Sometimes the obvious isn’t that, obvious! Born and bred a Londoner I infrequently cycle there, in fact because of the obvious issues of traffic and congestion I’ve tried to avoid it. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that London is a very interesting city and all-the-better seen from a bike, even a ‘Boris bike’, which I have yet to experience. But look beyond the obvious, Buckingham Palace, Westminster, the City etc., and a cycle ride can expand even the most familiar view of the city.
And so it was when we decided to take our bikes by car to Woolwich and undertake a circular ride around the River Thames, downstream of Tower Bridge; furthermore, there was a pleasant symmetry in that this ride plugged-the-gap of my Thames cycling experiences along the lower Thames estuary to Margate in 2010 and the upstream ride to Oxford in 2012. The result was a spectacular, interesting and very enjoyable ride.
The starting point was at the Thames Barrier. Operational since 1984, the Barrier was built in response to the threat of tidal floods overwhelming central London, which to-date has been a great success; such is the severity of this threat that I believe there is now a proposal to build an additional barrier further downstream to help assist the one at Woolwich. Apart from the wonder of its engineering, it is a beautiful structure and well worth a visit in its own right.
Undertaken mostly along the banks of the River Thames, the 22-mile ride is flat throughout. Given the history of the area much of the route passes through industrial areas, past and present, interspersed with magnificent stretches of London’s great history and river views at their very best.
Setting off anticlockwise from the Barrier, the industrial wasteland of Woolwich is now being rebuilt with expensive riverside apartments, before the track soon thereafter loops around the North Greenwich Arena – AKA the O2 Arena or in the year 2000 – the Millennium Dome. Looming upwards above the river on the other (north) side of the river from here the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf can be seen. As a teenager in the 1960s I knew the original London Docks as working docks and with astonishment watched their redevelopment in the 1980s and 1990s, subsequently remaining empty for years as a White Elephant. Their eventual success was finally triggered by the provision of communications in the form of the Dockland Light Railway (DLR) and especially the opening of the Jubilee underground line extension; I wish I’d had the nerve to purchase a flat there when I worked at 1 London Bridge in 1986, as the real estate has now literally taken off big time, oh well!
Shortly after the Dome the riverside cycle-walking track runs into Greenwich, until recently a somewhat overlooked district of London. Such is its history you could spend a whole day here, notably at the National Maritime Museum, the Greenwich Observatory and recently refurbished Cutty Sark ship, but this time we mostly confined stops to refreshments. Thereafter, the route continues along riverside sections, with occasional diversions inland on local roads, latterly crossing some of London’s other docks on the southern bank around Surrey Quays and Rotherhithe.
Personally I can’t recommend a stop at the Angel pub in Rotherhithe enough for a bite to eat and refreshments. Dating back to the middle-ages, the view from the current riverside premises is spectacular, especially looking upstream towards Tower Bridge, whilst just across the road are the remains of Richard III’s palace. The final stretch along the south bank runs into the redeveloped district of Butlers Wharf. Today this consists of high-end restaurants, apartments and shops but is nonetheless interesting and attractive.
At this point to route crosses the Thames via the iconic Tower Bridge. The road across is not for the faint hearted and for those not familiar with the location, walking across is an equally good alternative, preferably on the western (upstream side) so as to afford amazing views upstream and into the City, Westminster and immediately in front – The Tower of London. On the other side the ride now turns east to follow, as much as possible, the northern bank of the River Thames heading back downstream.
Frankly without intimate, local knowledge, the route here is a bit of a lottery and towards the end involves some major roads and significant industrialisation – nonetheless, it remains interesting throughout. Immediately east of Tower Bridge St Katherine’s Docks is worth a detour before heading off on the back roads into the ancient districts of Shadwell and Limehouse – in their day important but rough communities of the old London riverside. Today they too have become expensive, and sought after residential areas, how times have changed!
Shortly afterwards the route enters the labyrinthine scenery that pass through the towering offices of Canary Wharf, seen earlier from the south bank at the O2 Arena; at its best this ride is preferably undertaken at weekends when this section will be quieter and more pleasant, unlike during the week when it is full of business workers and traffic. Emerging from Canary Wharf on the east side the route can be difficult to follow and may necessitate taking short sections along pavements in order to avoid heavy traffic but soon afterwards, the roads again quieten and cross a major area of industry before finally arriving at the Woolwich Ferry terminal. Bikes are wheeled onto the free ferry and after a short crossing back to the south bank of the river, it’s time to navigate the final short stretch on the roads back to the start of the ride by the Thames Barrier.