Every other year my cousin Sheryl – a full-on born and raised American – comes to the UK to enjoy the delights of London’s Open House week. Contrary to its name, the week is not limited to houses. In fact, Sheryl (who is an architect) hasn’t come for the houses anyway. What she’s really into is infrastructure – train stations, aqueducts, and underground rivers are her favourites. Sheryl so loves everything to do with water that she even persuaded my elderly mother to go on a tour of some sewage works with her.
I lucked out by missing the sewage extravaganza, and instead we visited the architecturally fabulous St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, which is everything you want a Victorian Gothic building to be, and more. Unfortunately, the hotel hadn’t got into the spirit of Open House week at all, so there were no legitimate ways to tour around it. Instead, Sheryl and I had to masquerade as guests, sauntering casually through the lobby before sneaking up the stairs. Imagine two 40-something women running up and down corridors, taking snaps of doorways and arches whilst giggling like naughty school girls hiding from the teacher. We even managed to crash a corporate reception, not so we could gorge on the wine and canapés (both of which I love) but to admire the architecture of the room it was being held in.
Given our track record, I was confident Sheryl would jump at the chance to cycle along Regent’s Canal from Greenwich to Islington with me, looking at all the shiny new buildings and the regenerated old ones. Knowing that I would most likely spend a lot of the journey enthusing about my passion for cemeteries, would surely only add to the charm.
This is not an activity for the feint-hearted – not only because it’s a 20-mile round trip, but also because you are only feet, and at some points inches, away from the canal, and an ill-judged turn of the handle-bars could easily pitch you into the water. And bicycles don’t float. It’s not the full-on Bradley Wiggins experience, but it’s as close as I’m ever likely to get.
Unlike my husband, who likes to cycle so fast that generally all I see of him is a Lycra-clad bottom in the middle-distance, Sheryl was happy to take her time admiring the view.
We stopped to ogle Victorian brick chimneys, take arty snaps of gas holders, and question the wisdom of building a school where part of the roof seemed to be wrapped in cling film. We passed people running, walking and even two committed citizens collecting litter.
Closer to Islington, we toyed with stopping at one of the trendy bars or cafes that front onto the canal, but decided to push on to the end of the tow path.
Our dedication was rewarded with a light lunch sitting outside in the sunshine at trendy eatery Elk in the Woods, where the menu was both poncy and delicious in equal measure (hot smoked elk sausage with fig and rosemary cream, anyone?) The staff were also lovely, and politely didn’t mention how sweaty we were, or that our bikes were causing a major hazard. So after a bit of self-indulgence and a pleasant chat about waterways we were on our way home again.
Back at Boudicca HQ, we had a quick cup of tea before I waved Sheryl off to see more cousins, who no doubt have their own special interests. I’ve now got two years before her next visit, in which I need to plan an outing that tops sewage, Victorian Gothic and white-knuckle cycling. Suggestions on a postcard please!