Time and the River: A Bicycle Ride along the Thames Path Spirits Nigel Fountain out of the Rat Race and into London's Past
Fountain, Nigel, New Statesman (1996)
The stillness of the pigs lingers in my mind. Prostrate, they were in adjacent stalls, snorting sporadically as if disturbed from pleasing dreams, snuffling, belching, deftly manoeuvring vast pink and black and white bulks to get the most exposure possible to the sun. Two enormous, oblivious Rotherhithe pigs, safe from American hog camps and Gloucester Old Spot sausages. Among global piggery, surely the most blessed of their kind.
Cycling the Thames Path on the south side of the river to the Thames Barrier was my friend Polly's idea. For me it was weekday work avoidance and I felt shifty about it. Polly arrived at Tate Modern from Clapham, me from Kentish Town. I was 20 minutes late. She raised an eyebrow.
My London, day by day, is work routes, pubs, pictures, bus stops, and when London-dwellers emerge from unfamiliar Tube stations we step into fragments of a jigsaw, not a narrative thread. Cars don't do it for me either. They do not place me inside this city of eight million; they provide either freeze-frame traffic jam or speed and blurred backdrop. Feet are fine, but slow, and I miss the sweep of the metropolis. Bicycles--crawling painfully up shallow gradients, cheating on no-cycling paths, spinning down towards the river--are what keep me part of the city. And the Thames Path follows water. It would be easy, I reckoned.
We stare at Tate Modern: Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia, it proclaims. In 1947, national and local uproar accompanied the start of building on the site of Giles Gilbert Scott's Bankside power station. It would be an eyesore, critics said, an insult to St Paul's from Labour's planners, to add to the injury of the Luftwaffe-blitzed landscape, Dada as destruction. The first I saw of the area was childhood glimpses in Charles Crichton's Hue and Cry, created, like that future Tate Modern, in 1947. The Ealing film was wonderful, I thought--voids in the landscape of the mighty city, chases across wide open space. I remember two decades later, in the late 1970s, a winter night picking my way in the darkness--cycling, of course -along the then inaccessible river, hearing the hum of the generators and anticipating the destruction of Bankside.
In 2008, uproar, critics, the threat of destruction are long gone. There are no voids, in the 21st century; there is a multitude instead. We snake away from Tate Modern and its crowd. I still have a residual Seventies guilt about the metropolis and tourists, left over from lousy licensing hours, decay, piss, pissing rain, dog-ends and the leftover lie of Swinging London. In those days I felt I should go up to vacationers from Stuttgart and LA and apologise. "Look," I would say, "I'm sorry, it will improve. Later." Now it has. But the multitude at Millennium Bridge, they are just that, while we, I tell myself, are surely voyagers.
Under Southwark, London and Tower bridges we go, past HMS Belfast and the replica Golden Hind and on to Shad Thames, a Conranian village of Pont de la Tours where Stepford fishwives rub shoulders with Pizza Express sellers and rogan josh spice traders. Beyond St Saviour's Dock, everything changes. By Bermondsey the tourists and the City workers have gone. We pause by the pub at Cherry Garden Pier--where Samuel Pepys bought fruit from local orchards--and contemplate green space and ancient stonework. …