These notes are based on legs completed during autumn trial / training rides.
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Stage 1 Hastings to Dartford (London)
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. . . . Route
Leg 1 – 48 miles – Hastings to Tunbridge Wells
Let’s go down to the bandstand on the pier
Watch the drunks and the lovers appear
To take turns, as the stars of the Sovereign Light Café
Keane, Sovereign Light Café from the album Strangeland, 2012
The Sovereign Light Café, immortalised by English alternative rock band Keane,was the ride’s first coffee stop. The café is six miles from our start point – the local Samaritans base in St Andrews Square, Hastings. To get to the Sovereign Light, we’ll be cycling along the Hastings and Bexhill promenades (part of the Dover to Devon National Cycle Route 2).
The six-mile ride to our coffee stop offers a relatively flat and almost traffic-free route. If we meet any of the drunks or lovers anticipated by Keane at the Sovereign Light, then we’ll offer a listening ear – after all, we are Samaritans. Our short coffee-stop ride can be idyllic provided Bexhill’s notorious westerly sea breeze isn’t trying to blow us back towards Hastings. Colleagues from the local Hastings and Rother Samaritans branch will be joining us for well-deserved coffee and cake or, if anyone’s up for it, one of the Sovereign Lights’ mammoth breakfasts. Rested and refreshed the Hastings ‘SAMS’ will cycle back to base probably with the benefit of a following wind while we’ll get our heads down to battle the elements along the marshes to Polegate. Here we’ll pick up the Cuckoo Trail.
Part of National Cycle Route 21, the trail follows the course of the old direct rail line from Eastbourne to London. Opened in 1880, the railway became known as the Cuckoo Line because traditionally, the first cuckoo of spring was released from a cage at Heathfield Fair. The line was axed under the Beeching cuts and eventually closed in 1968. From Heathfield the cycle route becomes unsuitable for road bikes. Unsurfaced tracks through woods, kissing gates and across old railway footbridges are fine for ramblers but less fun for cyclists with luggage.
Avoiding the mud and potential chaos of an unsurfaced route in April, we’ll turn east from Heathfield on the A265 before turning north for Mayfield along Newick Lane – once an ancient droving route for Sussex farmers.
Mayfield is famous for the legend of St Dunstan. The saint, formerly a blacksmith, was working at his forge when the Devil paid him a visit, disguised as a beautiful woman intent on leading him astray. However, Dunstan spotted the temptress’s cloven hooves beneath her dress and grabbed the devil’s nose with his red-hot blacksmith’s pincers. The devil’s evil intentions were thwarted. According to another legend, the persistent Satan returned as a weary traveller needing a horseshoe. Dunstan was not fooled by this more plausible disguise beating the devil to within an inch of his life. Legend has it that Satan pleaded for mercy and promised never to enter a house with a horseshoe above the door.
From Mayfield we pick up Coggins Mill Road and Tidebrook Road to cycle through the High Weald, crossing the B2100 at the quaintly-named hamlet of Best Beech Hill. Continuing north along Faircrouch Lane to the B2099 we’ll take a left turn before picking up Dewhurst Lane on our right. Following Dewhurst Lane, we take a left fork along Higham Lane to Bells Yew Green. From there, we’ll travel over some nicely undulating country lanes to Hawkenbury before dropping down into the famous spa-town of Tunbridge Wells where we’ll find the local Samaritans in Lime Hill Road.
For a short history of Tunbridge Wells try https://www.visittunbridgewells.com/explore/history-of-the-town
Leg 2 – 43 miles – Tunbridge Wells to Ashford
Me, Your Highness? On the whole, I wish I’d stayed in Tunbridge Wells
Fictional character, Mr Dryden, in the film Laurence of Arabia, 1962
We’ll put Mr Dryden’s world-weary warning firmly at the back of our minds as we head out along National Cycle Route 18 into the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We’ll be facing one of the hilliest rides on the entire route to Shetland. The inevitable aches and pains should be worth it, though, as we cycle through some of the very best scenery in Kent’s ‘Garden of England’ including several renowned picture-postcard villages, such as Kilndown and Matfield – all of which offer tempting lunch stops in their typically-English pubs.
But, before we’re overwhelmed by hedonistic thoughts of pub lunches, we’ll focus on our coffee stop, which today will be an eight-mile ride to Gray’s Café and Bar in Brenchley.
Heading south-east from Brenchley we’ll divert from the official cycle route to visit Goudhurst. The village first became prosperous in the 14th century following the migration of Flemish weavers to the village. Their cottages can still be seen in Church Road and date from about 1350. We’ve the Flemish immigrants to thank for Kent Broadcloth but, more significantly, for English beer. The weavers preferred ‘hopped’ beer to the bland English ale and, instead of adopting the watery local brew, they brought in new varieties of hops as well as the knowledge of how best to use them. Hop gardens flourished to such an extent that, by the late 1800s, they covered the countryside round Goudhurst as far as the eye could see. Hop pickers from London came down to work in Goudhurst every year until the 1950s when machines took over. Now the hop gardens of Kent are not nearly as extensive as in the past. But the good news is that grape vines are now being cultivated right across the county. We’ll be passing some famous English vineyards on our journey.
Once in Ashford, we’ll find the Samaritans in Queen Street and the famous ‘Ashford Tank’ under a canopy in St Georges Square.
This unique monument to the First World War is the only survivor of two hundred battlefield tanks presented to towns and cities with the best record of contributing funds to the war effort. Ashford’s tank survives only because, in 1926, its rear section was converted into a sub-station as part of a long-overdue installation of electric lights in the town. Its unique versatility protected the Mark IV ‘female’ battle tank from being melted down to help supply Britain’s struggling weapon factories during World War 2. Why a ‘female’ battle tank? Tanks armed with large guns were known as ‘destroyer’ or ‘male’ tanks. ‘Males’ were designed to be supported by at least one ‘consort’ or ‘female’ tank equipped only with machine guns to mow down enemy infantry. A formidable partnership and the brainchild of one Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Swinton.
Leg 3 – 20 miles – Ashford to Canterbury
This fine old town, or, rather, city, is remarkable for cleanliness and niceness, notwithstanding it has a Cathedral in it. The country round it is very rich, and this year, while the hops are so bad in most other parts, they are not so very bad just about Canterbury.
William Cobbett, Rural Rides, 1823
We’ll stay on National Cycle Route 18 for our ‘pilgrimage’ to Canterbury. This is a deliberate short-hop to give us a slightly easier day after our exertions across the High Weald. We’ll also have the chance of an afternoon bike shop visit to replace or repair missing or broken parts. No matter how carefully a bike is prepped, it’s almost inevitable that screws loosen, bolts fall off, cables stretch, and panniers detach themselves. Equally inevitably, this happens at the most inopportune moment, often when struggling up the steepest part of a hill with a farm tractor straining to pass.
Let’s hope we can avoid failing bike parts, steep hills and impatient tractor drivers before our coffee stop of the day at the New Flying Horse Inn, Wye.
Wye has an unusual claim to fame – a huge white crown carved into the chalk hillside. We’ll see it right in front of us on the hillside as we cycle towards the village. Known unsurprisingly as the Wye Crown, it was built by a team of thirty-five agricultural college students directed by ‘Tommy’ J Young, the college’s lecturer in surveying, who led from a vantage point in the fields below. This might seem an easy option – to be as far away from the heavy work as possible – but we should beware of such ungenerous assumptions. Laying out a symmetrical design on an irregular hillside would be no mean feat. Getting the shape right could only be done by directing from a distance. So, while ‘Tommy’ Young shouted and signalled, his students moved dozens of flags to mark the outlines of the excavation. Once Young was happy with the shape, the students took just four days to shift 7,000 wheelbarrow loads of turf, soil and chalk.
The crown was based on a design used on the 1887 silver florin (now our much less valuable 10 pence piece) and was finished in time to commemorate the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. Unfortunately, the new King – preparing to ascend the throne after his mother Victoria’s death – was taken ill with appendicitis. Imagine the disappointment felt by ‘Tommy’ Young and his students when they heard of the postponement. But they soon got over it, deciding to celebrate anyway by lighting a huge bonfire next to their crown. When Edward did officially become King, just two months later, they went one better by illuminating the crown with 1500 fairy lights – a spectacle repeated for the new King when he stayed at the nearby Eastwell Manor in 1904.
Of course, the most important reason to stop in Canterbury, apart from the pubs, restaurants and historical sites, is that there’s another Samaritans branch in this beautiful city. It’s in Northgate – a stone’s throw from the Cathedral.
Leg 4 – 40 miles – Canterbury to Rochester
The silent High Street of Rochester is full of gables,
with old beams and timbers carved into strange faces.
Charles Dickens, The Seven Poor Travellers, 1894
Time now to join National Cycle Route 1 which, give or take the odd detour and intervening stretches of ocean, goes all the way to Shetland! The first part of our journey takes us to the coastal town of Whitstable along a route known as the Crab and Winkle Way.
The cycle way takes its name from the six-mile railway line which ran from Canterbury to the coast. It would be no surprise if the line had been another casualty of the infamous Doctor Beeching and his rail ‘rationalisation’. In fact, the short stretch of track was closed to passengers in 1931 simply because, over such a limited distance, it was unable to compete with the increasingly popular and more flexible motor bus. Every cloud does have a silver lining though, as we’ll use the old track bed to enjoy a gently undulating and largely traffic-free six mile run to Whitstable. We’ll find today’s coffee stop, the Sea View Café, after a quick spin through this increasingly well-regarded seaside town with its enviable reputation for glorious seafood.
Leaving the Sea View Café, we’ll have the benefit of another flat run along the coast to Faversham, home of the Shepherd Neame brewery. Shepherd Neame is Britain’s oldest brewer. Founded in 1698 but with origins stretching back to at least 1525, the brewery remains as important to the town as it’s ever been, with over four thousand jobs depending on it. Its iconic Spitfire Bitter is unashamedly promoted as the ‘Bottle of Britain’ and wrapped in the union flag. Perhaps this patriotic brew helped to prompt people in this part of Kent to vote in their droves to leave the European Union. The irony is that the early success of brewing in Faversham depended on two key factors: trade with Europe (for supplies of hops); and the beer-making skills of 14th century Flemish immigrants. If unskilled European immigration had been restricted then, as it is likely to be in the future, Kent might not have developed its enviable reputation for beer excellence.
We’ll mull over this conundrum as we ride on along the coast and across the marshes to Chatham – the site of an embarrassing naval defeat at the hands of the Dutch which, strangely enough, is hardly ever mentioned in England’s history books. As you might expect, the Dutch do celebrate their victory, not least through the many fine commemorative paintings prominently and proudly displayed in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
We’re referring, of course, to the English naval fleet’s alarming and humiliating defeat in the Battle of the Medway in June 1667. This was the third of three calamitous events which rocked England at around the same time – the Great Plague (1665/6) and the Great Fire of London (1666) were the others. All this would have made ‘Brexit’ look like a minor inconvenience. But few have heard of the ‘Great’ Battle of the Medway even though it set an entire river on fire. The smoke it created was visible along the whole of the north Kent coastline. England’s defeat understandably caused panic in London.
Just twenty years later, the Dutch launched a full-scale invasion at Torbay in Devon which led to the replacement of England’s King James II by William of Orange who was, of course, a Dutchman! Curiously a group of English parliamentarians had invited William to take the throne. They suspected that James would pledge loyalty to the Catholic Church which they certainly didn’t want. Rule by William would stabilise Protestantism which they did want. Very conveniently, William’s English wife Mary had a legitimate claim to the English throne as she was James II’s daughter! Widespread anti-Catholic sentiment across England deprived James of the support he needed to defend his throne. After a couple of skirmishes in the West Country, William was declared King. What became known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ was over.
So why have we forgotten about the Great Battle of Medway? Perhaps it’s not unconnected with the Dutch scoring such an impressive ‘away win’. Led by Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, they made short work of destroying or capturing the best of the English naval fleet including the King Charles II’s fleet flagship, HMS Royal Charles which was towed back across the North Sea to Holland. The English were no match for the Dutch commander’s ambitious and audacious plan to send fire ships up the Medway, to bring chaos to the river and cause England’s defenders to beat a hasty retreat. Charles’s reputation never recovered and was further tarnished across Europe when the Dutch rubbed his nose well and truly in it, by giving foreign dignitaries special tours of the captured flagship. The Dutch, understandably, continue to proudly display the stern of the Royal Charles, replete with its lion and unicorn carvings and naval ensign, in their national museum.
No country likes to recall its military defeats, even those from 350 years ago. But here there’s perhaps a little more to it. The Dutch had outsmarted the English navy, destroying much of the fleet. Twenty years later they invaded. Yet we continue to believe the myth that the country has resisted invasion since William the Conqueror arrived in 1066.
We’ll cycle on to Rochester to find countless reminders of the ancient city’s literary superstar – Charles Dickens. Dickens was inspired by Rochester’s ancient buildings, including its most prominent pubs. Although Dickens used the name ‘Cloisterham’ rather than Rochester, there’s little to disguise the buildings he describes so vividly in his writing. Each featured public building, house and pub now proudly displays a plaque describing its Dickensian significance. Tearing ourselves from ‘Cloisterham’ we’ll cross the River Medway to find the local Samaritans branch in Priory Road, Strood.
Leg 5 – 50 miles – Rochester to London (Dartford and Greenwich)
Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
Samuel Johnson, 1777
We’ll leave Strood via Upnor Castle, a remarkably intact and rare example of an Elizabethan artillery fortress built in 1559. The impressive castle was built to protect the English navy moored in the Medway. It should have made the river impregnable but embarrassingly the Dutch were able to sail past Upnor on their way to burn or capture Charles II’s fleet in 1667.
From Upnor we’ll ride on to the Mockbeggar Farm Shop which, according to a satisfied customer posting on Google, is a ‘really good place to stop on a bike ride’. Another client’s curious comment that, ‘some bits in here I’ve never seen before ever’ may add a frisson of excitement to our choice of cakes.
Leaving the curiously-named ‘Mockbeggar’, our trail soon picks up the Thames and Medway Canal. This canal opened in 1824 to provide an inland emergency supply route between the Deptford and Woolwich naval dockyards on the Thames, and Chatham dockyard on the Medway. The Thames and Medway boasted Britain’s widest canal tunnel (9.6 meters including the towpath) which is also well over two miles long – a significant engineering challenge for the time. Unfortunately, we’ll miss the tunnel. It used to take the canal under the chalk ridge north of Rochester, but it’s now used by the railway. This tunnel conversion added insult to injury for the canal; it was the railway companies’ lower freight rates that led to the waterway’s abandonment in 1934.
We can expect a flat ride along the canal but not a particularly fast one. Canal towpaths demand a certain amount of caution. Fortunately we won’t be distracted too much by boats, even though seven miles of the canal, from its Gravesham end, is used for kayaking.
The Thames entrance to the canal at Gravesham is a marina now and it’s from here that we’ll ride through industrial areas, housing estates and urban parkland, through Dartford and on to the Samaritans’ branch at Bexleyheath. The next morning, we’ll ride out from the branch to our coffee stop in Greenwich picking up the rather hesitant beginnings of the Thames Path. This National Trail heads almost two hundred miles east to the Thames’s source, under an ancient tree in a remote Cotswold meadow. Although a diversion to Oxfordshire is very tempting, we’ll be using the Path only as far as Greenwich. It’s here that we’ll cross, without ceremony, from the eastern to western meridian.
The Greenwich Meridian line separates east from west in the same way that the Equator separates north from south. It’s the starting point for the international system of time zones. So why Greenwich, when this imaginary north / south meridian line could have been placed anywhere in the world?
The story of the Greenwich Meridian is the story of three 18th century scientists whose complementary inventions enabled navigators to find their way accurately at sea, even when they couldn’t see land. Captain John Campbell perfected the sextant to reliably measure the angle of the sun and moon. John Harrison invented an accurate marine clock and, of most significance, Tobias Mayer compiled a set of tables that allowed seafarers to find their position based on information from their sextant and clock. The tables were based on time differences from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. These British scientists had been spurred on by a massive cash prize from the government’s Board of Longitude. Harrison was the most richly-rewarded, receiving £10,000 (Twenty million pounds at today’s prices). By the middle of the 19th Century more and more countries were adopting the British system for finding their position at sea. So Greenwich won hands down when in 1884 the International Meridian Conference met in Washington D.C.to settle on a Prime Meridian for the world. The French had hoped that Paris would one day have received such an honour but, on this occasion, they weren’t able to match British skills and motivation.
It wasn’t until over twenty-five years later that France officially adopted the Greenwich meridian as the single reference point for international time and, until 1978 the French refused to use the term ‘Greenwich Mean Time’ preferring the phrase ‘Paris mean time, retarded by 9 minutes and 21 seconds’. Even then, when France finally bowed to the inevitable and fully adopted Greenwich Mean Time, the climb down was masked by use of the phrase ‘Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)’. No wonder the French have been making us suffer over Brexit!
Once we’ve had our fill of the impressive historical ships and buildings at the heart of Greenwich, it’s through the pedestrian / cycle tunnel taking us under the Thames while reflecting on what the consequences may have been if Paris had won the race to measure longitude.
At the end of our first stage and after five eventful days in the saddle, we’ll have covered around two hundred miles.
Ups and downs (Based on autumn trial rides)
Sea View Café, Whitstable. Cash only – but you won’t need to spend a fortune and the cheerful team can satisfy the biggest appetite. Starve 24 hrs before a visit as you will be fed for a week. A traditional seaside café – large mugs of tea and all-day breakfasts. Lovely.
Best cycle route
A tie between the Cuckoo Trail (East Sussex, Polegate to Heathfield) and the Great Stour Way (Kent, Chartham to Canterbury). Good surfaces, gentle slopes, beautiful scenery and polite dog-walkers.
Ladies of a certain age in Whitstable seem to bide their time waiting for a cyclist to appear before flinging open their car doors.
Conversely, Kent’s grey squirrels seem to like nothing better than playing cycle-route chicken.
The single-track Blackwall Road between Ashford and Wye. Look out for drivers of large SUVs and delivery vans racing towards Ashford indifferent to fluorescent bike jackets and flashing lights. (They do seem to notice hand-gestures, though!)
Ashford, without a doubt, where dangerous driving has been developed into an art-form. What is it about ‘new towns’?
Mayfield, East Sussex. The Devil has visited this village at least twice, they make their own gin from a strain of wild hops and an elderly man mistook my cycling gear for a space suit.