Tony Fincham leads, teaches, poses questions.
On Sunday morning I was making humous. Not what I usually do on Sunday mornings, but as I had to be somewhere on time, the temptation to be late was just too much. 9am: meet with fellow riders outside the library and cycle 26 miles to Eltham and back. Chickpeas on the simmer, I juiced lemons, chopped garlic and chillies, ate breakfast, peaked nervously at the clock.
Two minutes past nine, a phone call from Gerhard. ‘Hi, I thought you weren’t coming… yes, I’m leaving right now. I’m out the door!’ I struggled with the jar of tahini. It wouldn’t open. ‘A guy just called me, he’ll be late,’ Gerhard said. ‘He’s coming with his son. They’ll be there at 9.20. Can you ask everyone to wait?’ ‘No worries, I’ll tell’em.’ With Gerhard off the hook, I let out a groan as I twisted my body trying to twist the bloody jar open. Three minutes of cursing and smashing pots and pans later, I was out the door. Another three minutes, I was at the library. That’s 9.08am. Whoever invented 9am must have been off his saddle.
No such problems for Tone. He was already there, in a blue sun hat. I should have taken mine too, I was burning after Saturday’s ride. At least remembered to take my cycling cap. Mat Simpson was also there. And Sandra. I had met Sandra at the bicycle recycling centre. That’s where she heard about the ride.
Soon Mark and Leif, the awaited father and son, turned up – preceded by two other father-and-son cycling combos who didn’t want to join our ride. They came for the Romanian charity ride round the corner.
We took off at the same time as the charity riders. Tony set a good pace and led us down Selbourne Walk and Coppermill Lane through the Walthamstow Marshes. Here we finally separated from the charity riders. We followed the tow paths up until Limehouse and then headed for the foot tunnel to Greenwich. On the south side we walked our bikes through a maze of one-way roads and a beehive of reposeful populace. At the top of the Greenwich hill we spread out on the grass, waiting for our seventh rider, Adrian.
From there Tony led us to the Well Hall Estate, aka Progress Estate: a development of 1200 houses built in the picturesque style over just ten months in 1915. ‘And why would these houses have been built here at that time?’ Tony asked dramatically. We didn’t know. He took a while letting us wonder.
And what’s near here? The right answer turned out to be Woolwich. And what was in Woolwich? Munition works. Aha, these houses were built for the workers who banged out Britain’s weapons. We were impressed. By the beauty of it, and by the nation’s ability to create quality housing in such a short time, at such a time. Bring on the Jerries!
After this detour we rode on and soon we arrived at the Eltham Palace. O shock and horror, Eltham Palace has no cycling parking!!! We were politely asked not to lock more than three bicycles to the wooden fence by the entrance. Where shall we stick our bikes, then, we asked politely, drawing little attention to the loaded word ‘stick’. We were politely shown the disabled car park. We hobbled there, only to find out nothing to lock the bikes to. We requested an alternative. And finally what had to happen, happened: we were taken to the bins. That is where the bicycles belonged. Courteously, we were invited to leave comments in the visitors’ book.
Eltham Palace is a bizarre place. Thoroughly modern – all the newest tech in 1930s looks still fairly standard today – and in the , but quaintly ornamental style of Art Deco, the dying throes of elegant decoration before it gave way to glass and concrete. Funnily enough, one of the chief interior designers was Swedish. (Why is that funny, someone will ask. I say, old chap, is all your furniture inherited?)
The gardens are gorgeous and so diverse, although not very large. There are bits of stunning landscaping, and bits of Arcadian simplicity – naturally sprezzatura. The sun was blissful.
After two hours we hopped back on our bikes and rode home largely along the same route. The only difference being, the tow paths were packed. A true non-motorised gridlock, yet somehow different: not stressed-out drivers hidden in their metal cages, but relaxed strollers and cyclists, enjoying the sun by the canal, dreamily wobbling along. Will this be the highway of the future?