Monday, 6 September 2010

To Hampstead, and back

From home I reckon that I can reach almost 3,000 square miles of South-East England in a day's bike ride (more if I combine cycling with the train). That covers a variety of landscape and heritage. The only things that I lack are easy access to mountains and the coast. On top of that I'm lucky to have the time, an understanding family, and a climate that means I can spend quite a bit of time exploring it all. There is at least one Unesco World Heritage site within reach, a couple of designated areas of outstanding natural beauty, and there are countless examples of outstanding buildings and structures. So there is no shortage of places to visit. Of course I enjoy seeing the well-known highlights, but there is also a lot to be said for the variety. And variety sometimes involves riding through areas that are drab and monotonous. Yesterday was quite a mixture.

My quest to visit famous churches has taken me through a lot of pretty villages, and along a lot of quiet rural roads, but now there are only 4 more left to take the total to 50, and all of them are on the outskirts of London. Yesterday I set off to visit two in Hampstead.

By any standards, Hampstead is posh. Average house prices around there are almost £1million for a semi, and almost £2million for a detached. Those are averages - the prices of some of the more spectacular properties run into tens of millions. But my route there and back took me through a much wider mix of suburbs, past the Polish War Memorial at Northolt, a huge Indian wedding party parading in Brent, and along the edge of some of the major arteries leading in and out of London. Towards the end of the day I also saw quite a lot of sky-riders on their way home.

The on-line route planners did a good job for me. The biggest problem I find riding near London is that the major routes are a bit too hairy for me. Although I know the general layout, I'm not familiar with the detail, so away from the major roads it is easy to get lost. That in turn involves a lot of stops to check the map, a lot of back-tracking where I mess up, and normally a combination of the two.

For yesterday I downloaded a route onto the GPS that ducked and dived around minor roads for quite a lot of the way. That made for a much more interesting ride than I could have navigated without the GPS, and revealed a few interesting new options (even nearer to home where I thought I knew the area fairly well). I still managed to get lost a couple of times, and ended up covering 70 miles instead of the 60 that it should have taken. That was partly because of diversions that threw me off track, and partly because I merrily rode past one of the destinations, and continued for a couple of miles before I realised what I had done, and had to retrace my steps. Quite how I missed a 178 foot spire is still beyond me.

Both of the churches that I visited were interesting, but in different ways. St Jude in Hampstead Garden Suburb is early 20th century, designed by Lutyens, and very imposing both inside and out. St John in the centre of Hampstead is Georgian, a bit sparse outside, but very pretty inside.

For anyone interested in maps, the grave of John Harrison in the churchyard of St John is notable. The book that I use as a reference list of churches to visit describes him as "inventor of longitude" which is inaccurate on many different levels. What he actually invented was the marine chronometer, which enabled ships to determine their longitude position with greater accuracy. He was (eventually) awarded £8,750 by the admiralty for his work. In today's money that would buy him a decent semi in Hampstead. They never paid him the full prize of £20,000 which they had promised.

Ironically, given that this was one of my least rural rides, the other famous person buried in the graveyard is the painter John Constable, who is best known for his rural scenes of the borders of Suffolk and Essex.

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