Tag Archives: Regent’s Canal

The Bike Question: Access versus Ownership

30 Jul P1040682

I’ve done an awful lot of talking about how great I think the Barclay’s Cycle Hire program (known as “Boris Bikes” for short, after London Mayor Boris Johnson) is. I think bike-sharing systems are, in general, a great asset for any city dense enough to have homes, jobs and places to shop within an easy biking distance of one another (and of course a large enough population to take advantage of the investment). Among the cities that already boast bike-sharing in some form are Paris, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Minneapolis, Washington DC, Denver … the list goes on, and I’m sure it will continue to grow.

I sure love the idea. But until Wednesday, I had never actually used a bike-sharing system.

My Boris bike initiation was not without flaws, but the shakiness of that first ride was mostly due to my own inexperience. The pay-as-you-go kiosks are simple to use: prompted by the touch-screen, I paid my £1 tax to cover a 24-hour rental, and received a ticket displaying my bike release code. After several minutes of vigorously tugging on three bikes that I couldn’t seem to budge from their docks (humiliating!), I freed my humble, creaky steed and careened through Shoreditch in rush hour for an unnerving 30 minutes. Let alone the insanity of British drivers, it’s hard to retrain your North American mind to stay on the left side of the road!

Click here for a video I shot while riding on cobblestones in the safety of Hoxton Square. All the clatter and groaning you can hear is coming directly from my bicycle. Also, I rode around the entire time on a very, very short bike, wondering how taller cyclists could ever get on. I realized later that the seats are easily raised and lowered – see the variety of heights in the photo below?

The experience was enough to convince me to commit to keeping my feet on the ground, in a bus or on the tube for the year. I even invested in an unlimited transit travelcard – an absolute necessity for anyone who uses the tube daily, and a good incentive to explore as many areas of the city as possible before classes start. I was ready to give up the dream of bike ownership.

And then we bumped into a friend Wednesday night – on his bike, no less – who won me back to the fold with one statement. “Oh, but this city really opens up for you when you travel by bike.” Access to a secret local London? I can’t deny myself that.

The very next morning, I decided to give Boris another try. I checked out the bike (expertly this time), raised the seat and took off for the canal. I rode east along the water, then through the center of Hackney, hit a few side streets and wound back through expansive Victoria Park before taking the canal route back to Shoreditch.

Not ready to give up just yet, I decided to check out Brick Lane in the daytime:

Outside of  peak traffic, and as I got more comfortable finding and following the left-hand bike lanes and side-road routes, the ride was a lot more fun.

For the right user, Boris Bikes provide immense convenience – the ability to cycle without buying a lock or lights, finding space to store the bike at home, spending time or money on routine maintenance, or worrying about the very real threat of bike theft. But the system is deliberately designed to accommodate and encourage commuter cycling. If you know your start and endpoints and plan to take a direct route, they’re perfect; if you can get from dockstation to dockstation in less than half an hour, the ride also costs you nothing. But keep the bike out for more than 60 minutes and the price quickly climbs. Most importantly for me, the Boris docking stations are concentrated exclusively in central London, making them impractical for trips to the Eastern neighborhoods where I think I’d like to use a bike the most.

It seems that, at least until I have a set daily routine, ownership trumps access. Which all leaves me back where I started: in the quest for a perfect secondhand Dutch cruiser with a big wicker basket.

Regent’s Canal: Mind the Details

23 Jul P1030797

London’s celebrated framework of business, transit, art, architecture, parks, politics and diverse population forms a sturdy, time-worn structure on which to hang a rich web of urban activity. About two weeks ago, Mike and I spent a really delightful evening exploring some of that urban grain in our neighborhood of Shoreditch. We stumbled onto one of what has since become one of my favorite places in all of London — the Hackney Canal. Specifically, I’m in love with a nearby stretch known as Regent’s Canal.

Here are some photos:

The path along the water is popular with cyclists, pedestrians and joggers.

Canal boats -- often used as houseboats.

Gorgeous old canalside loft homes

Clearly a popular spot for new development. We saw scores of construction sites like the one on the left -- I will have to do some digging to find out which developers are working around here.

Sweet spoils of urban foraging!

Really interesting architecture -- this is called the Bridge Academy, which seems to be a magnet middle school for math and music (alliteration is purely coincidence!)

More new residential development nearby

A sign pointing toward street level promised an art shop and “free tea,” which was enough to get us up the stairs. We found that the art shop had closed, but we still learned some interesting things about the neighborhood from the building’s other residents.

The Work/Shop, pictured below, was home to a custom furniture shop that shared space with a great vintage store specializing in mid-century modern furnishings. As luck would have it, however, the vintage dealers were closing up their shop for the last time. The building, they told us, had been purchased and was about to be torn down and replaced with yet another block of condos.

Two doors down in the same ill-fated building, a Jamaican jerk house so small it was barely noticeable was producing some seriously tempting aromas. We decided to go for it, since we weren’t likely to have another chance. By that time, we were starving, and the tangy jerk sauce tasted better than anything I’ve eaten in a long time … even ladled over a half-rewarmed baked potato with beans (the cafe was not quite prepared for a vegetarian visitor). This meal disappeared within minutes.

The real find of the night, however, was an incredibly charming cafe tucked into a tiny storefront space, and spilling out cheerfully into the walkway and even to the water, via a little pontoon. We stopped early in our walk for some caffeine and a homemade ice cream cone (a “small” is actually, refreshingly, small — the perfect three-bite-sized sweet), and grabbed seats on the irresistible floating structure. The cafe atmosphere is made all the more social by the need to balance the load on the pontoon, which tips side to side just enough to splash wine and induce giggling.

Akron readers will be pleased to learn the name of this gem. It’s called the Towpath!

Taken from the pontoon, which appears very small in the first photo from the top.

Scrawled on the chalkboard that served as a menu, we saw an invitation to “register now for dinner on Thursday.” The owner told us she was planning a special community meal on July 21 as part of the week-long Shoreditch Festival. We got our names right on the list, and I returned the next morning to reserve a third seat for Julia D., who would be stopping through London that night en route to Seattle.

*** Ten days passed ***

By the time this past Thursday arrived, the Towpath’s guest list had nearly doubled from its original intended capacity of 100 diners. Tables were laid out end-to-end beneath softly glowing lanterns in preparation for the feast.

Sunset on the canal -- thanks to new friend Michael for pointing this out.

As night fell, the dinner dissolved into candlelit singing and dancing, led by a boisterous duo on guitar and banjo. Click here for a video. The whole event was even more memorable than we had hoped, and I’ve fallen firmly in love with our new neighborhood.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.