YHA: Use-it-or-lose-it

YHA

My lapel badge from the 1960s

Founded in 1930 the venerable Youth Hostel Association, commonly known as the YHA, has provided a unique opportunity for literally millions to get away from an increasingly urbanised world either walking, cycling, climbing or just travelling; at the time you were not allowed to use a hostel unless you arrived under your own steam, this has now changed.  They were cheap, warm, interesting and good fun, in particular meeting members from every walk of life and other countries.  Furthermore, many of the hostels were set in wonderful locations and very often equally wonderful buildings; even as a teenager we enjoyed and appreciated the aesthetics of such places but not always the daily chore, whereby under instruction from the warden all those staying overnight were obliged to carry out a housekeeping task.

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Me off on tour 1965

I have fond memories of staying in many youth hostels throughout the UK and Europe whilst cycle touring and hitchhiking. Their very presence helped unlock what subsequently became a life of travel for me across the globe.  I still clearly remember my very first hostel in 1965 when I was 14 years old.  I was surprised that my parents had allowed me to go away on a three day cycling trip in East Anglia, though traffic and roads were far less busy in those days.  All I needed for the trip was carried in a medium size saddlebag – a few spare clothes, basic bike tools and a cotton sleeping bag liner required by the YHA in order to use their beds.  My first hostel stay at Houghton Mill near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, was the simply amazing and remains etched in my memory.  Located on the banks of the River Great Ouse, the hostel’s setting was itself quite breathtaking.  No longer a working mill, the beds were arranged amongst the old machinery that had previously been used for milling and thus was very unusual, spooky at night but fun.  It was truly a time to remember and despite subsequently staying at scores of hostels, Houghton Mill still remains my all-time favourite.

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Telescombe YHA

Despite the name, older members use the facilities too and in 2009 I returned to hosteling for the first night of my cycle ride to Paris.  On this occasion in order to catch the ferry to Dieppe the next morning I stayed at Telscombe YHA, located just outside the ferry port of Newhaven.  Situated almost at the top of the South Downs and it is a bit of a slog with a loaded bike but worth it.  Nestling within a dry valley next to a small church in the hamlet of Telscombe, the small flint faced building was everything I remembered about hosteling at its best – a quiet, pleasant place in which to rest before continuing on one’s adventure the next day.  On this evening I met a recently retired GP who had just started his walk along the entire south coast footpath of England, which amongst other things made for an interesting and enjoyable evenings conversation; he successfully completed the walk somewhere near Minehead on the north coast of Somerset about three months later!

Sadly since I last used the YHA scores of hostels have been closed and alas like so many other hostels in the UK, Telscombe is also today no more.  It’s difficult to find a definitive reason for their demise, more a number of issues which includes: lack of interest on the part of younger persons i.e. they’re not cool and the availability of more money i.e. people now want to stay in lodgings such as Travelodge or Premier Inn.  However, it’s my feeling that the YHA also lost its way and been poorly managed during the intervening period, all of which has created something of a vicious circle – hostels deteriorating put off potential users and after years of neglect the network of hostels has thinned out considerably, making them less practical for those touring under their own steam.

Looking at the current YHA map of East Anglia there are now just six hostels, probably more than 60% of the hostels have closed since my first cycling trip there, including Houghton Mill and just recently Saffron Walden, where I stayed in 2009.  Built circa 1497 the Grade-1 listed building was one of the YHA’s finest but I now see on the property website Rightmove was sold for £1.495 million!  Apart from the morality of taking apart the YHS network for such money, there’s also a feeling of selling the family silver. The riposte to such misgivings is usually “well things change” or you’re just getting older, both of which are true.  However, if the YHA is to continue and even thrive once again it must be re-imagined and re-built for the 21st century, or maybe I’m just naïve and their day has been and gone?

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The trend has continued downwards and the number of hostels in the UK currently stands at about 158

It was the opportunity for ordinary people to spend a night for a modest cost in a wonderful building that made the concept of the YHA so exciting and enjoyable.  Of course the same buildings that were once used as hostels still exist but now in a new guise used for different purposes:

  • The beautiful Houghton Mill is thankfully now in the hands of the National Trust and therefore remains open to the public to enjoy;
  • Telscombe has been developed and divided into upmarket houses but was unusually replaced by a new hostel nearby in the valley of the River Ouse, which is more convenient for those travelling the South Downs Way;
  • It’s not clear what has happened to the truly magnificent No1 Myddleton Place, AKA Saffron Walden YHA?
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Cycling Rocks

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Zinc (sphalerite – brown) & lead (galena – grey) ore contained in quartz – collected from a mine in southern Africa

As a retired exploration and mining geologist, I have long been concerned by the adverse views frequently proffered towards the extraction of natural resources.  Most people I know who work in these sectors are passionate about the environment, in fact like me it is very often the reason we took up geology in the first place in order to be outdoors, learning and understanding the physical world around us.  I have not been disappointed by my choice of career and after some 50-years studying and working as a geologist, I still take a keen interest in all matters related to the subject and frequently visit places of geological interest just for fun.  I’m just back from one such visit to the recently opened Etches Collection museum at Kimmeridge in Dorset, which houses the incredible lifetime collection of fossils discovered by Steve Etches in the surrounding area – there’s a small producing oil well nearby too!  It is very, very good and well worth a visit for anybody, not just geologists.

As the saying goes – you can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg – and there’s no doubt that mining can make a bit of a mess in order to extract rocks and minerals.  In the past it’s true that little regard was paid to the environment when carrying out this undertaking but today we are much more aware and a lot better at managing the process with care, in particular at the end of the economic life; it is a little known fact that the Norfolk Broads National Park is man-made, the result of historical peat extraction followed by natural flooding.

In today’s world mankind, especially in the developed world, is becoming more and more detached from the real world, in particular regarding the subject of natural resources e.g. food, energy and minerals.  The aforementioned world is not short of views on these matters, especially the media but more than often these views are based on poor information, wrong information or even myths.  At the same time this world is happy to use and enjoy the related products, usually without question, including the humble bike.

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The table below (adapted from the Department of Conservation, California, USA) lists some of the elements and materials that contribute to the different parts of a modern bike.  All are extracted from the earth, which may then be processed to form the desired material needed to make the aforesaid bike parts.  It’s worth thinking about this when taking a bike ride, look around and there may even be evidence of past extraction that has resulted in the stuff that makes up most of the modern world we live in.

I live in the so-called Wealden geological region, an area that encompasses much of Surrey, Sussex and Kent.  The geology itself contributes significantly to the landscape, which as well as man’s overwhelming impact on scenery makes for attractive and interesting rides.  Using local materials from the Weald significant quantities of iron were produced across the region since before Roman times and became a major source of production in the 16th and 17th centuries. If you know where to look there’s evidence to be seen of this and other historical areas of mineral extraction on a bike ride, such production may even have contributed to the construction of bikes at some time in the past or through recycling still be part of the bike you are riding today.

ROCKS AND ELEMENTS THAT MAKE UP A BIKE(1)

Metal parts of bike:       pedals, frame, pedal cranks, chain etc.

Titanium
Iron
Chromium
Tungsten
Manganese
Molybdenum
Aluminum
Zinc
Nickel                                              Tin                                                    Vanadium
Magnesium
Sulphur
Fluorite*
Marble**
Limestone**

Rubber and plastic parts: seat, tyres, brake pads, helmets etc.

Petroleum products (derived from crude oil)
Marble**
Mica*
Talc*
Clays (a mineral group or rock type)
Baryte*
Wollastonite*
Titanium
Halite*
Sulphur

Glass parts: mirror, reflectors etc

Silica or Quartz sand
Sodium carbonate minerals
Borate minerals
Silver
Dolomite*
Baryte*
Magnesite

Batteries

Zinc
Manganese
Lead

Paint

Titanium dioxide*
Iron oxide*
Mica*
Talc*
Clay (mineral group and/or rock type)
Wollastonite*
Molybdenum
Silica*
Sulphur
Baryte*

Significant amounts of the following elements and minerals are also obtained through recycling: Aluminum, Chromium (as stainless steel), Iron and Iron steel, Lead, Magnesium, Nickel (as stainless steel), Silver, Titanium, Tungsten, Zinc and Silica (from glass containers).

  • Those denoted with* are minerals and ** are rocks. A mineral is a naturally occurring element or chemical compound that is crystalline. A rock is generally considered to be an aggregate of minerals. Petroleum products are also used for oil and grease + in the manufacture of plastic parts.

 

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Old Dog New Tricks

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It’s just seven weeks since the first run on my electric converted Trek 830 MTB bike and already I think I can safely say it has revolutionised my cycling, which due to ongoing knee problems had recently become so moribund that I feared I might need to give up completely.  Hitherto I had only completed a few short rides on the Audax bike this year, in total amounting to just 50 miles! Since the end of July using the converted Trek bike I have already completed nine rides of up to 34 miles and a total of 250 miles in all.  There have been some technical niggles but overall the conversion has performed very well, as have my knees; mostly using the electric assistance on hills and inclines has noticeably reduced the stress on my already damaged knees, with noticeable benefits.

I have been particularly surprised how using the addition of power assistance from time-to-time has changed my approach to choosing cycle routes.  In the past unless it was absolutely unavoidable I have always tried to ride in such a way as to minimise adverse terrain and on circular routes.  On circular rides I would try to cycle out into the wind and return with the wind behind when more tired; naturally weather, temperature, road conditions and fitness are also important factors in the choice of routes.  With the option of using power assistance, such considerations have become much less important, with the result that I’ve been re-configuring old established routes based more on the aesthetics and pleasure of the ride.  As a result old routes have become new routes, incorporating roads and locations hitherto avoided for the aforementioned reasons.  Last weekend I undertook just such a ride, which turned out to be one of the best local rides I’ve had in years.

Routex

For route details click HERE

Box Ride

The main objective was to undertake the Box Hill Zig Zag climb onto the North Downs, used in the 2012 London Olympic road races.  To get there I first took my standard route over the new Flanchford Bridge to Leigh, then on towards Dorking using another favourite circular route towards Brockham.

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Looking north west towards Box Hill from Gadbrook Road

However, instead of turning right at Tilehurst Lane to Brockham, on this occasion I continued straight on along Punchbowl Lane.  At this point the lane climbs steeply, which produced some spectacular views across the Holmesdale Valley and onwards to the North Downs, where I was ultimately heading.  Though short the section of this road between Tilehurst Lane and the A25 AKA Reigate Road is very beautiful and as a result is also the location of some seriously large and no-doubt expensive houses – lucky them!

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The view towards the North Downs from Punchbowl Lane

Crossing the A25 onto Pixham Lane and then on to the A24, good paved cycle tracks subsequently run along both sides of this busy road and ultimately the base of Box Hill at Ryka’s Café.

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Denbies Wine Estate from the A24

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Olympics 2102: Men’s road race at the same loaction

Since the Olympics this climb has become something of a Mecca for the brightly coloured, lycra clad, carbon fibre, would-be road racing brigade from London and elsewhere.  Being Saturday the hill was literally swarming with such persons, attempting to demonstrate their climbing or descending prowess to each other.  There are six power assist settings on the converted bike, 0 being no power, and I climbed the hill comfortably using 3 or 4 for most of the way to great effect.  After a pit-stop  at the National Trust café, I first continued my normal easterly route towards Pebble Hill along the top of the Downs.  But this time instead of descending I turned left and to Headley village and then left again along Headley Lane, which ultimately then returns to the bottom of Box Hill via Juniper Hall.

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No shortage of would-be racers at the National Trust’s cafe at the top of Box Hill

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My way home (ultimately): looking south east from the top of Box Hill

In 2011 a dry run road race was held to test the route and arrangements for the Olympics the following year – it was won by no less than Mark Cavendish himself.  The so-called circular route runs from Box Hill to Headley village and then back via the A24 to Box Hill, which in the 2012 men’s race was repeated nine times before heading off to the finish in central London.  The week before the 2011 race I undertook my own dry run on the circular route.  However, on this ride instead of continuing on to the A24, I turned onto Headley Lane and was in for a very pleasant surprise.

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Chalkland scenery along Headley Lane

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The lane mostly winds downwards  across the dip slope of the Downs, through some beautiful chalkland scenery and was a lot of fun to ride.  Unlike the Box Hill road this lane is very quiet and apart from myself, I only saw two other cyclists – they don’t know what they’re missing!

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Short-cut from Dorking Golf Club (on the left of picture) to Brockham

From the base of Box Hill it’s now back on the A24 cycle track again to the A25, before crossing nearby onto a good off-road track from the Dorking Golf Club to Brockham.  At which point the route connects with another familiar ride via Betchworth, Trumpet Hill and then back home, all-in-all some 30-miles.

Putting together this cornucopia of previous routes, places and views was very enjoyable and a new experience after cycling regularly in this area for more than 20-years.  Though quite hilly my knees were in good shape at the end and there was still 50% of reserve power left in the battery.  Even in good shape I would probably have avoided this combination of rides but with my new found electric stoker on board such routes are now possible, even desirable, thus opening up new horizons.

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The North Downs: Pebble Hill viewed from Kiln Lane, Betchworth

Since the new Electric Bikes section of the Cycling UK Forum has recently been added, previously something of an anathema to some others on the Forum, it’s been interesting to see that I am not alone in my appreciation of the benefits of electric bikes, especially for those older or unfortunate enough to find cycling a little more difficult than in the past.  Not only am I a convert but I can see huge benefits using assisted power bikes for all those that need a bit of help nowadays – it beats driving, is kind to the environment and is lots of fun.  Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

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A New Cycling E-ra

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Following a knee replacement in 2015 I have struggled to get back to my previous cycling mileage and certainly been unable to resume touring.  As a result after long consideration I have taken the plunge and converted my Trek 830 MTB to an electric bike.  Frankly I was not impressed by off-the-peg electric bikes which are very expensive and in my opinion, poorly specced compared to a good standard bike.  In general I was also put off by the retailers, who showed poor knowledge about bikes in general and were often clearly there only for the commercial E-bike ride that’s sweeping across Europe.  Hopefully this will change in time but for now it’s a case of buyer beware!

I had been toying with the idea of conversion for some time using a decent conventional bike and after 23 years I know the Trek 830 inside out, which despite its age is very well built.  After years of maintenance and previously converting the bike for touring it’s a bit like Trigger’s broom and I thought would make a strong base for converting.  I also hoped that by using a bike with which I was already familiar and happy, it would provide the same riding feel after conversion.

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Trek MTB 830: My new electrified steed!

In the end I chose the Cyclotricity 250W front wheel PAS system and after completing the conversion have just undertaken my first electric rides.  The kit seems good and I would describe the conversion as relatively easy, except for the very poor, unclear and often confusing instructions which have to be downloaded online.

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250W front wheel hub drive on a 26″ wheel. Axle nuts need to be very tight, with torque washers inserted into the drop-outs in order to stop spin-out when using power assistance.

Most conversions of this type use a PAS (Pedal Assistance Sensor) ring that goes over the bottom bracket spindle and is clamped either by a locking ring on the left side or by the bottom bracket collar on the right side.  However, as most modern bikes are now fitted with a cassette bottom bracket there is often no locking ring, as with my bike.  Alternatively the PAS ring can also fit on the right side but in my case, with a triple chainset the smallest inner chainring fouled the magnetic disc that operates the sensor when the pedals are turned.

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The PAS clip at the base of the seat tube is activated by a magnetic disc fitted on the bottom bracket spindle when the pedals are turned, thereby providing power assistance to the front hub motor via a control box located behind the rack mounted battery.

The answer was easy and should in my opinion be supplied as a standard fitting for these conversions i.e. a small clip-shaped sensor attached at the bottom of the seat tube on the left side with cable ties and a corresponding two-piece magnetic disc located between the crank arm and bottom bracket shell, which conveniently no longer requires dismantling the bottom bracket.  This had been omitted from my order and was not evident on the manufacture’s website either but after trying the first two methods, I obtained and successfully installed the alternative clip-type sensor from the retailer Electric Bike Conversions who had originally supplied the kit.

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The 17Ah battery is situated beneath the rack top and can be unlocked and slid out for charging or security – this is a very expensive battery! The PAS control box is placed inside an integrated box at the front of the battery and I’ve protected the lead connectors with a waterproof cover – though they are themselves rain proof.

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At the back the battery has an integrated rear light which works independently using x2 AA batteries; the instructions say nothing about this and I only found out how it works after much effort and eventually phoning the retailer – again!

Apart from the ‘on-demand’ assistance of the electric power, I was pleased to find that the bike otherwise rode generally as before, particularly with the power off.  The electric power is available in two modes: (i) through a thumb operated throttle, or (ii) using the PAS system, which only works when the pedals are turned and can be set at five increasing levels of power from a control unit mounted on the handlebars; I am yet to figure out the bewildering and unclear instructions for setting the LCD display!

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LCD control panel + thumb throttle on the outer side of the brakes.  I was unable to fit the brake levers supplied which cut-off power under braking, as my brake levers are integrated with thumb operated gear shifters.  By using a PAS unit this this is not a problem as the power stops when pedalling stops. However, fitting all this across the handlebar space was tricky.

My other hang-up when considering an electric bike (like cars) is their limited range.  Manufacturers and retailers are careful how they word this but always include a caveat somewhere in small print that the advertised range will vary depending on the type of use.  It’s therefore my thinking that a given stated range of say 30-miles is almost certainly based on modest use of electric power, which with increased load or terrain is likely to fall considerably i.e. normal cycling.  I find this very unhelpful and somewhat disingenuous.  I have yet to determine the range of my set-up but using their new large capacity 17Ah pannier mounted battery, I was told the bike should have a range of up to 80 miles – which I very much doubt.  Notwithstanding, I have just completed two rides on the first full charge, deliberately seeking out hilly terrain on my first ride of 23-miles, with an apparent 50% of the battery power left at the end and <25% power after a second flatter 18-mile ride i.e. 41 miles in all with some power still remaining.

In general I have found the electric assistance to be highly beneficial on hills, as intended taking the pressure off my knees.  On the very steepest hill of almost 1-in-5 the hub motor strained somewhat but with a good charge coped with the incline, albeit at a very slow pace.  I am still learning how to best use power whilst at the same time optimizing the battery charge, generally turning the assistance to low or off when on the flat and only using the PAS on hilly sections; use of the thumb throttle for a quick squirt of power when pulling away or on short inclines can also be helpful and is becoming addictive! Bike handling is good but being front wheel hub drive, I suspect in wet conditions traction could become somewhat skittish, on occasion the extra weight is also quite noticeable.

At this early stage the jury is still out on my converted E-bike but so far it shows great promise and hopefully marks the beginning of a new personal cycling era.  Already it’s apparent that route planning needs to be different in order to ensure that there’s sufficient charge to complete the ride; in my case some hills along the final stretch home have always been the bane of local rides and I need to make sure I’ve still got some power assistance left at the end for this purpose.  I intend to continue riding locally with my other standard bikes and use the electric bike for longer local or day rides and centrally based touring trips.

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The Bridge

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The new Flanchford Bridge looking towards Woodhatch – June 2017

The prolonged heavy rainfall that resulted in severe flooding on the Somerset Levels during the winter of 2013-14 also wreaked havoc further afield here in East Surrey.  Part of the natural life cycle of a river is to flood and the River Mole is no exception as it passes through the local area between Sidlow and Brockham.  Over many years I’ve often viewed such flooding from my bike and on occasion had to cycle through it, as on Wonham Lane in Betchworth where the road runs along the riverside and is prone to flood at such times.  The road from Woodhatch to Leigh has long been the key to many of my local rides and as it too passes across the Mole, often breaks its banks after heavy rain turning the surrounding landscape into a shallow lake, complete with waterfowl instead of cows!

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The old Flanchford Bridge underwater somewhere!

Originally built in the 19th Century, Flanchford Bridge provides a critical transport link from the south of Reigate to Leigh, Brockham and Dorking, thus avoiding the busy A25 to the north.  As a result it is very popular with cyclists and at this time of the year finds hundreds if not thousands of cyclists passing over at weekends.  Constructed of attractive Victorian brickwork, the old single lane bridge consisted of just two small arches.  The adjacent banks are a popular location for fishing in the summer but in the winter the narrow bridge arches can cause the river flow to back-up and eventually flood over the road.  Furthermore, such conditions have taken their toll on the bridge structure until in January 2014 the downriver (west) side of the bridge finally collapsed!

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The old Flanchford Road bridge over the River Mole was substantially damaged by floods in 2014.  The downstream side was cordoned off by barriers and a weight and width limit imposed at each end. Same view as above & at top.

After initially closing the bridge for obvious safety reasons, the council placed some temporary barriers along the edge, installed a couple of fixed bollards at each end to restrict vehicle size and re-opened the bridge.  Notwithstanding, it was now clear that the bridge would need to be replaced and about a year later the road was closed for work to commence building a new bridge.  Unfortunately the closure coincided with my return to cycling after a knee replacement and has therefore seriously compromised my riding.  Although the bridge span is quite short, the projected construction time of 6-months was soon extended to nine months and only very recently was I able to cycle over the new bridge and beyond once again.

Aesthetically the new bridge is far from inspiring and is boring at best.  It is still one-way in order to reduce vehicle size and speed with a footpath along the western edge but significantly it is single span, which should stop blocking the upstream section of the river in future periods of high water flow.  However, I still expect the downstream river section will still flood during periods of high rainfall, it is after all a floodplain and that’s what rivers do – flood.  I now look forwards to enjoying this spectacle again on my bike from the comfort and safety of the new bridge.

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Lower Thames Ride

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Thames Barrier

Sometimes the obvious isn’t that, obvious! Born and bred a Londoner I infrequently cycle there, in fact because of the obvious issues of traffic and congestion I’ve tried to avoid it.  However, there’s no getting away from the fact that London is a very interesting city and all-the-better seen from a bike, even a ‘Boris bike’, which I have yet to experience.  But look beyond the obvious, Buckingham Palace, Westminster, the City etc., and a cycle ride can expand even the most familiar view of the city.

And so it was when we decided to take our bikes by car to Woolwich and undertake a circular ride around the River Thames, downstream of Tower Bridge; furthermore, there was a pleasant symmetry in that this ride plugged-the-gap of my Thames cycling experiences along the lower Thames estuary to Margate in 2010 and the upstream ride to Oxford in 2012. The result was a spectacular, interesting and very enjoyable ride.

 

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Upstream: Canary Wharf from the Thames Barrier

The starting point was at the Thames Barrier.  Operational since 1984, the Barrier was built in response to the threat of tidal floods overwhelming central London, which to-date has been a great success; such is the severity of this threat that I believe there is now a proposal to build an additional barrier further downstream to help assist the one at Woolwich.  Apart from the wonder of its engineering, it is a beautiful structure and well worth a visit in its own right.

London Route

The route, for details click HERE

Undertaken mostly along the banks of the River Thames, the 22-mile ride is flat throughout.  Given the history of the area much of the route passes through industrial areas, past and present, interspersed with magnificent stretches of London’s great history and river views at their very best.

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The cycle track loops around the O2 Arena, with Canary Wharf behind on the north bank

Setting off anticlockwise from the Barrier, the industrial wasteland of Woolwich is now being rebuilt with expensive riverside apartments, before the track soon thereafter loops around the North Greenwich Arena – AKA the O2 Arena or in the year 2000 – the Millennium Dome.  Looming upwards above the river on the other (north) side of the river from here the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf can be seen.  As a teenager in the 1960s I knew the original London Docks as working docks and with astonishment watched their redevelopment in the 1980s and 1990s, subsequently remaining empty for years as a White Elephant.  Their eventual success was finally triggered by the provision of communications in the form of the Dockland Light Railway (DLR) and especially the opening of the Jubilee underground line extension; I wish I’d had the nerve to purchase a flat there when I worked at 1 London Bridge in 1986, as the real estate has now literally taken off big time, oh well!

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Zero degrees! The Meridian at Greenwich Observatory

Shortly after the Dome the riverside cycle-walking track runs into Greenwich, until recently a somewhat overlooked district of London.  Such is its history you could spend a whole day here, notably at the National Maritime Museum, the Greenwich Observatory and recently refurbished Cutty Sark ship, but this time we mostly confined stops to refreshments.  Thereafter, the route continues along riverside sections, with occasional diversions inland on local roads, latterly crossing some of London’s other docks on the southern bank around Surrey Quays and Rotherhithe.

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Cutty Sark at Greenwich, recently refurbished

Personally I can’t recommend a stop at the Angel pub in Rotherhithe enough for a bite to eat and refreshments.  Dating back to the middle-ages, the view from the current riverside premises is spectacular, especially looking upstream towards Tower Bridge, whilst just across the road are the remains of Richard III’s palace. The final stretch along the south bank runs into the redeveloped district of Butlers Wharf.  Today this consists of high-end restaurants, apartments and shops but is nonetheless interesting and attractive.

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The view of Tower Bridge from The Angel pub at Rotherhithe

At this point to route crosses the Thames via the iconic Tower Bridge.  The road across is not for the faint hearted and for those not familiar with the location, walking across is an equally good alternative, preferably on the western (upstream side) so as to afford amazing views upstream and into the City, Westminster and immediately in front – The Tower of London.  On the other side the ride now turns east to follow, as much as possible, the northern bank of the River Thames heading back downstream.

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The route crosses the River Thames by way of Tower Bridge. In the foreground is HMS Belfast and City Hall. On the north bank (centre) is The Tower of London. After crossing the bridge turn right (east) through St Katherine’s Docks – just left of / behind Tower Bridge.

Frankly without intimate, local knowledge, the route here is a bit of a lottery and towards the end involves some major roads and significant industrialisation – nonetheless, it remains interesting throughout.  Immediately east of Tower Bridge St Katherine’s Docks is worth a detour before heading off on the back roads into the ancient districts of Shadwell and Limehouse – in their day important but rough communities of the old London riverside.  Today they too have become expensive, and sought after residential areas, how times have changed!

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A paddle steamer just by Canary Wharf taking tourists from central London to Greenwich.

Shortly afterwards the route enters the labyrinthine scenery that pass through the towering offices of Canary Wharf, seen earlier from the south bank at the O2 Arena; at its best this ride is preferably undertaken at weekends when this section will be quieter and more pleasant, unlike during the week when it is full of business workers and traffic.  Emerging from Canary Wharf on the east side the route can be difficult to follow and may necessitate taking short sections along pavements in order to avoid heavy traffic but soon afterwards, the roads again quieten and cross a major area of industry before finally arriving at the Woolwich Ferry terminal.  Bikes are wheeled onto the free ferry and after a short crossing back to the south bank of the river, it’s time to navigate the final short stretch on the roads back to the start of the ride by the Thames Barrier.

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Back at the start, via the nearby Woolwich Ferry.

 

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Bluebell Ride

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Most of my local rides go west.  There are a number of reasons for this but mainly I try to ride out against the wind and, as far as possible, return with it on my back – as the wind here generally blows from the west I therefore naturally head west.  Notwithstanding, from time-to-time – mostly about mid-year – the wind turns and provides some good cycling opportunities to the east.  My standard route eastwards is a 30-mile loop out to Haxted Mill but a few years ago I discovered a very nice add-on just to the north which passes through beautiful quiet countryside around Crowhurst, before subsequently dropping down into Edenbridge, then on to Haxted Mill and home on the aforementioned standard route.

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The 37-mile route starts at St John’s Church Redhill (Earlswood) going clockwise.  For underlying details click HERE

Elevation

Elevation Profile in feet – clockwise from St John’s Church, Redhill

The route extension adds about 7-miles to the ride but importantly goes though some really beautiful and quite countryside lanes, which are great for cycling.  Despite being a short diversion there are some notable highlights along the way, with two in particular standing out.

The first is an unprepossessing stopping point along lower section of Gibbs Brook Lane that, on a sunny day is simply magic.  It is difficult to describe the exact qualities but in the foreground looking out west across farm fields the cereal crops sway in the breeze, just beyond sometimes an amateur model flying club are intriguingly flying their planes, while in the distance the wooded Greensand Ridge provides a beguiling background to the scene.  I live on the Greensand Ridge, a conspicuous geological feature parallel to the North Downs that runs across north Kent and Surrey.  Though not as high as the adjacent Downs, in my opinion the topography and associated scenery is far superior and, furthermore, produces some very attractive cycling; Churchill’s home at Chartwell is on the Greensand Ridge and I reckon he was a shrewd judge of such matters.

A few miles on is the next highlight – Staffhurst Wood.  A 50 hectare site of Special Scientific Interest, the area has been continuously wooded since Saxon times.  The antiquity of the woods is obvious even whilst cycling through on the country road but it’s necessary to stop and get off the bike in order to take a walk into the woods in order to really experience its full beauty.  On any day the quiet atmosphere is enjoyable but in early May when a carpet of bluebells covers the woodland floor it becomes truly spectacular.

Other Points of Interest:

  • On the outward section the ride passes by Outwood Mill, the highest post mill in Britain built in 1665, thus also marking the high-point of the cycle route.
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Outwood Mill

  • Immediately prior to entering Staffhurst Wood a short diversion down Caterfield Lane leads to the Royal Oak Pub, which makes an excellent stop for refreshment and lunch – lovely views and good grub!
  • Just past the halfway mark on the road east from Edenbridge is Haxted Watermill. With references dating back to 1361, the western half was built c1580 and the eastern part in 1794.
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Haxted Watermill

  • In the small somewhat unassuming village of Horne near Smallfield, along Bones Lane is a war memorial just by the side of the road. The memorial marks the location of RAF Horne a temporary airfield used by British, Canadian and Polish Spitfire pilots in support of the D-Day landings in 1944.
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Horne War Memorial

 

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