There aren't many guided tours that range from Waterloo to the back streets of Wapping and Shadwell; that visit major tourist sites like the Tower of London, but then lead you into a charming local's pub off Brick Lane. A cycling tour of the capital can give you all this, and will appeal to visitors and Londoners alike. We took to the saddle with BrakeAway Bike Tours, one of several companies who offer a two-wheeled view of the capital.
We joined tour guide Chris Abbott, a Barking lad with an Aussie lilt, for a three-hour pedal round town last Sunday. The Secret London tour begins as it means to go on, with a descent into Leake Street, the graffiti park beneath Waterloo's train tracks where Chris stores his bikes in a hidden lock-up.
After mounting our wide-handled bikes, the route weaves through Southwark, down roads major and minor, finally crossing Southwark Bridge and on into the City. Here, Chris stops regularly to point out the rich architecture and 2000-year history, most strikingly personified by Leadenhall Market — a Victorian jewell built on Roman remains, with modern-day Harry Potter connections.
From there we head on into Brick Lane, stopping for refreshments at traditional pub The Pride of Spitalfields, before meandering round the near-East End. This is where the itinerary really goes off-guidebook, passing through mazy council estates and along the Wapping canals on our way through to St Katharine Docks. Some Londoners might seek out the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and the Cable Street mural, we suppose, but not many. And certainly very few tourists pass this way. We finish by crossing Tower Bridge and riding off into the sunset back to Waterloo.
There are many, many books, tours and apps out there offering a guide to 'secret London', but few can rival the variation you get on a cycling tour, where the added mobility can take you to places too far from the centre for most guides. Tour groups are small, with only five in our party, growing to about 20 in the summer. This allows for a more personalised experience, with everyone able to ask questions of the guide.
Visitors wanting to see different sides of the city will love it. Londoners, too, will learn much — and a bike tour is a safe way for those intimidated by London's roads to build the self-confidence needed to take to two wheels.
BrakeAway Bike Tours offer three themed tours (secret London, grand London, and a spooky tour) and can also be hired for private events. Scheduled tours are £18 for adults or £15 concessions, which gets you three and a half hours of cycling (with a break).
It should be noted that several other companies offer cycling tours of London. Fat Tire are perhaps the biggest, and generally stick to central London. Other companies include Cycle Tours of London, the London Bicycle Tour Company, Tally Ho Cycle Tours (on a vintage bike) and Spoke N' Motion. We'd encourage you to visit all these sites and decide which is best for you. You can, of course, always grab one of Transport for London's hire bikes for £1 a day and work your own way around London.
Other reviewed tours: