Sunshine greeted us as we pedalled away from a very enjoyable stay with Jenny and David, our hosts in Whaddon, west south west of Cambridge. They had been kind enough, the previous evening, to help us out with planning a route to take us around the west side of London to Hampton Court. Our aim was to cycle on quiet roads where we could and make use of the National Cycle Network (NCN).
The NCN was started in 1984 and now stretches 14,000 miles across the length and breadth of the UK. It follows safe, traffic-free paths and quiet on-road cycling and walking routes to connect to every major town and city. The routes are signposted with red numbers on blue signs that are distinctive and reasonably easy to spot.
Our journey started with some quiet Cambridgeshire roads heading west across to Baldock. We have been using pages from an AA road atlas to navigate most of the way from Scotland. These have been much lighter to carry than Ordnance Survey Maps and have worked very well when we have been out in the countryside.
They are almost completely useless when it comes to cycling around towns and they also don’t show the cycle paths. Generally, we can find our way into towns by following signs to the town centre, getting out is more tricky. To accomplish this I have an App on my smartphone called Maps.Me that enables me to access detailed maps with road names offline.
For cycle paths I have another App called OSM Cycle map viewer. Unfortunately, this only works online, so we gen up crucial information when we’re connected to WiFi at hosts’ homes and use it as little as possible when out and about to avoid using up valuable mobile data.
Having navigated our way into Baldock with the Road Atlas, we stopped and consulted Maps.Me to find the road we need to join up with NCN route 12. A little readjustment of our position and we spotted the first cycle route sign pointing to Stevenage. This took us along some footpaths, down under the M1 and up onto a narrow path on the other side. In Scotland, the NCN route 1 had been very well signposted coming out of Edinburgh and down to Berwick with every junction marked and lots of repeater signs in between. This route 12 was more sporadically marked and we had to continue on until we eventually spotted a sign on a junction or bumped into someone we could ask. A young man, ‘walking as far as I can get today’ helped us out when we got muddled up on some roads and sent us on our way with the comment “there are lots of underpasses in Stevenage”.
He was quite right, there were! Stevenage is a cyclists’ heaven as far as we can see.
It is a new town and was designed by Eric Claxton, a planner who cycled to work everyday. The paths and cycle ways around Stevenage were built at the same time as the primary road network enabling the residents to cycle and walk around the town without having to cross a road. Sadly, they have never been as well used as he hoped and the people of Stevenage, like elsewhere, took up travelling by car. In his later life, Eric bemoaned that people “use their cars as shopping baskets or use them as overcoats”.
We whizzed through Stevenage on the wide routes dropping down below roundabouts and rising up to journey alongside them. I don’t usually include any photos in this blog that we have not taken ourselves, but this one shows the cycle ways so well, I thought I would pop it in here. (Credit: Stevenage Borough Council).
We were soon on our way again heading south to Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield. Both still up there in cycling path stakes and then onto an old railway to take us over to St Albans. Jerry spotted the station clock in a tree telling us it was time for lunch and we sat down at the bottom of the platform.
The railway was fun to cycle on and we loved seeing families out cycling. We gave one group a Tour de France cheer speeding them on their way. It ran along in a narrow strip of woodland with fluffy, white may blossom on the hawthorn and a bright green canopy overhead. We covered the 6 mile route in no time.
Getting through Watford, our next town, showed some of the downsides of the NCN routes. It seemed to take us ages to cover the next 6 miles as the cycle way wandered through and around the town on footpaths, pavements and quiet suburbs. Because the network follows such paths and roads, it is not always the most direct route between A and B and as the sun changed shoulders for about the seventh time we wondered if we were just riding around in circles.
The Grand Union Canal was a welcome relief from circular cycling. It was formed from the amalgamation of several different canals and runs between the River Thames near London up to Birmingham. We followed the section from Rickmansworth to Uxbridge (terminus of the Piccadily underground line). The canal was lined much of its way with canal boats.
With the very high property prices in London these are being used increasingly by people as homes. Its a pleasant place to live, not too noisy and plenty of wildlife. Besides the usual mallards, we spotted a Red Kite, Terns, Canada geese and lots of ducklings. With the day getting on (our route turned out to be longer than we estimated – 83 miles in total) we filled up our water bottles from one of the canal side taps and then headed out onto the busy roads surrounding Heathrow airport. As we were almost on home territory we resorted to following our noses and heading roughly in a direction towards Staines near where Jerry grew up. This involved crossing one of the busiest roads in and out of London, the A4, at rush hour! No problem – this was the girl who used to cycle across London as a teenager to catch trains north! We joined forces and cycled side by side around the roundabout keeping all the other vehicles out of our way behind us until we reached the quieter road beyond.
A short hop and a skip from here was our rest place for the night, an old school friend of Jerry’s.
I have always wanted to cycle west to east across London roughly following the Thames and so this what we found ourselves doing two days later. We started with cycling through Richmond Park following the 7 mile cycle route I took daily to visit my dad in hospital when I was 16 years old. I have not been on this route since I left home and, as this was also the place my dad died, I felt very sad as I approached the Roehampton gate and Queen Mary’s Hospital.Tears leaked down my face making cycling in a straight line very difficult. Sometimes the strength of my emotions catches me unaware.
The great pleasure in cycling across London now are the Cycling Superhighways (CSH). These cycle routes run from outer London into and across central London. They offer cyclists safer, faster and more direct routes into the city. They are being built to improve cycling conditions for people who already commute by bike and to encourage new cyclists.
They are wide mandatory cycle lanes painted blue on the road that cannot be entered by motor vehicles and use the same traffic signals as the motor traffic at junctions. We joined CSH 8 at Chelsea Bridge and followed it along to Lambeth bridge for the obligatory tourist photos of self with the Houses of Parliament behind.
Back of the south side of the River Thames, we wended our way out through Waterloo and past the London Eye, to discover a replica of the Golden Hind, a ship that sailed around the world with Francis Drake in 1577-1580.
Then onto the Cutty Sark for lunch and the O2 arena, before heading out down the Thames estuary toward Dartford. Here we encountered another of the bad sides of cycle paths – where they are built/provided just to get cyclists out of the road, with little thought as to their safety. We were shoved up onto pavements, with often poor surfaces, only to be thrown back onto the road 50m further along, sometimes even without a slope in the kerb to ride down. We found ourselves changing sides of the road frequently, when just staying on the carriageway would have been much quicker. Eventually, we gave up following the cycle way and stuck to the roads to get us out into the Kent countryside and a campsite in a thicket just outside Rochester (of UKIP by-election fame).
We’ve only had one accident so far on this trip. Tired at the end of this day cycling across London, Jerry had a small argument with a wooden bollard and came off worst. I was stopped by a lot of cursing taking place behind me and turned to find Jerry lying on a grass verge beside said bollard. My worst fears of a dislocated knee were, luckily, not realised as he got off ‘lightly’ with a bloodied graze to his right knee and a large purple bruise on his left thigh. He lives to cycle another day.
Now at my sister’s just north of Dover, waiting for some extra bits of kit to arrive (water filter pump, portable charger) before heading across the Channel to France. Some new young pigs arrived on Tuesday, five were content to stay in their new field, but one decided that it was all too scary and took off down the road to the nearest village. Jerry and another lass, took off in hot pursuit and eventually cornered it half a mile away in the front garden of a bungalow with much loud squealing, I think from the pig rather than Jerry. The pig has now been named ‘Usain’.