all the way? Nar. Stuff that. I would slink back home and forget about cycling and when my friends asked I’d blame it on the sleet and snow and high winds that were predicted and watch a tiny bit more of their respect for me die a little. Then I got home and found a smaller pump in the hallway…
Starting out at a little past noon, my journey to Waterloo (the first part of my normal journey to work in Elephant and Castle) was probably the smoothest and most enjoyable I’ve ever experienced, even with the extra weight and the rain and the wind blowing me about all over the place. And the next part of the journey out to Greenwich was damnedly straightforward – cycle route 4 all the way, signposted and (apart from the annoying cobblestones around London Bridge – but that goes with the pie shop ambiance) it was pretty comfortable.
I got to Greenwich feeling confident and warmed-up, whereupon I failed to find Cycle Route 21 and wandered around aimlessly for twenty minutes with the mojo draining from me like my bitter tears. Eventually I saw a sign for the Tourist Information Office and followed it to another sign, and then another sign, then back to the original sign. After doing this for a further ten minutes I got frustrated and decided to ask at the boat ticket office. They told me it was over the other side of the Cutty Sark. Which it was. I let the wind take me there, asked the woman behind the counter for a cycle map, looked at it, memorised it, stuffed it in my pocket and headed out.
I now realise I headed in the wrong direction… parallel to the bike route but diverging more and more the further I rode. I thought I’d pick up Route 21 further down the way. Which I did. In a way. That is, I picked it up after riding through Lewisham, Catford, up and down the fabled Bastard Hills of Bromley, through Beckenham, Chislehurst, and halfway to Croydon.
My plan to get out of London was guttering in front of my eyes, like a match falling into the sea. At one point I was overjoyed to find myself on a cycle route, the flame was fanned, then I realised it was cycle route 22, (Hammersmith to Beijing). After that I strayed onto another unholy cycle route, 27, littered with the corpses of cyclists and tiny wicker bikes.
Completely off the edge of both the cycle map and my A-Z now, I went back and forth between places, frantically searching for cycle route 21, convinced I’d ride across it at one point. I ended up adopting the desperate measure o f trying to cycle towards the sun. Not all the way to the sun, but towards it, so I’d be going southwards, or at least south-west, as it got later and later. I figured I’d be bound to happen across this mysterious route 21 if I did that…
And just when I had almost given up hope, I did stumble across route 21 (on, as far as I can make out, Wickham Road between West Wickham and Croydon), the sun came out, birds sang and children laughed and happy-slapped each other… but my strength (and my supply of Maynards Wine Pastilles) had gone, it was 4 o’clock, East Croydon was beckoning and Beckenham was Eastcroydoning. So I headed for the train.
I half expected to be refused entry to the station, or to be wrestled to the ground by policeman who had seen the plunger poking out the top of my bag. But there was a train within ten minutes, I had a cup of tea and got picked up at the other end. Simple really.
To sum up, and in hindsight, I had some ups (eating a sandwich on the side of a hill next to the Rambler’s Rest in Chislehurst) and some downs (how in God’s name did I end up in Chislehurst?). I learnt that London’s a bloody big place, and that it’s good to know where you’re going. I don’t feel too bad today – legs are a bit stiff but I’ll probably do the whole thing again, although I might start further south this time. Google Maps tells me I only went about 26 miles but hahaha how can that be true? I mean, I did go back and forth a few times, and up and down hills, and stopped for lunch by that pub, and stopped at that Marks and Spencers in Catford, and there was a persistent and witheringly cold headwind all day. But 26 miles in 4 hours? That means I only went an average of six miles an hour.
Of course I didn’t have to go that way, the last bit was backtracking to pick up the route I’d lost almost immediately. And if I’d started out earlier and managed to find and follow the route, the next part of the journey would, I’m convinced, have been the nicest part… we shall see another time.