Wednesday 11 May 2016

London, my London

Start of my cycle journey
The biggest challenge whenever I decide to undertake a bicycle trip is not the actual journey itself but the getting to the starting point. I have, thus far, avoided using the train, preferring instead to pedal my way to whatever place I kick off my jaunt from. There are two reasons for this: one is that inspectors have yet to make up their minds about bicycles on trains. One minute it is folding bikes and other types that are allowed on, the next minutes it is only the former. The second reason is that, although some of you who know me in real life are acquainted with my London postcode, including visiting my house, my location is not a topic I discuss gladly online. One day, I promise, one day you will all be invited chez moi for tea/coffee and cheesecake (I make a really nice cheesecake).

This peculiarity of adding miles to my journey before setting off on my actual journey was the reason why I found myself on the Ridgeway recently. As in, Enfield Ridgeway. Enfield, the northernmost borough in London, the one with the most parks and green spaces. Ever since I went to the Museum of London last summer (another bicycle trip) I have had the idea of exploring London’s waterways, both small and big, short and long. On this occasion I was planning to cycle along the Turkey Brook trail from north of the M25, near Potters Bar in Hertfordshire to the River Lee Navigation.

However, had I completed the route I had in mind, the title of my post would not have applied. I mentioned I was in the northernmost borough in London. From where I was sitting, on my bike, I could hear the traffic of the nearby M25, London’s orbital motorway. North of it, there was no more London. That is why I decided to chop a couple of miles off my journey and begin on the Ridgeway, a thin strip of a road that starts a quarter of a mile away from Enfield Town and runs northwards until it dies at the Potters Bar roundabout.

It was an unseasonably warm February afternoon with the temperature reaching the high teens for the first time this year. As readers and fellow bloggers know, I do not care for winter (or summer, for that matter). The former barely brings any snow, still the usual sign that the coldest season of the year is upon us and the latter is synonymous with hay fever for me. I love autumn and spring, death and rebirth, better.

However, as I pedalled down the Ridgeway cycle route, I also realised that if there had been any snow I would have been unable to complete this challenge. So, hooray for warm winters, even if nowadays they stand more for climate change than odd weather.
I had a fair idea of how to get to the River Lee Navigation and I also knew that the London Borough of Enfield had recently been granted £30m by Transport for London to roll out a “mini Holland” cycle scheme. What this meant in reality was that clear and easy-to-read signage was in place to guide me along the way.

I slid down a road on my left and saw the brook trail up ahead. Straight away the first difficulty appeared: it was almost impossible to cycle along the stream with my commuter bike. Perhaps a tough, mountain one would have done the trick but I doubted that I would have been able to overcome the uneven terrain and thorny-looking bush. Sometimes it is not the bike, but the person riding it that makes the difference. I carried on cycling on the small country lane I was and eventually I came across North Enfield Cricket Club on my right hand-side. I knew that Hilly Fields Park was not far away and, as I had seen on Google map the night before, the Turkey Brook trail went right through the heart of it.

It was odd that here I was in 2016 cycling through a park that had been earmarked for development – chiefly housing – just over a hundred years before. Luckily, Enfield Council at the time bought the farm the park was on and turned it into a public space. One of the more popular attractions was its bandstand. This was the time of brass bands and with the opening of nearby train stations Gordon Hill and Crews Hill, this part of London began to draw large audiences.

Rembrandt would have been proud
Winter afternoons have a habit of switching the sun lights off too soon. It had just gone two o’ clock and yet it felt like dusk was upon me. Still, as I ventured through Hilly Fields there was enough light streaming through the leaf-free, candelabra-shaped trees. I stopped for a few seconds to take some pictures and soak up my surroundings.

Bar a few dog-walkers and families, the park was almost deserted. Turkey Brook lay on my left; the combination of the shallowest of waters and the bare branches looming over them rendered the scenery Rembrandt-nesque. It was the Dutch master’s etchings that came to mind when I looked around me. The same effect of the chiaroscuro he deployed so effectively in his prints was evident here. The scant but still visible sunrays enhanced the composition of plant, brook and ground, creating in the process delicate but dramatic gradations of light and shade.

I cycled on, past the aforementioned bandstand. After crossing Clay Hill, I found myself on Whitewebbs Park, the grounds on which an old 16th-century mansion stood once. Rumour has it that the Gunpowder Plot was planned here. Nowadays, Whitewebb s Park has an ancient woodland with small streams, some of which join the Turkey Brook trail, along which I proceeded. A pub called the King and Tinker, dating back to the times of James I, is located north of the park. I went further east, leaving the copse momentarily before entering Forty Hall Country Park. All the time I kept an eye out for kingfishers, grey wagtails or mandarin ducks. I have always seen the male latter as Barry Manilow's avian version of his Copacabana's Lola, but instead of yellow feathers, orange ones on the side of its face.

The mood that greeted me in Forty Hall was phantom-like. A threadlike strip of brook ran on my left as a wide pond opened up on my right. A couple of joggers appeared on my trail, all of a sudden, their huffing-and-puffing heavy breathing the only sound that was heard. We exchanged glances and hellos. Other than them – and me – there was no other soul in this desolate, coppiced landscape. The treetops resembled shutters through which scant rays of the weak winter sun filtered through to render the scenery spectral. I was reminded of Oyá, the orisha of the graveyard. A thin veil of mist hung above the pond. I also remembered part of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 86: “He, nor that affable familiar ghost/Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,/As victors of my silence cannot boast;/I was not sick of any fear from thence:/ But when your countenance filled up his line,/Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine."

Tranquil and phantom-like: Forty Hall
It is at a rival poet that Shakespeare is directing these lines. A poet who has apparently stolen Shakespeare’s beloved’s attention from him. I was not surprised to find myself thinking of the Bard's ghost-like soul. After all, the coat of arms of the London Borough of Enfield itself includes a mythological beast that has the head of a fox, the chest of a hound, the talons of an eagle, the body of a lion and the hindquarters and tail of a wolf. So far no one has claimed paternity, I hear.

There was another reason for the spooky surroundings. As I cycled towards the Bull’s Cross exit, in order to re-join the cycle route on the other side, I recalled that somewhere here on my right hand-side stood once Elsings, or Elsynge, a magnificent palace that dominated the area for more than 200 years. From Henry VII to Elizabeth I, this part of north London was touched by royalty. Henry VIII (yes, that Henry VIII!) used to hunt on these grounds. The palace has not been there for centuries, having fallen slowly into ruin.

Leaving the green spaces of Forty Hall, Whitewebbs and Hilly Fields brought with it a new level of difficulty: I would have to follow the Turkey Brook trail now through residential roads. The trick was to use almost-traffic-free back streets whilst keeping an eye on the stream. In the event it turned out to be easy. The cycle signs were helpful and accurate. I followed the brook through Albany Park, Prince of Wales Open Space until I arrived at the River Lee Navigation. That was where I took the photo for my new header. I called it, “Bike at Rest after Trip along the Turkey Brook Trail”. In the meantime the afternoon had already tiptoed into a honey-coloured dusk. I turned got back on my bicycle and headed down southwards. I was going back home, somewhere in London.

© 2016

All photos taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 14th May at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Thanks for introducing me to parts of London I didn't know existed.

  2. Your photos perfectly frame your well shared words.I wish your great City much luck for a way forward under your new Lord Mayor

  3. Love the new header photo. You make me wish I was a young strong man who could ride a bike a long way. (I know girls can ride bikes a long way - but men don't have to worry about safety as much so it must be a more pleasant ride)

    I would love a tea/coffee and cheesecake party, just don't make it too soon. I need to save the money and renew my passport :)

  4. Lovely piece of writing! I do like those twilight-type of spooky winter afternoons.

  5. I wish I knew London so I could better identify in a personal sense with the landmarks you describe, CiL. The description is superb and beautifully written, but I am a stranger in a strange land when in London town (to borrow a thought from Robert Heinlein) and easily become lost. You do make me curious and, someday, perhaps, I will see some of these places with my own eyes.

    I might mention one of my progeny, like you, is a lover of the bicycle trek. He just completed his master's degree in environmental engineering and, before beginning work with a firm in Denver, as way of celebration just this week launched a bicycle journey with three companions from Rapid City, South Dakota, across the Rocky Mountains and on to Seattle, Washington. It amazes me just to think of it.

  6. It's wonderful that you are discovering some of London's nooks and crannies. It's great what you can do on a bike!

  7. I do love travelling with you on your jaunts. Thank you so much.
    And bleah to summer. And hay fever.

  8. I'm pleased that you are still exploring because then we will lose your informative pieces that are a pleasure to read. And I thought I knew London....

  9. i loved reading your biking adventures. there are many places only a bike can explore.
    i try to make it a point to cycle at least once a week, usually on a weekend, on my old trusty mountain bike.
    and that's a very lovely header photo. :)

  10. Wow...I honestly had no idea such places existed in London!
    It is a much more diverse place than I'd ever thank you so much for sharing your amazing bike rides.
    In my mind, I see each and every place you visit...thanks to your vivid descriptions.
    Here's hoping I get to see them in the flesh someday...:))

  11. Wonderful writing, thanks for sharing with us various parts of your unique city.

  12. So lovely to come with you on the ride... Superb pictures in words and images... Thank you!

  13. biking is a great way to explore ones surrounding. For years I did that too, but not much in cities :)

  14. What adventures! Amazing. Loved reading this post!

  15. You sure can find the spots at your sea and tell them all merrily..hey it rhymed.

  16. Your new header picture is outstanding. There's something about photos taken in black & white that are so much more dramatic than color, and it portrays the eerie atmosphere you've described. No matter how few people you see on your treks through the area, though, you are never alone. That's the glory of it. You are surrounded by the ghosts of history on every side. Thanks for taking us along with you.

    Have a super weekend.

  17. Thanks for taking me along; I too use wheels though of a different sort. The blog post you saw today isn't usual so I hope you'll visit again.

  18. Hi ACIL - what an amazing trip .. with some wonderful old-fashioned names reminding us times gone past ... I didn't know any of this - just great to have read about .. thanks for sharing .. and enjoy this weekend - it's cooling down, which will presumably suit you .. cheers Hilary

  19. What a cool post! I never actually learned to ride a bike as a kid but this summer, it's going to happen. ;-) I love the idea of riding a bike. Sounds like you're very good at it too.

    I love your new header, wonderful!



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