A Two-Wheeled Tour on the Trail of London's Most Pioneering Women

by Emma Featherstone, The Telegraph, September 6, 2018

An overcast, but warm Sunday morning was the perfect backdrop for a cycle ride through central London. The tourist crowds were yet to swell and passive aggressive commuters would be gone until the morning.  

I’d taken a 10-minute walk into Hyde Park where I was greeted by London guide and journalist Sophie Campbell. She would be showing our group of 13 (including a couple of men) around landmarks commemorating pioneering women, and the men who supported them. We’d travel through time from Boudicca's defiant attack on Roman London to Cressida Dick’s becoming the first female Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

We’d joined a Women’s Tour de Force trip, organised by Santander (sponsors of the hire bikes docked around London) and Transport for London in recognition of the centenary of the Representation of the People Act when some women were given the right to vote.

Firstly we were shown how to adjust the height of the bikes and given helmets. This was a much-needed boost to my road confidence – after seven years of living in London, I’d yet to try one of hire cycles. The city’s lorries, double-deckers and (often irate) lycra-clad cyclists, had put me off the idea completely. But with just three gears and a loud bell, even the least assured cyclists will find the bikes easy to navigate.

We wheeled to the top of a small hill to admire The London Mastaba, an installation of 7,506 stacked barrels, floating on Serpentine Lake. The work by Christo that marks his and his late wife’s Jeanne-Claude’s belief in making free art and coincides with an exhibition at the Serpentine gallery, Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018.

Looking across the road we could see the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. It’s a conversion of a 1805 gunpowder store into an art space with an extension covered by a futuristic, curved white roof. Designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid, it opened in 2013.

Hadid’s first connection to the Serpentine, Sophie told us, was the Serpentine Pavilion. She was the first and, until this year, the only woman to have her work installed in this annual programme of temporary structures. We hopped onto our bikes and make a short turn to reach the Pavillion and admire its current work by Frida Escobedo, inspired by the inner courtyards found in houses in her home country, Mexico.

Sophie had to peel our group away mid Instagram photoshoots and onto our next port of call, Belgravia. There we stopped in a quiet square (New Grosvenor Gardens) to see a statue of Queen Victoria in her younger years. She was just 18 when she took the throne. But, as Sophie pointed out, her attitudes were far from feminist by today’s standards.

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She reminded us of a quote attributed to the former queen: “We women are not made for governing, and, if we are good women, we must dislike those masculine occupations.” According to the author Tessa Boase, the quote was still being used by the anti-women’s suffrage movement in 1910.

This was pertinent pit stop before a trio of memorials to those who fought for women’s right to vote. The first was the Suffragettes’ Fellowship Memorial outside Caxton Hall. It was in the hall that the first women’s parliament took place on February 13, 1907, organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst.

Next we headed to a statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett, which, installed in April and sculpted by Gillian Wearing, is the first female statue in Parliament Square. Sophie pointed out the attention to detail on Fawcett’s clothing, including her heavy coat. She holds a placard bearing the line “Courage calls to courage everywhere”

Soon we were onto Victoria Tower Gardens, another reminder of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst who was Imprisoned many times before her death.

Unlike Pankhurst, Sophie reminded us, working class women fighting for the right to vote had to provide for their family and the time they were imprisoned was a very practical sacrifice.

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Pankhurst died just short of the June 1928 Equal Franchise Act, which gave voting rights to men and women over the age of 21.

We cycled on, taking in the views over Lambeth bridge and stopping at a statue of Violette Szabo, who I’d heard less about. Once a Brixton resident, she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in World War II and parachuted into occupied France to work with the resistance. But, caught by the Gestapo, she was shot aged 23. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

Next was Jamaican-born Mary Seacole, whose mother was Jamaican and father a Scottish soldier. Her memorial stands proud in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital marking her dedication to soldiers serving in the Crimean War, she set up a place for them to convalesce and also went out to nurse on the battlefields.

From jerseys, and shorts through to pedals and even a saddle

Before we headed over Westminster Bridge we were told to look out for its Lion, made from Coade Stone. It was made by the company of 18th-century business woman Eleanor Coade using its own artificial stone.

On the other side, we stopped opposite the statue of Boudicca on her chariot – such a skilled horsewoman she didn’t even need to hold the reins, it seems – a memorial to her leading the Iceni tribe’s attack on Roman London.

We wheeled our bikes past Scotland Yard, a reminder of the most recent addition to our roll call of pioneering women, Cressida Dick. And looked towards the London Eye, co-designed by architect Julia Barfield (with David Marks).

Then it was onto our penultimate stop, the Women of World War II memorial (unveiled in 2005), reminding us of the work responsibilities women took on when Britain’s men went to battle (then were later were forced to relinquish). Also in view was Downing Street, where, of course, our first female Prime Minister resided between 1979 and 1990.

A short, final single-file ride and we reached our final destination, Waterloo place, where a statue of Florence Nightingale stands. Nightingale, in case anyone needs a refresher, set up a military hospital during the Crimean War and the first nursing school in the UK while campaigning for hygiene and nursing reform throughout the rest of her life.

The tour was an enriching start to a Sunday morning, and an energising reminder of the history of women’s liberation in Britain. It took us a little over two and a half hours, but was hardly strenuous. Plus, our guide’s expertise meant it was peppered with lesser-known women whose influence and bravery still benefits women – and men – today. I’ll definitely be getting back on the saddle of a hire bike, sooner rather than later.

The essentials

Anyone interested can still join a tour (for free) - several dates have sold out, but more are being added – email [email protected] for more information. Plus, at select docking stations you can find Tour de Force branded cycles and head off on your own steam using a downloadable map with information about each stop. 

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This article was written by Emma Featherstone from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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