I used to think that the best way to see London was from the top deck of a bright red London double-decker bus.
Admittedly, this was the ideal when I was six and my parents took me to London for the first time. My favourite things were the lions of Trafalgar Square and the red bus that took us there.
That memory has now been superceded by memories of last weekend when at last, I achieved my ambition of Boris-biking around the capital.
Actually being on board the bike was great fun. It’s a proper heavy-weight workhorse of a beast with a little carrier up front by the bars and a bungy cord to keep your handbag secure. It has three gears, adjustable massive saddle like a sofa, a bicycle stand (that was a novelty) a chainguard and substantial tyres. It’s a step through so you can wear a skirt or a kilt if the chaps so desire, although I doubt a cross-bar would stand in the way of a ride in a kilt!
After an initial micro-wobble you’re off and feeling in control and testing the brakes, which varied from good to spongy but adequate.
This was a much-anticipated experience and it lived up to expectations.
It was right up there in the “woooo” zone as we swept down Bow Street on a marked cycle route, crossed the Strand on the green lights especially for cyclists and zipped on to Waterloo bridge.
Waterloo is a substantial bridge, especially on a bike. It’s wide and expansive and as I was pedalling along – all spun out because the top gear on a Boris bike really isn’t top enough – I sprouted goosebumps of purest elation looking east up the glittering Thames to the Gherkin, St Pauls, the Millennium wheel and the latest wonder of the metropolis, the in-construction Shard which poked up sharply into the blue sky.
Weirdly, pedestrians think you actually know your way around London, and ask you directions when you’re stopped at red lights. Happened three times so I must have looked convincing!
My Boris biking dream would not have been achieved at all if I’d been on my tod. The bikes are heavy and not easily parted from their bike docks. You punch your release code into the panel next to the chosen bike (best to ensure beforehand that it hasn’t got a broken quick release on the seatpost or rubbish brakes) and little green lights flash indicating that the bike is unlocked. Yeah right. I pulled, lifted, yanked but do you think I could get a bike out? Every time – and there were many – Capt Sensible had to do the honours and even he had to employ a variety of techniques, all involving brute force.
“It must be a knack” he muttered. Sometimes the bike yielded suddenly, sometimes the flashing green light petered out before release was achieved, which meant that credit card ID had to be re-entered into the machine and made things tedious.
There must be an easier way but we saw other people having trouble too, so knew it wasn’t just us. We were amazed that there weren’t more instructions to make the whole thing a bit more of a smooth process and you feel ridiculous having to ask a man to get the bike out. I have no qualms about getting a bloke to mend a puncture for me but honestly, I should be capable of getting my own bike out. Maybe, when the hardwear was new, the bikes were easier to release. I’ve no idea. Answers on a postcard.
The other major problem with the bikes is finding the bike dock full so you are unable to park your bike. In this circumstance you are supposed to stick your card in the machine and inform the computer that you need an extra 15 minutes to find a bike dock with spaces…. but if that happens in unfamiliar territory and you are already not very sure precisely where you are, it all gets a bit confusing. Not sure how foreign tourists manage it all.
There is also the purely practical point that riding in heavy traffic in the centre of London – for those of us who *do* obey red traffic lights – 30 minutes is not sufficient to get from A to B. You get to A and three quarters then have to look for a bike dock if you want to continue to ride free. This swapping of bike also entails waiting for five minutes before you can release the next bike.
But hang on, there is more good:
The heady mix of trying out an unfamiliar bike while passing famous landmarks was novel and rather wonderful and I admired the confidence of other City riders – whether on their own bikes or on Boris bikes.
We headed from Covent Garden to the Globe first of all – a very straightforward trip where I knew roughly where we were going. When we were packing for the weekend, I pondered clothes briefly and decided to leave all my usual cycling stuff behind. No cycling jacket, no Ron Hill tights, no cycling shoes. I thought maybe fur coat, skirt, tights, fur hat (it’s a fetching kind of faux leopard) and pearls but actually I can’t cycle without a helmet so first the hat went, then the coat was replaced by a thin fleece because it was so mild and then the idea of a skirt just seemed ridiculous so I got jeans on. I retained the pearls, however. One must have some standards, after all.
Waterloo Bridge and Stamford Street were a piece of cake but we hit a solid jam of traffic at the junction with the Blackfriars Bridge road. Lots of tooting of horns. Impatient drivers had jumped the lights and were blocking the middle of the road. Drivers in our lane were up against the kerb, leaving no room for bikes to get through. We hopped off and crossed with the pedestrians before getting back on on the other side and heading for the Globe. There was a bike park conveniently nearby.
The Globe is a joy and a wonderful tribute to the late Sam Wannamaker whose dream it was back in the l960’s. Recreated with love, elbow-grease and oak, it stands ready for the warmer evenings to welcome penny stinkards, middle classes and the aristocracy – who watched everything from their raised seating above the back of the stage. Hopefully we’ll go back in 2012 to rent cushions and blankets and watch Dr Faustus under the stars.
Tourists were out in their thousands and we were just another two as we crossed the Millennium Bridge on foot, picking up another couple of bikes near St Pauls and heading broadly westwards. We went off piste via who-knows-where before we got to Trafalgar Square and pedalled under Admiralty Arch (I kept feeling like squeaking to no-one in particular “Ooooh Trafalgar Square!!” and “Blimey! Admiralty Arch!!” etc) and on to The Mall.
We cycled two abreast with me dreaming about the crowds that will be lining this magnificent avenue where the men’s Olympic road race will finish next August. Blasting up there, with thousands of fluttering Union Jacks in his wake, Mark Cavendish MBE will be mixing it with the world’s best, riding the race of his career with all Britain’s hopes resting on his shoulders.
Approaching the Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace, another couple on Boris bikes were ahead of us, both, curiously, riding on the right hand side of several lanes of traffic. Maybe they wanted to turn right at the roundabout in front of the palace, but no, the guy continued on the right while his girlfriend floundered about looking uncertain on the left hand side of the road, and without particularly looking, suddenly pulled the handlebars right and almost rode under the front wheels of a London cab. It was a horrible moment. Fortunately the cabbie stopped in time, as did three other cars, while she slewed across two busy lanes to join her bloke, who was still very much in the wrong place. They were fine examples of how people who can’t cycle in traffic shouldn’t be let loose on Boris bikes.
We headed down Buckingham Palace Road, past the old Buckingham Palace shop and then past a new one, then cut up Sloane Street, Beauchamp Place (posh shopville) and on to the Brompton Road where a black cab (only this one was red with lots of writing on it) cut me up on the corner forcing me to brake and from there to the Natural History Museum.
It was almost dark and the museum looked as beautiful as ever, pinky lit with bulbs in all the trees, the ice rink and a carousel. Going in was a bit weird; like expecting the staid familiarity of an old friend and finding she’s gorn punk with green hair and candy-striped leggings. The displays were fancy but very image-based. Where were the cases of specimens? The stuffed things? The bear at the top of the stairs? The coelacanth was there but it had teeny sproutings of mould growing on it. Two or more specimens for the price of one, you could argue.
The magnificent diplodocus had been renamed “Dippy” and lit with neon pink lights. Still celebrating being there for 106 years, I suppose. I was just grumbling about how this icon had been robbed it of its ancient dignity and impact when a small boy – aged about five – came around the corner and exclaimed “WOW!!! A DINOSAUR!!!” with such blown-away enthusiasm that he reminded me not to be such a curmudgeonly old fart. We must, I suppose, embrace with vigour the new age of dumbing down and tarting up.
That massive slice of giant sequoia was still there upstairs on the landing. The tree was 1300 years old when it was felled – yet still not as old as the oldest living thing – a sequoia called General Sherman which is still extant in California and thought to be 2,500 years old… ish.
Later it was properly dark and the Boris lights didn’t look too great but were good enough to be seen, so we picked up two more near Imperial College and set off to mix it with the evening standstill traffic. The credit card went wrong at the next dock somewhere near Victoria and refused to give us bike codes so we decided to mingle with the crowds and walk back to the hotel.
Sunday morning we had to get a move on, pick up a couple of bikes near the hotel and go to the Natural History Museum for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition and then the National Gallery for a date with Leonardo da Vinci.
That Sunday morning ride was just sooo peachy – roads very quiet indeed and that early morning impression of a world with sleep still in its eyes and not quite ready for breakfast. Not totally sure how we got to Piccadilly but within minutes we were negotiating Hyde Park Corner – piece of cake when it’s quiet- passed Hyde Park and sailed down the Brompton Road past Harvey Nicks and Harrods looking very Christmassy. Bought too much stuff in the Museum to transpport by bike, so went by cab to the National Gallery.
We had a friendly cabbie, as usual who asked what we’d been up to.
“Sightseeing and Boris-biking!”
“What? Oh you don’t want to do that. Them bikes are dangerous – and you got to watch out for some of those cabbies. They are the worst!” Ho, ho, ho.
Easily 50% of cyclists jump red lights in London.
I have never seen so many cyclists not wearing helmets. Do they think they lead charmed lives?
I have never seen so many cyclists riding without lights. They are no doubt experienced city riders, zipping in and out of traffic on their skinny racing bikes like dark wraiths without so much as a reflector. Hardly visible at all.
No helmet, no lights and jumping red lights? No thanks. Cycling in traffic is risky enough without piling up the chances of a crash and serious injury.
Not so much bad as OMG!:
The Boris bike experience was supposed to cost us the access fee of £1 each for 24 hours and thereafter it would be free if we managed to dock the bikes within each 30 minute hire period.
We missed the slots for two dockings and knew we’d have a further £2 fee deducted. We also had some problems after docking bikes on Saturday night when the machine locked up and wouldn’t give us a release code to take more bikes out. But apart from that, we thought it had all worked out reasonable well…….but no, apparently it hadn’t.
On Wednesday morning Capt Sensible checked his bank balance to find that Transport for London had taken £150 from his bank account.
Oh blimey. Did they think he brought the bike home or something?
“You can’t have docked one of them properly. Did you see the green lights every time you docked a bike?”
“What green lights? You might have told me about the green lights…!”
Uh-oh. He rang Customer Services very shortly afterwards and managing to sound reasonably unflustered, explaining in measured tones that the Boris biking had turned out to be unexpectedly expensive.
He was told that the Sunday morning bike – the one docked in Exhibition Road – was logged as being out for several hours. Someone had a freebie ride. When it was docked, it was out of the 24 hour hire period so TFL had taken the “late return” fee. Sheesh, for another £150 he could have just brought the bike home.
They accepted his explanation that, to the best of his knowledge, it was returned properly and he would be recommended for a refund. But we have to wait ten to fourteen days to see if the money reappears in the account.
In the meantime, Capt Sensible thinks that’s quite a powerful incentive never to go near a Boris bike again, even now he knows about the green lights. Much as it pains me to say it, I tend to agree.
PS: Go to the Globe. It’s fab!