“There will only be three of us tomorrow, so we’re meeting at Cutty Sark at 10am”.
Thus Anna emailed me in response to my last-minute enquiry, to join her & David’s second monthly cycle-ride to the coast. I’d been on the first ride too with six other riders, and we’d pedalled through a great deal of cold & rain but with a tailwind to Southend, and then pranced around briefly in the chilly sea.
The forecast this time showed no rain, but a stiff and chilly headwind. 62 miles to Whitstable, or slightly fewer from Cutty Sark, though in my case I’d be riding from Waterloo; either way, just the workout/relaxation to kick-start my holidays, and dare I say it my training for Vertical Rush!
We (Anna, David and Caz plus self) duly convened by the Greenwich foot-tunnel, and set off in relaxed fashion with the ascent of the Park. Reaching the A2 at Blackheath, we crossed the Sun In The Sands roundabout where I’ve dropped my dad off for the London Marathon, and continued climbing eastwards to the top of Shooters Hill—at 125 metres the longest climb of the day and followed by a swift descent at 35mph into Welling.
In Crayford we paused for snacks, having already been tracing the ancient Watling Street route (London to Dover). The roads were clogged with cars mostly, it seemed, because of the attraction of a nearby shopping centre: what else to do on a Sunday?? In Dartford we became separated when Anna and I tackled the short but sharp East Hill only to discover David & Caz had a different (and less steep) route in mind, following National Cycle Route 1.
NCN1 took us through myriad housing-estates, twittens and underpasses, threading its way alongside the old main road on one side and Bluewater, that triumph of commercialism, far below us in its disused quarry on the other. Before long we were beside the A2 again, and passed over the Channel Tunnel Rail Link near Northfleet.
The next section past Gravesend is built on reclaimed land using an earlier alignment of the A2 dual carriageway; indeed, recent aerial views from Bing Maps show this section during the changeover. The route climbed steadily but was pleasant and traffic-free—if you ignore a couple of seriously irresponsible off-road motorbike-riders, as we did. Crossing the A2 where it becomes the M2 at Park Pale, we soon rejoined Watling Street for the descent into Rochester.
After crossing the Medway we parked up in the Castle grounds for a picnic lunch in the sunshine, retiring to a coffee shop for further refreshment. 30 miles from Waterloo, another 35 to go. The headwind was quite appalling at Chatham and Gillingham docks, where one exposed stretch beside the choppy Medway saw us grinding along at 8mph! Fortunately Lower Rainham and Upchurch led us to some fantastic quiet roads and bridleways through sunlit orchards, and the rolling countryside gave shelter from the wind. Distant glimpses of the chimney at Grain power station and the towers of the new Sheppey Crossing provided visual context to our progress eastwards.
“…some fantastic quiet bridleways through sunlit orchards”
The solitude of evening sunlight and country lanes was rudely interrupted by the necessity of passing through Sittingbourne, whose roads seemed designed to maximise potential for conflict and whose drivers earnestly responded accordingly. Forsaking a coastal section of NCN1 which looked particularly wiggly and exposed, we took the old road through Teynham. We paused at dusk to snack, don warmer clothing and arrange some dynamo-powered phone-charging, and were greeted by some unexpected rain which fortunately never really meant business.
A short descent at Bysing Wood led us into Faversham. It was now dark, but we had just 9 miles left to reach our target: we pressed on, soon turning north through Goodnestone and across Graveney Marshes until the road curved and a tall embankment joined the roadside. With a sense of déjà vu I stopped and clambered up the bank, the others following: there was Whitstable Bay, we had it made! I realised I’d had the same revelation, same place, same bike, over 15 years ago on a midsummer’s nighttime ride. The final stage of our adventure took us through Seasalter into Whitstable.
In total darkness we walked down the beach to the crashing waves, agreeing with David that if we couldn’t see the sea we didn’t have to swim in it! We retired first to a fish & chip restaurant and then the pub, before catching the hourly train back to London just in time for our last connections home in the small hours.