Sunday, 18 September 2011

Tour of Britain - Stage 8 Guide

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Stage 8? The end of the race already? It can't be, can it...?

Horse Guard, Whitehall. Don't let the
red coat, old-fashioned helmet and
sword trick you into assuming the
Household Cavalry exit only in order
to fulfill tradition and ceremony - the
regiment is one of the most highly
trained fighting forces in the world.
It is, unfortunately; but haven't they packed a lot into those eight days - in fact, there would have been even more had Stage 2 not had to be cancelled due to a hurricane. It's been like a miniature Grand Tour, in fact, with all the elements of a major European race: we've had tragedy (Jens Voigt crashing out on the first stage), scandal (Alex Rasmussen attempting to single-handedly undo all Bob Stapleton and Highroad's hard anti-doping work), harsh tests of strength (Cheddar Gorge, Gunn Hill, Bristol Hill, the Brecon Beacons), stupendous scenery (see previous and most of the rest of the route) and a Grade-A challenging parcours.

Since being brought back to life by SweetSpot in 2004 after the demise of the PruTour (which, via a long and convoluted ancestry, traced its roots right back to the original tour of Britain, the Victory Marathon of 1945), this really has been a race that's gone from strength to strength. This year, it's received more exposure than ever before and has boasted a top-notch international roster of riders - we've got World Champion Thor Hushovd, for pete's sake! - and that can only lead one way: more top-notch riders next year as the teams try to send a stronger selection than their rivals and more publicity. That means 2013 will be even better, and 2014 better still. It's like a nuclear chain reaction; self-fueling and getting bigger and bigger until... Boom! Britain ends up with one of the most anticipated and important races on the professional calendar. And about time too, because we've always had a huge and vibrant racing scene here in Britain - it just never quite made it into the wider public consciousness like it did in France, Belgium and Italy. Give it another decade and cycling will be massive here.

Trafalgar Square By Moonlight, Edward Pether

As is the case with the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vueta a Espana, the race ends in the capital with what may turn out to be one of the fastest individual time trials in the history of cycling along a flat, largely straight 8.8km circuit starting out from Whithall where the start ramp will be erected right in between the Household Cavalry buildings and the Ministry of Defence. Each rider will then head north, away from Parliament, past Whitehall Placeto come out right on the convergence of The Mall, Cockspur Street, The Strand and Northumberland Avenue on the southern corner of Trafalgar Square. The Square has long been used as a place for community gatherings, either in protest  for example, the anti-Poll Tax protests when public anger turned into all-out violent civil war; or in celebration, as is the case each Christmas and New Year, each Chanukah, each May Day, whenever a great event of national significance occurs and, if the unofficial plans come to fruition, for an enormous free party on the first Saturday after the death of Margaret Thatcher.

Charisng Cross Station and Embankment Place
(© Keith Roper CC2.0)
They turn the sharp corner at the Metropole Hotel, commandeered to serve as the Air Ministry HQ during both world wars and now technically called the Corinthia, onto Northumberland Avenue - named after the vast mansion belonging to the Dukes of Northumberland, as painted by Canaletto and slightly damaged by rioters in 1768 before the Duke of the time came up with the superb idea of paying the landlord of the nearby Ship Alehouse to open up and supply the revolting masses with beer. Well, you can't smash a man's house up when he's just bought you a drink, can you? At the end of the Avenue, the route turns left underneath Hungerford Bridge by Charing Cross Station and Embankment Place, one of London's most successful modern structures.

Depiction of the Embankment during construction,
showing how the Metropolitan underground lines
were incorporated within the structure.
The Embankment was one of the largest civil engineering projects to take place anywhere in the world during the 19th Century, its aims being to enclose and make use of the marshy banks of the Thames which had previously been little more than a foetid, stinking waste made foul and disease-ridden by the actions of the tide which would twice daily deposit London's major and least profitable product - human excrement - in a stinking layer across the mud. It was this, in fact, that led to the extraordinarily long summer recess enjoyed by Members of Parliament - from summer until early autumn, the entire area became simply to horrible to work in. Of course, the Embankment went a long way to solving the problem and today, human waste is no longer flushed into the river to poison the fish stocks of the North Sea but politicians, being politicians, have retained the long holiday perk of their job to this day. The project was designed by Joseph Bazalgette, a genius engineer who had also been head of the sewer building programme that had ended the Great Stink of 1858 when the stench of waste became so great that people were literally being overcome in the streets. A descendant of Bazalgette, Peter, is the man responsible for popularising the unspeakably dull Big Brother reality TV format, turning it into a brand and marketing it around the world - hence the waggish claim that all Joseph's fine works were in vain, because his great-great-grandson has pumped the shit back into people's homes.

Cleopatra's Needle seen from the Thames
Constructing it was an enormous challenge - it required the purchase and demolition of many properties along the banks and building onto the marshy shores. Ingeniously, the tunnels of the Metropolitan underground line are incorporated within the structure. Seconds after Hungerford Bridge, the riders will arrive at Cleopatra's Needle, one of the three Egyptian monuments given to London, Paris and New York during the 19th Century. In fact, none of them have even the remotest connection to Cleopatra, each having been over a thousand years old by the time of her birth. London's Needle was gratefully accepted by the British Government, who then abandoned it at Alexandria due to the massive cost of transporting it back to Britain. Finally, Sir William James Erasmus Wilson personally financed an attempt to move it to London, spending what was then an almost unimaginable sum of £10,000 to do so. The obelisk was encased within a cast iron tube 5m wide and 28m long and fitted with a rudder, keel and sails - in effect, turning it into a boat which they named the Cleopatra and which could be towed to London by another vessel.

The Cleopatra got no further than the Bay of Biscay where a storm capsized it, killing all six of the crew onboard at the time. it was abandoned and reported as sinking. However, it didn't sink and was recovered by Spanish fishermen a dew days later. Getting it back cost Wilson another £2000, because under international maritime laws concerning salvage, it was now legally the property of the city of Ferrol in Galicia. With that matter sorted, a tug was dispatched to tow the Cleopatra back to London where the Needle was eventually erected in 1878, a full 59 years after it had been given to Britain.

Somerset House (© Jan van der Crabben CC2.0)
The then pass under Waterloo Bridge, where the writer Georgi Markov was assassinated by a Bulgarian secret agent armed with a poisoned umbrella in 1978. The current bridge was completed in 1945, the majority of the construction having been carried out during the Second World War by female labourers, hence its nickname "the Ladies' Bridge." The views from the bridge are widely considered to be the best from anywhere at ground-level anywhere in London. The riders pass by Somerset House which cost over half a million pounds to build in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. The three arches facing the river permitted boat access to the building before the construction of the Embankment. Nowadays, it's become one of the nation's primary cultural centres and houses the Royal Academy and part of King's College in addition to numerous schools, societies and various other entities.

The next bridge is Blackfriars, named originally after the same William Pitt whose house the Tour passed a few days ago in Somerset but later renamed after the Dominican monks of an abbey that had existed near the site. The bridge has been a feature of numerous conspiracy theories since 1982 when the Italian banker Roberto Calvi was found hanged from one of the arches. Though at first put down to suicide, an inquest ruled that he had been murdered by a person or persons unknown. That, combined with his close links to the Vatican, was more than enough material for theories to arise with suspects ranging from the mysterious "black" masonic organisation Propaganda Due to the Vatican and the Mafia. The best, as is the way with conspiracy theories and all good examples of paranoid fiction, combine all of the above.

At this point, the route enters the long Upper Thames Street tunnel or Blackfriars Underpass, emerging some 360m later by Lambeth Hill near Southwark Bridge. London Bridge is a short way ahead. Despite its fame - chiefly resulting from the nursery rhyme commemorating one of the many bridges to have stood here since Roman times - it's a rather underwhelming structure, plain and even quite boring; this perhaps being the reason that so many people assume that the spectacular Tower Bridge some 0.87km downstream is London Bridge. A pity, really - the great medieval bridge, covered in homes, shops and even mills that turned it into a bustling mini-city within a city, must have been a spectacular sight. At any one time, there could be thousands of people going about their daily business on the bridge - in 1212 fires broke out at both ends simultaneously, trapping 3000 people who subsequently lost their lives, in between.

The medieval London Bridgen depicted in 1682 (a larger version of the image can
be seen by clicking on it)
In time, and after several other fires (one of which destroyed the northern end, cutting it off from the bank and ironically saving it from the Great Fire of 1666), the bridge fell into a terrible state and was condemned - at first, the houses were removed and the central arches were opened up so as to allow watercraft to pass, an act that also prevented the bridge acting as a barrage and slowing waterflow, thus decreasing the likelihood of the river freezing over in winter. The remainder was demolished in the early 19th Century to be replaced by New London Bridge that was eventually deconstructed and sold in 1968, prior to being "reconstructed" - in fact, only the outer stonework was used to clad a concrete core - in Arizona, where it still stands today. The current bridge was constructed between 1967 and 1972 at a cost of £4 million, with builders making use of the previous bridge during the early stages. The street lights along the bridge are sometimes said to have been cast from Napoleon's melted-down cannons, but there appears to be no proof for this despite it being the type of symbolic gesture that would surely have been recorded.

London - Thames Sunset Panorama. Tower Bridge can be seen to the left and 30 St. Mary Axe
(popularly known as the Gherkin or Crystal Phallus) can be seen to the right. (© David Ilif CC-BY3.0)
Tower Bridge, of combined suspension and bascule design, is just visible as the riders pass by All Hallows by the Thames - a church dating from the 11th Century and built on the site of an earlier church dating to 675, itself built on the site of a Roman building, some traces of which remain in the present church's crypt - and head onto Tower Hill. One of the most iconic symbols of London and Great Britain, it cost £1,184,000 to build between 1886 and 1894 and is clad in Portland Stone Cornish granite so as to harmonise with the Tower of London (from which the bridge takes its name, rather than from the distinctive towers either end of the main span. However, despite the medieval outward appearance, the bridge contained the absolute cutting-edge of Victorian technology - the twin bascules were raised by means of a number of hydraulic accumulators, devices in which water was pumped by a pair of steam engines and held at high pressure, thus serving as a store of energy to lift the heavy roadways. Though replaced by an electrically-operated system in 1974, using oil in the accumulators instead of water, much of the original machinery can be seen in the Victorian Engine Room museum at the bridge. Today, while the river carries much fewer large craft than it did when the bridge was built, the bascules are still opened and closed on average a thousand times per annum. River traffic has always been given priority over road traffic, as President Bill Clinton and the US Secret Service discovered when their convoy of vehicles was split in two by the bridge opening to allow the passage of a traditional Thames barge named Gladys. The president's security chiefs were, to put it mildly, not amused and complaints were raised; however, bridge staff - having done their job exactly as it should and has always been done - were unconcerned, saying that they had attempted to contact the American Embassy as the motorcade approached  to let them know that the bridge was to be opened so arrangements could be made (any vessel that requires the bascules to be opened must give 24 hours' notice), "but they wouldn't answer the phone."

Tower of London (© Pikous, CC2.0)
It's the Tower itself that dominates this part of the city, though. More correctly known as Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, the castle dates from 1066 when construction began under William the Conqueror; the most impressive parts of the defensive moats, walls and towers apparently deliberately constructed so as to overlook the Saxon city in an early example of psychological warfare that led to the building becoming a hated symbol of oppression. Much of the present castle is of later construction, but the the central keep - the White Tower - is Norman, said by architectural historians to be both the pinnacle of early medieval castle keep design and the best-preserved 11th Century palace in Europe.

The Tower and, in the background, Tower Bridge
The castle's dark history is well-known and largely fictitious, much of it being the combined work of 16th Century propaganda and Victorian romanticism. For example, the Tower never contained a permanent torture chamber - even from the 16th Century, for torture to be used required special and express approval from the Privy Castle and as such was used far less frequently than is commonly supposed. However, it most certainly was used on occasions - 48 occasions being recorded in the prison records and it was here in 1447 that the notorious rack was introduced to Britain by Constable of the Tower The Duke of Exeter, this being the reason that the rack still on display at the Tower is named The Duke of Exeter's Daughter. Despite being thought of as having been a harsh, grim place during its time as a prison, life for those jailed within was actually relatively easy - being reserved for the rich, inmates were allowed to purchase comforts and fine foods to make their stay more pleasant. The castle is, of course, said to be populated by an excellent collection of ghosts and well worth a visit by those who like to go looking for such things. Among the many that have been seen going about their spectral business are those of Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, Henry VI, the Princes (in the Tower) and a bear, possibly the polar bear kept here by Edward I and which provided a popular spectacle among Londoners whenever it was allowed to catch fish in the Thames. Several of them are the ghosts of people executed at the Tower, the last person to have suffered such a fate being the Nazi secret agent Josef Jakobs in 1941.

Passing north of the Tower, the riders travel along Tower Hill Terrace before looping around on the A1211 to travel back along the river in the opposite direction, allowing a better look at the Tower's moats. Dry today, having been drained and filled in during the 19th Century when they had silted up and become a disease-ridden, festering lagoon, it was 4.5m deeper when built than it was today. Plans sometimes arise to reflood the moat, most recently being proposed in 2007 to mark the London Olympics in 2012, but have thus far come to nothing.

HMS Belfast (top) and President (bottom)
The return journey allows spectators to get a look at the various boats and ships permanently moored along the river - some housing museums - and the buildings on the opposite bank, many of which are equally as spectacular as those along the north bank. The first ship we'll see is HMS Belfast, a decommissioned Royal Navy Town-class light cruiser that saw active service in WW2 - and suffered extensive damage after striking a German mine - now owned by the Imperial War Museum and housing a naval warfare museum. The ship's guns are kept in working order and occasionally fire blanks during re-enactment events. Famously, were they to fire real shells in their current designation and elevation they would hit the London Gateway Service Station more than 20km away on the M1 motorway. Those who have visited the Services and experienced the architecture and quality of snacks available often argue that this would not necessarily be a bad thing.

The next is HMS President, an Anchusa-class Royal Navy sloop of 1918. It appears archaic when compared to Belfast, but does not provide an example of how naval progressed between the wars - as Q-ship, also known as a mystery ship, it was designed to resemble an older merchant vessel in order to lure submarines to the surface where they could be destroyed with the ship's cutting-edge weaponry. HMS Wellington, now officially HQS for obscure maritime reasons than mean nothing to us and moored a short way upstream, fulfilled a similar role in WW2 when she guarded transport and merchant ships against U-boat attack. She also took part in the Dunkirk Evacuation of 1940. On the opposite bank is the South Bank Centre, the largest centre for the arts in Europe. Construction began in 1951 in readiness to serve as the centrepiece of the Festival of Britain, an enormous nationwide project intended to demonstrate to the country that while the British people continued to suffer hardships due to the vast financial cost of the war, Britain itself was moving on, progressing, and the end was within sight. Today, the Royal Festival Hall is the sole surviving original building but the complex has grown to include the National Theatre, the Hayward Gallery, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the British Film Institute in addition to several others; hosting more than a thousand paid and numerous free events each year.

County Hall
The river bends to the south, bringing the riders opposite the London Eye - when constructed, the largest ferris wheel anywhere in the world and still the largest in Europe. It offers unrivaled views across London and far beyond. Waterloo Station can just be glimpsed behind it and, to the right, County Hall; the headquarters until 1986 of the Greater London Council before the organisation was dissolved, at least partially because they were powerful enough to form a serious and left-led thorn in the side of Thatcher's government - being almost opposite the Houses of Parliament and visible from Downing Street (site of the Prime Minister's residence at Number 10), the riverfront facade was sometimes hung with enormous banners displaying anti-government slogans. Today, it houses the London Sea Life Aquarium which, in addition to attracting a million visitors each year, has become a world centre for marine conservation and the London Film Museum which exhibits a huge range of props used in British films.

Portcullis House, Big Ben and the Eye
The riders continue straight ahead at Hungerford Bridge rather than turning back onto Northumberland Avenue, passing the riverside facade of the Ministry of Defence and down to Westminster Bridge, turning right at Big Ben - the name that, as any schoolchild and boring men in pubs the world over will tell you, is incorrectly applied to the Clock Tower at the Houses of Parliament (in fact, it refers to the bell within). This is one of the best points from which to view the House of Commons, the garden to the north-west being a popular spot for politicians to be interviewed on televised news. Portcullis House, on the other side of the road and opened in 2001 as offices for Members of Parliament and Commons staff, is a not entirely successful to put a modern slant on the architectural style of the Commons.

Anti-war protest at Parliament Square, 2003 (© Fys CC3.0)
A short passage along Bridge Street leads to Parliament Square, the grassy area in the middle now fenced off since being occupied by Democracy Village, a camp set up by anti-war protestors including the famous Brian Haw who left his post just once during a vigil lasting almost a decade. Believed to have been the reason for an inclusion to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act apparently designed solely to remove him from the Square - which was later found ineffectual - Haw died of lung cancer on the 18th of June 2011. In 2000, the Square was taken over by the pro-cycling and anti-car/ road-building group Reclaim The Streets in a guerilla gardening action, turning the green into a public allotment and declaring it open to all members of the public that wished to grow their own vegetables there.

The Cenotaph, Parliament Street looking
north towards the finish line
(© Bill Henderson CC2.0)
Immediately upon reaching the Square, the route takes a sharp right onto Parliament Street by Her Majesty's Treasury and the Cabinet Office for the final sprint to the end of the race. The Cenotaph, a monument to Britain and the Commonwealth's war dead, is in the middle of the road shortly ahead, then the finish line 8.8km from the start.

The same course will be used for the Individual Time Trial - the first in the Tour of Britain since 2005 - and then be completed eight times to form the final stage. Sprints will be held in laps 2, 6 and 8.

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