kent

Roaming Roman Roads

London’s a big, big city.

As we’ve already established, riding a bike in most UK towns is not without its frustrations. So, as there was no real need to go through the biggest city of all, I’d always intended to brush London as lightly as possible.

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But London’s been unavoidable for ages. You need to cross the Thames at some point, and most of the bridges are in town. And ever since Roman times, the capital has been the hub of the country’s major roads. All roads in England seem to lead to London.

Coming in towards town from Kent, I was running along the line of the main Roman route from the English Channel. A route so important that it was fortified and defended for centuries. Rochester’s impressive castle (above) guards the route’s crossing of the river Medway.

And coming out of London into Essex over the last couple of days, I’ve been pushing north-east on another major Roman road, which led out of the metropolis to the garrison town of Colchester. These old Roman routes have the great advantage of being built in mostly dead-straight lines, making them fast, if slightly boring riding. Although it’s always interesting to think that you’re following a route that’s been used for thousands of years, and imagine how many feet, hooves and wheels have passed this way before you.

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I lived in London for a long time, so making distance was not the key point of the last few days. I had friends and family to catch up with (in a responsibly socially-distanced way, of course). As a result, the mileage has been down, and there’s been a certain element of consuming beverages which are, let’s say, somewhat counter-productive to athletic performance.

The other key issue was getting across the Thames. On Sunday, the ferry at Gravesend was not operating, but I was slightly surprised to discover that there’s a free shuttle service for bikes across the monstrous Dartford Crossing (pic above). Arrive at one end, find the magic telephone, and a grumpy driver appears to whisk you from Kent to Essex.

After which, a few uninspiring miles through London’s eastern suburbs took me to some drinks in Romford. A few more similar miles the next morning took me back out of Greater London, and I was soon heading for my final planned social stop in Essex, where I met the newest arrival in my friend’s family (providing a rare opportunity to add a kitten picture to a cycling blog).

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Things are not always exactly as they seem, and despite being cute, the kitten in question is a proper little psychopath.

But things are sometimes exactly as they seem, and the landscape after Chelmsford has quickly begun to fit the East Anglian stereotype. I’m entering the UK’s flat lands, and the cliffs and hills of the south west and the south coast are a memory. Most of the eastern side of England is likely to be big skies, big fields, and an almost total lack of big gradients.

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This will be great with tailwinds, and awful if there are headwinds. I’ll have to wait and see which combination I get as I head north into Suffolk and Norfolk.

I did notice one sign yesterday that there may still be some surprises ahead. Stopping by the side of the road for a map check, I was admiring the hand-painted advert below for a local honey producer.

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Then I noticed that they seem to sell bears as well. I never quite got to the bottom of this, but I think that’s illegal in the UK, as well as impractical, and I’m surprised they are willing to announce this sort of thing by the roadside. Maybe East Anglia will be more interesting than the landscape suggests.

Anyway, the weather still seems OK, and the legs are still pushing the pedals around. I’m on a ferry across into Suffolk this morning (Wednesday), so I’ll find out pretty quickly…

The South Coast is All Wight

Apologies for the laboured pun in the title – I should have done better.

Those last two words have been rattling annoyingly around my skull ever since I hit the island in question on Tuesday, and I’m disappointed that I’ve not managed to come up with a better heading in all that time…

After the rain in Bournemouth, Tuesday saw me released along the flat, straight sections of the South Coast of England, with a super tailwind meaning the miles could finally start piling up properly. Three days was all it took to polish off most of the Channel, before turning another corner in Kent.

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The Isle of Wight is England’s biggest island, which isn’t really saying that much. However, there are several interesting things about it. It was one of Queen Victoria’s favourite haunts. It has one of the few remaining red squirrel populations in England. It’s often full of sailors. And it was the test bed for the abortive UK Government Covid App (whatever happened to that?).

For me, the main attraction was that, despite involving two ferries, the Isle of Wight provided the quickest route into the fast, flat-ish (if you ignore the odd cliff!) sections of the south coast. Although the riding has been easier and faster, it’s been a few days with some odd contrasts.

I’ve seen both the best (on the Isle of Wight) and the worst (Kent – inexcusably bad) road surfaces of the trip so far. And the traffic has ranged from negligible (again on the island) to traffic jams on the cliffs as I pushed properly into the South East from Brighton.

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The other strange contrast is a Covid-related one. While most people are managing to keep a reasonably level head about the crisis, there are a lot more exceptions than I expected. Some people don’t trust the government because they think we’re all going to die, and some don’t trust the government because they think the whole Covid thing is some sort of scam to persuade us all to get microchipped.

And you see this weird bipolar split in the old seaside resorts of the English Channel and Kent. Today (Friday) was the hottest day of the year, and saw roads blocked, traffic jams all over the place, and people happily squeezing themselves into three square feet of beach.

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But I spent Monday night in Bournemouth, Wednesday night in Eastbourne, and Thursday in Folkestone (all major Victorian resorts). And when the evening comes, those towns are suddenly dead; complete with hotel rooms in the big hotels going for less than a campsite in places. Yes, some of the pubs are open, but everything else is shut up tight, and there’s a very peculiar, almost deserted feel.

It makes it look like the country’s not bothered about the virus during the day, but terrified and hiding at home in the evenings. Odd, odd, odd…

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The south coast is also England’s invasion corner, where most attempts to take the country over by force have been focused. William the Conqueror launched his successful takeover bid around Hastings, and I spent a little time riding alongside the Royal Military Canal, which formed part of the unused defensive lines against Napoleon, before being re-fortified in case Hitler managed to make it across the Channel.

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The reason he didn’t was the Battle of Britain, and a long drag up onto the clifftops above Folkestone takes you to the memorial (above).

After Folkestone, it was time to turn the corner out of the Channel, and into the North Sea. The coast was rammed (it was daytime, after all), but the country lanes were much quieter a little inland, and provided a bit of shade from the hottest day of 2020.

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Next, it’s the fringes of London. Things will get a little slower, as there are some (socially-distanced) meet ups to do with people I’ve not seen for a while. Given the abnormally good weather, I’m hoping to drop in a couple of half-days, rather than taking another full day off just yet. I know, this being the UK, that I’ll hit a bad patch at some point, so I want to keep moving for now.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to get away towards the north before any more interruptions…

***NOTE – not sure how clear this was before, but the map and stats for this ride are now working properly, and can be found under the ‘The Rides’ tab***