Cycling to the end of the world

Yesterday London Cycling Diary got out of London and headed here:

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It just so happens to be one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First, we had to cycle 5 miles into town, through the deserted streets of west and central London, early on a Saturday morning, so that we could catch our 9.10am train from Charing Cross station. We left ridiculously early in order to bag a spot in the cycle carriage of our Kent-bound train.

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We needn't have worried. There was barely anyone else on our Southeastern train, let alone anyone travelling with a bike. That meant we were able to strap in our bikes — my hybrid Trek, T's fold-up Dahon — in the designated bike area (for two bikes only) on board the second carriage.

With the bikes secured, it felt like we were going on a real adventure!

But that was just the start.

After about 90 minutes of comfortable train travel we alighted at Sandling, a quiet little hamlet near Saltwood. Armed with a print out of a Google Map and road-by-road directions, we cycled 1.8 miles to neighbouring Hythe. The journey wasn't exactly flat, and the last stretch, down a very steep suburban street, really gave my brakes a good work out. T opted for the safe option and walked down the hill!

At Hythe station we purchased tickets for the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. This is the cutest little 15-inch gauge railway I've ever seen, and our train, with open and closed carriages, was pulled by a beautiful steam engine, like something out of a Thomas the Tank Engine storybook.

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But what to do with the bikes?

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That's where the luggage carriage came in handy…

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… although it was a tight squeeze trying to get our bikes in on top of all the baby buggies people had dumped inside!

The train, which trundled along at not much more than 10mph, took us through numerous little hamlets, farmland, market gardens, fields dotted with poppies, and level crossings where people, either in cars or standing on the roadside, stopped and waved.

I should probably point out that it was within 5 minutes of this train journey that I figured I was not dressed appropriately for the conditions. I was wearing a long-sleeved wicking top and my windproof cycling jacket, which was fine, but I only had fingerless gloves and shorts, and both my hands and my legs were feeling very cold. If only I had spent more time at home figuring out what to wear, or at least packing proper gloves and leggings in my bag, instead of worrying about what we were going to eat and making us a packed lunch!

As it turned out, we needn't have worried about the food, because there were two pubs at our destination and a railway cafe, but there was nowhere to buy warmer clothes! And while the weather was bright and sunny, it was the wind that proved the killer.

We found this out the hard way when we alighted at Romney Sands, a family holiday park, and hit the coastal road on our bikes. The wind was so strong I could barely keep my bike on the road. The gusts would whip in from the side and push me into the curb. I was grateful for the ballast in my bag — that aforementioned pack lunch, a camera and two hefty bike locks — or I suspect the bike would probably have fallen over.

Instead of admiring the view — and it was weirdly beautiful, a long beach of shale dotted with green vegetation under a pinkish sky — I was doing everything in my power to keep my bike on the road. This meant holding on for dear life, using a very low gear and sticking my nose on the handlebar.

By the time we made it to the Pilot Inn, in Dungeness, I was feeling exhausted and, to be frank, a little pissed off. I'd been looking forward to the trip for the cycling, but the cycling was proving too difficult. A pub lunch — an egg sandwich and plate of chips — helped to calm me down a little.

Afterwards we got back on the bikes and headed into the Dungeness National Nature Reserve. Again, the beauty of the environment — the shale, the dark wooden houses, the lighthouses and the flat turquoise-coloured ocean — got superseded by the concentration needed to keep the bike upright. The wind here was so incredibly strong it was almost impossible to turn the pedals without falling off. At one stage my bike computer showed I was cycling just 4mp. I could walk faster!

Lighthouse

We headed to the Old Lighthouse, locked up our bikes, and climbed the staircase inside. The view from the top was pretty incredible (see that photograph at the start of this post). It was like looking out at the end of the world.

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Back down on earth we walked down to the shore. I was surprised to see that the beach was not flat but comprised a series of very high shale ridges. For someone who is used to long white beaches of Australia — or Ireland for that matter — this seemed a very strange concept.

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But it was very beautiful, especially the vegetation which is unique to the area. (Apparently there are more than 600 species of plants in this desolate area.) This is all the more intriguing, given that the reserve is in the shadow of two nuclear power stations.

Walkway

After a reviving coffee at the Dungeness rail station cafe, it was time to fight our way onto the train — there were 60 cadets vying for a seat — for our return journey to Hythe. Then it was the 1.8 miles UPHILL to Sandling, for our late afternoon train back to London. 

I think we earned that can of beer on the return leg!

Thanks to T for organising, planning and paying for the day. It was nice to cycle by the coast (instead of Richmond Park), even if the wind proved very trying!

Total distance: 18miles (28.90km) | Ride time: 2hr 07min and 02sec | Average speed: 8.5mph | Top speed: 22.8mph

A cycle to Wimbledon Common via Richmond Park

I've lived in London for 12 years and yet I've never visited Wimbledon Common. I decided to change that today and cycle there.

According to the Wimbledon and Putney Commons website, the commons cover some 460 hectares of countryside split between Wimbledon Common, Putney Heath and Putney Lower Common.

I got there by cycling to Roehampton Gate in Richmond Park (via my usual route through Barnes) and then exited at Robin Hood Pedestrian Gate. It was then a simple matter of crossing a busy motorway and I was in the grounds of the commons.

I followed the signs marked for cyclists and found myself scooting along a quiet little creek. The path then turned inland and seemed to stretch into the distance forever.

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I was amazed by all the trees — you really do feel like you are in the middle of a forest — but the path was not conducive to cycling on a hybrid bike. My tyres were simply not fat enough to get any purchase on the pebble-strewn surface and I ended up having to get off the bike and walk for about half-a-mile.

Not to worry. It was very pleasant, if slightly creepy. I felt quite isolated, and there was not a soul about.

But once I got to the top of the hill, the landscape opened up and I suddenly found myself cycling next to a golf course. On a little further and there were some quaint houses and a little pub and what I imagine is the common proper, complete with little pond and people sitting on park benches. But boy, everything looked so dry and parched. The grass is practically yellow.

I pottered around for a bit, not exactly sure where to go, until I found a park map. From that I was able to figure out how to reach the famous windmill, which was about a mile away.

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There were plenty of bike stands free, so I locked my bike and then had lunch at the nearby tea rooms.

The place was heaving with oldies and dog walkers and dogs. I made friends with a golden cockerspaniel who sat at my feet while I ate my tuna baguette, chips and salad (£7.95). I'm sure he was just waiting for me to drop something so he could gobble it up!

It was lovely and sunny (21C) and I felt like I was on holiday in some far-flung destination. It certainly did not feel like suburban London.

It was then a matter of trying to remember the way back to Richmond Park. It was pretty easy actually, although I could not say the same about the downhill descent on the pebbles. I took it very slow — and probably wore out my brakes in the process. But I didn't fancy falling off and then having to hobble 8 miles home with bloody knees and a dented bike!

Total distance: 19.14miles (30.79km) | Ride time: 1hr 56min and 30sec | Average speed: 9.8mph | Top speed: 20.2mph

A leisurely 23-mile lap via Teddington

Conditions were much nicer for cycling today. Still a bit gusty, but nowhere near as bad as yesterday.

I had no real plan to cycle to Teddington, but by the time I got to Ham House, where I usually turn inland and make for Richmond Park, I thought I'd keep following the river. The tow path along here is quite narrow in places, but I love the views across the water to the houses on the other side.

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The surface was considerably drier than the last time I cycled this particular stretch of the tow path, which was on March 2. Back then it was just one giant mud bath and I had to stop a couple of times to free my wheels from mud-clogged mud guards!

Today, it was an easy two-mile stretch, and before I knew it I had arrived at Teddington, just in time to see several canoes and a pleasure boat go through the lock.

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Poor chaps had quite a crowd of onlookers watching, including one gung-ho photographer (not me) with a giant lens who kept asking them to smile, and a group of school children on an outing. Fortunately, the canoeists were good sports and were prepared to pose — and wave.

From there on, I followed the signs for National Cycle Route 4 towards Richmond Park, via Ham. Once through Ham Gate I turned left and followed a shared cycle/pedestrian path to Petersham Pedestrian Gate. However, when I saw that I'd have to cycle on the road outside of the park, up the very steep Star and Garter Hill, I had second thoughts, so turned around, went back to Ham Gate, then proceeded to cut right through the middle of the park via National Cycle Route 4. 

Then it was onwards to Roehampton Gate, via Sheen Gate (are you following all these gates?), and back home — feeling exhausted and hungry! It was a great cycle though, and so nice to be out and about after what feels like a week of being trapped indoors.

Total distance: 23.11miles (38.18km) | Ride time: 2hr 08min and 32sec | Average speed: 10.7mph | Top speed: 22mph

Too gusty for cycling?

Gusts

Any wonder it was hard work cycling today? According to Metcheck.com (see graphic above) there were 39mph gusts at about the same time I headed out on the bike. Consequently, I cut my trip short because there were  times I could barely keep the bicycle upright.

I basically did one loop from Hammersmith to Barnes, and even along the river, where I thought it would be sheltered, it was incredibly blowy — and lots of branches on the ground to proove it.

Total distance: 6.21miles (10km) | Ride time: 35min and 57sec | Average speed: 10.3mph | Top speed: 18.4mph

My last two rides: dry weather, lots of greenery and the odd animal or three

There's been so little rain in these parts recently that authorities reckon we're in the grips of a drought. Apparently it's been the driest March and April in decades.

Not that I've been in London much during those months, because I went to Ireland twice, then headed to the UAE for two weeks. When I did manage the odd cycle in between overseas trips the weather was very pleasant.

Apart from the odd bit of wind, the conditions have been pretty much perfect for cycling — and no more so than on my last two outings.

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After spending most of February trundling along a wind-swept, muddy Thames Path how lovely it is at the moment to swish through a leafy tunnel of greenery, so thick you can barely see the river it runs alongside.

I've learnt, however, that the insects — small flying midge-like things — love this greenery too. I might be vegetarian, but I've accidentally eaten my fair share of these creatures — and I even had one fly into my eye and refuse to leave on Friday. From now on, I'll be wearing sunglasses and keeping my mouth firmly closed!

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Richmond Park is looking particularly stunning at the moment. The unmown fields seem to have erupted into a sea of bracken fern, all fresh and green and lovely, where previously it was barren and brown.

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I've been fortunate to spy a few animals on my journeys too — and I'm not talking about the lycra louts!

Seeing cattle grazing in suburban London seems a bit surreal, but there you have it. These ones looked quite content, munching on lush grass in fields beneath Richmond Hill's Royal Star and Garter Home.

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And today I stopped to admire this deer grazing by the Tamsin Trail in Richmond Park. I was wary of him bolting across the path to join two females on the other side of the track. We nervously eyed each other for a few moments, before he decided to trot past me very quickly. Phew. Beautiful creatures, but you wouldn't want to go head-to-head with one.

 
Stats for Friday's ride:

Total distance: 20miles (32.18km) | Ride time: 1hr 51min and 07sec | Average speed: 10.8mph | Top speed: 20.4mph

Stats for today's ride:

Total distance: 17.47miles (28.10km) | Ride time: 1hr 41min and 53sec | Average speed: 10.2mph | Top speed: 21.6mph

The sky looks like a painting

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Snapped this at about 3.30pm on the hill overlooking Pen Ponds in Richmond Park. The clouds were scuttling by very fast and occasionally blocking the sun, plunging everything into the shade.

I pottered around the park and stopped on several occasions to either lie in the sun, admire the view or read my book.

It was a bit windy at times, and the amount of pollen in the air, mainly from the London plane trees, wreaked havoc on my lungs, causing me to cough and splutter a lot. I'm getting over a horrible chest cold, so that hasn't helped. I'm wondering if a face mask might help me out at this time of year… ?

Total distance: 22.55miles (36.28km) | Ride time: 2hr 11min and 28sec | Average speed: 10.2mph | Top speed: 24.9mph

Nausea, reading in the sun and a near-miss with a baby deer: just your average cycle in Richmond Park, then?

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I've spent the past two weeks in the UAE, spending most of my time sitting on my arse reading books and drinking beer, so I was itching to get out and about on the bike today. I really felt the need for some exercise. I wanted to get the blood pumping. I wanted, somehow, to shift the excess weight I've gained since my last cycle.

Sadly, the time out of the saddle seems to have taken a toll on my fitness. Or maybe it's the after effects of a crappy head cold I caught from my young nieces while I was away. I was okay for the first three miles, bombing along the Thames Tow Path under a green leafy tunnel of trees in pleasant sunshine, but by the time I got to the four-mile mark a wave of nausea overtook me. I wanted to get off the bike and have a good old hurl by the side of the road. (Charming, I know.)

But I decided to ride through it. If I could get myself to Roehampton Gate, I figured I could put the bike aside and have a lie down in the luxurious green grass of Richmond Park to recover.

Alas, by the time I got to Richmond Park, just an extra mile down the road, I was feeling my normal self again. The nausea had gone and I'd regained my cycling legs. I persevered for another two miles and then pulled up near my favourite little pond for a read in the sun.

It was very quiet, just the ducks and me again, with one or two other people lying nearby. I read for an hour before deciding to continue my cycle.

Somewhere near Pembroke Lodge a young Bambi-like deer jumped out onto the road in front of me. I was going 20mph at the time, but luckily I'd clocked him grazing on the verge and suspected he might be stupid enough to cross the road without looking.

The rest of my ride was fairly uneventful. I stuck to the road proper, rather than the Tamsin trail, because the pace is faster on bitumen and I was feeling strong. This route is slightly shorter than the trail, which meant I didn't clock up the usual 17 or 18 miles I usually do, but never mind, I need to ease myself back into it, don't I?

Total distance: 15.76miles (25.35km) | Ride time: 1hr 28min and 50sec | Average speed: 10.6mph | Top speed: 21.6mph