Saturday, October 22, 2005

South Hampstead to Ware

After a grueling week (including two days in Sweden and another two in Woking), I really was really hoping to get a good ride in on Saturday morning. I almost didn't make it, though - the later it got on Friday night at work, the more I started thinking I'd never have it in me to do anything interesting. For me, too, part of the fun is laying out all my kit the night before... and if I couldn't make it home before nine, there didn't seem to be any way I could plan my route and assemble all my stuff for a good adventure.

In the end, though, I did get home just before nine, and I had plenty of time to pull things together. I found my 3/4 length Enduro tights (got em last year: really durable and comfortable, and just right for this time of year); base layer and long-sleeve jersey. Plus my good new jacket, socks and shoes. I also dug up my rack pack and stocked it with a cable lock, a few tools, spare inner tube, and patching bits. I added some nourishment: several Frusili bars (bought by Kim that day at my request), a couple bananas, some raisins, and a pb&j on leftover baguette. Also my Ordnance Survey map and a couple Multimap printouts to set me off on the right track. Finally, I chucked a couple of my new bidons in the washer to try to get some of the plasticky smell out, then set the alarm for 06.00.

My goal was to ride up to Ware in eastern Hertfordshire via the Lee River Navigation. I'd ridden part of the way already, several times. The River Lee starts (or ends?) in East London somewhere, and the navigation intersects with the Grand Union Canal just east of Victoria Park, where I've ridden lots of times. That's the canal that goes very close to us, through Primrose Hill, and around the top of Regents Park. Most often, I've followed the canal past Victoria Park, then headed south to the Docklands and Greenwich via the foot tunnel under the Thames. I've ridden north along the River Lee, though, just a couple times to Waltham Abbey.

This would have been an ideal ride for my Raven, since it's classic tow path surfaces, ranging from nice smooth paving to hard packed gravel to mud and deep puddles. The last time I rode up there was on my Fahrrad, which did well with everything but the mud. I have to admit to some paranoia this time, since the southern-most part of the track goes through some pretty dodgy areas, and I've heard of various muggings and bike thefts around there.

So I decided to bypass the dodgiest bits by riding north through Finchley to Barnet, then east from there along the A110. This plan worked perfectly! I ended up leaving the house at around 06.30, thanks in large part to my night-before preparation and premature waking at around 05.45... I know this route well, since it's also the first part of my regular northern route. Up the Finchley Road to Hampstead Village, then to Kenwood House and The Bishop's Avenue until it dead ends at the A1000. I took that north to the A110, which was reasonable enough; I'd been a little concerned that it would be really busy, and it might have been if it hadn't been at dawn on a Saturday! It was solidly suburbia, though, with one giant eyesore of a semi-detached house after the next. Two displaced countryside features were the Trent Park Equestrian Centre where Kim and I had a hair raising gallop a few years back, and Enfield Town, which is just a cute little village. Otherwise, little of note until arriving at Lee Valley Park and the navigation.

It took a just a little ingenuity to identify how to get to the towpath from the road, which involved crossing the street and following an access road through a funny industrial estate to a giant pub (The Navigation, which seemed either derelict or just down at heel), and onto the path right next to it. The access point was at Ponders End Lock, which is four miles south of Waltham Abbey (according to the signposting, which also indicated that I was now on National Cycle Route 1).

So far, I'd ridden almost exactly 15 miles, which was about what I would have expected. And it was just past 07.30 then, so I was also maintaining a pretty good pace. It was properly light by this time, but still not many people around, except for the odd angler here and there. They tended to congregate in clumps because fishing is not allowed in many areas (most worryingly at the points where electrical wires are over the canal, and with signs indicating that the fish "may be affected"); in my experience, they pretty much tolerate cyclists and vice versa, but there's no cordial "good mornings" between us.

I have to admit that I've not explored all that much of Lee Valley Park; in fact, I've only once or twice strayed off the Navigation at all. Seems like a worthy pursuit, though; there's a great variety of sporting facilities, parkland, farms, and other stuff to explore. There's also the Lee Valley Cycle Circuit, which I've never actually seen, but seems like fun for the more velocity-minded. I believe that the area could be redeveloped for the Olympics, so it's probably worth having a look soon.

I know that some cycle tourists think riding endlessly along canal towpaths is monotonous, and I can understand that. But for the 15 or so miles from Ponders End to Ware, it was certainly enough to keep my interest. There were a dozen or so horses grazing along the first leg, and lots and lots of swans, geese, and ducks all along the way (which kept me thinking about bird flu, unfortunately). The locks are always interesting - Ponders End is number 14, and they count down to number 1 in Ware, so there were plenty of them too. Also some specific points of interest that I didn't stop to experience, like historical Waltham Abbey and the village, Broxborne Village, and other curiosities. It'd be great to do with the girls and do some real sight-seeing one of these days. It would also be nice to stop at one of the many pubs along the route like the Fish & Eel.

My only real mishap I can honestly put down to my own bravado, combined with what I believe to be a bottomless puddle. I was having great fun trucking along a stretch of hard-packed earth with lots of puddles when my front wheel somehow went out from under me and I went down hard. My left bar-end and pedal took the brunt of the impact from the bike's point of view; I broke the fall with my left hand/forearm and left hip. The sensation was similar to the one I experienced in the Alps this summer - mostly confusion and embarrassment (though no one witnessed this fall, fortunately), followed by regret over my irresponsibility. This fall is slightly more excusable, but I probably shouldn't have been going so fast (probably 17mph or so).

My bike was a little muddied up at the points of impact but otherwise unaffected; but there were two casualties: me and my brand new jacket. Interestingly, that was my first thought - did I tear my new £200 Gore Tex jacket? It was substantially muddy, and indeed, I did manage a little tear; but the rip-stop fabric seems to have lived up to its name, and I should be able to patch it with without too much trouble. My own injuries will also heal, of course, but I managed to do something pretty gruesome to my left pinky, trading much of the skin and a little of the nail for a bit of mud. I also took some skin off my elbow, but nothing nearly as severe as the last time. My fingers are a bit stiff (particularly at night when they haven't been moving), but I was lucky to make it out of that one more or less in tact.

So after 15 miles on the towpath I reached Ware. I'd set it as my destination because it's the last village within the bounds of the park, and also since it shares its name with the Massachusetts town where lots of my maternal relations lived. It's been so long since I've been to the US version (almost 20 years!) that I'd be hard pressed to make any real comparisons unfortunately. This one, though, for all of its touristy trappings, seems to be little more than another sweet old village desperately trying to cling to its small-town quaintness as the high street goes one-way and family-run shops are replaced by Boots and Dixons.

Maybe on my next visit I'll have to take a closer look. This time, though, I pedaled through town and on to the train station and waited a half hour for the service to London, which I took as far as Seven Sisters. I had intended to go all the way to Liverpool Street and ride home from there, but it occurred to me that the bike and I were both so muddy that it might be a good idea to banish it into our self-storage space in Holloway. Which is what I did, and in my day's only real cop-out, I took a taxi home (I was wearing my cleats, precluding any long walking, is how I rationalised the £10 I spent).

In addition to having a good ride and a moderate adventure (which I certainly did), my other goal was to scope out the route for a possible ride with Gem, and I believe it seems suitable. There are barriers positioned every few miles to keep motorbikes out, though, which nixes the trailer, but it would be fine with the bike seat - also more interesting for Gem. The real issue is how to get to the route from our house. There are a few possibilities. We could bike to a suitable train station and take the One line up to Waltham Abbey or one of the nice stops to the south; we could (shudder!) hire a car and drive to a good start-stop point; or we could do virtually the whole thing traffic-free if we were to ride out on the Grand Union Canal and head north from there. This does raise a safety issue, though I'm not convinced that the lower part of the Lee Navigation is really any less safe than any of the other bits. One thing's for sure: it wouldn't be a good idea to attempt a long ride like that (especially if we have a night at a B&B in Ware before coming back the way we came).

With the days shortening and weather on the decline, it will probably be next spring before we can manage it - so I'll need to find a suitable riding partner before then.

No comments: