Riding with the Mini Beast

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.

St Patrick’s Day Train Humour

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.

Leaving Ramsgate in a flurry of snow

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).

Ramsgate Harbour

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.

Ramsgate Mean Time

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.

Lift to Ramsgate Beach

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).

Hengest and Horsa woz ere

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.

Deal Pier

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.

Looning on Deal Seafront

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.

Climbing onto the Cliffs

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.

View to Dover 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).

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.

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.

The view across Folkstone to Fairlight!

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.

Folkestone Harbour

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.

All the Carbs

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.

Across the Marsh

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.

Marsh lambs sheltering from the wind

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.

Approaching Rye

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.