An unusual once-in-a-lifetime overnight ride to Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace at a historic and profound moment in the new kingdom
It was a fine dry evening in early autumn when I set off at 10pm. The ring-road seemed pretty normal for a Saturday. Some dickhead in a high-end white Mercedes has spun off the dual-carriageway and the fire-brigade were helping to push his car onto the cycle-lane (which, as any cyclist will tell you, is the default location for any unfortunate motorist, abandoned vehicle, or the debris left-behind after a crash). I squeezed past the busy firemen, pinging my bell as I did so, but doubt anyone noticed the night-time cyclist.
The road to Watlington was thankfully quiet and I was labouring up the Chiltern escarpment to Christmas Common with the road more or less to myself. A delightful series of lanes took me past several cosy-looking pubs that had just closed their doors for the night: Northend, Turville and Fingest to name a few. Through the thickly wooded and winding lanes carefully watching for gravel and potholes and any unsuspecting wildlife.
Marlow was surprising lively. The young were out clubbing, and the streets were thronging with bright young things wearing very little and swigging out of bottles. The roads were livelier too and there were plenty of boy racers to keep me alert as the clock past midnight. I stopped to munch a banana and put on a fleece on to keep out the night chill.
Just past Bourne End I was half-way to my destination and the delightful, wooded lanes just kept coming. This was a very affluent area, and the large, detached homes were surrounded by high walls, fences with security equipment prominent around the firmly closed gates. I recognised the steep climb up Kiln Lane to The Chequers Inn near Wooburn from The Winter Warmer audax. That warmed me up nicely before I slipped through Slough – still with a few shops open despite the early hour – over the M4, through Eton and into Windsor.
The Castle was largely in darkness and behind metal barriers. The odd window high up in the massive walls let out a solitary light. Flags adorned lampposts throughout the main street. Some youths were drunkenly shouting obscenities and singing “God Save the Queen” by the castle entrance. It was neither sincere, respectful or in tune. The security guys behind the metal barriers looked cold and were understandably not amused. I stopped a moment, took a few photographs and tried to capture the historic moment. It wasn’t easy.
Around Home Park on “closed roads” to Datchet was an opportunity for me to savour the last acres of wealthy Royal countryside twee before I was pedalling alongside the M4 and then through the shady town of Colnbrook (unusual hour for that young lady to be looking out of an open window above a rather run-down pub) before I was on the big, wide, open, Bath Road passing the brightly lit Heathrow airport and associated hotels. The road was a little busy, but perfectly safe to cycle along (having at least one other lane for the traffic to pass me in).
Several police vehicles slowly overtook me. Some pulled over and watched me go by before overtaking me again. Maybe I looked suspicious with my high-vis PBP top on? It felt reassuring to know that help was close at hand should anything happen.
Syon Lane lead me onto the London Road at Brentford, past Kew Bridge, through Chiswick and Hammersmith until finally, after Kensington, I reached Hyde Park Corner and Wellington Arch. Here I had to dismount and walk. The whole area was sectioned off with metal barriers and there were huge numbers of security staff and police to ensure the few people walking around in a slightly dazed state behaved themselves. Generators throbbed away and provided power for large and powerful lighting which illuminated the vast mounds of floral tributes and candles left for the late queen over the past week or so. It was a breath-taking sight and I stopped wheeling the bike for a moment to pause and take it all in.
Around the corner friendly security staff guided me in the dark to the edge of Buckingham Palace. Strange Michelin man shapes were slumped in portable seats and benches – some wrapped in survival foil, others wearing what appeared to be enough clothing to survive an expedition to the North Pole. The odd tent staked out a precious pitch close to the barriers. In Green Park I found some portaloos and managed to douse my face with some water.
I made my way over towards Westminster Abbey where the extraordinary queue of mourners over the road from me, and behind solid layers of barriers, was closing in on the venerable coffin. Police officers and security staff were out in force to watch over the relatively small numbers of people camping out near the barriers. One security man spoke fondly of volunteering for his opportunity to serve the late queen in his small way. I stood a while and took it all in before feeling the chill creeping in – this was my mid-way point and the coldest part of the night.
I found my way out of the barriered section with the help of some police officers and reached the freedom of Leicester Square, and an open cafe. After placing my order, I realised that I had no money on me – the kindly staff let me have my coffee for free and expressed mild surprise when I told them how far I’d cycled. I slurped the coffee down thankfully and felt the warmth returning to me limbs and the caffeine kindling my heart.
I joined the modest traffic and made my way around the top end of Hyde Park, down and around Shepherds Bush and all the way up the Uxbridge Road. At Uxbridge it was a still, early Sunday morning and few people were out and about. A few lanes took me onto the A40 at Beaconsfield, and I was finally able to take off my fleece and enjoy the early morning sunlight. I ate the last of the Dutch ginger cake I brought over with me from the Netherlands a few weeks back and this fuelled my return journey to Oxford virtually all of the way along the A40 (diverting through Waterperry to avoid the nasty M40 intersection by the motorway services).
It had taken me just over 13 hours and I wash totally shattered. After grabbing a light breakfast and a hot shower I hit the sack for an hour or two before slumping onto the sofa to watch the funeral processions in central London and Windsor. It felt surreal to think I had pedalled those very streets only a few hours before when I had had them more-or-less to myself. God bless her soul I thought as I slipped once more into a solemn snooze.