Sloane Square to High Street Kensington
It has been hard to keep the Stationery Walks going this year, but last week we decided to venture out. However, we decided to throw a curveball into the mix because by chance it was Car Free Day on that same day. So we took advantage of it and did…well, I guess it was a Stationery Cycle. Something of an experiment to see how it would work out.
The next question was where, and this problem was quickly solved thanks to a Stationery Walk that never quite saw the light of day. Last year Jo did a walk that combined South Kensington and High Street Kensington. Two areas with a lot to offer, but not much in between and so it never quite happened. But on a bike…well, suddenly that distance was an opportunity.
Finally, Santander and TfL were supposed to be offering free bike hire on the day if you used their promo code. Sadly this didn’t seem to happen, despite using the code. In fact, the overall experience of using the Santander bikes in London was disappointing. Without wishing to spoil the ending of this story, the conclusion was that you are better off walking! Still, it was a glorious, sunny day. Maybe the last true summer day of the year, and it was just nice to be out. More on the bike part at the end if you are interested.
The cycle ride was slightly made up on the go, and heavily impacted by the current Covid restrictions. We agreed to meet at Sloane Square, not a part of London I am overly familiar with, but it is quite enjoyable to rediscover places you knew from before. Why Sloane Square? Well our outline plan was to take in four stationery and design highlights. Tucked away behind Sloane Square is Papersmiths, a stationery highlight up there with the best. Along the way we would take in The Conran Shop, Hyde Park and The Serpentine Gallery, and finish up at The Design Museum. Along the way we would shoe horn in anything interesting as always.
Papersmiths is a great store. Although we have visited them before, when they had a store at Boxpark (see our Shoreditch walk), this was a completely different experience. Pavilion Road was new to me, and a bustling little back street it is too. Not ideal for bikes it has to be said, but it was nice to see a street so busy and lively. Papersmiths is packed full of wonderful stationery, laid out beautifully, and the people were as welcoming as you could ever wish for. Truly a top London stationery recommendation.
The Conran Shop
Next up was The Conran Shop, which is worth the visit for the building alone. Arguably one of the most visually impressive buildings in London (was this really built just for somewhere to change tyres? We’ve come a long way down to end up with Kwik Fit!). Inside, in the basement, there is a decent display of stationery that is well worth checking out, along with a supremely stylish selection of home wares. Not the cheapest shop, but a must. If there is a bucket list of London shops then this is surely on it.
South Kensington should really be the subject of a Stationery Walk of its own one day, since you can find an impressive choice of places to eat and shop, plus our old friends Librarie La Page are based here. We had pedals to turn though and headed up Exhibition Road past the great museum institutions of the V&A, Natural History and Science museums. At the top of the road is Hyde Park, a decidedly cycle-friendly place to take your bike on a nice sunny day. Sadly the Serpentine Gallery was closed (Covid!), and the annual pavilion they build in the garden was cancelled this year (yep, Covid) which is a shame as that is one of my London highlights.
We meandered on through the park and then snuck across Kensington High Street in search of a Danish café I had spotted on Google Maps. It was takeaway only (yes, Covid…) but on a nice day that was fine, so we indulged in a rather pricey biscuit each. That said, I seem to remember Jo saying it was worth every one of the 300 pennies it cost so that is worth seeking out. How good can a biscuit be? Plus the streets round the back of Kensington High Street are very pleasant to meader around.
We came out next to the old Derry & Toms building, one that has the most amazing roof gardens. Most amazing anywhere I would like to bet. Sadly these are closed (not Covid this time, these have been closed since 2018). Plus the store itself was once the home of Biba, an icon of the 1960’s and 70’s, and one that I have a memory of visiting when maybe 4 years old that has stuck with me ever since. It is the haziest of memories, like a faded old family photograph in an album, which is maybe why I cherish it all the more.
After this we finished up by riding round to Holland Park, docking our bikes for the day and walking through the Kyoto Garden (keep off the grass, walk clockwise, don’t stop to take photographs) and round to The Design Museum. It seemed an appropriate place to finish but sadly it was closed. Yes, Covid. The shop was open and has a few nice items in there. Not worth the trip alone but why not if you are passing by?
An unintended link on this cycle route was to connect two of Terence Conran’s London landmarks – The Conran Shop and The Design Museum. Yes, the picky will note that he founded the museum down in docklands not Holland Park, but that’s a mere detail. I guess this would not have been noteworthy if it hadn’t been for the fact that he died the week before, so it seemed worthy of a mention.
Santander Bikes – A Review
Now I cycle a lot. I have been known to cycle over 10,000 kms in a year, in London, out of London, everywhere. I love bikes and the freedom they bring. But oddly I have never hired a Boris Bike. I did hire the equivalent in Toulouse when researching the Stationery Walk there, and that was a truly enjoyable experience.
London, sadly, is another story. This is a city that really just doesn’t get cycling, or maybe doesn’t want to get it. The streets are not set up for bikes and cars to share. You have to fight for your piece of tarmac, and where there are cycle lanes they are likely to just end without warning. Yes there are the sometimes controversial dedicated bike routes, but that is of little use if you are not near one.
There is also a shocking lack of bike racks to leave your bike when you stop. How safe your bike would be is another matter, but you’d be lucky to find one free in the first place. It hurts me to say that I would actually hesitate recommending it to someone who was not experienced at cycling around town already.
By way of a contrast, to come back to Toulouse, this was a city that gets cycling, and has set up the infrastructure to handle it. I would happily recommend it to anyone who can ride a bike, no matter how anxious they are about riding in town. Every back street is one-way and yet can be cycled in reverse, without bikes and cars getting in each others way. Everyone seemed to co-exist happily on the same bit of road.
As for Santander hire bikes, I am sorry to say they were a bit of a disappointment. We were promised a bike for free on Car Free Day with the promo code, which we used. We just had to pay a flat £2 day fee and we were covered, except that it cost us £6. Not much I know but it was a shame. The bikes also said they had a lock included, but seemingly not and luckily we brought one along. As any bike rack we found was full it turned out that the only place to lock a hire bike is back in a Santander docking station of which there were many. You do get 30 minutes free, so maybe that is the best solution, but it certainly didn’t allow for promo codes. They are also quite heavy and took some getting used to. But they do a job and it is not their fault that London doesn’t like bikes.
The last word on bikes should be on trying to do a tour by bike. On the plus side you get to cover big distances, but a definite downside was that we found it hard to keep stopping and locking your bike up to pop into shops and cafes. Maybe we will stick to the walks in future!