The Joys of Modern Life: 29. Cycling along canals

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The Independent Culture
I USED to think canals were dingy places, the preserve of dead dogs and old mattresses. The notion of travelling to work by inland waterway never occurred to me. Until I realised it sometimes took 90 minutes to travel the seven miles to Canary Wharf; I found no appeal in a Third World train ride crammed beside flu-ridden commuters followed by a trip in a bus fugged with the breath of the miserable. Escaping this dreadful fate, I discovered an unexpected joy.

By cycling along the Regent's Canal, which links the Midlands to the docks and thus the sea, I discovered an elegant 19th-century route (designed by Nash) which swept past the back doors of the 20th. In the background are the sounds of the city, but the straight stretches of water, leading to arched bridges, give the eye a relaxing, long view. It's as though this is a little piece of countryside, that urban life forgot to colonise. You have a chance to think.

The manners of those who use the canal also seem rural. It is a pathway occupied by silent fishermen, canal boats, other cyclists and local people walking their dogs. If my chain falls off or I have a flat tyre, someone will usually stop to help. It is also a pleasure to exchange an occasional nod as you pass, perhaps even hear a spoken greeting.

Then there is the gentle rhythm of the ride, marked like a sleepy, winding train journey by the sound of the tyres bumping over old railway sleepers that pave the tow path. The atmosphere is constantly changing. Like a links golf course, the canal plays differently each day, on some occasions a stiff sea breeze blowing up from the Docklands to fight your journey to work or to blow you swiftly home. The light can be extraordinary. In the morning, I head into the sunrise. On the return journey, at least between the solstices, sunset draws me home.

At this time of year I go home in darkness. Suddenly, the familiar seems threatening, like a country lane at night, but also thrilling, as the orange street lamps cast pools of light in the water. Passing over the sleepers seems to make more of a thud, ducking beneath dark bridges feels more worrying. The figures of the previous morning, giving their dogs an evening walk, are shadowy. Yet you feel real contact with the night, which, in well-lit homes and city streets, is often missing.

The benefits also include not being killed by a passing thoughtless lorry driver. I haven't ended up in the water yet; that can only be a matter of time. Nor have I been attacked by the canal muggers of urban legend. I keep my fingers crossed.

The greatest thrill is to cycle without being prey to the whimsical timekeeping of public transport or snarled-up traffic. And when I finally arrive, red-faced and invigorated, I ride right up to the front door.

During the day I know the bike is there, like a saddled horse ready for a quick escape. The only other way out is to pay for a slow bus or a packed train or, for the privileged, to pick up a car, probably from a remote car park. These alternatives can make me feel trapped, enslaved somehow. But with my bike outside, I know I am free.

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