I’m excited: today we kick off a challenging project with a new charity client who we’ve aspired to work with for a long time. And what’s more, they’re based at the top of Canary Wharf, with amazing views across London.
The project ticks many boxes: it’s a strategic piece, it has clear objectives and it’s for a worthwhile cause. We’ll be exploring how the charity can best use digital to help young people find their feet after leaving school.
So we’ve done our homework. We have a clear, thoughtful plan and we know what we need to get out of the session. But most of all we know first impressions count — this meeting will set the tone for the next three months of collaboration.
Up until now, everything’s been meticulously planned. Schedules checked and double checked. Documents proofed. Agendas printed and reprinted. Projector adaptor packed, re-packed and packed again.
And we’re on the early train, arriving into London Paddington 08:45, giving us comfortable hour and 15 minutes to reach Canary Wharf — a journey that should only take 35 minutes. No sweat.
Sitting beside me is Anthony Mace, a good friend and fellow director of our imaginatively named company, Mace & Menter. We’ve been successfully working together for a couple of years, since we traded the security of the BBC and Flow interactive for the rollercoaster of building our own consultancy.
However, as we crawl through the concrete jungle on our approach to Paddington, the guard makes an announcement: “As you’re probably already aware there’s a tube strike today”. Aargh! No, we weren’t aware — if we had been, we wouldn’t be here, we’d be far away and we’d have moved the workshop to another date.
London tube strikes equate to city paralysis. Herds of disorientated commuters stumble blinking into narrow streets filling buses, taxis, and pavements. Journeys which were once 20 minute hops become half-day epics.
We should have known this was happening. Everyone in London knew about it and our client will have planned accordingly. It will have been splashed across the London papers with posters on every corner. But we don’t live in London anymore, so we’re in the dark.
No need to panic. Not at all. Not one bit. We’ll just call the client and delay the session.
No response. And we don’t have mobile numbers for them. Gah.
Ant re-assures me: “It will be fine, we’ll find a taxi, we’ll probably be a bit late, but we’ll get there. No sweat.” But I am starting to sweat and I’m conscious of my crisply ironed shirt losing its veneer of professionalism.
As we pull into the station people are already jostling for position in the aisles, there’s a palpable tension in the air. Canary Wharf is too far to walk so our first plan is to grab a taxi and face the traffic. But we’re foiled by approximately 2 million people milling around the taxi rank and in the region of zero taxis waiting.
OK, then bus. But the queues are absurd and the prospective route convoluted.
Got it! Boris bikes — a pleasant cruise across town arriving rosy cheeked with wind-tousled hair, ready to impress. What’s not to love? But unsurprisingly we arrive to find an empty bike stand surrounded by a small restless mob waiting in anticipation of returning cyclists.
This mob is definitely not a queue but it’s small enough to ascertain who arrived before and after you. We loiter — there’s no other option. There’s another stand just around the corner, so we split up and agree that whoever gets bikes first will call.
The turnover is pitifully slow. Every few minutes we become tacit participants in an unofficial relay race: a bike is returned, docked and snatched by the next person. If the bikes had engines, tyres would squeal and smoke.
Succeeding me to the rabble arrives a stout, ham-faced fellow with a leather briefcase. He wears a name badge denoting seniority at a respected London university and an intimidating frown stretching from ear to ear.
We wait and wait. There’s no defined pattern. One bike arrives swiftly followed by another. Finally I’m next. But then nothing for 20 minutes. Stress levels are nearing 11. Then just as I’m about to give up two bikes arrive together. Perfect — we’re back on track.
I release one bike from the dock, then the other. But there’s a problem. The fellow behind me is having none of it:
“You can’t take two — it’s one bike per person”
“Er — there are two of us, my friend is just coming”
“But he’s not here now, give it to me”
“Sorry, no, I’ve been waiting for two bikes for the past half hour”
My heart rate increases. His frown stretches even further around his sweaty crown and his face contorts in anger. In a cartoon, steam would burst from his ears. We have spectators. It’s a fight!
“Give me that bike!”
He tries to wrestle it from me. For a moment I think he’s going to punch me. Then he twists it out of my hands and throws it to the floor.
He shouts: “You’re a c*nt” and marches off on foot giving up on the fight and any prospect of taking the next bike to arrive.
My heart races. I call Ant and alert him in a wobbly voice that we now have wheels. Game back on.
3. The calm
We jump on bikes ready to zip across London, but quickly discover these Boris bikes are about as zippy as their namesake on a zip wire.
My bike has just three slow gears, the turning circle of a tanker and weighs as much as a Land Rover which I discover as I attempt to carry the bike down a long flight of steps.
A quick glance at Google maps shows us the route from here — we’ll head along Southbank then traverse the Thames soon after the city.
We continue at pace. The journey becomes pleasant, the sun is out and we’re beside the Thames following one of my favourite routes, passing the London Eye, weaving around book sellers outside the Southbank Centre and riding through the shadow of Tate Modern.
Canary Wharf’s gargantuan towers serve as a beacon guiding us across the city.
Then we’re back onto roads, negotiating traffic around London Bridge, zipping past Tower Bridge and Bermondsey and onto quiet residential roads through Rotherhithe.
And now we are just a few hundred meters away, the sun sparkles on individual windows outlining silhouettes of industrious workers. We turn onto a footpath and haul the bikes up steps to reach a walkway at the side of the Thames again.
Then it dawns on me. In our rush we’ve completely forgotten the minor detail of crossing the Thames. How could we have been so stupid? I feel like an animal haplessly lured into an obvious trap.
It’s Ant’s fault — he has the iPhone with the map, I am exploring a simpler life without a smartphone. No, it’s my fault, I was cycling ahead, I should have checked the route sooner, I should have smart phone myself. It makes no odds, our client is on one side of a wide tidal river and we are on the other. Without a canoe.
Going back to Tower Bridge will add 30 minutes to the journey and Greenwich foot tunnel is similarly distant.
Which leaves Rotherhithe Tunnel.
4. The abyss
Rotherhithe Tunnel is a mile-long, single bore passage beneath the Thames first opened in 1908 for horse-drawn traffic. One hundred years later it’s become a fume filled pit squeezing in two impossibly narrow intimidating lanes of traffic.
Most people in their right mind don’t elect to drive this route let alone cycle it fearing diesel fume asphyxiation or a last supper of rubber and tarmac.
But Ant and I aren’t thinking clearly — we’re on a mission with a deadline.
As we pause beside the entrance, industrial levels of traffic thunder past. We stand below the highest concentration of road warning signs I’ve ever seen and gaze into the abyss.
We look at each other: there are no words. Ant gives me a nod. Gulp.
We wait for a small break in the traffic, at which point we launch ourselves onto the rollercoaster and start peddling furiously. For the first 100 meters as we roll downhill below the river, it’s fine, but I’m soon aware of a low rumble and behind us a mountain of a truck looms into view.
This driver has his own mission and deadline and now he’s stuck behind two boris berks who are messing with his delivery targets.
He’s agitating to pass us, but there’s no way around without veering into the stream of oncoming traffic. Knee-high kerbs mean there’s no way off the road for us. Stephen King’s 1971 horror film, Duel, springs to mind in which a terrified motorist is stalked and tailgated by a monster tanker truck.
Pedal Mace, pedal Menter!
The tunnel continues downwards towards its lowest point below the middle of the river. Things aren’t looking good: we’re slowing the traffic on the downhill. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, which is fast approaching.
As we reach the bottom of the tunnel, the cacophony of engines and brakes is deafening and the air hangs velvet with fumes. We’re not meant to be here.
I attack the start of the ascent, this is going to be hard. The gas is making me lightheaded, my legs are tired and the bike feels like it’s made of lead. At this point in time I’m a little fitter than Ant, so I’m able to inch ahead while he fends off the fume belching behemoth inches from his back wheel.
Over my shoulder I see him winching slowly up the hill in 1st gear, eyes fixed on the ground while the truck driver makes his frustration apparent through creative use of accelerator and clutch.
I round a bend and finally I gorge myself on daylight and fresh air. I wait for Ant to appear and after what feels like hours he crawls around the bend and collapses into the breakdown layby. The truck thunders past and I imagine the driver gesticulating and glaring. I don’t look up.
We’re gasping for breath and sticky with grimy sweat, but the relief between us is palpable.
Slightly the worse for wear we pedal the last few hundred meters to Canary Wharf where we arrive for our workshop just 15 minutes late. Our client is impressed but slightly bemused at the lengths we’ve gone to to reach the workshop: “We didn’t expect you to make it today!”.
After the workshop we walk to the tube station to explore return travel options. We discover the Jubilee line — our direct line to and from Paddington — is up and running and has been all day. It was the only line unaffected by the strike.