Sunday 29th September 2013
I had a rare Sunday off so decided to go on one of the bike rides listed in ‘Lost Lanes’, something I’ve been meaning to do for a while now. I’ve never been on long rides in the UK. The longest I’ve ever ridden is from Rotterdam to Arnham over two days, which was pretty good as the routes in the Netherlands are very clear. The National Cycle Route in the UK, I found out first hand today, isn’t as clearly marked. It’s not as awful as I was expecting it to be from some of the feedback that I’ve heard from others, but it is inconsistent at junctions. Some places are better signed than others.
I did route #6 from ‘Lost Lanes’, which starts at Gravesend and finishes in Strood via All Hallows. A few things that I saw along the way that I felt were interesting follows:
Firstly, it didn’t start very well. I arrived at Cannon Street Station for a train to Gravesend, but when I took out my wallet I realised I had left my bank card at home in my other jacket and I had no cash. So I had to go home to get it before starting all over again. That cost me an hour. Anyway,
Down the Thames river.
Coming out of Gravesend Railway station I was greeted with a road heavy with motor traffic. I thought to myself ‘this is inviting for someone setting off on a gentle Sunday ride’. It took a while before a gap opened up and I could finally join the road. Around the first corner, though, and I found a whole queue of cars tailing back from a mini-roundabout. I sneaked my way through and got onto the bank of the Thames (picture above). It was good to see the Thames as I’d never seen it before. Most of my experience with the river has been the parts that flow through London itself and it’s easy to forget that there’s more up- and downriver.
It wasn’t long before I encountered this:
National Cycle Route 1 runs through these abandoned warehouses. As interesting as it is, the road was cobblestones with a ton of debris, not exactly pleasant to ride on. Is the point of the NCR to provide a good route from place to place or is it to take people on a tour of local areas? I always thought it was the former. Also, being new to this, I’m not sure how much preparation people do before going on one of these rides. Do people know exactly the type of surface they’ll be riding on the whole route? Or is that what touring bikes are for, and you use wheels and tyres suitable for anything surface? Lucky I didn’t come with a road or track bike. But there’s more rough roads to come.
Then I came across a sign that pointed to the right, but that road hooked back around to where I came from. I went backtracked to the sign to discover that behind it and to the right was a very well hidden path where the NCR 1 continued. It’s not obvious at all.
At this point I was feeling like the whole idea was a bit of a mistake. The ride was grim and I wasn’t enjoying it.
Not long after this I was on a long straight paved road. Only problem was there were a few people on moped who sped by at about 40mph. The road led into a nature reserve, so no more motor vehicles, but it was a rough gravel road.
Also had shit like this to contend with:
Note the desire path to the right.
After exiting the nature reserve I was on a nice (ish) paved road with speed humps across the width of the road. Not yet had I had a comfortable ride in over 6 miles. First there was traffic, and then cobblestones, then speeding mopeds, then gravel, then metal shit, then speed humps.
Seriously, do I have incredibly high standards? Remember, I didn’t just turned up at a random road expecting it to be great for cycling. I am on a National Cycle Route. I don’t think many cyclists like these obstacles. I think they put up with it because it’s easier to get on with it and forget about it. Or perhaps people have got use to whole thing and know what to expect. As I say, I’m a first timer on these sorts of rides in the UK, I found it really quite annoying and I was disappointed.
There are more things that I have complaints on the second half of the ride as well, but I couldn’t be bothered to stop and take pictures of those. My favourite one, however, was the NCR route sign directing me into a ‘public footpath’ where there were signs that said ‘Cyclists Dismount’, and technically there is no cycling on the footpath. And this wasn’t a short footpath either. Had I really dismounted and walked along the NATIONAL FUCKING CYCLING ROUTE, it would have taken me about 20 minutes or so. But I cycled along it though, slowing down and passing pedestrians safely whenever I encountered them. And by the looks of the tracks on the path, I wasn’t the only one who thought it would be ridiculous to walk it.
Anyway, between the speed humps and the ‘no cycling’ bits of a cycle route, there were some nice things to see.
Here I’m in Cooling (there really wasn’t any angle to get a good picture of it. You might be able to make out Charles Dickens on the sign. Apparently when he was down here he saw the churchyard had little grave stones for children who had died and that inspired the setting to the beginning of Great Expectations.
Not the ones that Charles Dickens saw, obviously.
Compared to the very flat Dutch countryside, the British countryside is a bit more interesting.
Higher hills than I saw in most of the Netherlands.
The Easterly point of the route is also the most Easterly point of the river Thames. I rode a few miles down towards the Thames Estuary where the river Thames and the river Medway both flow into. The very end of the route is on the banks of the Thames where the London Stone could be seen. The Stone marks the end of the jurisdiction of the City of London Corporation and the end of the river Thames.
The very last portion of the route is a footpath and when I reached the end of paved road I was faced with a locked fence. I was so close to the coast.
There was an A4 in a plastic sleeve tied to a post that said something about re-paving of roads but I didn’t take any more notice of it. All I knew was I had come all this way and I couldn’t make that last little bit of the journey nor could I see the London Stone. Pissed me right off.
I did think about hopping the fence, but I thought better of it as I had no idea who owns it or what the general deal is with trespassing. I assumed that hopping the fence would not be good. So I turned around and rode back West and on to Strood.
The route to Strood had a few down gradients, which I was happy about. However, one of them was dangerous as FUCK. It was a narrow path that is shared use. It’s so incredibly narrow only two people can walk along it side by side and not comfortably. It has 6 foot fences that lined both sides of the path with foliage obscuring the view, and lastly, the path curves round making the whole thing one big blind corner. Riding down it I would’ve picked up speeds of up to about 30mph maybe more. If I had done that and someone was walking or riding up the other direction I wouldn’t have had the time or the braking distance or the space to avoid hitting them. So I had to squeeze my brakes the entire way down using them to control my speed down. And right down at the bottom where the path ends are staggered fences to stop me from bombing straight out of the path onto the road, but which I could easily have smashed into at 30mph and severely hurt myself.
I can’t say that there was anything along the way that I found particularly interesting and the ride wasn’t very nice either, but I eventually got to Strood.
It’s not a very good picture but the place on the other side of the river (Medway) is Rochester. It actually looks quite nice over there and I was tempted to ride over to take a gander. But it was getting late and I was feeling kind of odd after the ride, and so I got on the train home. I did see a submarine though.
Overall, I’m glad I did it. It was an experience that I won’t forget. There were moments when I stopped and I was truly alone and I could hear the silence, or near enough. I came across a few other cyclists, all of whom I waved to and said a quick ‘hi’ to as we passed each other. Not enough of them, though, I felt. In the little villages I saw rows of cars. I saw more cars in those villages than people. I couldn’t help but think how much they must rely on their cars to get to other villages and towns, and also how uninviting cycling is as an alternative that they would ruin otherwise picturesque villages, filling it with pollution and dirt. I also saw a few people walking down the country roads, I thought how much more convenient it would have been if they were on a bicycle. The only reason that I can see, through my bias eyes, is that cycling is seen as just for leisure – that’s what I was doing there on a bicycle after all – and not for anything ‘useful’. That makes me sad.
When I arrived back in London I was so happy to be riding around on London streets again. It was Sunday night so there wasn’t much traffic, which meant it was a really nice journey home. I actually felt like circling the block a few times because I just felt like cycling. I take that as a sign that the day as a whole was a positive experience. I look forward to my next ride.