31 March 2009

Road signs that are totally out to lunch

You see a lot of odd road signs when you're out on a bike. A grammatical oddity is this noun chain on Charing Cross Road, just up from Cambridge Circus: PEDESTRIAN CASUALTY REDUCTION SIGNAL TIMINGS EXPERIMENT. Curiously, this nominative blitzkrieg isn't on Google Street View.

I saw this odd fingerpost in Leicestershire in 1997. Emerging from a sociable pub lunch I saw a sign to somewhere evidently called PISSWELL. There's no such place, and the picture isn't Photoshopped; someone had been making mischief with a screwdriver, creatively rearranging letters. It's really PICKWELL.

Best of all is this celebrated sign in rural Kent, where the village of Ham is close to the town of Sandwich. Apparently people keep nicking it.

30 March 2009

More cycling celebs

All sorts of celebs are being outed as cyclists. TV business guru Sir Alan Sugar is one of the latest, as the Daily Mail revealed over the weekend in a long and detailed article. He's not exactly a Real Cyclist though: road cycling on his seven-grand Pinarello to keep fit is his thing, with twice-weekly spins of 50 miles in the Essex countryside.

It seems comedians are more likely to be Real Cyclists. Alistair McGowan for example, interviewed by the Sunday Times a couple of months ago, is a keen cyclist and bike commuter.

Then there's Dave Gorman, the agreeable host of the radio-turned-TV show Genius. He comes across as just the right sort of cyclist in the substantial interview he gives in the latest issue of the London Cycle Campaign magazine. (The pic is from his very large Flickr site, which has several bike images. He also Twitters enthusiastically.)

Gorman says that morning commute is great for creativity, for instance: "On the tube you try to shut the journey out and you end up shutting your brain down. On a bike you have to be completely aware of your surroundings so your brain is active... by the end of the journey some creative [idea] has popped up out of nowhere."

29 March 2009

Ghost bike pause for thought

Heading up Brixton Hill - en route to Streatham between yesterday's deluges - I saw this white bike lashed to the railings at the junction with the A205.

I'd read before about ghost bikes - an idea that originated in the US - but this was the first one I've knowingly come across.

They're usually memorials to cyclists who died at that place. This one doesn't carry any details of who it might commemorate, but there was a fatal cycle accident here in 2007.

28 March 2009

Critical Mass goes underground, but politely

I took part in last night's Critical Mass ride. I'm glad I did, for two reasons.

First, because it re-encouraged me. I've been in two minds about CM lately. I was getting fed up of the provocative antics of a minority of people - generally ones with wispy beards and the bring-and-buy-sale couture of juggling teachers - who block cars and taxis and stand in Parliament Square waving their bikes above their head and shouting witlessly. To me, CM shouldn't be about provocation. It should be a benign show of strength, a smile not a sneer.

But - at least what I saw last night - reassured me: nobody being silly, but quite a few riders assertively stopping traffic to let the Mass go through. (No police cyclists with us this time.) Eye contact, acknowledgement, authority in numbers, thank you for your patience sir have a good evening, that sort of thing. Even the sledgehammer music from bike-trailer sound systems seemed less intrusive than I remembered.

And, as ever, it was sociable. The buzz in the hour before setting off (right) as the riders gather on the South Bank, in front of the National Theatre under Waterloo Bridge, is something special. The couple of dozen cyclists at 6pm grew steadily until 7ish, when it was about 400 or 500. At dusk it's almost magical, watching the riverscape slip into its twinkly evening wear, enjoying a pint and a natter with those cyclos that you run into on these sort of occasions.

Leafletters were out in force. I received flyers inviting me to protest against a corner of Brockwell Park being sawn off to make way for a road; to attend a bike-film screening later that night; to participate in G20 demonstrations; and to contribute feedback on somebody's idea to make folding handlebars.

And that second reason? I fulfilled a long ambition to cycle through the Strand Underpass, that old tram conduit underneath Aldwych from the north side of Waterloo Bridge to the south end of Kingsway. It's verboten for cyclists, but on a select few CMs a year, the wisdom of crowds takes over and we not only ride it but have it to ourselves. Strand's traffic drainpipe is twistier, shorter and brighter than you expect; a kind of shrivelled Rotherhithe Tunnel without the cars. Great fun.

I was too busy whooping with excitement to video it, but there are a couple of clips on YouTube from the CM last September, which went this way: a video of the whole ride (the tunnel bit is at about 1:30 to 2:00), and a brief rear-view clip of the tunnel only (right).

After 45 minutes I needed a toilet stop, and dived into a pub somewhere near Sadler's Wells. I was at the front of the Mass when I did so, and took no more than five minutes. But when I emerged... there was no trace of the ride. I scouted around but couldn't see any evidence it had ever existed. Moaning drivers in jams would just have to find something else to blame their motionlessness on.

Which shows something: that however frustrating it might feel to a driver impatient to rush home and relax, the actual delay it will cause is no more than one pop record on your car radio or iPod, once a month. That doesn't seem a high price to inflict on society.

Next month it'll be even better, with the extra hour of daylight and balmy spring weather. Bags I first in the tunnel.

27 March 2009

Raising the Standard for bike parking

Bike parking seems to come in all shapes and sizes, most of them not very good ones. We're all familiar with the flimsy supermarket coat hanger, the toast-rack designed to bend schoolkid wheels, or the overdesigned sculpture that looks great and witty but is actually impossible to lock up to properly. There seems no standard.

Indeed there isn't. British Standards, signified by the kitemark, exist for 27,000 things from specifications of fire hose couplings (BS336) to the vocabulary of terms used in software testing (BS7925-1, though I couldn't find most of the words I use when testing software).

And mathematicians among you will be pleased to know that BS0 is the British Standard for British Standards. (You might need logs for more meta-levels, or minus-infinity, or Cantor dust, or something. I must have been away when we did that.)

But there is no British Standard for cycle parking... yet.

Southwark Cyclists, however, are on the case, and are working to produce one with the British Standards Institute; the Jill Dando Institute at University College, London; and the Design Against Crime Unit at Central St Martins.

Of course everyone hates standardisation and we are all individuals, as we'd all rush to confirm with a reference to the same joke in the Life of Brian. But it's British Standards that have made credit cards a predictable shape and size, for instance. (Which is a bit of a pain, as they all look the same and you end up trying to pay for a wine box in Tesco's with your library card, but you know what I mean.)

It'll take a year or so to produce a working standard (and bike locks are apparently part of the project, too), but we think this is an excellent, practical example of making things a bit better for cyclists one step at a time.

Now, a British Standard for cycle-campaigning: that might be trickier.

26 March 2009

Worn-out gear

My grandfather never bought any new clothes in the last 15 years of his life, because he worried he wouldn't get the wear out of them.

I sort of know what he means. I feel quite good when something wears out on my bike because it shows I've been using it. Bike shops doing my service must think it odd when I'm so enthusiastic about replacing worn parts. Chain, cranks, cassette? Brilliant! Replace the lot! As Lionel Bart didn't write in Oliver, Wear is Love.

So I was quietly satisfied yesterday. At the Bricklayer's Arms roundabout I felt something go ping as I clattered over a pothole. It was one of the stays of my saddle snapping (right). I've never had that happen before.

Metal fatigue, presumably: that invisible accumulation of stress which one day causes a catastrophic breakdown. Which sounds a bit close to home. Perhaps I'd better go out and buy some new clothes.

25 March 2009

Shakespeare was a cyclist: proof

The Bard has been in the news lately, thanks to claimed new portraits of him (Cobbe, Sanders) popping up faster than new bank bailouts.

But nobody has mentioned the fact that Shakespeare was a keen cyclist, as these quotes from his oeuvre prove. Well, as much as anyone can prove he is the person in the Cobbe or Sanders portraits, anyway.

In the bike shop
Will this gear ne'er be mended? Troilus and Cressida Act I, Scene 1
Lights, lights, lights! Hamlet Act III, Scene 2
I'll provide you a chain; and I'll do what I can to get you a pair of horns. Merry Wives of Windsor Act V, Scene 1
Lights, more lights! Timon of Athens Act I, Scene 2

On the folly of cheap or worn accessories
A merry heart goes all the day, your sad tires in a mile-a. Winter's Tale Act IV Scene 3
...to ride with ugly rack... Sonnet 33
Look you what hacks are on his helmet! Troilus and Cressida Act I, Scene 2
...thou hast worn out thy pump... Romeo and Juliet Act II, Scene 4

Encounters with bad drivers
They shouted thrice: what was the last cry for? Julius Caesar Act I, Scene 2
This cuff was but to knock at your car and beseech list'ning. Taming of the Shrew Act IV, Scene 1

At Critical Mass
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer hoist with his own petard Hamlet Act III, Scene 4

On waiting at cycle crossings which stay red through several greens for everyone else
Lo, where it comes again! I'll cross it, though it blast me. Hamlet Act I, Scene 1

To the cyclist who jumps red lights
Stir not until the signal. Julius Caesar Act V, Scene 1

On overambitious touring itineraries
...thou and I have thirty miles to ride yet ere dinner time Henry IV Part 1, Act III Scene 3

On the need for security
You shall not now be stol'n, you have locks upon you Cymbeline Act V, Scene 4

To the CTC Sunday ride arriving at the pub
...do you look for ale and cakes here, you rude rascals? Henry VIII Act V, Scene 4

A cyclist's declaration of love
...no leave take I; for I will ride, as far as land will let me, by your side. Richard II Act I, Scene 3

24 March 2009

Barbican's big-picture bike parking

We always like going to the Barbican by bike because the cycle parking's so good. Lots of simple, straightforward, secure racks (right), conveniently shaped for a lock on each wheel, not liable to let your bike slide and fall over, and most delightfully, immediately outside the Silk St entrance. Other attractions take note.

They lose a couple of marks for a rather vague, mis-apostrophised web page about it that navigates you by the car parks (no, we don't need the car park, that's why we're on bikes). But when their Monday night brand-new feature films only cost a fiver, we can forgive that.

What's afoot? Roadside shoes now in pairs

We once had a sensational idea for a website. Called www.socksreunited.co.uk, it would enable you to register all those odd socks that end up in your wardrobe. The website would match such single socks by colour, pattern and size across users, emabling you to create pairs between you to mutual benefit.

Obviously, nothing came of it, like our other idea for a text-messaging social-networking site called www.witter.com. That'd obviously never work. But the lone-bits-of-footwear idea did come back to me a fortnight ago when I noticed the large amount of single shoes discarded on London's roads that you see while cycling around.

Already, however, lone shoes are old hat. Now they're being jettisoned in pairs. Last week I saw a fine brace of ladies' lace-up high-heels on Waterloo Bridge. I couldn't take a picture as I was too busy not being run over by a bus.

Then last night, at the end of Churchyard Row near the Elephant and Castle, was this left-right set of football boots (right).

I've no idea what's going on. But I do know there's no money in a website about it.

23 March 2009

Chalk it up: another funny bike gadget

Dreaming up bike gadgets is something of a boom industry these days. From somewhere called Studio Gelardi comes an idea called Contrail, the velo equivalent of a fox's territorial marking. A chalk dispenser attached to your bike (right) leaves a temporary trail on the road.

It confirms the presence of cyclists to other road users. As we know, cyclists are invisible until one of them jumps a red light.

And with patience, and a Nazca plain of road space, there's the possibility of tracing out a rude message to the bus that's just cut you up on Waterloo Bridge.

It follows the ingenious portable laser bike lane announced a month or two ago (right). An organisation called Altitude claims to be showing this off in October 2009, but so far it only seems to exist in blog comments. Nice idea, but it only works at night on dark streets.

If this sort of laser-beam technology proves workable in daylight, it could be made genuinely useful. How about projecting an arrow on the road surface in front of your bike, to show you what route to take? Then your GPS-based route planner could keep directing you the most efficient way.

Which reminds me about cyclestreets, a cycle-oriented route-planning website currently in beta. It will show you the quietest or fastest journey between two points and contains 15,000 photos of cycling infrastructure. I'll do a comparison of the London part of cyclestreets with Transport for London's cycle route planner in due course.

If I'm not too busy tracing out obscene chalk trails in the road.

22 March 2009

East, west, bike's best

Greenwich was a delightful place to be on a bike yesterday. Not so Blackheath: it was encircled by cars, in which gridlocked families were bitterly complaining about the traffic. Greenwich centre was pretty jammed with vehicles too.

But the park, closed off to traffic, was a relaxing trundle up that hill to the observatory. The view from here (right, see larger pic) is pretty stunning: the splendour of the old Naval College, now home to Trinity College of Music, with the blocks of Canary Wharf behind and, over to the east, the exoskeleton of the O2 dome.

And there's the chance to straddle the meridian line. Here, balanced on a knife edge, are the two hemispheres: on one side the mystic east of Woolwich and Dartford and beyond; on the other, the wild west of Lewisham and Brixton.

A steel monument and strip by the Royal Observatory, heavy with queues of visitors (right) intent on Twitpic-ing a holiday snap, show the zero line.

Except it's not the GPS zero. The line shown by the observatory is the 1884 meridian; today's zero, at least the one that your GPS will show as 0.0000 longitude, is a hundred metres east in the park (map, right: the marked line is in blue, the GPS zero line is in red).

No doubt someone, possibly me, is planning a hilarious cycling travelogue that involves cycling down the zero-longitude line inside Britain. You'd start at the line's northernmost point in the world on land (a caravan park near Tunstall on a bleak East Yorkshire plain - yes, I cycled there) and end at the place it leaves the south coast, somewhere off Bramber Avenue on the promenade of Peacehaven, West Sussex.

View Larger Map

En route you'd go through some surprises, such as a Greenwichesque meridian marker on the bracing promenade at Cleethorpes. (And you'd have to jag west off the line to cross the Humber via the Bridge, of course.)

If I ever did write such a book I'd have to put aside plenty of time, though. Our afternoon trundle to Greenwich, Blackheath and back managed to occupy six hours in covering about ten miles. But then we did leave the western hemisphere to do so.

21 March 2009

Google Street View is silly and dange... Hey! That's me! Cool!

Google's Street View, which went live on Thursday, has been much commented on. It even received the writer's angle on Radio 4's Front Row last night.

But Google was not the first online snooper, in London at least, as a handful of people had been pointing out before Thursday. Seety.co.uk beat Google by several weeks with a very similar snapshot album. Google's service is better - more detailed pictures, easier interface, vaster coverage - but it's odd that nobody's mentioned Seety in the last couple of days. The news isn't what Google did, it's that what Google did is news.

Like everyone else I've been looking for me, and spying on neighbours and friends. One in Cambridge was amused to see his house snapped with the door open; odd to think that the determined zoomer can examine the colour scheme of your sitting room from anywhere in the world.

I'm nowhere as far as I can see, but my bike is (above right). It's parked in Lincoln's Inn Fields, evidently on one day in mid-July last year. It's the second from left, with the antler handlebars and double-light-bracket on the seatpost. (Compare it to the Real Cycling Street View picture of it, right.) I'm glad it wasn't caught doing anything indiscreet. Interesting how the number-plate blurring software has also targeted the lettering on the bike stand on the right.

According to the Google Street Map view page on Wikipedia, Google have data-gathering bikes that can go up car-free alleys, paths and lanes; but they don't appear to have deployed them in London. Gems such as Austin Friars, Leadenhall Market, Lincoln's Inn, the riverside path through the South Bank, and countless others, are still under the Google Street View radar.

Thank goodness. I rather like the idea that, with bikes, we still have secret and privileged access to a real world. If you want to see it from ground level, you have to come. On a bike.

20 March 2009

Bike-shed art cool enough for a Bond villain

I know a lot about art, but I often don't know what I like. However I do like this mural, which was completed a few days ago.

It's inside a bike shed under the railway arches in the parking area of Metro Central Heights, a stylish, swimming-pooled residential block just north of the Elephant and Castle.

The Heights were originally Alexander Fleming House, a 1960s office complex designed by Erno Goldfinger. He's the man with the Midas touch; a spider's touch. With John Barry's score blazing irrelevantly in my ears (E major, C major, G/G-sharp switching), I went to find it last night.

It's on private property, but if you ask nicely at the Heights' hotel-like reception they'll direct you to the shed. Wave your arms to turn on the lights inside it. The artist is a guy called Philip Symonds.

And there's a friendly Wetherspoons next door, the Rockingham Arms, for some post hoc artistic discussions. Luckily for us it's within pushing distance of home.

View Larger Map

19 March 2009

Bike-lock inflation yes, but this is ridiculous

Bike theft is a problem in London, and 'lock inflation' has clearly taken hold. In 1979 you could use a cheap combination lock. In 1989 you needed a strong D-lock. In 1999 it was more like two D-locks.

In 2009, if this bike parked outside The Horse pub near Waterloo last night is anything to go by, you require two D-locks, a stockade and defensive moat.

Letter from Waterloo to Parris

Matthew Parris's shabby diatribe against cyclists last year was the most-complained-about press item of 2008, we learned yesterday. When I read someone's rant against 'smug cyclists' such as that, I don't feel smug. I just feel pleased with myself because I'm clearly superior to them.

Take last night for instance. At 6.30pm, in south-central London, we suddenly had some urgent mail that had to catch the last post. The internet wasn't much help in finding late-delivery postboxes. Royal Mail's site has no helpful information at all; a personal website usefully suggested Waterloo and Nine Elms but looked out of date.

I cycled to Waterloo, to find I'd just missed the final 6.45pm collection at the postbox on the station concourse (right). The postbox says there's a 7.30pm collection at the sorting office on Nine Elms Lane. So I hurtled there, but en route at about 6.55pm saw a Post Office van and a friendly postie collecting from the box on Embankment, so gave the item directly to him. Job done.

Easy with a bike... but on this tight schedule, impossible by public transport or car, and you can't stop a vehicle on Embankment to nip across the road and give your letter to Postman Pat. Perhaps with two people and a car you could do it - one driving, one running out and finding postboxes - but using resources of such military proportions to transport a single letter seems bonkers. I like the sheer physical pleasure of riding a bike, but I also like its efficiency. I've never been a fan of wasting resources, so I'm not going to waste smugness either.

Mind you, I was one of the people who complained about that Parris brainstorm, so I might invest a little there.

18 March 2009

Getting to the bottom of London's central point

The official centre of London is a horse's bum.

Westminster has lots of quirky things to entertain you as you wander round it in desperate search for some cycle parking. Here at the bottom of Trafalgar Square (serviced by a measly handful of stands up by the National Portrait Gallery that are always full) is that very centre: the point to which a 'distance to London', notionally, is measured. It's the origin of the national roadmap; England's kilometre-zero. And that point is a gelding's backside.

It is, of course, the horse underneath the statue of King Charles I (right), riding defiantly to his execution in 1649. He was dispatched at what is now the Banqueting House, a short trot down Whitehall. There's something equivocal about the statue: is it a stern reminder of the brutality of a kangaroo-court execution, or a commemoration of the people's rough justice? Either way, I'm all in favour of preserving the monarchy. I've heard formaldehyde does the trick.

It's appropriate then that from here, directly below the equine posterior, you can see both our ruling institutions: the Houses of Parliament down Whitehall, and Buckingham Palace through Admiralty Arch and along the Mall. It's the only spot in London with this double vista (right). A tempting thought for anyone with a howitzer.

The horse-bottom zero-point is celebrated by a plaque (bottom of top photo). Its punctuation-free text looks to have been drafted by a lawyer:

The original Eleanor's Cross stood from 1290 to 1647. The replica – the original 'Charing Cross' – is in the unloading area in front of Charing Cross station, a few yards north-west, though it's currently smothered in scaffolding.

According to the BBC website, from here it's 198 miles to Liverpool, 1118 miles to Rome, and 10,500 miles to Sydney, and according to Google Earth it's 250 yards to the nearest bike parking. That was full, but I found some more up in Mays Court, yon side of the Coliseum, and had a quick drink with a friend for five hours. So this morning, boom boom, I'm a little horse too.

17 March 2009

The world is your Oyster Row, E1: More A-Z games

Sometimes on a bike ride you're stuck somewhere for 20 minutes. Waiting for a train, perhaps, or waiting for a page to load on the train's free onboard wi-fi. And the only thing to pass the time with is the A to Z in your pannier.

The other day I was on about finding shortest and longest street names. But there are all sorts of other games you can play with a street index. Choose your all-time London street World Test Cricket XI, for example:

Hobbs Ct SE1
Sutcliffe Rd SE18
Richards Ave RM7
Bradman Row HA8
Headley Dr CR0
Walcott St SW1
Botham Cl HA8
Warne Pl DA15
Barnes St E14
Ambrose St SE16
McGrath Rd E15

Cricket buffs will have guessed that Richards is Viv, not Barry; Sutcliffe is Herbert, not Bert; Headley is George; and Barnes is SF. Not every name you might consider is there - the A to Z index contains no Gilchrist Ave, no Tendulkar St, no Muralitharan Cres. But the fun is trying to find a balanced team out of the list available. And not a bad side, eh?

You can extend it to other teams. Your all-time England football XI for instance might include Banks Lane DA6; Moore Rd SE19; Charlton Way SE3; Owen Gardens IG8; Gascoigne Place E2 (not continuous);... and so on.

It doesn't have to be sporting. You could programme a series of concerts with your favourite composers (Beethoven St W10; Mozart St W10; Strauss Rd W4; Elgar St SE16...).

Or you could go to the pub, and only order things which appear in the A to Z (Guinness Square SE1; Ham Cl TW10, Sandwich St WC1; Chip St SW4; Wine Cl E1; Pudding Lane EC3...)

If it's a Wetherspoons you can even enjoy their free wi-fi as you do so. And hope it's working faster than the wi-fi on Nationalexpresseastcoast trains, or else you'll be back to making lists.

16 March 2009

Helmet ruling still hurts my head

Outrage over the weekend at the bonkers High Court ruling (in Smith v Finch 2009, commented on here previously) that claims cyclists without helmets may be deemed at fault for accidents they didn't cause.

Today's Independent states that Justice Williams, the man behind this piece of lunacy, based it on a supposedly similar 1976 ruling by Lord Denning about seatbelts.

But it's not the same at all. Cars come pre-fitted with seatbelts by the manufacturer (or lack them entirely). Helmets do not come prefitted on bicycles. They are optional safety equipment that you have to go out and buy, like shinpads or suits of armour or stab-jackets. You can just about argue that somebody not using seatbelts that are already there is being negligent. But how do you argue that it is 'negligent' to not go out and buy a helmet before somebody mows you down?

It's yet another of those false parallels made by people who have no idea about cycling. ('Cars are licensed, therefore bikes should be'; 'I pay road tax, therefore bikes should' etc.)

I banged on about this at length in a post a couple of weeks ago. No, Justice Williams, you're wrong. Would you suggest that the innocent who is stabbed in the street is partially at fault for not having gone out, bought, and put on a stab-jacket beforehand?

London Fields Lido's innovative 'Scunthorpe racks'

Interesting bike-parking sign here at London Fields Lido, in Hackney. (We were there yesterday on a lovely warm spring Sunday, and the pool was full of families. An outdoor pool! In Britain! Full! In mid-March!)

The sign helpfully informs you that each rack is designed to hold two bicycles, and asks you 'store your bicycle appropriately'. What they think defines 'appropriately' is unclear, given that the rack is too close to the railings for you to use it properly, as the pic shows.

Maybe they should be called Scunthorpe racks: similar to Sheffield, but inconveniently positioned.

More intriguing though is the line drawing. Instead of an explanatory graphic demonstrating how to park your bike, there's a man in jogging pants walking away. Presumably in search of better racks.

15 March 2009

Ticket for cycling on the pavement? Bin it

In the Netherlands, they have these cool roadside basketball nets called blikvanger.

Even if Dutch is a mystery language to you - German crossed with a dialup modem - you can guess that it's some sort of test-your-skill rubbish bin for cyclists.

It saves you time, because you don't have to stop, you can just vang your blik into it as you trundle by. I liked it so much I cycled back three times.

Here's the less convenient English equivalent. We went past it yesterday on our way into Bonnington Square near Vauxhall via the cycle contraflow in Vauxhall Grove, off Harleyford Rd.

(Bonnington Square is a real gem, by the way: a gently surprising oasis of Kew-Gardens greenness, in all senses, just off the grey concrete scrub of Vauxhall roundabout. It's got a nice cafe, characterful Victorian houses, jungly trees, and a playground with swings that nobody chucked me off.)

One natural route from here to Brixton, especially if you go past the fantastic array of Portuguese cafes and tapas bars in Stockwell, takes you along Stockwell Avenue into the centre of Brixton.

We heard an interesting story about this avenue. Part of it was paved over and pedestrianised a few years ago. However, many cyclists continue to use it as a way into the town centre (right) as we did yesterday.

The police (I'm told) have been out issuing tickets to cyclists who do so... except that it's perfectly legal to cycle along. The council meant change its status to footway-only, but never got round to it. It remains a right of way for cyclists. The only online reference I can find is a discreet council report of a meeting in September 2008 in which it's acknowledged that Stockwell Avenue is OK to cycle down.

In any case, Stockwell Avenue is going to be remodelled as a genuine cycle path... one day soon.

Perhaps it would be an ideal place to trial a blikvanger. Then if the police try to ticket you, you can throw it away conveniently.

14 March 2009

Quirky stuff on maps - 2

Following yesterday's post, more map curiosities. Most of these have been culled from Internet sources.

1. Ordnance Survey's Zen square
Ousefleet, a village north of Scunthorpe, on the south bank of the Humber not far from Trent Falls, is officially the dullest kilometre of all OS maps. It’s the nearest we have to a completely empty square in the entire UK map system, according to a computer search by the chaps at OS. All it contains is a single electricity pylon. There's a photo of the square at the Geograph project.

I did cycle here once to see what it's like. I couldn't see anything though.

(Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.)

2. Map making for dummies
Ever wondered what happens to crash-test dummies when they retire, if they survive all those impacts? They slip into parts of trial coding that the programmer forgot to update. Try a Multimap search on 'dummy2396' (map view, not OS view) and you'll see that it is now living in this caravan park in East Yorkshire. It's on Google maps too.

3. Welcome to Middle England
According to a Daily Mail article on the OS, the exact centre of mainland Britain (the point on which Great Britain would balance if you stuck it on a pencil) is SD 72321 36671. The precise centre is on an empty square metre of ground just off the A59, behind a sewage works near Whalley in Lancashire.

However, if it was the UK you were balancing, you'd have to move your pencil to Dunsop Bridge in the Forest of Bowland. If you were doing a Land's End-John o'Groats bike ride, you'd have to ride via here for the sake of symmetry.

4. Point furthest from a road in UK
According to the Ordnance Survey, the furthest point from a metalled road in Great Britain is on the hillside of Ruadh Stac Beag, between Letterewe Forest and Fisherfield Forest in Wester Ross, Highland, Scotland. The distance from here to the nearest road (A832) is 11 km (7 miles).

13 March 2009

Skidge, Skorn, and Misery to Appietown: Bike route with the strangest names

One of our regular correspondents has just posted a comment to my blog entry earlier today which is so good I'm promoting it to its own entry here.

He wondered which National Cycle Route takes you through the most interestingly-named places, and nominates NCR1. Here's why.

Top class work there, Nigel. Many thanks.

I nominate NCR 1. My favourite place name on this route in London is Mudchute, well-known for its city farm and DLR station. For some reason it isn't shown on the OS map so here it is on OpenCycleMap (the thick red line going north-south is NCR 1).

However if you follow it a few miles further north the places get even more interesting.

One particular section sounds particularly appealing, starting at Quoyloo. From there you ride north through Knowes of Yonbell, Skorn, Stara, breezy Windbreck, Harpsquoy, Skidge (I'm reminded of that Rowan Atkinson school roll-call sketch) to Oxtro, though if you prefer you can avoid busy Oxtro and follow the alternative route of NCR 1 via Mount Misery, which offers views over Point of Snusan.

The two routes rejoin and you continue through Feaval and Hillquoy to Knowles of Lingo. Abune-the-hill is on your right.

Then turn left and follow the road round the lake to Crismo, Costa and Clook.

Continue down the gentle hill to Wateries and Burgar before arriving in Stenso.

A short rest, then onwards through Quoys to Pulkitto, where we turn left onto a minor road and NCR 1 continues through Quoyblackie and Queenamuckle to Gorseness.

(Here a short excusion is possible to South Aittit and the Bay of Hinderayre. The best way to return to NCR 1 is via the most cheerful place in the United Kingdom, Appietown.)

Quirky stuff on maps - 1

I spend a lot of time looking at maps while cycling, usually trying to find out where I've gone wrong. I don't need a satnav to take me the wrong way down a one-way lane and across a stream with no bridge; I can do that myself with an OS map.

And when I notice quirky stuff, I always want to cycle there. Maybe it's a place with a funny name like Wetwang. Or a strange geological phenomenon like the sandy tendril of Spurn Point four miles out at sea. Or the fact that the (arbitrary and much hated) county of Humberside had two villages called Wold Newton, one at its northernmost end, the other at its southernmost - inconvenient if you cycled to the wrong one.

Or maybe it's just, well, quirky. Here's four odd things I've noticed while browsing the map, lost:

1. The Two Great Tothams
(Make sure it’s the OS map view being displayed, not the road map.) Two separate villages in Essex, both called Great Totham, right next to each other. The result of some ancient factional split? Do they have a Real Great Totham and a Continuity Great Totham?

I cycled there to see what it was like, and sure enough, each village is signposted separately and identically. OS Landranger 168 is your map.

(Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.)

2. Two Goose Greens
More doppelgangers in rural Essex. Just a few kilometres from the twin Great Tothams is a pair of Goose Greens. (?Geese Green.) Find a village called Tendring; the first GG is a kilometre north, the second two kilometres or so north of that. With confusion like this, it's a wonder we ever got the Falklands back. OS Landranger 168 again.

3. An aerial river
Near Littleport in Cambridgeshire is this odd snake of contours (again, select the OS map view). They're the course of an old river whose banks were maintained as the land on either side slowly drained and sank, resulting in the river being higher than surrounding land. OS 143.

4. The only British place-name with an X
Only one place-name in England, as far as I can see, contains an upper-case X. The trick is that it's a Roman numeral, in Ruyton-XI-Towns, a 12th-century compilation-album of a place near Shrewsbury.

Obviously maps don't always correspond on the ground with what you see on paper in front of you. I was once obsessed with a round street in the middle of waste land I'd spotted on a map of London that appeared to be unconnected to the rest of the network. A secret military ring road? Eventually I realised it was the 'O' of 'LONDON'.

More suggestions welcome. More funny stuff coming up, including the point furthest from a road, the centroid of England, and Ordnance Survey maps' blankest square...

12 March 2009

Crossings and double-crossings

Another day, another route across central London into work. This time I went past the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, by Wellington Arch, and through Soho and Bloomsbury. I like the game of following the bike-route signs - to 'Euston', say - and then seeing where I actually end up when the route disappears into a back-street cul-de-sac.

As ever, there was lots to enjoy on the way. For instance, just off Parliament Square, at the junction of Tothill St and Storey's Gate, is officially Europe's Safest Pedestrian Crossing (right). Well, that's what the 'Eurotest consortium of motoring bodies' thinks, according to the BBC. Yes, I know. It just looks like a crossing.

London's pedestrian crossings were in the news again yesterday. The mayor is proposing 'countdown crossings', which tell you how much time you have left to cross. At some crossings this may be used to cut down the time.

Cut down the time? Hmm. My route took me past Wellington Arch (right), where the cycle path grandly goes under the arch itself. Countdowns here would panic everyone except Dwain Chambers: you have a mere four seconds or so to cover the 25 yard (22m) crossing.

A horse might come in handy, which is presumably why this is also an equestrian crossing, complete with rider-height push buttons and horse-shaped green lights (right).

As you can see in the YouTube snippet here, the jogger just about makes it, but the chap crossing at normal walking pace only gets half way across by the time the green man disappears.

No wonder the cyclist, who seems to be a regular, sets off a couple of seconds early. The green-man symbol should be in shape of a sprinter.

Finally, feeling like an adventure, I followed the separated bike lane west along Maple St, somewhere in the back lanes north of Oxford St. At the junction with Fitzroy St (right) the bike slot is excitingly situated on the wrong side of the road. That might put you in conflict with traffic turning right, so there's a separate traffic light for the bikes.

Except that when you press the button to request, you might have to wait two whole iterations of the other lights before you can proceed, forcing a wait of 90 seconds or so. Most cyclists, like the one in the picture, simply plough through the red.

On the other hand, if you had a countdown crossing here, you could do something useful during the wait, such as listen to a Wagner opera, or sit out the recession.

11 March 2009

Rubbish cycle lane

Nice bright morning, so I treat myself to an alternative way in to work: over Southwark Bridge, up Watling St past St Paul's, through the Oxbridge-college-like quiet courts and back alleys of Lincoln's Inn, and along Lamb's Conduit St, home of Bikefix.

And it was at the bottom of Lamb's Conduit St that I found, to my delight, this genuinely rubbish cycle lane.

(Larger version on Flickr.)

10 March 2009

Shedding light on empty bike sheds

The bike parking at Tate Modern is an interesting case study. They've provided a perfectly decent bike shed less than 40m from the main entrance. That's not far. You could throw a pot of green custard further than that.

But nobody ever uses it (top right). I was there last night and, like everyone else (below right) I parked my bike on the railings that lead up the slope to the main entrance.

Similar effects can be seen everywhere. Many supermarkets, for instance, put cycle racks off at the other end of the car park, with the result that trolley-park railings, being next to the entrance, are pressed into service as impromptu Sheffield stands.

We're not being contrary or ungrateful. It simply goes to show that we expect cycling to be a door-to-door activity. That's the beauty of it.

Another element is probably psychological. There's something open and obvious about a bike. Unlike a mobile phone or a collateralised debt object or Microsoft Word's file-saving format, it's perfectly clear how it works. You can see all the cogs and wires in front of you and how they all join up. A hitherto uncontacted Amazonian tribe with no knowledge of fabulous modern technology such as polyphonic ringtones would grasp a bike's mechanical principle at a glance.

That straightforward, take-me-as-you-find-me concept often applies to cyclists as well, who are usually unpretentious and down-to-earth. (Though I'll grant you, racers and couriers can be a bit bonkers.)

So I'm sure that's another factor behind the Tate Modern Effect. The bike shed's not far, but it's concealed, out of the way, out of my psychological control zone. The railings are right there, open, accessible and visible. And other people are already parked there, too. (As with restaurants, we're more likely to opt for the place that's already populated over somewhere empty.)

Memo to planners: Whatever the artist's impression might have depicted, we'll go for the street furniture by the way in over a five-star bike park round the corner every time. In the world of bike parking, 40m is a long way.

09 March 2009

The long and short of London street names

The great thing about biking is the control over your journey. Nevertheless, sometimes I get stuck and have to entertain myself for 20 minutes or so. On a train that's come to a halt in a tunnel outside Kings Cross, for instance, or waiting for the lights to change on the Elephant and Castle cycle by-pass.

The only thing I have to read on these occasions is often the A to Z in my pannier. So this morning's entertainment was to mine their street index, from Aaron Hill Road, E6 to Zoffany St, N19, for interesting items.

For example, are there any comedy street names, like the now celebrated example of Letsby Avenue in Sheffield? Does London have a Cat Mews, Badminton Court, Good Point, Quick Way or Cumming Close?

Sadly no. It has a Ball Court, EC3, but that's only funny if it was named after someone called Ball and happened to be a court. If there used to be a ball court there then it isn't.

So then I got diverted trying to find the longest and shortest street names.

The longest name appears to Stoke Newington Church Street, N16, at 26 letters and three spaces. OK, so it's not a patch on those main streets in tin-pot Latin American capitals that have names like Avenida del Presidente Doctor Jose Ignacio Rodriguez Garcia y Rodriguez-Rodriguez III.

(Britain's supposed longest name is Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Drive in the New Forest, 34 letters and three spaces. It sounds a pleasant ride if not exactly streetlike.)

As to the shortest, things get more involved. There are any number of six-letter, single-space London names, often arboreal: Kay Way, SE10; The Bye, W3; Oak Row, SW16; Elm Row, NW3; Ash Row, BR2; The Tee, W3. A Yorkshire abbreviator might write that last one as 't T, which really would be short.

There are some short single-names that appear in the index (Kemp, NW9; Kerry, N7; Newby, NW1) but on inspection these turn out to be names of buildings, not streets. We want something we can cycle along.

For which we have Leeway, SE8, six letters and no spaces; Strand, in central London; but shorter and stranger, and still arboreal, Ashen, E6. At five unspaced letters this is even shorter than AB Row** at the junction of Birmingham and Aston (hence the name), often said to be Britain's shortest** two-element street name.

Britain has other five-letter single-name streets. There's a lane bizarrely called Solid (not Solid Lane or Solid Close, just 'Solid') in Huddersfield.

*UPDATE* But London has at least one four-letter, no-space street name: Hide, E6, a short connecting street in a housing development just round the corner from Ashen. So:

London's longest street name Stoke Newington Church Street, N16 (26 letters)
London's shortest street name Hide, E6 (4 letters)

Unless, of course, you've been stuck with an A to Z at a traffic light even longer, and know differently...

**UPDATE** AB Row seems to be beaten by several rows of houses in Forge Side, Blaenavon - see David Earl's comment below.

08 March 2009

King Henry rains

How come the rain coincided exactly with the period we were outdoors today? As soon as we set out we were assaulted by blowpipe-dart drizzle that eventually turned into thunder and lightning. After an hour or so of liquid face embroidery we gave up and headed for home drenched. The fiver in my pocket was papier mâché. Inevitably, as soon as we peeled off wet things and towelled down, the sun came out and it's now all blue skies and chirpy birds outside.

But we did see some quirky things through the monsoon, including an old favourite: the suitably elemental Henry Moore sculpture surprisingly situated in Brandon Estate, Camberwell, spectated by several concrete council blocks. Moore was, of course, a Real Cyclist himself. No doubt, being a Yorkshireman, he'd have dismissed today's downpour as only spottin', and set off in his flat cap to the pub nevertheless.

07 March 2009

Things you find while cycling: money, shoes, knickers

You find all sorts of things when you're out cycling. You come across bits of change in the road all the time, especially for some reason at traffic lights. ASLs can be an unexpected cash cow. BP once found a five pound note at the Elephant and Castle roundabout, and occasionally you find a pound coin, but usually it's dirty old pennies.

I probably see about three or four pennies per week. I'm not superstitious - though I don't cycle under ladders if I can help it - but I'm aware of the old saying 'see a penny, pick it up and all day long you'll have good luck'.

I'm also aware that, if it takes me ten seconds to pick up and clean an encrusted penny, this works out as £3.60 per hour, which isn't even minimum wage. But I don't want to risk missing out on good luck, so I make a point of collecting these stray coppers, which means I'm £0.01 up on the day, and then buying a lottery ticket.

Only small change, I know, but these days, every little helps. A billion here, a billion there - it can soon add up.

But, more curiously, some cycle journeys are one long procession of mysteriously discarded small items of clothing. Some are on the road, others posted up on a railing in case the owner comes back to search for it.

In the space of two miles in Peckham last Thursday evening for example I encountered a red woolly glove, a hairband, a man's white sock and a pair of knickers. What narrative lay behind this trail of sundries-drawer debris I can only guess.

Well, today must have been Footwear Day. I was en route to the Oval Farmer's Market this morning. Within a hundred yards alongside Kennington Park I went past a high-heeled shoe in a front garden (top right), a shoe perched on the park railing (middle right), and a child's blue welly displayed on a wall (right).

The aftermath of a hopping event in the park? Spent missiles, recently hurled Bush-style at a passing politician? Kate Hoey is MP for Vauxhall, so I guess that's plausible.

06 March 2009

Missing boy of four had gone bike touring

Nice story in the Telegraph today about a four-year-old boy who sparked a major police search when he went missing from his Suffolk home. Cole Honeywood - cool name, cool little guy - turned up eventually, and of course he hadn't been abducted or anything. He'd just decided to go for a five-mile bike ride.

Now, I'm not belittling the anguish of his mum. It must be an awful feeling. But I can't help admiring Master Honeywood's sense of adventure. Cole, mate, you're a bike touring natural. We salute you as we promote you to the rank of Real Cyclist.

05 March 2009

Video of today's Kagel performance

Very nice little vid of today's Kagel performance on the Guardian website at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2009/mar/05/bicycle-bell-orchestra, fronted by lapsed oboist Helen Pidd. Chapeaux, Hélène.

I'm not identifiable in it, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Kagel's music for 111 bikes puzzles commuters, delights press

I intended to go along and watch the street performance of Kagel's Eine Brise, for 111 bicycles, this morning. I ended up being pressganged into taking part.

The piece last about 3-4 minutes and requires 111 cyclists to pedal slowly round a short circuit in a town centre. Signs put up at various points instruct them to ring their bells, sing a vowel sound, whistle, make a whooshing noise, go 'rrrrr', or be silent. The organisers had called in the services of some London Chamber Orchestra people who had got hold of the score, couriered from New York, just a day before the performance.

It was all part of the East Festival, which has some more bike-related events over the next few days.

I was out for a birthday breakfast beforehand. Some of the presents were wrapped in that A-Z streetmap paper (top right). Fortunately one of them had just the section I was heading for: Lamb St, by Spitalfields, near Liverpool St station off Bishopsgate.

I was pounced on about 9ish when I arrived by one of the t-shirted organiserettes. They were a bit short of the 111 intended by offbeat composer Mr Kagel - about 90 short, in fact. All those times I've turned up to a performance at Covent Garden or the Coliseum with a part memorised just in case the tenor drops out at the last minute, and at last my chance!

So I was kitted up with a festival t-shirt the colour of a felt tip pen and put through a quick rehearsal by Mark of the London Chamber Orchestra. Most important was the fact that my bike has a bell - mine's tuned to a high E. No, actually, most important is that Carluccio's provided free coffee.

After a couple of run-throughs, we did our performance at about 9.40am to a decent contingent of the world's press. In fact, there were more people behind lenses than there were in front of them.

They demanded an encore. An audience demanding this in a concert hall this would mean we'd been very good. The press demanding this in a shopping precinct meant we'd been rubbish. It meant they needed some decent footage for the 'And finally' section of the Latvian evening news, and they hadn't yet got it. Which meant there was a chance we'd be replaced by YouTube footage of a skateboarding dog.

So we did another run, and this time we nailed it. A lot of these crazy modern performance pieces - whether seriously philosophical like Cage's et al, half-joking like Kagel's, or (to me) utterly weird like Cardew's - fall embarrassingly flat unless you go for it totally, ignoring how silly you feel. And then, curiously, they actually work. (Perhaps an evening performance after half a bottle of wine each, rather than on the way to work in front of bemused suits, might work better.)

And it was all very sociable. I chatted to a friendly lass from Newcastle who was also participating. Well, she claimed to be from Newcastle, but she wasn't wearing only a skimpy t-shirt or high heels, even though it was freezing cold.

We may only have been two dozen cyclists instead of the full Nelson, but, do you know, I think it rather worked. Plus I'm a free lime green festival t-shirt two sizes too small to the good.

So hats off to Mauricio Kagel.

And now I can go and listen to some Shostakovich instead.