The back end of
November was approaching and I felt the need for what would likely be one last
long, full day’s ride of the year. I’d
taken the Wednesday off work and had a route planned to take me Northwards. I’d
heard that Eynsford was a nice place to visit and I calculated that it was a
good 100km ride away. The weather
forecast indicated that the wind was going to be relatively accommodating so I
got ready to ride.
I wanted to travel
light but still took a pannier with me as this was going to be a one way ride
and I wanted some warm clothes to change into for the train journey home. As I got
up in the morning it was clear that I was going to need them. I looked out of the bedroom window and then
rushed down and out of the back door to check that my eyes were seeing right in
the half light. They were. There had been snow overnight. It wasn’t much; only a light dusting, but it
had settled. I decided to carry on as
planned and had a good warm breakfast to set me up for the day, knowing that it
was possible that I might have to abandon or at least severely curtail the
riding. Being so close to the coast we
don’t normally get much snow. It’s
normally worse inland and I was going to be heading directly away from the
Channel and climbing up onto The Weald.
It was therefore a
pleasant surprise to find the snow vanished as soon as I climbed up onto, and
beyond, the ridge that marks the northern edge of Hastings. I was soon out of the town and turning off
the busy urban roads straight onto quiet back lanes. There was no evidence of there having been
any snow here at all. The morning wasn’t warm but I was properly layered up and
relishing the riding. I passed through
Three Oaks and Doleham and skirted around the East side of Westfield where I
re-joined the main road for the short and nasty little climb up into Brede. It
wasn’t long however before I was leaving these roads, which I knew well, and
turned off onto Pottery Lane and onto some virgin Weald lanes.
I was in my element
now with my traditional riding technique of building up a nice steady rhythm
before screeching to a halt to admire a wonderful view across the Weald.
Before too long I
was through Ewhurst Green and dropping back onto familiar roads on the approach
to Bodiam Castle, which is of course impossible to pass without popping in for
North of Bodiam and
I was still riding nicely along the quiet back lanes of the Weald. Some of these I had ridden before; some were
new to me. All were lovely.
A few miles north of
Bodiam I picked up cycle route NCN18 near to Iden Green and would follow it for
some while as it rolled up and down the rolling Weald hills pushing me slowly
North Westwards passing close to, whilst avoiding, Cranbrook, Hawkhurst and
Goudhurst. The riding was tough in
places but enjoyable.
After passing a
field of Alpacas and a small pen of pigs, the route heads into and through
Bedgebury Forest, which is a lovely little bit of riding.
West of Bedgebury I
stopped for a sausage roll and a can of pop at Matfield which would be where I
would leave route 18 and continue pushing North through Colt’s Hill and Capel
before heading in towards Tonbridge.
Tonbridge does not
have the nicest cycling infrastructure, or if it does I didn’t find it. The odd cycle path cut through some otherwise
dead ends, but there was a lot of riding to be done on the town’s busy, tight streets. I diverted towards Tonbridge Castle briefly
and then headed out of town along the main road to Hildenborough which I had
earmarked as my destination spot for lunch.
I had been aware of
Café 1809 for some time and had long been meaning to visit, but had found out
recently that its owner was closing it this week to try her hand at other
endeavours instead. This trip had
therefore felt like a chance to pay a visit and it was perfectly placed along
I parked up outside
the café using one of the many decent bike racks and made my way inside where I
ordered a jacket spud and a coffee or two which hot the spot perfectly. I had been starting to get a little tired and
cold before I got to the café. Though there might not have been any more sign
of snow, the day was far from toasty. It
wasn’t long though before I was feeling the warmth from the café and the
welcome from the staff.
refreshed I plucked up the courage to say hello to the owner and grab a selfie
with her. Café 1809 is named after the
bib number that Dame Kelly Holmes wore when she won the 400m and 800m Olympic
titles in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Needless to say Dame Kelly was lovely and
charm personified. She managed to both put me at ease whilst totally
accentuating the difference between an overweight middle aged man and a true
athlete. She also knows how to pose for
a selfie a hell of a lot better than me.
I left the café and
veered slightly Westwards following Noble Tree Road before heading back North
on Egg Pie Lane!
I soon passed more
Alpacas (I don’t think anyone in Kent keeps sheep anymore) and rolled along to
the village of Sevenoaks Weald where I got an unexpected chance for another
short rest as a builders merchant’s lorry was entirely blocking the small lane
so I got out of the saddle and stretched my legs for a few minutes.
annoying if I had to stop anywhere, then this was a good place. I had come this way as I was aiming for the
climb that lay ahead of me, so it was nice to get ready for it. I had got a bit out of practice on the hills
over the last month or two and at over 45 miles into the day was starting to
feel the miles. The climb started well
though, and I easily made it on the bridge that crosses high above the
The bridge, which is
angled quite steeply as the road climbs up the hill, is quite a landmark when
driving North from home. I’d often
wondered what was above it and now I was finding out. I was happy therefore to use the opportunity
of taking some photos back down from the bridge in order to get my breath back.
I regretted doing so
however, as after stopping I struggled to get back into a rhythm and found it
stop-start up to the top of the hill. I
made it eventually though. What’s more,
now I was here I had a few miles of largely downhill riding. First along the Southern edge of Knole Park
(with deer running around just off to my left behind the big chain link fence),
and then heading North again I had a long easy drop down towards the M25 which
I was soon passing underneath.
I still had one big
and final climb to go and I was very soon upon it. The Cotsman Ash Lane Climb turned out to be
one hill too far. I struggled up having
to walk up a part of the steepest section.
When I did feel ready to get back on and ride it was only a matter of
seconds before my left leg cramped up. I
had to jump off the bike and stretch it out.
I was soon going again but was glad to see the brow of the hill finally
appear. I did still have another five
miles before I would get into Eynsford; but it really was now all downhill from
I rolled down into
the village and headed straight for the Castle; a small Norman keep by the
Finally I then
passed back to the picturesque Ford from which the village takes its name. It might have been more picturesque if it
didn’t have a broken down van sitting in the middle of the river, but it still
looked nice. The light started to
I took that as my cue to think about heading for home. I rode the short way to the station; sneakily got changed out of my cycling gear into the spare, warm clothes I was carrying in my pannier, and awaited the train back to Hastings (via a change and a coffee at Sevenoaks).
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.
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.
Back in October I head a two day work conference to attend in Cardiff. For a short while I did consider if I might be able to ride all the way from home in Sussex, but I soon realised that would be a two day trip and involve lugging a lot of extra luggage on the bike. Instead I calculated that I could combine a visit to my parent’s in Wiltshire with making a day trip of (a part of) the journey. I’d still be carrying a lot of clothes and work equipment, but it shouldn’t weigh any more than I might carry on a regular tour. Having planned the route I did realise that I might not make it all the way to Cardiff in time without having to be completely heads down and without having time to stop and look around at any point. There was a pre-conference meal to attend which meant I’d need to be there just too early to realistically make the whole distance on the bike; but I was happy with my amended plans which would still see me riding across the border into Wales.
I headed to my parent’s house the afternoon before the ride and made myself ready for a reasonable start in the morning. I was on my way just after 8am. I left Mere and started out for a mile or two along the fairly busy B3092, in the general direction of Frome. However before too long I turned off onto the first of many back lanes from which I could join NCN Route 25 headed for, in the first instance, Longleat House. That was still a few miles away though and before I could start to think about that I had to pass another stately home, Stourton, or Stourhead, House. Stourhead is mostly known for its fantastic landscaped gardens, but the house is quite nice too and the official cycle route takes you through the gatehouse and right past the front door.
The route continues on along some country lanes. Through Kilmington the fields and many of the roads were packed full of pheasants. I’m assuming that shooting season was a short while away. For now they were enjoying some massive pheasant raves in the Wiltshire fields. From Maiden Bradley I turned onto some very familiar lanes heading towards Horningsham. These lanes I have been down hundreds of times on two wheels (pedal powered and two stroke engine), four (I learned to drive down these roads) and more (on the bus to college in Trowbridge). It was lovely to be coming back down these roads on a (push) bike again. I was probably about 6 the first time I came down this way. I made the most of the nostalgia trip; although now the roads seemed much shorter than they did then and I was soon descending the hill into Horningsham.
Crossing the road by the Bath Arms I ignored the “strictly no entry” signs and rode through the gatehouse at the end of the lovely long drive leading out from Longleat House. This was always a no entry road; however it was also an unwritten rule that locals were fine to ignore it and carry on regardless. That did at some stage become harder for cars (although it rarely stopped us) but now the big barrier was even trying to prevent cycles. I might have been acting the cussed bugger that I can be, but I carried on around the end of the gate. For one thing this is still the route of NCN25 and as such I was sticking with it. For another, the tightened restrictions are the result of Viscount Weymouth who now runs the estate. I went to school with Ceawlin. He was in the year below me at the local comprehensive school in Warminster. I couldn’t bring myself to be stopped going the way I’ve always gone by an old school friend (though I can’t claim to have known him that well).
One of the things that Ceawlin has brought to Longleat under his stewardship is a rather random festival of lights around Christmas time. I’ve not actually witnessed it but am aware that the grounds get filled up with all manner of paper based creations shipped over from China. Work was just starting on preparing the display for the upcoming season. Christmas was still two months away but this is a big operation. A pirate ship was being assembled on the other side of one of the lakes. Outside the main house a bunch of massive ducklings were engaged in a stand off with the resident lion. A herd of deer were getting lost in a maze just around the corner Around the back of Oscar’s Nightclub (in these parts of the world we had to go to the safari park for the night life) yet more animals were still packaged up.
Plastic Pirate Ship
The Ducklings of Longleat
Ducklings vs Lions
Shrink Wrapped Animals
Leaving Longleat I swapped onto cycle route NCN24 and headed along the roads out of the estate towards Frome. The riding was good. The weather was behaving very nicely for October and I was making good progress. I came into the edge of Frome. An odd town is Frome. Growing up in Wiltshire but living close to the border, the neighbouring Somerset town was always something of ‘the enemy’. It was also always pretty run down. The only thing it had going for it then was the Westway cinema, where I watched everything from Watership Down to Jurassic Park. The cinema is still going. It’s one of the small independent cinemas that survived through the multiplex years. This makes me very happy. In recent years Frome has become an up market trendy town. I’m still not sure how that happened and I can’t quite believe it. Foo Fighters played there recently. I can’t get my head around that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always been quite a pretty town with its tight cobbled streets and medieval and Georgian shops and houses. But there was never anything to really do there. Now it’s (I find it hard to bring myself to say this) quite nice.
The cycle route however only skirts around the town and not into the centre so you’ll either have to take my word for the above, or take a diversion if you want to see for yourself. Leaving Frome I started to head into the Mendip hills. The Mendips are less well known than other areas such as the Cotswolds but are equally as pretty and despite the increase in hills I was enjoying the riding. After getting stuck in a cow based traffic jam I dropped down into Great Elm past a lovely river valley and up a steep climb the other side.
Just past Great Elm NCN24 takes a long(ish) but, presumably largely flat, diversion along some abandoned railway lines towards Radstock before turning through 90 degrees towards Bath. I chose however to ignore the easy way and instead took the direct, but hilly route cross country and up the steep climb into Buckland Dinham instead. On the approach into the village I saw someone coming the other direction who was too busy looking at their phone. They had not noticed me at all and were veering across the road straight towards me. Fortunately they were driving one of the fancy self driving vehicles that they use in these parts. By which I mean that the horse saw me and moved back to the side of the road allowing us to pass each other safely.
The day was still early but I wanted to head through Falkland and visit, even if only from the outside, Tuckers Grave Inn. One of only a handful of proper cider houses left in the U.K. Tuckers Grave is a true piece of history. At the time I was visiting its future was uncertain with landlady Glenda looking to finally call last orders and sell up. It is over 20 years since I was last here but the very fond memories remain strong. Being in a very remote location one always needed a designated driver. Or of course you could get there; throw your coat in one of the tatty tents out the back; get drunk and then crash out in the field with a belly full of rough cider. I was indeed there too early this morning to catch a sneaky half of cider, but I am pleased to report that since I passed by the pub has been saved. If you find yourself vaguely in the area then do pay a visit. There are even plans to reopen the camping field.
After passing Tuckers Grave I continued along more Mendip back roads before dropping down into Wellow. A sharp downhill to the ford over the Wellow Brook was immediately followed by an equally sharp climb into the village. That was the Mendips done with though, as just outside the village I finally joined the track bed of the disused Bath to Radstock railway line.
Time for some nice easy miles. I particularly enjoyed riding over the viaduct at Midford; In all my childhood years heading into Bath I’d always been interested in the two disused railway lines that cross over the road here. Until today I’d never had the chance to travel along them and had never seen the old village station.
Next up after Midford is the even more impressive Tucking Mill Viaduct – a fantastic piece of railway architecture. I took a few minutes to walk down the path at the South end of the viaduct into the valley to admire it properly from below before continuing on my way.
Shortly after the viaduct the track goes from being above the land to venturing deeply into it as the track here is part of the ‘Two Tunnels‘ route. The first tunnel, underneath Coombe Down, is over a mile long and is now the U.K.s longest cycle and footpath tunnel. It’s a fantastic experience to ride through. The tunnel seems to go on for ever but is beautifully lit and there are various sound and light installations hidden along it length.
A second tunnel follows quickly afterwards before eventually emerging to the west of Bath city centre, close to the site of a fatal rail crash. Neither tunnel has ventilation shafts and in 1929 a heavily laden goods train was travelling too slowly from Midford; the driver and footman passed out due to the ensuing fumes causing the train to race downhill out of control out of the tunnel where it crashed into the goods yard killing the driver and two railway workers.
Around the Twerton area of Bath a short distance of riding along a handful of side roads is required to link from the Two Tunnels route to join the Bristol to Bath Railway Path on the other side of the River Avon. This is another long stretch of traffic free cycling down the Avon Valley. The riding is lovely and easy and the next few miles flew by. The path crosses the river at Saltford. The bridge is a notable part of UK cycling history as it was the restoration of this bridge, and its transformation for cycle and pedestrian use, that was the first project run by the organisation which was to become ‘Sustrans’; the charity behind the National Cycle Network.
A little further on a small railway halt in the middle of a field marks the start of a stretch where the path is shared with the restored Avon Valley Steam Railway; further on again at Bitton the railway proper starts at the line’s headquarters station. By now it was just gone half past twelve and the railway station café looked to be a great place to stop. I parked the bike up and made my way into the station buildings.
The café is clearly a favourite place for many of the locals as the staff knew most of the customers. There was a lovely friendly atmosphere throughout. To me there’s nothing more homely than good west country accents talking random nonsense and there was plenty of that here. I picked up a bag of ‘posh’ crisps and a small bottle of ‘posh’ pop and headed to the counter:
“Oh. That looks nice and posh. Very sophisticated”
“Absolutely. And can I have a sausage sandwich as well”
“Well you’ve gone and blown that sophistication now my love”
“Marvellous. I’m glad to hear it”
The food hit the spot and I was soon refreshed and ready to go. There were no trains running along the railway on that day but I was allowed to have a good wander along the platform and had a good nose around. Back under way the cycle path skirts around the railway sheds, and then alongside and over the track next to a long train of railway repair vehicles; all good stuff for the amateur train geek.
The train line only runs for a few miles of restored tracks before the cycle way and footpath have full use of the track bed again. The cycle path continues along a nice easy journey past some sculptures and more old stations before being forced to divert onto a number of other cycle paths where modern main roads have cut across the railway line.
Bristol to Bath Cycle Path
Bristol to Bath Cycle Path
After navigating across the roads, the cycle path re-joins the track bed close to the former Mangotsfield station. The station was a junction of two lines and as such the remains of two sets of sweeping platforms with a large central island remain. As well as the remains of the platforms the shells of some of the buildings also survive and trees have planted at the former locations of the platform canopy pillars. The effect is quite mesmerising.
From Mangotsfield cycle route NCN4 continues on into the centre of Bristol but this was the end of that particular line for me. Instead I doubled back onto the other old line to follow the ‘Dramway’ route out towards the old Bristol coalfields and towards Gloucestershire. The route is further disturbed by modern ring roads but before long it is back on good, clear, straight and flat former railway lines. The track passes right by the remains of former Brandy Bottom coal mine and a short way further on again a broken pit wheel forms a new sculpture either side of the cycle path.
Brandy Bottom Coal Mine
However, shortly afterwards I came to the end of the old railway line; at least so far as the cycle path is concerned, and was back onto country lanes. Some largely uneventful miles followed as I cycled through the triangle of villages between the M4 and M5 motorways, crossing the M5 close to its junction with the M4 at Alconbury. A few more miles on quiet roads had me following largely parallel with the M4 and M48 headed towards Aust at the English side of the (original) Severn Bridge.
I might not have been planning on making it all the way to Cardiff on this trip but the plan was very much to cycle across the Severn. This is nice and easy to do, weather permitting. Unlike the M25 Dartford Crossing on my previous big day ride outing, the Severn Bridge has a separate foot and cycle path (also used for bridge maintenance vehicles) on the outside of the road deck. The wind on the bridge was strong. Although the rest of the riding had been quite clam the wind had picked up and it was easy to see why this bridge is so often closed. The riding was quite tough as a result but exhilarating and the bridge certainly gives a proper sense of crossing over from England into Wales, giving quite a feeling of achievement.
On the Bridge
Having made it to Wales it might have made some sense to just head for Chepstow station which is quite close by on this side of the Severn; I had the Severn Tunnel Junction station in mind instead as my final destination. Leaving the Severn behind I started with a slow drag up the hill on a cycle path alongside a busy dual carriage way into the wind. This was certainly the worst section of the whole trip but at the top I hung a left and turned back off onto quiet lanes again. The riding here was the hilliest section since leaving the Mendips behind and I was getting tired now, but I merrily carried on regardless.
The merriment was slightly diminished by the level of traffic on these narrow lanes. A few fields across I could see solid lines of non-moving traffic on the main road. A number of vehicles, including trucks far too big for these lanes, had decided to try and cut across country. My travel was therefore stop start for the next few miles. I couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t be coming face to face with a large truck (over)filling the entire road around any upcoming corner.
It didn’t last too long though and soon I came, unexpectedly, up to the remains of the Roman fort at Caerwent. I wasn’t aware of the site and certainly wasn’t anticipating riding past such great remains,. I stopped to take a look.
From Caerwent the final miles were easy riding on the flat through Caldicot, along the railway line, and then into Rogiet, aka the Home of Severn Tunnel Junction station and the end of my ride. I had three quarters of an hour before the next train to Cardiff so I went off on a short but hopeless search for somewhere to get some water. My bottles had now run dry and whilst I had finished my day’s riding I needed to rehydrate. There were no shops anywhere in the village however, so I ended up asking a builder working outside a house in the village to fill my water bottle for me which he kindly did. Back at the station I finished off my last few snacks washed down with my fresh water before just about managing to squeeze my way onto the very crowded train to Cardiff; contorting myself into a very uncomfortable position unbecoming for a man of my age and size. Unravelling myself at Cardiff I made my way to hotel (just a few yards from the station) and had just enough time to properly freshen up and get myself ready for the pre-conference meal. This might not be the traditional way to make your way to a conference but I can highly recommend it.
About a month after getting back from my ‘All Points North‘ ride around the Highlands and to Orkney I was ready to get back out for a solid day trip on the bike. I’d done a few commuting rides since but was itching for something a bit longer. It had turned out that riding across the North of Scotland with full kit clearly did some good as I’d got home and promptly smashed my best time up the hill that I live on the top of. I didn’t want to let that all go to waste so I took a Wednesday off work at the tail end of September and prepared for a day out.
Living on the south coast has many advantages; choice of direction in which to set out for a ride is not one of them though. Most of my rides have ventured either west (across the Weald or along the South Coast past Brighton) or east towards, and into, Kent. Oddly, I had rarely ventured straight North. I was also aware of some adventurous river crossings I wanted to take; so it was that after a light breakfast I was on my way by eight thirty a.m. First up was probably the sharpest climb of the day, Elphinstone Road in Hastings. One of those nasty hills that starts off sharp and gets continuously steeper as it goes up. It’s not long but I wasn’t ready, was not warmed up, and I had to stop a few times on the way. Not a great start but I knew that, though not flat, I didn’t have anything as tough again until just before Maidstone.
From on top of ‘The Ridge’ that marks the northern edge of Hastings I headed out of town on the small lane towards Westfield. This lane can be a bit of a rat run with cars heading down it at unnecessary speeds, but today it was fine. The other side of the village and across the main A28 I discovered that the next road to Sedlescombe had been recently resurfaced; This was another pretty country lane to another pretty country village. and I made the most of the fresh tarmac. The Sedlescombe Geese were already out and about doing their regular duties looking pretty on the village green as I rode past.
Leaving Sedlescombe the road rises steadily for a couple of miles past Cripps Corner up to a high point in Staplecross village. The road to this point is relatively busy but nice and wide and open and I was still riding happily. At Staplecross the busier road bears east towards Rye but I carried on Northwards heading downhill into the picture perfect Rother Valley at Bodiam.
There are few more bucolic English villages than Bodiam on a glorious summers day. Sitting in the beer garden of the Castle Inn eating good food and drinking good beer watching the birds flutter around the houses is relaxing enough. Add in a game of cricket in the field behind the beer garden. Now look behind you to the right and admire the lines of vines heading up the south facing slopes of the valley. Now over your left shoulder admire again the Castle that the pub is named for; one of the most famous Castles in the country. Then your attention is drawn back in front of you again; over the river to the other side of the valley. The source of the whistle that attracted your attention is clearly visible at the base of the cloud of steam left behind by the train coming into the Bodiam station terminus of the Kent and East Sussex Railway.
Today however was a Wednesday at the tail end of September; autumn was well on its way and I was too early for a beer. Indeed I was too early for a visit to the Castle which was not due to open for half an hour but, despite some quizzical looks from the staff, nobody stopped me as I rode in anyway. I had a quick glance at the castle from besides the moat; making the most of a rare chance to admire it without other visitors, and then headed back on my way; I was still early on my day’s riding and needed to tick some more miles off.
From Bodiam I put my head down and rode north again. The riding was lovely across this part of the Weald but other than keeping an eye on my maps to keep me on my planned route I carried straight on without stopping. The ride South of Bodiam was all on roads that I know well (sadly mostly from driving) but I was now into less well chartered territory. I knew a lot of the villages in the next part of the countryside but was heading down lanes that I knew only vaguely, if at all. At Cranbrook, which was a convenient 20 miles into the ride, I took a very brief detour to park my bike and have a quick break at the Union Mill. I’ve not yet been ever able to visit inside the mill. I wasn’t expecting to do so today either but it was still a lovely place for a short break.
From Cranbrook the Weald continues for only a few more miles. South of Staplehurst (which I skirted around the western side of) the Weald comes to an end with a view over the (mostly) flat and low lying lands which make up the next five miles before the sharp rise of the Greensand Ridge immediately South of Maidstone. Dropping off from the Weald I was amused and delighted to now spot one of the most lovely examples of a Wealden Hall at Rabbits Cross Farm – I was in full flow as I passed but I had to hit the brakes and turn back to admire it.
I made the most of the flatter miles in preparation for the climb up onto the Greensand Ridge. The hill was much as I expected. It was pretty damn tough and with a few false summits before eventually coming to the top of the hill at Chart Sutton. At the top of the ridge a left turn along the top for a short way gave me a chance to get my breath back before preparing to cross onto some back roads into the edge of Maidstone. I got a little lost trying to take some short cuts through the estates of the town and eventually had to double back and make my way onto the main road and drop the most direct way into the town centre.
Maidstone gives some hints that there could be a lovely town hiding in there somewhere. There are some lovely medieval buildings to spot but they are sadly hidden amongst post war developments and the god awful road system makes getting to them nigh on impossible. As a result the town is extremely horrible to visit on a bike. I stopped briefly for a quick bite to eat and to put on my coat as the Gods of Maidstone had decided to compound the misery of the town with a nasty sharp shower. I then began to navigate my way out. I’ve tried this a few times before and have still to be successful in this endeavour. As is often the way in towns, the cycle path signs are intermittent and often appear only when the route is obvious; leaving just a big enough space between them when they might be at their most useful. As every interruption in the cycle route involved navigating my way around the dual carriageway ring road system I cannot say that I was having much fun. I did eventually locate the track I was after; a narrow shared cycle and foot path alongside the main road out of town to the North. Some more confusion had me checking and double checking my progress as I came past the junction with the M20, but I was soon back on another path next to the dual carriageway climbing out of the town towards the Pilgrim’s Way.
This climb is almost twice the height of the earlier Geeensand Ridge, but much less steep and more drawn out. It might have actually been quite fun were it not for the roaring traffic on the main road right next to me. I kept my head down. Even on a short section where the cycle way follows a side road for a few hundred yards there was no relief; indeed this might have been worse as I was now directly sharing the road with some of the big lorries that were thundering around using this piece of road as somewhere to park up for a break. Looking back at the maps now to check my route I’m disappointed to see that I must have passed the Neolithic sites of Kits Coty and Little Kits Coty right by the road. I must have missed any signs as I was too occupied just keeping on up the hill and watching out for traffic. I shall have to come back to visit. I might use the car.
At the top of Blue Bell Hill I could finally turn off away from the traffic. A building site at the road junction had curious signs insisting on no filming and photography should be undertaken. I would not have made any consideration of taking any pictures of a fenced off building plot had I not been told that it was prohibited; so I stopped to take a few pictures as obviously as possible before heading on my way along the ridge of the hill.
The cycle path from here turns at ninety degrees from the main road and follows the ridge of the hill for a short while. A few yards along the ridge I turned into the small car park that allows visitors to enjoy a walk along the hill. The rain had stopped again now so I took my coat back off and stopped for a sandwich and to rest my legs whilst admiring the view back down over the Medway Valley. Even on a fairly cloudy day like this its quite a lovely view, so long as you squint and avoid looking at Maidstone. Leaving the car park I stopped to pay respects at the memorial to the crew of the Kent Air Ambulance that lost their lives when they crashed into the hillside here in 1998.
Back on my way the cycle path follows the ridge only a short distance before turning into some woodland to follow forest tracks back down the hill in the vague direction of Rochester. In a few more weeks this track might have become a bit too wet and tricky to ride; indeed it might have already been too awkward to ride up on my bike; but downhill was OK. I enjoyed it, although I had to be a bit wary of some big protruding tree roots and some muddier sections. Before long I was at the bottom on a small track/access road alongside the channel tunnel rail link.
Riding Through the Woods
Channel Tunnel Rail Link
A couple of easy miles followed heading towards the river at Borstal (home of the original young offenders institute) and then following the east bank of the Medway into Rochester. I was amused to learn of the existence of Rochester ‘Pier’ and so rode along to the end of it from which at least one can get a nice view back to the Castle and Cathedral. Then it was across the Medway to the west bank, past the Soviet submarine (yes you read that correctly), and up the short sharp hill past Frindsbury Church and the out of the town for a couple of quiet miles on country lanes before coming into the edge of Gravesend.
A Notice to the Residents
Rochester Castle from the ‘Pier’
The Soviet Sub
You come into Gravesend alongside the Thames and Medway canal. On the opposite bank of the canal I could see the unmistakable signs of the Gravesend Water Sewage Treatment Works; the location of probably the most grim archaeological site I ever worked on. Many things from my days in archaeology will always stay with me. Sadly they include The Skip of Unpleasant Things™, the particular texture of the ground as the digger opened the trench, the discussions as to whether we should be placing toilet roll and condoms into a finds bag, and finishing off the last trench late into the evening by the light of the methane flame in order to avoid having to come back the next day.
From the sewage farm, the route passes into Gravesend through a series of industrial estates that have the air of being the perfect location for a 21st century set Dickens film adaptation. Tightly packed warehouses with cobbled narrow alleys between them eventually give way to a canal basin marina that opens directly onto the Thames Estuary.
From the marina I came onto the sea/river front. A group of artists were all out painting the now disused Tilbury Power Station on the opposite bank of the Thames. Later that week the chimneys were blown up removing another one of the area’s tall landmarks. Last time I rode along the North Kent Coast I did so just a few days before the even larger chimney at the Isle of Grain power station was destroyed; I seem to be a jinx for power stations along this stretch of coast.
Although I had made it to the north Kent coast I was not done for the day. I had a river to cross but I still had about half an hour to spare so I took a (very) quick look at the 18/19 century New Tavern artillery fort and then dashed over to St Georges Church. Somewhere in the church yard is the last resting place of Pocahontas. Her short life came to an inglorious end when she died after being taken ill shortly after leaving London; hoping to return to her family in North America. She was buried in the church here, however that was destroyed by fire in 1727. The church was rebuilt but the exact site of her burial became lost and now she is marked by a statue placed in the middle of the (mostly ‘cleared’) graveyard.
I returned to the waterfront and the Town Pier ready for the next stage of the day’s adventure. From here a foot ferry takes passengers and bicycles for a short ride across the Thames over to Tilbury. So it was that I dragged the bike onto the boat and left Kent behind me, bound for Essex.
The Tilbury end of the ferry shows how things have changed here in recent years. The docks are still busy as freight container ships load and unload here; but in previous times the foot ferry was part of a complex of travel that also included the old Tilbury Riverside railway station. Next door to that is the Art Deco Cruise Terminal Building. As well as being the start and end points of many cruise holidays (which it still is to this day) new lives were often forged here; many Brits left to emigrate to Australia from here and it was also the landing port for boats such as the Empire Windrush, bringing with it the first group of West Indian immigrants.
Crossing the Thames
Tilbury Flood Gates
For me however the main attraction at Tilbury was in the opposite direction to the Cruise Terminal and container port. To the east lies the largely still extant remains of Tilbury Fort. Originally built by Henry VIII and used in the defences against the Spanish Armada, the fort continued to see use and was rebuilt during the civil war, the Napoleonic wars and still continued to play a (small) roll in both World Wars. If you want to know more take look at the Wiki link above or why not go and visit; it’s an English Heritage owned site now. Instead I’ll just leave you with some pictures…
View from the Fort
Inside the Fort
Tilbury Fort Artillery
Guns at the Fort
After a good look around, and still with some miles to tick off, I got back into the saddle and promptly got lost around the estates of Tilbury. If you’re reading this from that town, or have some affection for it, then I’m sorry; but it’s an absolute hole and I found myself pedalling as quickly as I could to try and find my way out of the estates without incident. Put it this way, there was no way that I felt safe to get a map out of my pocket; I made sure I rode quickly, trying to give off the air of someone local who was totally au fait with my direction of travel. Eventually I found myself on the edge of Tilbury and, breathing a sigh of relief, afforded myself a quick stop and a surreptitious glance at my map to check where I had come out of town and where to head next.
From Tilbury I carried on through Grays and into Thurrock. There really isn’t much to say of this part of my ride. It was all pretty ghastly. These two towns are a slight improvement on Tilbury, but that’s all relative. I managed to take a couple of wrong turns but eventually found myself close to the northern side of the M25 Dartford Crossing*. Now I just had to find the special bike hut.
*Hey pedantic fact fans; its not the M25. Did you know that the M25 is not a complete circuit? The Dartford crossing is actually the A282!
It took me a few goes checking various locations. I was hunting for ‘Essex Point’, aka 859 London Road. I had thought that this might be an office for the bridge and tunnel operations but eventually realised that I would most likely have to follow the little cycle path I had spotted heading up onto the motorway sliproad. I was a bit wary but everything turned out fine.
When the QEII Bridge was opened in 1991, unlike many other bridges such as the Humber or the original Severn Bridge, there was no provision made for pedestrians or cyclists (for more on the Severn Bridge, stay tuned for a future blog post). Instead the operators run a free shuttle service to ferry cyclists across the river. You just have to turn up at either end, and use the provided telephone to request passage. Having now found the correct point next to the motorway on the Essex side I rang through my request and waited.
Phone for Transport
Waiting for the Van
Preparing to cross the QEII Bridge
After 5-10 minutes a van pulled up and the driver hopped out and loaded my bike into the back. We were just about to set off when another cyclist pulled up. The driver and he cheerily said hello. This gentleman uses the service daily to commute between his work in Essex and his home in Kent. The driver told me that there are quite a large number of people who do the same. He had actually assumed that my call for service was actually being made by the other gentleman.
Within minutes we were over the bridge and across to the other side at ‘Kent Point’ We unloaded, I gathered my stuff and checked my map, and then headed on for the final few miles. I was onto NCN Route 1 now and managed to fill in a few more miles of that route I had not previously ridden. I’ve now done most of the route through Kent, with the exception of a couple of miles between Rochester and Rainham and between Ebbsfleet and Gravesend.
Looking back at the Dartford Crossing
Back on NCN Route 1
From here I crossed back over the motorway, taking a look back over the bridge and the entrance to the (north bound) tunnels and then made my way to meet the old Roman road, Watling Street. From here a straight few miles riding was pointing me back in the direction of Gravesend, although I wasn’t heading quite that far. Unfortunately I only had the one pannier with me and it was fairly full. I’d therefore have to pass up the offer of a cheap kitten from a farm by the side of the road.
Finally the turning I was looking for was ahead of me and I bore North around the large, empty car parks and up to the white elephant station at Ebbsfleet International from where I had planned to get a train back home. I rolled into the station forecourt and cheerily dismounted for the final time. Despite having had what felt like a long day in the saddle, I was still here too early to board a train straight away; bikes are prohibited on the outbound trains during the evening rush hour. So it was that I had just under an hour to explore the many delights of the station. By which I mean I made a coffee and a slice of Millionaires Shortbread from Marks and Spencer last for 45 minutes. An odd way to finish a day’s ride, but there you go!
With another big multi day ride looming in a few weeks I had booked a Wednesday off work with the aim of spending it in the saddle getting in some practice. After my previous successful trip around the Isle of Wight I was up for the idea of spending another day where I get up early and drive out somewhere in order to be able to take in some sights other than my regular Kent and Sussex sites.
I had a couple of possible routes in mind; one around the New Forest and another starting in that area but taking in a wider circuit around Wilts and Dorset as well as Hampshire. With the intention of getting in a fair bit more than 100Km I plumped for the latter option, having determined a route of about 135km starting and ending in Ridgewood and taking in Salisbury, Shaftesbury, Blandford Forum and Wimborne Minster.
As I had done on the Isle of Wight trip I prepared everything in advance. My pannier was packed and loaded along with the bike into the car the night before so that I could get up and be on the road nice and early. However one thing was not fitting to plan so well. The previous Saturday I had been into Brighton to see the return after almost 20 years of one of my favourite “Brit Pop” bands, Sleeper. The gig, in the small and crowded Haunt venue was excellent; however it became apparent that someone close to me was spreading germs in the environment as by Tuesday evening I was beginning to feel quite rough with a summer cold.
I chose to ignore it on Wednesday morning though, and by half five I was in my car and heading West. I grabbed some breakfast on the way. The Isle of Wight trip was on a Saturday when the early morning roads were much less busy. Also, although I would be starting at a similar time, the drive to Ringwood was quite a bit further than that to Portsmouth which I had done previously.
Still, the drive was largely uneventful and I rolled into Ringwood and parked up on a quiet residential road at just gone half past eight. As the weather forecast had promised, as I had headed west the weather had got wetter and the rain was quite solid by the time I crossed into Hampshire. I therefore took my time in getting the bike out of the car and ready to roll but I was on my way before 9am.
The rain was still solid, though not torrential, a I headed out of Ringwood towards the minor road running northwards along the western side of the New Forest National Park. I didn’t have far to travel before making my first route alteration of the day. At a lovely triangular junction just inside the park, I stopped to smile and take a picture at the road sign pointing towards the excellently named village of Mockbeggar. It later transpired that I should in fact have followed the sign and ridden through said village; instead I veered off towards the right heading for Linwood. After a few lovely miles across the forest I began to realise that I hadn’t apparently come into either North or South Gorley so I stopped to look at the GPS and realised I was heading eastwards across a part of the New Forest where I was not supposed to be.
Sticking my maps apps into satellite view mode I had to choose between doubling back to the Mockbeggar sign or trying some cross country footpaths to bring me back onto my planned route close to Frogham. From the satellite the tracks looked good so I decided to head across the heath. On the whole it made for quite a pleasant, if slow, diversion. However it turns out that the New Forest includes some large patches of very sandy soil which necessitated walking the bike in places – my 32mm tyres can cope with some loose ground, but not that loose.
Despite having to push the bike across the worst of the sandy sections and the persistent rain it was nice to be out in the open countryside which I had entirely to myself. Just before re-joining some proper road surfaces I came across a family of New Forest ponies which also helped to make my ‘short cut’ worth the while. It wasn’t much further until I re-joined my original planned route close to the amusingly named ‘Sandy Balls’ campsite in Godshill.
From there I was back onto following a series of minor roads. There was a short sharp climb onto Castle Hill and then a long straight drive and a drop down into Woodgreen. From here I followed the Avon Valley into Downton. In Downton, a very pretty little town centred around some old mill buildings on the Avon, I had the choice of a couple of possible routes. Having lost some time and having established that the roads in the area seemed to be quite quiet I elected to follow the A338 towards Salisbury. Although there was a fair amount of traffic here the road was flat and open and it was good to be making some proper progress and catching up on some lost time.
Before long I was at Nunton on the edge of Salisbury. From here the original plan was to head into the city centre and along to Wilton before dropping back South West towards Shaftesbury. Instead however, after a good check of my maps, I decided to make a change of plan. I know Salisbury very well; it’s a city I grew up visiting and also worked in for a number of years. It would have been nice to ride around the meadows by the Cathedral; however it was not really a must do part of the ride. I was also feeling the effects of my cold a bit and didn’t fancy the stop-start riding that cities inevitably invoke.
Instead I headed west from Nunton and followed the minor road through Odstock, Homington and Coombe Bissett. I was glad that I did. The villages in the Ebble valley are all very pretty. Also, although not flat I was avoiding a climb out of Wilton up past Salisbury race course. Before Bishopstone I re-joined the original planned route and continued on through some more pretty villages rolling up and down the valley side.
I was starting to get low on water so stopped at the lovely village stores in Broad Chalke. The well stocked community shop has been fitted into an old chapel and is an excellent asset to the community. I resisted the temptation to get a coffee as well although it was sorely tempting.
Having been re-evaluating my plans for the day in light of the weather (both of the rain and the ‘feeling under the…’ varieties) I made a phone call. Well I would have done but there was no signal so I pushed on.
Somewhere beyond Fifield Bavant (a tiny hamlet with a fantastic little church hiding just beyond the few houses) my phone started beeping at me indicating that I had a signal. I pulled over to the verge on what had been right until that moment an almost unused road. Immediately upon using the phone there was suddenly an apparently non stop stream of traffic. It didn’t make for the best place to have a conversation but I managed a couple of calls anyway. One call was to my parents who live in the area to see if they fancied meeting me for a coffee in Shaftesbury. The other call was to tell me that I’d been successful in getting a promotion at work; but that’s incidental to this story.
A few more wet, pretty, but uneventful miles brought me past Berwick St John and up to the A30. As I had done earlier, I elected to follow the main road for a few miles rather than add a detour around some minor lanes. Other than a short climb out of Ludwell it was another good and easy choice and I was soon pulling up at the town hall in the centre of Shaftesbury.
Having made it a good twenty minutes before my parents said that they would be there I wandered around to look at the famous Gold Hill. I didn’t ride up it, nor did I put on a random Yorkshire accent (the hill was famously used in a Hovis bread advert that gave the impression that the hill had been relocated 200 miles north).
I locked the bike up, met my parents and we headed into the local Costa Coffee for a sandwich and drinks. It was nice to catch up with them and though I had now decided that I was going to be cutting up to 20 miles from the ride I wasn’t feeling great and so it felt like the sensible decision. After a little over an hour’s break we said goodbye and I got back under way.
The original plan had involved heading due south towards Blandford Forum and then heading back from there towards Ringwood via Wimborne Minster. Instead I now elected to take the direct route back across Cranborne Chase. I’d be following a busier road (the B3081) but as before I had suspected (largely correctly) that it wouldn’t be too busy.
Doubling back out of Shaftesbury the way I had entered I was heading for a road infamous in my childhood growing up in the area; but one that I had never cycled.
Over the roundabout at the edge of the town I hung a right initially towards Melbury Abbas but then took a left before entering that village. I had an easy couple of miles to prepare me for what I knew was coming. I let the legs warm back up after lunch and then before long there it was.
I was at the bottom of “Zig Zag Hill”. The name is a giveaway. It marks the climb up onto the chalk downloads of the Chase that straddle the Wiltshire and Dorset border. The hill (or its neighbouring climb onto Spread Eagle Hill) were staples of childhood summer days out to the south coast. We always cheered Dad on to push the car faster up the winding climb.
Coming to the hill for the first time under my own steam therefore felt like a big thing. At the bottom of the hill I dropped into a lower gear and eased myself into climbing mode.
Apparently it turns out that zig zag hill isn’t as awful as memory had it and the last few years living near, and riding over, the South Downs has prepared me for worse. The road surface wasn’t great but the nature of the zig zags themselves meant the ride was actually quite easy. I’m not going to claim to have flown up the hill, it just wasn’t a patch on my mental image of it. The climb from Hastings sea front to my house is worse and i do that happily several times a week.
The hill continues up beyond the initial zig zags but it is still a simple climb and once out of the tree lined zig zags there is a great view across Wiltshire from the top of the downs.
Once on the Chase proper the riding was largely lovely rolling countryside with fantastic open views. A few miles over the hills I stopped to try and help another cyclist. He had problems work his gears and also had a flat. I would have offered him a spare tube but his tyres were much thinner than my 32s and I had to leave him there. He told me he wasn’t far from home so hopefully he managed to get enough air in to get him back.
From that point the road started to drop back down a bit into the lovely village of Tollard Royal. The road into and through the village is narrow and winding so I was in the great position of being able to pass through much quicker than the motorists behind me. They soon overtook as the climb back out of the village started though.
It wasn’t much of a climb but was certainly slower than the ride into the village. Despite that I was soon back onto the open hills. Some more rolling roads and I was passing through Sixpenny Handley, across the main Blandford – Salisbury road, and onto the south east section of the Chase.
By now the weather had improved and the rain had finally stopped. However I was feeling the effects of riding when not 100%. The final miles across the Chase were easy enough as they slowly dropped downhill.
I left the main road at the edge of the Chase and dropped down into Edmondsham, a small and pretty village with a nasty little climb at its far end (well it probably wasn’t nasty bit i was getting fatigued now).
Before long I was on the edge of Verwood and within about five miles of the car. It was also now rush hour and the ride from Verwood towards Ringwood was pretty unpleasant as a lot of cars passed by too close to be enjoyable. However once underneath the A31 the final miles into Ringwood were some of the nicest; following a disused rail line and so very shortly I was back in Ringwood, back at the car, and ready to drive home.
The weather and my cold had reduced the pleasure of the day a little but it was still a lovely ride across some beautiful countryside and was a great way to spend a day off work.
To date all of my longer (100km or more) one day rides have never taken me too far. I have kept firmly within Kent and East Sussex. They might not all started or finished at home, but at worst have only involved a short train ride or drive at the start or end of the day.
However a few weeks back, after getting a bit of inspiration from some cycling forum sites, I found myself making some tentative plans for something a bit different. Before I knew it the plans were finalised and maps bought (I never need an excuse to spend some money with the Ordnance Survey). With my other half being away for a weekend a date (the Saturday in question) was fixed..
On the Friday night I made sure that everything was packed and loaded into the car, including the bike. I went to bed stupidly early for a Friday night ready for the day ahead.
The alarm went off at 5am. I got dressed into my cycling gear and then straight up and into the car which I pointed west along the South coast. I Stopped briefly in Chichester for a healthy McDonalds breakfast and to fill up with petrol. Back on th eroad and with the roads being nice and quiet at that time of the morning, I was soon parking the car up in the car park at Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth. I got the bike out, checked it over, put on the rest of my kit and rode across to the harbour station. With a bit of time to spare I took a quick spin around the harbour before getting my ticket and preparing to board the 8.15 ferry to Ryde to begin a circuit of the Isle of Wight.
It was a beautiful clear morning and the Solent was mostly still so I stood on the top deck of the Catamaran admiring the views all the way across to the Island. The Portsmouth to St Malo ferry was following us out of Portsmouth and the Solent Forts were clearly visible to the port side of the ferry. I got ready to disembark as we docked up alongside Ryde Pier.
The Solent Forts
There were a couple of other cyclists on the boat as well who were also doing circuits of the Island. They both looked like they were going to be riding faster than me (expensive bikes; thin wheels; no paniers; probably just going heads down rather than taking a good look at the countryside around them) so I let them go in front of me off the boat. They were both well gone before I had taken a photo at the starting point and triggered up my GPS.
The route I would take would be largely following the main ‘Around the Island’ route but not entirely so. Although I was sure that there would be good reasons (hills, busy roads, etc.) it struck me that the main route did not follow the coast quite as much as one might expect for a round an island route. I had guessed (correctly, fortunately) that a Saturday in March would not be the busiest day on the Island which also helped my plans.
The main route bypasses Ryde entirely so I had to make my own way out of the town. A short climb out of Ryde warmed the legs up and then I turned onto the B road headed towards Nettlestone. A lovely winding road with regular ups and downs gave a good indication of what would be mostly ahead of me for the day. From somewhere near to Nettlestone I picked up the main route which I would be using for a miles now so I followed it through St Helens and Bembridge and along the side of Culver Down; all of which were lovely early miles in the fresh morning air. I had already stopped early somewhere around St Helens to remove my coat and stuff it into a bag – I could quite happily have left it at home but never mind; it doesn’t take much weight.
At a roundabout a few yards after passing the road to Bembridge Fort (which was not open today; saving me some extra feet of climbing as I would not have been able to resist) the route goes straight ahead. Instead I bore left heading into Sandown from where I could follow the coast through to middle of Shanklin.
Living as I do in a seaside town that is doing an excellent job of rejuvenating itself and giving itself a new lease of life, it was slightly sad to see that both Sandown and Shanklin are looking quite faded. I should imagine that they will pick up at some point; however much of the island shows a lack of recent investment. The coast and beaches are glorious so they should thrive, but buildings such as the Grand Hotel at the entrance of Sandown and the sorry looking state of its pier (a whole day’s fun in one apparently) were not too welcoming.
The Grand Hotel
A whole days fun in one
Between Sandown and Shanklin I followed the sea front prom; a shared cycleway/footpath. There were quite a number of people making use of it and I can understand why. The path is lovely. It follows the beach directly underneath the cliffs. Carefully dodging past people I made slow but steady progress. I was more than happy to reduce my speed to make the most of this stretch; something that those on the main round the island route will not get to experience.
Coming into Shanklin I ignored the cycle route sign pointing me into the town; purely because it involved a steep but brief climb up onto the cliffs. Instead I rode on a short way along the prom before checking the map and realising that I should have followed the signs. Still, I had got to see a bit more of Shanklin prom including the cliff lift which was closed when I visited; I hope that was just seasonal. The climb up was fine as it turned out and, with my selected route, I knew I was going to be climbing soon enough anyway.
Out of Shanklin I joined the main A road and rode sharply out of the town towards Ventnor. After a short stop near the top to admire the view back from where I had come (not just to take a breather. Oh no!) the road winds nicely around before dropping back down into Ventnor; a place I previously only knew of as a stop by the Irish band Ash on their ‘A-Z’ tour a few years back; a poster for which we have in our hall at home.
From Ventnor I would suggest that not following the main cycle route is definitely a good idea. A roadslip a few miles past the town closed the main road a few years back and the signs are that it will never be reopened. Instead the traffic is diverted along B roads further uphill whilst the former main road (Undercliff) is now a lovely quiet glide around the cliffs about half way up them. After a couple of miles I came to the area where the road had been lost. It now comes to a stop; however a narrower piece of footpath and cycleway has recently been opened thus allowing for easy and unhindered riding. The lack of repair to the road shows further evidence of a wider lack of investment in the island but it does make for a nice cycle route.
Towards the end of the Undercliff road a short but easy going climb back up to the cliff tops bring you into Nilton and back onto the round the island cycle way. The route follows the main road again here for a few miles as it climbs up onto Blackgang Hill. I stopped at the viewing point here and had considered a walk up onto the hill top to look at St Catherine’s Oratory. It was further off the road than I had anticipated however, and I didn’t want to carry the panniers or leave them unlocked on the bike in a busy car park. Instead I just admired the views and had a chat with a local cyclist who tried to encourage me to come back in a few weeks for the Round the Island Randonnee ride. That was certainly tempting but I’m not able to do so; though reading about the ride and realising I couldn’t make the date were major reasons as to why I was there today.
After dropping down from Blackgang Hill the main route heads inland a short way onto quieter roads but as the traffic was still looking pretty light I decided to stick with the main road; the military road running along the cliff tops and the seafront from here to the village of Freshwater.
One of the main tips I had received was to choose whether to ride clockwise or anti clockwise depending on the direction of the wind along the exposed military road. Today was a windy day and though riding clockwise would mean heading into the north easterly wind for the final quarter of the ride I could see the benefit of the decision (though the wind was as much across me as behind so it wasn’t a total “breeze”). Folk I saw riding the other direction certainly looked like they were struggling at times.
The stretch along the military road is one of the longer bits of road on the island and at over 10 miles it is certainly the longest straight on this ride. It isn’t arrow straight but feels quite like it. I was grateful for the slight push from the wind as the miles gradually ticked by. The day was getting warm and my legs starting to tire. I pulled in to the car park at Compton Chine where an ice cream van sold me a couple of bottles of water from I which I filled my bike bottles. Pulling out of the car park the road starts to climb as the steady cliffs of the south side of the island transform into the steeper chalk hills of the west part around the Needles.
At the top of the cliff the road levelled out for a bit, rather too close to the cliff edge in places, before a sharp descent into Freshwater Bay. I made the most of the open road, recently resurfaced, and clocked up 42mph just before entering Freshwater.
At Freshwater the round the island route heads north cutting off the corner towards Yarmouth. For me though it didn’t seem right to tour around the island and not head towards the iconic Needles headland. I therefore hung a left on the way out of the village and began a long and arduous climb up the hills. The actual ride up isn’t probably too bad but by now I was tired. I had passed a nice looking café in the village and was regretting not having stopped. I should have listened to my legs rather than the stupid part of my brain telling me I needed to push on to the Needles before lunch. I admit I struggled in places but eventually made progress.
The Needles itself is one of the island’s main attractions and for the last mile I joined the main road to it and a busy line of traffic heading to the car park. From there, however, cyclists are allowed to continue where cars are not on the path towards the headland and the old ‘battery’ sites. Aiming for the better views I followed the road around up a couple of mountain pass style hairpins before almost collapsing in a heap by the upper battery site.
I parked up, took some snacks from the panniers and wandered the final yards to the viewing point from where I could get my glimpse of the famous chalk stacks. The day was totally glorious now, if still windy. Despite being shattered it was worth the effort. I also took a look around the ‘secret rocket test’ site before getting back in the saddle.
Despite my hunger I chose to pass by the tourist cafes by the car park and continued on the largely (but by no means only) downhill road back the way I had come towards Freshwater. There I found my way back to the café that I had passed earlier. The Piano café was popular and full and with good reason, but I ordered some food and propped myself at the bar with a long cold drink until a table became ready where I could eat a lovely chicken wrap and salad. I would certainly not hesitate to recommend the place to anyone doing the round the island ride. My only regret was that I should have stopped here when passing the first time as, welcoming though the food was, I could tell that I should have had it sooner as my legs were quite drained and I was still only a little over half way through the day.
However I was refreshed and ready to continue so, having again filled my bottles, I headed back on my way. From here on I would be following the main route all the way back to Fishbourne, where I would finally leave it in order to head back into Ryde.
The route to Yarmouth follows an old train line alongside the River Yar. It makes for a nice few flat miles and allowed me to get my legs warmed back up a bit. Yarmouth Old station is now a café/restaurant and looks as though it would have been a nice place to stop had I not already been to the Piano Café.
From Yarmouth the route turns East and so I started heading back into the wind. From here I was onto some quiet country lanes but tiredness and the wind started to take their toll. I was finding keeping a steady rhythm difficult but managed to keep the miles ticking over through Wellow and Newbridge. From Newbridge the route starts to bear north easterly as it points towards Cowes.
After crossing a pretty creek the route passes into the tiny hamlet of Newtown and past the ‘town hall with no town’. Newtown was started in the 13th century and was planned to be a major port town. It started to thrive but soon declined again and now only a handful of houses remain.
The next five miles were a bit more of a drag; though the scenery was lovely, rolling up and down the hills before riding down into Gurnard Harbour on the western edge of Cowes. I was hoping for a flat ride through the town now but there was another up and down before hitting Cowes Esplanade. Further along the front I followed the cycle route signs. I might suggest to others that they might wish to reconsider. Rather than follow the seafront the route suddenly dived back up inland and up some more steep hills. The route makes a variety of twists and turns and drops and climbs before finally heading down to the Cowes chain ferry. I am sure that there must be a more friendly way to get to it.
At the time that I was on the island the main chain ferry was out of action. It was in the process of being replaced with a new one and the slipways are also being improved to house the larger boat. However a small passenger (and bike) ferry was doing the trip instead. Throwing the bike onto the small but high sided boat wasn’t easy but I was soon across and getting off at East Cowes.
I had planned on a coffee and cake stop but didn’t spot a single establishment so instead started the next climb up from the river side along the main road headed out of the town past Osborne; Queen Victoria’s House. Half way up the hill my legs almost completely gave up the ghost and my left thigh cramped up. I had to throw myself off the bike and massage my leg. I feared the worst at this point but strangely the cramp seemed to help and once I’d sorted myself out I felt a lot better.
The next five miles to Fishbourne went well and I got my mojo back for the final push. At Fishbourne I left the round the island route to head back into Ryde. I turned towards the car ferry and just past it a turning to the right takes you onto a well surfaced footpath and cycle way for the final two miles to the edge of Ryde. The route passes the old and new Quarr Abbeys. The first of the Abbeys is the current Benedictine monastery (it has a tea shop but was closed by the time I came by and I was close enough to the end anyway) and just beyond are the ruins of the medieval Cistercian Abbey. From there a short ride across a golf course brought me to the western edge of Ryde.
New Quarr Abbey
Old Quarr Abbey
A final few streets dropped me down through the town and there was Ryde pier in front of me. Riding along the pier felt great. The sun was dropping (the clocks were to change the next day) and the sunset was stunning.
I was proud to have finished the ride. It was by no means the longest I have undertaken and not the hilliest but it was still a tough 100km whilst still carrying my post Christmas bulk.
I had about half an hour to wait for the ferry and grabbed a welcome coffee and a bun from the Costa Coffee at the ferry terminal. The sailing back to Portsmouth was as smooth as the way out but it was now dark and getting cold so I stayed inside the boat.
Back at Portsmouth I rode the short way back to the car park, loaded the bike into the car, got changed and walked back into Gunwharf Quays. Back in warmer clothes I made the most of the weather and settled for some food at an outside table at Wagamama. One Katsu Curry later and I headed back to the car and the drive home. What a great day.