21 January 2009

Taking Liberties exhibition cycle tour of London

I'm currently working at the British Library, editing the website of their exhibition Taking Liberties, the 900-year struggle for Britain's freedoms and rights.

This has involved taking several dozen pictures of London sites associated with exhibition items. The shop where Thomas Paine's Rights of Man was sold in 1791, for example; the house of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft; or the building where the committee for the abolition of the slave trade first met in 1787.

The stop-start process of snapping all these locations, many of them in central London or the City, would have been unmaginably tedious by public transport, with lots of foot-slogging and Oyster-bashing. And by car it would have been impossible. But on a bike, the process was great fun, taking me through lots of Dickensian lanes and passages, and to little enclaves I'd never otherwise have seen.

And gloriously expanding my knowledge of back-alley pubs. For instance, just down the lane from where the worthy abolitionists first met in 1787 is a pub called the Jamaica Wine House (top right), ironically then a meeting-place for the slave-ship masters. It's virtually unchanged from those days, except for a fresh lick of paint, a new front door, and everything inside.

And visiting by bike is the best way to enjoy the psychogeography of these sites and their contribution to history. So I've put some of my favourite Taking Liberties sites on this Google map, and sketched out a suggested cycle route to thread them together.

View Larger Map
There's a large picture for each site, and a link to the relevant item in the Online Exhibition.

I've only chosen central London locations, and any one-way streets used assume you're going clockwise overall. There are many other locations on the exhibition website's various Google maps.

For example, Magna Carta fans might be interested in cycling out virtually all along the river on the Thames Path to Runnymede, perhaps coming back from Windsor by train. En route you might pop in to St Mary's church by Putney Bridge: the site of the Putney Debates of 1647, where following the overthrow of Charles I, the people discussed what the new Republic of England should be like, and what should be in the British Constitution. Being Britain, that's still at the committee stage.

Further afield, there's one of the caves that claims to be the one where Robert Bruce had his encounter with the spider (top right, accompanying our various exhibits on Scottish independence).

I was there in autumn last year with my chums Mark and Si, cycling from Carlisle to Edinburgh one weekend. We were cycling in Dumfries, just past Gretna, through the village of Kirkpatrick Fleming (which put me in mind of Kirkpatrick Macmillan, the man who didn't invent the bicycle). I saw a sign to the cave, and couldn't resist the diversion.

Mark and I scrambled down the muddy path to the entrance of the cave (top right). It is man-made, hollowed out of the rock halfway up a cliff-face as a hidey-hole for treasure. Now there's a wooden access walkway. Our luck was in: the original spider's web was still there (below right).

I was delighted, partly because I'd seen the historic spider, but mainly because I could legitimately take a picture for the website and thereby make the whole weekend tax-deductible.


  1. Rob, this is awesome. Have added it to the "seen elsewhere" section of tiredoflondontiredoflife. Keep up the good work (on this site, and Taking Liberties which is really good).

    Thanks for your interest in my site. If you don't mind I might use some of these at some point when I'm looking for ideas.

    All the best


  2. Thanks. Yes, sure, if anything inspires, feel free to use it!

  3. Love this idea, absolutely awesome,now we just need to convince a bike tour company to do the run-around :) Thanks for the great blog and wonderful pics.

  4. London has very limited places to ride without been fined. Thanks for looking of ways for beating the system. But in reality London is a place where only the so called upper class last. The guys on bikes are dollar signs for the cops.