Cycling in England, Part I: Wiltshire & London

In case you were wondering about my unusually long absence, I thought I would tell you what I was up to.  I went to England.

Me at Stonehenge, not cycling

My work was taking me overseas again, with stops in Wiltshire, London, and Huntingdonshire.  I hoped to ride some bikes and at the very least observe the local cycling scene.  Monday and Tuesday found me in Amesbury, Wiltshire, which is two miles from Stonehenge.   The work days were long and I had little time for cycling.  Even if I had the time, I’m not sure where I would have gone to rent a bike.  Considering the fact that Amesbury is next to one of the world’s most famous sites, it is a remarkably small and rural town with none of the tourist trappings one might expect at such a place.  This was farm country and there was little sign of cycling life to be seen.  The few cyclists I observed were using their vehicles to commute or run errands.  There were no lycra-clad riders to be seen, despite the beautiful weather.  I was impressed with the commuters.  The roads were narrow with no shoulder and timidity was not an option for anyone wishing to venture forth on those roads.  Those were some brave people, I thought.

Cyclists navigating the morning rush near Parliament

At least that’s what I thought until I made it to London on Tuesday night.  There, I was exposed to a completely new level of daring that was impressive to see: the London Cyclist.  These brave souls manage to navigate Europe’s largest city with elan.  I entered the city during the evening rush hour, the medieval streets absolutely clogged with traffic.  Cyclists were everywhere, squeezing by cars in the few inches offered between the curb and the vehicles.  Often, they needed to steady themselves as they rolled by keeping their left foot on the pavement (sidewalk, for you Americans).  The braver (or irrational, depending on your perspective) would weave between traffic or ride up the middle of the road between lanes of cars.  I tried to imagine myself riding in this chaos and failed.  Perhaps things would improve as I moved further into town.

They didn’t.

These conditions are tough, but I saw even worse situations than this

My hotel was in Westminster, the heart of the city, and the street pattern is something out of a Dr. Seuss book.  Layered on top of this are a gazillion cars and pedestrians.  This is not a place for the timid or slightly lost, of which I was both.   I was fascinated to watch groups of 20 or more cyclists band together and take over the road as they moved in a pack.  I was even more amazed to see the drivers accept this tactic and not blare their horns in anger, as would certainly be the response in the States.   As I wandered the streets in the early evening, there was still a steady stream of cyclists navigating through the dark with their lights blinking merrily.  They simply had no fear.

Barclays Bike Hire Station, near Charing Cross

I had great hopes for riding one of London’s Barclays Cycles, which were liberally scattered about the city centre in several different stations.  I had hoped to ride on one of London’s newly-built bicycle highways, but I never did see one of those.  Failing that, I had hoped I might be able to pedal on the sidewalks, but as I read the rules at the bike station, I learned this was illegal.  I had no helmet, the roads had no shoulder, and after less than 24 hours in the city I was only somewhat sure of how to navigate the labyrinth of streets. 

I chickened out.

Open up - I have money!

In this case, I would like to think that discretion was the better half of valor.  I wished I could have been assured of surviving the trip, because it would have been a great experience.  Instead, I searched for a bicycle store and found one near the Thames at Charing Cross.  Sadly, it was closed for the evening (note to the rest of the world: please keep your stores open into the evening so we Americans can stop by on occasion and give you our money) so all I could do was peer through the glass.  It seemed to be a nice, if typical, bike shop that would have been at home just about anywhere in the world.  They were featuring road bikes – mostly Treks – and folding bikes for the commuter crowd.  I saw very few mountain bikes, almost the direct opposite of my experience in Canberra last November. 

Going to work at the Cabinet Offices

Having seen all that I could see, I wandered back to my hotel and pondered it all.  Despite an abysmal road system, cycling in London is thriving.  The incredibly high “congestion charge” levied on automobiles operating within the city centre is no doubt partially responsible for this, as is the ludicrous price of gas (about twice that of the States).  Whatever the reason,  there are cyclists in droves and at all hours riding with confidence.  The Barclays system seemed very reasonably priced and there were a great many stations, almost as many as the Pret A Manger shops I saw (People familiar with London will get the joke.  All others, imagine a sandwich shop chain with franchises every 100 yards and you get the picture).  To their credit, the automobile drivers seemed to share the road with cyclists in a way that would not occur in the States.  I have read a great deal of the conflict between cyclists and motorists in the UK and I suppose it must be true.  I guess the difference is that in the States there is no conflict because by and large motorists do not even acknowledge that cyclists exist.

And thus concluded my first three days in England.  I had seen plenty of bicycles and bicyclists, and even a bicycle store, but I had yet to get a ride in.  I was disappointed that I didn’t go for a pedal in London, but I think I chose wisely.  I had only one more day to get my ride in before I left for the States.  Fortunately, I had a plan.

Stay tuned for Part II: The Day I Met Brian

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18 thoughts on “Cycling in England, Part I: Wiltshire & London

    • Thanks, Dace, although I am now once again back in the States. It was a great trip – my first in 13 years – and I enjoyed myself immensely.

  1. Great entry Steve, one that I particularly enjoyed being English and having lived in London before. We have a similar system of bike rentals in Montreal called Bixi, in fact the bikes look identical. Here they are $5 CAD per rental….which is super cheap, and the surge in bike paths through downtown Montreal has made them a very popular way to get around for both tourists and locals alike.

    Great to see some shots of Stonehenge (I visited years ago) and London. Looking forward to part two!

    • When I visited a bike expo in DC this March, a man there told me there is a single company that makes these bikes for cities around the world. Sydney, London, and DC all use the same company and I suspect Montreal does as well. The London rate was very cheap, especially for rides less than one hour. The longer you have the bike, the higher the rate, making traditional bike rental shops preferrable for half-day or full-day rentals.

  2. Make sure your work brings you up here next time. Owing to years of exploitation by our own landlords and the English combined, there is no traffic and cycling is always a pleasure (if you have the right tyres on).
    I look forward to the next instalment.

    By the way gas is not ludicrously expensive here, it is ludicrously cheap over there.

    • I would love to see Scotland, Tom, even though you have been exploited in the past and your government continues to exploit you through outrageously high taxes on petrol. 🙂 Your photographs make it look like a fantastic place to cycle!

  3. The area surrounding Stonehenge is so beautiful that it does make you want to ride! There are a lot of monoliths in that entire area. Did you see any of the others?

    • I saw them when I lived in England in the 90s, but my schedule was too tight this time. I just stopped by to make sure the rocks were still in the right place, which they were!

  4. Hey, seems like you were over on our island just for the short while that I was offline!

    Next time in LDN (which Brian’s blog tells me will be in 13 years time), drop a word and we can go riding in the traffic. I’ll even lend you one of my bikes and show you around a few canal towpaths and riverside rides.

    Cheers!

  5. Great blog Steve! I know what you mean about biking in the London rush hour, but it’s not as scary as it looks. Being a part of the tide of cyclists is exhilarating, just be sure to keep looking for what’s around you! Glad you enjoyed your trip, come back soon.

  6. Good one! Your description of London is spot on. 🙂

    I’ve always wanted to cycle London so a Boris Bike Day has to take place sometime in 2011. Both my boys were London commuter cyclists at different times,mixing it daily with the general melee.

  7. Pingback: Cycling In Traffic – A Tale of Two Countries | There And Back Again

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