Cycling Cafes

May 22, 2010 at 9:54 am | Posted in Cycling, Eating and Drinking, Timmy | 1 Comment
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“Oh dear – this hill – what a steep one we’ve come to [said Anne]. I don’t know whether it’s worse to ride up slowly and painfully, or get off and push my bike to the top.” (Five Go to Billycock Hill)

Cycling can be hard work. Good refreshments are therefore an essential component of any pleasurable cycling tour. These can take the form of a picnic, but you can’t beat a good tea shop when needing to have a brief rest and ward off ‘a touch of the bonk’ (see previous ‘Cyclists (sic) Special’ and ‘Setting Off’ posts if this phrase arouses your curiosity). The Famous Five stories are full of quaint yet efficient tea rooms/post offices/village stores that provide the Kirrins with sustenance, usually courtesy of a rotund, genial and motherly woman. The tea served in Five Get Into Trouble is simple but sounds particularly delicious because it comes at the end of a tiring day of swimming and pedaling:

‘They came to Great Giddings at about ten past five. Although it was called Great it was really very small. There was a little tea-place that said “Home-made cakes and jams,” so they went there for tea.

The woman who kept it was a plump cheerful soul, fond of children. She guessed she would make very little out of the tea she served to five healthy children – but that didn’t matter! She set to work to cut three big plates of well-buttered slices of bread, put out apricot jam, raspberry and strawberry, and selection of home-made buns that made the children’s mouths water.’

In this recent article on ‘The Lost Cafe Society’ Tim Dawson laments the demise of the cyclists’ cafe. Back in the day, the Cyclists’ Touring Club handbook had a plethora of these establishments to recommend to its hungry and thirsty members. With a few notable exceptions these have largely, and sadly, disappeared over the past 30 years. All is not lost, however, and Dawson reports on the inspiring success of the Specialities tearoom in Sisted, Essex. Specialities was set up eight years ago by Sean and Carol Jein and they now welcome more than 8,000 cyclists a year. Once the horror of weekend train engineering works subsides I am keen to try it out as part of an Essex cycling jaunt (it is currently impossible to get further into Essex than Billericay before the horror of the rail replacement service kicks in). Dawson reports that they make special energy bars for cyclists but obviously a key test is: does Specialities sell ginger beer and ices…?

Dawson’s article ends on an optimistic note. Given the current resurgence in cycling he posits that there could be new mileage (sorry) in the concept of the cyclists’ tearoom. I would say so. In the fine London borough of Hackney for instance there are already a reasonable number of cyclists’ cafes, as well as many cyclist-friendly cafes (Victoria Park Pavilion for example). The Lock 7 cycle shop near Broadway Market is a notable cyclists’ venue, although I am a little ambivalent about this one after a very drawn out service period and impromtu closing that nearly scuppered last year’s Bobbin cycling holiday. As well as the excellently-named Look Mum No Hands!, which has just opened on Old Street (perhaps not technically Hackney), there is also the jolly lovely Towpath (above right) which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, situated right on the towpath of the Regent’s Canal, between the Dalston and Whitmore Road bridges. I say ‘cafe’ but it is very much an outdoor venue with a counter/coffee machine set into a canal-side building, with a little enclave hosting a long communal table and several more tables and chairs stretched along the length of the towpath. There is also the all-important bicycle workshop next door.

Food and drink-wise the Towpath serves up good (strong) coffee, pinhead oatmeal porridge, granola, and bread, jam & marmalade. It has sturdy mis-matched vintage crockery and pretty vases of flowers, plus it’s open on Thursday-Saturday evenings for wine and tapas-type nibbles (Closed all day Monday, open from 8am Tues-Fri, from 9am on Saturdays, and from 10am on Sundays).

The Towpath is a good place to stop off en route from the east to Angel or central London, and there is always a bicycle or two propped up nearby. There is even a water bowl for thirsty dogs – excellent news for all of the Timothys out there. At breakfast time you can sit with your coffee and watch pedestrians and fellow cyclists pass by on their way to work. The canal plays host to a surprisingly varied selection of waterfowl, and when it’s sunny the light reflects onto the underside of the Whitmore bridge in a most aesthetically pleasing manner. It’s all set to the faint urban hum of nearby traffic and the gentle ‘ting ting’ of bicycle bells. In short, a brief stop off here makes an enjoyable start to the day – hurrah for the return of the cyclists’ cafe!

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  1. Agree about the excellent Towpath Cafe. As well as the nice items mentioned, its food offerings also include things like top-quality treacle tart…


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