Avenue Verte Day 3 – 28 July 2014

What to do in Dieppe at 4am?

There is no possibility of oversleeping on the cross channel ferry and winding up back in Newhaven.  After what felt like mere seconds after going to sleep, the ungodly sound of some bizarre piped music is blasted into the cabins followed by a loud knocking on the door a mere 3 hours after leaving England  (and still with about half an hour before we would actually dock in Dieppe).

Leaving it as late as possible before surfacing, I gathered my stuff together.  Removing the toilet roll I had placed in my shoes overnight I placed my still damp shoes back on and climbed back into some dry, but not exactly clean, cycling shorts and shirts. Then, with the panniers packed up I made my way back down to the car deck, handing in the room key en route.

Part of me had initially hoped that the cyclists would be last off in order to gain as much rest as possible, however having now been awoken I was rather glad that we were off first. I was the second person off the ferry and onto French soil.  The French customs team were friendly and wished me luck. Before setting course towards Paris I first tried doubling back towards the terminal building.  On reading up before the route some people had suggested coming here for another couple of hours of shut eye, but a quick glance at uncomfortable bench seats and bright fluorescent lighting quickly put paid to that suggestion. Instead I headed for the back road that leads from the ferry terminal into the centre of Dieppe.

Disembarked in Dieppe

The central quay side area indicates quite a pretty French seaside town – although it’s not easy to tell at 4am (my body clock was reminding me it was only 3am UK time).  I stopped to check my maps and ensure that I’d not forgotten anything in the half awake rush to disembark. Satisfied I looked to find the start of the Avenue Verte route somewhere near the station.

Dieppe, 4am

Returning from a short “detour” (yes – I got lost) past some industrial units I bumped into Pierre, with whom I had been chatting whilst waiting to board at Newhaven.  Pierre had done the route a few times before and knew the way (he lives in Paris and his daughter currently lives in London so he cycles the route to see her a couple of times a year).  Glad of some company we set off together, initially along roads to the first village out of Dieppe, Arques La Bataille.

At Arques we left the roads and joined the first part of proper ‘Green Way’.  The initial stretch here winds around some lakes and housing estates.  Pierre was equipped with only a tiny light so I was leading the way with my brighter light but trying to get directions from Pierre.  I only fell off once! The mishap occurred when misreading the route at a section through some bollards. This was my first proper experience of the joy of having my feet locked in pedals and thus enable to put them down as I came to an unexpected stop!  Dusting myself down and laughing it off (only my pride had suffered any damage) we soon joined the next section of disused railway line and a straight run through some glorious French countryside.

The Green Way

I know the countryside here is glorious as I have more recently driven back through it to get to the ferry on another trip (in the car).  However at 4.30am I had no idea how nice it was (though I did suspect it was worth actually seeing).  However the company with Pierre was pleasant so we carried on together.  After a short distance we were jolted by the sight of some ghostly apparitions ahead of us.  After our initial surprise we soon identified the figures as the two lads from Portsmouth who had also turned up on their bikes in Newhaven.  They had made it this far without any lights but were now struggling as there is no street lighting along the old railway track.  They gratefully pulled into line behind Pierre and I and so we carried our mini peloton southwards along the valley rising out from Dieppe; Pierre and I leading the way with the other lads (I did get their names but failed to write them down in my notebook and have no chance of recollection now) just behind.

I would have happily continued on with Pierre for some more miles but by now sunlight was starting to seep across the valley and I could tell I was missing some lovely countryside. We were now starting to see some wildlife alongside us (being startled by my lights) and though I’m sure he was charmed by my poor attempts to name them in French (“Renard!”. “Lapin!”) when we reached the village of St Vaast I informed Pierre that I was going to take a break here as I wanted to wait for the sun to fully rise and see the countryside properly.

Deciding to stay with my light the two lads stopped with me at the old village station as Pierre continued to ride on. The three of us settled down on some benches for a rest.  After around 45 minutes the other two decided it was light enough and set off.  I’d love to hear how they got on.  They had made, to my mind, a rather odd choice to break their route.  They were travelling light and were planning to do their whole journey in three days.  After doing the 75 miles ride from Portsmouth to Newhaven they were only heading in total about 30 miles today.  They would likely be at their hotel before 9am! Although giving them a proper chance to rest that meant they had then left themselves at least 120 miles for their final day and I’m not sure that they had found the 75 miles yesterday to be easy going.  So wishing them luck as they rode on I gave myself another 20 minutes before heading off myself.

Waking Up at Saint-Vaast-d’Équiqueville

From this point on I could now properly see the landscape I was riding through and was glad of my decision to wait for sunlight.  It was still early (I could hear the larks rising) but the day was opening up beautifully and the route was slowly winding its way up the valley along the old railway line through some beautiful villages.  Stopping to look at the chateau at Mesniers-en-Bray (I was too early to visit and had to admire the Chateau through the gates) before long I had made my first proper stop at the market town of Neufchatel-en-Bray – a town apparently very proud of its heart shaped cheeses.

 

Leaving the route for a while I headed into the town centre and parked the bike up outside the church and headed for a recce around the town.  I was still too early for most of the shops but managed to find a by now much needed, basic, public toilet (all praise my decision to steal some toilet roll from the ferry!) and then found a boulangerie open and a coffee shop across the road from it.  Having my breakfast (café au lait, croissant, pain au chocolate et jus d’orange) on the bench by my bike I waited for 9am when the signs said the church would open.  I thought it would be nice to take a look around but there was still no sign of activity by half past so I reluctantly gave up and got back underway.

Re-joining the old railway line I continued on my way up the valley passing through some more nice villages and gorgeous valley landscapes.  Stopping briefly to look at the village of  Beaubec-la-Rosiere I soon reached the end of the line (or possibly its start).  After the old branch line met its junction with the main line the cycle route diverges from the trains and takes some side roads and other paths into the town of Forges Les Euax.  Another typically pretty French town, Forges also lulled me into a false sense of security by having some great shops around the main square at which I was able to fully stock up on provisions for the rest of the day – something that was not going to prove quite so easy at other points over the next day and a half.

The next section of the route takes riders onto some quiet country lanes across glorious rolling hills.  This section of fast down hills and some long, but not extreme climbs was one of the highlights of the route and another section where I would be cycling for about 20 miles with a big grin on my face and whistling my way along.  At the highest point of the hills, and having done about 2/3 of the days miles I stopped at a junction for lunch.  Ostensibly choosing to park up and sit on a roadside verge does not sound ideal but the views across the countryside from here more than made up for any lack of picnicking formality.

Stop for lunch

Stopping at the rather sorry church at Menerval I got chatting to another couple of British cyclists I met there.  They were taking a more leisurely pace having arrived on the ferry the day before.  We wandered around the church yard with its somewhat creepy graveyard and wondering how on earth the church was still standing with the size of some of the cracks in its tower.  The three of us set off together briefly though my companions were taking a much slower pace.  After a short distance we noticed some very dark clouds heading towards us and felt the first few big drops of rain. Making my apologies to my short lived companions I made the decision that I was still feeling fresh and wanted to see if I could outrun the storm before I got to the next town.  I’m very proud to say that I made it.  There was a lot of downhill but I made a fast 7 miles dash into Gournay keeping myself dry.

 

Gournay itself was one of the disappointments of the ride.  After the amusement of seeing the sign indicating the distance to its twin town of Hailsham (which I had cycled through yesterday) the town itself was lacking.  It had suffered badly in the war and had been rebuilt to try and capture its glory albeit without any soul.  Furthermore by this point I was low on water and was beginning to suffer some ‘saddle chafing’!  I tried to find a super market to get some water and ointments(!)  I succeeded but only after riding round and around some busy town centre roads. I was now beginning to feel fed up; tired, harassed by cars, and raw of bum! I still had 10 miles to go in the day which isn’t much but Gournay had really brought me down and the final few miles were suddenly far from appealing.  Passing back through all the traffic and past a very smelly Danone yoghurt factory I climbed a long slow tired ride out of the town.  I had enough and wanted the day over.

I’ve come from there

Eventually the hill plateaued out back to nicer rolling landscape and the roads were quiet again.  Stopping for another small piece of bread and cheese and thus rejuvenated I made my way down to my finish point for the day in St Germer de Fly.  Although I was still a bit tired now (I had already done more miles than the each of the previous two days by this point) the gloom couldn’t last now that I was back on open country roads.

Immediately on entering the village of St Germer any final frustrations vanished in an instant.  I identified my hotel for the night easily enough as I dropped into the village.  The guidebook said it was good for the route and indeed it is. As it is sited directly on the trail it couldn’t be better.  For now though I continued on the handful of metres into the centre of the village.  The centrepiece of the village is the enormous and beautiful abbey lining one whole side of the village square.  Parking the bike and trusting to the villages tranquillity I left the bags on and crossed the road to look around the abbey.  Unfortunately the interior of the main building was closed for refurbishment but it was still possible to get a good walk around the outside and to also look in the  “small” chapel at one end (from where one could also sneak a brief peek around some hoarding to get a glimpse of the imposing abbey church).

Having looked around I crossed back over the road to the village square and took a seat at the Auberge de l’abbaye.  It looked shut but still had seats outside which were welcome.  Even more welcome was the appearance after about 10 minutes of a waitress who soon brought me a simple but very welcome ham omelette and chips (et une petit Kronenbourg). Suitably refreshed I made my way back to the ‘B&B’ I had booked; Les Chambres de l’Abbaye (I name it so that you can find it – if you are planning a trip along the Avenue Verte ensure you add this stopover to your itinerary).

I had decided to ‘treat’ myself on this evening.  In actuality the room was only actually the same price as the B&B I had stayed at in East Grinstead on the first night – it just sounded more expensive being paid for in Euros.  Treating myself turned out to be something of an understatement though. Chloe, the hostess, helped me lock my bike up (the comprehensive bike shed showed that the introduction of the formal Avenue Verte route has been good for business).  I was shown to my rooms. I was given a two room suite with the most beautiful bedroom and huge bathroom with a centrepiece slipper bath.  I was going to like this.  It didn’t take me long to get the bath running and I then spent a glorious amount of time wallowing in the luxury.

Luxury at Saint-Germer-de-Fly

Feeling fresh and relaxed I got myself ready for supper and headed downstairs. The evening meal was an optional extra that I’m glad I took. There were twelve of us arranged around the table. As well as myself there were two Dutch, one Swiss, another English and five Italian guests; all cyclists and all doing the Avenue Verte in one direction or the other and all at various speeds. Making up the final two seats were Chloe and Jean Francois, our hosts.  The next few hours were a marvellous combination of excellent home cooked food (all local produce – most of the veg picked by Chloe from the garden that day) and lovely company. The conversation mostly revolved around cycling but also veered onto all manner of other interesting alleys as you would hope for in such varied company.  It was interesting to see the differing approaches being taken to the route.  The Italians – who were all very experienced in longer touring – were doing the ride in reverse to me but making a similar approach.  The Dutch (who were also fairly experienced and had done a number of rides across the far east)  were taking a laid back approach(!) and were actually spending the night camping in the garden and were not yet sure how they might approach for following day’s ride.  The English and Swiss pairing (who were going at the slowest pace) were only planning a day or two ahead and booking things only when needed – otherwise hoping to be able to turn up and get in to places. They were a newlywed couple (this was their honeymoon) .  She was the same age as me and had undertaken a few tours before. He, 20 years her senior, was new to the concept and this was his first cycle tour also. He seemed to be enjoying it.

In all it was a marvellous evening and a perfect end to what had been an excellent, quiet birthday.  I’d kept that to myself during the day and didn’t tell anyone during the evening (I didn’t want any fuss and certainly didn’t want Chloe to feel that she might have to suddenly conjure something up).  Well-fed and rehydrated with sufficient local wine we all eventually bade each other good night and I retreated up to my lovely chamber and straight off to sleep.

Room for the Night

Day Three Stats:

  • Distance: 64.25 Miles
  • Ride Time: 5 Hours 17 minutes and 20 seconds
  • Maximum Speed: 41.2 mph
  • Average Speed: 12.1 mph
  • Average RPM: 52
  • Revolutions: 16,501
  • Ascent: 1,835 feet
  • Strava: http://www.strava.com/activities/173202993

Next: The Big Push Towards the Edge of the City

Avenue Verte Day 2 – 27 July 2014

To the Coast!

My alarm woke me up in the darkness of the well curtained room in the Cranston House B&B. Bleary eyed I got up, showered, repacked my bags and headed downstairs for a Full English.  I’m not normally one to turn down such an opportunity anyway but the possibility to get properly fuelled up for the day outweighed the rather disappointing quality of the fare.

I set off with a quick ride through East Grinstead town centre which still looked nice in the morning light, and then headed for the start of the Forest Way cycle path at the edge of the town.

Leaving East Grinstead

The second section of disused railway line on the route, the Forest Way runs direct from East Grinstead to Groombridge over a distance of roughly 10 miles.  Knowing that the easy gradients on this section were going to give way to a much more hilly ride across the Weald later in the morning I made the most of the largely easy going and beautiful (hint: the clue is in the name) route.  The weight on the bike (not just me) and an easterly headwind made the ride a little bit harder than hoped for but the route was still fairly easy and before I knew it the track had petered out just outside of Groombridge where the old train line had diverged from the remaining London – Uckfield line.

The Forest Way

This signalled the start of a stretch of riding on roads.  It was all to be on quiet country lanes but I knew from the maps that I was going to find some hard going sections before long.  However the first section of road was easy enough and the train line associations of the route continued briefly when I pulled into Eridge station for a quick breather.  A main line station on the Uckfield line it is also the southern terminus of the Spa Valley Heritage Railway line running to Tunbridge Wells.  I was lucky enough to time my arrival with that of a steam train into the station before heading back underway.

Eridge Station

The main A26 road passes close to the station and in order to avoid it the Avenue Verte at this stage takes an off road, un surfaced turn through some dense and overgrown woodland up a steep hill.  On the whole the route is excellent but damn, every now and again they throw in some awful sections and, though quite short, this one was no fun at all.

I think the plan might have been to prepare riders for the climb up and across the Weald.  I was soon off the rough track and onto the next section of country lanes which started with a gorgeously fast downhill stretch. Any joy was tempered with knowledge of what was coming next.  I faced two big climbs from this point up towards, and through, Rotherfield.  The second climb was another of the top six climbs of the whole route and took some work to get up.  I’ll confess to not doing it all in one uninterrupted climb. However, although I stopped once for a breather, I managed to resist the temptation to get off and push. Subsequently I soon enough found myself on the outskirts of Rotherfield village where I knew that there was a village shop and a bench waiting for me where I could stop for a glug of Lucozade and Mars Bar and a quick wander around the pretty churchyard.

 

Another few miles of undulating country roads led me around the outskirts of Mayfield and to the bottom of the hills beneath Heathfield.  At this point the formal route heads through unsurfaced footpaths up the hillside but the combination of heavily laden bike, hills and surface led me to take heed my guidebook’s advice to remain on the road instead.  The climb up to Heathfield is the toughest climb of the official route (although only the second toughest I was going to face – more about that on day four)!  The climb was tough going and lasted about three miles.  I had to stop at one point to take my shades off as I could no longer see through them thanks to the sweat dripping across the lenses!  It was one of those climbs that would never seem to stop.  Every time I thought I must be at the top as the road levelled out, I’d find another steep section around the next bend.

Eventually it was over though and I made Heathfield and into much more familiar territory of its town centre.  I rode down the high street to where I knew the Co-op was to gather supplies for the rest of the day and then headed back to look for the Heathfield Tunnel.  I knew of the existence of a tunnel under the high street that was a part of the old ‘Cuckoo’ Railway Line but hadn’t realised how big and long and rather impressive it is.  Although not a part of the route (in fact it heads in the opposite direction back towards Mayfield) I was keen to take a diversion to see it and was not disappointed.  Furthermore, some picnic benches at the far end of the tunnel provided a good place to stop for lunch.

Heathfield Tunnel

A nice break was slightly curtailed by a short shower so I packed back up and headed back through the tunnel to re-join the Avenue Verte route as it follows disused railway line no 3, The Cuckoo Trail, which was to be an absolute joy for the next 10 miles or so as it heads towards Polegate.  Furthermore the whole section in this direction is downhill from the top of the Weald towards the almost sea level marshlands around Polegate and Eastbourne.  At the top end of the trail, at the edge of Heathfield the route passes by a house of one of those marvellous English suburban eccentrics.  The garden of the house backs on to the old train line and is absolutely rammed full of old railway memorabilia.  The garden shed is a signal box; the fence is made of level crossing gates.  The owner has even installed an old mechanical signal which passers-by can operate by pressing a button on the nose of Thomas the Tank Engine!   Not only does the signal change but it is accompanied by some steam train sound effects and after the train has ‘passed’ the signal changes back again.  I do not know the owner of this house but Sir or Madam (I suspect Sir) I salute you.

Heathfield Rail House

The Cuckoo Trail really is a delight (though I should imagine that heading the opposite direction up the hill might be slightly less so) passing through some lovely countryside on a peaceful track which it was lovely to see being used by various different groups of people.  As if not beautiful enough the route is also lined with a large amount of various bits of trackside art and sculptures. Most seem to have been beautifully crafted from anything left lying around that part of the line; tree trunks or bit of old train carriage; many of the trackside artwork pieces are marked with yellow lines across the road so that speeding cyclists can spot them in advance and ensure that they get a proper look at them – a very thoughtful idea!

Cuckoo Trail Art

On passing the main road at Horsebridge (a road I know well as its on my commuting route on days when I need to drive to work in Lewes) and crossing into Hailsham all of a sudden there was a cloudburst.  The rain was torrential and after a nice sunny start to the day it looked like it could be like this for a while.  I took shelter under a bridge and dug my waterproofs out of the panniers to try and keep myself (and the bags) dry.  As time was still well on my side I thought I’d try and let it pass but after 20 minutes it was showing no signs of stopping so, not wanting to start having to rush later on,  I climbed back into the saddle and started on again – getting completely drenched within minutes.  I entertained myself squeezing the water from my gloves and watching the water gurgle out of my shoes any time that I clenched my toes.  After a couple of miles I took shelter again under an ornamental sculpture cum shelter near a road crossing south of Hailsham and then eventually, with the rain finally starting to ease, continued on until the point at which I was to leave the Cuckoo trail just to the north of the Polegate bypass.

Rain in Hailsham

For the next couple of miles I knew that I was in for another off road section; however it was also a familiar one as between Polegate and Berwick I would be on the cycle route that I take between County Hall and home.  Almost as soon as I turned off the Cuckoo Trail (National Cycle Route 21) and onto National Cycle Route 2 (Dover to Lands End) the rain not only stopped completely but the sun came out stronger than ever and the track showed absolutely no sign of having rained at all.  This made the uphill slog on dirt track around the edge of the woodland easier going; further aided by a tail wind, and before I knew it (but after having to make my way past a group of grumpy horse riders) I was back onto the roads and heading towards Berwick at which point I would again by turning South – this time remaining in that direction until making the coast.

From Berwick a glorious ride awaited along the Cuckmere valley skirting around Alfriston and through Littlington.  With the Alfriston White Horse clearly visible on the opposite side of the valley and seeing almost no vehicles or people the ride felt completely timeless until coming back with a bump as the route joins the A259 within a few hundred metres of the sea at the beautiful Cuckmere Haven.

Alfriston White Horse

I’d cycled the road from the Haven up into Seaford once before.  In 2001 when, whilst living in Tooting, I had taken a day off to travel on the train to Hastings from where I cycled across to Brighton.  On that day I hated the climb out from the valley up to the town and had really struggled, so I was pleased that even with all the extra weight on the bike I flew up the hill today and was on Seaford prom and within touching distance of Newhaven Harbour in no time at all.

Seaford prom was busy and has no designated cycle path so I took what would have been a nice leisurely ride had I not had to dodge around people changing tack on the prom every few yards. I’m sure I must have added some distance along that stretch of prom just from having to change course so often.  Not that I was complaining – it’s nice to see so many people out enjoying the sea front and I still had several hours before the ferry was due to depart.

With so much time in hand I diverted slightly off course between Seaford and Newhaven to pay a visit to the Tidemills which I had never previously visited.   They were a large collection of tidal powered mill buildings that had built up from the 1760s to become a self-contained village with its own train station.  The mill had closed by the start of the 20th century and the village deemed unfit for habitation in the 1930s. It was finally abandoned at the start of the second world war during which it was bombed both by German planes heading for home with but also by allied troops who used it as target practice.  Access to the ruins today is down a track leading from the Seaford to Newhaven road and across the train line at one end of the abandoned station platforms.  Traversing the (still in use) train line is done by the old fashioned look before you walk approach – there are gates that you need to open but I saw no sign of warning or other security equipment.  Resisting the temptation once on the rail line to wander onto the platforms, I crossed over and walked around the rest of the mill complex and village.  A couple of neglected information boards were hard to read and many of the remains were completely overgrown which added to the sense of melancholy surrounding them. Despite that, or probably because of it, there is certainly a good sense of the past here and I’ll be looking forward to making a return visit at some time.

However for now, even though I still had another 5-6 hours before sailing time, I was tired and wanted to get to the end of the day so crossed back over the railway and onto the cycle path down into Newhaven Harbour where I parked and locked my bike up at the ferry port terminal.

Arrival at Newhaven

Having changed in the truckers toilets (during which I had a lengthy conversation with a west country trucker about riding in France whilst I was getting dressed) and ensuring that I was OK to leave my bike for a couple of hours I put the carry straps on my panniers and made my way to the station to get a train into Lewes.  At one stage of the planning I was going to be doing this leg of the journey on the Friday and part of that plan had been to dive into the office for a shower and freshen up there!  Being Sunday however that was not possible so I used the extra time to have a well-earned pint at the Lansdowne pub opposite Lewes station before heading for some food in another functional but uninspiring chained Italian restaurant in Lewes. The staff there did kindly charge my phone for me whilst I ate and in case you are wondering, although nothing special, this was much better than anything that Newhaven might have had to offer. Furthermore my annual rail season ticket allowed me to do this short train ride into Lewes and back at no cost.

End of the day

Feeling more human for some food, and having had another beer on my way back past the Lansdowne I headed back to the station and on to Newhaven.  After collecting the bike and easily clearing customs I joined up with a number of other cyclists and spent a while chatting with a friendly Frenchman named Phillipe whilst waiting to board the boat; along with brief conversations with a party of Italians and a couple of young lads from Portsmouth who turned up a bit later.  Although the ferry company dedicate an area of the loading/waiting area to cyclists there are no facilities easily to hand there so it was lucky that the evening was still fairly warm and was remaining dry.

Preparing to board

Eventually it was time to board the boat.   I had expected the bike storage area to be a properly setup corner of the ferry but instead we were all left to try and secure out bikes as best we could using just the chains that we had with us.  Fortunately though, the sea was looking calm so the bikes should be fine during the crossing.  Once locked up and in place I made my way up onto deck, checked in to pick up the key to the cabin I had booked, and made my way straight to it.

I was warned that my cabin was directly under the bridge and that I should keep my curtains shut as the light from my room could cause problems to the captain!  I soon confirmed I was indeed right at the front of the ship as the front of the ferry was still open for loading and as such the prow was directly in front of my window.  After showering, hanging up my cycling gear to ‘air’ and stuffing my still soggy cycle shoes with half a roll of toilet paper I turned the lights out and risked opening the curtain so that I could watch as the prow closed and then we slowly slipped out of Newhaven harbour before I started to try to get some sleep.  It came easily enough once we were properly out to sea.

Leaving Newhaven

Day Two Stats:

  • Distance: 55.05 Miles
  • Ride Time: 4 Hours 37 minutes and 2 seconds
  • Maximum Speed: 42.2mph
  • Average Speed: 11.9mph
  • Average RPM: 58
  • Revolutions: 16,068
  • Ascent: 2,169 feet
  • Strava: http://www.strava.com/activities/173201201

Next: What to do in Dieppe at 4am?

Avenue Verte Day 1 – 26 July 2014

To France – and don’t spare the pedals

Back at the end of July, after getting the idea after seeing a guidebook advertised on the Sustrans website, and after a fair bit of planing and looking at maps, I had made my plans and was ready to set off on the Avenue Verte London to Paris cycle route.

Having already done 95% of my packing on the night before, and having left a couple of panniers and some cycle gear laid out in the spare room before I had gone to bed, I got up early on the first day (Saturday 26th) and had breakfast. After doing some final packing and making my final checks on the bags and bike I cycled the short downhill ride to Hastings Station to get the 07:50 train into London (I didn’t count that mile as a part of the ride).

Ready to go

The train journey was blissfully uneventful and I spent it reading the Saturday newspapers in order to avoid wasting much needed phone battery.  I was using my Lumia 1020 phone to record my route via GPS and also to monitor my heart rate throughout the ride as well as using it’s excellent camera for making a photo record as well as the GPS one.  I had packed a couple of spare battery packs but with the GPS tracking running throughout the day I was likely to need them.  We got into London Waterloo East at about 9:30 and then I had the more awkward task of navigating the bike through Waterloo station and down the steps by the Shell building towards the start of the route.

The starting point of the official Avenue Verte route is at the London Eye so I rocked up close to it and took my ‘starting point’ photos before getting ready for the off.  The actual starting point itself is a rather random bit of road about 100 yards back from the Eye.  That means you don’t get the chance to be waved off by thousands of cheerful tourists(!) but I did set off pretty much dead on 10:00 under the watchful eye of a couple of policemen in an unmarked car next to me.

At the Eye

The ride started fairly easily but slowly through central London.  The first section follows the Thames, crossing the river twice at Westminster and then Chelsea Bridges.  Crossing past the power station the cycle path becomes a little less friendly through Battersea and Clapham but the riding was uneventful and before long it climbed slowly upwards onto and across Clapham Common, which gave a nice bit of open land after the more oppressive stretch along Queenstown Road.  On the other side of the Common I got my first of many minor queries about the route leading to a minor detour and double back.  On the whole the cycle route is well signed, although there are not many Avenue Verte signs on the English side (mostly relying on you knowing which of the ‘NCN’ routes you need to follow instead).  These are mostly clear and frequent but it only takes one missing sign at the wrong place, or for some wag to have turned one around (there were a few of those along the route) to get led astray.  However I also soon realised that some guerrilla cyclists had also been along putting up a series of stickers on posts pointing the correct way and these often turned out to be more useful than the official signs in some key places.

Avenue Verte Route Signs

After that short diversion I was soon back on track and into familiar territory as I passed Wandsworth Prison and down onto my old stamping ground along Magdalen Road and into Earlsfield (where I played rugby for several years for Bec Old Boys) whilst living down the road in Tooting. One quick crossing of Garratt Lane and I was soon onto the Wandle Trail.

The Wandle Trail runs alongside the River Wandle on various qualities of path for the next few miles.  The mix of surfaces and regular road crossings along with a number of other cyclists and dog walkers kept the pace fairly slow but it was easy going.  After passing the back of Merton Abbey, the Wimbledon dog track and the rather bland looking flats that have finally taken over the derelict space that previously housed Wimbledon FC’s old  Plough Lane ground, we opened out into the rather lovely Morden Hall Park.  With the first 10 plus miles done and a nice open space I choose to have my first break here.  Although lovely it wasn’t actually the most comfortable (no benches) and I managed to mess up my GPS recorder and lose the tracking up to this point which was a bit of an irritation; after a handful of crisps and a couple of squares of chocolate I saddled up and got back on my way.

Morden Hall Park

At the top of the Wandle Trail there were a few more moments of confusion, map gazing, and doubling back as the route heads through a range of residential back streets and inter joining cycle paths to Carshalton, before heading into the first patch of real open country leading up onto the first stretch of downland.  This really did feel like being out in the country, if only for a couple of miles, before dropping back towards suburban London and then back up into the busy and rather lovely Three Oaks park which had the first vaguely serious climb of the day.  At the top of the climb though was a nice rewarding café with benches.  I bought a bottle of 7up (and got the staff to kindly refill my water bottles) to wash down some of my provisions and I took another short rest.

After Three Oaks the route was again a bit more on road and less pleasant (though with some off road sections to break things up) but it did pass by a rather magnificent Lavender field before dropping down into Coulsdon where we had to follow some one way streets through the town and negotiate some cycle lanes around a couple of busy roundabouts before the next big climb.

The Control Centre

This really was the first climb proper and in the top six climbs of the whole tour.  What’s more by the now the day was hot.  I was liberally applying sun cream to the outside of the body and water to the inside as I began the long and hot but gorgeous slog onto Farthing Down.  It is remarkable to think that not only is Farthing Down still within London, but that its actually under the care and management of the City of London Corporation.  The landscape is a mix of open grazing land interspersed with some lovely patches of woodland and a couple of quiet villages.  It really couldn’t feel further from the City that owns it.  At one of the villages, Chaldon, I took another short diversion and had a break at the church.  A very pretty, small and squarish church; as well as being lovely from the outside and with a nice bench to rest up and refresh on, it also houses a remarkable 11th – 12th century mural occupying almost one whole wall.  Depicting purgatory and hell the mural is reportedly the earliest English wall painting and one of the finest in Europe.  Why it is not more widely known amazes me.   More information can be found at: http://www.surreycommunity.info/chaldonpc/history-of-chaldon-church/

Whilst taking a break at the church I took the opportunity to call an old friend living in Redhill, and whose house I would be passing very close by, to check that he was in and to make him the very generous offer of having the opportunity to make me a cup of tea.  Chris confirmed that they were (and would remain) in and so I got back onto the bike and made the final exit out of London.  It was easy to mark leaving the Greater London area as I shot down off the North Downs and across the M25 into Surrey.

Crossing the M25

From here the first real sequence of cycle paths and country lanes lead me past village pubs with quaint duck ponds, and village greens with cricket matches being played (surely placed there especially for any French cyclists coming the other direction) before coming into Redhill and making the short (but very hilly) diversion to Chris and Gill’s house where I whiled away a lovely hour with a cup of tea sitting in the garden getting occasionally showered by their children who had taken control of a hosepipe.   Refreshed, and cheery, and with water bottles filled I was back on my way.

The route now varied between residential streets and some surprisingly hidden little cycle tracks; small industrial estates and farms; through Horley and Crawley passing by Gatwick Airport.  The route passes right by the end of the runway and so I took another short break there for some silly photos and then carried on through the Crawley suburbs before joining up with the first really excellent piece of the route – the Worth Way from Crawley to East Grinstead.

Coming in to Land

The Worth Way follows the route of the old railway line linking the two towns and, with the exception of a couple of minor diversions where housing now sits on the route, took me all the way into East Grinstead.  The line does mostly climb up out of the Aran Valley and as such I found the section lovely but slow going.  By now the legs were weary and I was beginning to really feel the additional weight in my panniers. Whilst I am fairly used to using panniers I had never done such a distance with them so fully loaded.  However, other than a small stop to break into the grounds of the disused Rowfant station, I soon found myself on the edge of East Grinstead and after a quick check of the map soon found my way to the Cranston House B&B which was to be my base for the night.

Rowfont Station

A proper old style English B&B, it provided comfortable and functional if not remarkable accommodation and the owner was used to accommodating Avenue Verte cyclists and was very friendly and helpful.  After freshening up, the evening took me into the town centre, which was surprisingly nice – a proper English market town (although there did appear to be too many vacant office block buildings hinting that it was experiencing a bit of a downturn).  Dinner was in the glamerous surroundings of the local Pizza Express and consisted of a large meaty pizza, with desert and a large beer before I wandered back to the B&B and going easily to sleep in a big comfortable bed.

End of the day Pizza

Day One Statistics:

  • Distance: 50.68 Miles
  • Ride Time: 4 Hours, 34 minutes and 3 seconds
  • Maximum Speed: 35.3 mph
  • Average Speed: 11.0 mph
  • Average RPM: 57
  • Revolutions: 15,620
  • Ascent: 1,881 feet
  • Strava: http://www.strava.com/activities/173197637

Next: To the Coast