Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Barking, Bazalgette, Camden & Canals

OK, I promised a post on route planning this week, but I have been sidetracked (again). Last Sunday was blazing hot and so I took the opportunity to explore a bit more of london on two-wheels.

Outer-London is hard work for cycling and those who have read this blog before know that I like to do a long run into Town every so often. I couldn't do my usual run to Borough Market on Saturday, but with a great weather forecast for Sunday, I made Camden Town my destination. The route I picked made for a very interesting and slightly lost day out!

Much of The Northern Outfall Sewer is built within an embankment
so that there is a fall from one end to the other. This is one of the
tenets of civil engineering - shit flows downhill!
Image from Sewer History website.
So, with Ranty Junior in tow, we threw the bikes in the car and headed to our favourite starting point at River Road, Barking, one end of Cycle Superhighway 3. Yes, I know this was a cycle ride, but the car got us to a safe starting point, which is a little sad. The reason for starting here was that I wanted to ride the East London Greenway which runs from Beckton Sewage Treatment Works to just beyond the Olympic Park.

I was then planning to ride through Victoria Park to pick up the Hertford Union Canal and then in turn the Regent's Canal which would take us to Camden Town, with a little bit of a diversion at the Islington Tunnel where the canal is not accessible by bike. I was then planning to go and take a look at Royal College Street which has been revamped for cycling, before heading home. In all, about 28 miles and the longest ride for Ranty Junior.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette.
Image from New Civil Engineer.
First, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, an unsung hero of Victorian civil engineering who built a huge network of sewers in London during the mid to late 1800s with the network still very much in use today. 

Read up on his fascinating story for yourself, but the point of mentioning him is that his Northern Outfall Sewer, still in use for its original purpose, now doubles as a fantastic route for walking and cycling - the East London Greenway.

The Greenway makes use of the sewer embankment to provide a direct leisure route between Beckton and Stratford and is in effect, a linear park. For cycling, the ride quality is pretty good for the most part, but there are plenty of interruptions by roads and many gates to go through (much of it is closed overnight as with other parks).

The start of the Greenway at Beckton.
Wide, surfaced and quite Roman in it's approach to geometry.

Interrupted by the A13 and the first of several horrible gates.
As safe as cycling gets for kids.
The barriers are getting really stupid now.
One of the several toucan crossings on the route, this one at
Prince Regent Lane.
The sewers and therefore the Greenway crosses roads and railways.
Here, it is crossing the railway between Plaistow and West Ham.
Approaching Stratford. The Greenway is now marked with a cycling
area by the concrete surface.
Apart from the irritating and badly arranged gates and the toucan crossings which took an age to change, we reached Stratford High Street. 

Pausing for a few minutes for a rest, I took a couple of snaps of the extension to Cycle Superhighway 2 which will run in mainly protected areas between Stratford Town Centre and the Bow Interchange.

I will reserve detailed judgement until it is finished and I have ridden it properly, but at a first glance it looks pretty wide (at least the bit I looked at), but I am not sure about the high kerbs and pedals!

Westfield Avenue. Similar layout to CS3 and when it is not cluttered
by trees and street furniture, it is not too bad. But, the layout does
prioritise motorised traffic.
This was when the route went wrong. The Stratford section of the Greenway was shut for Crossrail works and I couldn't find any diversion signs. Luckily, I vaguely remembered the route I took during a ride in the summer which was somewhere behind Stratford City, so off we went.

There are lots of new roads either built or under construction around the Olympic Park area which is going to be massively developed over the next few years. With a clean sheet, this should have been the best in the UK, right? Sadly not.

Traffic gets (empty) dual carriageways, roundabouts and gentle curves. Cyclists get bollards, crash barriers, closed areas, trees, lamp columns and uneven setts to play with. There are toucan crossings around, but many are staggered. 

Tons of #space4cycling here!
Eventually, I worked out where we were and after using a section of tow path along the River Lea and River Lead Navigation, we headed on to Victoria Park via the St. Mark's Gate.
Wide, surface roads run through the park (not for traffic) and there was plenty of space. The unexpected warm sunshine brought lots of people out to walk, run and ride away from traffic.

Early on an October Sunday and the cycle parking was already
getting busy.
The Park Cafe. Lamb samosas for breakfast - yum!

After our rest, we carried on through the park and joined the tow path of the Regent's Canal Canal, which would be our route all the way up to Camden. A nice thing to see was a Legible London sign to get our bearings.

I have mixed views about using the Regent's Canal. Sure, it was pleasant and interesting and being a sunny day, well used. That was the problem - as well as having to be careful where I was going, I also had to watch out for Ranty Junior who was running a fine line between falling into the canal or hitting the walls and fences. Plus, at the same time, we were both dodging pedestrians, cyclists going too fast and erratically controlled hire-bikers.

Actually, I found the whole experience exhausting and I while the canal gives a good off-road route, I think its popularity will be its undoing. It is not wide enough, the surfaces are highly variable and frankly, it should be left for pedestrians. 

It is tranquil here, but soon becomes a game of dodge everything!
The Mayor's Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, has said that the Canal & River Trust (which looks after the canal) and its tow paths would play an important role in the the Mayor's Cycling Vision. From what I saw, unless this includes filling in a strip of the canal to provide a wide tow path suitable for the numbers wanting to use it and reconfiguring locks, the money would be better spent developing parallel low traffic or traffic free routes. Sorry, but that is how the experience left me.

The A1 Upper Street. No #space4cycling here. Plenty of space for
car parking though!
The tow path ends at the Islington Tunnel which meant heading up to the mean streets of Islington, the 20mph Borough. After getting a little bit lost, we got to the A1 Upper Street which is one of Transport for London's Urban Motorways. It was horrible and so we got off and walked, using a pelican crossing a little way along as we were aiming for Berners Road which was a cul-de-sac which cyclists can use to cut through to Bromfield Street. These back streets were quite nice and many closed to through traffic.

Bromfield Road, looking back at Berners Road. A good little example
of filtered permeability.
Cloudesley Road, looking towards Cloudesley Place.
The deterrent paving is designed to physically stop cars from driving
through the gap, but could be passed with care by a fire engine.
We then got a bit lost again and ended up getting to Royal College Street by accident after going down the horrible York Way. As the 20mph speed limit was being universally ignored, we walked and navigated by bus stop maps and then cycled along Agar Grove.

I have been concerned about Royal College Street which has been redesigned. Previously, it had a bidirectional cycle track on one side of the street and with the road being one way. As I understand it, the issues with it were lack of capacity for cycling as it was so popular and confusion about priority at the junctions.

The Armadillo (nee Zebra) in its full recycled PVC glory!
The new layout retains the one-way working for traffic, but now has a cycle track in each direction on each side of the road, protected by a mix of planters, parking bays and "armadillo" (known as "zebra" in their native Spain!) traffic delineators.

My worries with the layout were cyclists using an area of the footway by the bus stops in the street, sharing it with people boarding and alighting as done in Copenhagen.

I was also worried about pedestrians tripping over the armadillos when informally crossing - I am less worried now after riding the street as there are zebra crossings for pedestrians on desire lines coming from side roads. The bus stops were no problem to use, but it was a Sunday. I have no idea how it links to the wider cycle network and so I call it as I see it!

So, I remain a tiny bit worried about both of these issues and I wonder how well the planters will be kept, but having used the layout, I think it works for the location and at one point a faster cyclist was able to nip out of the cycle track to overtake us. We then went onto Camden Market and then retraced our route, even finding a better way through the Crossrail site.

Ranty Junior enjoyed Victoria Park best as he didn't have to get through the gates and crossings of the Greenway. He also liked Royal College Street as he felt safe. For its faults, I liked the Greenway. I didn't like the canal tow path and of course, the highways geek in me liked the filtered permeability in Islington and now, I am a fan of Royal College Street - plenty of ideas to kick around for the day job!


  1. Regent's canal is dodgy to cycle along at best (open water, blind corners, spd pedals.... a very nervous combination!) but along Camden market (near where I work) at busy times it is horrible. I am not a shared-use fan in general but it does work well in some places - usually those with walls, road, or grass on either side, not open water! I agree with you, leave it to the peds and provide sensible east/west routes for bikes. As a ped going along the Canal at Camden, the peaceful atmosphere is ruined slightly by cyclists passing you with inches to spare, mostly because that's all the space there is.

    Google maps navigation app tried to insist that I took this route at 9 pm at night, not fun...,+United+Kingdom&daddr=Northfields,+London,+United+Kingdom&hl=en&ll=51.520493,-0.181103&spn=0.065904,0.154324&sll=53.3834,-8.21775&sspn=8.090424,19.753418&geocode=FTpsEgMdidL9_ykplBpfHBt2SDFYujz20L79Xw%3BFZXcEQMda038_yEwbjJbygnsMClpqgK8MQ52SDEwbjJbygnsMA&oq=northfields&dirflg=b&mra=ls&t=m&z=13&lci=bike

  2. Of course, the Dutch would shift the canal!

    I think while cyclists and pedestrians are battling, the real issue is being ignored up on the streets - bypassing the Islington Tunnel is not much fun!