Bike ride out of London along the Thames estuary and down to the Medway

As part of our intention to do a big group ride at the end of May from London along the Thames, out along the Estuary and then follow the coastline down to our home town of Whitstable Kent, two of us set off on a reconnaissance mission yesterday to suss out a suitable route for 20 or so riders.

We set off from home very early at 5.00am as we had to do a little bit of work in London first but with that out the way, we were ready for our departure point in Denmark Hill SE5 for a little after 10.00am.

Now the easy route to Whitstable would be just to burn out of town on the main roads using the bus and cycle lanes across to Blackheath and then weave our way through the Kent countryside clocking up 55 miles. Easy? Not for us, we had been studying the map and wanted something more challenging, we figured we could ride a route along the Thames using cycle paths, picking up the National Cycle Route 1 and follow it down the Thames Estuary to Whitstable. The distance is a lot further – pushing eighty (80) miles and much of it would be off road using routes we had never ridden, what could possibly go wrong? Well read on to find out…

Here we are getting ready to depart Denmark Hill, London SE5. We were not sure what the best bike for the terrain would be, so we took a road bike and a mountain bike as a test, I rode the roadbike, my friend Gordon rode the mountain bike – one of us made the wrong choice as you will find out… Some last minute checks of the route and we were off into the badlands of Sarf London innit.

A couple of short cuts through some alleys and into some dodgy looking estates saw us flying through Peckam Rye and across a couple of little parks. London is full of these little green oasis, with characteristic black railings and wooden benches, most of them have a cycle path cutting right across them which breaks up the urban sprawl and concrete.

Typical narrow London streets bought us into a busy street market, piled with all kinds of junk, from old chairs to street signs and a great reggae soundtrack to ride to, we weaved our way carefully through, the bullet proof locals hardly giving us a glance.

From here it was past some “under the arches” type enterprises, complete with fierce dog on a chain and over a rickety bridge onto some wasteground with Millwall football club’s infamous “Den” dominating the view. I should have got a photograph as it is quite impressive but my riding partner was a lifelong Arsenal fan and I didn’t want to offend him by photographing his rivals from over he water. In hindsight I should have taken the shot, but hey ho, another time.

Within no time we found ourselves on the river, where the atmosphere changes completely, the light is different, the breeze picks up and the air is (mostly) fresher, people are strolling and the river itself is busy with barges and water taxis scurrying and chugging about their business.

I shot this with a camera phone and on distance shots it is a bit grainy, but you can make out central London and the City in the distance with Norman Foster’s “Gherkin” characteristic outline in the centre as well as some of the redevelopment that has changed London’s skyline significantly over recent years. After our pause for a photo opportunity it was onwards towards Greenwich and its famous observatory, reminiscent of school trips from years gone by. Sure enough as we weaved our way through parties of schoolchildren it was apparent that not much has changed and it is still a rite of passage that local kids still make.

With both of us swivelling around like a bunch of tourists seeing London for the first time the inevitable happened – I rode clean into the side of Gordon, with me landing in a heap with one foot still in the cleats and a knee that hit the ground with a thud. A quick dust off and we rode on with our dignity just about intact, flipping hurt though…

We were riding parallel with London Docklands on the Isle of dogs with its gleaming skyscrapers, a far cry from how it looked 20 years ago. I remember working in the area when the first tower was being built on Canary Wharf – 1 Canada Square and watching it go up at the rate of a floor a week, topping out at 800ft it was by far the tallest building in London and visible for miles around, it is now joined by towers with signs for Barclays, Citibank, HSBC and others, who would have though that twenty years ago these bright young city types and money men would be working on the Isle of Dogs and all its historic grittiness? I still think it looks great though.

The picture above shows the collection of buildings in Docklands slowly emerging from the foreground as we ride parallel from the opposite bank, to reveal themselves in their reflective splendor in the picture below

Our next landmark was the o2 arena or Millenium Dome as most people know it. The usual view of the o2 is for me from the Blackwall Approach, heading into London, so it was amazing to ride right up to it and see it from a completley different angle. We were seeing familiar sights from a completely different perspective, crossing London by bike you see and feel much more and cover ground much quicker than you ever could by car, hey we were enjoying this!

There were a few diversions in place which took us around the peninsula in a slightly disjointed way and we started to make some good progress on the deserted cycle paths that lead you further up the estuary, we weaved through the queue for the Woolwich Ferry and the smell of burgers from the greasy spoon van in the carpark that has been there as long as I can remember on on into Woolwich Arsenal, to the most surprising view of a very smart new development of apartments and some really interesting statues by the artist Peter Burke. I am ashamed to say that we felt the need to customise the artwork by including our bikes into the sculpture.

Time to get the hammer down and it was head down and speed towards Erith and its fragrant industrial odour of fertilizer, plastic, aggregates and errr sewage, it felt more isolated here compared to the bustle of the city and the marshland opened up before us to reveal the Queen Elizabeth II bridge at Dartford.

This is another memory for me as I worked in Essex for a while when this was being built and watched it grow day by day, week by week, again I still think it is a good looking structure, not up there with the Norman Foster bridge over Millau in France, but sad as it may sound it is a nice looking bridge (note to self: bridge spotting is not a healthy hobby)

Dartford, that jewel of a gateway to North Kent was the location for our glamorous lunch stop on a trading estate on the outskirts, time to fuel up and get on, just time to notice that my shoes match my bike – nice.

With carbs, protein and fluid on board it was time to push on, we still had 40 plus miles to go and needed to get on. It was about now that we realised that this was turning into a bit of an epic ride and we would have to start eating up the miles if we had any chance of making Whitstable on time.

The terrain changed…

From nice smooth tarmac and concrete to gravel path, I was on a twitchy lightweight road bike, mile after mile of bumpy pot holed gravel were beginning to take its toll on me physically, there was no give in the frame or forks and I was feeling every bump and pothole as the shocks shuddered through the frame – this bit was not fun and I was getting my old problem of cramp in my left shoulder, that I knew would only get worse.

We pushed on and ticked off Dartford, Gravesend and Hoo (love that name) and got used to riding along the Medway rather than Thames. Then. We hit real problems. real big problems.

Lottery money or some Millenium fund or other had stumped up money for a new cycle path, so a very straight path had been laid using type 1 aggregate. Type 1 is great big lumps of hard white stone that kind of settles down over time to become a fairly smooth pathway that drains nicely. Trouble is the council looked like they had laid it yesterday and we had the job of compacting it for them.

This is the point that we discovered that a road bike with its fragile and skinny tyres was the wrong choice, 100 metres in the rear tyre was completely flat. Not that kind of spongy let’s try some more air flat. this was ride on the rim flat.

Off with the wheel, fix the puncture, no problem. No problem until we counted the seven snake bite punctures…

I banged in a new tube, Gordon got patching on the old tube, off we go.

100 meters – back on the rim again, completely trashed tube.

No road nearby, no more spare tubes, in the middle of nowhere and 7 miles from the nearest bike shop in Rochester, we were in the sh*t and we knew it.

The plan was for me to start walking whilst Gordon went ahead to the bike shop and rode back with some new tubes, so that is what we did. The type 1 path from hell lasted another mile and gave way to tarmac. Gordon had had a brain wave…

Why not see if we could stuff and stretch one of his spare mountain bike tubes into my super skinny race tyres? With little other options we gave it a try. Now if anyone reading this knows Gordon at this point it is best to just stand back and let him do his thing as special tools appear from bags and pockets and he becomes a blur of activity. Its best to shut up too at this point as he concentrates, otherwise he will tell you off, especially if your bike falls on him, as mind did – sorry Gordon.

Well we found out that you can stuff a mountain bike tube into a road bike tyre – just – and it will stay inflated.

So onwards once more with me imagining a blow out any second, as the miles flew by and with confidence growing it was over the Medway bridge and a quick stop at the cycle store in Rochester High Street for a pair of spare tubes before they shut.

We ticked off Chatham, Gillingham and off into another country park to the well signposted Rainham and then off into the countryside for our next target – Sittingbourne. A bit of a signage problem found us way out the way at the Sheppey bridge so it was a bit of a detour into the delightful town of Sittingbourne with its friendly young people that gave us such a warm welcome of cold hard stares expletives and a police drug bust (I kid you not) that only East Kent can do so well.

At this stage it was starting to get dark as we pushing towards 7 o’clock and without lights it was getting dangerous so we called in the Duffbus to come and get us 20 miles short of our destination. We had racked up 67 hard miles and learnt a lot about the route and the preparation we need for our next attempt before the event at the end of May.

Damn good ride and a very interesting one, thoroughly recommended – but take the right bike!

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