Biking in the borough of...Tower Hamlets
This article first appeared in the June/July 2003 issue of London Cyclist, the LCC's magazine.
If you think the East End is the Krays and Albert Square, Jon Idle says get on your bike and explore
Tower Hamlets is the East End. Look for the U-shape in the Thames on a map and you'll find it. Its boundaries are the City in the west, the river to the south, Newham and the River Lea to the east, and Victoria Park and Hackney to the north. It was formed from the combined boroughs of Poplar, Bethnal Green and Stepney and the name means 'hamlets by the Tower' (of London).
Ports and poverty
The Docklands today - "a surreal world of converted warehouses and new offices"
photo Alix Stredwick
The Thames has dominated the borough's development. As the centre of a trading empire, London grew and new docks were built immediately to the east of the City. These spurred the transformation of the area from a group of villages to an area focused on the river and all things maritime. And from this, in the late nineteenth century, grew Dickensian slums.
The docks attracted foreign seamen, but there had been other immigrants before them - the Huguenots and Jews, a century or two earlier. More recently, in the inter-war years, the Bangladeshi community arrived and now comprises about a third of the population.
After the Second World War, large estates replaced the sub-standard and war-damaged houses, and Tower Hamlets is still dominated by council and ex-council housing. Meanwhile ships had got bigger and larger docks were built further east to accommodate them. Then the docks' business in Tower Hamlets collapsed, along with the associated trades. For a generation the dock areas were derelict and, with other areas that were victims of industrial change, were surrounded by 30 miles of corrugated iron.
Then came the redevelopment of the late 80s, which turned the south of the borough into a surreal world of converted warehouses and new offices. These are still rising around London's highest landmark, the Canary Wharf tower, but have done little to alter the deprivation which puts us at, or near, the bottom of many unwelcome league tables.
Guide books and estate agents now call the area Docklands. And the former might mention Jack the Ripper; Brunel's ship, the 'Great Eastern'; the Ragged School Museum; the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood; the new Museum in Docklands; the street markets and historic churches; the three city farms; and the many Asian restaurants in and around Brick Lane.
It also hosts most of the national press - at Wapping and the Isle of Dogs; the world-famous London Marathon; and Tower Hamlets Cemetery (entrance in Southern Grove), now disused and a delightful wooded oasis where you can just about forget you are in the city
Arriving by bike
Cycling is the best way to get around and to and from the borough, most of which has permit-only parking. Come via Tower Bridge and you might want to get off and walk - to avoid the narrow roadway and to admire the magnificent river.
Rotherhithe Tunnel is polluted but bearable. Cyclists use the pavement as it is rare to meet any pedestrians and you would see them in plenty of time as long as you slowed down at corners. Use the road and you would cause a tailback. It is so narrow cars cannot pass a bike and, as half the tunnel each way is uphill, it is slow going.
Or you can walk your bike through Greenwich foot tunnel, which connects us to another great park and the grandeur and maritime attractions of the eponymous borough. From the north, you can come down the towpath of the Regent's Canal, built to link the Thames with the Midlands but now used for fishing and pleasure craft. Technically, you need a permit to cycle on the towpath.
Cycle accessible attractions
When the Central Line stopped running, the Wheelers started the Bicycle Bus. It got people cycling and garnered the group much positive publicity
photo Owen Pearson
You can branch off from the canal into Victoria Park. It was created in the mid-nineteenth century for the recreation and health of the poorer classes and is still much-used for organised and informal games, picnics, and, occasionally, concerts.
You can also reach the newer Mile End Park, still being completed but already including innovative ecological design; a 'green bridge' that carries the park over the main road; and a go-cart track.
Both parks provide useful routes away from traffic. Although the speed humps in Mile End Park suggest that that cycling is something which naughty boys do rather than a recognised mode of transport.
The canal and the River Lea area are the borough's most enjoyable leisure rides. The former has plenty of adjacent green space and restaurants; the Lea and nearby Bow Back Rivers are less 'redeveloped', and fascinating to explore, especially around Three Mills. By contrast, the Thames offers fewer stretches of accessible river front. However, you can view this spacious and splendid waterway from Island Gardens or the King Edward Memorial Park in Shadwell, or from the busier and upmarket St Katharine's Dock right next to Tower Bridge.
On and off-road routes
To the east there is the Greenway - an elevated, car-free walking and cycling route, which starts in an aesthetically unreconstructed area towards Hackney Wick. Twenty five years ago much of the borough looked like this! The Greenway is useful to reach, or return from, Newham on, but it has a lot of awkward gates for people on bikes to negotiate. There's no other alternative to the noisy, polluted A11 or A13; though bus lanes have made the latter much better for cycling.
Yes, at some point you need to use the roads - with slight assistance from several marked cycle lanes and LCN signs. The best-known is Cable Street, a valuable east-west cycle path, at long last two-way for most of its 1 1/4 miles, but with annoying lack of priority at several side streets and pedestrians who spill onto 'our' bit. It helps cyclists avoid the Aldgate one-way system when going into/out of the City.
Another useful alternative east-west route is Stepney Way. But throughout the borough there are so many side streets that for most journeys you can find your own balance of bigger, faster routes and quieter alternatives.
Bikes are permitted on tube and overground trains, but not the otherwise valuable Docklands Light Railway (DLR). The unconvincing claim is that bikes would be a risk in the event of an evacuation. Surely this ban won't survive any shift towards a more grown-up attitude to cycling and, if true, why do they let prams on?
Tower Hamlets' bike shops
The borough has many bike shops, among them Bicycle Magic in Whitechapel and Cycle Surgery off Commercial Street, both of which offer discounts for LCC members. All do repairs. Or search for a second-hand (but avoid a stolen) bike on Sunday mornings at Brick Lane and Petticoat Lane markets.
Welcome to the Wheelers
The first days of congestion charging and the Wheelers were ready. Their message was clear and, for anyone using the Mile End Road, unmissable
photo Owen Pearson
In autumn 2001, the borough's LCC group, Tower Hamlets Wheelers was relaunched. A core of enthusiastic volunteers actively and creatively promote cycling in the borough. Due to their efforts membership in 2002 rose by 22%. More than 10% of members have assisted in Wheelers campaigns and activities. A website, e-mail group and a monthly newsletter, keep everyone informed.
The Wheelers have undertaken direct campaigns to improve cycling facilities, such as attempting to reverse the priority scheme along the Cable Street cycle track, and indirect campaigns to get more people on bikes through events, such as those during Bike Week and on Car-free Day. We have had to learn quickly - the main lesson being you can never have too many helpers!
A bicycle buddy and cycle training scheme is underway, the cycle maintenance workshop is running again and external funding is in place to cover these activities and more. There are also social rides and these are free and open to all.
Everything the Wheelers do gets presented to the media in news releases. We put out 23 over the past 12 months and each got us coverage in local papers. Every year, their readers hear about our Great Beigel Race, while recent activities, such as the Central Line replacement 'bicycle bus' and the congestion charge banner across Mile End Road, attracted coverage on BBC TV and local radio, in Cycling Plus magazine and the Daily Mirror.
The Council's recently released Cycling Strategy is ambitious. The 'engineering, enforcement, encouragement and education' approach includes putting in cycle parking at all tube stations and running cycle training in 20 schools. All schools are offered training from Year 6 upwards. Strategy targets include a reduced casualty rate and allocating 10% of the transport budget to cycling.
The Wheelers enjoy good relations with the Council. We receive financial support from it and are involved in the consultation process for new schemes. However, it is not the case that everything goes the group's way and increased lobbying of the councillors is a priority for our campaigners.