Routes

IMG_2190

In planning our future long distance rides in Australia, Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and Japan we’ve traced a route on our maps with a winding line that can measure the length of time we need to travel. The list of countries and distances looks exhausting even before we’ve turned a pedal. We know, from other cycling adventures, not to overestimate the number of kilometres at the start of a journey when we’re tired from finishing work and packing to depart. This, combined with our untested fitness, can make the beginning of any cycle trip difficult but this time there should be no need to rush.

Our planned routes and timelines allow for a gradual start. We plan not to ride more than 60-80km per day letting our legs and cadences find themselves as we pedal. There is no need to ‘push’ all day but if there is a fair wind behind we might go a bit further or complete two days in the space of one, giving time elsewhere to stop and linger. I imagine when we’re pedalling in the outback we might stop to camp in ‘nowhere’ and just decide the following day to stay put. We’ll potter about, write our journals, sketch a bit, and eat and rest before continuing. I’m looking forward to this kind of day when we take stock of where we are, being content with the moment and place we’ve arrived in.

On the various cycle routes around London it always seems so frenetic to ride even when I know the roads so well. Recently, I’ve tried to alter my navigational strategy of ‘what I know’ to ride to ‘what I don’t know’, to find out new routes and places in the capital. This alternative was inspired by a period of running, as if in a hamster’s wheel, around Chestnut Park. To avoid the repeating tedium I began to run elsewhere, exploring the side streets and roads off the park down which I’d never travelled. I discovered lots – a local library which I joined, other small corner shops, green spaces, pocket sized allotments, wonderful graffiti, the house with two dildos on an upstairs window, a pedestrian route into a small cul-de-sac, a front garden art installation and a corrugated iron chapel.

So accordingly, with my recent new commute to a construction site near Victoria station, I’ve searched out an alternative route from South Tottenham. The journey takes me across Green Lanes and then up behind Finsbury Park and Kentish Town before dropping me down to Camden Market and onto the Regent’s Canal towpath taking me around to Paddington, crossing Edgware Road and Connaught Square and on into Hyde Park, down into Belgravia and finally Victoria. It is a good 16km (10 miles) and avoids nearly all heavy traffic. The best bit is the towpath which passes through London Zoo. Occasionally, as I pass on my rides, I hear the odd grunt or smell from an exotic but unseen animal which momentarily transports me to the African savannah from the early morning mists along the canal’s waterside. All of this I would have miss if I’d not bothered to explore another route and had continued to follow the bus lanes into town.

The pencilled lines on our maps act as our initial guides to our journey, their trajectories helping us to spin off to find other kinds of ‘Zoos’. For now they simply organise our time, distance and direction, so we know where we might like to go when we start to ride. The lines trace roads, tracks and pathways, across contours and towns that we do not yet know or recognise. For now, we can only just imagine these places and it is this which is of course their attraction – to actually go and find out what they might be like.

Le Coq Sportive

IMG_0023

Washing my cycling cap after a week of pedalling from South Tottenham to Victoria I was reminded of the long weekend spent in Abingdon outside Oxford to celebrate Fiona’s 50th birthday.

I’d cycled there from London choosing a route that took me along the Grand Union Canal before heading across the Vale of Oxford, tracing and re-crossing lanes we’d previously bicycled. Its a strange sensation when making a journey to realise you’re transversing the memory and place of another. It can happen along any byway, with a pattern of road junctions or a visual reminder of a mighty oak tree, that clicks the memory of other travels like a familiar echo.

The canal’s towpath avoided the arterial roads of London by ducking behind flyovers and greened embankments as it snaked the contours of the land. Pedalling proceeded steadily, uninterrupted by walkers, fishermen, and other cyclists, as I moved ever westward. The sunlight sparkled off the canal’s waterway, bouncing light onto the underside of passing bridges with only the waterfowl’s splashes breaking the progressive quietness as I moved ever further from the capital.

It was a good route to follow. I arrived that afternoon at the campsite, close to the house that had been rented for Fiona’s party, where Yasmin and I were to meet. After her arrival the next day we discovered the Hinksey Outdoor Swimming Pool and then the UBYK bike shop on Abingdon Road. The visit to the pool was a welcome relief after our respective rides to swim, stretch and relax before meeting everyone that evening. The bike shop, on the way back from the pool, offered much aesthetic distraction and the immediate purchase of the aubergine burgundy Le Coq Sportive cycling cap from a colourful display of many others. The shop’s black minimalist walls displayed bicycle frames as works of art, spot lit and hung against contrasting dark interiors, as if in an art gallery.

The cap is now well worn and battered. The white lettering and Le Coq motif are slowly pealing away with the white stripe up top becoming an off white dull grey. Happily the cap still fits my head perfectly despite the miles and its many launderings.

Marmite architecture

 

I met Martin McGinn, an artist I’d collaborated with on an art installation at a private view at the l’etrangere gallery off Old Street roundabout. It was good to be invited and to see him. He paints the most interesting pictures always with clever underlying themes. Recently, he’s competed a series of still lifes of art history books or crumpled pages torn from art magazines to poke fun at the weighty tombs and revered subjects they choose to depict, for example say Constable’s ‘The Hay Wain’ or a Rembrandt self portrait. The discernible subjects on the crumpled pages are rendered with strong brush strokes in a realistic manner as if Martin was representing a conventional bowl of fruit. The paintings are small and finely balanced compositions and at a first glance appear conservative, as any other still life painting, until their subject matter is investigated.

We drank beer from bottles and caught up on each others news. The show was a collection of artists interested in depicting themes relating to the idea of art history and was the reason why Martin was showing at the gallery. I talked about leaving architecture to take a break to go cycling and he told me about his new explorations into abstraction. I updated him on the latest architectural projects I’d been busy with and he about the 3 dimensional qualities of oil paint on canvas. We talked briefly about the artist Frank Auerbach, and thick paint generally, and then on to his journey that evening from the tube station to the gallery for the show.

Martin recounted that as he left the tube at street level he’d noticed a striking building to the north on City Road. He began to describe the M for Montcalm, a building I’d been involved with, which had been shortlisted for Building Design’s ‘Carbuncle Cup’, an architectural journal’s annual award for the most ugly building. I’d previously encountered people who’d start to talk to me about their objections to this building and I’d have to either try to defend it or lie claiming no knowledge about it at all, depending on the ferocity of their opinions. I held my breath as Martin continued his tale. He began to describe the building’s facade and the twisted grid that gives the elevations a false perspective and their ambiguity. He wondered aloud in the gallery as to what had inspired its design to give such a curious shape and form?

At last I was meeting someone who appreciated the hotel, that understood its design and what this was trying to do. The building sits on the curve of City Road as it turns southward to Old Street roundabout. It is tall and angular with a facade that rises up like a ship’s bow or mediaeval bastion above the traffic congestion and pollution below. The facade consists of multiple layers of glass treated with differing textures of fritting, etching and translucency to give the flat envelope to the enclosure, depth. The clear facade openings occur randomly ensuring there are no ‘window to hotel room’ monotonies that can make many hotels appear prison-ish. The triangular shape of the site plan and resulting elevations, forms an external grid which makes a series of alternating patterns of oblong glazed panels, stacked but for ever appearing to slide across the elevations, as if they were the blinds to a bedroom window. The false perspective that this in turn creates, makes the shape of the building at first difficult to grasp and immediately arresting amongst the ordinary townscape surrounding it.

It was a relief that Martin liked the building but he was surprised that I’d been involved with it as it is  so very different from the architecture that the practice I work for normally do. I told him about how one of my colleagues went past the building with his young son who when prompted commented that it was like ‘Marmite architecture, you’d either love it or hate it’. This seemed in retrospect a good description of its architecture which was pushing the boundaries of what the project and context could possibly do to try and make an interesting building on a difficult site. And on this, Martin and I both agreed.