'If you can confidently say you know a city, you are
probably talking about a town. A metropolis is, by definition inexhaustible.'
– A Tiny Idea Is Formed
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.”
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.
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.
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.
a mini-break but you don't stay over,” I said.
I get it,” said the Norwegian.
mini-break but smaller,” I said.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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,
“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,
“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.
“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?”
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
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