Short Spins Round London South

Arthur C. Armstrong & Harry R. G. Inglis

Oh, the joys of scrubbing around the cheap sections of dusty old bookshops. The pickings may not always be in top condition, but what they lack in bookshelf glitz they make up for in charm and quirk.

I got this fire-damaged, spineless 1907 cycling guide to South London for 50p. Admittedly it has to be tied up with a ribbon to prevent its spilling its guts all over my desk, but I was as excited by discovering this as any of the glossier bling-books on my shelf.

It’s clearly spent some time in the back pocket of an intrepid early bicyclist as he discovered the joys of a twenty mile radius of Charing Cross, his tough tweed trousers tucked into thick woollen socks, deerstalker-peak tipped jauntily towards the horizon. Or maybe it spent sunny Sundays nestled in the basket of a doughty Edwardian traveller in her Jaeger ‘health corset’ and stout wasp-waist skirt, leg o’ mutton sleeves billowing and the cherries on her straw boater nodding in the headwind as she pedalled furiously up Shooters Hill.

It is an intensely practical guide, warning that “the small portion of Kent included in the eastern boundary of this volume is the hilliest section described in it, but at the same time its scenery is the finest.”

It’s also ‘of its time’ – “a revolution of vital importance to cyclists is the conversion of the metropolitan tramway systems to electric traction” including a stiff warning to look out for “electric wires carried in a slotted groove.” But some things never change: “The approaches either side of the Woolwich free ferry are bumpy, with some traffic; the Blackwall Tunnel is very rough.”

The gentlemen who wrote this book, like myself, are obsessed by gradient. I hate anything steeper than the Thames Path, and can’t even begin to imagine what those old butcher-boy bikes of 1907 must have been like to ride up Maze Hill…

Woolwich Road is described as “uninviting at first, then hilly,” the Dover Road merely as “very steep.” Greenwich Park is “exceedingly beautiful, and much frequented by cyclists, who are, however, permitted to ride only on certain roads.” Reading the slightly complex instructions about what’s allowed and what’s not, I gather there was some kind of one-way system.

Route One goes from the General Post Office in the centre of London, via Greenwich, out to Dartford. One of these days I’ll give it a try, so I won’t go too much into the detail for now – I wouldn’t want to peak too soon on the tram lines and rough paving, Greenwich’s grimy suburbs and ugly brick buildings – and Blackwall Tunnel’s greasiness.

In case anyone fancies a historic jaunt before I get round to it, though, here it is:

I’ve noticed a couple of old London tour guide reprints in Waterstones recently. I could see a market for Short Spins Around London. In the meanwhile, though, the best I can suggest is fighting me for pole position rootling round the ‘everything 50p’ boxes in dusty secondhand bookshops…

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