I’d had it in mind to ride from London to Oxford since taking up the editorship of Oxford Today in 2010. By this I don’t mean a charity bike ride beginning in Richmond, signed all the way up through picturesque Marlow and ending with buns and lemonade on a lawn. In fact I did that ride years ago.
No, I meant commuting to Oxford and attending a meeting. That meant leaving my front doorstep in north-east London at a very early hour and negotiating an awful lot of London before hitting the good stuff, on a weekday, in rush-hour.
I left home at 5am and arrived just shy of 10am, in lovely late-summer sunshine.
Stamford Hill; Camden; St. John’s Wood; Willseden; Wembley; Harrow-in-the-Hill; Ruislip; Denham; Gerrard’s Cross; Beaconsfield; Wycombe; West Wycombe; up on to the Ridgeway with the crying Red Kites, across to Christmas Common, down to Watlington and along the B480 to Cowley. Phew.
Why bother with japes like this in 2013, though? Faced with too many skip lorries in proximity to the M40, I asked myself the same question. But amidst the broader socio-geography of places and peregrinations, the London-Oxford journey is a very great, many splendoured thing. It’s not just the Thames meandering, nor the great cutting through the Ridgeway on the M40 if you are in a car — but the historical sense of grandeur that accompanies the milestones at the side of the road on an ancient route connecting privilege and power: academic, monetary and ecclesiastical.
Cycling this great route returns you to a gentler pace and a fresh sense of travail, place and landscape. I’d recommend it to anyone.
Harrow-in-the-Hill is posh; but it was Beaconsfield that really struck me. The site of an ancient market at a major crossroad pointing north to Amersham, south to Windsor, west to Oxford and east to London, it was also for centuries where you watered the horses en route to one of those destinations. It’s also incredibly posh and has the largest, most beautiful vicarage I’ve ever seen.
In their preface to a history of the place (published by Phillimore in 2009) authors Julian Hunt and David Thorpe note drily that by the time of Empire, “a civil or military distinction was almost a necessary condition of residence.” The spacious roads and architectural beauty of the place attracted not just gentry but retired colonial administrators, lawyers, doctors and architects, plus major figures from the arts.
Unfortunately, from a cyclist’s perspective, the entire route apart from the Ridgeway section has been taken over by thick traffic, including Beaconsfield. A shame. But I was then drawn to consider the magical period after World War Two but before the motorways, when traffic volumes remained very low by today’s standards and the A40 was freshly laid with tarmacadam.
Setting off from Denham in total darkness on June 4 1952, with time keepers and a support car, was ‘wee slip of a girl’ Eileen Sheridan — who at 4ft 11in didn’t immediately impress. But on the bike she commanded the respect of all and, on that particular occasion, managed to touch Oxford and return to the start in just 5 hrs, 36 mins and 31 secs.
She did it on a bike that would be considered heavy by today’s standards, but she also did it on relatively traffic free roads. That’s why the ‘out and back’ record-breaking heroics of that decade have faded away into the history books (although the greatest of them all, Paris-Brest-Paris, remains, as does London-Edinburgh-London, but both as timed reliability rides rather than races).
Sheridan’s achievement reminds me of the next goal, also long in mind: to ride from home to a meeting and back again, on the same day. At over 200kms that will register as a different sort of ride, with a blush of epic about it and perhaps a ‘Beer in Alex’ moment at the end. Spring 2014 beckons.