The Queen’s Front Garden

You know it’s cold when the puddles are frozen rock solid. You know it’s cold when you blow as hard as you can but you still make a cloud. You know it’s cold when the drains are steaming because the sewers are warmer than the outdoors air.

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I’m in Argentina now but I want to fill you in on my last week in London. A cold night was forecast, the coldest yet, so I couldn’t resist the temptation to sleep outdoors in a really exposed location and test the limits of my minimalist sleeping arrangement…

As detailed in my recent writings, this involves no sleeping bag, only my regular Winter outdoorswear worn inside a bivvy bag on a four-season inflatable mat.

I was keen to find out exactly what kind of temperature I was about to experience so I decided to sleep next to the Stevenson screen in St James’s Park, the Queen’s front garden. A Stevenson screen is what encloses the devices that measure temperature and humidity to protect them from interference from local elements like rain and wind. The devices in St James’s Park upload temperature measurements every half hour to the Internet – to check the data for this and many other weather stations in the UK click here. My weather-forecasting brother helped me locate the screen, it was in a grassy area next to a public footpath near the Duke of York column.

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It was still early when I found it so I went off to look for a piece of cardboard to make a foot box. On recent sub-zero nights my toes had gotten cold; although I was wearing two pairs of thin socks and had my feet in the pockets of my cycle jersey, this was in direct contact with my bivvy bag, a very thin barrier from the cold air. I thought if I could find the right sized cardboard box I could raise the bivvy bag away from my feet and create an air space for extra insulation, just as I had recently achieved so successfully using my shoes to raise the bivvy off my thighs.

I had a look around the back of the Savoy hotel where there’s usually a big pile of cardboard boxes, and numerous homeless people sleeping nearby on said boxes. I found what I deemed the perfect-sized box, an empty box of flowers. Apparently the Savoy buy their roses from Holland.

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No that’s not the back of the Savoy, it’s the main entrance. I just thought the flower box looked nicer when photographed there. The hotel staff though it was a bit strange that I was photographing a box there.

Anyway, I hid my box then had a hot chocolate in McDonald’s Picadilly, the only warm place I could find that was still open – five hours of freezing cold would be quite enough so there was no need to go to bed until at least midnight.

The Stevenson screen was fenced off and I thought better of climbing over the fence to sleep right next to it so instead I decided to make my bed on top of the park cafe nearby, which is actually designed for people to mill around on and enjoy the view, with a nice long wooden bench on which I lay down.

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It was about two metres higher than the Stevenson screen so perhaps ever so slightly warmer than the temperatures that it would record, however it was a very exposed area and at the end of the day one always has to sleep in the best available spot. A young couple were smoking at the end of the roof terrace, I cheerfully assured them that I was only there to sleep and then left them to it.

This is a view looking into the foot of my bivvy bag showing how I attempted to use the flower box as a foot box:

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As usual I woke up shivering a few times but quickly warmed up enough to sleep again. I slept quite well but my toes were still a bit cold – the foot box wasn’t high enough so my toes were pressed up against it. I’m certain that if it were higher my toes would have been as warm as the rest of my feet were. I must experiment further in future with ways to lift the bivvy bag off my body and create a cushion of insulating air.

The great thing about sleeping here was that I was able to check at any time during the night what temperature was being uploaded from the nearby weather station. The coldest was -3.6 degrees Celsius at 07:30. The lake was frozen.

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The night before I had noticed a dark figure going to sleep in the café’s porch below me; in the morning I found the poor fellow sitting and shivering on a park bench.

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I had felt pleased with myself for getting some good sleep with my minimalist sleeping arrangement in such cold temperatures, until I saw this chap, who had no sleeping bag, no mattress, no thermals and no socks! His bare skin showed through his broken shoes.

I approached him with a cheery greeting:

“Morning! A bit chilly today!? I just slept on the roof of the café. Were you the guy sleeping underneath?”

“Yes, I was… it is very cold, innit,” he replied. He seemed quite sober.

“You sleep just like that in your day clothes? You must be freezing! Can I get you a hot drink?” I asked.

“Nah. Tanks mon.” He looked away.

I went to the cafe and got myself a hot chocolate. I felt sorry for him, I just had to order another one. The hot chocolates were delicious, and hot, but in this posh cafe, three pounds fifty each! And not all that big either.

I took it to him.

“Oh, tanks mon,” he managed a shy smile, and tried to hold his shaking hands steady while he took a sip.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Kingston, Jamaica” was his reply.

“Oh, cool! A bit warmer over there, eh? How long you been here?”

At that he fell silent. Reminding myself that he might not want to share every detail of his life with a complete stranger, I told him where he could find cardboard, and warmer places to sleep, then wished him good luck and bade farewell. He seemed detatched from the world, completely oblivious to all the free materials and places around him that could make his life more comfortable. As I walked away he piped up again:

“Tank you mon, really… tank you.”

It was sad to leave him in such a condition, but I had to go to work, so I walked off along the bridge across the frozen lake.

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I had to rush off to tune a piano on Eaton Square in Belgravia. Quite a paradox after sleeping rough, since this is probably the most expensive address in London.

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The clients were Swiss bankers, they had a strong-looking but very quiet and shy dog, and a previous piano tuner had made a repair with a torn-up Oyster travelcard.

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The Oyster card worked well so I left it where it was. The golden rule of working on really old pianos is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

There were signs of Swiss efficiency: power points installed upside down for easy access:

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I found it amusing that my clients were also working as major property investors but that the piano tuner they had just paid was boycotting the property market altogether.

After work I cycled west to Ealing to see a lovely Italian teacher. She’s not teaching me Italian (well, not the spoken languge anyway!) A dusting of snow had settled in West London and there was some ice on the canal.

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Although it was a bit nippy, I felt quite comfortable cruising along despite daytime temperatures not exceeding zero degrees. This is what I wear for cycling in such weather:

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It’s a bit cold when you set off in the morning but you soon warm up. On lazy days I cycle in my down jacket but when I ride up a hill or sprint around in traffic it quickly gets too hot and sweaty. The above clothing is more aerodynamic and the chill makes me ride fast.

The balaclava is kind of half worn to keep the icy wind off my ears and neck. My sleeves are pulled down over my hands as far as possible without compromising control of gear and brake levers. After riding from Westminster to Ealing, a flat nine miles at zero degrees Celsius, my fingers were cold. This is where riding fixed gear could have advantages – with no gear levers and possibly no need for brake levers either, you could hide your whole hand up your sleeve or wear mitts.

On the way back from Ealing I took the route along the north bank of the Thames. I stopped at Fulham to observe a cormorant that had bitten off a bit more than it could chew… or swallow, since cormorants never seem to bother with the chewing part. By the time I left it had already tried to swallow an eel, whole, three times without success.

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Another night, back in Central London, I slept behind a row of shops in Pimlico, Westminster. As usual I had completely enclosed myself in my black bivvy bag, so that only my nose was visible.

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In the early hours of the morning a little shopkeeper came along the dark alley to dump an empty crate. He froze when he found me in his path. He gingerly prodded me with his foot, thinking that somebody had dumped a corpse behind his shop. I awoke, wondering what was going on, and quickly got my arms out to open the bivvy and have a look. As he saw a pair of hands spring out of the big black bag he literally jumped with fright:

“BHWAAAHAAAHAAANGH!!!” he yelped, hopping around then shuffling away from me.

“Oh I am sorry,” I said, “I’m just sleeping here, I’ll be off now, don’t worry.”

He didn’t say a word, just went past me with an expression of shock on his face to dump his crate. I sat up and apologised again as he left; he patted me on the head and murmered “n-n-no… no worries m-m-mate.”

I went to see a piano just two streets away, belonging to a friendly couple: he a personal trainer and her an interior designer. The piano was called a Regina but the name was just stencilled on and the piano also bore the Selfridges trademark.

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On closer inspection one key was marked ‘J. Collier’. Collier were piano manufacturers, or maybe just ‘assemblers’, based in Clapham, South London.

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And pianos weren’t the only things they supplied…

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Selfridges must have commissioned Collier to make them some pianos with the label ‘Regina’. This is quite common practise in the piano trade. I once tuned a piano labelled ‘Bridge’ that had been commissioned by Harrods a hundred years ago, which was very nice, and a piano labelled ‘Venables’, made quite recently in a Chinese piano factory but commissioned by Chris Venables, a piano retailer in Hampshire, England. It’s one of the best Chinese pianos I’ve ever played.

Anyway the Regina piano had seen better days. It was, on average, three semitones flat, and some notes sounded like two notes at once. They had inherited it with the flat they had purchased, because the previous owners didn’t think it was worth repairing. A damp ceiling had collapsed on it, and it was now full of dust. It also had an interesting maintenance history, with all sorts of bits and bobs in the mechanism which had been taken from other pianos.

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However, after about ten hours of patient work fueled by delicious food provided by my clients, the piano was in tune at concert pitch and sounded warm and sweet again.

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It’s not really a fair comparison but I remember that the Harrods piano is better than this Selfridges one.

While I was working the man of the house came back with a brace of pheasants he had shot in Oxfordshire.

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A few hours later they looked a bit different.

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They were for a Christmas party so I didn’t try any, but they looked and smelled like really delicious little roast chickens. It made me think of all the game and wildfowl I could be eating here in the UK, if only I invested the time to learn how to hunt and prepare them. My clients enjoyed the shooting but left the preparation to a local butcher.

When the work was finally complete, the clients gave me a bottle of beer and a nice wad of cash, and I sprinted westwards on my bike to Acton where my mate Ezequiel was having a Christmas houseparty. I saw more signs that the house lodges seven Imperial College scientists and medics:

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They told me that the skeleton’s name is Lord Fortinue.

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Yes, their shower curtain is the periodic table of elements; my friend was wearing a calculator and raving about his membership to the college beekeeping club, and they were even singing mathematical equations to the tune of Christmas carols! Imperial College students take pride in their geekyness.

I picked up my down vest and trousers which Ezequiel had been storing for me. I had no need for them because I felt warm. After sleeping outdoors below freezing wearing only my down jacket, the mild, wet weather that had come over London, with temperatures between 4 and 12 Celsius, felt too warm to want to wear anything extra, even for sleeping in.

Besides, that night I ended up sleeping on their sofa, noting that I could get a relatively comfortable night’s sleep on a short sofa by laying my head and torso flat and bending my knees over the arm rest. A few pints of ale also helped.

In the morning I helped them ‘clear up’ the chocolate cake and other leftovers, then I rode on down to Sunbury on Thames in Surrey to tune a baby grand piano, the first piano to be tuned twice since the start of this blog. Of course I took the scenic route by the river.

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I was glad to complete the Surrey stretch of my return journey along the riverside before the wet muddy path got too dark.

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At night Hampton Court Palace is lit up with changing colours that really afect the mood of the building.

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I arrived back in town just in time for a friend’s birthday party in London Fields, Hackney, which went from pub to pub before raving on through the night at Katie’s flat.

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We stayed over at another flat – the soft, clean carpet was luxury for me, I didn’t even need my inflatable mat or bivvy. Perhaps all the ale I had drunk made it more comfortable. In the morning I noticed that their flat has a nice view high over East London.

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It was on the tenth floor.

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It was time to make a move for Oxford where my parents live, to get a few items together ready for my journey to Argentina. I was pleased to make my final trip to the bag in the bushes in the trees in Battersea Park, where I hid anything I didn’t want to carry everywhere with me. My last trip because I had been informed that the frame bag for my bike had already been custom made and delivered to Oxford, awaiting my arrival. This will enable me to carry a few extra items without resorting to cumbersome racks and panniers, or bags hidden in bushes, and be free of any geographical commitments, carrying everything I need with me on my bike.

When I told my physio of the distances I was hoping to cycle in Argentina he immediately suggested I do a few long rides beforehand to get in shape. So I decided to cycle from London back to Oxford. Not wanting to carry it all I posted the bag of stuff that had been hidden in the park along with my down suit in a parcel to Oxford, keeping my little backpack with me which I have established is all I need to carry with me year round for urban cycle touring.

Finally I rode to the One New Change shopping centre by St Pauls Cathedral to say bye to my friend Mehdi who has quite remarkably made his way up the ranks to become the head chef at a posh Italian café there.

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Then down to Elephant & Castle to have a few goodbye drinks of mulled cider with my friend Shama.

It has been a wonderful time spent tuning pianos, meeting friends, cycling round London and sleeping outdoors through the advent of Christmas.

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I don’t approve of sticking bits of paper up all over the city, but at least this one, on a cycle commuting route near Paddington, bore a good message:

 

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“Live simple, so that others may simply live. The best things in life are simple and free.”

 

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4 thoughts on “The Queen’s Front Garden

  1. Hi Richard, when cold and cycling just wear gloves they won’t interfere with gear changing etc. I think a silk sleeping bag liner would make a big difference for you when sleeping out in cold weather, when cycle camping it does for me and takes up very little room. Recently cycled Vietnam & Cambodia, you really must try cycling SE Asia, I met someone your sort of age whilst on a ferry into Cambodia who was travelling there (not cycling but public transport from UK to Thailand over 6 months), his blog http://hairywanderer.wordpress.com makes good reading and makes me wish I was a lot younger! Enjoy cycling in Argentina, John

    • Thanks John. I’ve been going all minimalist, so still not keen on gloves because they get wet and smelly and are not necessary on most Winter days.

      But I have been thinking of carying a silk liner purely because the lining of the down jacket gets stuck on the rubbery inside of my bivvy whenever I turn over during the night. The silk liner is more slippery.

      SE Asia is a fantasy of mine to explore. But one small step at a time…

  2. Hi Richard,

    I am impressed with what you are doing. Both for the right TO assert your freedom to live how you would like, and FROM the hampering and un-required aspects of modern society- and the ancillary environmental benefits.
    I think a number of people will relatively soon either be sleeping in something like Japanese capsule hotels (I stayed in one and it is actually OK, or sleeping ‘in the park’ which is OK if you would like but not if you would like a family etc). I was actually in the same situation as you in 2003 with about £10k debt and without my own place. I paid off the debt in about a year (though I worked abroad to do so), then got together a small deposit and bought a dilapidated apartment I fixed-up and rented out. I now have two properties both of which I fixed-up extensively and rent (I think at fair prices- objective is to cover the mortgages) and I live in part of one.
    What you are doing also indicates another basic issue, how society is regulated and property rights. The academic Hernando de Soto (Peruvian) thinks the basis of global poverty is lack of property rights. Actually, going back to Marx that was one of the basic tenants of class struggle. I think that property rights should be expanded for as many as possible, and not dominated or restricted, such as by the Duke of Westminster owning a large percent of London and the ridiculous concept of ‘long leases’ which is really for the ‘landed gentry’ to get money by contributing nothing and doing no work.
    The government should recruit you as an advisor on homeless issues as you have interacted with so many and understand the issues and problems. With my brief experience sleeping rough (amounts to about a month here and there) think a number of homeless have mental health issues and really require support and job training.

    Cheers, Michael

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