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Micro-Breaks
Jenny Wight
1/5/2009



Greenwich view

'If you can confidently say you know a city, you are probably talking about a town. A metropolis is, by definition inexhaustible.'

-Peter Carey

 

Micro-breaks – A Tiny Idea Is Formed

The Norwegian and I had planned a classic mini-break--a bank holiday weekend in Devon, camping just behind the beach at Croyde, surfing and eating pasties. But our mini-break broke with a phone call from the car hire place saying “there is no car.”

 

Facing a broken girlfriend on his return from work, the Norwegian whisked me out to Yum Yum and after stuffing our faces with Tamarind Duck, minty Thai spring rolls and the best part of a bottle of Pinot Grigio, spirits were revived.

 

“What shall we do tomorrow?” asked the Norwegian reaching for the wine. A whole weekend in London stretched before us with no plans. This was unheard of.

 

“Actually, I have an idea,” I said.

 

London, some say, is a collection of villages and it's true that people tend to stay in and around their village, straying out under duress to go to work or 'town'. So using the NFT London guide as a--well--guide, I thought we could pick a few areas to explore.




Greenwich view

“Like a mini-break but you don't stay over,” I said.

“Yeah I get it,” said the Norwegian.

“A mini-break but smaller,” I said.

“A micro-break!”

“Brilliant.”

 

And thus the micro-break was born. The beauty of the micro-break is that it can be themed, like a mini-break. So you could have sightseeing, gourmet, lazy, adventure, dirty, shopping, sports... the list goes on.

 

Since then we have gone on chi-chi micro-breaks to Portobello, Holland Park and Knightsbridge. This was the day after the fateful Mayoral elections when BoJo was voted in and we kicked of the day with some graffiti in Clissold Park (no it wasn't us) summing up how everyone in Hackney felt about it.

 

We'd also been on a graffiti spotting micro-break ranging over Shoreditch, Hoxton and Brick Lane and an outdoorsy micro-break climbing in The Castle, cycling down to London Fields and going for an open air swim in the wonderful Lido before heading to the Pub in the Park for that essential of all outdoor breaks, a pint in the sunshine wearing sweaty mud stained clothes. Bliss.

 

Our most recent micro-break was our most ambitious: A combination of outdoorsy and sightseeing. Cycling from Hackney along the Regent's Canal to Limehouse, through the Isle of Dogs, under the river to Greenwich and then back again. It took six and a half hours.




Mudchute

A Passage to Limehouse

Ah, the joy of cycling along the Regent's Canal on a sunny Sunday morning, smiling at the other cyclists, the swish of tires over the toes of pedestrians, the insistent honk of the coots and sharp hiss of a can of White Lightening being popped by one of the canal's accommodationally-challenged bench utilisers.

 

Regent's Canal is a mighty swoop of manmade river joining Paddington in the west with Docklands in the east. Apart from an annoying section around the Angel where you have to join the road, it's all traffic-free and becoming more and more popular with cyclists and walkers. There have been 33 complaints and reported accidents in the last year with bikes banging into people, or other cyclists and if we don't slow down, we may lose the right to cycle.

 

So we cycled along being all polite to the pedestrians and their slow ramblings. What with that Sunday being the only sunny Sunday we'd had for months, it was rammed. As we swooshed along, the clonking of the loose slabs turned the tow path into a giant concrete xylophone. We ducked into the mighty Victoria Park, the sun backlighting the early autumn leaves. Back on the canal we hit a quiet stretch with misty breath on the water and the trees leaning and stretching in the wind. Hackney, like most of London, has its beautiful moments, if you give it a chance.

 

Then Mile End Park was upon us and on towards the tangle of docks and apartment blocks in the Limehouse basin. It is another world, all characterless walkways, patterned brickwork and dull railings. The odd boat makes the whole thing bearable. I'd never realised that there were beautiful railings, until I'd my eyes had been assaulted by the rash of unpleasing ones all around Limehouse.




Tree-touchers

We stopped to check the map and unpack the water bottle in a little slither of park in the heart of Limehouse surrounded by ridiculously bland balconied new-builds and watched an elderly Bengali man walking across a rather pointless bridge. He was soon overtaken by a 30-something jogger pushing a state-of-the-art buggy. The man had sunglasses, a baseball hat and the tell-tale white trails of an i-pod. The kid was squinting into the sun, his mouth a grim straight line, holding his juice box up to shield his eyes.


Jus-Fabulous Park

It’s the sheep that get me. The sheep and the expanse of grass fringed with mature trees that's more like moor than anything I've seen in London, or anywhere other than a frickin' Dartmoor actually. After negotiating the Canary Wharf landmark of the ridiculous traffic signals sculpture (it is 8 meters tall with 75 working traffic light heads--more than the whole of Newham put together), and a series of soulless antiseptic back streets in Canary Wharf, we crossed Millwall Inner Dock to Cross Harbour. It was rougher again, and though uglier, I breathed a sigh of relief going past the familiar sign for an Asda car park. This is the London I know. Then all was turned on its head as we went up a path, over a gate and then Toto… where the f'ck were we now?

 

The sounds of the traffic died away, the warm breeze rippled the grass and a sheep came at me with bulging eyes, smelly woolly body and barges passed my bike to get to a tasty bit of grass near the fence. Where has London gone? Who plonked this farm in the middle of the Isle of Dogs? Why do the sheep need ASBOs? I didn't like the fakeness of Limehouse and Docklands, but I do love what they've done, or rather not done, with Mudchute. Darling, it's fabulous.

 

We cycled over the bumpy field, avoiding large crusty cow pats and jumped off our bikes. There were wooden fenced enclosures filled with animals; large chickens with cumbersome feathered feet, pale donkeys and pygmy goats (micro-goats--how appropriate). There were more than one or two unbearably cute children trying feed the donkeys handfuls of grass and sherbet dip dabs and the like.

 

We had come to Mudchute Farm as we'd heard the cafe was pretty good and as we sat at one of the wooden trestle tables in the large expanse between farmhouse buildings and stables, we stared in wonder. There we were, surrounded by a scrum of middle class children and their parents. There were crocs EVERYWHERE. Young girls in jodhpurs strode past older women carrying riding crops--real riding crops—and called hello to each other. Why, it was so pleasant we could almost have been in the Home Counties. We didn’t even have to chain our bikes.




Regent's Canal

I went inside to try to order two farmhouse breakfasts, homemade lemonades and lashings of tea. There was a bit of a queue and the staff look harried. I stepped forward, but one of the pushy mothers nipped in front of me and ordered jam sandwiches, “Look, only a £1 Alfie!” She had a grey and blue striped scarf wrapped tightly around her neck. I wondered how annoying a person you had to be before your accessories start to turn against you.

 

My turn at last. The Spanish waitress looked at me with a creased brow. “Lashings?” she said in a wondering voice and I realised Ms J. Sandwiches is possibly not the only annoying customer she has had to deal with that day. As I walked back to the table I imagined my shoe laces untying and twisting around my ankles trying to pull me over.

 

The Curious Incident of the Tourist and the Cliche

A couple of lefts and a couple of rights later and we were in Island Gardens on the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs gazing across the sparkling expanse of Thames to Greenwich. This view, made famous by Canaletto, is spectacular. There aren't many better views than this. Unless you go, under the river via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, into Greenwich Park, up the hill to the Royal Observatory and look back.

 

On the top of the hill, surrounded by, oh, about a million tourists, we sat admiring the view that we'd just been part of. Just behind us, the statue of General Wolfe looked down the hill and over the river. I pondered the changes his cold eyes had seen, the upward climb of skyscrapers, the inflation of the whitehead-like Indigo2 (Millennium Dome as was), the erection of the bulbous Gherkin. I was just about the lean over and say as much to the Norwegian, admiring my philosophical turn of thought when I heard behind me “Just think of the changes that this view has gone through in the last hundred or so years.” There was a German and an American behind us, possibly students.




Regent's Canal

“Yeah, what a different view, right?”

“But one hundred years ago we might not have even been able to see over the Thames (pronounced to rhyme with James). I read it was very polluted.”

What in a Sherlock Holmes novel, I thought.

“Even more than now? I don't know how anyone lives here.” They laughed as they moved off.

 

“If they don't like it here they can just bloody well leave us to it,” I said to the Norwegian through gritted teeth.

“What?”

“Those bloody tourists.”

“Look at them all queuing up to get a photo standing on the Meridian line. Bloody idiots.”

The Norwegian glanced at his watch. “Hungry?”




Regent's Canal

Crouching Tree-Touchers, Hidden Pub-Goers

Down the hill we went, the calf squeezing assent giving us a freewheeling delight, on the way down. We stopped to look at rows of magnificent, ancient oaks and a small white sign. It said that people found touching the trees may be removed from the park and charged with criminal damage. I didn't realise tree touching was such a problem in our Royal parks. Were there other flora related crimes that I, in my distracted busy life had missed? Fern fondling or grass groping perhaps? And what is Boris doing about it all? That's what I want to know.

 

At the bottom of the hill we circumnavigated the packed roads heading North to the river and I realised I was feeling a bit lost; we were outside the NFT coverage. How would I know where I was going? What to do? In the spirit of Captain James Cook and other British explorers I asked the Norwegian. Yeah there was a nice pub, the Trafalgar something, on the river. It was large and a bit of a tourist trap, but with good beer at least it could get away with the nautical theme unlike many a pub. Pints in hand we sat on a bench by the river. The last of the warmth was draining from the air and we got our raincoats out of the panniers. My pint of gang-banger ale was going down well.

 

I was warm and cosy on the bench with my pint and aching legs. But home called. The journey back was uneventful and as we made our way west admiring the looming gas holders framing the setting sun, I thought, another micro-break well executed. Where next? I wondered. Well I've never been to Chiswick.




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