Book Review: The Capital Ring

capitalringThe Capital Ring, by Colin Saunders, is an guide to walking the eponymous route, a 78 mile circular walk around inner London (generally Zones 3-4), one of London’s official long-distance walking trails.

The book, a new (2014) edition, is presented in an attractive, compact format with rounded corners, so ideal for chucking in a bag when walking the trail. The new edition means that the book will have taken into account minor changes to the route that happen from time to time due to housing developments and other aspects of London’s continuing evolution. The route is split up into 15 sections, all between 3 and 8 miles long and generally starting/finishing at or near stations (with short link sections where necessary).

The book makes excellent use of Ordnance Survey Explorer (1:25000) mapping, with different map excerpts for each mile or so of the trail, appearing inline with the route description. The route itself is overlaid in yellow on these maps. Generally, this makes the map useful for navigating, except in some small sections where the route is complicated and the yellow line is a little broad and the scale a bit small (the Ordnance Survey’s own “official” green diamond marks for the route also appear on the maps, which can further confuse). There, you’ll need to follow the route description carefully. The route itself is waymarked on the ground with posts and signs but sometimes these are missing, which is where the book comes in particularly useful.

The clear and concise route descriptions, and annotated mapping, are augmented by short descriptions of features and trivia of local interest. The walk generally passes through interesting parts of London all the way long, so the book has many such pieces. Some of these are illustrated by photographs:

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Your reviewer test-walked a section near Stoke Newington and found the guide’s navigation effective, and learnt some new things about an area he thought he knew well! If you are looking for a good walk and a great guide to it, that illuminates just how green and varied London’s “inner city” is, you could do a lot worse than with this book.

Get it here on Amazon: Capital Ring. (Make sure you get the newest edition, reviewed here, which has an orange cover.)

Thanks to publisher Aurum Press for sending me a review copy. ISBN 9781781313374. List price is £12.99.

OOM 2.3 – Automatic Postbox Additions

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As a fun project for OpenOrienteeringMap (OOM) during the Christmas pause, I incorporated a feature requested on the forums of NopeSport that I had actually also been thinking about myself – the automated addition of controls. I’m using Nearest Postbox which is a tool written by the polycoder Matthew Somerville to show postboxes in OpenStreetMap augment with reference numbers and other data. If you zoom into an area on the UK edition of OOM and click to add a map “sheet”, you can then click on the “Add Postboxes” button. OOM will make use of Matthew’s API to his site, to pull in known postbox locations and create controls from them. You’ll only be able to do this if there are not any controls already added. You can then edit/delete the controls (e.g. change the score) in the normal way.

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Some Street-O events by SLOW and other clubs already use postboxes as useful controls. This will hopefully make it more easy for the planner, although they’ll still need to visit the postboxes concerned to verify the ref and make sure the postbox is still there…

The feature is experimental, so if you run into any bugs please tell me.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – New Bridge

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There’s a new bridge into the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – the Monier Bridge. It connects Monier Road in Fish Island, part of Hackney Wick, with the Loop Road in the Olympic Park. At the latter connection point there is a new ramp down to the canal towpath and also a path through the Sweetwater development site, to Carpenters Lock which is the focal point of the whole park, as it connects the main north and south parts. The new bridge was actually installed a couple of years ago, but it has taken a long time to open up the area of the park north-west of the Olympic Stadium and so provide the link through to the centre.

The bridge’s design mirrors that of the Wallis Bridge which connects the northern half of Hackney Wick to the park. A map, that I found on hoardings beside another bridge in the park which is being narrowed, shows both new bridges (on the extract of the map below, they are both on the left-hand side) and also reveals new names for several other bridges in the park. The bridge to the Waterpolo arena, aka the Stratford Waterfront development site, is now called Tallow Bridge. Further downstream, the Aquatic Bridge and Purple Bridge become the Thornton Bridge and Iron Bridge respectively.

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Elsewhere, I noticed that the hoardings around the Sweetwater development site have a new mural on them. There is also a new ramp down to the canal from the White Post Lane entrance, alongside the existing steep and cobbly one. There are also five new level paths connecting the canal with the old Main Press Centre building. The larger building alongside, Here East, which has previously always been a drab white and grey, has a huge “H” painted in black and green on its southern face, along with a huge “HereEast.com” graphic.

With the new bridge having opened above, and Carpenters’ Road finally reopened under the mainline railway, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park finally has all almost all of its entrances open – it’s somewhat challenging to count them all, but there’s at least 30 now, depending on how the boundaries are defined. Certainly, this is a big piece of London which is now a lot more connected – and a lot less secluded – than it was back in 2007.

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OOM on OpenCageData

I was interviewed by OpenCageData recently, the article appears on their blog and I have reproduced it here:

Continuing in our series of interviews with folks doing interesting things in the open geo world, today we enter the realm of domain specific OpenStreetMap variants by talking with Oliver O’Brien, maker of Open Orienteering Map.

1. Who are you and what do you do? What got you into OpenStreetMap?

I’m Oliver O’Brien (“Ollie” on OpenStreetMap). I’m a researcher and software developer at the Department of Geography at UCL in London, specialising in geovisualisation and demographic mapping.

I’ve been a contributor to the OpenStreetMap project since 2007. I first learnt about it when a friend was keen to try out lots of different routes around Edinburgh during the Hogmanay festival, recording them with a GPS receiver. He explained he was uploading them to a project – OpenStreetMap – a map that anyone can edit. At the time it was nearly blank in the Edinburgh area. When I got back to London I discovered that many of the roads in my local area were missing too, so got down to filling them in. At the time, the project did not have access to high-resolution aerial imagery, so GPS traces were very useful – as were annotating note by hand on various scraps of paper! I then discovered the thriving London OpenStreetMap community – we organise mapping parties, though now, as London is largely “done”, it’s generally pub meets. I’m lucky enough to regularly use OpenStreetMap data for my day job at UCL, sometimes including my own contributions.

2. What is Open Orienteering Map? What is the goal of the project?

My orienteering club (South London Orienteers, aka SLOW) has been running informal “Street-O” evening training events in various parts of London, for many years. The idea is that you have to visit as many points, marked on a printed map that you run with, as possible within one hour, and get back to the start. The route you take is up to you, so it’s vital that the map you use doesn’t get you lost. Many of the maps being used at the time I first joined the club were created in fiddly (and expensive) bespoke software used for professional maps, typically by hand, tracing in A-Z or Ordnance Survey paper maps. The process was prone to error and very slow.

Having seen OpenStreetMap data being used in various other projects, such as Andy Allan’s OpenCycleMap, I realised there was potential for it to be used for orienteering mapping too. While regular orienteering maps contain a lot of specialist features not on OpenStreetMap (such as forest thickness and crag detail), basic Street-O maps are simpler, and for many areas, OpenStreetMap likely has sufficient level of detail. Initially I set up a system which required GIS software to use, with appropriate orienteering styles and filters, but that was still hard to use for people outside the GIS world, so I then realised I could go one step further and build a website – http://oomap.co.uk- that performed the same function. So OpenOrienteeringMap was born.

The goal of the project is to make it as easy as possible for the volunteer Street-O organisers to create maps for their events. This has two main benefits – firstly, with less spent time on drawing the map, and no cartography skills needed – the website generates a PDF map to print, at the click of a button – more new people can get involved and organise their own event, taking time to plan great courses rather than draw a map. Additionally, it encourages new people into the OpenStreetMap community. By making the only easy way for organisers to update the roads, paths and other features on the Street-O map being via OpenStreetMap – with a regular refresh of the database back to OpenOrienteeringMap – the website has got a few people hooked on being “regular” OpenStreetMap editors, as well as orienteers. (N.B. if I rebuilt the service now from scratch I would probably use something the Overpass API and vector tiles directly in the browser, rather than have my own copy of the database and an image tiler and PDF generator.)

There are three versions of the website: British (with OS Open Data contours), Irish and worldwide, and two main mapping styles, “StreetO”, used for Street-O races, and “PseudO”, which is an attempt to create a “regular” orienteering map style in OpenOrienteeringMap, following the colour and symbol standards defined by the sport. It has a distinctive look but is of less use for orienteering events except in a few very well-mapped places. The styles are on GitHub.

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Above is the map that is being used for the next South London Orienteers’ Street-O event, in December 2014, with around 100 people taking part. Further details of the events can be found at http://slow.org.uk/about/streeto/. Map data Copyright OpenStreetMap contributors.

3. What are the unique needs of a map designed for orienteering? How has using OSM to meet those needs worked out?

Orienteering maps need to be highly detailed, clear and accurate, as competitors run through unfamiliar terrain at speed and the accuracy of navigation is as important as speed, when it comes to getting a good result. This general principle applies to Street-O events, where it is important that all navigable roads, tracks and paths are included and that the map is as uncluttered as possible. Other datasets can often neglect tracks and paths in particular, but OpenStreetMap has historically had a good record in this regard, being a grassroots community comprised of many enthusiastic walkers and cyclists, amongst others. The data isn’t perfect, but for areas in London that my local club users, it’s worked out pretty well. Sometimes missing detail is spotted by the organiser and they edit OpenStreetMap to fix it. Occasionally it isn’t spotted and competitors report back missing paths at the race finish – edits can then be made which will benefit future races there. Both these processes improve OpenStreetMap itself (for everyone) while also improving OpenOrienteeringMap (for racers), so everyone benefits.

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Competitor in a London park. Although he is using a custom drawn map for this particular race, the level of detail in some London parks on OpenStreetMap means that OpenOrienteeringMap is a possibility for more informal events here. Copyright Oliver O’Brien.

4. What steps could the global OpenStreetMap community take to help support the use of OSM in unique communities like this?

One feature which would be of great use, would be the ability to “sign off” certain areas has achieving a particular level of completeness, e.g. a local contributor confirming that, to their knowledge, an area in a particular bounding box has all the roads and paths on it. Such a mechanism was created by ITOWorld with their OSM Quality tool, for Great Britain, using complementary data from the national mapping agency, however a global version, using experienced OpenStreetMap editors as the authority, would very useful in encouraging Street-O event organisers to use OpenOrienteeringMap or other tools for using the data in orienteering events.

5. OSM recently celebrated its 10th birthday, where do you think the project will be in 10 years time?

It will be a map with virtually every building and road in the world on it. Improving and more accessible satellite and imagery will greatly help with this process. Detail will increase too, but I don’t think it will end up mapping every tree or lamppost – there will be spinoff projects which will cover things like that. The project’s licence does ensure that the data will always be as good as it is currently and so can only get better still. I think also, the project emphasis will shift away from the standard “openstreetmap.org” front page map and become more known as the definitive map data store for the world, with other websites becoming the primary way the data is viewed. The project is sometimes described as the “Wikipedia of mapping” and I think it will encounter the same problems, and come up with the same solutions, that Wikipedia did – such as dealing with vandalism of the dataset by having different levels of editors, area guardians and protected places. More generally, I see many more projects like OpenOrienteeringMap filling particular niches and the parent database continues to expand. Perhaps the database will form the start of a global postcode system?

Many thanks Ollie! A great example of a practical application of open geo data. Anyone who is interested in the project can learn more here. OpenOrienteeringMap is just one of many geo related projects Ollie is involve in, I highly recommend everyone follow him on twitter and read his blog.

Where in the World…

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…is OpenOrienteeringMap being used to create simple maps, for training and small “Street-O” events?

Since the all new (version 2) of OpenOrienteeringMap launched 19 months ago March 2013, almost 7000* maps have been created (4300* in the UK), with around 40000 control features added to them. Above (click for large version) is a map showing where in the world these maps have been created. Below is a zoomed in version for the UK. If your local club hasn’t put on a Street-O yet, then why not ask them to do one – with the map already drawn in OpenOrienteeringMap, putting on a Street-O event has never been easier.

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Maps here use background data which is CC-By-SA OpenStreetMap contributors. The background data from the maps, and used in OpenOrienteeringMap, is Copyright OpenStreetMap contributors and licensed under the Open Database Licence (ODbL).

* Planners/organisers will may produce several maps for a single event, as they iterate towards their desired final race map. A new map is created every time they save. If we look at unique map centroids, then the number is 5000 for the world, of which 3000 are in the UK. Additionally, a proportion of maps will have been created without any controls added to them, likely for purposes other than Street-O.

OOMap 2.2 – Closed Route Crosses

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OpenOrienteeringMap 2.2 has been released, with a significant new feature addition – closed route crosses. These allow you to manually mark routes as out of bounds, for example along roads or paths which are private and locked at either end. The crosses are red “X”s, they are added singly, using the same dialog box for adding controls.

It is recommended that you places a little distance away from junctions, so that it is clear which road/path is being marked as closed,(and because the crosses will be sized slightly differently in the PDF that is created). You cannot edit or move existing red crosses, as they do not have an edit button in the control descriptions list, but you can delete all the red crosses you have added with the “Delete Xs” button at the top.

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I’ve also updated the styles slightly:

  • leisure=garden now included, shown as yellow (open ground). Previously it was shown as olive green (out of bounds) on Pseud-O or as white (not mapped) on Street-O.
  • Waterways in tunnels (such as canals or underground rivers) are no longer shown.
  • landuse=greenfield and landuse=brownfield no longer shown, as these are just legal designations.
  • landuse=construction and landuse=landfill now shown with light pink overlay rather than vertical black lines (Pseud-O) or white (Street-O).
  • On Pseud-O, fences (barrier=fence) are now shown with the fence symbol, rather than the wall symbol.
  • On Pseud-O, sports pitches no longer automatically have a fence shown around them.

The styles are open source, in Mapnik XML format, and can be found here on GitHub.

Why not try out the new feature now!

The OpenOrienteeringMap service is giftware. If it’s useful for you, it helps you run a successful event, or saves you time mapping, please buy me something on my gift-list or buy a print. Or buy yourself something through my Amazon store link. Gifts will encourage further development and offset the costs of hosting the site. The styles are open source (see link above) and you are encouraged to adapt them!

A Trio of Munros in the Ben Alder Forest

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I climbed three Munros in the Ben Alder Forest area yesterday. This is the eastmost part of large tract of wilderness in the Scottish Highlands, stretching from Loch Ericht (between Dalwhinnie and Rannoch) all the way over to Glen Nevis (near Fort William). No public roads cross the area, and just one railway line, the West Highland Line. Ben Alder itself is a Munro of considerable bulk and height (1148m), it is hard to get to, requiring a long walk eastwards from Corrour station, northwards from Loch Rannoch or southwards from Dalwhinnie. I took the last option, taking advantage of a newly upgraded estate road to cycle the first 14km of the route to Loch Pattack (450m elevation), which took around 50 minutes – the well packed track generally passable on my road bike, apart from a sandy section near the end.

Shortly after crossing a wobbly suspension footbridge (pic above) across the loch inflow, I left the bike and climbed onto and up the easy-sloping ridge of Carn Dearg (1034m) from where there were fine views, both to Ben Alder and more immediately the Lancet Edge, a sharply pyramidal ridge leading up to another Munro I had climbed a few years before. I dropped down below the Lancet Edge, traversing a corrie and a valley at 600m before climbing up 100m to the Long Leachas. This is one of a number of ridges leading onto Ben Alder and it is in a spectacular location. The ridge offers easy scrambling, always with a bypass path. It is scenic and so makes the climb up to 1050m almost effortless. Near the top, it narrows, and keeping to the crest of the ridge offers numerous short and easy scambles over various boulders. From the top of the ridge, it is a 1.5km walk across the plateau to the summit of Ben Alder itself. Just below the summit lies the ruins of a small house – built by the team of the original Ordnance Survey surveying expeditions. Shortly after is a small lochan – at 1100m altitude, presumably one of the highest bodies of water in the UK.

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The best views are from the ridge following on from the summit (see pic above), particularly looking north down the cliffs to a large loch and over to the Monadhliath Mountains. Looking the other way, Loch Ossian, with its wonderfully remote youth hostel, is also visible.

It is best not to follow the ridge eastwards too far from Ben Alder’s summit, as it curves around to the north and then ends in cliffs on three sides. So I came off the ridge early, aiming for the high bealach (840m) and then it was a quick ascent up Beinn Bheoil (1019m), the last of the three. There is a small top just to the right, on the way up, that has a fine view over Loch Ericht – the loch is a reservoir, dammed at both ends as it crosses over Scotland’s east/west watershed.

After Beinn Bheoil, I continue northwards along the largely flat and easy ridge, then coming off it to the left and hitting a well made stalkers’ path, that leads down to the river, to a bridge across it near Culra Bothy (now closed) and finally back to Loch Pattack and my bike, exactly six hours after I left. I’d walked 22km and climbed 1450m. The return along the estate road, to catch the evening train home, was done with care, as it was by now twilight.

Route.

An East-West and North-South Cycle Superhighway for London?

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TfL is currently consulting on a couple of proposed “Cycle Superhighways” – an East-West route from Paddington to Tower Hill and a North-South route from St Pancras to Elephant & Castle. The consultations close on 12 October.

The Cycle Superhighways punch right through the centre of London, they are generally wide and properly segregated from traffic. The space is often being made available by reclaiming a traffic lane. The Mayor has referred to them as a “Crossrail for Bikes”, which is a fair description. The two routes meet at the Blackfriars junction.

The east-west route has some curious quirks – it takes a circuitous route around Hyde Park, whereas a new lane going right through the park, or the existing cycle track in the north-east. I expect this is thanks to a lack of cooperation from the Royal Parks authorities – they really should travel to Central Park in New York City to see how world city parks are done properly. It also has a strange section where it takes another tunnel alongside the Blackfriars Tunnel, even though the latter is having one lane closed anyway to keep the traffic lane count consistent. But overall it is a well planned routes. Cyclists retain right-of-way over most of the side streets, they don’t have annoying chicanes around the “floating” bus stops, and the “early start” lights (which actually simply act to ensure a cyclist will never get a green light right through) are few and far between.

The north-south route is less completely planned – the core section from Farringdon to Elephant & Castle however is ready for the detailed consultation. A strange dogleg on the approach to Elephant & Castle is unfortunate – “Superhighway” cyclists are always going to be looking for the fastest route, which the route does not take here – but apart from that it is a good, and straight, route.

I very much hope these two routes get built in their planned form and the proposals don’t get watered down. But also I would like Transport for London to focus on improving the busiest existing infrastructure too. Today on my research blog I publish a map showing estimated routes for 12 million bikeshare trips earlier this year. It shows the “Route 0″ cyclepath, south of and parallel to Euston Road, as being the busiest of all. There is a good section of segregated two-way cycleway, but it’s horribly cramped, with queues of cyclists at rush-hour often so long that they back onto the next junction. The roadway alongside is normally less busy and therefore often makes for a quicker cycle route. I would also like many more one-way streets to be made two-way for cycles only – the “Sauf Vélo” popular in France, but for London. This can be done on a “lightweight” basis with minimal signage change, so there should be many, many more streets allowing such flows. After all, we don’t make pedestrians walk in a single direction!

Strava – Gamifying the Commute

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I first tried Strava last year, comparing it to Endomondo, RunKeeper and some others, as a way of quickly pushing maps of long bike rides onto Facebook, rather than just keeping them to myself on Ascent (a standalone Mac application which has ceased development) or Garmin Connect (which wasn’t particularly sociable).

I didn’t use Strava in the end, but I’m a big convert now, because I’ve realised that Strava is not just a running/cycling route recording site, but it’s a fully fledged social network – crucially, one which is large enough to actually function as a proper social network – and best of all, they’ve basically turned London’s street network into a giant game, with “segments”. I first heard of this when a friend, who’s an active Strava user, lamenting that the Tour de France riders had wiped out various segment leaders, en masse, as they zoomed through the streets of London during the third stage of this year’s race, as some were GPS’ing their route as they went.

Segments are sections of a street – typically a long, straight section, or between two sets of slow traffic lights, or from the bottom to the top of a hill – which someone has named and designated as a segment. You then have a public leaderboard of who’s cycled/run the segment, plus your own personal statistics for the segments as well.

Despite recording my recent commutes, and back-loading various GPS’d runs and cycles into Strava, I don’t have many “CRs” (course records) for segments. But I’m pleased to hold on to two – both runs. One is along a windy road near Seven Sisters. The route/segment matching algorithm doesn’t seem to have minded that I cut a big corner near the end, even though it is obvious on the GPS trace, so has given me a comfortable 40 second cushion. The other was a short uphill section of the North Downs Way, part of a leg I ran during the NDW Relay race that my club takes part in every July. Oddly, it was a section where I made a mistake (due to OpenStreetMap inaccuracies), and veered off the route, only to have the others in the relay go past. I corrected quickly and ran hard to regain the lead, and as a useful bonus it’s given me a CR here too.

Anyway, for cycling, I may struggle to get any CRs soon, as most of these on the commute require cycling over 40km/hour, or more for sprints and descents. I’ll need to get lucky with traffic light timings, and late night empty roads. It might also encourage me to run more (which is good) and cycle faster (probably not so good). in any case, it’s made the commute a lot more fun. Thanks Strava!

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London City Race 2014

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Having co-founded and been heavily involved in the organisation of the London City Race over the last six years, this year I’m taking a step back and looking forward to being a competitive runner at the seventh event, for the first time. After five years rotating around various parts of the City, and last year over at Canary Wharf, this year, it’s back to the centre of the City. The London City Race is just one of a whole series of urban races in major European cities this autumn, including Brussels (on the same day), Paris (the weekend after), and Porto, Edinburgh, Stirling and Barcelona in the following weeks. Four of these races form part of the City Race Euro Tour, with Barcelona acting as the final race with series prizes. It is in fact quite possible to run both Brussels and London, despite them being on the same day, thanks to wide start intervals, a well timed Eurostar train, and both events being near their respective termini.

The first official London City Race was back in 2008, but in fact there were a couple of “prequel” races, although those running them may not have realised that. The first was a SLOW Street-O race taking place in the City in late 2007, on a Tuesday evening during the rush-hour. (An example of the “barebones” style map used is below – this is actually one from a later Street-O in the same area.) Amid the post-race analysis in the pub, it was agreed by all that the alleyways of the City were a lot of fun to run around. Conveniently I had taken a year out to study a MSc and therefore had the appropriate amount of free time to draw up a map. Being a Mac user, I needed a different solution to OCAD, so used Illustrator/MapStudio.

The process of producing the completed map, with courses, was a bit convoluted, so there was a second “prequel” race at Queen Mary University, using a map prepared in an identical way. This, my first ISSOM-standard map, proved to be fine, and so I and my co-organiser (Brooner) moved on to the race itself. Our controller, Simon Errington, proved invaluable, going well beyond the bounds of a traditional controller’s role to ensure the best possible event was put on. Having a large and experienced club (SLOW) was also immensely useful, with an army of volunteers to draw on for the race day itself. After the first, successful event, it was just a case of adding a new bit to the map each year (roughly one square kilometre a year has been added) and also moving the start and finish each time, to ensure that competitors could take part year after year, having a new experience running through the City with each race. We have also always tried to ensure the race has had a high profile as possible to the general public, choosing highly visible finish arenas, using race bibs which display the name of the race, making marshals very visible (red t-shirts!) and marketing the event as widely as possible, including to running clubs and the mainstream media. With have been lucky enough to have been sponsored by Clif Bar, from the very first race, which means we have now given out over 5000 complimentary Clif Bars to finishers.

I purposely know little about the club’s plans for this year’s race except that it is back in the City, likely the core part, and will hopefully include the classic Barbican Estate, famously so hard to navigate through that yellow lines used to be painted on the ground to guide people to the nearest exit! I would love it to also include a loop past the iconic Gherkin skyscraper, but have absolutely no knowledge of if this is the case. Probably the most iconic view of the London City Race, the Gherkin appears on the Walsh Trophy, BOF’s award for the best sprint/urban map of the year, and also appeared on the front cover of their Focus national magazine a few years back.

This year’s race has the map in OCAD – the conversion from Illustrator was pretty painful, but this does allow other members of the club the ability to update it. Sadly the City evolves around us year by year and some of the classic alleyways are being lost as the City authorities realise that fully segregating roads and people doesn’t work (except for orienteering!) Those who ran in the 2012 event, which started near, and finished in, the Barbican Estate, might be interested to know that the whole start area has now been demolished, including several nearby footbridges. The replacement buildings will have less of a “public realm”. Nonetheless there is still plenty of interest in the City, for orienteers and urban explorers alike. The Barbican Estate itself isn’t going anywhere, and the alleyways around Lombard Street, where the medieval coffee houses of the City used to be, are still very much intact.

Entries are now open and already there are nearly 100 entered, including a strong overseas entry which should make this the most international of the UK’s now numerous urban races. The theme for this year’s race is the City of London dragons which guard each of the main entrances to the Square Mile. Be sure to order a limited edition technical top when you enter. See you in London (and maybe Brussels too!)

Photo above by Darkdwarf on Flickr. Below: A Street-O map of the City, based on OpenStreetMap data.

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