As I turned right on to Victoria Embankment on my bike in August last year, I tried to imagine what the view greeting young Monet on one of his excursions along the Thames would have been back then. On this completely fog-free, very warm summer day, I thought that he must walked further up, probably as far as Embankment Pier to get a good sense of proportion of the bridge and buildings he would later immortalise.
Some fellow bloggers and readers have mentioned that London must be a cycle-friendly city. Maybe the assumption has been made because of my enthusiasm when writing about touring the city on my sturdy Raleigh. But the fact remains that London, like many other metropolises around the world is chiefly car-obsessed. That the situation has changed in the last few years should not be underestimated. There are more bicycles on the street of London now. Many of them, I found on the Embankment. On this particular day I was a lucky witness to the latest works on the East-West Cycle Superhighway. This is a new scheme that will create safer routes for bike-riders and a better understanding of cycling as a healthy-living, pollution-free travelling option. But a lot remains to be done. The project has attracted controversy and it has polarised motorists and cyclists. It has not helped that newspapers like the Evening Standard have decided to use it in arather sensationalist tone when reporting on the matter.
I would have loved to pay more attention to the view Monet must have enjoyed when painting his “The Thames below Westminster”, but I was more concerned about keeping myself safe. The Superhighway was still being built which meant the closure of one lane on the normally avenue-wide Victoria Embankment. Frequent temporary traffic lights did not help as drivers became more impatient. Much yelling and cursing accompanied me during my journey down this popular thoroughfare. Although the pavement looked tempting I did not give in to law-breaking. The myriad tourists and people enjoying a sunny, summer day out would not have forgiven me. Families milled about. This was the London I had come to fall in love with over the years: welcoming, laid-back and inviting.
In order to distract myself from the frequent swearing directed at me and fellow cyclists, I allowed my mind to wander off. I thought of the refugee crisis reaching peak point at the time and how maybe, just maybe there might have been a Monet amongst those displaced by the Syrian conflict. I tried to think hard of how this 21st-century “impressionist” (man or woman) would portray the bridges, piers and building heaving into view now, what they would think about them.
Another Monet-related thought magicked itself all of a sudden when I cycled past Temple tube station. This was the point from where the proposed Garden Bridge would cross over to the South Bank. The Joanna Lumley-backed, Princess Diana-inspired project, whose total cost is £175m with £60m coming from the public purse, has caused an uproar. Not only because it arrives at a time when local councils budgets are being slashed but also because the benefits of it are not clear yet. It will be a pedestrian-only bridge with cyclists made to dismount and push their two-wheelers to the other side. Physical activities, other than running, will be banned. Other prohibitions will include: social gatherings, flying kites and playing musical instruments (what if people decide to whistle? Then, what?). What would young Monet have made of this urban ornament? After all he was the one who painted the Water Lilies series. Perhaps he would have been inspired to leave a trail of thin, but visible brush strokes behind. Or maybe, just maybe, he would have sided with the dissenting voices. Monet was amongst those who came to the aid of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French officer falsely accused of communicating French military secrets to the Germans at the tail end of the 1800s. He was a bit of a revolutionary in that sense. Besides, impressionism was, lest we forget, a radical movement in the 19th century. Panned, derided and laughed at by the critics, the impressionist works that hang in major museums around the world today would not have been there had it not been for their creators' tenacity. I thought of "The Thames below Westminster" again.
The Embankment came to an abrupt end at Westminster Bridge. Checking the notes in my pocket, I realised that I was supposed to cycle around the Palace of Westminster in order to carry on down Abingdon Street-cum-Millibank. This I did, venturing further into deep southwestern London territory. All along, I had the Thames on my left, its dark, muddy waters throwing up quick flashes of light in the early afternoon summer sun.
|Someone is having a break|
Since most cars were going right, at the crossing with Beaufort Street, I found myself again on a traffic-free road, this time, Cremorne. I followed the street around, all the way to Fulham Road. I turned left and headed up to my final destination, the headquarters of the football team I had begun supporting almost straight after I moved to Britain: Stamford Bridge.
Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Saturday 20th February at 6pm (GMT)