A Cycle Courier’s Guide to Folding London: The Twitchells (Part Two)

We continue our retelling of an interview with H, who works as a cycle courier for a company that collects business visas in passports. As much as possible, it is presented in her voice. In part one, H described discovering the Twitchells, the hidden network of wormhole-like portals which connect London’s streets.

Like I said, no-one’s going to tell you how to find them. I can drop some hints, mention a few street names, but I’m not going to break it down for you. No grid references or google pins. I know how that seems, it used to piss me off too. But I understand the secrecy now. We’re not jealously guarding some cool little club. It’s just that you have to own it. If you ride the twitchells, it’s got to be on your own terms. Because it isn’t a game.

But I sound like an old-timer, one of the doomsayers. OK – riding the twitchells is fun. Those first few weeks were a rush. Through the office doors in the morning and I couldn’t pack my workload into my bag quick enough. No matter that it’s 90 minutes until my first embassy opens. Never mind the murmurs coming from the courier’s desk as I head for the door – the seen-it-all-befores sipping tea with their feet up, smirking and shaking their head. Forget them. I’ve got a new toy and it isn’t anywhere near being boring.

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The twitchells were everything I already loved about my job, times a thousand. Connecting the city, piecing disparate parts into a whole. Stealing time between drops to visit somewhere new. Chancing on the hidden places, the frozen-in-time places, tiny islands suspended in the eddies of everyday London.

Suddenly, the city became a village. Need that mid-morning espresso? Time is short and you’re across town from your favourite coffee shop, but you know a twitchell on the next road that will bring you out in spitting distance.

I could be in Fitzrovia, 20 minutes to go until a Liverpool Street pickup, and find time between for a quiet five minutes on the banks of the Long Water.

Of course, there was a flipside. Once the coordinator knows you’re plugged into the network, no drop or pickup is too outlandish. Can I get an oil worker’s passport back from Angola in Marylebone and swing by the office in Victoria to pick up a package to drop in Canada Square with a banker who’s flying from City airport 45 mins from now? Well, yes, I suppose I can.

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But even the extra work couldn’t dampen the thrill of discovery. Once I could prove inside knowledge, other couriers opened up about the twitchells. For me, finding one usually involves a change in the air, an unexpected sound or smell. Others speak of a ‘feeling’ which tells them they are close. Some more seasoned riders say that they now simply ‘see’ them, as clearly as any side road.

Experiences of riding them vary, too. Some describe being squeezed through a narrow space. Others, being flung forwards as if from a catapult. One guy told me it was how he imagined swapping places with himself in a mirror. And for me? You know those little kids toys, brightly coloured rubber poppers, you turn them inside out and wait until they flip?

That.

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I heard the inevitable macho stories. Twitchells in Blackwall tunnel. Twitchells on the Westway. Ones along the towpath that if you time it wrong you end up in the canal. The two guys who claim to have ridden hundreds on a tandem. The twitchell that still exists where an office block now covers an old road in the City – you have to ride full pelt through the foyer to hook it.

Some say that if you get up enough speed and fling yourself off the east side of London Bridge, you can hook a twitchell left hanging in the air from the bridge’s previous incarnation, but I don’t know anyone stupid enough to have tried.

There were questions I had to find the answer to myself (how to not vomit every time), and some no couriers could answer (how long have they been there? How do they manage to always drop you just behind the passing traffic?). People say the fact you can only access them on a bike is a mystery, but to me it makes sense. Something about the way you inhabit space when you ride, the counterintuitive becoming intuitive, like how you turn into a fall to right yourself.

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And then there’s the big question: what are they? Are they simply hidden alleyways? Permanent features of the city? But then, what city feature is permanent? Do twitchells remain when the visible geography of the city changes around them? Entire roads are disappearing, new ones being created. Look at Battersea, King’s Cross, Elephant and Castle. Are twitchells displaced by these developments, as people are?

Some of those courier’s tales suggest that they are not, but you hear other stories: someone taking a nasty fall onto a pavement because the twitchell they’ve come to rely on is no longer there. And then there are the new twitchells – though it’s hard to prove they weren’t there all along.

All of this is fuel for the doomsayers. They say it is a mistake to picture the twitchells as ‘wormholes’ or hidden tunnels. For them, the twitchells are the tangible manifestations of something else, a larger entity beneath London’s surface. They grow and recede, these courier’s say, like the sporocarps of a fungus. It’s just that they do so very slowly.

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A lot of the old-timers won’t use them. We’ve all had the lectures. They talk a lot about the disappearances. And yes, the disappearances are terrible. There are no white bicycles for those who never re-emerged from a twitchell. But cyclists get killed on the streets too. That doesn’t stop us, does it?

I’ll admit some of what they say stays with me. “Fine, you’re young, I can’t change your mind any more than if I tried to get you to quit drinking”, one old-timer told me. “But promise me this: When you start to sense the belly of the twitchells, the inside, when there’s a second or two of darkness where there used to be nothing, and you start to see things out of the corner of your eye – figures, shadows beside you in the darkness – don’t wait for them to get closer. As soon as you start to see them – stop”.

And the other old-timers, the ones who never stopped riding the twitchells, they do look pretty bad, kind of weary, ghostlike. But that could just as easily be the years of coffee and car fumes, or too many hard winters.

I’m not stupid, I know this isn’t forever. I’ll quit one day. But I’m still having the time of my life.

And I haven’t seen any shadows in the darkness yet.

 

THIS BLOG IS NOT A USER’S GUIDE


  • Candidate: The Twitchells
  • Type: Unconfirmed
  • Status: Active

 


The sources for all images on this post can be found here

A Cycle Courier’s Guide to Folding London: The Twitchells (Part One)

This is a guest post, of sorts. A written version of an interview with a good friend of PoL’s, presented with a narrative element, but in her voice as much as possible. She wishes to remain anonymous, so we will refer to her as H. H describes herself as a quasi cycle courier. New to the gig, she rides for a company that collects business visas in passports. It’s a job that mixes speeding through the city with a lot of hanging around waiting for embassies and consulates to process the visas. H is Czech born, zero-houred and of newly uncertain residential status. We’re grateful she found the time to talk to us about this fascinating candidate for the catalogue.

No-one’s going to tell you exactly how to find them. There’s an etiquette to follow. Besides, even if I laid it all out, doesn’t mean you would find them the same way. All I can do is tell you one way it might go.

It doesn’t have to start on a bike. Maybe it starts in a cafe. Let’s say Clerkenwell Road, 5pm on a Friday. Rush hour, but you’re not rushing because your last job of the day is a pickup from a company in the building next door and it won’t be ready til 5.30. Your dropsheet’s complete so you have won yourself a little sit down with a cup of tea, your phone nice and quiet in its strap pocket. From a stool in the window, you watch the peloton. London’s two-wheeled commuters are heading east and north. Young creatives on too-clean single speeds mix with overly lycra-d managers and the grey-suited Brompton guys. A few couriers weave in and out of the pack, dashing to make their final drops and get to the pub.

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You spot one, balancing on his self-build at the traffic lights. Something about the way his eyes are checking the other cyclists makes you keep watching him. He seems nervy, as if he’s expecting something to happen. Is he just sizing up the competition, eager for the rush-hour race? But instead of burning for the front when the lights turn green, he hangs back a little. Not until the pack gets ahead of him does he really put his feet to the pedals.

So that’s it. He wants a challenge. You watch him close down the peloton quickly. Then something happens which will come to change your world entirely. The courier is about a metre behind the last of the group – and right across the road from where you are sitting – when he vanishes. Completely. Like he was a sticker that someone removed from the world.

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Let’s say you sleep on that and in the morning put it down to a long week and too much caffeine.

But a month later you are heading south on Edgware road, nostrils full of shisha smoke and car fumes, when it happens again. This time you’ve been trailing a courier from Paddington, half-competitively, half because something about the way he’s navigating the city – cruising complex junctions, finding little cuts you didn’t know about – tells you you might learn something from him. You guess he’s heading for Marble Arch and you’re right. You’re watching him closely to see how he tackles it. But he never gets that far. He’s about half a block ahead of you when you see a movement, a wobble, an intentional shift towards the kerb. What is he thinking? He’ll be thrown from his bike. There’s a small tree on the pavement, he’ll buckle his wheel on that, or worse. A split second later the tree is there, but the courier is not.

You get off your bike, and stare at the empty space for a long time.

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The next couple of months are like a wonderful waking up. You start to see them everywhere. Couriers not just vanishing, but appearing out of nowhere on the street ahead of you. You see them so often you wonder how you never noticed it before. You ask other couriers about it, coming to recognise a certain response when you do. A little movement of the head. A smile, or it’s opposite, the worried look. The shutting down of conversation. You raise the subject with more and more couriers just to test this reaction.

Something is dawning on you. Certain things start to make sense, in hindsight. People crossing London faster than you reckon anyone should be able to. Guys returning to the office almost dry when you’re still dripping from the rainy ride back. The time you overheard your co-ordinator on a call to a rider: “Deliver this one by road please. Time is less important than making sure it 100% doesn’t get lost”.

It’s like when scientists know that something they can’t see is there because it’s the only way to account for the things they can see. All of a sudden the last few months only make sense if – your spine tingles at the thought of it – if there is some kind of hidden route through London, some network of shortcuts that doesn’t adhere to the same physical laws that the streets and alleyways do.

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But talking to couriers is still getting you nowhere. Until, one day, in the basement at the Nigerian embassy, you make a breakthrough. A courier you’ve pestered many times before suddenly drops his defences. Sighs and says, “Look, I can’t spell it out to you, that’s just the rules. But you know where one or two are already, you just have to… Okay, hooking into a twitchell is a personal thing …”. [‘Twitchell!’ He says ‘twitchell’, these things have a name!] He goes quiet. Say’s he’s said enough already. Then he grins and says, “But you’re gonna love it”. You grin back. And when you finally emerge from Nigeria into the darkening London streets, they have changed forever.

So you go back to that spot on Edgware Road. You fling yourself down that stretch, turn into the pavement, and… nearly kill yourself on the tree. Clerkenwell Road goes almost as badly.

But it isn’t just the London streets that have changed – it’s you. Edgware and Clerkenwell don’t seem to matter. You feel – you know – that it’s not a question of if you find a twitchell, but when. And where.

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When it does finally happen, your mind is elsewhere. You’re cycling along in that blissful way, being carried along the winding streets by pedal-memory, thinking about who knows what – dinner, shopping, your home town, your parents, your lovelife. Apart from the movement of legs, pedals and wheels, your bike could be standing still. It is the streets which are flying past you.

Then something makes you look at your surroundings. You have been so faraway you forget where you are, forget the time of day. How did I get here, where am I going? Which blackened Georgian office block is that? Which crouching church down that alley? It is the smell that brings it back to you – the cold tang of raw meat: You are wheeling around the edge of Smithfield market, and it is dawn. But suddenly there’s another smell: sweet coffee, belgian waffles. It is unexpected, out of place. You are knocked off course.

Something makes you jerk towards the kerb. A pothole? That heart-in-mouth moment, you’re coming off your bike and it’s too late to stop it. You hit something, or something hits you. Your body braces for a pain that doesn’t come. Somehow you are still on your bike. The street still rushes by, but it is not the street you were on a second ago. It is not even the same part of London. It is Queensway, and a waffle house is just opening up. You slam on your brakes, throw your bike to the kerb and vomit into the gutter.

Straightening up, you smile.

You’re in.

Part Two

Under river, outside time: The Woolwich Foot Tunnel Anomaly

When the Woolwich foot tunnel closed for repairs in 2011, it should have been a routine job. The pathway had been providing pedestrians with a quick route beneath the Thames since 1912. A century on, a few minor improvements were necessary. Contractors were hired to plug holes, improve access and bring communications capabilities into the 21st Century: swapping leaky tiles for a leaky feeder.

But Woolwich residents will recall that the refurb of this much loved and much used walkway did not go according to plan. When it finally re-opened it was 8 months behind schedule, having been closed for more than a year and a half. What the average Woolwich dweller doesn’t know, however, are the unusual circumstances behind this delay.

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Part of the works were to update the lifts  sourcelicence

Mention the 18 month time frame to someone who worked on the Woolwich Tunnel job and you may be met with a mysterious smile. A year and a half may have seemed a long time to those who relied on the tunnel for their daily commute. But for those who were down there beneath the river, that time-frame has a different meaning. When one contractor tells me he aged 3 years on the Woolwich job, it is not a metaphor. For, deep down beneath river and clay, hidden from those above ground, something was occurring. That something was a time anomaly.

A time anomaly, from the perspective of someone who experiences it, involves a clearly defined part of landscape or architecture, in which time ‘stops’. Years of study into such phenomena has proved largely fruitless in terms of explanations. And even less so when it comes to predicting when and where they might arise. There is some anecdotal evidence that temporary spaces, or spaces temporarily under a different use, lend themselves to time anomalies, and the Woolwich event would appear to support this.

But they are notoriously hard to define – not having experienced one, PoL isn’t about to try. The best thing we can do is listen to those that have experienced them. The following testimony is from one of the contractors on the Woolwich foot tunnel job (he wishes to remain anonymous). His words are presented uninterrupted, with as little editing as possible.

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Woolwich from the river, pre foot tunnel times  source | public domain

“I was one of the first ones to experience it. We were working from both ends, as it were, and had tents on both sides of the river. It was pretty basic, if you wanted something from the other side, you just had to walk it through the tunnel. Anyway the foreman’s on the other side and he radios to ask me across. So I walk through the tunnel – the ‘long walk’, we called it, funnily enough – and it’s slightly spooky because no one else is down there, they’re all working on the lift shafts, and I get up the other side, find the foreman, and his eyes nearly pop out of his head. Says he only radioed like a minute ago and how did I get there so quick? Wouldn’t take my word for it I’d walked. Reckoned I had a buggy down there or something, that it was some kind of prank.

But I stand my ground and he starts to see I’m not lying. Anyway he forgets what he called me there for. He gives me this big red plastic box, tells me to walk back over and hold it up for him when I get to the other side. So I head back down, the lonely walk back, thinking shouldn’t we be getting on with some work. When I get to the top I wave the red box in the air and radio the foreman. ‘You just left me!’ he’s saying, ‘No more than a minute ago’. That’s when I start to feel a bit weird.

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Entrance to the tunnel seen from the river  source | licence

My initial feelings was I was pretty freaked out by it all. But once everyone else had experienced it, it was amazing how quickly it seemed normal. It became like a joke. It was a laugh, you know, a source of giggles. Someone said we’d invented the teleporter and were all going to be rich. The foreman stopped trusting watches and phones when we were down there, and took to using egg-timers. A few of the young agency lads tried to claim extra on their time sheets. That was the thing, though: time froze when you were down there. If you were down there for the full working day, fixing the tiling, you’d basically finish work, come back up and it would still be morning. Which was great at first – I don’t live in London so I did a lot of sightseeing, Cutty Sark, The Royal Palaces – but then we all realised how knackered we were.

It never really occurred to any of us to tell anyone about it at the time. It was like, who would believe you? You didn’t even believe it yourself. Plus it was such a wheeze. I think there was a feeling that as soon as head office was on to it the whole thing would be over. No more fun.

People started experimenting. Some of the guys camped out in there to see how long they could. 3 days and nights it was, and they still came back at the same moment they’d left. That freaked the site manager out though. He was having a nightmare with the timetables as it was. Biggest problem was making sure that if anyone from head office came down it wouldn’t look like he was sending people home ten minutes after they logged on – although that’s exactly what he was doing. Anyway he soon put a stop to all the mucking about.

Not before I had my one very strange moment, though.

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The stairs  source | licence

One thing we couldn’t get our head round was how the two, sort of, time-places a guy was in seemed to be happening at the same time, as it were. Like I see you emerge across the river in no time at all, but there’s also a ‘you’ who reckons he’s spending four hours in the tunnel.

So Petar, this Bulgarian lad, thought of a little experiment. One morning before anyone else is down the tunnel, he ties a long rope round his waist, and hands the other end to some of the guys. Then he sets off down the tunnel, see. And I’m to follow him down as far as the bottom of the stairs, and then stop and watch him walk down the tunnel. ‘Don’t put your foot off the stairs, don’t step in the tunnel’, he told me. And I didn’t.

So I’m watching him, and he’s got something in his pocket, a secret signal for when he’s across the river, when he gets to the surface. When the others see he’s surfaced, they’re supposed to shout down at me and pull on the rope. Anyway, I’m kneeling down and craning my head down so I can watch Petar walk around the curve, [the tunnel bends in an inverted bow underground – PoL] and he laughs and waves at me for a minute, then gets bored, keeps walking. And he’s just about to round the curve, out of sight – it hasn’t been long, just a minute or so, around the same time it’d took us to walk down the steps – and I feel the rope around me tighten. Then I hear the lads up top. ‘He’s across. Waving a red flag’. The thing is, Petar hears it too.

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This image shows how the tunnel bends out of sight  source | licence

And he stops. Turns round. And he’s looking at me. His hand slowly reaches into his big jacket pocket, and he pulls out the edge of this large red flag. For a moment I grin. I reckon they’re all having me on. But it’s the look on his face, that’s what still haunts me. Nobody’s that good an actor. His face – and he’s a big man, mind you, fearless. Our Petar was a big character, always at the centre of things, always with this big smile. Never saw him take anything too serious in all our days til then, but – I don’t know how to describe it, it was – fear. Just plain fear on his face. And he’s looking right at me and I know what he’s thinking. I know what he’s trying to figure out – do I keep going, or do I come back? He takes one step towards me, then stops. I don’t know how long we looked at each other like that, neither of us talking. Then in the end he turns round again, and carries on, out of sight.

Well, I’m up those stairs like a shot and when I get up top there he is, across the river, unmistakeable even from that distance, red flag in one hand, another guy’s arm around his shoulders.

Anyway I didn’t like that. That freaked me out, that did. Petar didn’t talk about it much. Nobody spoke much about any of it after that. The jokes kind of came to an end and we just got on with the job. Tried to ignore it.”

The tunnel was re-opened in early 2012. No time-discrepancies have been reported since that date.


  • Candidate: The Woolwich Anomaly
  • Type:  Time-Anomaly
  • Status: Inactive

Source and licence for featured image