Despite being shattered after a long day in the saddle yesterday I still managed to wake myself up at 6.30 so I got up, showered, packed the panniers and went downstairs to breakfast. The Mercure was offering a good buffet range (always interesting to see how better the fare is in the continental hotels than in their UK branches) and I probably ending up overloading on the pastries before checking out.
Getting on the bike my legs felt like lead. The short climb on to the ridge turned out to be considerably harder going than it should have been as my body slowly woke up to the idea of going for it again. Fortunately today was due to be the wind down day with less than 30 miles to cover into the centre of the city. This meant that I could take it easy but I still didn’t want to run the risk of missing my Eurostar and I knew that city centre riding was going to be a lot slower than the open road.
Therefore I let myself ease into the day and up to the top of the hill. After that the next three miles was a joy of blissful freewheeling back down to the Seine. How on earth had I managed to ride up that hill yesterday at the end of a long days ride? It was no wonder I was feeling the effects.
Once at the bottom of the hill it was time to re-join the riverside path for the next ten miles or so; starting on the north bank before crossing to the South side for a lovely long open section often through parkland. The legs had warmed back up by now but I was finding myself riding along at a fairly leisurely pace.
Flowers across the Seine
Interesting cycle bridge
Eventually it was time to leave the river in order to avoid the docks and this signalled the start of six miles of fairly miserable riding. The route here was following busy roads and, although mostly on roadside cycle paths, was still less than pleasant. Along the main entrance to the docks there was a mile long stretch of cycle path roadworks which forced me onto the main carriageway, heavily populated by large lorries thundering in and out of the docks. At this point I just had to put the head down and get it over and done with as quickly as possible.
The cycle path was eventually reinstated but a couple of wrong turns kept my mood darkening. It turns out this part of Paris isn’t so nice to ride around. A brief respite did ensue as the route joined alongside a tram line but that did not last long. On the approach to St Denis the roads narrowed again and the cycle path came and went. On the approach to the river crossing at L’Ile Saint Denis the cycle way joined the shared road/tram line and I soon made the classic error of riding into the tram line with my wheels falling neatly into the trench. All I could do was curse as, with feet locked into pedals, I lost my balance and fell smack onto my side. I was very lucky. There were no trams or cars behind me and the wheels came out of the tram tracks without any damage. I dusted myself down and feeling increasingly pissed off chose to push the bike over the narrow roads across the island.
I was therefore pretty dejected by the time I reached the Canal de Saint Denis with still another 8-10 miles to go. Fortunately however the canal provided another lift as it was back to more cycle friendly riding. Just one mile of canal cycle path was enough to relax me again and a bench opposite the Stade de France gave me a nice chance to fully refresh and relax.
Another five mile easy riding, mostly on canal paths, was much more what I was expecting of today’s ride and I was soon able to feel and enjoy the Paris spirit.
Canal de Saint Denis
Eventually however the canal ran out and it was onto the main streets of central Paris for the final couple of miles. As you might expect this was a lot of stop start riding and the route wove around various side streets between the Pompidou Centre and the Louvre. Much of the route also followed pedestrian streets so in places I was using the skills I’d learned in Primary School as the Sutton Veny slow bicycle champion, 1982. Still, not to worry, I was getting close and it was nice to get the feel of actually being a part of Parisian life.
And then; there was the Seine again and the Ile de la Cite staring me in the face. Crossing onto the Ile at the Pont au Change the end was in sight and, knowing the route from here, I sped down to the other side of the island before hanging a left to make the final few yards to my destination.
And there it was – the end of the Avenue Verte route marked out by the Cathedrale Notre Dame. The plaza outside the cathedral was rammed on a hot summer day and I felt that with that many people around that someone should have been thrusting a champagne glass into my hand and lifting me on to their shoulders. Instead I was left to take some ‘with bike’ selfies and give myself a hearty slap on the back on completing my first ever cycle tour.
Well that was that – now I just had to head for home. After only about half an hour outside the Cathedral I headed back for the Gare du Nord. I opted for the main roads which worked out well as there was a good shared bike/bus/taxi lane and i was soon there. I took the bike to the luggage check in area at the back of the station which, should anyone be considering putting their unpacked bike on the Eurostar, was an absolute doddle. I headed back to the main station and got changed out of my riding gear in a filthy station toilet (there were signs up proclaiming that it was recently much improved – I’d have hated to imagine what it was like before) and then “treated” myself to a “Long Pig” sandwich at the “Quick Burger” bar opposite the station before checking in and boarding the Eurostar train.
Gare du Nord
It was somehow upsetting to see how quickly and easily the train glided back through some fairly familiar countryside before soon pulling in to St Pancras. Two and a half hours? But that journey in the opposite direction has just taken me four and a half days. The train must have had a tail wind! Getting the bike back was even easier as the luggage guys taking the trolley of bikes off the train saw me on the platform and stopped to let me take mine there and then.
Now all I had to do was get the train back to Hastings. It was therefore a shame that at this point South Eastern Railway wouldn’t let me leave St Pancras until gone 7 so I had to loiter in the station bar for two hours. That was hardly the worst hardship though and before I knew it I was home again and ready for a long deep sleep.
After a fantastic night’s sleep in the gorgeous surroundings of Les Chambres de l’Abbaye I woke up early, refreshed and raring to go – if a little nervous about the day ahead.
Heading downstairs the Italian party were up and about making final preparations so I took a look through Jean Francois’ art studio – an impressive addition at the end of the house stuffed floor to (high) ceiling with his various nudes (as was much of the rest of the house).
I had a spot of light breakfast on my own (the Italians had now finished and the others were not yet up) and then walked into the village to get some supplies for the day from the bakery. The choice was a bit limited but I got some bread and other sundry supplies then made my way back to the house. It only took a couple of minutes to pack up and load up and check the bike and was cycling out of the gates by 9am.
The Italians were taking a final look around the village so I stopped and said farewell (and pointed them in the right direction). As well as being beautiful, St Germer is also a key point on the Avenue Verte. At this point south the route splits. A longer, eastern, route takes riders on a seemingly busier journey through Beauvais and Chantilly but I was heading for the shorter, western route through a more rural landscape with few towns before hitting the outskirts of Paris where the town routes rejoin.
I had been considering the options of which route to take and had been undecided right up until my arrival in St Germer yesterday. Although I had been doing fine, the longer route would have added an extra 30 miles to the days ride and I was already having some concerns about the day ahead. Even with the shorter route I was already facing the longest day on the bike and knew there were a few hills ahead of me.
So at the sign where the route splits, and waving goodbye to the Italians who were heading the opposite way towards Dieppe, I started the process of getting lost leaving the village. A few short wrong turns later though I was on my way and approaching the next village of Neuf Marche. A fairly nondescript village it did however mark the start of the first big hill that had been concerning me. I needn’t have worried. The climb was steep enough but my legs must have strengthened up over the last few days. Compared to the climbs across the Weald on day two I actually found this easy going.
Roadside chapel at Amécourt
Dovecot at Neuf-Marché
The top of the hill opened out onto a big expanse of open rolling landscape that reminded me somewhat of the Salisbury Plain – a place where I will always feel at home. The next few happy miles were spent speeding across the landscape, waving a cheery Bonjour to the large number of other cyclists out and about. Although I knew this wouldn’t last all day I made excellent time as I sang may way along and eventually down from the hills and into the town centre at Gisors for a break.
I pulled into the castle grounds hoping to have a good look around. However beyond the grounds, the castle itself was open by appointment only (and then only later in the day). After a quick wander around the grounds and a freshen up I was back on the bike. I had been hoping to find a shop in the centre of the town to finish stocking up but didn’t see anything. Leaving the town I did spot an ‘Intermarche’ supermarket but chose to continue on my way as I didn’t fancy going into a large supermarket. This was a mistake that I was to regret a number of times later in the day.
Instead I made my way straight down to the former Epte Valley railway line where once again the route takes riders along the old track bed. 13-14 easy going miles followed along the old railway line. There were lots of kids and families out enjoying the track on bikes and scooters which was excellent to see. It wasn’t hard to see why they would choose to come out here as we followed the lovely Epte river and passed through some beautiful and light wooded landscapes. Once again this section was over quickly and we soon came to the end of the old line in the village of Bray-et-Lu. Despite the claims on the guidebook maps that Bray had shops it was soon clear that this was not the case. There was a supermarket. It looked like it had shut for lunch. Three years ago. And never reopened. I was still OK for supplies at this point but could have done with some more water and I was going to be having a lunch of snack items rather than a proper meal. Not to worry though – there would be another shop soon enough on the route; for now I’d park myself on a bench by the war memorial and have a make shift lunch.
Leaving Bray it was back onto the roads and back into the hills. This was another big hill on the maps but as was the case at Neuf Marche I found it fairly easy going. Heading into the hills I bumped into another English couple I had seen briefly the day before; they were riding through St Germer whilst I was relaxing with a beer! They had gone on to Gisor that afternoon and were taking things quite leisurely. I had stopped to speak to them as they were parked up on the roadside so wanted to check that they were OK. It turned out that they were just waiting to use the roadside ‘facilities’ and had been waiting for me to pass! So leaving them to their business we wished each other a good trip and I continued up out of the valley and up on to the ‘Vexin’.
This was another section of beautiful rolling landscape and some lovely cycling on mostly quiet lanes. There were a couple of sections that were off road which the guidebook had suggested might be worth bypassing; however the surfaces were fine and were some of the nicest parts of the ride. The route across the Vexin passes through several villages. The guidebook had mentioned that this was an under populated area and this was borne out as I did not see a soul. This of course also meant no shops. Fortunately at this point the day was quite cloudy so I wasn’t getting through as much water or I might have been starting to get into trouble.
Off the Beaten Track
However by the village of Sagy there were still no sign of shops and my water bottles were empty. The route into Sagy had taken a final bit of rough track and this had been tough going on a very loose rocky surface. The sun had also come back out and was beating down quite intensely. I was starting to feel dry and hot and tired and hungry but all supplies were now exhausted. The climb out of Sagy was steep and this time I felt it. The climb continues for a few miles at this stage and continues into the suburbs of Cergy – where the route effectively enters the outskirts of Paris. Furthermore the directions during some of this section were a little unclear – the maps I had were not so good for the urban streets.
I was hot, hungry, thirsty, tired and a bit pissed off by now. I needed a break and I needed something to eat and drink. Seeing a sign for Cergy station, just a few yards off the route, I diverted hoping to find some shops. I soon spotted a branch of Subway. Far from ideal but beggars can’t be choosers. Oh hang on. Yes they can. A small supermarket grabbed my attention just past the station and I was soon able to get fully supplied up. Returning to the square by the station I found somewhere to sit on the edge of a raised flower bed. I was so relieved to be finally able to get some food and water that I didn’t even care when I spotted I was surrounded by assorted piles of dog muck.
Finally refreshed, and with supplies to see me through the rest of the day I got back in the saddle and re-joined the route. From here on in I had left the countryside behind me and was now starting my way through the outer Parisian suburbs. From this point on the signs also became a little more intermittent and the scale of the maps in the guidebook was not very helpful. I was OK for the first mile or so after Cergy and up to the diversion to take me to see the ‘Axe Majeur’ monument which was a mile off route uphill along another disused rail line. I took a quick wander around some of the upper sections of this rather magnificent set of sculptures set along a couple of kilometres of parkland. Unfortunately by now a haze had set over Paris and so I wasn’t able to make out the Eiffel Tower which I’m assured can be visible on some clear days.
After taking in the views I headed back to the main route and promptly got lost; heading onto some busy roads through some built up areas however I managed to keep a vague idea of the direction I was due to be taking and without any great mishap made my back down towards the River Oise where I re-joined the Avenue Verte path. A fairly simple riverside pathway led, with only minor diversions around the occasional industrial unit, towards the river’s confluence with the Seine. Ah Paris. Seeing the Seine, which is laid out in front of the cyclist here as it takes a large bend, looks magnificent and it was good to feel as though I might be getting towards the final leg. However I still had some miles to do today.
Before long the route takes it first crossing of the grand old river and then, to avoid a long dog leg around one of the rivers many big meanderings detoured ‘inland’. After a short section across some busy roads and along a path lined deep with nettles the track opened out into a nice track through the Foret St Germain.
The route here was pretty but, with loose surfaces, quite slow going until coming out the other side of the forest at Maisons Lafitte. Here the route re-joins some roads and cycle lanes to circumnavigate around the Chateau and back across the river and onto the riverside pathway once more.
The route from here was easy going but once again I was starting to get low on water and was getting tired now. I’d already done more miles than of the previous three days. The four days cycling was starting to take its toll and I still had a six or seven mile stretch along the river here before I could think about the final hill up to my hotel for the night. Despite the weariness the miles passed OK but I was tired and pretty much done for the day by the time I got to the bridge that would lead me back over the river away from the Avenue Verte route but towards my hotel for the night.
As I crossed the Seine for the third time I knew I was in for a climb, but blimey I had not realised how much of a climb. I had to follow a busy main road up towards Verseille. Therefore keeping on the pavement to the side I made my way up. And up.
And then up a bit more. In the end the hill turned out to be a three and a half mile solid climb and although not actually being a part of the actual Avenue Verte route, this was definitely the toughest climb of the tour being at least as tough as the climb up to Heathfield on day two but with the added difficulty of being at the end of the longest day’s ride.
Eventually however the hill plateaued out and indeed a short downhill stretch allowed me to largely free wheel my way to the Verseilles Mercure hotel where I checked in, showered and crashed out.
There is no possibility of oversleeping on the cross channel ferry and winding up back in Newhaven. After what felt like mere seconds after going to sleep, the ungodly sound of some bizarre piped music is blasted into the cabins followed by a loud knocking on the door a mere 3 hours after leaving England (and still with about half an hour before we would actually dock in Dieppe).
Leaving it as late as possible before surfacing, I gathered my stuff together. Removing the toilet roll I had placed in my shoes overnight I placed my still damp shoes back on and climbed back into some dry, but not exactly clean, cycling shorts and shirts. Then, with the panniers packed up I made my way back down to the car deck, handing in the room key en route.
Part of me had initially hoped that the cyclists would be last off in order to gain as much rest as possible, however having now been awoken I was rather glad that we were off first. I was the second person off the ferry and onto French soil. The French customs team were friendly and wished me luck. Before setting course towards Paris I first tried doubling back towards the terminal building. On reading up before the route some people had suggested coming here for another couple of hours of shut eye, but a quick glance at uncomfortable bench seats and bright fluorescent lighting quickly put paid to that suggestion. Instead I headed for the back road that leads from the ferry terminal into the centre of Dieppe.
The central quay side area indicates quite a pretty French seaside town – although it’s not easy to tell at 4am (my body clock was reminding me it was only 3am UK time). I stopped to check my maps and ensure that I’d not forgotten anything in the half awake rush to disembark. Satisfied I looked to find the start of the Avenue Verte route somewhere near the station.
Returning from a short “detour” (yes – I got lost) past some industrial units I bumped into Pierre, with whom I had been chatting whilst waiting to board at Newhaven. Pierre had done the route a few times before and knew the way (he lives in Paris and his daughter currently lives in London so he cycles the route to see her a couple of times a year). Glad of some company we set off together, initially along roads to the first village out of Dieppe, Arques La Bataille.
At Arques we left the roads and joined the first part of proper ‘Green Way’. The initial stretch here winds around some lakes and housing estates. Pierre was equipped with only a tiny light so I was leading the way with my brighter light but trying to get directions from Pierre. I only fell off once! The mishap occurred when misreading the route at a section through some bollards. This was my first proper experience of the joy of having my feet locked in pedals and thus enable to put them down as I came to an unexpected stop! Dusting myself down and laughing it off (only my pride had suffered any damage) we soon joined the next section of disused railway line and a straight run through some glorious French countryside.
I know the countryside here is glorious as I have more recently driven back through it to get to the ferry on another trip (in the car). However at 4.30am I had no idea how nice it was (though I did suspect it was worth actually seeing). However the company with Pierre was pleasant so we carried on together. After a short distance we were jolted by the sight of some ghostly apparitions ahead of us. After our initial surprise we soon identified the figures as the two lads from Portsmouth who had also turned up on their bikes in Newhaven. They had made it this far without any lights but were now struggling as there is no street lighting along the old railway track. They gratefully pulled into line behind Pierre and I and so we carried our mini peloton southwards along the valley rising out from Dieppe; Pierre and I leading the way with the other lads (I did get their names but failed to write them down in my notebook and have no chance of recollection now) just behind.
I would have happily continued on with Pierre for some more miles but by now sunlight was starting to seep across the valley and I could tell I was missing some lovely countryside. We were now starting to see some wildlife alongside us (being startled by my lights) and though I’m sure he was charmed by my poor attempts to name them in French (“Renard!”. “Lapin!”) when we reached the village of St Vaast I informed Pierre that I was going to take a break here as I wanted to wait for the sun to fully rise and see the countryside properly.
Deciding to stay with my light the two lads stopped with me at the old village station as Pierre continued to ride on. The three of us settled down on some benches for a rest. After around 45 minutes the other two decided it was light enough and set off. I’d love to hear how they got on. They had made, to my mind, a rather odd choice to break their route. They were travelling light and were planning to do their whole journey in three days. After doing the 75 miles ride from Portsmouth to Newhaven they were only heading in total about 30 miles today. They would likely be at their hotel before 9am! Although giving them a proper chance to rest that meant they had then left themselves at least 120 miles for their final day and I’m not sure that they had found the 75 miles yesterday to be easy going. So wishing them luck as they rode on I gave myself another 20 minutes before heading off myself.
From this point on I could now properly see the landscape I was riding through and was glad of my decision to wait for sunlight. It was still early (I could hear the larks rising) but the day was opening up beautifully and the route was slowly winding its way up the valley along the old railway line through some beautiful villages. Stopping to look at the chateau at Mesniers-en-Bray (I was too early to visit and had to admire the Chateau through the gates) before long I had made my first proper stop at the market town of Neufchatel-en-Bray – a town apparently very proud of its heart shaped cheeses.
Taking a selfie at Mesniers Castle
Leaving the route for a while I headed into the town centre and parked the bike up outside the church and headed for a recce around the town. I was still too early for most of the shops but managed to find a by now much needed, basic, public toilet (all praise my decision to steal some toilet roll from the ferry!) and then found a boulangerie open and a coffee shop across the road from it. Having my breakfast (café au lait, croissant, pain au chocolate et jus d’orange) on the bench by my bike I waited for 9am when the signs said the church would open. I thought it would be nice to take a look around but there was still no sign of activity by half past so I reluctantly gave up and got back underway.
On the Green Way
Re-joining the old railway line I continued on my way up the valley passing through some more nice villages and gorgeous valley landscapes. Stopping briefly to look at the village of Beaubec-la-Rosiere I soon reached the end of the line (or possibly its start). After the old branch line met its junction with the main line the cycle route diverges from the trains and takes some side roads and other paths into the town of Forges Les Euax. Another typically pretty French town, Forges also lulled me into a false sense of security by having some great shops around the main square at which I was able to fully stock up on provisions for the rest of the day – something that was not going to prove quite so easy at other points over the next day and a half.
The old Railway Line
The next section of the route takes riders onto some quiet country lanes across glorious rolling hills. This section of fast down hills and some long, but not extreme climbs was one of the highlights of the route and another section where I would be cycling for about 20 miles with a big grin on my face and whistling my way along. At the highest point of the hills, and having done about 2/3 of the days miles I stopped at a junction for lunch. Ostensibly choosing to park up and sit on a roadside verge does not sound ideal but the views across the countryside from here more than made up for any lack of picnicking formality.
Stopping at the rather sorry church at Menerval I got chatting to another couple of British cyclists I met there. They were taking a more leisurely pace having arrived on the ferry the day before. We wandered around the church yard with its somewhat creepy graveyard and wondering how on earth the church was still standing with the size of some of the cracks in its tower. The three of us set off together briefly though my companions were taking a much slower pace. After a short distance we noticed some very dark clouds heading towards us and felt the first few big drops of rain. Making my apologies to my short lived companions I made the decision that I was still feeling fresh and wanted to see if I could outrun the storm before I got to the next town. I’m very proud to say that I made it. There was a lot of downhill but I made a fast 7 miles dash into Gournay keeping myself dry.
Grave at Ménerval
Pond at Cuy-Saint-Fiacre
Gournay itself was one of the disappointments of the ride. After the amusement of seeing the sign indicating the distance to its twin town of Hailsham (which I had cycled through yesterday) the town itself was lacking. It had suffered badly in the war and had been rebuilt to try and capture its glory albeit without any soul. Furthermore by this point I was low on water and was beginning to suffer some ‘saddle chafing’! I tried to find a super market to get some water and ointments(!) I succeeded but only after riding round and around some busy town centre roads. I was now beginning to feel fed up; tired, harassed by cars, and raw of bum! I still had 10 miles to go in the day which isn’t much but Gournay had really brought me down and the final few miles were suddenly far from appealing. Passing back through all the traffic and past a very smelly Danone yoghurt factory I climbed a long slow tired ride out of the town. I had enough and wanted the day over.
Eventually the hill plateaued out back to nicer rolling landscape and the roads were quiet again. Stopping for another small piece of bread and cheese and thus rejuvenated I made my way down to my finish point for the day in St Germer de Fly. Although I was still a bit tired now (I had already done more miles than the each of the previous two days by this point) the gloom couldn’t last now that I was back on open country roads.
Immediately on entering the village of St Germer any final frustrations vanished in an instant. I identified my hotel for the night easily enough as I dropped into the village. The guidebook said it was good for the route and indeed it is. As it is sited directly on the trail it couldn’t be better. For now though I continued on the handful of metres into the centre of the village. The centrepiece of the village is the enormous and beautiful abbey lining one whole side of the village square. Parking the bike and trusting to the villages tranquillity I left the bags on and crossed the road to look around the abbey. Unfortunately the interior of the main building was closed for refurbishment but it was still possible to get a good walk around the outside and to also look in the “small” chapel at one end (from where one could also sneak a brief peek around some hoarding to get a glimpse of the imposing abbey church).
St Germer Abbey
St Germer Abbey
Having looked around I crossed back over the road to the village square and took a seat at the Auberge de l’abbaye. It looked shut but still had seats outside which were welcome. Even more welcome was the appearance after about 10 minutes of a waitress who soon brought me a simple but very welcome ham omelette and chips (et une petit Kronenbourg). Suitably refreshed I made my way back to the ‘B&B’ I had booked; Les Chambres de l’Abbaye (I name it so that you can find it – if you are planning a trip along the Avenue Verte ensure you add this stopover to your itinerary).
I had decided to ‘treat’ myself on this evening. In actuality the room was only actually the same price as the B&B I had stayed at in East Grinstead on the first night – it just sounded more expensive being paid for in Euros. Treating myself turned out to be something of an understatement though. Chloe, the hostess, helped me lock my bike up (the comprehensive bike shed showed that the introduction of the formal Avenue Verte route has been good for business). I was shown to my rooms. I was given a two room suite with the most beautiful bedroom and huge bathroom with a centrepiece slipper bath. I was going to like this. It didn’t take me long to get the bath running and I then spent a glorious amount of time wallowing in the luxury.
Feeling fresh and relaxed I got myself ready for supper and headed downstairs. The evening meal was an optional extra that I’m glad I took. There were twelve of us arranged around the table. As well as myself there were two Dutch, one Swiss, another English and five Italian guests; all cyclists and all doing the Avenue Verte in one direction or the other and all at various speeds. Making up the final two seats were Chloe and Jean Francois, our hosts. The next few hours were a marvellous combination of excellent home cooked food (all local produce – most of the veg picked by Chloe from the garden that day) and lovely company. The conversation mostly revolved around cycling but also veered onto all manner of other interesting alleys as you would hope for in such varied company. It was interesting to see the differing approaches being taken to the route. The Italians – who were all very experienced in longer touring – were doing the ride in reverse to me but making a similar approach. The Dutch (who were also fairly experienced and had done a number of rides across the far east) were taking a laid back approach(!) and were actually spending the night camping in the garden and were not yet sure how they might approach for following day’s ride. The English and Swiss pairing (who were going at the slowest pace) were only planning a day or two ahead and booking things only when needed – otherwise hoping to be able to turn up and get in to places. They were a newlywed couple (this was their honeymoon) . She was the same age as me and had undertaken a few tours before. He, 20 years her senior, was new to the concept and this was his first cycle tour also. He seemed to be enjoying it.
In all it was a marvellous evening and a perfect end to what had been an excellent, quiet birthday. I’d kept that to myself during the day and didn’t tell anyone during the evening (I didn’t want any fuss and certainly didn’t want Chloe to feel that she might have to suddenly conjure something up). Well-fed and rehydrated with sufficient local wine we all eventually bade each other good night and I retreated up to my lovely chamber and straight off to sleep.
My alarm woke me up in the darkness of the well curtained room in the Cranston House B&B. Bleary eyed I got up, showered, repacked my bags and headed downstairs for a Full English. I’m not normally one to turn down such an opportunity anyway but the possibility to get properly fuelled up for the day outweighed the rather disappointing quality of the fare.
I set off with a quick ride through East Grinstead town centre which still looked nice in the morning light, and then headed for the start of the Forest Way cycle path at the edge of the town.
The second section of disused railway line on the route, the Forest Way runs direct from East Grinstead to Groombridge over a distance of roughly 10 miles. Knowing that the easy gradients on this section were going to give way to a much more hilly ride across the Weald later in the morning I made the most of the largely easy going and beautiful (hint: the clue is in the name) route. The weight on the bike (not just me) and an easterly headwind made the ride a little bit harder than hoped for but the route was still fairly easy and before I knew it the track had petered out just outside of Groombridge where the old train line had diverged from the remaining London – Uckfield line.
This signalled the start of a stretch of riding on roads. It was all to be on quiet country lanes but I knew from the maps that I was going to find some hard going sections before long. However the first section of road was easy enough and the train line associations of the route continued briefly when I pulled into Eridge station for a quick breather. A main line station on the Uckfield line it is also the southern terminus of the Spa Valley Heritage Railway line running to Tunbridge Wells. I was lucky enough to time my arrival with that of a steam train into the station before heading back underway.
The main A26 road passes close to the station and in order to avoid it the Avenue Verte at this stage takes an off road, un surfaced turn through some dense and overgrown woodland up a steep hill. On the whole the route is excellent but damn, every now and again they throw in some awful sections and, though quite short, this one was no fun at all.
I think the plan might have been to prepare riders for the climb up and across the Weald. I was soon off the rough track and onto the next section of country lanes which started with a gorgeously fast downhill stretch. Any joy was tempered with knowledge of what was coming next. I faced two big climbs from this point up towards, and through, Rotherfield. The second climb was another of the top six climbs of the whole route and took some work to get up. I’ll confess to not doing it all in one uninterrupted climb. However, although I stopped once for a breather, I managed to resist the temptation to get off and push. Subsequently I soon enough found myself on the outskirts of Rotherfield village where I knew that there was a village shop and a bench waiting for me where I could stop for a glug of Lucozade and Mars Bar and a quick wander around the pretty churchyard.
Another few miles of undulating country roads led me around the outskirts of Mayfield and to the bottom of the hills beneath Heathfield. At this point the formal route heads through unsurfaced footpaths up the hillside but the combination of heavily laden bike, hills and surface led me to take heed my guidebook’s advice to remain on the road instead. The climb up to Heathfield is the toughest climb of the official route (although only the second toughest I was going to face – more about that on day four)! The climb was tough going and lasted about three miles. I had to stop at one point to take my shades off as I could no longer see through them thanks to the sweat dripping across the lenses! It was one of those climbs that would never seem to stop. Every time I thought I must be at the top as the road levelled out, I’d find another steep section around the next bend.
Eventually it was over though and I made Heathfield and into much more familiar territory of its town centre. I rode down the high street to where I knew the Co-op was to gather supplies for the rest of the day and then headed back to look for the Heathfield Tunnel. I knew of the existence of a tunnel under the high street that was a part of the old ‘Cuckoo’ Railway Line but hadn’t realised how big and long and rather impressive it is. Although not a part of the route (in fact it heads in the opposite direction back towards Mayfield) I was keen to take a diversion to see it and was not disappointed. Furthermore, some picnic benches at the far end of the tunnel provided a good place to stop for lunch.
A nice break was slightly curtailed by a short shower so I packed back up and headed back through the tunnel to re-join the Avenue Verte route as it follows disused railway line no 3, The Cuckoo Trail, which was to be an absolute joy for the next 10 miles or so as it heads towards Polegate. Furthermore the whole section in this direction is downhill from the top of the Weald towards the almost sea level marshlands around Polegate and Eastbourne. At the top end of the trail, at the edge of Heathfield the route passes by a house of one of those marvellous English suburban eccentrics. The garden of the house backs on to the old train line and is absolutely rammed full of old railway memorabilia. The garden shed is a signal box; the fence is made of level crossing gates. The owner has even installed an old mechanical signal which passers-by can operate by pressing a button on the nose of Thomas the Tank Engine! Not only does the signal change but it is accompanied by some steam train sound effects and after the train has ‘passed’ the signal changes back again. I do not know the owner of this house but Sir or Madam (I suspect Sir) I salute you.
The Cuckoo Trail really is a delight (though I should imagine that heading the opposite direction up the hill might be slightly less so) passing through some lovely countryside on a peaceful track which it was lovely to see being used by various different groups of people. As if not beautiful enough the route is also lined with a large amount of various bits of trackside art and sculptures. Most seem to have been beautifully crafted from anything left lying around that part of the line; tree trunks or bit of old train carriage; many of the trackside artwork pieces are marked with yellow lines across the road so that speeding cyclists can spot them in advance and ensure that they get a proper look at them – a very thoughtful idea!
On passing the main road at Horsebridge (a road I know well as its on my commuting route on days when I need to drive to work in Lewes) and crossing into Hailsham all of a sudden there was a cloudburst. The rain was torrential and after a nice sunny start to the day it looked like it could be like this for a while. I took shelter under a bridge and dug my waterproofs out of the panniers to try and keep myself (and the bags) dry. As time was still well on my side I thought I’d try and let it pass but after 20 minutes it was showing no signs of stopping so, not wanting to start having to rush later on, I climbed back into the saddle and started on again – getting completely drenched within minutes. I entertained myself squeezing the water from my gloves and watching the water gurgle out of my shoes any time that I clenched my toes. After a couple of miles I took shelter again under an ornamental sculpture cum shelter near a road crossing south of Hailsham and then eventually, with the rain finally starting to ease, continued on until the point at which I was to leave the Cuckoo trail just to the north of the Polegate bypass.
For the next couple of miles I knew that I was in for another off road section; however it was also a familiar one as between Polegate and Berwick I would be on the cycle route that I take between County Hall and home. Almost as soon as I turned off the Cuckoo Trail (National Cycle Route 21) and onto National Cycle Route 2 (Dover to Lands End) the rain not only stopped completely but the sun came out stronger than ever and the track showed absolutely no sign of having rained at all. This made the uphill slog on dirt track around the edge of the woodland easier going; further aided by a tail wind, and before I knew it (but after having to make my way past a group of grumpy horse riders) I was back onto the roads and heading towards Berwick at which point I would again by turning South – this time remaining in that direction until making the coast.
From Berwick a glorious ride awaited along the Cuckmere valley skirting around Alfriston and through Littlington. With the Alfriston White Horse clearly visible on the opposite side of the valley and seeing almost no vehicles or people the ride felt completely timeless until coming back with a bump as the route joins the A259 within a few hundred metres of the sea at the beautiful Cuckmere Haven.
I’d cycled the road from the Haven up into Seaford once before. In 2001 when, whilst living in Tooting, I had taken a day off to travel on the train to Hastings from where I cycled across to Brighton. On that day I hated the climb out from the valley up to the town and had really struggled, so I was pleased that even with all the extra weight on the bike I flew up the hill today and was on Seaford prom and within touching distance of Newhaven Harbour in no time at all.
Seaford prom was busy and has no designated cycle path so I took what would have been a nice leisurely ride had I not had to dodge around people changing tack on the prom every few yards. I’m sure I must have added some distance along that stretch of prom just from having to change course so often. Not that I was complaining – it’s nice to see so many people out enjoying the sea front and I still had several hours before the ferry was due to depart.
With so much time in hand I diverted slightly off course between Seaford and Newhaven to pay a visit to the Tidemills which I had never previously visited. They were a large collection of tidal powered mill buildings that had built up from the 1760s to become a self-contained village with its own train station. The mill had closed by the start of the 20th century and the village deemed unfit for habitation in the 1930s. It was finally abandoned at the start of the second world war during which it was bombed both by German planes heading for home with but also by allied troops who used it as target practice. Access to the ruins today is down a track leading from the Seaford to Newhaven road and across the train line at one end of the abandoned station platforms. Traversing the (still in use) train line is done by the old fashioned look before you walk approach – there are gates that you need to open but I saw no sign of warning or other security equipment. Resisting the temptation once on the rail line to wander onto the platforms, I crossed over and walked around the rest of the mill complex and village. A couple of neglected information boards were hard to read and many of the remains were completely overgrown which added to the sense of melancholy surrounding them. Despite that, or probably because of it, there is certainly a good sense of the past here and I’ll be looking forward to making a return visit at some time.
However for now, even though I still had another 5-6 hours before sailing time, I was tired and wanted to get to the end of the day so crossed back over the railway and onto the cycle path down into Newhaven Harbour where I parked and locked my bike up at the ferry port terminal.
Having changed in the truckers toilets (during which I had a lengthy conversation with a west country trucker about riding in France whilst I was getting dressed) and ensuring that I was OK to leave my bike for a couple of hours I put the carry straps on my panniers and made my way to the station to get a train into Lewes. At one stage of the planning I was going to be doing this leg of the journey on the Friday and part of that plan had been to dive into the office for a shower and freshen up there! Being Sunday however that was not possible so I used the extra time to have a well-earned pint at the Lansdowne pub opposite Lewes station before heading for some food in another functional but uninspiring chained Italian restaurant in Lewes. The staff there did kindly charge my phone for me whilst I ate and in case you are wondering, although nothing special, this was much better than anything that Newhaven might have had to offer. Furthermore my annual rail season ticket allowed me to do this short train ride into Lewes and back at no cost.
Feeling more human for some food, and having had another beer on my way back past the Lansdowne I headed back to the station and on to Newhaven. After collecting the bike and easily clearing customs I joined up with a number of other cyclists and spent a while chatting with a friendly Frenchman named Phillipe whilst waiting to board the boat; along with brief conversations with a party of Italians and a couple of young lads from Portsmouth who turned up a bit later. Although the ferry company dedicate an area of the loading/waiting area to cyclists there are no facilities easily to hand there so it was lucky that the evening was still fairly warm and was remaining dry.
Eventually it was time to board the boat. I had expected the bike storage area to be a properly setup corner of the ferry but instead we were all left to try and secure out bikes as best we could using just the chains that we had with us. Fortunately though, the sea was looking calm so the bikes should be fine during the crossing. Once locked up and in place I made my way up onto deck, checked in to pick up the key to the cabin I had booked, and made my way straight to it.
I was warned that my cabin was directly under the bridge and that I should keep my curtains shut as the light from my room could cause problems to the captain! I soon confirmed I was indeed right at the front of the ship as the front of the ferry was still open for loading and as such the prow was directly in front of my window. After showering, hanging up my cycling gear to ‘air’ and stuffing my still soggy cycle shoes with half a roll of toilet paper I turned the lights out and risked opening the curtain so that I could watch as the prow closed and then we slowly slipped out of Newhaven harbour before I started to try to get some sleep. It came easily enough once we were properly out to sea.
Back at the end of July, after getting the idea after seeing a guidebook advertised on the Sustrans website, and after a fair bit of planing and looking at maps, I had made my plans and was ready to set off on the Avenue Verte London to Paris cycle route.
Having already done 95% of my packing on the night before, and having left a couple of panniers and some cycle gear laid out in the spare room before I had gone to bed, I got up early on the first day (Saturday 26th) and had breakfast. After doing some final packing and making my final checks on the bags and bike I cycled the short downhill ride to Hastings Station to get the 07:50 train into London (I didn’t count that mile as a part of the ride).
The train journey was blissfully uneventful and I spent it reading the Saturday newspapers in order to avoid wasting much needed phone battery. I was using my Lumia 1020 phone to record my route via GPS and also to monitor my heart rate throughout the ride as well as using it’s excellent camera for making a photo record as well as the GPS one. I had packed a couple of spare battery packs but with the GPS tracking running throughout the day I was likely to need them. We got into London Waterloo East at about 9:30 and then I had the more awkward task of navigating the bike through Waterloo station and down the steps by the Shell building towards the start of the route.
The starting point of the official Avenue Verte route is at the London Eye so I rocked up close to it and took my ‘starting point’ photos before getting ready for the off. The actual starting point itself is a rather random bit of road about 100 yards back from the Eye. That means you don’t get the chance to be waved off by thousands of cheerful tourists(!) but I did set off pretty much dead on 10:00 under the watchful eye of a couple of policemen in an unmarked car next to me.
The ride started fairly easily but slowly through central London. The first section follows the Thames, crossing the river twice at Westminster and then Chelsea Bridges. Crossing past the power station the cycle path becomes a little less friendly through Battersea and Clapham but the riding was uneventful and before long it climbed slowly upwards onto and across Clapham Common, which gave a nice bit of open land after the more oppressive stretch along Queenstown Road. On the other side of the Common I got my first of many minor queries about the route leading to a minor detour and double back. On the whole the cycle route is well signed, although there are not many Avenue Verte signs on the English side (mostly relying on you knowing which of the ‘NCN’ routes you need to follow instead). These are mostly clear and frequent but it only takes one missing sign at the wrong place, or for some wag to have turned one around (there were a few of those along the route) to get led astray. However I also soon realised that some guerrilla cyclists had also been along putting up a series of stickers on posts pointing the correct way and these often turned out to be more useful than the official signs in some key places.
After that short diversion I was soon back on track and into familiar territory as I passed Wandsworth Prison and down onto my old stamping ground along Magdalen Road and into Earlsfield (where I played rugby for several years for Bec Old Boys) whilst living down the road in Tooting. One quick crossing of Garratt Lane and I was soon onto the Wandle Trail.
The Wandle Trail runs alongside the River Wandle on various qualities of path for the next few miles. The mix of surfaces and regular road crossings along with a number of other cyclists and dog walkers kept the pace fairly slow but it was easy going. After passing the back of Merton Abbey, the Wimbledon dog track and the rather bland looking flats that have finally taken over the derelict space that previously housed Wimbledon FC’s old Plough Lane ground, we opened out into the rather lovely Morden Hall Park. With the first 10 plus miles done and a nice open space I choose to have my first break here. Although lovely it wasn’t actually the most comfortable (no benches) and I managed to mess up my GPS recorder and lose the tracking up to this point which was a bit of an irritation; after a handful of crisps and a couple of squares of chocolate I saddled up and got back on my way.
At the top of the Wandle Trail there were a few more moments of confusion, map gazing, and doubling back as the route heads through a range of residential back streets and inter joining cycle paths to Carshalton, before heading into the first patch of real open country leading up onto the first stretch of downland. This really did feel like being out in the country, if only for a couple of miles, before dropping back towards suburban London and then back up into the busy and rather lovely Three Oaks park which had the first vaguely serious climb of the day. At the top of the climb though was a nice rewarding café with benches. I bought a bottle of 7up (and got the staff to kindly refill my water bottles) to wash down some of my provisions and I took another short rest.
After Three Oaks the route was again a bit more on road and less pleasant (though with some off road sections to break things up) but it did pass by a rather magnificent Lavender field before dropping down into Coulsdon where we had to follow some one way streets through the town and negotiate some cycle lanes around a couple of busy roundabouts before the next big climb.
This really was the first climb proper and in the top six climbs of the whole tour. What’s more by the now the day was hot. I was liberally applying sun cream to the outside of the body and water to the inside as I began the long and hot but gorgeous slog onto Farthing Down. It is remarkable to think that not only is Farthing Down still within London, but that its actually under the care and management of the City of London Corporation. The landscape is a mix of open grazing land interspersed with some lovely patches of woodland and a couple of quiet villages. It really couldn’t feel further from the City that owns it. At one of the villages, Chaldon, I took another short diversion and had a break at the church. A very pretty, small and squarish church; as well as being lovely from the outside and with a nice bench to rest up and refresh on, it also houses a remarkable 11th – 12th century mural occupying almost one whole wall. Depicting purgatory and hell the mural is reportedly the earliest English wall painting and one of the finest in Europe. Why it is not more widely known amazes me. More information can be found at: http://www.surreycommunity.info/chaldonpc/history-of-chaldon-church/
Purgatory and Hell
Whilst taking a break at the church I took the opportunity to call an old friend living in Redhill, and whose house I would be passing very close by, to check that he was in and to make him the very generous offer of having the opportunity to make me a cup of tea. Chris confirmed that they were (and would remain) in and so I got back onto the bike and made the final exit out of London. It was easy to mark leaving the Greater London area as I shot down off the North Downs and across the M25 into Surrey.
From here the first real sequence of cycle paths and country lanes lead me past village pubs with quaint duck ponds, and village greens with cricket matches being played (surely placed there especially for any French cyclists coming the other direction) before coming into Redhill and making the short (but very hilly) diversion to Chris and Gill’s house where I whiled away a lovely hour with a cup of tea sitting in the garden getting occasionally showered by their children who had taken control of a hosepipe. Refreshed, and cheery, and with water bottles filled I was back on my way.
The route now varied between residential streets and some surprisingly hidden little cycle tracks; small industrial estates and farms; through Horley and Crawley passing by Gatwick Airport. The route passes right by the end of the runway and so I took another short break there for some silly photos and then carried on through the Crawley suburbs before joining up with the first really excellent piece of the route – the Worth Way from Crawley to East Grinstead.
The Worth Way follows the route of the old railway line linking the two towns and, with the exception of a couple of minor diversions where housing now sits on the route, took me all the way into East Grinstead. The line does mostly climb up out of the Aran Valley and as such I found the section lovely but slow going. By now the legs were weary and I was beginning to really feel the additional weight in my panniers. Whilst I am fairly used to using panniers I had never done such a distance with them so fully loaded. However, other than a small stop to break into the grounds of the disused Rowfant station, I soon found myself on the edge of East Grinstead and after a quick check of the map soon found my way to the Cranston House B&B which was to be my base for the night.
A proper old style English B&B, it provided comfortable and functional if not remarkable accommodation and the owner was used to accommodating Avenue Verte cyclists and was very friendly and helpful. After freshening up, the evening took me into the town centre, which was surprisingly nice – a proper English market town (although there did appear to be too many vacant office block buildings hinting that it was experiencing a bit of a downturn). Dinner was in the glamerous surroundings of the local Pizza Express and consisted of a large meaty pizza, with desert and a large beer before I wandered back to the B&B and going easily to sleep in a big comfortable bed.