Category Archives: Cycling

In the tracks of Luke Howard

The tow paths along the river Lea have provided generations of Londoners a place to escape – the route coming into its own following the legacy of London 2012 and the creation of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

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The river Lea near the Bow flyover is roughly where Luke Howard’s chemical factory was situated

It also provided a means for Luke Howard’s commute to work when he moved his family from Plaistow to Tottenham in 1812.

Seven years earlier Howard set up his pharmaceutical laboratory on the banks of the Lea in the area where Bow flyover now stands. From this vantage point, as the factory produced chemicals including quinine, Howard kept a meticulous record of the atmosphere later publishing results in The Climate of London, among the first texts to discuss urban meteorology.

Development in the region was in its infancy and it would be years before the river banks became covered by factories and warehouses, these now fast making way for luxury flats and restaurants.

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The river is lined with canal boats, breweries, old factories, residential development and street art

I’ve often wondered what his journey to and from the factory was like so on Tuesday, tempted out by cloudless skies and a warm 23C I grabbed my bike and headed to the Olympic Park. Despite numerous visits I still got lost in the myriad paths in the park, turning into dead ends and finding myself on the ‘wrong side’ of canals.

Anyone familiar with Bow Flyover will know it’s not the most inspiring place; it probably represents the low point of the way north.

It was at this point in 1809 that Howard noted that the river had swelled to a width beyond a mile wide. Five years later Howard also noted how the Lea had become choked with ice following a bitterly cold winter, the year the last Thames’ Frost Fair was held.

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Anchor and Hope: a good spot to stop for a pint

As you ride north the familiar sites of the Olympic Park hove into view on the right while, if you look left, beyond the cacophony of the A12, the old Bryant & May match factory can be seen. Opened in 1861 the factory, which was one of the first east London renewal projects to feature luxury flats, is yet another landmark that simply wasn’t there in Howard’s time.

Just after Old Ford locks is a canal that turns left. This ‘cut’, called the Hertford union canal or Duckett’s canal, was in the process of being dug when in July 1829 lightning during a thunderstorm killed three workers. Howard, in one of many weather-based accounts in the The Climate of London, takes up the story:

A tremendous storm of thunder and lightning broke upon the metropolis about 1 o’clock on Saturday morning. The sky had been lighted up the whole evening by vivid electrical flashes and so late as half past twelve the stars were visible when a dark cloud suddenly arose and in a few minutes one of toe heaviest showers of rain and hail ever witnessed fell in torrents from its bosom.

Peals of thunder soon followed and continued rolling with scarcely any intermission for upwards of two hours accompanied with awful bursts of lightning; the residents of Bow, Stratford and Bromley were thrown into the greatest consternation by the violence of the storm, one poor fellow lost his life and two others have been so severely injured that but faint hopes are entertained of their recovery.

The three sufferers Sullivan, Salter and Fitzpatrick were engaged in excavating a canal, at present constructing by Sir George Duckett at Old Ford, and were at half past two o’clock diligently employed in their work when the storm commenced. Sullivan was at once struck lifeless and Fitzpatrick and Salter were so seriously injured as to make it necessary to procure immediate medical attendance.

Fitzpatrick was removed to his lodgings at Bow where he was attended by Dr Fairhead who on examining his person found that his left side had been most seriously injured and that there was reason to believe his intestines had suffered severely from the shock. The damage which Salter sustained has not been of so serious a nature.

Deaths caused by lightning were a much more common occurrence in the 19th century, mostly because so many people worked outside and the dangers of this natural phenomenon were not well document. The thunderstorm in July 1829 was particularly severe, as Howard continues:

During the continuance of the lightning on Friday evening a man who was employed in pumping in Bethnal Green fields which the late heavy rains have flooded was struck by a sudden flash which caused his instantaneous death.

The clothes exhibited a singular appearance being literally torn to atoms and every part of the metal in his buttons had the appearance of having been fused. The body itself showed no traces of the electric fluid with the exception of a slight mark on the forehead.

As you cycle on the factories / flats gradually thin out until you reach Lea Bridge Road when Leyton and Walthamstow Marshes become visible on the right. The big skies probably the same as they were during the 19th century. On reaching Tottenham Hale it is time to leave the river and turn left toward the town centre.

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7 Bruce Grove, Tottenham.

A total of 6 miles later brings you to Howard’s family home, 7 Bruce Grove. It still stands but, despite having a blue plaque, is in a terrible state of repair – internal walls have collapsed and the roof is clearly porous. The owners have a plan to turn the building into flats but nothing has happened in years. A petition to save the building was set up a while ago but this, too, seems to have had little impact.

Howard and his family divided their time between here and Ackworth, Yorkshire. I’ve known about 7 Bruce Grove for years but I didn’t realise just how long the garden was, stretching back hundreds of feet.. It was here that Howard also kept a weather station and was the venue for his account of the partial solar eclipse in 1820.

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The monkey puzzle tree

There is precious little left of the original garden, it being overgrown with bramble, nettles and alder. I did notice a tall money puzzle tree which I wonder once had pride of place in one of the borders.

Because of the dense undergrowth and it being behind a large wall there is precious little you can see but I wonder if there is any evidence of Howard’s meteorological enclosure somewhere in the garden?

It would be a fitting tribute Luke Howard if any future development would allow the provision of a weather station somewhere on the property.

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The rear of 7 Bruce Grove, Tottenham

 

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Walthamstow Marshes were flooded to a depth so great that many trees briefly disappeared
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London to Dunwich by bike in the dark

Hypnotised by a long line of red lights and a sudden feeling of being totally alone in the darkness were surreal sensations I experienced as I took on the challenge of the Dunwich Dynamo last weekend.start

I’d read a few personal accounts of this 120-mile blast through the Essex and Suffolk countryside but nothing really prepares you for the ride that starts in the fading light of East London.

A sea of cyclists greeted you as you arrive in London Fields – a mix of serious lycra together with quite a few souls in regular clothes who look as if they were popping down the shops for a pint of milk rather than an overnight ride to the coast. The park was also still busy with people out enjoying the warm weather with the thermometer still hovering around 25C. Though the event has been running for 24 years a couple of bemused onlookers asked me “what the hell is going on”.

“This is NOT a race”, screams the first line of a sheet of A4 directions handed to me by one of the organisers. And without any fanfare, at 8pm, legions got on their bikes by the Pub on the Park. My intentions of grabbing a big bowl of pasta before the start were soon forgotten as I joined the throng making its way through the narrow confines of Martello Street bike path.

The procession through Hackney was not everyone’s idea of fun though the sheer number of cycles was enough to stave off even the most impatient motorists.

eppingEast London quickly turned into suburban Essex and the scrum of cyclists had already turned into a single file. The sun was already set by the time we reached the Wake Arms roundabout though I assured my two cycling buddies that there would be plenty of options for pasta and coffee in Epping – noble intentions that ended up as pork pies and cans of Coke from Londis…

I’d never cycled beyond Epping – unknown roads even harder to navigate in the darkness. Familiar names started to flash past: Moreton, Fyfield, Leaden Roding and the 32-mile point Great Dunmow. Pockets of villagers screamed encouragement at cyclists including a four-person handbuilt contraption, tandems and one brave cyclist who’d brought his child along in a trailer.

nags head moretonWe stopped for a pint in Great Bardfield at 43 miles; locals joining in the party atmosphere as cyclists either stopped or pedalled on. Although just gone midnight conversations seemed to hover over the fast pace of the tour, probably helped by the fine weather and almost constant light westerly breeze. Finchingfield, Wethersfield, Sible and Castle Hedingham then passed in quick succession before we reached the halfway point at Sudbury about 1am where huge queues had formed for coffee and a barbeque put on by the local fire crews.

Though the temperature never fell below 16C over the entire event tiredness was now starting to set in but before we got too ensconced in our chairs we decided to push on.

sudburyIt was this part of the event where groups of cyclists started to spread out though, because most were cycling at roughly the same speed, you started to notice the same people: the guy in the Heinz baked beans top, the group cycling for Alzheimers, the guy with the kiddie trailer (again) comes into view, the child still awake and appearing to be transfixed by a tablet. I exchanged pleasantries with a guy in a top with the dragon of Wales emblazoned on the back – inane conversations though most seem happy to just get their heads down and eat up a few more miles.

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Sizewell B is getting closer

It was around Bildeston that the roads suddenly seemed to turn really dark. Pedalling on I focus on the line of red lights in the distance – almost hynotised by the rhythm of the whole thing – but then suddenly realised that I was cycling downhill at roughly the same speed as I would in daylight. I turned my head to find that my two cycling buddies were nowhere to be seen, and neither were any other riders. An overwhelming feeling of being alone suddenly dawned on me and I eased back on the pedals though it was a good 10 minutes before my companions catch up – one asked just what exactly was in the muesli bars that I had been munching away on for six hours.

At 3am the delirium started to set in: the University Challenge theme tune was going on a loop in my head – a couple of cyclists that have brought along loud speakers failed to distract me. Our charge to the coast was eventually interrupted by a puncture, my cycling buddy exclaiming in the darkness: “This wheel doesn’t feel right!”.

moretonBy 4am the sky had long begun to lighten and the fading batteries of many riders’ headlamps was no longer such a pressing issue. I think it was around Sibton Lake that pop-up cafes started to emerge at the side of the road. Alas, the long queues prevented us from stopping, so terrified were we that if we stopped for too long our bodies would cease up. No matter. Many other cyclists by now were beginning to stop and rest on verges; a few oblivious that the sun was beginning to rise as quick as they were falling into a slumber.

framlinghamDunwichThe last 10 miles from Framlingham, once the sun had risen, seemed to be the hardest. I’m not sure if it was my brain being unable to cope with the additional distraction of having to deal with looking at beautiful countryside. And a couple more inclines seemed to be the last straw for a few cyclists who got off and walked.

The pine scrub of Minsmere spread out after passing through Darsham before our ultimate destination Dunwich, the Lost City, ended our odyssey. After 10-and-a-half hours we’d done it.

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I’ve managed to raise over £1,000 for Sarcoma, the soft tissue and bone cancer charity

strava

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Meteorology of the Dunwich Dynamo

On a Saturday closest to full moon in July thousands of cyclists congregate in London Fields and ride 200km through the night to Dunwich on the coast of Suffolk.

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Weather stats for London during the Dunwich Dynamo

Modestly described by the organisers as a “gentle bike ride to the beach, through soft country on good roads” the hours of darkness present a huge challenge for participants.

Michael Barry, the retired Canadian professional road racing cyclist, rated the challenge 5/10, harder than the 280 mile London to Paris ride which he ranked only 2/10.

Taking place in summer you would expect long hours of moonlight to be a welcome assist for these brave souls who peddle hours through the night to reach their goal. A look at the synoptic charts and statistics of each ride, however, reveals weather that is often a long way from being summery.

Looking in detail there appears to be very little chance of the ride coinciding with a heatwave. In 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2014 riders left the capital during days where the mercury reached above 80F (26.7C) – though this represents only 17% of starts. Temperatures around 70F (21.1C) are much more common.

Over 40% of the rides have seen over 1mm of rain on the opening day, this falls to 17% on the second day – a dry end to the marathon challenge is perhaps to be expected.

Patrick Field, of the London School of Cycling, said that 2007, the wettest start day to a Dynamo, was “gloriously wet”.

Perhaps what this blog also reveals is that UK weather at full moon, even in high summer, is notoriously unpredictable. Luke Howard , the father of meteorology, tried for 50 years to
prove a link between the weather and phases of the moon, but died still mystified at the ripe old age of 91.

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Low pressure centred along the south coast brought a ‘gloriously wet’ Dynamo in 2007.

A movie of all synoptic charts highlights just how unsettled this time of year can be found here.

* The author is planning to take part in this year’s event to raise money for Cancer Research.

** Full stats for the weather in London during the Dunwich Dynamo back to 1992 can be found here: https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=A148835276FAFDEE!2561&authkey=!AEMmoeUZRVSq7uU&ithint=file%2cxlsx