TRAVEL; A bike ride through Blair country

FREEWHEELING 2: NORTH LONDON; In the second in our series, Martin Wright takes the cycle way from Islington to leafy Barnsbury

ISLINGTON High Street, north London, on a burning summer's afternoon: the warble of the chattering classes rises up through the traffic fumes; the clink of mineral-water glasses from a dozen cafe tables mingles with the grind of bus gears. With the rise of local boy Blair to the threshold of power, Islington is being portrayed by the media as the new hothouse of power politics - and on an afternoon like this, it felt like it.

But with a couple of kicks on the pedals I was away into a different Islington: the Regent's Canal, which passes like a whisper under the high street's frenzy, and emerges conveniently at the junction with one of London's growing number of marked cycle ways, at Colebrooke Row.

I headed east along the towpath, past the elegant Victorian town houses, with their white window shutters and wrought-iron balconies, and the tumbling greenery of their back gardens sloping down to the water. Below, an array of boats, ranging from the rust-bucket to the potplant-adorned picturesque, lay moored beneath branches hanging heavy with the end of summer.

After a few hundred yards, the scene shifted from inner-suburb chic to industrial remains. Factories, some working, some derelict, lined the banks, a relic of the canal's brief heyday. Dug in 1820, it was hit hard by the coming of the railways a generation later. Where barge horses once hauled loads of coal and timber from the docks across London, the towpath is now given over to joggers, dog-walkers and clutches of anglers. A surprising number of these were young men, hunched beneath their baseball caps, absolutely still apart from the slow motion of their jaws as they chewed gum, and waited, and waited... a picture of patience guys their age aren't supposed to have.

The canal runs all the way down to the Thames at Limehouse Basin, and you can cycle along most of it. But I turned north at De Beauvoir Town, to pick up one of London's longest marked cycle routes, running from the City up to Tottenham. It will soon be joined by many others: after years of ignoring cyclists, the government has recently agreed to back the London Cycling Campaign's call for 1,000 miles of routes across the capital. It's been a swift and sudden conversion that has seen ministers vying to be photographed in the saddle - cycling down the road to Damascus.

The route snakes up through Dalston into Stoke Newington, skirting the traffic snarl of the A10 in favour of oddly quiet, traffic-calmed streets - though the humps across the road round here are not so much sleeping policeman as fitfully dozing ones, rearing up alarmingly to give you something worse than saddle sores if you hit one head-on, at speed.

Though only three miles from the City, Stoke Newington is one of those London districts that outsiders imagine must be in Essex because it isn't on the Tube. The name means "new town in the wood", as it was when carved out of the Forest of Middlesex by Saxon settlers more than 1,000 years ago. Church Street still traces the line of that first settlement, along a low rise above the Hackney Brook, now one of London's "lost" rivers. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Stoke Newington's location just outside the boundaries of City control made it a haven of prosperous Dissenters. Some of their houses still stand, their elegant facades of weathered red brick half hidden by the shopfronts of Church Street. There's even a fragment of Daniel Defoe's garden wall to the rear of Defoe Road.

"Stokey" still has a mildly anti-establishment air to it, perhaps summed up by the way one of its finest restaurants, La Fin de la Chasse, recently re-opened under the altogether more PC title of "The Fox Reformed". From here, I turned north up Green Lanes (nice name, noisy rush-hour race track) to a genuine "green lane": the Parkland Walk, a disused railway line that runs from Finsbury Park up to the heights of Highgate. Vociferous local opposition blocked nightmarish plans to turn it into a four-lane motorway. Instead, there's a wonderfully peaceful woodland ride, just the odd splash of graffiti and whiff of dog to remind you this is still north London. That and the two New Men, strapping blokes, each with a baby on his back, striding along, locked in discourse. I caught a snatch on the breeze: "And that's why Kinnock couldn't win it, and why Tony will ..." Still in the heart of Blair country, then.

With a couple of interruptions, the Parkland Walk stretches all the way up to Alexandra Palace, constructed as an (unsuccessful) rival to Crystal Palace in the south, and the site of the first television transmissions in 1936. Today it has a slightly sad air, windswept and underused. But the views, from the shining pyramid hat of Canary Wharf round to the hills of Epping Forest - even farmland, dear God - make the climb worthwhile.

I snaked down through the sweep of Alexandra Park to pick up another cycle way by the stump of Hornsey church tower. From here, it was south again, over the roller-coaster hills of Crouch End, with more spectacular views over the bowl of London, and a swoop back down to Finsbury Park. Then up Highbury Hill, the Arsenal stadium looming over the chimneypots, through the satisfying symmetry of Highbury Fields (long sweeps of terrace enclosing a parched parkland) and across to one of those rare delights - traffic lights for cyclists, halting the rush hour on the A1 where the cycle route crosses the Holloway Road.

I followed the route past the wholly unexpected smells of straw and livestock from the Freightliners City Farm, and into Barnsbury. With its astonishingly leafy squares and fat white villas, this is a haven of relative quiet, perched on a ridge between the lowlands of King's Cross and the chatter of Islington. Before its pastures were covered by streets, they were a popular rallying ground for political meetings, their participants taking refreshment at tea-houses like the Albion - now a pub.

I stopped here for a swift half, decided to make it a slow pint instead, and half dozed off in the early evening sun, while at the next table someone droned on about what should be on tomorrow's agenda. So, I thought, no change here...

CYCLING IN LONDON

Official cycle routes are waymarked with blue signs: it's usually clear, but there are a few gaps, so take an A-Z guide or similar. The London Cycling Campaign (0171-928 7220) produces an excellent map of inner London cycle routes, including much of the area covered on this ride.

In theory, you need a permit to cycle along the canal towpath, though this is rarely enforced in practice. You can obtain one, along with more information about the canal, from British Waterways on 0171-482 0523.

Cycles can be carried free at most times on local overground trains. Stations near this route include Highbury and Islington, Dalston Kingsland, Stoke Newington, Hornsey, Finsbury Park, Caledonian Road and Barnsbury, and Canonbury. Restriction may apply, particularly at rush hour, so phone. Services are operated by West Anglia Great Northern (0990 468468) and North London Railways (01923 245 001). The latter runs the North London Link, which goes from Richmond in the west to Woolwich in the east (well, the line does; for the timebeing, trains terminate at Stratford). !

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