Birmingham may have more miles of canal than London, but the capital’s towpaths are still popular cycling routes. The Regent’s Canal runs from Limehouse to Paddington, continuing to Southall as the Grand Union Paddington Arm. The Grand Union itself runs from the Thames at Brentford north towards Watford, and the canalised River Lee heads north from Limehouse towards Tottenham and Enfield.
Canal paths are great places to gather your confidence for a first-time commute, and by all means use them if you're not in a hurry. The Canal & River Trust (formerly British Waterways) is improving the towpaths where it can, but at heart these are narrow, shared-use routes. In central London, they can be congested, especially the east-west Regent’s Canal at rush hour. Further out, the towpath is often unsurfaced and bumpy. So if fast cycling is your bag, we'd recommend you stick to the roads.
You no longer need to download a permit for canal cycling, but the Canal & River Trust asks you to ring your bell and slow down for pedestrians: as the Two Tings campaign would have it, “ting twice, be nice”. Watch out, too, for boaters stepping on and off their craft.
You can’t cycle the whole of the Thames Path in London, but there are several opportunities for traffic-free riverside cycling.
National Cycle Network route 4 largely follows the river. More on-road than off, it leads you out to the west along pleasant backstreets.
In Central London, the south bank is invariably crammed with pedestrians and as such not suitable for cycling, while the Embankment (north bank) is a busy road. You can approach the riverside at Tate Modern and largely continue parallel to the south bank east from there, from where the roads of Wapping, Limehouse and Rotherhithe will keep you close to the shore. There’s rarely a continuous riverside path, however. From Greenwich onwards, you can follow the south bank all the way to Dartford with the occasional interruption.
But the best riverside cycling is in West London. Join the south bank at Putney and follow it all the way to Weybridge, with a brief stretch on the north bank after Kingston. This is almost entirely off-road, well signposted as part of NCN 4, and pubs and cafés are plentiful. It’s perhaps the finest traffic-free cycling experience in London.
Cycling is allowed on certain routes in the capital’s parks, adding up to 60 miles in all. Half of these are shared-use paths, the other half are roads. The latter have less traffic than other London roads, though we’re not quite sure why taxis are allowed into Hyde Park at all!
Still, these routes can be a godsend. Cycling past Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, for example, is infinitely preferable to negotiating Marble Arch and Park Lane. The paths tend to be busy with pedestrians who don’t always notice the white line marking out their space, so don’t expect to go too fast.
Cycling isn’t permitted throughout the parks, just on the roads and a few selected paths. You can be fined up to £200 if you’re spotted on a footpath, so watch out for ‘No Cycling’ stencilled on the entrance to paths. You can also be fined for cycling faster than 10mph in the Royal Parks (20mph in Richmond Park, Greenwich Park and Bushy Park).
As an organisation, the Royal Parks are lagging behind the rest of London in their attitude to cycling, and have expressed some opposition to Boris Johnson’s plans for new routes.
London doesn’t have many of the traffic-free cycle trails that Sustrans specialises in building. (This is partly because few London railways have closed, which of course is good news!)
The best-known, in East London, is simply called the Greenway. It follows the embankment under which the Northern Outfall Sewer is buried, from Bow eastwards to Beckton via Stratford and West Ham. There’s a useful link with the River Lee towpath at the western end.
The 12-mile Wandle Trail heads south from the Thames through Wandsworth to Croydon, while the 8-mile Waterlink Way runs from the Cutty Sark at Greenwich to New Beckenham. They piece together park paths, riverside cycleways and short sections of road. Their piecemeal nature makes them better for unhurried leisure cycling, and do watch out for the frequent gates on the Wandle Trail.