The quickest way from Paddington to London Heathrow is on the Heathrow Express. The slowest, if rather more scenic, route is via the Grand Union Canal. Assuming a canal boat is unavailable at short notice and that, like a good business traveller, you packed light, an alternative is to use the towpath of the canal and cycle to the airport.
The route is a simple one, best explored on a warm, dry afternoon or evening when, for whatever reason, you have a couple of spare hours before your flight departs and have no wish to spend them perusing duty-free shops. Setting off from the east side of the station, the first few hundred yards take you through the impressive modern buildings of the Paddington Basin development, all shining glass and steel, along with some interesting conversions. Pretty quickly, the canal enters a more gritty corridor of Victorian warehouses and the graffiti of underpasses. Do not lose heart, however, for the scenery is constantly changing.
You pass a cluster of Victorian gas-storage tanks, relics of the industrial past, but for the next 15 miles after Westbourne Grove the canal is housed within raised levees, and the towpath looks down on railway sidings, cemeteries, then parks and golf courses.
Moored alongside the towpath are narrow boats, many occupied, some with smoke rising from their chimneys and others with the unmistakable whiff of cannabis drifting into the air. It’s tempting to imagine that the appearance of each vessel betrays the identity of the occupants. Some are hippy chic – home to artists, perhaps? Others are colourfully decorated with brass hand-rails and fresh paint – probably holiday makers, these. The majority are unembellished, however, and their cluttered state, and watchful dogs on the roof, reveal that they are the genuine homes of people who live on the canal.
The going is good with a well-surfaced route all the way to Southall. You share it with pedestrians and joggers, so you need a bell, but you can pedal along at a good speed. At Southall the path narrows and becomes more rutted, but it is still passable, so there is no need for a mountain bike. Indeed, lest anyone think special equipment is needed for this adventure, I should point out that I was cycling in trousers and a jacket, with my laptop and a change of clothing on my back.
After Southall, you reach a T-junction – left offers a six-mile ride down to the Thames by Kew, while right will take you to Hayes, where you leave the canal only three miles away from Heathrow. For this final stretch, there is no option but to use the main roads, but at a good pace this is a 15-minute ride.
Cycling through the tunnel under the runway feels quite surreal and arriving at Heathrow itself, one feels incongruous mounted on a bike, but incredibly there are parking facilities (free!), shared with motorbikes. Alternatively, if you have a folding bike, you can check it in and continue your cycling adventure on arrival at your destination.