Southampton Row starts just north of Holborn tube station, in London’s West End. However, it changes names along the way. This is a constant motif as I cycle down Great Queen St. and turn left onto Kingsway, Southampton Row’s first mutation.
As I leave tourist-magnet Covent Garden behind, I also notice that there is another pattern that keeps repeating itself wherever I go in London: parking spaces for bicycles or the lack of them thereof. The majority are exposed to the elements. It is as if all the recent pro-cycling publicity has focused more on getting people to saddle up than on creating welcoming and sheltered places for bicycles. Once again, our continental friends are blazing the trail. In Holland most cycle shelters have roofs and are designed in a way that looks inviting and appealing for still-undecided would-be cyclists. In London by contrast, bike sheds (usually just racks) are installed – if they are – as an after-thought. Today I see evidence of this everywhere. I spend about half an hour in Covent Garden's Piazza and not once do I see a bicycle park, not even the typical sturdy, thick, metallic racks to which I can chain my two-wheeler.
It is a similar situation once I get on Southampton Row. The only sheltered bicycle-dedicated space I find is at Euston Station. Before I get to this transport hub, though, made up of railway connections, a tube station and a bus depot, Southampton Row changes names five times: Russell Square (central London’s second largest square and almost opposite the British Museum), Woburn Place, Tavistock Square (with a well-known statue and bust, the former of Mahatma Gandhi and the latter of Bloomsbury set author, Virginia Woolf), short-lived and Upper Woburn Place and Eversholt Street. It is here on the corner of what one of the green signs calls the A200 and Euston Road that the neo-classical St Pancras New Church looms over the passing traffic ominously.
|St Pancras New Church: imposing and awe-inspiring|
As I cycle on, I am also reminded of the terrible event that took place on this road eleven years ago, almost to the day. It was here that the number 30 bus exploded when terrorists attacked London on 7th July 2005. I shudder slightly at the thought of the tragedy.
The reason why I am undertaking this trip is mainly because I am interested in long, straight roads in London. The variety of neighbourhoods they traverse through provides a wealth of history and culture. Already I have gone from pretty, postcard-perfect Covent Garden, through well-off Tavistock Square to what now has become an urban three-branch crooked tree on Camden High Street. Straight on lies my final destination, Hampstead; if I were to take the road in the middle, however, that would bring me up to NW5, Kentish Town. Choose the one on my right, on Camden Road and I will end up in Victorian-era Finsbury Park. I carry on up Camden High Street. As I head further up the scenery changes as well as the name of the road. I am now entering much posher and bohemian territory and the houses and surroundings bear witness to that. It is also the first time that the road has actually curved. The northwest-bound bend is noticeable because it announces ascent. I switch gears swiftly and remove my jumper. The early spring-morning chill has given way to a noon-time hot sun with not a cloud in sight.
I arrive at Belsize Park tube station and dismount. I park my bike nearby (again, no shelter) and I am amused that by the time I return my bicycle has struck up a rather “overfriendly” relationship with a woman-framed bike. I cannot leave it alone, my two-wheeler. It immediately starts chatting other bikes up.
|My bike (left) being "friendly"|
I have a soft spot for Hampstead Village. I love their narrow, hilly streets, with cul-de-sacs and lanes leading off Rosslyn Hill and Hampstead High Street. The area has a lot of character, probably one of the reasons why it is so pricey. There are still lots of independent shops and one of them is Daunt Books, a two-store chain with one branch here and the other one in the Heath, on South End Road.
What I have learnt, as I continue to tour around London on my bike, is that the effect of our surroundings (whatever they are, mere objects or historical places) does not have a meaning in itself. We, humans, we, amateur architects, design and build them into memories, beautiful and long-lasting, un-Instagrammed moments. That is the last thought in my mind as I saddle up and disappear down one of the branches of this urban crooked tree we call London.
Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 25th June at 6pm (GMT)