10am, London Bridge. A motley crew of cyclists gathers, dressed head to toe in waterproofs. At least one of us was wondering why we’d bothered to come out on such a horrible day in order to ride 50 miles in the rain. But I had promised cookies, and was the only one who knew the way, so there was no option but to turn up dressed for the weather (meaning, TWO waterproof jackets).
We set off. Rain, rain, rain. Not particularly heavy, but very wet. We crossed Tower Bridge and came down to St Katherine Dock, cycling past the expensive yachts and waterside apartments that would once have been warehouses and barges bringing goods from far off lands. Onwards along the Ornamental canal, past Tobacco Dock, to Shadwell Basin, relics of London’s industrial past. We’d stopped noticing the rain. There’s a point when you’re so wet you can’t get much wetter.
Our route would trace the mighty Thames until it reached the North Sea, the roads gradually leading us out of the city, through suburbia, and to the country lanes that lie beyond the M25. We joined the A13 at Beckton, busy even for a Sunday, trucks and lorries roaring towards us as we pounded eastwards on the Cycle Superhighway. Thank goodness for the tailwind, speeding us on our way past Dagenham Docks and towards Rainham where we crossed the railway and were finally in the haven of the marshes. We were back alongside the Thames, the city skyscrapers still visible behind us and the Dartford bridge ahead marking the outer border of the capital. At last, it stopped raining.
I love Rainham marshes. It’s beautiful yet bleak – nature mixes with industry with the RSPB reserve lying cheek-by-jowl with a landfill site. Power station chimneys are visible, yet the loudest sound is that of birdsong. The Eurostar line hems in one side, the A13 another, the cold waters of the Thames lapping at a third. The banks are still shaped by the currents here, though are packed with washed-up litter. On the foreshore lie several concrete barges, beached there since the war (probably. The information board is fairly sketchy.) A cafe stands at the eastern end and this is where we went for tea and beans on toast.
Onwards into Essex. Through Grays and Chafford Hundred, the country lanes then took us speeding past fields full of horses and farms and roads leading to cargo docks. We had our first glimpse of Southend from about 15 miles off, the unmistakeable pier stretching for a mile into the estuary and Hadleigh castle sitting at the top of the cliffs. We re-joined the A13 for the final stretch, at last the wonderful wide expanse of the sea coming into view as we pedalled our last few miles and freewheeled down to the seafront.
It was cold. Really cold. But there’s no point in cycling to the sea if you’re not going to go for a dip, so as soon as we found a suitable place (the only ‘beach’ available being a stretch of sand about 10 metres wide) we stripped off and got in. Thigh-high only for most of us.
Days fade quickly in the winter, and once we’d emerged from the chip shop having polished off several plates between us, it was dark. The pier was closed and the river was the colour of pitch. We headed for the station and the train home.
Earlier in the day, when it had still been hammering down, I’d been talking to Dave about why we do such foolish things. “We could have stayed at home and this would have been any old Sunday,” I’d said. “But we’re always going to remember the day we cycled to Shoeburyness in the rain.”
Disclaimer: we didn’t actually ride all the way to Shoeburyness. By the time we’d reached Southend, paddled in the sea, eaten our chips and ridden to the pier it was too dark/late/much trouble to ride the final four miles to the end of the peninsula :/