An uncivilised hour finds me sharing a strategic bend of the river with Waterloo Bridge. The giant bicycle wheel parked in idle down the embankment won't begin its sedate cadence hauling tourists into the sky till later in the morning. The last time I was here it was in the company of several hundred other cyclists keen to launch their monthly crusade on the streets of London. Presently I am a critical mass of one, with the goal of ending the day by dipping my wheels into the sea. Both of 'em: I'm not riding a unicycle.
There is no place in Britain which is so landlocked that the tang of salty air can't be tingling one's nose with a reasonable expenditure of pedalling effort. Although I don't use a midget computer with creeper vine trailing down the forks, or have the credentials to competently operate a ruler and a map, I estimate a 70 mile journey ahead of me were all the folds in my itinerary to be ironed out. Thus the hour; thus my urge to be on my way as there are a few hills and there's a lot of history to be got through on the journey south.
First stop: the Victorian Jurrasic Park in Crystal Palace. Given the level of traffic density the handful of miles separating me from this urban lung passes in a breeze and almost before I give it a second thought I'm walking with dinosaurs. The sculptor Benjamin Hawkins worked closely with various eminent Victorians to create the world's first prehistoric sculptures, which inhabit one of the park's watering holes. Alas, they aren't very accurately rendered - no one's going to run screaming from them - but they caused a stir amongst those of a less-evolved scientific viewpoint when set loose in 1854, half a dozen years before Darwin's publishing bombshell.
The area is named after the mammouth glass structure erected in 1851 in Hyde Park to sunnily house the international expo which famously showcased the fruits of the industrial revolution to an entranced public. At 18 acres a Triceratops could have comfortably roamed inside, perhaps putting paid to the evolutionary debate once and for all. Indeed it was the first stomping grounds of this statuesque but tame variety. The Millennium Dome of its day ("A transparant humbug and a bauble" according to one MP), though not quite the same white elephant, the palace was never meant to be a permanent addition to the West End. When the Exposition ended it was rebuilt south of the river as a result of negotiations with a railway entrepeneur; Crystal Palace station is of grandios dimensions inside.
Back on my bike, I wend my way southeast through the outer reaches of the metropolis, cross the M25 moat filled with its own familiar beasts, and find myself in the shadow of Winston Churchill.
Just below the ring road sits Chartwell, former home of the prime minister, Nobel-prize winning author and century-straddling political-party-hopping icon rolled into one world class cigar-chomping curmudgeon. It reposes in National Trust splendor overlooking some of the most beautiful countryside the Kent Weald has to offer, pulling the punters eager for a taste of wartime brandy sipped by the roaring fire of historical anecdote. If you must needs escape the weight of all that achievement and wish to tug the great man back down to earth a bit, you can visit the exhibition of his paintings, which are... nice.
An almost sinfully pleasant spin down the lanes to nearby Hever Castle brings me into the orbit of Henry VIII, a Churchill prototype in terms of girth and glowering who surely would've enjoyed a good Havana had it been offered. Reputedly Anne Boleyn and the oversexed but underheired king trysted here. After the unfortunate business with the headsman it was granted to Anne of Cleves two wives down the pike. Not far away from Hever is the Chidding Stone (village of same name but connected up), believed by some to be a venue of punishments far less severe than Henry's for those found guilty of various medieval misdemeanors.
As I set myself in the direction of Tunbridge Wells, it occurs to me as it no doubt has to others in the past that the bicycle is the perfect time machine: Two wheels self-propelled by a sense of destiny, or at least this morning's muesli, through the landscape of collective memory at a very human pace, simply cannot be beat.
In 1606 the hypochondriac Dudley, Lord North brought the mild chalybeate (iron containing) spring waters to the attention of a public eager for health-giving elixers especially when provided gratis by mother nature. Thus was a village born, and grew apace. The fashionable set later commenced a mannered stampede down to this picturesque intersection of Kent and Sussex, which became absolutely the place to see and be seen when Beau Nash decamped from Bath for pleasure grounds anew in the 1730s, hauling a veritable encyclopedia of etiquette with him.
The original Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells must be Princess Anne, whose son took a tumble during a perambulation in 1698. She insisted that the path be paved, which it duly was - unfortunately not until after her next visit. Blue blood aboil, she never set foot there again. A shame, as the tripping youth inadvertantly gave birth to the Pantiles, now a chief tourist attraction. King Edward VII took a change of direction in 1909 by crowning it 'Royal', but nobody calls it that anymore except guide book writers.
Today it's a bustling administrative center with 60k+ inhabitants, a mall, and a serious tailback when I come cruising through in the afternoon, tyres humming happily (or perhaps that's me), parched but not with much of a taste for rusty water. My thirsty dilemma is soon resolved and I'm back on the road uphill out of town.
I know this stretch of countryside well, as I used to live in T. Wells and later moved ten or so miles as the crow flies to my next destination: Burwash. A century ago a local rector took time off from shepherding his flock to pen 'Sussex Folk and Sussex Ways', which included the wonderful rhyme:
Pork and cabbage all the year,
Rudyard Kipling, among others. The internationally famous writer took up residence in Batemans in 1902 and called it home until his death 34 years later. He wrote of his first visit of the dark but charming old house "We had seen an advertisement of her, and we reached her down an enlarged rabbit-hole of a lane. At very first sight the Committee of Ways and Means said: "That's her! The Only She! Make an honest woman of her quick!" As I turn the corner from the self-same rabbit hole of a lane I spot a cat emerging successful from the hunt: fresh kill from Pook's Hill.
Speaking of hills... it's a two-mile climb up to Brightling, a wide spot in the road complete with its own pyramid. You may be forgiven if you don't mistake this oddity for the eighth wonder of the world, though it's an impressive neighbour to the church tower. This is the final resting place of 'Mad Jack' Fuller, village squire during the Georgian era. Jack was a follybuilder extraordinaire; some of his handiwork is still extant scattered around the rolling terrain. He was a staunch Conservative (not much change in the political landscape), elected to parliament thrice, and also known by the nickname 'Hippopotamus' due to the 22 stone he carried. Underneath his bust in the church is the inscription: "Nothing is of use which is not honest". He ended his political career in a torrent of wild commotion during a parliamentary debate of a disastrous military campaign in which he more or less lost his wits and had to be taken into custody by the Sergeant at Arms.
Somewhat calmed afterwards, he turned a new leaf and devoted the rest of his life to cultural pursuits, including the patronage of acquaintance J.M.W. Turner.
Leaving Jack's pyramid behind I roll into Battle of 1066 fame, whose high street is a no-man's land of bottlenecked traffic. The field of broken dreams is now under the stewardship of English Heritage and still subject to constant invasion by the French. Here I also suffer my first casualty of the trip: a flat tyre courtesy of a nail (for want of which a kingdom was lost, etc.) Of course it's the rear wheel which is afflicted; it could be no other. I study this fresh development, wishing it away, but finally conclude that if wishes were bicycles I would indeed be riding by now.
Glueless patch in place, my itinerary next jogs across the map to Herstmonceaux Castle. In 1957 The Royal Greenwich Observatory took up residence in the environs due to atmospheric and light pollution in the Smoke. However, by the late 1970s this window on the sky was similarly misted up, so the 100-inch Isaac Newton telescope was shipped to the summit of an extinct volcano in the Canary Islands for better viewing conditions. The complex is now a hands-on science centre stocked with fascinating exhibits that even adults can't help but compete with the sprogs to try. Unfortunately my trip to my inner child is cut short with the mental alarm that the sun is hanging ever lower in the sky. I fairly race over the Pevensey Levels, which live admirably up to their name, in a final sprint to the coast. At last: the sea.
The primordial soup, this salty broth which served as amniotic fluid for our less sophisticated forebears, has ever held a strong attraction to inhabitants of this island nation. Cyclists in particular are susceptable to its bracing charms. My bicycle is aluminium so won't rust; were it possible I'd continue ever onward, skipping over the waves like a silver dolphin. I wonder how Bryan Allen felt as he piloted the Gossamer Albatross across the channel by the grace of pedal power and almost unbelievable stamina.
My trip down memory lanes has had its personal element. I used to live not terribly far from Waterloo Bridge and have slowly inched my way down the map to my current residency in Mad Jack's old constituency. It's likely that's as far south as I'll be settling in.
In the distance to the west rise the South Downs, delicately lovely in the evening light and a fitting backdrop to a journey which earlier in the day included straddling their North Downs cousins.
Pevensey Bay is where William the Conquerer actually landed with his wrecking crew before marching into Battle (called Senlac Hill at the time) and our history books. The first thing he did on arrival was trip and fall on his face. In a deft save he picked himself up clutching handfuls of sand to declare "I now take hold of the land of England!" A thousand years later this stretch has turned into a housing development. That's progress for you.
I succeed in my own more modest seige of the beach. My faithful mount gets a taste of dusk-dappled water before I lie back and take hold of a bit of England, myself.
Cycle, August-September 2005