London Thames Cycle Route Part 3: Gravesend to Richmond

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

The trail heading east out of Gravesend was in horrible shape, threading its way through a mostly obsolete industrial area.Lousy Trail

(If you want to follow along on this trip, a larger version of the map below, including mile markers and elevation, can be found on the Mapmyride site.)

Just after mile 41, the path crossed a bridge over an inlet into a small marina that turned out to be the former basin of the Thames and Medway canal.  The path went down a sort of dark alley formed by abandoned warehouses, and then took an apparent turn to the right. As it turned out, it did turn right, but not where I thought it did. Unable to find any more cycle route signs, I doubled back, and finally found a very narrow path behind an old fence. 3 feet wide at best, it made a right angle around the end of a building (not the first blind and narrow right angle turn on this cycle trip) and continued down the most convincing example of an abandoned cycle path that I’ve ever seen on two continents. The photo above shows a spot where the path actually widened enough that someone thought it a good place for fly tipping. Carefully avoiding the broken class, the path went across what was apparently the floor of a demolished factory or warehouse, an area strewn with tire-sized blocks of concrete.

Cycle Route along Thames and Medway Canal

Happily, the character of the trip changed entirely at mile 42. For the next  mile, a private and smoothly paved road followed the filled in bed of what had once been the Thames and Medway Canal. The pavement gave out, but the dirt was very smooth, and I could see for miles across the Shorne Marshes , which were mostly filled with salt grass, an MoD shooting range, and a lot of cows.  A 19th century fort was visible in the distance. At mile 44, I stopped to let a pair of oncoming bikers pass a motorbike barricade, and we got into a long chat. He recognized that I was riding a vintage Bianchi Volpe, and I wasn’t surprised to learn he’d been a bicycle mechanic (deja vu all over again, remembering the meeting with Alan far up the Thames in Richmond).  He showed me where you could just make out a fort on the far side of the Thames. At mile 45, in the village of Lower Higham, the path started following public roads again. There were mostly very quiet, and it was the only rural section of the entire trip.

Higham, Kent

At mile 48, the cycle route entered a former MoD area, making a steep hill climb through Chattendon, followed by a gloriously long and fast downhill into the charming village of Upnor (there’s a Lower Upnor, so why not an Upper Upnor?).  This looked like a great place to stop for a pint, with a charming little buildings all bunched together on a steep hill with a view of the Medway Estuary in the distance. I didn’t stop.  After 49 miles, I was ready to head for home.

A short offroad section dumped me out onto a dual carriageway and a confusing array of bike paths. I chose wrong, but doubled back and found the path, which soon took a steep left up a hill past an old oast house.  I stopped at the top of the hill to admire a view of Richmond’s bridges and castle, and what appeared to be a WWII submarine.

Rochester and castle

The narrow path made a steep and dangerous downhill towards river level. When I arrived at Commissioner’s Road, I couldn’t find a route sign, but right seemed to be the best choice. This was the last climb of the trip, and I was starting to drag. A little bright orange car buzzed me, spraying me with wiper fluid. At mile 52, I passed the Strood Rail Station, and decided to keep pushing on towards Rochester. At the intersection of Station Road and High Street I still hadn’t located a cycle route sign, so I asked someone to confirm that I was headed in the most level route towards the Rochester Bridge.

There are actually 3 parallel bridges leading into Rochester: a rail bridge, a newer bridge that had 2 lanes of incoming traffic and a bike path, and the older bridge with the outgoing traffic.  I stopped on the side of the bridge to take a photograph of the castle.  The last mile through Rochester was a busy one along the A2, taking me past a remnant of the medieval city wall. With both a Norman castle and a cathedral, I’m sure that Rochester is worth a longer visit, but it was after 5pm and starting to get dark, and I was ready to head back for home.  According to Mapmyride, I rode 53.17 miles between London Waterloo and Rochester Station. According to my GPS software, it was 53.75. I’ll add that to 1.5 miles round trip from my house to the Ascot rail station and take credit for a 55 mile day.

It was a fascinating trip, with a lot of interesting sites that were totally different from what I usually see on a bike ride. Very little of it was attractive, but much of it was highly interesting. Surprisingly, there multiple spots in the trip where I went several miles without seeing another person, and other stretches where I only saw people in the far distance. It wasn’t a particular fast ride, with much of the trip across rough stone, pavement, or gravel, and there were a number of barriers that required stopping, and even dismounting. It wasn’t really physically strenuous, although there are far more hills during the final 25 miles than I had anticipated.  I did the trip on a touring bike with 32cm tires, and I wouldn’t recommend trying it on anything less sturdy, or with narrower tires. 35cm would have been more comfortable.

ThamesCycleRoute-162

London Thames Cycle Route part 2: Thamesmead to Gravesend

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

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.Sludge 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.

Aggregate conveyors

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.

Low tide at Erith

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.

Heading East from Erith

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.

The Dartford - Thurrock River Crossing

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.

Ebbsfleet International Terminal

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.

Clipper Aya and Tilbury Power Station

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.

London Thames Cycle Route part 1: London Waterloo to Woolwich

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Sunday’s bicycle trip was a lot grittier than the bucolic country rides I normally take.  Starting from London Waterloo, I cycled 54 miles down the Thames, mostly along the London Thames Cycle Route, which follows the Thames Path for much, but not all, of the trip.  The first 8  miles were urban, but the next 20 miles were mostly industrial, sometimes on very rough and narrow paths, threading between barbed wire fences and abandoned factories.  If you want to follow my trip in another window,  a map with mile markers and elevation is available on the Mapmyride site.

Greenwich Peninsula

The first five miles of the trip were mostly on roads (sometimes roughly paved) through Southbank and Southwark.  Just after 9am on a Sunday, there was very little traffic. I encountered a few other bikers, but unlike rural and suburban bikers, and the bikers later on in this trip, we didn’t acknowledge each other’s existence with a friendly nod.  I passed behind some popular tourist spots, like the Globe Theatre (both the reconstruction and the original site), but didn’t stop to look at them. If I hadn’t looked up when crossing Tower Bridge Street, I wouldn’t even have noticed the familiar towers of that popular London feature.  Just past the Bermondsey tube station, at mile 3, I stopped along a roundabout to consult my map, and made a course correction into Rotherhite, quickly picking up the cycle route as it zigzagged through roads and parks. I think it would have been easier just to stay on the B206 all the way around Rotherhite.  After riding across the lock gate for Greenland Dock, I finally reached the Thames at Surrey Quays, which has a beautiful view of the back side of Canary Wharf.

Surrey Quays

About a half mile along the Thames the path takes a sharp right at a very quirky statue of Peter the Great, who apparently had made a big impression on the citizens of Greenwich in 1698.  Here the cycle route alternates between the Thames and nearby roads, finally ending up at the glass-domed entrance to the Greenwich pedestrian tunnel and what’s left of the Cutty Sark at mile 7. Just beyond that is the baroque splendour of the Old Royal Naval College.   The National Maritime Museum is nearby (which I did not visit). Surprisingly, it is no longer on the Prime Meridian, which has been slipping downstream ever since the GPS satellites were put in orbit.

During the next two miles, the path winds through a number of deserted factories, old wharves, and piles of sand and gravel.  The path is very narrow in spots (see top photo), and extremely rough along the west side of Greenwich Peninsula, but there are some lovely views. I stopped to watch a very graceful old steam-driven paddlewheeler cross in front of the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. Just north of the dome, at mile 10, the path widened, and for 1 mile, I could make good time on a smooth cement surface.  Then for another mile, the path zigzagged around some aggregate yards where small ships were offloading gravel onto conveyors that crossed above the path.  Although no working people were actually visible, many of the conveyors were operating.

The Millennium Dome

Just after mile 11, I finally reached Thames Barrier.  Built between 1972 and 1982, it is essentially a temporary dam that can be raised to block the Thames in case of an especially large tide.  572 yards across (523 m), large steel sections lifted hydraulically between nine concrete piers and two abutments.  It is usually necessary to close the Barrier about 4 times a year. Covered with a skin of stainless steel sheets, the world’s second largest movable flood barrier is beautiful and functional.

Jay Heiser and Thames Barrier

From the Barrier, the path headed inland, past one of the many former pubs I passed on this trip, and then down Woolwich Road, which turned out to be closed on Sunday for the “Run to the Beat” half marathon.  I stopped to chat with a fellow in front of a pub, draped in the Union Jack, who was watching the race go past.

Union Jack

Woolwich is an interesting area that probably would be worth a longer visit. There’s an auto ferry that crosses the Thames, and another foot tunnel, which is entered through a round brick building housing the staircase, like the tunnel in Greenwich.  The path crosses between the river and the  former Royal Arsenal, which manufactured and tested armaments, and is now being redeveloped.  The view across the river is dominated by the huge Tate & Lyle sugar factory.

Tate and Lyle Sugar Factory

For those who want to follow my tracks–don’t. Just before mile 14, I found myself on a lovely, smooth cement bicycle path, and had a brief quarter mile at speed before it dead ended into a chain link fence.  I diverged through a residential area, cut through a park, lifted my bike up some steps, and found myself on a nice, smooth cement bicycle path–that dead ended in a quarter mile.  I circled around a residential area for a while and finally asked directions. It turned out that the real path was a dirt one, out of site and closer to the Thames. I carried my bike down a stairway and headed off across Thamesmead, 15 miles down, and 40 to go.

You can see more pictures from this trip on my Thames Cycle Route gallery. A map of my trip appears below:

Kennet & Avon Canal Cycle Route Overnighter: part 2

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Steep hill climbe up a tree-lined lane in FroxfieldI took my time over breakfast and the Sunday paper with Peter & Carolyn at the Upper Westcourt B&B, leaving about 10am for the 15 minute ride, arriving at The Crofton Pumping Station well before it opened (blog posts on both pumping stations coming up shortly).  Unlike the day before, it was still sunny after this day’s  industrial heritage stop.

The first half of today’s trip would still follow country roads, before rejoining the tow path, but looking at the map, they didn’t diverge as far from the canal, and at least seemed to be less steep.  It turned out that I had multiple opportunities to practice coasting, preceeded of course by the obligatory climb.

Like Saturday, the first half of the trip was characterised by attractive country towns, like Great Bedwyn, and pretty villages, like Little Bedwyn.

The biggest town of the day was Hungerford, which under other circumstances would have been worth a longer stay. On the far side of Hungerford, the road crossed a cattle guard and a gate, and I entered the Hungerford Common Portdown.

Hungerford CommonsThe commons is a 200 acre shared pasture.  I stopped to take some pictures, and watched a farmer walk out to check on his cows, all of whom seemed to have a healthy suspicion of  the road (in spite of the nominal 30mph speed limit).

Kintbury

Kintbury was the last town before rejoining the towpath.  Many of the buildings were built directly on the narrow High Street.  I stopped to take a picture of my bike in front of a colorfully named pub, and then continued on, finally rejoining the canal and towpath at Hamstead Lock. The path was much narrower and yellower than it had been at the start of the trip in Bath.  In many places, it wasn’t wide enough for 2 bikes to pass between the nettles and the canal.

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Kennet & Avon Canal Cycle Route Overnighter: part 1

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Pulteney BridgeLast Saturday, my loaded touring bike and I caught an 0813 train to Reading, from whence we continued on a fast 1 hour trip to Bath in Wiltshire. I waited outside the station for my GPS to get a signal, and then I took off into the Saturday morning traffic in this busy tourist town. My goal was to complete the entire Kennet & Avon Canal Cycle Route, which ended 85 miles later, on the other side of a ridge, in Reading, Berkshire. The route crossed the 1773 Pulteney Bridge, which is lined with shops. After about 10 minutes of cycling, and only one wrong turn, I crossed a short bridge, and turned onto the canal tow path. From here to Devises I’d be following a fairly wide and level path, for the most part smooth and well-graded.

Bradford Tithe BarnIt was a beautiful, sunny morning, and I stopped to take off my jacket. After a very pleasant 25 minutes of easy riding through the lovely Wiltshire countryside, I reached my first stop, the Claverton Pumping Station (described in an upcoming blog entry). What I expected to be a rather short visit turned into an almost 1 hour stay. Noticing that the sky was darkening, I begged off the video portion of the tour, unlocked my bike, and pedaled up a steep hill back to the canal level.  During the next several miles, I crossed two very spectacular aqueducts, the Dundas Aqueduct, which was next to a wharf with small crane, and the Avoncliff Aqueduct.  I continued on to Bradford, where I stopped briefly at the early 14th century tithe barn.

Caen Hill Locks In a 2-mile stretch between Foxhanger and Devises, the canal rises 237 feet, for a 1 in 44 gradient. Chief Engineer John Rennie dealt with the steep rise at Caen Hill by building a set of 16 locks in a row. This is considered one of the most significant engineering achievements on the entire British canal system, and in contrast to the Ratty & Mole ambience of much of the waterway, it makes for a dramatic feature.  It requires a lot of water to fill up a lock. In order to ensure enough water for this aquatic staircase, Rennie excavated large basins extending sideways (to the left in the photo above) in front of 15 of the Caen Hill locks.  I rode up the steep hill, passing several bikers who decided to walk, stopped to take a few more pictures of the ponds and narrow boats in the lockes, and then headed into Devises.  It was almost 2pm, it was starting to drizzle, so I asked for directions to a pub. Riding into the center of town, I stopped at The Castle Hotel for a lunch of cottage pie and a pint.  The proprietor of this 18th century pub let me park my bike indoors.

After lunch, I wound through town looking for the Cycle Route. After 10 minutes of what seemed like endless wandering through housing estates, I was suddenly confronted with a steep hill leading down to the canal and its narrow tow path. I walked down. After less than a mile, a sign for the Cycle Route pointed up a steep incline away from the canal. I decided to tough it out, and ride up. It was going fine until I reached the top and had to immediately stop. Fortunately, there was a bed of stinging nettles to catch me.

Ascent in EtchilhamptonDevises is nearly at the top of the canal, and after 22 miles, I naively thought that I was done climbing for the day. The reality was that I would spend the next 24 miles zig-zagging from one side of the Vale of Pewsey to the other, crossing the canal and railroad multiple times.  I climbed to the top of a ridge, where I had a fantastic 360 view of the mostly harvested fields and the ridge far to my north, which included one of Wiltshire’s famous white horses.

After Pewsey, the terrain become a bit more closed in again, with increasingly narrower roads, usually surrounded by hedge rows. Outside of Oare, the road chosen for the cycle route was barely a car width, and it had a light median of grass and gravel. It was also closed to traffic. A road closed sign is either a biker’s dream, or nightmare. I chose the former, and it turned out OK, leading me between beautiful farms with thatched roof houses, usually built on a timber frame several hundred years ago.

Especially after a hard climb to the summit, there is something thrilling about coasting down a long, windy, steep hill, hedgerows full of bramble and barbed wire whistling past your ears as you enjoy the sensation of speed and wind, and idly wonder just what you are going to do if the next turn confronts you with a fully loaded farm vehicle, or just an especially slippery patch of gravel.   I ended up taking a similar opportunity descending a steep road into the terminally charming village of Wootton Rivers.  In this case, it was actually only a Volvo, but given the deeply eroded ditch at the side of the road, it was more than big enough to test the emergency stopping abilities of the Kool-Stop brake shoes. They worked, and everyone came through the event intact. I had to prematurely terminate more than one long coast just in order to follow the bike route.

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The Great English 50-mile Bike Ride

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

The Bell PubI love biking in England.  The scenery is beautiful, the roads are smooth, the temperature is perfect, and the car drivers are used to dealing with bicycles.

Last weekend I had a fantastic 48-miler around Berkshire. If you’ve got Google Maps installed, you can follow the trip here (a version of the map appears at the bottom of this post) also, clicking on any of these photos will open up a larger version from the photo gallery for this trip).

Westbound on Drift Road approaching White WalthamThe first couple miles of the trip weren’t very interesting, and there was a lot of fast traffic, but once I got out of Sunninghill and Ascot, I found myself on a very smooth and flat country road.  It wasn’t exactly traffic-free, but there weren’t a lot of cars. I saw at least half a dozen other bikers.  This was mostly farm country, and both sides of the road had large fields. Cresting a ridge, I could see for miles across the Thames Valley.

Old Post Office I made my first stop in Waltham St Laurence, a picturesque village with a number of interesting old buildings.  Spotting two bikers sitting in front of what was advertised as a 14th century pub (photo at top), I stopped for a chat and some water.  I got directions out of town, and had a couple more miles of country riding, before getting into the outskirts of Twyford and picking up route 4 of the National Cycle Network in Wargrave.  Outside of Wargrave, I soon found myself riding down a series of increasingly narrower lanes.

Single track country lane The road narrowed to a single lane as I crossed a steep ridge near Warren Row. This is what English cycling is all about: I was surrounded by cows and sheep, riding up and down on ancient roads, with nary a soul in sight. The descent down to the Thames was exhilarating, although my enthusiasm was tempered slightly by the knowledge that I’d have to climb back up.

Harvest in FrogmillAt this point, I’d temporarily stopped following route 4, although I was still on a section of the Round Berkshire cycle route marked as route 58. After sweeping around some huge pastures and very posh estates, the route took a right on a much busier road, the A4130.  Stopping to photograph the side of a building and wondering when it was last possible to name something ‘Black Boys Inn’ (apparently, Charles II had an Italian granny), I checked my map and realized I could divert to the Thames.  I rode down a short hill, stopped for a moment to watch a thresher, and then continued down to the river.

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