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). !

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin