Just a few days after my visit to Dante’s Inferno and I was looking at adding a few more miles to my September itinerary. My other half was attending a conference at Cranfield University, a few miles east of Milton Keyes, and I was going up as well to sneak into her room in the evenings, and explore a different bit of the country.
After driving up, meeting her at Bedford station, and driving us over to the University (which is located in a village in the middle of open countryside and not easily accessible without a car) I unloaded the bike from the boot of the car and got ready for a first trip.
Today would a fairly easy ride. I looped around the airfield which sits at the centre of the campus and then headed South for a mile or two into Salford, a pretty village with a lovely church with some excellent bells in a fantastic wooden frame on one end.
The church itself was shut so I was soon back on my way and didn’t get far before coming upon an old sign village dating to the 1951 Festival of Britain. I do love coming across bits and pieces that still hang around from the Festival, so this was a very welcome and unexpected treat that got me very excited!
I headed on, over the M1, and entered Milton Keynes at Wavendon in its south east corner. As I suspected might be the case, Milton Keynes turned out to be mostly a pleasant cycling experience. Its famous grid road layout with roundabout after roundabout was a great example of road planning of its time. Another characteristic of those times was the provision alongside the roads of a good layout for cyclists and walkers.
The riding was a bit stop-start at the various junctions (although most of the bigger roundabouts had good underpasses for cycling across) but before long I had ridden to Bletchley and was pulling up and parking my bike in one of the old bike sheds built for the code breakers at Bletchley Park in World War II.
The site and museum was my targeted destination for this outing and I spent a couple of fascinating hours exploring this wonderful site. I really cannot recommend a visit here strongly enough and would happily have spent longer here. I would also have liked to have been able to visit the neighbouring National Museum of Computing as well however it was not open on the day of my visit; I shall have to come back!
Bomba Code Breaking Computer
Alan Turing’s Office, Bletchley
I did need to get back to Cranfield though, so eventually I headed back to the bike shed and rode off again.
Rather than heading straight back I planned to complete a loop. I had to double back a short way but then headed North when I reached the River Ouzel and later, The Grand Union Canal. It was quite interesting to see another side of Milton Keynes available from this route. Between the River and the Canal I came across signs of some of the old settlements that pre-date the New Town such as Simpson village with a lovely selection of medieval buildings hiding here in the middle of this most modern of towns.
I continued along the Canal until getting close to the southern edge of Newport Pagnell at which point I headed Eastwards again and rode across the low rolling hills through North Crawley and back to Cranfield to complete what was a rather nice ‘warm up’ ride in advance of the next day.
The following morning my other half woke and went for breakfast and then off to her conference. As I wasn’t officially staying there I couldn’t get any food at the hotel so instead just got ready for a day’s riding. There was a Spar shop on the campus so I’d pop in there. However when I got to the shop there was nothing for me (the hot sandwiches counter was empty and the coffee machine broken). I got back to the bike and for the first few miles headed back in the opposite direction to the one I had used to return to base the previous afternoon; through North Crawley and back towards Newport Pagnell.
Today I headed into the town centre where a handy bakery in the rather attractive high street provided me my missed breakfast. I ate at a table on the pavement as the day started to warm up and was now starting to feel more relaxed and ready for the day.
I headed North West out of the town along a B road. There was a bit of traffic around but on the whole this was pleasant riding. The road was climbing up most of the way but it was nothing more than a nice warm up. I left the road at Salcey Forest which marked the summit of that set of climbs and I subsequently began the drop back down as I rode towards the southern edge of Northampton.
I had no intention of riding through the middle of this busy town, however one of my main ‘objectives’ for the day was to be found a very short distance on the main road into the town. So rather than immediately following the cycle ring road, I initially followed the main roads until there, by the right hand side of the carriageway, was the Hardingstone Eleanor Cross.
The Hardingstone cross in one of just three of the original twelve Eleanor Crosses that still survive. The crosses were placed to mark the locations at which the body of Eleanor of Castile, the wife of King Edward I, had rested on its return to Westminster Abbey following her death near Lincoln in 1290.
Despite having survived this long the cross is currently in very poor repair and at the time of my visit was fenced off. It was a huge shame to see such a beautiful and important national monument in such a sorry state of disrepair. I understand that Northampton Borough Council are now commencing works to restore the monument. I do hope that this is indeed the case and that it can be restored and have access to it improved so that it regain the status which it so deserves.
I headed back on my way, back through some underpasses under the busy main roads, and rejoined the cycle route around the town’s edge.
The route took me through Hardingstone village (pretty) and then alongside the A45 (less so but still some decent riding well segregated from the dual carriageway). The cycle route jumps between the roadside and bank of the River Nene and progress was fairly slow; but pleasant.
Eventually at the South East corner of the town I diverted onto some small country lanes and headed back out to the countryside from the village of Ecton.
Though the cycle paths around the edge of Northampton had been fine it was nice to be back onto open roads, even though they also coincided with the next set of hills. A drop and a climb around Sywell Reservoir got the legs back into action after the slow urban cycle paths. Mears Ashby is a pretty village and I took 5 minutes to rest on a bench and read some signs detailing the sad account of the crash of two American Bombers during World War II.
A few more lovely open miles led me across to Little Harrowden and then dropped down towards the railway line by the old Finedon station on my way into that village, passing an old windmill/house conversion on the way.
Riding into Finedon I noticed the church was having a summer fete so I leant by bike against a tree in the graveyard, then went in to look around the church and to partake of some tea and cake. There was unfortunately, no sign of the vicar, one Rev. Richard Coles, but its a lovely church and the villagers were friendly so I’ll forgive him.
Finedon Church Flower Festival
Finedon Church Festival
The tea and cake was great but I still needed to drop into the Co-op to get some more water (and a sneaky Calippo) before heading back off Northwards.
I followed the A6 for a few miles but it was easy going; it was not busy and the surface was nice and fast. It wasn’t long before I peeled off into Burton Latimer and rode through Barton Seagrove; which is a sentence that sounds more like it should be in the salacious memoirs of a 1950s Hollywood Starlet.
Somewhere just to the west of me was Kettering but I couldn’t see any sign of it and instead was continuing along some lovely country roads across a pretty bridge over the River Ise at Warkton, and up the hill into the picture postcard pretty Weekley.
Next up just off to the right was Boughton House – a rather amazing looking stately home in some classic landscaped parklands with herds of deer running free.
From Boughton I dropped back down to the Ise valley at Geddington; my target destination for the day. I rolled across the 13th Century bridge back over the River Ise and into the centre of the village.
Geddington is the home of another of the surviving, indeed the best surviving, of the Eleanor Crosses. Compared to Hardingstone the cross here is much better cared for and I spent a good few minutes walking around admiring the various statues and carvings on its faces.
At Geddington Cross
At Geddington Cross
I then took a wander into the churchyard where I was ‘accosted’ by the villages resident historian, Kam. I had been planning on a quick wander around the church but instead I got a very full and thorough tour around the church. I wasn’t totally convinced of all of the stories that Kam was telling me (this is the most interesting church in England apparently) but he is certainly a captivating guide and the church does have a lot of great features including some lovely old tombs and monuments.
“Pagan” figure, Geddington Church
Queen Eleanor, Geddington Church
I thanked Kam and left him as he was starting the tour again with another couple who had wandered in. I headed back to my bike. At the outset of the trip I had considered making this a round circuit back to Cranfield but I was hot and tired and the day was now a bit later than planned so instead I carried on a few miles further North into Corby, found the station, and climbed onto a train that was heading back down to Bedford.
The journey was relaxing and allowed me to get refreshed enough to make the ten and a bit mile trip back to the University. The journey back was quite straightforward and pleasant. Leaving the city was a little slow but I was soon on open roads on my way back to Cranfield. The main highlight of this little extra warm down ride was rounding off the two days in the saddle by finding another piece of Festival of Britain history in the form of The Festival pub in Upper Shelton. Happy Days.
A few weeks after coming back from my ‘Four War Tour‘ in Belgium and France and I was ready to tackle my next big day ride. I wasn’t planning on anything too adventurous and nothing that would take me far from some of regular riding routes. The aim for the day would be to explore the old coal mining area of Kent; I’d been close before on the previous trips to that part of the county, but I was less aware then of the geographical details of Kent’s coalfield locations and had skirted past some of the key sites.
I was up fairly early and on the road from home at about 8.30am. Leaving Hastings by climbing out of town on the main road at rush hour is never ideal but I’m used to it now and I don’t have to go too far before turning off onto the quiet lane to Pett village. I’ve used this route for a couple of years now as my default way out East. When I first started riding around here 5 or 6 years ago I would follow NCN Route 2 out of town and down Battery Hill through Fairlight. However the road surface on that big steep hill is now so awful I don’t feel safe on it. Although that is the higher class road and the one used by bus service to Rye, it remains dangerous whilst the quiet country lane through Pett has been recently resurfaced and is a joy to ride along; joining the main road on the flat by the Western end of the Royal Military Canal at Pett Level.
The wind was nicely behind me as I headed along the sea front; firstly behind the sea wall between Pett and Winchelsea Beach and then on the edge of the beach itself through to Rye Harbour. Up, into, and through Rye. Join the Royal Military Road next to the Canal, still with wind assistance, and then continue on the flat through to Appledore.
Sluice at the end of the Military Canal
After the flat of the canal I hung a left through the village centre and up into the low rolling hills on this North East corner of the Weald through Woodchurch (its church is made of stone). On the climb out of there I stopped to remove my base layer; the day was warm now and I wasn’t going to be needing it now. That gave enough time for a small club ride to come up past me and having stripped, redressed, and got back under way I slotted in at the rear of their group for a mile or two towards Shadoxhurst where I swung off towards Ashford.
Ashford is a town that I greatly admire for its provision of cycle paths. It’s not the prettiest town but it has an excellent network with only one minor issue; on an all too regular basis the cycle paths and foot paths swap sides. One minute you’re cycling on the left; next you turn a corner and you’re supposed to be on the right. However it wasn’t that confusion that led to me riding into a bollard. I was looking out to see if I was right in thinking that there was a shop nearby where I could get some more water. There was but I was looking around so much that I didn’t notice the great big chunk of metal in the middle of the path. It was a very slow speed impact and I think I got away without anyone noticing. It didn’t stop my riding for the day. In fact it wasn’t until another couple of weeks later when I tried to remove my front wheel to load the bike into the car that I realised that I had bent the central pin. I managed about another 1,000 miles before I finally got it fixed just last week; I just had to put a wrench into my saddle bag to make sure I could remove the wheel in case of punctures.
The mishap was at least of value though as I spotted the Tesco Metro I was looking around for and topped up on water and snacks and then headed back out of Ashford through the Northern side of the town in the direction of Wye.
The cycle route North East out of Ashford is one I’ve ridden a few times and very much enjoy. Either side of Wye some quiet and pretty back roads help the miles to tick nicely by. Wye itself is a pretty village with some good cafes. I didn’t stop at any of them today though, I still had too many miles planned left to ride.
The cycle path continues following the roads for a few miles until they run out and the cycle route continues on a dedicated track along the side of the hill roughly following the route of the train line. After rising above the tracks, a small opening in the trees indicates that you have reached the lovely viewing spot at Catha’s Seat. The seat, with built in bike rack storage (not being used by me in the picture below!) is a memorial to Catharine Keegan who was involved in the setup of this cycle route from Ashford to Keegan. I did not know Catha and have no connection to her but always like to rest here and raise a water bottle in her honour; the bench is a lovely spot on a great little cycle path.
The path now starts to drop back down to the valley and into and through Chartham where you join the riverside path next to the Great Stour. The next couple of miles must be (on a good day; and I’ve only experienced good riding here) amongst the most bucolic on the National Cycle Network as it winds next to the lovely clear waters through the water meadows.
On the approach into Canterbury I turned back and headed out along a narrow and quiet lane back alongside the railway lines. I was aware of a special treat for rail nerds along this lane but, until today, I had never investigated it. What is it? Well – just watch my lovely video!
Having played on the railway tracks long enough I headed back into Canterbury. Today, other than pausing briefly to bemoan the continuing deterioration of the state of the Castle, I rode straight through the city, heading out South Eastwards having joined cycle route number 16 which crosses the North Kent Downs in the direction of Dover. I wasn’t planning on following that route too far however.
I followed it across the open land to Patrixbourne and then on towards Aylesham. However rather than following the route which skirts around the latter village I headed in to explore it as this was one of the places that I had come to see. Aylesham was developed in the 1920s to accommodate workers coming into work at the new coal mines that were being opened in Kent around that time. It was associated with the nearby Snowdown Colliery. It was planned to grow to hold around 30,000 people but only about 1,000 houses were ever built for the colliery as the Kent seams never proved as profitable as hoped.
I rode into the village, stopping to get some supplies for lunch at the One Stop on the way, and then rode into the small park in the centre of the village. I sat on one of a number of benches that commemorated the mining community.
A part of the pit workings in the park with some notice boards tell the story of the mine and the village. Having seen me looking at the boards a gentleman came out to speak to me ask ask what I knew of the village. I told him that I was (fairly recently) aware of the Kent Coalmines and Snowdown in particular and had wanted to come and get an understanding of what remained of the pits and the village that had been left behind. He had been a miner here up until its closure in 1987 (he was still wearing an old miners T-Shirt). He didn’t want to tell me any stories of his own but wanted to make sure that I was aware of the legacy and the story of the village. He also pointed me in the direction of the miners memorial garden in the village council offices on the edge of the village. I was pleased to hear what he would tell me and could have happily sat and heard his stories for longer had he been willing to share more.
Instead he headed back to the cafe he had been sitting in and I finished my lunch and loaded the remains back into my pannier.
I was very glad to have received his advice about the memorial garden. Had I not been made aware I would have passed it by unseen. The garden is only small but contains a new memorial to the lives of 57 men and boys who died during the 80 years that the colliery was active.
Snowdown Memorial Garden
From the memorial garden I headed across the next valley and up the hill to Snowdown station and then came to the gates of the old colliery. Despite having been closed for 30 years now the majority of the above ground mine buildings (except for the pit head winding gear towers) remain intact. The mine shafts have been capped off and the compound surrounded with razor wire but you can still get an impression of the site; though not the conditions for the workers.
At over 3,000 feet at its maximum depth Snowdown was the deepest mine in Kent. It was also the hottest and most humid. Conditions were so awful that the miners often worked naked as clothes became too uncomfortable. Miners could get through 24 pints of water in an 8 hour shift and there were frequent cases of heatstroke. Snowdown was regarded by many to be the worst to work in throughout Britain and as a result of its heat and humidity gained the name amongst its workers of “Dante’s Inferno”.
After briefly considering an attempt at jumping over the fence to take a good look around (from some concrete bollards I could likely have jumped into the compound; but I wasn’t then going to easily make my way back out) I headed back on my way. I understand that there might finally be some plans to develop the land into something new; I hope that someone might look to run some tours around the site beforehand. I would love to see around inside.
From here rather than continuing towards Dover I turned East along the country lanes across the hills through Nonington and Northbourne before dropping down to the coast at Deal.
I have ridden through Deal many times, but before today I had never visited the Castle. I had made sure that I got here in plenty of time to rectify that today.
I rolled into the car park, locked the bike up and went in. The staff there were happy to look after my helmet and pannier whilst I wandered around. Deal Castle is probably the best surviving of Henry VIII’s coastal forts and as such is quite different from the classic view of what a medieval castle might look like. It was an entirely functional building with its petal layout designed to ensure that it had a complete 360 degree line of fire.
As well as never having visited the Castle I’d also never been onto the Pier in the town either. The English Heritage staff agreed to look after my kit for a bit longer and I made the short walk onto and along to the end of the pier.
The current pier is Deal’s third and was built with a concrete structure in the 1950s. Its been in decline lately and I found out afterwards that the main pier had only just re-opened before my visit. There was still much work to be done but progress looks to be getting made and I hope to revisit again soon and be able to get a coffee from the (at the time of my visit) closed cafe at the end and to be able to wander down to the lower deck (also closed).
After a walk around I made by way back to the Castle. Coming back I noticed the gap in the railing and then the car sitting in the bottom of the moat. Back into the castle the staff told me that the crash had occurred the previous Saturday just as the castle was about to close. Miraculously the driver had walked out of the car with only superficial injuries. I gathered my kit and returned to my bike for the very short ride to Deal Station where I ended my ride and waited for a train home. My legs were tired and I was feeling the effort. I certainly hadn’t been working in Dante’s Inferno though.
There was another promisingly bright and sunny day working its way across Iepers market square and around the edges of my hotel room curtains as I awoke at 6.30. I started the day sitting at the table in the chamber writing my diary for the previous day and then calmly got dressed back into the lycra for the final day and gathered my belongings together. (Although not totally hygienic my routine on these 5 day (or thereabouts) tours is to take two full sets of cycling clothing and alternate them each day. On my first tour along the Avenue Verte I tried rinsing my kit out in the overnight hotels. However despite being made of no natural materials what so ever I found that the clothing didn’t fully dry overnight. It was therefore easier on subsequent tours to merely air my kit overnight! That did mean that today, on day five I was putting on this kit for its third outing of the tour!)
As is often the case with my last days on tour, today would be a strange one. In mileage terms I had around only 55 miles to cover today and the going would be virtually flat all the way. However I was booked onto a 4pm sailing out of Dunkirk and whilst I could probably miss it and get the 6pm sailing I wanted to be done and heading home by then. I had more than enough time to get to the ferry and still have a good day of it but I have usually found the last days on tour to be a little stressful when there is a deadline to be met.
After finish writing my diary and packing my kit I was still a little early for breakfast. Whilst I didn’t want to be leaving late I didn’t want to miss a paid up feed so I took my bags down to the hotel’s loading bay where my bike was secured against some sort of water pipe and loaded the panniers onto the rack so that I would ready for the off as soon as I had eaten. I took a wander out onto the streets of the town to the Spar shop around the corner, gathered some supplies for the day and loaded them into the bags on my return. As I wandered back upstairs I found breakfast was just opening. Perfect timing. After the requisite coffee, pastries and yoghurt I was ready for the off.
I slowly wound my way around the town square one last time before heading off to the North of the town to meet up with the Ieperlee canal where I joined the tow path on its Western bank. Fortunately I had not gone much farther when I realised that I hadn’t started my GPS tracking for the day so I pulled over and rectified that mistake.
Five easy miles followed along what now is just another lovely easy to ride along canal path. Only very occasionally did I pass any sign or indication that this canalised river had served as a front line at times during the war.
Just before Zuidschote I left the canal for a few more miles on quiet country roads. They were all well marked using the excellent Belgian cycle route marking system and I followed that rather than fully studying my maps. Not long after leaving the canal I came across what is now a simple aluminium cross flanked by French and Belgian flags. An original monument here was apparently much more graphic. It was built to mark the attack on 22 April 1915 when 180,000 kilos of Chlorine gas were directed at the French and Belgian troops holding this side of the canal. The monument depicted a French soldier gasping and clutching at his throat as two of his comrades lay on the ground beside him. During the Nazi occupation in 1942 the Germans took offence at this depiction and blew it up. It was therefore replaced in 1954 with the simple aluminium ‘cross of reconciliation’ which stands there now.
Zuidschote Original Gas Attack Monument
Cross of Reconciliation
From Zuidschote I headed North again using the lovely wide cycle paths to the side of the calm, quiet country roads.
I passed through Reninge and Lo-Reninge before magically riding into Lo. Lo was something of a treat with some gorgeous buildings surrounding a cobbled square boarded to the North by a church lined with a fountain and sculptures (which I managed to take only rubbish photos of).
At the church the route turned me Westwards for just long enough to leave the town through the remains of its old wall and gatehouse before coming to the next canal which would take me back North again almost to the sea.
Lo Town Gate
However before I could join the canal I had the small matter of having to wait for a small pleasure boat to pass by before the bridge that I needed to cross to reach the tow path on the far bank was closed.
Canal, Boat and Windmill at Lo
Another lovely but uneventful five miles passed along the canal. There were lots of other groups of cyclists and runners out who were all up for cheery waves and I enjoyed seeing some classic low land canal architecture. The miles flew by.
Canal Bridge and Cycle Route Signs
Before I knew it I was rolling towards the centre of Veurne where a short side branch of the canal led me neatly onto a stretch of town centre roads before beginning the section Westbound parallel to the coast on some quiet country roads. I had now turned around into the wind so the rest of the day would be a bit slower; however I was well in front of the clock at present.
On one short magical stretch of track I had to turn to the North. I knew that I was close to the Franco-Belgian border before suddenly realising just how close I was. This track was it. If I veered from the right hand side of the track to the left I would leave Belgium and enter France. As a child I always though borders were all like the ones I had seen Steve McQueen try to jump over at the end of The Great Escape. But this is 21st century Europe and there is no border.
At the main road at the top of the track the beauty of the open European border became even clearer. In the middle of the main road the former border check post has now been transformed into a coffee and chocolate shop. Ah Europe. Why on earth would we ever want to leave you?!?!
Perhaps foolishly I decided to forgo the opportunity of coffee and chocolate and instead turned to face the West and so left Belgium for the last time on this trip. Of course that meant that I was also leaving its superb cycle network and entering the slightly less impressive French system. It is still good of course, just not up to Belgian levels. Although the main A19 road runs parallel slightly inland I was now following a busy tourist road along the French coast. I didn’t have to go far though before I swung a right and headed to the beach at Bray Dunes.
At low tide along the beach here I understand that it is possible to still see remains of some of the boats that were sunk in the beach evacuation. I didn’t have the time to fully explore and wasn’t’ sure of the exact location of any such remains so I sat on the sea wall looking out over the long stretch of beach and dunes. In late May and early June 1940 the beaches were filled with thousands of men (mostly British but also some of the French and Belgian armies were also evacuated back to Britain). They were waiting patiently here (for the most part) for their turn to board one of the famous flotilla of little ships that would carry them to the larger vessels waiting out to sea.
Now the beach at Bray is a popular seafront holiday destination much like many similar towns on the English coast opposite. Without seeing any of the remains of the boats and tanks I was left to admire the blue sky and sea and the crisp clean sand covered with families making the most of a lovely summer day. I stopped and had some food and applied sun cream as the day got warmer.
After a false start out of Bray as I attempted to take a short cut I was back on the road towards Dunkirk.
On the left next to the road in the small village of Zuydcoote I stopped to look at what would be the last war cemetery I would visit on this tour. It also turned out to be one of the most fascinating. For the larger part it houses men who died in the First World War but is split into three parts. The Western end houses a small, traditional Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery containing a little over 300 graves (including one Belgian). The cemetery was linked to the military hospitals that were housed in the area from 1917. As such the cemetery was unique of the ones that I visited in having most, if not all, of the graves containing identified men. Next to the CWGC cemetery a post armistice cemetery contains the bodies of over 1,000 French soldiers of the war. Between the CWGC graves and the main bulk of the French men were two rows of different grave stones, marking the remains of French Muslims. At the east end an annex contains a further 170 graves, also interred after the armistice, of German soldiers. It is certainly interesting to see all of these graves lined up next to each other with just one single wall surrounding them all. Particularly poignant in the German section were the graves of two soldiers. Most of the German graves have quite a distance between them; more so than is the case in the French and Commonwealth sections. However two graves were set closer together; one a standard German cross; the other a Star of David.
Zuydcoote WWI French Cemetery (with WWII cemetery to the rear)
Zuydcoote WWI CWGC Cemetery
Zuydcoote WWI French Muslims Cemetery
Two Germans Side-by-Side
A fourth section of the cemetery to the South of the First World War area houses another large group of French graves. These men all died in the Second World War. These were just some of those who gave their lives defending Dunkirk and the beaches around Bray. These were the men who bought the extra time needed to keep the advancing German Army at bay long enough for Operation Dynamo to evacuate as many troops as it did back to Britain. Without their bravery and sacrifice it is certain that a much smaller contingent of the British Expeditionary Force would have been saved. It was also interesting to note that, unlike the French graves from WWI, in this section the (not inconsiderable number of) French Muslims were buried right in and amongst their colleagues.
An old train line runs alongside the road into Dunkirk. It looks as though there might be plans to convert it to a cycle/foot path but for now I had to continue along the roads; although perversely the roads seemed to get less busy the closer I got to the town. Before long I was at the entrance to the docks area; marked by a memorial to the allies made from quayside paving stones.
From here I continued along the harbour side before eventually making it to the ‘East Mole’; the harbour arm extension which saw the bulk of the evacuation. Back in 1940 this narrow arm would have been filled with troops lined up to board the ships. The actual site was used by Christopher Nolan in the 2017 film of Dunkirk. He rebuilt the Mole extension at which most of the ships docked. His reconstruction has been removed again but the main harbour wall is still extant. Today the arm was filled with locals fishing from it but I wound my way past them to the far end. It is odd to think that this now serene and small stretch of concrete proved so vital to the war effort. The small ships are the big story of Operation Dynamo, but in reality around 200,00 of the 338,226 men who made it back across the channel boarded ships from this long but narrow limb of concrete.
The remains of the East Mole
East Mole Selfie
Dunkirk East Mole!
Dunkirk East Mole
After a breather and a chance to reflect sitting on the dock of the bay, I headed back in towards the centre of the town. A few other sites and memorials lined the docks. I didn’t have time to visit the Operation Dynamo museum. I really must allow myself more scope to make such stops on these trips but I never learn. I had to get to the ferry. Dunkirk ferry terminal is a good ten miles or so west of the town so whilst I was OK for time I didn’t have enough spare to be hanging around.
The cycle paths from the East Mole into the central harbour area had been lovely. Wide and well signposted.
Now though I had to find my way to the port and both the signs and the cycle ways soon dried up. There were some suggestions that a new cycle route is being built in this very direction. However, despite one sign proclaiming its completion date some 11 months previous, there was little sign of progress. Indeed the limited works seemed to have only served to close the few sections of cycle way that were originally in existence. I ended up joining busier and more polluted main roads as I headed through the western suburbs of the town. I probably wasn’t following these roads for too long but it was nasty, dangerous, and slow going and was threatening to put a damper on a good day and an excellent tour.
Fortunately at the edge of the town where the road got busier, I finally re-joined one of the old sections of cycle route; at least for a mile or two into the village of Loon-Plage.
There was another bit of confusion at the northern edge of the village when the cycle path signs ran out and the only directions off a roundabout suggested I had to head onto the motorway. I completed a circuit of the roundabout, headed back towards the village, found a safe spot and consulted my phone GPS mapping. It indicated that I could follow the exit marked to the industrial estate. This did indeed prove to be a much nicer road and before long I was joining the traffic queuing to check in to the ferry. The ride from Dunkirk had not been fun but it had worked out OK and here I was with almost perfect timing.
I had time to pull into the ferry terminal, finish off my picnic supplies, and get changed out of the Lycra for the final time on this trip. I wasn’t entirely finished in the saddle but to all intents and purposes my tour was now completed. I cleared customs. This went OK despite my having a conversation with the customs officials in which I joked that my panniers contained various body parts. I really must learn that these situations are not the ideal places for jokes but I got away with it. This time.
I was one of the first onto the ferry (and at the other end was the very first off). And so it was that my tour was complete. I had the welcome chance to get up onto the main deck and claim one of the prime seats at the rear of the ferry next to the restaurant. One ferry canteen chicken curry (surprisingly hot) later and I could properly relax at the end of a fantastic trip. All that remained at the other end was to navigate my way out of Dover harbour (not an easy feat as it turns out) and get the train the short ride back to Ashford where I could place the bike in the back of my waiting car and drive home.
When I came up with the idea of this tour my main focus was always to be the sites of the Somme and Ypres and to be visiting them in the year of the 100th anniversary of the end of the War. The concept of ‘Four War Tour’ was always a little contrived and building Waterloo and Agincourt into the trip potentially felt a little frivolous; whilst they were important historical battles the direct effect on those who fought was so much lesser than the slaughter of the Great War.
As I worked my way from Mons around Cambrai and towards the Somme these concerns were not vanishing. Waterloo had felt like visiting the equivalent of an English Heritage or National Trust site whereas the emotional pain of seeing row after row of graves in cemetery after cemetery was so much more raw.
In the end however I think the tour worked. Taking in Waterloo allowed me to start the tour nicely and build up for the ‘main event’. The trip from Albert to Agincourt gave me a break from the emotion that the stories of the Somme offered and that were to come again as I approached Ypres. I loved visiting the battle field and the Museum at Azincourt – it is off the main tourist route but was well worth the trip (even in the non stop rain).
In fact if any part of the trip felt to be the weak link it is that I should have allowed more time to properly take in the beaches around Bray and Dunkirk and to visit some other World War Two monuments. Were you to take this diary as any incentive to make a similar trip (I would be hugely honoured were that to be the case) then exploring such options would be my suggestion. On the whole though, although being one of my easier tours in terms of physical effort (miles and hills; if not wind, sun and rain), it was so emotionally draining at times that it more than made up for the lack of big hills climbed. This was a great tour and I’d happily recommend it to anyone.
I awoke to find a brighter, drier looking day with the sunlight pushing through the curtains hinting at the prospect of a much more pleasant day’s riding than yesterday. However, inspection of my kit showed that it was only slightly drier than when I went to bed. I would certainly be putting on some wet shoes and loading equipment into still damp panniers. I was pinning my hopes on riding in the warm in order to get things dry.
I went downstairs to the breakfast room where Richard had laid out a good spread of continental goodies. I tucked in. Richard joined me for a short while and we chatted briefly. I had made the assumption the evening before (after he had told me that he had come to running the B&B after leaving the British Army) that his problems walking were a result of action. He told me this morning that he was suffering from M.S. and that as a result they were now looking to sell up in France and move back to the U.K. to be closer to family. I was at a loss for the right words but wished him well; he struck me as the sort of person to be able to make the best of situations.
Fully loaded up on pastries I returned up the rickety stairs to the ‘Peacock’ room. I gathered all my soggy kit into my damp bags and carried them and my newspaper filled shoes down to the front door where I squelched my feet in, and gathered and loaded up the bike.
I left Heuchin continuing in the direction I had arrived. That seems like an obvious statement but it’s not always true that you find an overnight spot quite so perfectly on the planned route. The first mile or two can often involve a bit of doubling back to get underway.
For 4 or 5 miles the road climbed slowly up the valley which proved to be a nice warm up of my slightly heavy legs. My planned route had me diverting onto some quiet roads just a mile or two into the start of the day; however the “main” (single carriageway) road I was following was fairly empty. The wind was behind me and I had got a good speed going. I took the snap decision to stay on the good tarmac and keep my legs spinning. I normally regret these decisions quite quickly; but not today.
As I approached the roundabout at the summit of the hill I met a couple of cyclists in full touring setup also approaching the top but from the opposite direction. We exchanged smiles and waves knowing that we had all finished our climbing for a while. Across the roundabout I applied my brakes and pulled over. Laid out in front of me were the last few miles of France. There was a lovely long straight downhill road to make the most of but I wanted to take in the view before I sped down the hill.
The next few miles shot by. It was 10 miles that were almost entirely downhill and they ticked past quickly. There were a couple of sections where I followed side roads to cut a corner or two but I mostly stayed on the main routes through Isbergues and Saint-Venant until I reached Haverskerque where I met back up with my planned route.
I was not only off the main roads now but before long I was off the roads entirely as I joined a foresters track through the centre of the Forest Nieppe. The going was slower, especially as I found myself steering around large numbers of suicidal game birds. It was quite pleasant to be completely away from traffic for a while none the less. Slightly less pleasant was the short shower that greeted me as I entered the forest but it had finished before I left the woodland.
The next few miles were a mix of quiet country lanes with occasional forays onto busier (but not busy) main roads on the way to the pretty border town of Bailleul. It was getting close to lunch hour but the town was looking quite busy and I fancied somewhere quiet to stop.
A mile out of town I chose, as is my wont, a random corner next to a Maize field to hunker down on and have lunch (which I had clearly picked up somewhere on the way but cannot for the life of me now recall where).
Back underway I soon crossed the border into Belgium. I didn’t know exactly where the border was, but coming into the village of Dranouter I recognised from the road signs that I was no longer in France.
Spitfire piece at Dranouter
After briefly taking a wrong turn that started to take me up a steep hill I doubled back to the junction at which I had gone in the wrong direction. It was at that point I properly noted and understood the system used in Belgium to mark cycle routes. Rather than a system of numbered routes as is used in the U.K., Belgium numbers its junctions. Each junction is assigned a (seemingly) random number and then direction signs point you in the direction of the next junction numbers. Looking at my maps I realised that they were marked with these numbers and as such I could simply follow them. The system appears to work beautifully. Once I worked it out and could see the numbers I was due to head to it proved easy to follow the network. The steep hill I had started up was one approach up the Kemmelberg. One of the classics of Belgian riding its cobbled track from the village is one of the main cycling climbs of Belgium but I was done with pavé.
As I rode around the side of the Kemmelberg hill the skies darkened and the heavens suddenly opened. It was just as well I had skipped the opportunity to race downhill on the cobbles. My shoes had just about finally dried off after yesterday’s non stop rain so this wasn’t welcome. Fortunately there was still a good stretch of downhill into the village of Kemmel from my approach and straight ahead of me was a church which looked open and welcoming. On entering through the porch I soon realised that the current focus of the church was a display of the story of the Irish Army who had been based in the town. It was a fascinating display and kept me occupied for just a little longer than the downpour lasted outside.
With the skies clearing, though the roads quite wet, I headed North East out of Kemmel and soon came to the first Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery of the day at Kemmel Chateau closely followed by another at Godezonne Farm.
I wasn’t much farther on again when I came to the small Elenzwalle Brasserie Cemetery at a cross roads near Voormezele. Although all of the CWGC cemeteries have been created to a relatively standard set of designs and layouts, everyone has a different story to tell. Notable at Elenzwalle were the graves of men from the British West Indies Regiment; a stark reminder that this was indeed a World War and many men from all of its four corners came to this corner of Europe to fight and die.
The other side of Voormezele came Spoilbank and Chester Farm. I came to Spoilbank first. It contains the remains of 520 men (125 unidentified). A further 420 men (all bar 7 of them whom are known) are buried at the next cemetery at Chester Farm. Chester Farm gave another reminder that in the end we are all as one. A handful of German men are buried shoulder to shoulder with those they were fighting. Futility but togetherness at the last.
To give an idea of how close these cemeteries are located I only need to say that they sit in opposite corners of the same farmers field. There really is no escaping the past in Flanders. And nor should there be.
Spoilbank and Chester Farm were related to fighting at ‘The Bluff‘ in 1916 and it was to that battle field that I was headed next. Using my new found knowledge of the Belgian cycle route signs I decided to follow the numbers rather than the route I had planned in advance on the maps I was carrying on my handlebars. I am glad I did as this alternative route took me through what is now a very peaceful and beautiful country park and open woodland. It is hard to picture the horrors that occurred here 100 years previously. Were it not for the lines on the park marking the locations of the front lines of the fighting it might be possible to never realise the significance of the location. I was taken by how close the battle lines were; the markers were barely 50 yards apart.
Leaving the parkland I saw some more signs to ‘Hill 60’ – I had spotted a few back in Voormezele – and very soon found myself at that location. Hill 60 was the site of fighting between December 1914 and April 1915 when it was claimed by the Germans, and then again through 1917 and 1918. Fighting was severe and at very close quarters. Mines were used to detonate trenches with brutal consequences. The whole hill has been left to nature as a memorial and graveyard.
Whilst I had been struck by the proximity of the trenches at The Bluff, they had nothing on Hill 60. To say that they were less than a stone’s throw apart would be inaccurate. Most people throwing a stone here would send it well beyond the trenches opposite. In the picture below the Allied front line is clearly marked and visible. The German line can be seen marked on the boards of the next, slightly lower, platform.
Leaving Hill 60 I had almost a whole two miles before the next memorial I would stop at. A short diversion from the road went to ‘Canadian Hill 62‘ (I didn’t find Hill 61). A monument and memorial, though not a cemetery, the hill is a beautiful and peaceful site. I sat for a while on one of the many benches and ate some food whilst looking over a short few miles to get my first glimpse of the town of Iepers.
Leaving the sanctuary of Hill 62 I continued on a bumpy concrete farm track before joining the cycle path next to a main road and then heading across a motorway before coming to the monument to The 1st Battalion of the Black Watch at the appropriately named Black Watch Corner. Here on 11th November during the first battle of Ypres, the British Expeditionary Force faced some of the fiercest fighting of the war to that point in their defensive fight back to the coast. On 13 August 1914, 1,062 officers and men of the 1st Battalion Black Watch had set off for France. By the end of the fighting here on 12th November, a mere 91 days later, only 111 were left alive.
Black Watch Corner sits at the South West of Polygon Wood which was to see further fighting during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. It was into the Wood that I now headed. The wood itself is now another beautiful and peaceful place, although I did spot the remains of at least one concrete bunker hidden in amongst the trees. I rode along the west side of the wood and then turned east to follow its northern edge.
Almost at the opposite corner of the wood from Black Watch Corner I came across two very differently sized cemeteries opposite each other.
The smaller Polygon Wood Cemetery was created at the time of the fighting. It contains “only” 107 commonwealth graves (plus one German casualty) including 60 men from New Zealand. The graves are laid out in the more haphazard manner of those cemeteries that were started during the actual fighting.
Across the road opposite is the larger Buttes New British Cemetery. This cemetery was made after the armistice with graves of men brought from around the area to this single site. 2,108 men are buried here, of whom only 431 have been identified. The neighbouring memorial to the men of the 5th Australian Division built on top of the butte provides a high up view across the whole cemetery. It gives a view not usually afforded in similar cemeteries. The cemetery is solemnly beautiful. The multitude ordered lines of white headstones contrast well with the light green of the grass of the cemetery and the irregular dark greens of Polygon Wood beyond.
A short way further on and I rolled downhill into the village of Zonnebeke. The village was one of the main locations of fighting during the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele and was abandoned and destroyed during the war. Some of the battle site has been reopened as a peace park and Museum. I rode into the park and stopped to visit the smaller museum located in an old farm house. However whether it was fatigue, or expectation of what I thought might be here, I was rather underwhelmed. The park has a series of small peace gardens dedicated to the various nations who fought here but they didn’t seem that well thought through or maintained.
With still some miles and sites to cover and a deadline to meet in Iepers, I passed by the Museum. I am told it is very good and maybe one day I shall return, but for now I wanted to push on. I wasn’t far from Iepers but that lay a couple of miles back West from Zonnebeke and I still wanted to complete my pilgrimage by heading another couple of miles East. I found and followed the disused railway line; now a peaceful and lovely footpath and cycleway. Back in the war this was the ‘Road to Passchendaele’. In the mud and mayhem of the trenches and fighting, the railway line was the most reliable way to (and from) the front.
A short while later, using a combination of the old line and then the main road, and I made to the furthest point of the day and to the village with the beautiful name and its terrible associations. Unsurprisingly perhaps Passchendaele village itself was something of an anti climax. Like so many such villages in the region it was totally destroyed during the war. Whilst the village has been rebuilt and is pretty enough it does, naturally somehow lack the character that a naturally evolving settlement gains and somehow you can tell that there is something missing; something still dead in the cobbled streets.
Opposite the church on the main square a notice board shows the “church” as it was at the end of the war. It was just a pile of rubble. The only indication that this particular pile of bricks and mortar was the church being the sign erected next to it.
I took a final spin around the streets before heading back to the old railway and then on and into Iepers proper. However I still had one more place to visit on the way. It involved only a short deviation from the railway line and up a little rise. I pulled in to the busy car park and locked the bike up; but didn’t feel the need to take my panniers off and secure my kit. Maybe that was foolish but it just didn’t seem required.
A visitor centre on one corner of the site tells the story of the fighting that occurred here and some of the stories of the men buried here now. It seems all part of a scheme to slowly prepare you for what is to come. Leaving the visitor centre a pathway takes you around the North edge of the site. As you walk along looking over the low surrounding wall you slowly get to take in the size of what lies inside. At the North West corner you can get a real feel for the scale and then, halfway along the western wall, is the gateway that provides access to Tyne Cot Cemetery.
Tyne Cot, or the Tyne Cottage was so named by the Northumberland Fusiliers. The farm was a German defensive position near the railway level crossing. It was captured in 1917 and started to be used as a dressing station and subsequently began its existence as a cemetery. After the armistice the cemetery was expanded as bodies were brought beck from around Passchendaele and reburied in Tyne Cot.
In total just under 12.000 men are buried here making it the largest commonwealth cemetery from any war. Only 3,605 of the graves contain identified men. At the rear of the cemetery the wall forms a memorial for some 35,000 men who’s bodies were never found and identified.
The sheer scale of seeing so many burials and so many names should be over whelming but the site is so beautiful and so full of life from the living who were visiting and paying their respects.
As well as the size of the cemetery there are some additional differences that help to tell the tale at Tyne Cot.
Three of the concrete German block houses were built into the layout. Two of these are in the Western end of the cemetery surrounded by graves and trees.
The third of the structures was built into the base of the Great Cross at the centre of the site. A small ‘window’ gives a glimpse of the original structure.
I spent some time wandering around the cemetery. Reading the names of the known and looking at the long lines of graves of men “Known unto God”. After reading just some of the lists and lists of names of the missing. I found a quiet corner near one of the block houses to rest up for a while and to take it all in before I set off again.
Tyne Cot is so large that it is hard to really grasp. It is only with travelling around the area of the Ypres Salient that you begin to get a fraction of the true impression of the horrors that occurred here.
I returned to my bike and followed the road in to Iepers. The last few miles of the day were largely uneventful. Approaching the town centre from the direction of Passchendaele brings you through the Menin Gate. I stopped beforehand to admire the gate from the outside and to take an ‘arriving at Ypres’ selfie before riding into the town through the iconic structure.
Like the wall at the rear of Tyne Cot and at Thiepval in The Somme, the gate lists the names of those who died with no known grave. Some 54,395 names are inscribed on the Gate’s walls. The names are those who died up to and including 15 August 1917. The 35,000 names at Tyne Cot are those who died on the Ypres Salient with no known grave between that date and the end of the War. Between the Menin Gate and the wall at Tyne Cot are listed roughly as many names as the total population of Hastings where I live.
My hotel for the night was slap bang in the centre of the town and easy to find. The entrance was down a side street from the main square. I checked in, locking my bike safely in the deliveries area, and went to my room to freshen up and get changed. The room was excellent and directly overlooked the main square. For some it may be too close to the centre but I was quite looking forward to that after spending the previous three nights in quiet locations. I showered and polished off the so far uneaten remains of my lunch before heading out.
I had a bit of time to spare before the main event of the evening so I went out to explore the town and the funfair setup in the square. With a pocket full of change I put a 50 cent coin into a grab machine and immediately walked away with a little soft toy Seagull. Wipers the gull and I continued walking around taking a look at the town. Although, much as is the case with other such towns in the area (see Passchendaele above) the town was very badly damaged in the war and much of it has been rebuilt, it still manages to maintain a bit more of a sense of place than some other similar towns.
Wipers in Iepers
Wipers in Iepers
Wipers in Iepers
At about 19:15 I made my way back towards the Menin Gate. By a very strange quirk of fate I had discovered that one of my old University friends also happened to be in Ypres on the same day and so we had agreed to meet up near the Gate ready for the nightly Last Post ceremony. The ceremony, which has taken place here every night since 11 November 1929 (with the exception of the years of the Second World War), was incredibly moving. It should undoubtedly be a part of the itinerary of anyone visiting the area of Flanders and The Somme. A number of groups and individuals (some clearly of a military background; others maybe not) laid wreaths at the Gate. Bookending the ceremony the buglers of the Iepers fire brigade service played the Last Post and the Réveille as they have done for almost 90 years now. Long may they continue to do so. I hope that so long as the Gate stands (and hopefully beyond that too) this pure act of daily remembrance continues.
After the ceremony Alison and her group invited me to join them for a meal and a beer or two. It was a lovely end to a long and emotional day.
As I said goodbye to them at the end of the evening I took one more walk around the square which was now closing down for the night. The lights turned off stall by stall and the hubbub and music of the arcades was carried off in the breeze until a dark calmness was restored. I sat on a bench for a few minutes allowing everything that I had seen today to sink in before retiring to my hotel room.
At the start, and indeed at the planning, of this trip I had wondered of my own motives for visiting here. I am not aware of any family members who fought here in the Great War but I understood now that this was not the reason for my coming. I wanted to get a feel for myself, to whatever level I might be able to do so, of the events and destruction that occurred here 100 years ago. In coming here to Ypres and Passchendaele and also to The Somme I had increased my understanding of how Terrible this war was and was even more assured of how important it is to bury nationalism and secularism and any other such unjustifiable causes of conflict. We are one world. One people. A visit here was really helping to reinforce that. Coming here wasn’t about ‘celebrating Britain’ or any such rubbish. It was about placing a value on living in harmony and understanding. That may be a futile desire of mine but it would be the true legacy of these men, of all flags and nations, who perished in Flanders Fields.
I woke up at half past six and gathered up most of my belongings ready for the off, then went downstairs for an Ibis continental breakfast. It was much as expected; nothing out of the ordinary but it certainly set me up well for the day ahead. I took my time using the opportunity to write up my diary for the previous day’s ride. I had been too drained to write it the previous evening. I was fully packed and ready to go by quarter past eight after a chat with the coach tourists from Merthyr Tydfil. I was in a much more open frame of mind and enjoyed discussing our relative methods of touring the battlefields. They were heading for home this morning and though they had enjoyed their trip they looked like they were ready to leave the coach travel behind them.
From the hotel I started heading in towards Albert town centre although I never did ride into the town proper. Just across the first roundabout was a Lidl supermarket. It wasn’t quite yet open but there was a small queue forming so I gathered that it wouldn’t be long before it was. Although not ideal for small scale provisions I needed some supplies. I was in and out quickly once the doors opened at eight thirty. Loaded up with saucisson, crisps (I had to buy a six pack), cheese, bread and chocolate I was now fully prepared for the day ahead. The day was cloudy but at present the weather seemed to be set fair enough. I was braced for a shower or two but this should be a good day.
I skirted down some side streets and then around towards the River Ancre and the ‘Velodrome’ park (there was no sign of a race track or I might have taken a quick spin).
I followed the valley upstream, winding around either side of the river, slowly and gradually climbing away from Albert. I passed the sign for the evocatively named ‘Blightly Valley’ cemetery at the end of a footpath. I didn’t stop to visit but nodded as I passed. It looked like a lovely peaceful last resting place. A short way further and the road started to climb out of the valley and ahead of me I could see my first destination of the day calling to me from the top of the hill. Although still some distance away the monument to the missing of The Somme on the hill at Thiepval makes a big first impression.
I pulled into Thiepval car park just before nine thirty. After locking my bike up I loitered by the (locked) Museum doors. The nice lady inside took the subtle hint, opened up slightly early, and obligingly offered to look after my panniers whilst I looked around. Visiting the monument is free however there is small charge to enter the Museum. It is definitely worth paying as the Museum is an incredibly well designed space with displays on trench life and artefacts discovered in the area, all surrounded by an amazing drawing representing the fighting on 1st July 1916. The day was to become the deadliest day in the history of the British Army; within 12 hours over 19,000 men were killed and many more wounded. One wall in the Museum was very simply composed of photographs of a small proportion of the faces of the missing men from the Battle of the Somme.
Faces of the Missing
After spending about half an hour or so in the Museum I left to head outside and get some air and to head to the monument itself. Bearing the names of 72,337 allied soldiers who died with no known grave the Thiepval Memorial is quite some sight to behold and difficult to take in. Every wall is crammed full of names the whole way up. Just behind the memorial a small joint French and British cemetery contains the same number of graves of men of each nation to show how they died side by side. Its an incredibly beautiful location and an inspiring monument (designed by Edward Lutyens). One of the small showers I was expecting started as I was at the site but it didn’t look like much and it wasn’t enough to put me off hanging around a little while longer.
Their Name Liveth For Evermore
Thiepval French and British Cemetery
Eventually I headed back to the museum desk and collected my bags. It was still raining a bit outside so I put on my wet weather gear just in case before heading back to the bike and getting on my way.
Close by the memorial I passed the smaller Connaught and Mill Road cemeteries, and also the Ulster Tower which commemorates the men of that province who fell here throughout the Battle of the Somme.
The rain was still falling; although it was stop start the road was now wet enough that I took care as I descended back down from the ridge into the Ancre Valley and the small hamlet of Hamel before climbing back up onto the next ridge. I was just coming up to the entrance to the Beaumont-Hamel memorial and preserved battle field when suddenly a huge bolt of lightning flashed in front of me. The roar of the thunder was impressive and immediate. The downpour started at the same moment. I was suddenly directly underneath a storm cloud.
The heavens properly opened. I sped my way towards the site entrance. A nice Canadian lady (this was the site where the men of Newfoundland fought and died) cheerily told me that I couldn’t bring my bike into the site. I understood that but asked if, due to the sudden downpour, I might be able to put my bike in her hut? No that would most certainly not be allowed. I must use the bike rack in the exposed and open car park opposite. Might I then ask if she would look after my panniers to prevent them getting soaked? No. Sadly this was out of her control. French rules about terrorism, you see. Awfully sorry. No one had apparently told any of the French hosts at the various other sites I stopped at about this rule but she was quite insistent. Reluctantly I locked my bike up on the railings and trusted that a) nobody would be stupid enough to be out in this rain to steal my bags, and b) the flimsy water proof outer cover and the various carrier bags inside the panniers would provide enough protection for my clothes and equipment.
The rain and the officiousness did sadly taint my visit. I believe that the site in its entirety is quite large with lots to see. I explored only a small section but it did give me the best understanding so far of the layout of the trenches. Although left to slowly return to nature the trench lines now appear like the banks and ditches of prehistoric archaeological sites, albeit in a much more haphazard seeming layout (the front line trenches were dug in zig zagged formations to prevent a direct hit from a heavy gun damaging too big a section of trench).
Beaumont-Hamel Trenches in the Rain
Beaumont-Hamel Trenches in the Rain
I headed to the Caribou memorial which forms the centrepiece of the site and took a quick look around the remains of the trenches close by. The rain, if anything, got heavier and there was no shelter. I took in the site as best as I could and as quickly as I could. The photos here are not the best pictures I have ever taken. I was trying to prevent my camera phone getting wet although the lens was inevitably damp. This causes some of the blurred effect on the photos; however mostly that is just the rain obscuring the views.
Drenched at the Somme
Newfoundland Caribou Memorial
I gave up on plans to explore any further and headed back to the bike. At least if I was going to get soaked I might as well get on the move. Passing the entrance hut the Canadian guard lady had vanished inside and showed no signs of coming out to say goodbye to me. At least with the bags still on the bike (I was correct and nobody had stolen anything) it only took a second or two to get unlocked and moving; heading in a rough North Westerly bearing.
The rain continued although it was good to be moving now. I think the rain might have slightly eased off. However before long there was more thunder and lightning and the rain was back in full flow. Ahead of me I saw the church at Auchonvillers. I could not avoid the rain for long (I still had a whole day’s ride in front of me and a B&B to get to) but there was no point in staying out in this; and surely I wouldn’t need to shelter for too long. I climbed out of the saddle and spun as quickly as possible in order to sprint the last distance to the church. I jumped off the bike, picked it up, and almost ran headlong into the locked church door. There was to be no sanctuary for me here. I found the only vaguely sheltered corner of the outside of the church and pressed my back tightly against the fabric of the building to keep as much of me away from the worst of the rain as possible.
I’m not sure how long I stayed there; probably no more than ten minutes; but eventually the weather cleared a little. By which I mean it was now only raining heavily. I might as well carry on. I sploshed my sodden shoes (the overshoes had kept my actual shoes dry for maybe two minutes before they were themselves soaked through) back to the bike and climbed back on. The rain water was pouring in rivers along the road and I gingerly headed off.
I saw the Sucrerie cemetery across a field but didn’t turn off to visit. Nor I did I do more than stop at the outside of the Euston Road cemetery that I passed right by.
The rain was persistent but now more varied in its intensity. At some short occasions it was almost light, but for most of the next few miles it was fair to heavy. I rode through Colincamps. It was probably pretty but I didn’t really look. The next village was Sailly-au-Bois. I think this is also quite pretty. It did at least have the distinction of having an open porch to its (locked) church so I pulled in to check the state of my bags (wet but not awful; the waterproofing was trying its hardest to do its job although my paper work was starting to feel the effects) and to slightly reduce the weight of my load by starting on my Lidl picnic.
Bayencourt was little more than 3 or 4 houses and farm buildings at a cross roads. On the approach into Souastre the heavens opened again. Spotting an open fronted farm outbuilding I pulled over and leant my bike against a tractor whilst waiting for the latest burst to pass over. A boy and a cat came out from a neighbouring barn to see who or what I was. I nodded a bonjour but I don’t have conversational French for 7 year olds. I think the cat might have understood a little of my English, but he wasn’t letting on in front of the boy. We stood together awkwardly. They got bored before the rain stopped and headed back to their other barn. Here are a couple of pictures from the shed. They are terrible but I think the blur and haze gives something of an impression of the conditions. One of them also shows the cat.
Badly Focussed Kitty
Saint Amand was the next village. Like the previous settlements I’m sure its pretty but I rode on through it without really taking it in. However before I actually reached it I did come across the mausoleum of the Family Masclef which suddenly appeared around a corner just before the village, slowly being swallowed by the hedge behind it. In the rain and the gloom it was quite a sight, and not a cheery one.
Guadiempré and Couturelle came next. I know this as I’m looking back now at the record of my route on Strava. I’ve ‘revisited’ them using Google Street View but I do not recall them at all. All along this area the landscape was open and slightly rolling and undulating. Just the type of countryside I love and that France does so well. I recall being happy out in the open, even in the rain which was still varying in volume but had largely settled on ‘persistent’. I just don’t recall any specifics of the villages that I passed through. I don’t have any photos so nothing apparently jumped out at me enough to stop and photograph it (and I normally don’t need much excuse to stop to snap a picture).
The next photo that I do have is this one. It’s me just entering the village of Warluzel. I was by now at the stage of tour where I’ve probably been in my own company for too long. I amused myself that this must be the French equivalent of Somerset and that I might soon come across a bunch of old yokels singing “J’ai une nouvelle moissonneuse batteuse”.
Sadly that didn’t happen. I just found that I was starting to get hungry, that it was about lunchtime, and that there was a bus shelter that I could keep dry in and rectify the first situation.
I felt refreshed for a decent rest and some food. The rain was still falling but it had settled into a steady rhythm and was much less intense than during the morning. The miles (kilometres) continued to tick over and the villages continued to pass by with little to differentiate them. I was still enjoying the open countryside and the small hamlets that appeared on a regular basis but they didn’t have much excitement to offer. I stopped in Beaudricourt to snap this colourful French war memorial. There are better photos of similar such memorials on the pages for days 2 and 4 of this trip but I included it here as I don’t have many other photos to share with you during this part of the day.
Just through Beaudricourt I did get to take the following photo. After the previous 20 miles or thereabouts or being on the largely open and relatively flat plain, I finally had a proper descent into a valley ahead of me and with it an even better view of the immediate miles ahead.
I crossed the river La Canche close to Estrée-Wamin and began a nice gentle climb back up onto the next section of open plain and continued on through Houvin-Houvigneul, Moncheaux-les-Frévent and into Buneville where I had the brief excitement of taking a wrong turn at which I had to double back a short way before finding the correct road out of the village.
The slight undulations continued. Sains, Hautecloque, and Croisette. Excitement before entering Beauvois – a tractor shop! In Beauvois itself, a caged Mary!!
The excitement of the Mary of Beauvois was surpassed a few miles further on along the Rue de la Grotte on the edge of Humieres. For some unknown reason the locals at some time in the past took it upon themselves to build a mini replica of the shrine of Saint Bernadette at Lourdes. Benches laid out around the grotto indicate that it is still in regular use. It is a true piece of French eccentricity and I loved it. Indeed having also been to Lourdes which I found to be a horrible town primarily designed to part the poor and infirm from their weighty currency, I would much rather recommended a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Humieres.
At Eclimeux I stopped in another bus shelter in order to swap onto the next page of my maps. I could now see that the main aim of my day’s riding was only a few miles further on so tucked in to another bag of crisps to celebrate and avoid another sharper burst of rain.
Another drop down followed into the valley at Blangy-sur-Tenoise. I crossed over the river Ternoise and the railway. The state of the railway tracks suggested a disused line but some signs looked more up to date so I checked and indeed this is apparently a live and operational station. By the river I stopped to talk to some friendly looking cows and then started the climb (the biggest of the day; but by no means big) back onto the plain.
The Main Line
I missed the road I should have taken to head me into Maisoncelle but it was easy enough, despite heading the wrong day a one way road, to take the next turning instead. Here in Maisoncelle I saw the first signs to indicate that I was near to the old battlefield but I ignored them for now and pushed on to the next village, Azincourt itself.
The rain started heavier again as I rolled in so I rolled up the road and headed to the village museum. Again they were happy to look after my bags (even here in Azincourt they were apparently not overly concerned by the threat of this English terrorist). The museum is a superb curiosity and I spent a great half hour exploring its many nooks and crannies. It conveys some great information about the battle and the ‘age of chivalry’ with a fantastic mix of routine information panels, miniature figures, and soldiers with (broken) TVs in place of their heads. Go visit. You won’t be disappointed.
T.V. Headed Archer
The Age of Chivalry. Yesterday.
Agincourt in Miniature
The museum did also help me to properly get my bearings of the actual site of the battle which occurred here between the English and the French some 603 years previously. The village itself is towards the northern extent of the site and was where the French army were based prior to the battle. To find the English lines I had to head back the way I came to Maisoncelle at the southern extent of the site. In the South East corner a small monument and map give further clues to the layout of the battlefield (although no details are known for certain).
From here I continued along the road that marks the approximate eastern side of the battlefield towards Tramecourt and almost back into Azincourt again. On the road between those two villages a new memorial has been erected to mark the 600th anniversary of the battle. From here you get a better idea of the centre of the battle ground; the heaviest and most defining fighting was understood to have taken place here. I took some blurry wet photos (and yes I did take that selfie!) and then began the final few miles riding towards my overnight accomodation.
Agincourt 600 Year Memorial
Agincourt Battle Field
Yes – I did take that photo at Agincourt
My B&B for the evening was still another 7 or 8 miles further on. The going was, much like the rest of the day, easy enough but I naturally now had the fatigue creeping in; I had made it to Agincourt and explored the battle field. Now I was ready to start thinking about getting out of my sopping wet gear. At least Heuchin, where I was heading, was down in a valley so the final few miles were a nice easy drop into the village. I found the lovely Maison de Plumes at the far end of the settlement. I was rather disappointed to note that the village did not, however, appear to have the restaurant that my maps had hinted at. I knew that there was no food available at the B&B itself so had been hoping to find somewhere to eat in the village. Not to worry – I’d survive.
I rolled up and met Richard, the English owner of the establishment (along with his wife Vanessa, although I never got to meet her). Richard had been in the British Army but had now ‘retired’ (he s not much of any older than myself) to run the Maison du Plumes. Richard showed me where to lock my bike up and then took me inside the amazing old house. After the beige of the Ibis this was something quite different. The house is amazing and immaculately decorated. I almost felt a bit guilty bringing all of my wet gear and my stinking self into the lovely ‘Peacock’ room that was to be my chamber for the night; but Richard did not seem to worry. He didn’t have any drying facilities unfortunately but instead he provided me with a pile of newspaper to stuff into my soaking shoes and a tray on which to place them outside my room.
I ran a welcome hot and deep bath and whilst doing so unloaded and inspected the contents of my panniers. Everything was just slightly damp but not awful. All of my paperwork (hotel reservation info, ferry ticket, maps and euros) had got paper wet and I ended up covering every available surface with them in order to allow them to dry. I hung up as much of my clothing as I could, had a supper of the remains of my Lidl picnic (all praise the six pack of crisps) and then soaked in the tub and prepared for bed.
The rain overnight in Thulin was something special. When I went to bed my room was hot so I had opened the window. I was woken just after 1am by the combined noises of the window rattling and the rain soaking the curtain and falling onto the inside of my window sill. Those noises however paled when compared to the incredible noise and light show of the massive storm that was raging directly overhead. I watched the display out of the bedroom window for a bit before (mostly) closing the window and trying to get back to sleep. I think the storm carried on for a while as when I awoke again in the morning I knew I had had a restless night. It wasn’t just the tired legs feeling that a solid day’s riding can leave give. The room had heated up again after my closing the window and so, feeling hot and stuffy I had a shower and then wrote up my diary for the previous day’s ride (I carry a small notebook with me to record my trips and serve as an aide memoir for writing this blog).
Breakfast was a simple self service continental buffet. An English speaking guest, an elder gentleman who I suspect might be part of the furniture at the hotel, showed me the ropes. A group of workmen alternated between eating bread and cheese on the table opposite and venturing outside for one of a large number of cigarettes they worked their way through over breakfast.
The overnight rain had stopped but the morning was grey and overcast and the temperature was nothing like that of the previous day. After breakfast I finished my preparations, took my bike from the outbuilding that it had spent the night in, and made ready for the off. After a matter of only metres I passed the village store so deviated in to get supplies: some bread rolls and bottles of pop: I still had some crisps, cheese and salami from the shop in Eisengen that I stopped at yesterday.
The first few miles were easy enough going although I was pushing into a small headwind. Just outside of Thulin I passed a field, marked with a number of wind turbines, which my host at the hotel had told me was the site for a part of the Battle of Mons; one of the first battle fields of the First World War. Here in 1914 the British Expeditionary Force had a very early encounter with the German Army. Losses here led to the B.E.F. retreating back to the coast.
A few small villages followed and somewhere around here I passed the border into France. Crespin was the name of the first French village I entered. I had thought that the border might have been the pretty bridge I stopped at on its edge but my maps now tell me I had crossed over about a half a mile beforehand. My stop at the bridge took longer than planned. A quick and pretty photo opportunity became a major frustration as my main phone/camera refused to work. Fortunately I was aware that it was starting to reach the end of its life and had brought an older phone with me to serve as my GPS recorder for the trip. That phone was now going to double up as the camera for the rest of the day. It was whilst cursing my faulty handset that I looked into the village and noticed that the signs were slightly different. That was my first indication that I was indeed now in France. I then realised that all of the car number plates were also now French registered. It’s quite impressive that despite the easy and fluid nature of international travel here that everyone seemed to have the correct license plates.
The first miles in France were fairly uneventful taking me through Vicq and Onnaing and then following the main road towards Valenciennes. The outskirts of the town (twinned with Chatham!) are fairly plain. Rather than trying to navigate around some side streets I stayed on the main road until I came to the inner ring road. The first section proved easy riding as roadworks had closed the carriageway to everyone bar cyclists. Further around the ring road I rejoined the traffic and passed a section of the old town wall. I then had to navigate around a tricky, busy, roundabout, but was soon heading back out of the town again having avoided the town centre. I made my way onto a canal tow path at just the right time to choose to stop for a quick bite to eat.
I was only to follow the L’Escaut Canalise for a short distance; although it was long enough to find my way blocked by a tree which had, presumably, fallen in the overnight storms. With no easy alternative route I had to push my way through the foliage in order to carry on to the edge of Thiant where I left the towpath and rejoined the local roads.
Upon leaving Thiant I came upon my first proper, and quite unexpected, stretch of Pavé. Unlike the short section outside Waterloo yesterday there was no avoiding these cobbles. I braced myself for the shaking and rattling but did actually find it to be quite good fun. The cobbles lasted the remaining miles into the next village though and by the time I dropped down the bumpy slope into Haspres I was glad to see the end of them. I mentally revised my plans for the day.
After watching the Tour de France route come near this way during Stage 9 just a few weeks earlier I had planned the next part of my route to take in the first two sections of Pavé that the Tour had taken on its route between Arras and Roubaix on that day. It was easy to add the first section in with only a minor detour, however adding the second section had involved including an additional 5 mile detour.. Having now already completed one good section on the cobbles I therefore made the decision to abandon that detour and include only the first section.
With that in mind I headed stragith on through Avesnes le Sec towards Iwuy. My water bottles were starting to get low now. I rode up and down the main street in Iwuy but there was no shop. Instead I stopped at the village church and had some refreshments. I was going to be riding into Cambrai within a few miles so I was sure that I would find something there. t turned I did not even have to go that far. As soon as I turned the other direction out of Iwuy I came upon a small supermarket and was able to stock up there.
A very short distance later I hung a right to head into the pretty village of Thun. This was the short diversion required to take me to the section of pavé that I was keeping on my route. I hit the cobbles on the outskirts of the village as they made their way up a slow rise. The Tour riders had come the other direction but I was glad to be slowed by the hill; hitting these at speed must be something else – but the Tour de France riders aren’t carrying panniers and they have easy access to mechanics if required.
There had clearly been a large number of Bob Jungles fans here as his name was painted a number of times on the cobbles (his was the only name that I saw). I carried on jolting and bouncing; mostly enjoying the experience but glad that I was only doing a couple of short sections of cobbled riding.
At the end where the cobbles stop someone had painted the words “Are You Ready” on the road. For the Tour de France riders on 15th July this was just the start of 15 sections and over 22km of cobbled roads awaiting them. For me the question was too late. That was my Pavé adventure complete.
I rode the short distance into the centre of Cambrai. Cambrai now doesn’t stick in the memory. Passing by I stopped to look at, and have a break at, the main town church but I was soon back on the way and, as seemed to be becoming habit on this ride, left the town by joining a waterside path; this time the towpath of the Canal du Saint Quentin.
There was only a handful of miles alongside the canal before I reached the bridge which marked my turning off point.
Leaving the canal I started a nice gentle climb back up onto open countryside. I crossed over a motorway, and rose up onto an open plateau marked with wind turbines and the occasional roadside chapel/shrine. The wind was still in my face as it had been all day and I felt its effects more on this exposed land. Then, suddenly, right in front of me (well just off to the left in reality) I saw the first of the many, many war cemeteries that I was to encounter along the remainder of the day’s riding.
Whilst I was aware that a very large number of graves were spread across a great number of cemeteries I had not realised just how many cemeteries I might be passing and over how large a stretch of the land they covered. In planning my ride I had picked a handful of key sites around the Somme and Ypres to visit. How foolish I was to think that those pre-planned sites would be the main part of the remembrance element to my trip.
The cemetery of Flesquieres Hill itself is relatively small; a mere 589 men are buried here! I would come across many larger in the days ahead so in some ways this turned out to be good preparation. The cemetery is raised up above the ground a little and only upon climbing the steps up did the beauty of the site become apparent. The work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the various French and Belgian bodies with whom they work to maintain these sites, is truly inspiring.
Just to the side of the cemetery and built down and into the land on which the cemetery sits, is the new museum, named “Cambrai Tank”. “Deborah” a Mark IV tank, was involved in the fighting here in 1917. Fatally damaged (her crew are all buried in the cemetery) her remains where left buried after the war until 1998 when they were excavated, leading to the building of this amazing museum dedicated to her and the story of the new mechanised beasts of the Battle of Cambrai. I wasn’t originally sure about going in as I knew that I had a lot of riding still to do but I am so glad that I did and cannot recommend the museum highly enough. The building itself is amazing; replicating the concrete bunkers Deborah was attacking and is quite stunningly laid out with a mix of brilliant interactive displays setting the scene, and then the beautifully arranged remains of Deborah herself.
Leaving the museum and bowing my head again to the cemetery I continued heading West across the open countryside.
In Havrincourt, from its gates I looked down to the Chateau de Havrincourt. At first glance the Chateau is typical of many such French buildings, however this one dates only from 1925 when the new building was made to replace the one destroyed by the Germans in 1917 when the Hindenburg line was built straight through the village and the original structure.
Slightly further west again I crossed high over the Canal du Nord which was itself the subject of heavy fighting.
The next site for me to stop at was another cemetery; the small but lovely site of the Beaumetz Cross Roads Cemetery. I was beginning to realise now that there might be more cemeteries around the area than I had anticipated.
A couple of villages later I stopped in Villers au Flos. I had only stopped here opposite the church as it was one of the places at which I needed to swap over the pages of mapping in my handlebar map holder. As I was about to set back off I noticed a sign pointing towards a German War Cemetery. I wasn’t sure how far away it might be but looking at the road it was signed down I guessed (correctly) that it wouldn’t involve a long detour so I went to explore.
The smaller cememteries at Flesquieres and Beaumetz had not prepared me for this; my first large scale war cemetery. The German cemetery was as beautifully and peacefully laid out as the CWGC ones. Indeed with many more trees planted around the site, the layout felt even more relaxed and very friendly. Instead of the stone headstones used in the allied cemeteries, the Germans are buried under iron crosses. The effect is to increase the space between the graves which allows you to see more at any one time. There were many, many crosses here and it took my breath away.
I thoroughly despise the jingoistic, nationalistic crap that has enveloped and soured the U.K. since the referendum to leave the E.U. It is the biggest mistake of our generation and here lay the reasons (several thousand of them) why. These men here were as much our brothers as those under the clean white stones of the Commonwealth graves. This whole trip was to be a constant reminder of how we must never allow Europe to be so divided again; and yet here we are in the U.K. architects of the opposite.
Just as this deep sorrow was coming upon me I wandered further into the cemetery and then noticed something that had initially escaped my attention. Beyond the first line of crosses I had encountered next to the main path, all of the other crosses bore not one but two names. There were twice as many dead here as at first appeared. 2449 men are buried here. I did allow myself to cry a little. Not for the last time today.
Having regained my composure I headed back out of the small gate from the cemetery, mounted the bike and headed off on my way. Outside of the next village, Le Transloy, I came across my first French cemetery. This was mostly the main village cemetery but at its front was a large open area which was apparently the mass grave for several hundred men killed in the war; their names carved on a large stone behind.
I only had to pass through one more village to come across the next major cemetery; the CWGC Guards Cemetery at Lesboeufs. This is the final resting place of 3,137 casualties, of which 1,644 remain unidentified. Most of the photos I took here appear to be out of focus; I’ve included the best remaining ones here. I can only assume that I must have been crying again.
At the top of the hill a short ride from the cemetery is the monument to mark where the main fighting that led to the full cemetery I had just left took place. The cross now sits on the edge of a picturesque field; 100 years ago this landscape would have been anything but lovely.
From here it was a short ride to Delville Wood.
Delville Wood was the first of the sites that I had actually put as a point on my route plan. The wood was the site of one of the bloodiest engagements of the Somme in 1916. It was almost completely destroyed in the fighting but the trees have since been regrown. Only one tree remains from the original wood. My detours had meant that I had turned up too late to visit the Museum in whose grounds the tree sat but there was more enough memories to take in here. The main feature of the battle site now is the massive monument to all of the fallen of South Africa across the whole of the Great War. The monument is a massive structure that reveals more and more of itself as you get closer.
The original monument did not contain any names but an addition was made to mark the centenary of the battle on which the names of all the South African fallen are recorded. It’s a big list. The photo below shows only a fraction.
I didn’t stray far into the wood as I had left my bike unlocked at the gate; and whilst I didn’t really expect anything to happen to it I didn’t wish to tempt fate. I walked just far enough to ascertain that the marker stones I could see were recording the names of the ‘streets’ that had been made in commemoration of the trench lines: Regent Street, Rotten Row, Princes Street, etc.
Across the road from the monument and on a direct line with it is the battle field cemetery (for those whose bodies were recovered; for a great many more men the wood remains their final resting place – if resting is the right word). The cemetery, containing the bodies of over 5,500 men, was yet another vast and stark reminder of the huge loss of life here (remembering that only one half of the fighting is represented in this plot). The sun was starting to lower now and the low light made the strange beauty of the cemetery even more powerful. I sat here a while and would have happily stayed longer but I still had a few more miles to ride into Albert so I pulled myself up from the bench I was sitting on, walked along just a few more of the very many lines of the dead, and headed back onto the bike.
Delvile Wood Panorama
At the junction just beyond the cemetery I came across the recently installed memorial to the ‘Footballers Battalions’ – the 17th and 23rd Middlesex – who included in their ranks a number of professional London based footballers (and indeed from other clubs). The monument was added in 2010 by the Football League.
The sign to another monument led to me adding an extra mile or two of detour; the monument to the fallen of New Zealand on the top of another hill just to the North of Longueval and Delville Wood.
I headed back in the direction of Albert but again did not go far before coming to another of the massive cemeteries; this time Caterpillar Valley. Another 5,573 men are buried here; 3,798 of whom are unidentified. The names of 1,200 fallen of New Zealand are also recorded here. As at Delville Wood the low, late summer sunlight added to the power of the setting and situation and I sat down and had another little weep.
Caterpillar Valley Panorama
Another few smaller cemeteries were sited a short way off the road; Thistle Dump. Flatiron Copse. Gordon Dump. I didn’t stop at any of these. I didn’t have the physical or emotional energy left to make the detours. A long day riding into the wind and all the tears were taking their effect now.
Thistle Dump and the High Wood
I did however make one final turning for the short trip to the final site of the day; the massive hole in the ground known as Lochnagar Crater. The result of tunnelling and exploding underneath German trenches, a hole 330 feet across and 70 feet deep remains as a permanent memorial. The explosion occurred on the first day of the Battle of the Somme; 2 minutes before the main fighting started. Unknown numbers of Germans were killed both in the explosion itself. Thousands more died in the fighting that then occurred in the immediate aftermath. As the British tried to take the ground their advance was scuppered by the massive crater. The new obstacle largely served to leave them brutally exposed to the German guns.
By now I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Fortunately my bed for the night was not far away. Albert was the main town at the heart of the Somme region and the Ibis hotel that I was aiming for was on this side of the town. I quietly and reflectively rode the final mile or two and silently glided into the hotel car park.
I checked in, showered, and returned to the bar and restaurant for a rather rubbery steak (but some nice fries) and a beer. Unsurprisingly perhaps the bar was full of a couple of coach loads of other Brits on tours around the battle sites. However I was too in my own thoughts from the day to engage with them and so quietly slipped back upstairs to my room and to my nice comfortable bed.
I had first thought about doing a tour around battlefields of Belgium and Northern France a year before I set off on this trip. I hadn’t quite managed to get a good route sorted out and, finding myself running out of time to plan it properly had swapped over to my other plan of riding across the top of Scotland for that summer’s tour instead. So, still wanting to create my own tour that would take me around some World War I battle sites before the end of the 100 years anniversary of the end of that war I started my planning again at the turn of 2018. This time a plan and a route fell into place surprisingly easily. Everything fitted in nicely. The Eurostar service to get me to the start at Brussels. Some decent looking accommodation at appropriate locations and reasonable prices. The ferry back to Dover from the French coast. Over the next few months I made a couple of minor tweaks to the plans but they stayed largely as first conceived. So it was that I was ready to give the world the “Four War Tour” taking in the battles of Agincourt and Waterloo as well as some key sites from both World Wars.
As is usually the case with my tours the dates were chosen to fit in around my other half’s annual two week “busman’s holiday” at the Ness of Brodgar excavations in Orkney. As such my plans settled on a Tuesday start in early August with a return home on the Saturday evening. The Tuesday start was partly chosen with the Eurostar timetable in mind as that gave me the best train to Brussels from my nearest International station at Ashford. There were some logistics to arrange though. The one downside to using Ashford International station is that you are not able to load large luggage, including fully assembled bikes, there. They have to be loaded on at St. Pancras. That might naturally therefore suggested my having to go into London to join service there. However one cannot also carry bicycles on the morning commuter trains into the city. I therefore had to conclude my preparations the day before and on the Monday afternoon I took a special trip into London for the sole purpose of checking my bike in with the Eurostar Dispatch service.
That all went to plan; however the day before I made that trip I had received a message from Eurostar to inform me that my train was no longer going to be stopping at Ashford and that I would have to get to Ebbsfleet instead. Although only another 30 miles away this was a major headache. I could no longer get the early train from Hastings as I would not be able to get from Ashford to Ebbsfleet in time to check in. Instead I would have to get up stupidly early, drive to Ashford and park the car there for the week, and then get an early train to Ebbsfleet.
So it was that the Tuesday morning came much earlier than originally planned. My bike was already in London and would hopefully be there to meet me in Brussels. I was out of the house at an unearthly hour (it had a 4 at the start), had a top notch breakfast from the early morning McDonalds Drive Through in Ashford and was soon getting on the fast train to Ebbsfleet – looking a bit odd in all my cycling gear but without a bike. The amended plans, although adding a lot of time and a fair bit of money to the start of my trip (which I’m in the process of trying to claim back), had worked out well and I was soon checked in at Ebbsfleet and taking on more coffee to wake me up.
The train arrived on time and left ten minutes late; mostly I think due to the quite unprecedented levels of faffing about required by some of the people getting onto the same carriage as me. I’ve never seen such levels of incompetence when it comes to working out how to board a train. Once we were on the way the journey went as smoothly and quickly as one expects from Eurostar and we were soon pulling into Brussels Midi station.
My fears about not meeting up with my bicycle were very quickly alleviated. As I walked down the platform I came across the luggage wagon in the process of being unloaded – with my bike very clearly amongst the items on the train. I showed my paperwork to the staff who were happy to hand it straight over to me without my having to go to the luggage office to collect. Instead I was able to get straight out of the station (having first arranged all my bags and equipment and having filled up my various water bottles) ready to begin my adventure.
It took a couple of minutes to work out precisely on my maps where I had exited and in which direction I should be heading. Once my GPS had fully kicked in it became clear, I plotted my immediate route, and headed off. I only needed to take a few short sections on road before coming onto the Brussels Canal which would (largely) be my route out of the city. It was nice to be on my way and lovely to be starting out on a canal tow path; so often riding through cities can be an unpleasant experience but this was lovely. The sun was out (I’d already slathered on the factor 50) and the day was hot. After just a couple of miles however it was time to take a small diversion. I’ve done many silly diversions to take in some odd sights on my rides but this was probably the silliest. However if you’re going to start a “Grand Tour” in the home of the grandest tourer of them all then it seems wrong not to pay a little tribute; and this was just such a little tribute.
About a mile off the tow path, just up a fairly non-descript road is a building in the central reservation. It’s the above ground entrance to a suburban station on the Brussels Underground. I bought a ticket from the machine outside and, as they seem enlightened enough to allow bikes to be taken on the trains I pushed my bike through the ticket barriers and down the lift onto the platform. At the far end of a fairly dull and slightly dilapidated station was the artefact I was looking for. For this station is named “Eddy Merckx” after the five time Tour De France winner, and there at the far end of the station is a glass case containing the bike that he broke the one hour record (by riding 49.431Km in that time) in 1972.
Eddy Merckx 1 Hour Record Bike
The Shrine at Eddy Merckx Station
Tribute completed I returned to the surface and, after a small concern when I couldn’t initially get the bike out of the station, headed back towards the canal and carried on out of the city.
Canalside Action Shot
At Lot I left the tow path behind me and headed onto the roads. At Eisengen I stopped at the Okay Supermarket and acquired my lunch for the day; bread rolls, a net bag of babybels, some chocolate, a packet of mini saucisson sticks and a couple of small bottles of a random flavour of Fanta. Around the corner I found a church bench and tucked in. The day was now very hot and the next 15 or so miles were largely uphill – not by much but enough of a constant small drag to notice. Somewhere along the way I passed a pharmacist with an electronic sign claiming the temperature had reached 40 degrees. I’m not sure I quite believed that but it was as hot as any cycling I’ve ever done. My water bottles were beyond warm. My throat was drying out within seconds. I was going to need to keep my water levels topped up throughout the day. The following miles were at least fairly uneventful and before too long I was riding into the town of Waterloo.
Before heading to the battle site first of all I had decided to take a look at the museum based in the building that served as Wellington’s headquarters before and after the battle. I locked the bike up outside and the lovely people on the front desk were happy for me to leave my panniers with them whilst I wandered around. I bought a ticket that also included access to the main museum at the battle field (and some other nearby museums as well) and went in. The museum was a pretty standard local/military museum and quite enjoyable for it. I also found a water fountain which I drank my fill from and returned before leaving to fill up my bottles.
I headed South along the main road, over a few busy junctions, and finally, once out of the town, came upon the road junction at which Wellington based himself during the battle itself. At the junction I turned right to head towards the Lion Mound and Panorama Museum. I parked the bike up and wandered down into the bunker that is the new museum and visitors centre. I showed my ticket from the Wellington Museum and threw my paniers into one of the many lockers that were available. The visitor centre is pretty good and quite a lot more than I was anticipating.
There are lots of waxworks showing the troops of both sides as they march towards battle and depicting them setting themselves up ready; there was a genuine guillotine in one room with a display outlining how France had come to be led by Napoleon; there were all manner of interactive displays and more traditional museum cases; there was an upside down horse (no idea why) and a model hot air balloon (so you can get an ‘aerial view’) of the site. It is a great little museum and I might have liked to spend some more time in there but I was hot, it was already well into the afternoon and I still had 2/3 of the day’s riding in front of me.
Heading to Battle
Upside Down Horse!
Instead I left from the little stairwell that takes you into the old Panorama exhibition where I did have a look at the virtual reality experience that gives you a view around the battle site. This is something that particularly interests me. Back in 1994 at University I gave my final undergraduate lecture on how new technology, most notably this new “Virtual Reality”, might revolutionise the presentation of heritage sites. Here we are 24 years later and its now really starting to happen, though there is still a way to go yet.
I then made the ascent of the 225 steps up on to the top of the Lion Mound. Built in the immediate years after the battle as a permanent reminder it is quite a site to behold and gives great views out across the battle field helping you to understand how big the site was. The lines of British and Allied troops occupied a long line across one ridge with the French headquarters quite some way off. You always know when watching re-enactment societies that their displays are vey compressed but it is quite something to see the true scale of these great moments in history, Indeed it is quite interesting to see how large the scale of this battle was when then compared to some of the WWI trench sites I would see later on the tour.
Lion Mound – Looking Up
Waterloo Battle Field Panorama
I finished my visit with a quick look at the old 360 panorama exhibition in the old, slightly run down, circular display building and then headed back, gathering my bags and got on my way. I headed back to Wellington’s cross road, looked around at some of the various monuments around there (there are an awful lot of monuments around the battlefield; 135 of them apparently). This also helped me to spot the cycle path running south to the side of the main road so I followed that as I headed across to the French positions.
I passed the Victor Hugo column. I’m not sure why he has such a massive column here. He was about 13 at the time of the battle. He wrote about it afterwards but I’m till at loss as to why he seems to get such a prominent monument here. Further away again, probably 2-3 miles from the crosroads, you come across the farm that served as Napoleon’s last headquaters. Shortly afterwards I turned west and off the main road and onto the ‘Chemin du Crucifix’.
By now I was very hot. My mouth was almost constantly dry and taking small regular sips of warm (almost hot) water from my bottles wasn’t helping for long. I came across my first taste of Pavé – although it was mostly only covering half of the road so most of the time I was able to avoid it. After the pavé things looked briefly worse as my map took me onto a very rough track. I wasn’t overly happy with this – I could really do without being bounced around on loose tracks and I needed to make up some time which was not going to be easy without tarmac under my tyres.
Fortunately it didn’t last long and I was soon back on proper roads and shooting down into the village of Baulers and from there into the outskirts of Nivelle. By this point I was at the stage where I was starting to make mistakes. I was hot, tired, thirsty. I wasn’t looking forward to navigating my way through a town and so followed my instincts. My instincts were hot, tired, thirsty, and wrong. As I veered off to the South (I should have been continuing West) the only thing going for them was that they managed to navigate me past a branch of Lidl. I dived straight in without even stopping to lock my bike (there were a few people collecting for the WWF so I figured the bike was probably OK) and came back out with plenty of water and a can of Coke. I took another bit of bread and cheese washed down with the Coke, refilled my water bottles, and chatted to the charity collectors (they quite wisely had decided that I wasn’t worth attempting to tap up for a regular donation so we didn’t have to have that awkward conversation in broken English and shattered French). I soon felt much better; as much due to the knowledge that I now had all bottles fully laden (with slightly cooler water for the time being) ready to carry me on my way. I checked the maps to ascertain the direction that I should now be heading off in, said goodbye to my new friends, and got back on my way.
I had now to head into the town centre so navigation was easy. I followed the main road in, past the war memorial with the two seals; yes, seals.
Sometimes a wrong turn can work out having positive side effects; and not just finding a supermarket. If I’d followed the planned route I would have skirted around the edge of Nivelles and as such I would have missed seeing the magnificent Collegiate Church of St. Gertrude in the main town square. It is a lovely looking building and I would have liked to have seen inside, however time was against me and I contented myself with the knowledge that if I had more time it would have been due to my not getting lost and then I would not have seen the church at all!
Collegiate Church of St. Gertrude, Nivelles
Collegiate Church of St. Gertrude, Nivelles
Heading back out of town I found the track I was supposed to have been taking; following a disused railway line. The line was passing above me on a bridge which was in the process of being replaced. However a quick recce showed that I would be able to scramble my way up some half-finished steps and around the works and get on to the old track bed.
Well they haven’t entirely blocked it off…
On the Old Railway Line
The next few miles would be mostly following the train line. As is normally the case in these situations this was lovely riding. It was Largely flat, beautifully tree lined with a well surfaced path and no navigation was required. There was a short but easy to follow diversion through the pretty village of Arquennes. Riding past the remains of the viaduct showed the reason for the diversion but this is a lovely little Belgian village and it was delightful to have ridden through it.
Back out of the village and I was back onto the railway line. I believe that this route carries on for some way however I left it again just before entering the village of Seneffe, which I skirted around before coming up to a path down to the Canal du Centre. The canal is one of the big modern waterways that still carry large volumes of cargo in this part of the world. It is a long way removed from the small, early canals that crisscross the United Kingdom. I would now be following the canal side for most of the rest of the day – a good 20-25 miles of flat, easy riding. The wind was against me but there wasn’t much of it and I was pleased that I would now be able to make some good steady progress. Lots of people were out making the most of the lovely day; swimming and fishing and sunbathing by the wide waterway.
The Canal Du Centre
After a few miles I crossed an impressive aquaduct, had to divert around a canal side industrial estate, and then came upon one of the most impressive modern feats of engineering in the world; one that I’d never previously heard of. Between the villages of Strepy-Bracquegnies and Thieu there is a sudden 200 foot drop. To get the modern large industrial barges up and down the hill a massive boat lift has been built to lift boats of up to 1,350 tonnes a vertical distance of 73.15m. After admiring the view from the top I followed the path to the lower end – this was by far the steepest descent of the day and I raced down the hill. The lift looks even more impressive from the bottom and I watched for a few minutes as a barge was made ready for the ascent.
The Strepy-Thieu Boat Lift
Looking Up at the Strepy-Thieu Boat Lift
A short way further on, across the other side of the canal, I could see some evidence of an older industrial past. Sadly I didn’t stop to investigate as what I could see was the first of four older boat lifts that used to take the barges up and down the hill before the new lift was built. These old lifts are still operational and are now part of a Unesco World Heritage Site. Maybe one day I’ll get back here and have a day or two to explore by barge.
I continued for another ten miles or so along the Canal on its lower section. A sudden shower brought some welcome relief from the earlier heat but it was short lived and the sun was soon out and steaming the rain that had landed on the towpath. A diversion around an old waterfront warehouse indicated to me that I was nearly at the point on my maps when I would leave the canal and head South towards my base for the night.
The final miles passed uneventfully. I stopped for one last fill of water and fizzy pop at a cash and carry in Terre just before it closed for the evening. That was my first real indication that the day was definitely dragging on and that I should get a wiggle on for the last five miles. Indeed as I entered the penultimate village of the day I recevied a phone call from the landlord of the Auberge I was staying at to check that I was still coming. Fortunately by that point I was within five minutes of arriving so I made a quick final effort and rolled up at the “Auberege le XIX eme” just after half past eight. By nine O-Clock I was showered and dressed in order to be downstairs in time to eat. Dinner was a fantastic mixed grill (it was a set menu with one choice – probably on account of my late arrival) with a couple of the local wheat beers – brewed especially for the hotel. And so finished the end of the first day of my tour and I was soon back in bed and sound asleep.
In between my ride to Portsmouth and my upcoming “grand” summer tour, I had a spare Saturday and was keen for another good day’s touring. The Portsmouth ride had taken it out of me. It had incapacitated me for two days and I was desperate to have a more successful ride before setting off to Belgium on a five day trip. A recent drive across West Sussex on work business had made me realise that I know little of that half of the wider County and so I plotted a horse shoe shaped route design taking in a trip loosely following a large part of the border. The route would start in Shoreham and finish up in Chichester. Having planned my route I duly noted the trains needed to get me to the start point; and then awoke so early on the Saturday morning that I ended up just getting up and getting a train an hour earlier than anticipated. The journey was spent having a pleasant hour of conversation with Trevor; someone I used to commute with before he retired. He was off on one of his days out getting the train down past Southampton and then using his bus pass to travel around the New Forest. He does these sort of trips on a regular basis and they sound great! I left him at Brighton station as I had a different connection than him that would get me to Shoreham. So after a short trip along the Brighton and Hove conurbation I was getting off the train and ready to ride.
Although I don’t know too much of West Sussex I was starting off along fairly familiar territory. Shoreham station is right on national cycle route NCN2 and I followed it very briefly past the old town centre to the river front. At that point rather than crossing the bridge (which would have sent me back in the direction of Portsmouth) I turned to follow the River Adur upstream. After a bit of winding around to leave Shoreham (the normal cycle path along the river was closed at the town end and I had to follow some roads instead) I was soon on the river bank path/cycle way and following NCN223 a.k.a. The Downslink; so named as it provides a route between the North Downs and the South Downs Ways. From Shoreham north the route follows the river side past the old Shoreham Bridge, the former Cement Works and Quarry, and then crosses the river bound for Steyning. At the point at which the track crosses the river I deviated from the main path and followed the back lanes into Steyning through Annington instead. There is nothing wrong with the path into Steyning; I just fancied trying something different.
At Steyning the Downslink passes near the bottom of Bramber Castle (worth a quick diversion to investigate) and then winds along some rough track before joining the old railway line that forms the basis of most of the Downlink. However from a previous trip along that section I found the track was so rough, and the railway line not much better, that instead I passed through Steyning, shooting through the lovely village centre, and followed the B2135 road for a few miles instead. Whilst there is a moderate amount of traffic on this road I have found it to be much easier going than the official cycle route. Judging by the number of cyclists I saw on the road I’m not the only person to have made that assessment of this part of the Downslink. Just to the South of Partridge Green is where the Downslink and the road re-join briefly. The junction is marked by the presence of the excellent ‘Stan’s Bike Shack‘ – a popular landmark for cyclists in the area. Although I had only done ten miles so far I had deliberately only had the very lightest of breakfasts before setting off; entirely so that I could have an excuse to pull in at Stan’s. Although still fairly early there was already a good array of bikes parked up, but it didn’t take long for a cappuccino and a bacon sandwich to arrive at my table. I was soon done and ready to get some solid miles under my belt. I re-joined the road, but only for a short while as I was going to finally join the old railway line and do the Downslink properly for the next section of my trip. The track here is fairly loose material rather than tarmac but it’s pretty good quality and well compacted. It makes for decent enough riding; though possibly not during damper, muddy seasons.
The old railway continues mostly northwards (and slightly west). The first landmark is the old West Grinstead station just north of the A272 (which you pass underneath). It still has the old platforms, a working signal (have a go yourself using the handle at the bottom), and an old train carriage used for some sort of nature reserve office. The route carries on through some lovely, easy going miles, very slowly, gradually climbing.
The first main place you enter is Southwater, near Horsham. The old station here has now become a small parade of shops but the route remains easy to follow until you cross the main road. During my trip a new housing estate was being built and the path suddenly entered and crossed a field; not ideal but it wasn’t long before I was back on the old railway line and making good progress once more.
The Downs Link
The next point of note not too much farther on, comes near Christ’s Hospital School. Here the old line branched off from the still existing main line. The cycle track naturally has to deviate onto a path by the side and along some small roads. The old line continues the other side of the main line however it is not possible to immediately re-join the old track and instead there is a mile or two on some nice country lanes before the old line becomes accessible again. Oddly enough this next section doesn’t actually use the old track bed which is left empty and overgrown; with a new path having been added to the side. It feels a bit unnecessary but I guess it works.
The route carries on fairly uneventfully past Slinfold towards Rudgwick. A point of interest comes where the line crosses the River Arun. When the line was originally built the bridge was built quite low but this caused there to be too steep a gradient on the line into Rudgwick. As such the line was not allowed to open until the gradient was fixed, which involved raising the bridge by adding a second section on top of the original.
After Rudgwick another “interesting” part appears unannounced. I’m assuming that just past the village the line entered either a tunnel or a deep cutting. Whichever it might have been it is no longer accessible and the path takes a sudden and most unexpected and entirely unwelcome scramble up the side of the cutting. It’s not the nastiest climb in the world but it’s bloody horrible; very steep for a short way and also made of a loose surface material that doesn’t help with the climb. Being clipped into my pedals and not expecting the sudden rise I was forced into going for it up the slope. I managed to drop down through my gears but couldn’t stand up out of the saddle as I would have slipped all over the place on the rough track. It was bad enough as it was. I somehow managed to get to the top of the main incline and, unclipping as I went, threw myself off the bike to get my breath back. What a thoroughly nasty section of an otherwise excellent piece of cycle way. I hope that at some point soon the path gets properly surfaced, and also hopefully reconfigured to go up the slope more easily. For now beware. I don’t think this would be any more fun going downhill; in fact I fear it could be quite dangerous. Still; I was at the top and alive and OK.
I had been expecting to be leaving the old railway line around this point anyway, although not quite in that nature. An off road path continued for a small distance before joining a lane near Baynard’s Park. The DownsLink continues the other side of the road but that was me done with that particular route for the day and now I was back onto tarmac. A short ride brought me to a bus shelter at Alfold Crossways where I took a break for some snacks and to get the next page of my maps ready. I was trying out a new map holder for the first time on this ride. It’s fairly small and can only hold a few miles worth of mapping at any one time but it was already proving useful and would continue to do so over the coming miles. I was no longer having to try and remember several miles of route in my head; and indeed it was preventing me having to stop and pull a map out of my bag whenever I, inevitably, forgot the directions.
Refreshed, ready to go, and with the route ahead of me visible on the handlebars I set off again. A B-Road took me along some twisty lanes around Dunsford Aerodrome. The burnt out remains of a car in the hedge on the corners reminded me to keep a watchful eye out for traffic behaving erratically although I didn’t encounter any particularly high levels of idiocy. At Dunsfold village a turning to the left sent me towards the pretty village green at Chiddingfold, from where the roads started to climb up onto the downs.
Climbing up to Haslemere
At Graysfold the climbing got a little steeper and then just past that village a turning up a small lane to the right the road got steeper still as I climbed up a back lane in towards Haslemere. This was the first proper bit of climbing of the day – a decent length at a good but challenging gradient. I actually enjoyed it. From the top I had a small drop into the centre of Haslemere where I stopped at the local Waitrose to buy some bits and pieces for lunch which I ate on a nearby park bench (once I’d removed the large number of cigarette butts discarded on the seat).
Having eaten and drunk and got ready for the rest of the ride ahead I loaded back up and got on my way. Haslemere was apparently having some sort of Hare festival with lots painted models of said creatures large and small larger all over the town. Managing to avoid being too distracted by them I navigated my way to the turning up Haste Hill and began the next part of the climb. Another good steady piece of riding saw me climbing up onto the National Trust lands on Black Down. Again I found the riding to be steady going and quite enjoyable as I made my way up to the highest point of the trip. There were some good views off to the side, however they were hidden in amongst the trees.
Having reached the summit of the hill the roads took a turn towards the South and ahead of me was a good five miles of almost entirely downhill riding which would see me drop almost 700 feet, It should have been bliss but, guess what, it was! After crossing the West Sussex Rother at Halfway Bridge it was back to a bit more up and riding for a few miles before joining the busier A385 road close to Duncton.
After passing through that village I knew that I had the toughest climb ahead of me up the escarpment and onto the South Downs. And this was tough. The angle of climb is just that much steeper than the one up Black Down. It wasn’t helped by being on a much busier road with impatient drivers thundering past me. I was hot, tired, sweaty and low on breath. Fortunately about two thirds of the way up the hill someone has conveniently placed a viewing point so I pulled in and made the most of the chance to admire the view (including back towards Black Down), regain my composure, and slaughter a good handful of Jelly Babies.
Duncton Hill Viewpoint
Looking back on Black Down
Duncton Hill Panorama
There was still a third of the hill left to climb but the gradient had evened out to something more manageable and the crest was soon behind me. From here I should have had another couple of easier miles as I headed downhill a little. However the road here follows a slight dip in between the higher ground either side and it was causing a wind tunnel blowing into my face just strongly enough to negate at least most of the effect of the slope.
I stopped briefly at Upwaltham to look at the lovely little church situated by the roadside before turning off the main road onto the side one towards East Dean.
East Dean – I don’t think this is of interest at all!
East Dean Pond
The wind tunnel down the slope continued, although slightly easier going now, and before too long I was rolling into the village. True to the word on my map there was a pub here and so I rolled in, parked the bike up outside the Star and Garter and dived in to order a refreshing pint of Lager and Lime. I sat in the beer garden taking my time over the drink and chatted for a while with another passing visitor.
Now I was ready for the final push back up the hills and then down into Chichester. Rather than heading straight up at East Down I carried on to Charlton and then swung left to start the climb. Although now hot and tired this was another lovely climb up on to the glorious hills of Goodwood. The racecourse is indeed in a glorious setting on top the downs and on a day like this it isn’t hard to see how the famous race meeting gets its name.
And now it was another downhill to the edge of the City and this time there was no wind tunnel to hold me back. Clearly race goers demand good quality road surfaces and the tarmac down towards the next landmark was smooth and lovely and I was soon shooting along at a touch over 40 miles per hour.
At the bottom of the hill is another famous Goodwood landmark; the Aerodrome-cum-Motor Racing Track. I took a look around the entrance but felt I was maybe a tad too tired now to put in a good lap time. Also the security team turned up and moved me on. Sadly the final few miles were less pleasant; mostly due to the large proportion of boy racing idiots presumably heading to and from the race track. Or maybe presumably not as they clearly hadn’t realised that they were on regular roads and not the high speed circuit. On the edge of the city is the Rolls Royce car factory and then it was in to the station.
Having encountered problems getting home on this train line from Portsmouth on my previous outing I was hoping for a better trip back. However I seemed to have timed my arrival at the station with the entire teenage population of mainland Europe. I was forced to sit squat on the floor (I did just manage to get my bike into the rack) by the out of order toilet. I did however manage to get the guard to allow me in to it so that I could change into something more comfortable for the trip home before resuming my squatting. I started to cramp up somewhere close to Worthing but fortunately enough of the students alighted at that station and I was able to grab a seat and enjoy the rest of the journey home.
In all this another great day out exploring some new parts of the countryside. West Sussex (and Surrey) I shall be back!
I’ve ridden to Portsmouth once before; quite early on in my return to cycling as a warm up and test before I set off on my first tour along the Avenue Verte. That ride remains one of my longest day rides. I’ve not done many 100+ miles routes since and so, in preparation for another summer tour, I thought I’d give the ride another go.
I had a midweek day booked off work. Fortunately the weather forecast was showing a favourable wind direction (I was prepared to get the train to Portsmouth and start from there if not!) however it was slap bang in the middle of the hottest, driest spell on the South Coast in years.
I got the bike and my kit ready to go the night before – as this was to be a full day ride with return train journey I was carrying a few bits of kit: some light clothes to swap into on the train, some bits of food and fuel, and an extra tube.
Although on a day off I was up at my usual time for work and was on the road at just after half seven; having liberally applied some factor 50 all over before setting off – the day was already warm and the sun up quite high.
The first 10-15 miles were uneventful, following my usual commuting route towards Eastbourne along the Hastings sea front through Bexhill and across the Pevensey Levels.
The familiarity continued beyond then; although mostly in reverse. I have ridden in the direction of Lewes on a couple of previous occasions but it is a route I have ridden many times in the other direction. I passed through Abbotts Wood, around Arlington reservoir, and along the back roads before picking up the cycle path into Lewes from Firle.
I stopped for a first break on one of the benches overlooking the River Ouse and the Harvey’s Brewery in the middle of the town. I made the mistake of taking a look at my work email; only to see that the small to medium sized problem we had been dealing with had just become a major crisis. I had a short phone call with one of my colleagues and promised that I’d keep an eye on proceedings in case I was needed. What joy.
Out of Lewes the cycle path follows alongside the busy A27. The cycle route is properly and safely segregated but its still a fairly noisy ride and the least appealing part of the whole day’s route. The way towards Brighton is also a surprisingly sized hill and invariably a wind tunnel seems to form; even though the wind was supposed to be behind me. The slog is fairly short lived however and before long you find yourself at the top of the hill in Falmer – an odd mix of a few remaining original village buildings surround on one side by the 1960s (and later) University of Sussex campus, and on the other by the football stadium (“The AMEX”) of Brighton and Hove Albion.
One bonus feature of today’s ride was that for the first time in 3 or 4 attempts I managed to find the correct route from Falmer towards central Brighton. Previously I’d followed some misleading cycle way signs and ended up going in all manner of odd directions. One such adventure led to following an off road trail at the end of which I had to lift the bike (and me) over a barbed wire fence.
For most of the way into the centre Brighton isn’t too bad a city to ride into – cycle and shared cycle/bus lanes get you into the edge of the centre but from there until the seafront it seems that you need to largely just put your head down and follow the traffic along the main road until you get to the Pier and can roll off on to the promenade cycle path. It’s not too much fun but is fairly painless and is over pretty quickly (traffic lights permitting).
Once on to Brighton Prom things take a more steady and sedate pace. The cycle path is great; however due to the large volume of pedestrians on the sea front one definitely does have to “share with care” and be ready to apply bells and brakes. Things get quieter as you head towards Hove and once you are beyond the King Alfred Swimming Pool you will often find that you largely have the ride to yourself (at least that has tended to be my experience).
At the end of Hove seafront the signs seem to take you in an unexpected and improbable route towards the industrial units by Shoreham Harbour. It seems wrong but trust the signs. After initially snaking through some units at the start of the estate the road opens up a bit and follows the shore; albeit a large sea wall prevents you getting a view of the sea. It’s still not the nicest but of riding with the sea wall on one side of you and the building yards on the other but having also tried staying on the main road during a previous ride I can assure you that this is the preferable option.
At the end of the harbour, just as you wonder how you might cross the water that form the harbour entrance, signs divert you in towards the coast where you come to cross the first of the two big lock gates. After crossing the locks (get off and push as you do!) you re-join the busy A259. However if you get the turning right its not for long. Turn left onto the road and the take the first right opposite the Dudman building yard. There are signs but they are not obvious.
If you get the turning right, NCN2 takes you through some quiet residential roads before crossing the railway line by Shoreham station, taking a diversion through the surprisingly pretty town centre before coming back to the A259 directly next to the bridge over the River Adur and the leisure half of Shoreham Harbour.
That route is quite nice and I’ve done it before. Today I missed the turning and carried on along the A259. Coming this way you do get to go past Shoreham Lighthouse which is pretty cool; but that’s a small bonus for being stuck on the busy road with the Dudman lorries thundering past you (I dare you to read Nick Cave’s novel “The Death of Bunny Munro” and then not get slightly freaked when they pass close to you).
I put my head down though, maintained a good steady line and speed, kept awareness of what was around me and was soon at the bridge where I pulled off the busy road. Immediately I relaxed. Crossing the River Adur here is a markedly more pleasant crossing of Shoreham Harbour with all the pleasure boats laid out on the river below. The bridge itself is a nice structure also and all the more impressive when you get to the opposite bank and find the mechanism that allows for the whole bridge to be rolled back to allow larger vessels to pass underneath.
The next few miles has you rolling back along the seafront on the promenade and some quiet residential streets between Shoreham and Worthing. There is a bit of care to be taken along here as the seafront is normally quite busy, but it is pleasant riding and you soon find yourself at Worthing Pier. I stopped here to take another breather, grab a bite to eat and to check in on the work issues. The break and the food was good; the work issue was turning into a full fledged crisis with a high level conference call meeting arranged at 1.30pm. I offered to join in from wherever I might be at the time. I’d rather not have done so but it would be better for me to be able to provide input than to have just carried on.
Somewhere in West Worthing the NCN2 signs run out. Instead you seem to be on the ‘South Coast Cycleway’. Once you know this it’s pretty easy to follow, even though there are a few key missing signs between here and Chichester where the NCN2 number boards finally reappear.
Shoreham blends into Goring and then a short break through some open fields brings you to Ferring. It was here, next to a bus stop and opposite the local Co-op, that I found a bench in sufficient treeish shade upon which I parked myself and made ready to join the work Skype conference call. The meeting actually went fairly well with no nasty recriminations and a clear action plan. It had added an element of stress to the day and taken over an hour out of my riding but I was happy now that it was in hand and that I could continue the remainder of my ride without further (work related) incident. I popped over to the Co-op to fill up my water bottles and water bag, had some lunch, and then headed back on the way.
From Ferring the route heads inland where it follows (on a segregated cycle path) the A259 for a short distance before slowly dropping in back towards the sea through Angmering and Rustington. I say slowly as the cycle route does not take you immediately south to the coast but winds a few roads west, one road south, a few more west, and so on and so forth with even one little ‘false North’ before finally joining the promenade at the eastern end of Littlehampton.
A few more easy going prom ride miles brings you to the main seaside town beach area next to the Arun estuary. On my previous ride this way I recall having become properly hot and frazzled by this point and had to get some water from the very helpful RNLI lifeguards. Despite the ridiculous heat and sun today I was doing OK. The extra water I was carrying was helping. So rather than go all the way to the end of the sea front as I did on that occasion I diverted off by the coach park and joined the main road for a few hundred yards into and through the town; past the station, and to the foot bridge that takes you over the Arun and back onto Ferry Road. The ferry has long vanished from existence and as such this is now a quiet and little used lane.
In writing this post I’ve gone back to look at my Strava route from my ride to Portsmouth four years previously as I was sure when riding that I was taking a very different route on this second occasion. I was correct. Previously having passed through Climping I had apparently crossed the main road and headed up to Burndell and Yapton villages before turning back in the direction of Bognor Regis.
As I arrived at the main road however a shiny new (in fact not yet entirely completed) cycle path had appeared following the main road. I played a hunch and decided to follow it.
So often new cycle paths can be a mixed blessing. As was the case with this one they can often be an easy way to follow the most direct route with the payoff being a less enjoyable ride than diverting down winding side lanes. That was the case here but there was a major bonus. Another feature of most modern cycle lanes seems to be the desire to get tarmac laid quickly and to hell with the concept of rolling it flat. So often cycle paths can be so bumpy that it is easy to see why so many road riders will ignore them and stay on the main carriageway.
With that in mind I pass on my huge thanks and Kudos to the engineers of this new cycle path. It is one of the smoothest and most pleasant such track I have ever encountered. It was so relaxing that when I spotted a funeral cortege coming towards me on the main road that I was very comfortable in being able to slow down and remove my helmet as they passed me. I cannot imagine being so confident on the Firle cycleway out of Lewes for one.
Before very long at all I was on the outskirts of Bognor Regis and by the entrance to Butlins. I was not entirely sure how the ride had varied to my previous attempt, but previously I had made the seafront before Butlins; not that it mattered one jot. One thing that I do recall from the previous ride though was getting the wrong road out of Bognor as there was a lack of route signs on the western end of the town. I recalled on that occasion doubling back from the west end of Bognor to find NCN2 and then head off in the direction of Chichester.
This time I missed it again but instead of doubling back, I looked at my maps and selected another route out of town winding along some lanes and headed through Rose Green and Runcton; stopping somewhere around there for another breather. By now the heat was getting to me and I needed a few minutes shelter under a tree and a good solid glug of water.
In North Mundham I picked up some NCN2 signs again and was soon following them and turning off onto the towpath of the Chichester Canal; which I will happily admit to having had no prior knowledge of its existence. It made for a pleasant few mils in towards the city centre, although slow at times as there were a lot of families out enjoying the surroundings.
Coming into the basin at the north, city, end of the canal I headed off and decided to trust my instincts to find my way across the southern side of the city to the western road leading out towards Fishbourne. I didn’t choose the nicest road; riding through an industrial estate., but I did head in pretty much the right direction and was soon finding myself coming up to one of the busy A27 roundabouts. I think previously I had followed the proper route and as a result had found a safe and easy way across. Today I just chose to get to the roundabout and go for it. Which turned out to be absolutely fine and soon I was on road west through Fishbourne and pointed in the direction of Emsworth and Havant.
From Fishbourne the cycle route gets to be pretty straightforward regulation cycling. I was following the A259 but its not a particularly busy road as all through traffic uses the dual carriageway A27 a hundred yards or so further North. Furthermore most of the route is on shared footbath/cycle paths by the side of the road. Just before Emsworth I turned off up some residential streets as I had an old friend to see and a cup of tea with my name on it. My friend Ali and her husband Ivor were unexpectedly at home after Ivor had managed to break both wrists after falling whilst halfway around a marathon (he got up and finished the race before getting himself sorted out). They were supposed to be on holiday but that had naturally had to be postponed. I therefore had a lovely chance to catch up with them both and have a good break. I was about 75 miles to the good now and the break and the excellent company was very welcome.
Refreshed I was ready to get back on for the final push towards Portsmouth. I was shortly passing under the A27 and approaching into Havant. From there I was planning on taking another deviation from my previous ride into Portsmouth. On that occasion I had followed route 22 that runs along the main roads and drops directly into the eastern side of Portsmouth alongside the A2030.
This time however I hung a left just before the centre of Havant and navigated my way onto an old railway line heading directly South out of town. The old railway bridge onto Hayling Island no longer exists but the path moves alongside the road bridge over the estuary and then diverts back off again onto the ‘Shipwrights Way‘again all the way to the south end of the island. As always, these types of cycle way are glorious and lovely flat riding with stunning views across the water to the West. However today I was tired and I just wanted to get to the end of the island. At the southern end a sharp right hand turn takes you to the western end long a road which seemed just a fraction longer than I’m sure it needed to be.
At the far end I had enough time before the next sailing of the Hayling Ferry to dive into the Ferryboat Inn to grab a lager and lime and a bag of salted peanuts. Taking another break was good and the drink went down quickly. I was pretty close to done for now but at least I knew I only had a handful of, flat, miles ahead of me around Southsea and into central Portsmouth.
There was some good synchronicity between the bottom of my beer glass and the arrival of the ferry so having drunk up and dropped my glass back on the bar, I rolled the bike down the jetty and onto the ferry; a small foot and bike passenger only vessel that plies across Langstone Harbour on a roughly hourly basis. Out to see a few speed boats were messing around but inland in the harbour was a good mix of life at (moderately) low tide and the various remains of second world war defences, such as the large remains of the Mulberry Caisson a few yards inshore from the ferry route.
Leaving the Ferry Port
On the Hayling Ferry
The ferry landed on the Southsea side of the harbour and I was happy to let the rest of my fellow passengers alight first. I was now in no hurry and just wanted to get finished safely at whatever time I did. The cycle route passes around the side of the Historic England offices at Fort Cumberland; a lovely example of an 18th century fort, but one which you sadly cannot easily visit.
The remains of a couple more old sea front fortifications passed by to the right as I rode west along the front towards central Southsea. This stretch of road I mostly know from the 4 times I ran the 10 mile Great South Run around Portsmouth about 5-10 years previously. It was nice to see the landmarks slipping past a bit quicker than they did when having already covered about 8 miles and running quite slowly!
I carried on past Southsea Castle and Common, hung a right at the pier and then headed left into historic old Portsmouth; rolling around the city streets past the Cathedral until I came to the end of The Point which I marked to be the nominal end spot for the ride.
And that was me done. I finished the final mile or so to ride back into Portsmouth and Southsea station. I bought a ticket home and, with about half an hour to kill, popped across the road to get a burger from the kebab shop opposite the station before returning to the train.
The journey home felt long and slow. The train was one of the old rackety Southern services that ply their way along the coast without any toilets; I was hoping to at least be able to change into something more comfortable for the journey back. Changing trains at Brighton the final leg did have toilets; they were just all out of order. So it was that I got home feeling a little less refreshed than I hoped.
I’m not sure now whether it was the general strain of 100+ miles on one of the hottest days of the year; or whether it was the burger; or possibly both, but something in the day did for me and I ended up largely holed up in bed for the next two days dehydrated and generally knocked for six. It was a good day’s ride but I certainly felt the strain afterwards. Just how do the grand tour riders do this (and more) for three weeks solid? Still. It was a 101 mile ride done and ticked off!
A two week break from the bike through illness at the end of February had already made me consider curtailing what had been my original plans for a long mid March ride around the Kent coast. I decided on a starting point in Ramsgate rather than in Margate as I had originally targeted, cutting about ten miles off the route. Closer to the day the forecast of a second cold snap of weather with snow and a brisk easterly wind had made me now start considering alternative options for stopping points at the western end. I made a note of various train station locations and also elected that the corner to Dungeness would most likely be cut. I was not, however, completely put off and was ready for a St. Patrick’s day ride around the Kent coast.
Wanting to get a good start I was up and out of the house on Saturday morning earlier than I usually am on a work day as I rode down to Hastings station to meet the 06:18 to Ashford. Despite the weather warnings there were no sign of snow at home, although the wind was picking up. I passed on breakfast at home in order to save time. I was aware that I had a half hour connection at Ashford before the Ramsgate train and gambled (successfully) on the station coffee shop being open. A microwaved sausage sandwich and a half decent cappuccino was a serviceable breakfast. A second coffee (black Americano) was decanted into my special winter riding SIS Flask that I was carrying with me for its first proper outing, in my second bottle cage. The weather was still fairly mild as the Ramsgate bound train pulled in to the platform at Ashford.
By the time we had reached Canterbury however the snow had started to fall and, judging by the angle it was coming in at, the wind was picking up as advertised. The ploughed fields to the west of Canterbury were soon turning white but the roads (and rails) were staying clear. I’m sure this would be fine. I have very, very limited experience of riding in the snow; I’ve probably not done so since my teen years. By the time the train pulled into Ramsgate at the end of the line, the snow was well settled in but I was here; so let’s do this.
The start of the ride was one of the hardest parts as, in order to head towards the main harbour area, I had to ride across town directly into the wind and I also found an unexpected uphill stretch mid way along. Within seconds of starting out from the station I had to stop. The snow was hitting into my face so hard that large flakes were dashing directly into my eyes. I dug out my sunglasses, not due to any glare but just to try and stop the snow stabbing my retinas. I hit the seafront above the wartime tunnels where a road ramps down from the cliff onto the promenade close to the harbour. The harbour consists of two parts, with the older half used now for small leisure vessels, whilst next door can be seen the remains of the old cross channel ferry terminal (now seemingly used for unloading of car carrying cargo ships).
The historic harbour is quite pretty but it was too cold to stop for long. Just long enough to notice the sign on the old clock house proudly announcing that it told the time according to Greenwich Mean Time and not Ramsgate time, which is, so it declared, 5 minutes and 41 seconds ahead of GMT.
Past the harbour the cycle route rises back up onto the cliff top and along towards Pegwell from where the it cuts across some open fields a few hundred yards from Pegwell Bay.
At Cliffs End the key attraction is the ‘replica’ of Hengest and Horsa’s longship. The ship was sailed from Denmark in 1949 to celebrate to 1500th anniversary of the first landing of the Anglo Saxons (Note: despite what everyone calls the boat, they weren’t Vikings).
After having to fight my way through a park run which was trying to take over the entire width of the path/cycleway the route joins the main road. The next few miles across to Sandwich are not the most exciting but they pass quite quickly. Riding next to a set of light industrial units and scrap yards leads to a sewage works and then past the massive ghost of the now largely derelict Pfizer works.
After such sights, the approach into the medieval town of Sandwich is quite lovely. The route enters the town over a bridge next to one of the city gates. If you’ve not explored the town it is worth taking some time to have a look around. I stayed here on a weekend break a couple of years ago and loved it. However that did give me the excuse to hang a left over the river and head straight out of town having now joined national cycle route NCN1, which I would now be following into Dover.
Out of the town the route crosses the sand dunes which form the Links golf courses of the Royal St Georges and Royal Cinque Ports golf clubs. A short stretch of toll road (bikes are not charged) through an ‘exclusive’ housing estate ensures that the road across the dunes is largely devoid of traffic. I had known that this section wouldn’t be the easiest as I was on open and exposed land with a strong cross wind; however it was more tiring than expected and the wind seemed to frequently swirl around into my face. It certainly wasn’t just heading across me. Fortunately though these were still the early, fresh, miles and despite the extra effort I still felt good when I came into the centre of Deal.
In the town I headed back into the wind briefly to make my way onto the promenade, joining it just to the North of the pier. I hadn’t done enough miles yet to need to stop for sustenance so I didn’t look out for the lovely Route One Cycle Café; however I am led to believe that it has now closed down which is sad news indeed. I had only visited once (the last time I came this way last year) but had it marked down as a good place to stop. I did make a brief stop on the front make a phone call; sheltering in the porch of a beach hut as the snow swirled around outside. The hut was blocking the wind but I didn’t stop for long and soon headed south along the east coast beach cycle path as it heads towards the very south east corner of the country at Kingsdown.
After 17 miles of largely flat riding the cycle route turns inland and starts a slow and steady climb up onto the white cliffs between Kingdsown and St Margaret’s at Cliffe. The route uphill starts on a quiet private lane past a handful of houses before a gate marks the change onto a quiet, but well surfaced path up the hill. The snow was increasing now and it was settling on the fields either side; although the track itself was staying largely clear. The wind was now behind me though and the combination of its support and the cooler air made the climb nice and easy.
At St Margaret’s the route joins the back road into Dover. It’s one I’ve ridden a few times now (though always previously in the opposite direction) and its always been nice and quiet. Today was no exception. There weren’t many people at all stupid enough to be out in this weather on top of the cliffs. The road continues to climb towards the coastguard station overlooking the busy ferry harbour but still the wind was behind me and I sailed up, enjoying the ride across the open downs; although the low cloud and continuing snow was severely hampering any views.
At the top of the hill the road was starting to get a bit slushy but it was still fine to ride. From the top by the turning to the coastguard station, even with the poor visibility I had a good view down to the Castle. I stopped to take a look before gently beginning the descent down. The road drops below the castle in the valley between the two hills before climbing back up to the top the fortifications. I resisted the temptation to race and took the drop slow and calm. As the road turned to follow the rise up to Edinburgh Hill the wind and the snow was swirling in all directions at once. Visibility was terrible and without the direct wind assistance that had been with me for the previous climbs it felt quite brutal. However the climb is short and it was soon over as I came out to join the main road at the top of the castle.
I was even more wary of the steep drop down into the town centre. I knew that, even having replaced my rear blocks that week, that in the cold and wet conditions my brakes would not be functioning at their best. This proved to be true but I glided down with enough control to bring myself safely onto the flat at the bottom of the hill. In the town centre I sheltered under the cover of a shop front canopy and had a good drink of coffee from my flask. The coffee was still hot despite the flask having been out in the cold weather for a few hours. A few jelly babies and a sachet of isotonic gel topped up the energy levels. I didn’t stop for long and was soon headed for the harbour side where the north – south NCN1 route stops and NCN2 starts; heading westwards towards Cornwall and, eventually, Lands End.
Dover is not known as being a pretty town and the main road in that the cycle route follows out of town is horrible. The cycle route takes you along the pavement by the side of the A20 as it climbs out of the docks. All the lorries thundering into and out of the docks were splashing through the slush at the side of the roads and sending it cold and muddy straight over me. This is not a long section but it feels like it. At a roundabout the cycle route turns off and into an estate on the edge of town following the much quieter old Folkestone road. At the top of the estate the road runs out where the old and new roads would (but do not) merge and the cycle path takes you across a bridge over the main road and onto the narrow and scant remains of the road; which is now mostly reduced to hardcore and rubble with just occasional patches of tarmac.
Despite the slippery combination of loose ground and slushy conditions the climb back up onto the cliffs between Dover and Folkestone was also fairly smooth Some disgruntled horses looked at me accusingly from a field in which the wind and snow was being funnelled directly up at them. They were sheltering behind one of the bits of remains of World War 2 defences but they clearly wanted to be shut up somewhere warm and dry. Sadly I was not in a position to assist them. I could tell that they thought I should do something for them none the less. I pedalled away from their stern glares and up onto the top.
The whole section of cliff top between Dover and Folkestone is littered with the remains of old wartime defences. I’ve ridden this way a few times and normally stop somewhere to explore a new part of them. Today was not a day for such a deviation. At the top of the hill the track had become mud. It wasn’t too deep to ride through; however it was not easy going. Venturing off the main route across the fields to explore the encampments would be impossible. And cold(er). And wet(ter).
World War II Remains
Sound Mirror in the Snow
Up ahead of me I could spot someone even more daft than I. They were out running. I caught up with them at a gate which they kindly held open for me. We spent a few hundred yards running/riding together talking. Her name was Jodie and she was out training for a 50 mile charity run across the South Downs in a few weeks time. She was putting in some (very) tough miles across the cliffs. Despite the conditions she looked to be doing well. We had a nice conversation. I’m not sure how she was able to talk. At least she was now headed with the wind behind her. Jodie said that she had already been out in the other direction into the snow and the wind and had been grateful to turn around. I promised to find her Just Giving page and wishing her well headed on as the rough track joined up with the lanes and roads around Capel-le-Ferne.
On the Cliffs above Folkestone
Above Folkestone [Jodie just visible at the top of the hill]
From the hill top here it is easy to shoot down into Folkestone following the B2011. Instead I carried on along NCN2 following the quiet lane along the hill. Normally there are some magnificent views from here across the Romney Marsh all the way to the cliffs at Fairlight just a few miles from home. Today I could barely see Folkestone at the base of the hill. Another hairy ride down from the summit with only marginal brakes was made safer than the drop into Dover on account of being on a quiet track; and more dangerous due to its rougher nature.
Halfway down the hill you reach the outskirts of Folkestone and from there the cycle route into the town follows some residential streets around the very eastern edge of the town with what should be some more good views back across to Dover. By now I was in need of some food and so made the executive decision to stop at the first café I came across for lunch. I guessed that I might find somewhere by the harbour and sure enough right at the bottom of the hill I came across the “Captain’s Table“. It was busy but I managed to grab a space and settled in; scattering damp clothing (gloves, helmet, balaclava) around me. I wasn’t able to secure one of the seats next to a radiator but I was able to order some hot food.
Before long a lovely carb heavy portion of chilli con carne with chips and rice, along with a coffee and a coke were placed down in front of me and I was soon feeling refreshed. I made the most of the break and took my time over my food. I found Jodie’s Just Giving page. As I sat there in the warm and dry I hope that she had managed to finish her run for the day by now and was also getting the chance to get warm and dry and to freshen up.
Eventually I had to get back on my way. The balaclava was still damp and soggy and uncomfortable put back on. I left my gloves off until I had got the bike unlocked. Venturing back outside into the bitter wind my hands were almost instantly freezing. I unlocked the bike as quickly as I could, loaded my kit back onto the bike and gratefully put my gloves back on. It would still take a few more miles though before my fingers had actually warmed back up and I could feel the end of my thumbs.
Between Folkestone and Sandgate the cycle route heads through what is, in the summer months, the gorgeous but busy Lower Leas Country Park. It wasn’t looking anything like so nice today; however at least I wasn’t having to navigate my way around crowds of people. I did see one man and his dog but that was it.
From Sandgate I followed the seafront along a combination of roads and promenade into Hythe. From here my original plan (when I was feeling good and before the weather reports had started to make me change my plans) was to continue along the coast to Dungeness and then head back to Hastings via Lydd and Rye. Now I had another route in mind.
Over lunch I had made the decision that Rye would be the end of the road for me today. I’d get the train the last few miles into Hastings. Halfway between those two towns the cycle route rises sharply up on Battery Hill; this would have been by far the toughest climb of the day and I knew already that my legs were done for and I would not get up there without several stops. I had also now decided that I just wanted to get to Rye by a more direct route and would head across the marsh rather than around the coast.
I deviated away from the cycle route however. West of Hythe NCN2 follows the military canal path for a few miles. I had ridden that way before Christmas. It was muddy and almost impassable in places even then. I knew that, with an extra couple of months of wet weather, that it was not going to be possible to head that way today without mountain bike tyres. Instead I plotted a route along the marsh lanes. I headed as straight as I could in the direction of Lydd. The roads here however do not allow for straight and instead take you on a criss cross route across the flat marsh lands.
Either due to the later time of day, or maybe simply due to being further west, the wind and snow had now eased off. The riding was no easier for it. The layout of the lanes meant that I was largely ‘tacking’ across the marsh and I wasn’t getting the wind assistance that I had been hoping for. My legs were leaden and I was fading fast. My route took my through Botolphs Bridge, Burmarsh, Eastbridge, Blackmanstone, St Mary in the Marsh, and Old Romney.
All of these places went by in a bit of a (slow) blur. I normally like to break my journeys to look at churches and the like as I pass; however I rode straight through Burmarsh, ignored the remains of the Eastbridge church (I’ve never passed there without stopping before), didn’t even attempt to look for any signs of the site of Blackmanstone church, and rode straight past the grave of E. Nesbit at St Mary in the Marsh. If you find yourself coming this way for the first time though I do suggest you pay them a visit though as they are beautiful. You can read about the lost churches of Romney Marsh (and the still open ones) here. They are worthy of a small tour all of their own.
I stopped briefly just before Old Romney to have some more water and another energy gel. I realised now one of the reasons why I was struggling. Normally on a ride like this I’d have stopped a couple of times by now to refill my water bottles. Today I’d barely drunk a third of the water I set out with. No wonder my legs were getting so leaden – dehydration was properly settling in.
From Old Romney I just wanted to get on towards Rye so I was straight through and on the road towards Lydd. Another of the lost churches at Midley was visible off to one side but again I ignored it (it involves a walk across some ploughed fields) and pushed on towards the beacon that is the spire of the (still intact) church at Lydd.
From Lydd I carried straight on along the final push. Along the cycle path to start with past the gravel quarries on the marsh. Straight past the caravan park that sits directly underneath the electricity pylons. Rejoin the road when the cycle path changes from rough tarmac to rougher gravel. There’s Jury’s Gut and there’s the trig point by the sea defences. Into Camber. Past the oh so amusing village shop “B J s on the Beach” and Pontins. Stay on the road. The cycle path here is too muddy and slow and diverts around the back of the golf club. Push on. Push on. Tired. Almost there. Push on. Turn off onto the track across the field. Its slow but it cuts off a mile of road. There’s Rye across the field. Almost there. Avoid the sheep shit. Through the gates. Rejoin the road. Across the river. And there you have it. Rye! Phew.
Relieved I pushed the bike up the steps and dived into the marvel that is Knoops brandishing my now empty flask asking for it to be filled with some sweet white hot chocolate goodness. I didn’t have time to stop and drink it in the shop. A check of the timetable showed that I had just enough time to get to the station; else I’d be sitting around in the cold for another hour. Despite having now felt as though I was done I had to jump back into the saddle for one final push; and that involved some speed riding, if only for a short distance, to just get me to the station in time to get a ticket and jump straight onto the train. Finally I could relax and drink that lovely sweet chocolate.
Pulling into Hastings I was too shattered to contemplate the ride back up the hill to my house. Instead I locked the bike up and jumped into a taxi! Only when I had recovered with a long hot bath and was wearing warm dry clothes did I venture back out in the car to recover my bike and then settle in at home for the evening exhausted with cramped legs but satisfied with having finished a great mini adventure.