In the last fortnight, I’ve exhausted enough emotional energy over the red dirt of Paris to power the National Grid. Honestly, if I could direct the passion, frustration and – whenever Novak Djokovic wins a Grand Slam title – profound disappointment I feel watching tennis into more productive means, I could probably find the solution to global hunger. As it is, I’m seething in bed, having kicked some unsuspecting appliance across the room, and lamenting the increasingly dysfunctional relationship that has ensnared me for the last five years.
It’s not all about Djokovic. Since the onset of the pandemic, it seems tennis merits mainstream media coverage only when firefighting yet another piece of controversy: a super spreader tournament; an allegation of sexual assault; and now, a player suffering from depression hounded out of a Grand Slam. It speaks volumes when the governing bodies of the four greatest tournaments – who couldn’t ordinarily co-ordinate the proverbial piss-up –unite in threatening Naomi Osaka with expulsion for shirking her French Open press responsibilities, yet, alongside the governing body for men’s tennis, remain silent on far more damning allegations against a spate of male players. The French Tennis Federation (FFT) – well-practised alchemists of tragedy into farce – attracted further disdain for its unequal gender scheduling of night sessions which, until 9th June, were spectator-free due to France’s 9pm curfew. After this was extended to 11pm, we saw a Djokovic-Berrettini quarterfinal suspended to allow fans to get home on time, yet the 4-hour-11-minute semifinal between the Serb and Rafael Nadal was deemed to be of sufficient quality that the Prime Minister of France Jean Castex made an exemption to his own law. It was one rule for the Big Three, another for mere mortals, as previously demonstrated when Roger Federer was given a free pass to withdraw from the tournament not for any injury, but to preserve his body for the imminent grass-court season. These inconsistencies and controversies hang like a bad smell over an otherwise enthralling, unpredictable tournament.
I’ll start with the feeding frenzy over Osaka’s announcement that she would be boycotting her post-match press conferences; it’s now old news, but clearly the most egregious and avoidable example of mismanagement. Despite the bluntness of her statement, the Japanese superstar intended to trigger a discussion on mental health and the burdens of press engagements, but the official response computed this as an invitation to nuclear conflict. The joint ultimatum from the Australian, French, US and British Grand Slam bodies paid cursory mention to Osaka’s wellbeing in dispensing a $15,000 fine for missing her round one obligations and threatening expulsion not only from Roland Garros, but potentially future Slams, should she continue. Her behaviour was deemed ‘detrimental or injurious to the grand slam tournaments,’ as if professional tennis players are employed merely to speak to journalists rather than compete for hours in televised matches that rake in revenue for the tournaments involved. Osaka’s subsequent withdrawal seemed a sad and natural consequence, particularly with the revelation that she had been suffering from periodic depression since her maiden Grand Slam at the US Open in September 2018.
Osaka’s plight demonstrates the sport’s marriage of convenience with mental health. As Marina Hyde argued in The Guardian, you can talk about it when the match is over (even better in a memoir, like Andre Agassi) but in the meantime, ‘just shut up and play’. Osaka, clearly reticent in this environment to broach the topic of her own depression, was effectively outed by the Grand Slam bodies. She is now taking the time to recover, potentially skipping Wimbledon for the American hard courts on which she feels more at home. But there is little indication, beyond a supportive statement from the Women’s Tennis Association, that this will trigger more investment into mental health support for players who have been largely stuck in hotel bubbles since the mid-pandemic Tour restart. Those athletes suffering in silence – it would seem from form that such champions as Dominic Thiem have taken the restrictions particularly hard – may remain cowered for fear of the next official slap down.
As she did over Black Lives Matter last August, Naomi Osaka has bravely opened an overdue conversation in tennis about the merits of press commitments. Of course, this issue is not nearly as clear cut. Tennis journalists are increasingly conscious to respect players’ privacy and hold off from aggressive questioning in the wake of defeats, so would struggle to recognise Osaka’s blanket characterisation that they have ‘no regard for athletes’ mental health’. A clear majority of players understand their mutually beneficial relationship with the press; 2020 Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek argued pithily that ‘with the right support, with the right distance and with balance, it’s part of our job… they give a platform to talk about our lives from our perspective’. Yes, questioning can be repetitive, interminable and overly critical at times. It’s ironic that Naomi Osaka has often been a master at turning lazy queries into a festival of candid, thoughtful responses and witty asides that make for far better stories than the journalists involved could have hoped. But I’d disagree with celebrities – often fair-weather sports fans – who jump aboard the anti-media bandwagon, arguing that Osaka has earned the right not to do press or, dipping into Oprah territory, be subjected to journalists who make her deny her “truth”. Why would the Japanese press pack travel all the way to France, subjected to the same brutal quarantine as players, just to belittle their star player? What is the point in paying to send them halfway across the world if Osaka is to avoid press? There is clearly room for reforming and streamlining press, but responsibilities come with the job on both sides.
It’s hard to look at the treatment of Osaka, and the speed of her condemnation, without again identifying double standards at play within tennis. In 2018, Serena Williams was told by a former FFT president that her black catsuit would not be accepted the following year, so it is from experience that the American speculated, when commenting on Osaka’s withdrawal, that she would face the same treatment for skipping press. Meanwhile, several white male players continue to play, uninvestigated or unsanctioned by the sport’s authorities, following genuinely illegal activities. World No. 30 Nikoloz Basilashvili was charged last year by a Georgian court with assaulting his ex-wife over custody of their son, yet the ATP has opened no investigation. Ditto Alexander Zverev, who reached the French Open semifinals, and is accused of assault and emotional abuse by his ex-girlfriend Olya Sharypova. She has detailed a litany of abuse in the lead up to the 2019 US Open in an interview with Ben Rothenberg for Racquet magazine, and yet his blanket denial – bolstered by fellow ATP players declining to comment – has seemingly been accepted for the time being. Zverev appeared sufficiently unconcerned by his conduct to spend most of the first 2020 lockdown partying in Monaco and impregnating his next girlfriend, German model Brenda Patea, before moving on again. Earlier this year he described the announcement of their daughter as the ‘highlight of his life,’ to which Patea responded, ‘I hardly think so – we have no contact’. Scarcely less grave, in the context of a raging pandemic, is Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour, held without masks and social distancing in super-spreader events across the Balkans. The World No. 1 has received no disciplinary action from the ATP for this, which might be expected after Sam Querrey – who tested positive for Covid-19 at an event in St. Petersburg and subsequently decided to sneak home on a private jet – was, after a ten-week investigation, given a suspended $20,000 fine. Still, he’s off scot free, since he has fulfilled the terms of the suspension and committed no further public health breaches in the subsequent six months.
The ATP, WTA and four Grand Slam governing bodies are independent organisations with different jurisdictions, but Osaka’s treatment demonstrates that it must be possible for them to act quickly and, on matters as grave as the above, together. The French Tennis Federation wasted no time in 2020 to reschedule Roland Garros from May to October, whether the Asian autumn hard court swing happened or not. They postponed this year’s tournament by one week to take advantage of the unlocking of restrictions in France. Yet still, the operation was botched. New night session matches – possible with the addition of a roof and floodlights to Court Phillipe Chatrier – started at 9pm, the same time as France’s curfew until 9th June. This messed with players’ energy levels and sleep cycles (Federer’s third round match ended at 12:37am, meaning he was in press conferences until around 3am), performing to empty seats for the benefit of television rights holders Amazon Prime, claimed defeated quarterfinalist Daniil Medvedev. Tournament director Guy Forget reasoned that it was ‘sporting fairness’, rather than cash, which dictated why some of the top players would have to perform in front of empty stands – or, in the later Djokovic-Berrettini case – stands that vacated three hours into their match and interrupted their rhythm. And clearly, when referencing ‘top players’, he meant the men: of the 11 night matches, only 2 featured women (Williams-Begu and Swiatek-Kostyuk). Victoria Azarenka had some choice words on scheduling following her fourth-round loss to eventual finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: ‘the French federation is continuously trying to say that there’s equality and only pointing to prize money’. Starkly, when the 58th meeting of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal went beyond the new curfew of 11pm on Friday, it led to a change in the French law. I can’t see that happening for Serena Williams and Simona Halep, for instance. Equal scheduling remains a perennial issue for the Grand Slams, especially Roland Garros and Wimbledon. As Medvedev put it, ‘Cash is King’.
Few of these decisions are black-and-white, simple rulings for the tennis authorities, not least while they deal with reopening stadia for reduced groups of socially distanced fans around frustratingly arbitrary Covid restrictions. But time and again, the sport has opted for the anachronistic choice, as though incapable of change at the highest levels. What do its governing bodies care about more: mental health or Amazon Prime? As Marina Hyde observes, the sport remains ‘fundamentally incurious’: it’s happy to accept Alexander Zverev’s denial of abuse allegations; to retain a primitive drug testing regime (yet it’s always Serena Williams who gets tested); and does little to clamp down on the irregular betting patterns that mar matches in the poorly-remunerated lower echelons of the sport. It feels rather fitting that Novak Djokovic, whose forays into Fantasyland I have documented, should emerge as the Greatest of All Time in a sport that eschews reality to soil its pants over press conferences.
This is an obsession that has become too much to bear. I’ve been watching tennis less out of love than out of an obligation to keep up, and often in the fervent hope that one man will be defeated. Tsitsipas came close, but nobody has proven capable – not least mentally – of overhauling Djokovic at the helm of the men’s game for much of the last decade. The victory of the “NextGen” will probably be dictated by his retirement. Women’s tennis is much stronger in depth and exciting for it, so I’m loath to tar it with the same brush. The women’s semifinal between Barbora Krejcikova and Maria Sakkari was one of the most captivating yet agonising contests I’ve ever seen. Krejcikova is the third unseeded player to win Roland Garros in five years, which highlights the magnitude of unpredictability. In addition, I could certainly be watching more doubles and wheelchair tennis; we saw British winners in the mixed doubles (Joe Salisbury - for the first time in 40 years), and wheelchair men’s singles and doubles (Alfie Hewitt and Gordon Reid).
However, I feel ready for a total hiatus from the Novak-infested waters that seep across the sport. We create bogeymen in our own heads to give meaningful stakes to sporting rivalries, and I’ve blown this one out of all proportion. It started from a kernel of logic: a matter of preference in how the game should be played combined with a more serious concern about ethical conduct (promoting anti-vaxxer sentiment, the Adria Tour, pseudo-scientific medical diagnoses, etc.). Djokovic wins tennis matches with machine-like relentlessness and a mentality that few fans can relate to. It is scarcely credible how many times he has rescued himself from the brink of defeat with the power of will: the double match point down on Federer’s serve at Wimbledon 2019 will live long in the collective memory, yet the Serb was also two sets to love down twice at this French Open, before defeating Lorenzo Musetti in round four and Tsitsipas in the final. All sporting greats reach their pedestal by denying some element of rationality; Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, admitted to the use of ‘visualization preparation’ as if she’d won the Grand Slam by mental resilience alone. Djokovic, I’m sure, has adopted similar techniques (employing his former “peace and love” guru Pepe Imaz for that purpose) yet, combined with his views on gluten and polluted water, his efforts to divorce from reality are a little on the nose for me. I’m unenthusiastic for a sport where Novak is the GOAT, with a bureaucracy so brittle and outdated that deeds like his – and much worse – go without scrutiny. I still hope that won’t happen, but the writing is on the wall.
Victoria station, with the bespoke tiled motif of the Queen herself. From: https://art.tfl.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/1307_AOTU_Underline_LearningGuide.Interactive.02.pdf
Victoria Line – Friday 23rd April, 3:15pm
Distance: 21km (by train); 25.3km (by bike)
Sufficiently recovered from a gruelling opening adventure, my second cross-London sojourn promises less graft, and infinitely more pleasant conditions. I’ve got a Friday afternoon to spare before my first dinner reservation in four months, so I decide to take on the shortest proper Tube: the Victoria line. I exit the mainline station at Tottenham Hale to be dazzled by sunlight. There won’t be a single cloud all afternoon and, with temperatures poised in the mid-teens, I slough off serious cycling attire for a T-shirt and jeans. Somehow, I don’t even get burned. I head east a couple of stops to the Victoria line terminus, in excellent spirits, down a nice empty cycleway: this is what I expected to sign myself up for.
Funnily enough, bustling Walthamstow at school pick-up time on a Friday afternoon never made my Bucket List, but there’s something reassuring about the energy of the town. It’s prettier than I expected; blossoms sprinkle the paths of the park that adjoins Walthamstow Central station – my official start – and satisfyingly geometric Victorian terraces fill the side streets. It’s market day on the High Street, and the footfall slows me to a crawl past endless stands of fruit, baked goods, clothes, trinkets, books and dubious-looking mobile accessories. The smell oscillates wildly between fresh breads and spices, exhaust fumes and raw fish – potentially on the turn in the mid-afternoon sun. Following the High Street could take all day, so I weave through tree-lined avenues of euphoric children to emerge on Blackhorse Road. The station building is plain but marked by a square mural of an eponymous black horse with a squashed head. Perhaps the designer made the art class error of drawing the body too big and then struggling desperately to fit the rest of the horse in.
The black horse mural.
The Victoria line is one of two – with the Waterloo & City – to run entirely underground, so I’ve committed the route to memory rather than relying on lines to follow. At least it’s a straight track for the next few miles, along well-apportioned cycle lanes. En route back to Tottenham Hale – newly surrounded by towering apartment blocks – I cross the Walthamstow Wetlands. It’s a network of reservoirs and wildlife refuges, built up from heavy industry by the East London Waterworks after World War II. Though scarcely visible from the main road through dense shrubbery, this is an area of serenity and vital ecological conservation: it provides water to 3.5 million people and is integral to the Lee River byway for migrating birds. The Wetlands are an exemplar of “re-wilding” – a concept in vogue as climate change threatens to decimate low-lying urban development – more than half a century ahead of their time.
From the construction site of Tottenham, I pass mundane retail parks and cavalcades of red buses to reach the intersection of Seven Sisters. The area is so named for seven elms planted in a ring formation on Page Green Common, on my left as I approach the station, as long ago as 1619. I was under the impression that the Seven Sisters were uprooted by the Great Storm of 1987, but further research suggests that elms aren’t especially sturdy and they have, in fact, been replanted with different varieties at least four times – in 1852, 1886, 1955 and 1996 – by families of seven sisters. (The most recent trees were actually planted by five families, each with seven sisters: that’s just showing off.)
I head west along Seven Sisters Road through forgettable South Tottenham and then steeply uphill. The road widens and I am siphoned into a bus lane; I pass some commanding residential units in Stamford Hill but otherwise, my focus is primarily not to be cut up by taxis and postmen. Finsbury Park looks inviting on my right-hand side, dotted with freshly budding oaks, and when the station finally appears through the traffic ahead I take it as my cue to turn south towards some less stressful streets.
This is now Corbyn territory – the former Labour leader’s diverse Islington North constituency – but I see far more of the affluence than the deprivation of the area along Blackstock Road. The steep climb through Highbury is defined by gastropubs and tall, stone tenements. I pass tennis courts and sweeping greens on the gentle downhill to Highbury & Islington station, which lies next door to The Famous Cock: a stellar name for a pub. It’s only more upmarket on the ride down Upper Street to Islington proper, as marked by an Ottolenghi restaurant and Granita – the supposed eaterie where the famous 1994 pact which propelled Tony Blair to Downing Street as Prime Minister, and Gordon Brown next door as his increasingly disgruntled Chancellor, was formalised.
I’m making good progress, so I decide to mosey through some back streets. The Georgian vistas of Milner and Gibson Square are stunning, if silent and austerely uniform. Around the corner is Old Royal Free Square, which I assume is the former site of the now Hampstead-based Royal Free Hospital – given the propensity for London hospitals to change location. In fact, it started life in 1850 as the London Fever Hospital. The local paper tells me that then Islington villagers ‘weren’t keen on sick people with infectious fevers’ – I doubt many people are – but also wanted to build a hospital for the very poor (this a century before the NHS was founded). It survived on voluntary contributions until 1948, when it merged with the Royal Free in Holborn – hence the name – but closed in 1975 after the completion of the far larger, architecturally horrible, Royal Free in Hampstead. Closure was met with huge local opposition since the hospital retained a dedicated women’s wing that specialised in abortions – bear in mind they were only legalised in 1967 – and its patients struggled to arrange transport to Hampstead. Still, it’s in keeping with the hospital’s legacy that in the early 1990s, it was converted into social housing.
Old Royal Free Square today.
I wend through traffic past Angel and right onto the Pentonville Road (two light blue Monopoly spaces in a row) which falls steeply downhill towards King’s Cross St. Pancras. I nearly reach 30 mph before the inevitable red light and must crawl behind a Just Eat moped past Euston. I veer onto the pavement to pass more construction works and make a left turn at Warren Street. This is the site of University College Hospital, which I’ve learned a lot about recently in listening to Jim Down’s Life Support, his diary as an ICU and anaesthesia doctor on the frontline during the Covid crisis. His experience at UCH is enormous (he treated murdered Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko) but Down has no answers as Covid-19 overwhelms the largest critical care unit in the UK. His memoir is both harrowing and inspiring; it’s privilege based on the herculean efforts of NHS doctors, nurses and clinical staff that I can go out relatively safely now to make journeys like this.
Shadows start to envelop the back roads en route to Oxford Circus, where the tone shifts from the sombre to the ridiculous. The din of an unhinged preacher cuts through the laughter of shoppers and bar-goers; he shouts something about Revelation 8 and how Jesus really wasn’t a fan of the ‘lukewarm Christians’. I’m not sure those worshipping at the nearby font of Nike (the athletic apparel retailer, not the goddess) would even consider themselves lukewarm. The lifeblood has returned to Regent Street with its shops; I cut through to Piccadilly and briefly consider a visit to Waterstones, but it’s now 4:30 and the start of rush hour – if such a thing still exists.
The deckchairs at Green Park are in high demand as I cross again in front of Buckingham Palace and the Queen Victoria Memorial – of course, this line’s namesake. The current Queen opened the line in March 1969 by travelling from Green Park to Victoria – under her own house – for a fare of just 5d. The line was not only cheap, but characterised late-sixties futurism: it took 24 minutes to ride from Walthamstow to Victoria; the tiling is bespoke to every station; and hump-backed platforms allow trains to save gravitational potential energy when arriving at and leaving stations.
Continuing south, above ground, I am reminded that Britain is a classless society (!) as I watch a shabbily-dressed couple turned away from the seating outside Bbar, whose website description refers to ‘modern colonial décor’. Victoria mainline station emerges, surrounded by coaches and the pristine white facades of Belgravia. I turn left onto St. George’s Drive, an avenue of imposing five-storey mansions – home, no doubt, to the sort of people who think a European Super League is a sound idea. St. Saviour’s dainty Gothic church appears to my right by Pimlico station, and then the surge of evening traffic reappears for Vauxhall Bridge.
I’m stunned by the development of this area as I cross the Thames. The previously forgettable vista between the green-glassed oblongs of the MI6/SIS building to my left and Battersea Power Station to my far right has been saturated with yet more ritzy tower blocks. I come off a pleasant cycleway to negotiate the chaos of Vauxhall station, and end up crossing the same thoroughfare four times before I find the route south. On my left is the former Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the epitome of 18th and 19th century high society, but now a much less exciting park. The main road seems to drain of colour on the approach to Stockwell, which is defined by a very grey clock tower and an Underground ventilation tower painted with impressive, yet peeling, illustrations. The whole area feels in need of some TLC.
On the final leg to Brixton I feel hungry – a meal deal awaits – but relaxed, watching Heathrow-bound planes descend amid cloudless skies. Like Walthamstow, Brixton is a noisy multi-ethnic milieu, packed with market stalls along the High Street and famous Electric Avenue. As I stop, another preacher-with-loudhailer, this one I think Pentecostalist, chastises heretics within earshot. Both areas have embraced the post-Covid world; yes, there are face coverings aplenty – most of them not attached to faces – yet the sense of normality is invigorating. There are few better sights than a busy London bathed in sunshine, and the short, sweet Victoria line was a pleasure.
The Waterloo & City line is shorter, of course, but it’s two stops long and can be completed in 10 minutes. It doesn’t deserve a write up yet.
Technically, the Victoria line depot at Northumberland Park is above ground, but all the stations are underground. The W&C, however, stores its trains underground, and if they need major maintenance they have to be winched out of the ground at Waterloo.
Jubilee Line – Saturday 10th April, 2:45pm
Distance: 36.2km (by train); 56.2km (by bike, plus accidental detours)
My return journey begins in leafy Stanmore, on the cusp of Greater London. Long-time home to Prime Minister Clement Attlee and an outstation of Bletchley Park during the Second World War, the town feels more distinctive and rural than the Bakerloo suburbs. It helps that for the first time today there are real hills; just a stone’s throw from the Sainsbury and Lidl-dominated Broadway lies Stanmore Country Park and its stunning vistas from Canary Wharf across to Heathrow. I’m refuelled by lunch with a friend from Wenzel’s – an independent bakery chain that dominates the Northwest London market – and head east to the village hall-like northern terminus of the Jubilee line.
My path back to Central London almost mirrors that of the outward journey, a few miles east. The Jubilee line north of Baker Street in fact used to be a branch of the Bakerloo until 1979, when it was opened as a line in its own right – the name commemorating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee – with a new West End section to Charing Cross. This terminus didn’t last long, as the renewal of London’s Docklands into a financial hub presented the opportunity for a south river extension connecting mainline hubs at Waterloo, London Bridge and Stratford to the Isle of Dogs and the Millennium Dome. The Jubilee Line Extension opened just in time for said Millennium in December 1999. It is a “future-proofed” architectural masterpiece: £3.5 billion of cavernous cathedrals to commuting. With four Thames crossings, a station perilously close to the Houses of Parliament and a Canary Wharf complex which required the draining of a 250-metre-long dock, it was a bit of a nightmare to build – and to navigate.
From Stanmore, though, it’s a straightforward pedal southward to Canons Park. I am accompanied by a convoy of 4x4s who become very cross when the leading Range Rover trundles to a halt, clearly lost, and blocks the residential avenue. I scoot off through the gaps as the tooting ensues. Yet my path is blocked again as I realise that the Barnet FC Training Ground (note: I’m about 8 miles from anywhere that can be considered Barnet) has been converted from a shortcut into a Covid testing centre. Cross myself, I fumble through more mock Tudor uniformity to the Garden City-esque streets of Queensbury. There’s a right turn, a Morrisons and a jammed main road en route to Kingsbury. The local council has blessed me with a narrow cycle lane in the middle of a busy pavement, which I give up using after near-misses with several feral children.
I calm down as we exchange the bustle of Kingsbury Road for the woody hillside of Fryent Country Park. It would be peaceful if it wasn’t bisected by a steeply climbing A road, which I struggle up (lunchtime mini pizza and cookies threaten to make a reappearance). Mercifully, it’s then all downhill to my next station, Wembley Park. The surroundings transform back to affluent residential, then to the retail parks and newfangled tower blocks that announce our proximity to the eponymous stadium. I attempt to find Olympic Way, the long pedestrian thoroughfare to the former Empire Stadium which was centrepiece of the Olympic Games in 1948. I have to negotiate a packed JD Sports car park, but the approach is almost bare. It’s far-cry from my last visit to Wembley, in equally miserable weather in November 2019, to watch England’s women defeated by Germany (plus ça change) in front of a packed, Covid-free house.
Wembley Olympic Way.
The stadium is surrounded by an enormous industrial estate; I traipse past Pyramid Builders, Metro Wardrobes and Euro Car Parts in a vague daze, 40-odd kilometres into the day. I reach the North Circular road, which Google Maps informs me I must cross to re-enter civilisation. It takes about 20 minutes in the absence of useful signage: through another shop car park; a person-sized hole in a fence; a cycle path precariously adjacent to six lanes of dual carriageway; a railway bridge; an underpass below said dual carriageway; and finally a cul-de-sac of apparently abandoned houses. What a useless location for my next station, Neasden.
At this point, I realise that this section of the Jubilee line is actually closed for one of London Underground’s perpetual engineering works, so I could save myself navigatory hassle by taking the replacement bus route. Easier said than done, however, as I follow a double-decker through the construction site that is Willesden. There are endless red lights along the crowded High Road, it starts to rain properly and – worst of all – the replacement bus cheats, missing Dollis Hill altogether. (Scandalous, but there’s no time to go back once I’ve realised.) Willesden Green is leafier, well-to-do territory again, but my focus has turned to avoiding a soaking rather than sightseeing.
Dartmouth Road, with its horse chestnut canopies beginning to sprout green shoots, offers some respite. But I have to stop under the railway viaduct at Kilburn to clear my mist-covered glasses and actually see again. Here the line crosses the Roman road Watling Street, now glamorously known as the A5. This is a preserved route of over 230 miles from Dover to Wroxeter – near today’s Shrewsbury. It is distinctive on London maps as a rare straight line, connecting Marble Arch to Elstree, among a spaghettied morass of later streets. Indeed, modern archaeologists date Watling Street back to 47-48 AD, only a few years after the Romans arrived to impose some order upon the recalcitrant ancient Britons.
As the rain recedes to a manageable drizzle I must continue to forge east, and M&S Food heralds the arrival of West Hampstead. The following stop, Finchley Road, then goes one better with an enormous Art Deco Waitrose: this might be the most popular store of the day, judging by the queue of parishioners diligently distanced at its entrance. I turn right onto the multi-laned arterial road, dotted with coaches and delivery lorries, to arrive at the Jubilee’s customary station named for a pub, Swiss Cottage. (This is actually the third iteration of the name: the initial 1804 tollkeeper’s lodge was called “Swiss Tavern”, then “Swiss Inn” until the early 20th century.)
To avoid being sideswiped across three lanes of traffic into Swiss Cottage, I bear off the main road to absorb the enormous Victorian mansions and 1930s apartment complexes of St. John’s Wood. There’s some quick downhill progress, with a glimpse of the space-age white pods of Lord’s Cricket Ground on my right and the imposing minaret and golden dome of London Central Mosque just visible through the foliage ahead – on the west side of Regent’s Park. I scarcely knew this venerable structure existed before I planned this route and was further surprised to read that it only opened in 1977, after over half a century of wrangling. In recent years, the mosque’s location is no small irony: an Islamic centre of worship virtually next door to Winfield House, the U.S. Ambassador’s residence.
By 4:15, I’m back at Baker Street and the relative quiet of the Congestion Charging Zone. Even on this dark Saturday, it’s bizarre to see the shopping avenues deserted: Selfridge’s is shuttered and Oxford Street easily passible. They’re replaced by a handful of people whizzing about on electric scooters, because apparently that’s now a cool thing to do for people above the age of 12. I turn right down Bond Street and pass the quirky bench-statue where tourists can sit between Churchill and Roosevelt, as if in conversation. This area is a feast of Prada, Bulgari (Bvlgari?), Cartier, Dior and Rolex boutiques – just as busy as normal…
I walk through the foliage of Green Park to Buckingham Palace; it’s rather sparsely attended for the day after a Royal bereavement, though of course there’s the white-tented media circus lurking behind the Queen Victoria monument. Beneath my feet/ wheels, this is where the Jubilee line diverges from its former course down the Mall to Charing Cross. The Charing Cross platforms are closed to the public but maintained by TfL, to provide an easy likeness for any filmmaker requiring a few Tube scenes. Such blockbusters as The Bourne Ultimatum and Skyfall have filmed here; note in the latter that 007’s chase of the supervillain Raoul Silva from “Temple” to “Embankment” station in fact uses the same Charing Cross Jubilee station, kitted up in appropriate District line attire.
I continue from the Palace onto another Cycle Superhighway alongside St. James’ Park. It’s busy again at Westminster, the first stop on the Jubilee Line Extension. In order to build the station, a 39-metre-deep box had to be constructed below the still-operating District and Circle line platforms and carefully avoiding the 140-year-old foundations of the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben, as its misnamed). In an episode of engineering wizardry, the ground below the Houses of Parliament was filled with numerous horizontal tubes of concrete, which has kept the already listing clock tower out of alignment with its base by only 50 centimetres.
Building the Jubilee at Westminster. Today's Portcullis House went on top of this underground cavern.
I appreciate Westminster Bridge’s ample bike lane en route to Waterloo; I refuel at Tesco Express with some water and sugary comestibles. It’s estimated that this is just one of 9,000 convenience or grocery stores in the Greater London area. That seems a remarkable statistic, but it works out quite feasibly that there would be about an average-sized shop per 1,000 people. More concerningly, perhaps, is that there are (as of 2018) 237 Pret A Mangers in the region, nearly two-thirds of the UK total and one for every 38,000 people. Even amid the pandemic, Pret’s consumption of its rivals in the capital shows few signs of abating.
Endless traffic lights hinder my progress past Southwark – a maze of empty-looking tenements and market squares – to London Bridge. I’m losing valuable time in queues of BMXing adolescents and Deliveroo drivers with no authority, in my view, to use the Cycle Superhighway. A stylish mixture of glass-clad investment banks and pastel-shaded wharves-turned-swanky apartments surround Tooley Street from City Hall down to Bermondsey. The weather is improving, but then the surroundings take a turn for the worse as I approach Southwark Park. This is the site of many a pre-pandemic tennis match – or rather, meltdown – with an old school friend. On one occasion, I tried to blame deteriorating light for my 6-7, 2-6, 4-6 loss, until my victorious pal informed me that he also cannot see in the dark.
At Canada Water, a station marked by a glass drum-like structure that allows natural light to penetrate down to the platforms, it’s time to go off-piste. The Jubilee line traverses the Thames three times between here and Canning Town, but I can only cross using one route, through the Greenwich foot tunnel. (There is a car tunnel at Rotherhithe, but it looks narrow and congested, and I want to avoid death from asphyxiation.) Therefore, I’ll do the stations out of order: straight to North Greenwich along the south Thames Path, then doubling back, through the tunnel, to Canary Wharf.
But even this is arduous: a congested main road through forgettable Deptford to Greenwich; a brief reprieve to follow the footpath past Cutty Sark and the Royal Naval College; then industrial wasteland as the Thames turns north towards the Dome. At times, there is a real cycle lane, but more commonly I follow a narrow path at a crawl, negotiating 90-degree bends round disused piers. Junkyards are piled high behind barbed wire fences, while algal scum washes up on the silt to my left; still, I am met by a steady stream of oncoming pedestrians. Eventually, there is an outlet to the Greenwich Peninsula Golf Range, where a heavily-accented cyclist asks for directions to the Thames Path. ‘I just came that way,’ I reply, ‘but it’s horrible.’
North Greenwich station sits in the shape of an eagle’s wingspan, adjoining the O2 Arena. The Dome’s white canopy with its yellow support towers looks like a massive, 80% submerged conker, stranded in this austere marshland. And, for several years, it was considered an expensive failure. Barely half of the estimated 12 million footfall attended the 2000 Dome exhibition – in Blairite jargon, the “Millennium Experience”. It lay almost empty, haemorrhaging taxpayers’ money, until purchased by the mobile phone group O2 in 2005. The Dome’s fortunes were revived, with the addition of a shopping centre, restaurant “street”, entertainment complex and 20,000-seater stadium. I’ve been to the O2 to see everything from Novak Djokovic to Tutankhamun: an ageing relic and a boy pharaoh from the Second Millennium BC. Today it is closed only by public health necessity, the approach plaza dotted with noisy teenagers.
Royalty and government celebrate the new Millennium at the Dome. The Queen clearly wants to be in bed.
I take a longer road route back to Greenwich, for a second chance to marvel at the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the Old Royal Naval College. It dates back over 300 years and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, of St. Paul’s and Hampton Court Palace pedigree. The vast site was a hospital for nearly two centuries before making its name as a naval training ground. Now generally a museum, it is an iconic filming location which provided, among other scenes, Buckingham Palace interiors for The King’s Speech and the epic barricade battles for the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables.
I walk through the slightly spooky Greenwich Foot Tunnel, nearing my 80th kilometre. Millwall Park is quiet and surrounded by low-rise eighties flats, which morph quickly into enormous silver skyscrapers as I follow the DLR northwards. It’s now past 6pm and Canary Wharf is practically empty. I wonder how much of this office space will remain uninhabited with the shift to flexible, home working in the long-term. Will there be much appeal for this flood-prone peninsula in the post-Covid world? Or do I underestimate the human propensity to return to old, safe and normal – if far from optimal – patterns?
To be honest, I wasn’t thinking about deep philosophical questions at this point in the journey, so much as reaching the end before nightfall and irreversible muscular deterioration in my legs. I take several wrong turns into Maseratied apartment complexes in an attempt to cross East India Quay and the River Lea, a hefty tributary of the Thames that flows towards Stratford, Tottenham and eventually Hertfordshire. I find the zigzagging paths of the Leamouth Peninsula, where new towers block out the deteriorating light, and cross a tastefully trussed red bridge to Canning Town. It seems the only way north is through the station complex, so I mask up and negotiate a painful amount of stairs.
The end of the journey is something of an autopiloted blur: under a dripping viaduct and through a mile of low, square council estates to West Ham. The road bears right into the brown bricked sameness of Plaistow, then left towards something taller and more colourful for the final part of the line. After nearly 100 kilometres, I swing round to the vast Stratford station. The burgundy neon signage of Westfield glows invitingly in the background as I extricate my posterior from the bike seat, in relief more than satisfaction.
The Jubilee line was an ordeal in the afternoon drizzle. The effort of over four hours was contrived by the detours required post-Canada Water. But the juxtaposition of uniform, Metroland-like affluence in the northwest with the unevenly developed southeast presents a fascinating reminder of the money thrown at this city. Cranes litter the landscape and new towers appear virtually every other week. In Mason’s day, Stratford was still a ropey interchange hub, over a year shy of the consecration of twin monuments to sport and shopping that define it today: the Olympic Park and Westfield. I permit myself a sardonic eyeroll at this inevitable truth of capitalism, but as a salmon hue from the setting sun leaks across the dark greys above – finally – my mind turns to McDonalds.