Cycling to the end of the world

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


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.


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.


But what to do with the bikes?


That's where the luggage carriage came in handy…


… 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!


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.



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.


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.


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

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