Earlier this summer, I’d led a photo club visit to the Crossness Pumping Station, a Victorian sewage treatment plant with a lavish interior and a beautiful restored steam engine. Located at mile 19, it was very quiet. Just downstream from it was the newer facility, with a much more modern building and its waste burning plant.
I rode along the Thames for several miles without seeing another person–not another biker or walker, not a boat, not someone in a nearby building, nor anyone on the opposite shore, which was increasingly farther away. The path was relatively smooth, but not especially scenic, scrunched between a metal railing and an industrial fence, sometimes topped with barbed wire. It passed through the meadows of Thamesmead, surrounding the sewage plant, and then went past the site of a former power plant, no some sort of industrial estate, and at one point climbed a steep little hump next to some sort of factory.
At this point, the Thames was giving off a very nautical sort of oceany smell. The tide was out, leaving several hundred feet of mudflat, punctuated with pieces of abandoned dock, and strange sorts of garbage, including television sets and an old bathtub. For unknown reasons, shopping trolleys head for the Thames to die. On the outskirts of the town of Erith, I first glimpsed the suspension bridge at Dartford, still 6 miles ride ahead.
The path diverted from the Thames, and at noon, I took the opportunity of stopping for lunch at Running Horses, one of the few functioning pubs I passed on this trip. Sold out of their only real ale, it was not a memorable meal. The path headed through an extremely unsightly industrial area, and just before mile 23, I went through an (ineffective) motor bike barrier and entered a flat area of pastures, scrub, and scrap metal yards. The next 3 miles were uncomfortably rough riding on dirt with heavy gravel.
At mile 25, in Slade Green, I passed a large dirt bike track with a race in progress (Google satellite view of the motocross track). The view was all dead grass, a narrow brown river, the Littlebrook Power Station, high tension wires, repair yards, and scrap dealers. The path emerged into a charmless industrial estate, where I took a wrong turn at a roundabout. Doubling back, I continued along the A206 (essentially the same route I was in in Rotherhite, 20 miles earlier), and rode into Dartford. Just past the rail station, I should have taken a left at Central Road. Cycle Route 1 actually took a right and then, following a relatively direct route into Gravesend along the side of Watling Street. This didn’t seem very interesting, and I wanted instead to follow a different trail that went closer to the river that was shown on a Sustrans map. If it was marked, I missed the sign. I continued up a steep hill into Dartford.
To make a long story short, after fruitlessly asking directions several times, and finally resorting to the GPS-enabled map on my Blackberry, mile 31 found me back on a bicycle path alongside the M25, headed towards the Dartford Crossing. The path followed the map and then suddenly disappeared. I stopped and asked a guard at the entrance to the tunnel, and he promised me that the path shown on the Sustrans map underneath the Queen Elizabeth II Thames bridge didn’t actually exist. I eventually proved him wrong, but instead of finding the path immediately (the narrow green thing in the middle of the photo below), I backtracked, crossed over the M25, and came into Greenhithe from a different direction, rejoining the marked bike path.
Just past mile 34, at the Greenhithe rail station, the cycle route turned directly south through a mildly interesting residential area, and turning East on narrow Mounts Road at mile 35. With a 2% grade, this turned out to be the steepest climb of the trip. Swanscombe was much prettier than Dartford, with a nice park and a traditional English church. I missed a turn, but after taking a wrong turn, I found the entranceway to a bike and cycle path across an area that had been extensively quarried for chalk. The narrow path took a screaming downhill, followed immediately by a metal barrier, and then climbed a bridge over 7-8 rail high-speed rail tracks (its worth zooming in on the Google map image at this spot–the bridge is marked ‘A’). As shown on the photo below, the Ebbsfleet International Rail Station is located here between St Pancras and Paris. A Eurostar train went past at speed when I was leaving the bridge.
At mile 37 I went through a short tunnel underneath another train track and then quickly became confused by the bike route signs and ended up riding down the charmless Northfleet High St until I noticed a bike route sign pointing off to the left. A steep descent provided a view of the last of what had once been several dozen cement plants, all of which left huge holes in the surrounding chalk hills. Riding through a lonely and broken down industrial area, I finally ended up in the middle of Gravesend at mile 40. I took a quick ride up and down its High Street, a pedestrianized hill perpendicular to the Thames.
Returning to the Thames for the last time, I stopped at a local riverside park. It had a cafe, a band was playing in the bandstand at the fort park, and it offered the first public toilet I’d encountered on the entire trip (to be fair, there is supposed to be one in Woolwich). I admired the view of the river traffic, and called Elizabeth. It was now 3:30 in the afternoon, and I wasn’t sure how far it was to Rochester.
A larger version of the map below, including mile markers and elevation, can be found on the Mapmyride site.