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Exit the city

February 11, 2013

While I take a break from running and let my Achilles heal (geddit?) up, I’ve taken to the bike to get my fix of exercise and fresh air.

Speaking of fresh air, the more I’ve been confined to the city, the more I’ve been fetishising the countryside. London is a big sprawling urban mass, and although the transport links are good, it’s surprisingly difficult to get around or out of the city. Journeys on public transport are rarely direct and driving is agonizingly slow. Fortunately, the Lea Valley is as good for cycling as it is for running.

All last week the news was full of the development plans for High Speed 2 (HS2), which will cut journey times between London and the North by half by 2032. While it may be an exercise in Keynesian economics, and will cut swathes through the countryside, it’s not going to be ready for a while. In fact, work won’t start until 2017. Who knows, perhaps by then our economy might resemble something on an upwards trajectory, rather than the current gastro pub triple-dip gloomfest. Speculation aside, the Lea Navigation Channel is part of Low Speed 1 (LS1) – the UK’s network of canals.

The day was bright and cold, with a strong northerly wind bringing an Arctic chill to the air. I packed extra clothes, a thermos of tea, and a snack pack of fruit and oatcakes before heading off along my old running route. The route north along the canal remains ruggedly urban with industrial estates, factories and a string of pylons, a clear reminder of the area’s industrial past. While the canal is now predominantly used for pleasure – canal boats and rowing clubs pepper the river banks – it used to be the equivalent of a motorway and a key transport route for shifting bulky goods.

After eight or nine miles, I passed under the M25 and into the Lea Valley nature reserve. The navigation channel takes you through low-lying land, raising up above the flood plains below. A stream running through what looks like a drainage ditch crosses under the canal, using a miniature viaduct. It’s around this point that I started losing the feeling in my feet thanks to the bitter cold.

The other side of the river, I spot the massive electric station that sits incongruously in the nature reserve. Pylons spill out in different directions, tracing the waterways and heading towards industrial and residential areas. I cycle on, feeling like countryside must surely be close now that I’m fully out of London.

On reaching Broxbourne, I decide I need something to warm me up. I park myself on a bench by the river and have a couple of steaming cups from my thermos.

Broxbourne

Could countryside be close?

Despite the steaming tea, I still can’t feel my feet. I take off my shoes and try to massage some warmth in from my hands. It doesn’t really work, and despite considering pouring another cup and hovering my bare feet over it, I decide it’s probably better if I just press on.

This far out of the city I start passing some nice-looking pubs. You know, pubs with beer gardens. Actual beer gardens, not a yard of pavement on a busy road, or a scrap of land next to some bins reserved for smokers. Actual benches, overlooking the river, and with enough room that there’s a decent chance of getting a seat. It’s a comparatively long ride, and it’s pretty bleak in the winter, but come the summer I begin to wonder about coaxing my girlfriend out for a long cycle to a nice lunch…

The towpath starts to become more of a dirt track. It’s not rained recently, but there are big puddles that have been hanging around in the cold weather. Pylons and houses are still visible, but it feels like the countryside may be within sniffing distance.

I turn a corner and suddenly see a fleet of cyclists up ahead. Every last one of them is on a Brompton. (The Brompton is a brilliant piece of British ingenuity – a small-wheeled easy-fold bike beloved of commuters that can be taken on trains without needing to book, and can be tucked away under a desk at work rather than locked up outside.) The fold-ups are making surprisingly good going in the deeply pot-holed path and treacherous mud, but their owners are looking a bit lost and I overtake them confidently.

Promptly, I’m lost. I realise I’ve come off the path as I head away from the river. But it looks promising, so I continue (rather than turning back and looking like I don’t know where I’m going). And, what’s that I see in front of me? Could it be countryside?

Actual countryside!

Actual countryside!

Sure, my back is to a housing estate, and there’s the buzzing of a busy road hanging in the air, but I’m feeling good. This is what I came for. Surely a little further on and there will be a proper bit of countryside, with tea rooms and lock keepers’ cottages and aging country estates and low-beamed pubs.

I manage to navigate back on to the towpath. All the while, the noise of vehicles is getting louder. They’re high pitched and waspish, which doesn’t sound like a road. Slowly, the source of the ruckus hoves into view: a race track.

Race track

Feeling distinctly less like the countryside…

I leave the noise behind and press on. I’ve studied this route on maps before now, and know that Ware isn’t far away. Signs sporadically give a running countdown of the distance.

As I cycle, the towpath becomes more scenic. Making this journey in the winter is a little strange in some ways, because everything looks bleak on a winter’s day. The trees have no leaves, the sky is usually threatening some kind of precipitation, the wind is bitter, and any wildlife you see is generally scraping by until spring starts to erupt. I imagine how nice this will be in a couple of months’ time (I also imagine that cycling the route would be more pleasant if I could feel my feet).

Dirt tracks, canal boats and trees - and no pylons in sight

Imagining this on a spring day, preferably a warm spring day

It doesn’t take long before houses start to crop up along the route again. Their character has changed, though. Although there are elements of high-density housing, there are some  actual two-storey single-dwelling houses. Some people have some rather nice back gardens, with their own private moorings. It’s clear that I’m coming up to a town, but it feels more like a more rural town than a satellite town around London.

I pass the final sign counting down the distance to my turning point. I know Ware I am.

The town sign for Ware

Ware do you go, my lovely?

I lock up my bike and have a little shuffle round the town to see if I can restore feeling to my feet. I can, eventually, although I’m constantly aware that for all I warm up here, I’m going to cool down pretty quickly on the cycle back to London. But still, the satisfaction of having got here – a bit over 20 miles so far – and the ensuing hilarity of various location-based puns (‘Guess Ware I cycled to today,’ etc.) are enough for me.

Eventually, I get back on my bike and aim to see how quickly I can cycle back. I have the wind behind me for most of the journey, and with no stops of distractions I make the return trip in 1 hour 40. Spurred on, for some reason, by having the bloody Rednex mid-90s hit ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ stuck in my head. Why?You might ask. Because of the chorus:

Ware did you come from? Ware did you go? Ware did you come from Cotton Eye Joe.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 15, 2013 8:17 pm

    good to see you didn’t get cold feet on cycling!

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