Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Crossings of London Part One

As all of my posts on my travel blog have been cycle trips recently, I thought it was about time I set up a specific cycling blog, so here it is.
One boring evening last week, I was on the net looking for the website for the Dartford Crossing so I could charge up my dart tag, the results of my google search also brought up the following site; http://www.bike99.com/thamescrossings.html.
Intrigued, I forgot all about my need to save 50p per crossing and clicked on it. Amongst other splendid ride suggestions the first one was a ride which incorporated every method of crossing the tidal Thames- from Teddington Lock in West London to the Tilbury Ferry in the east- which are legal for cyclists.  I'd been looking for a ride with a difference for a while and I'd found it, quite by accident and I was excited by the challenge.
The site recommended doing the 40 mile ride from west to east, however living in Essex I decided to do it in reverse and start from Gravesend in the morning.

I woke up to glorious spring weather, bright sun but a slight chill in the air and made my way to Tilbury via the C2C train, looking forward to my day. I was wondering if I'd manage all the crossings in one day but quickly came to the conclusion that that would be too ambitious, and knowing my penchant for getting lost in search of bike routes considered it highly unlikely. I had an invite from my mate Rick in Bethnal Green for a beer in the evening so the distance between Gravesend and there being around 25 miles considered that a good chunk of the route. 

First Crossing: Tilbury Gravesend Ferry

I got off the ferry and immediately hit the unfamiliar territory of turning right, as opposed to my usual route of left towards Rochester.

 There were no defined cycle paths in this area so it was on road riding along the A226, however I was convinced a cycle path existed that followed the river. I stopped and asked a bus driver standing by the side of the road. He seemed to agree although wasn't entirely sure but suggested I take a flight of steps down from the road to the river that was about a mile up the road. I found the steps but had to carry my bike down the steps. The steps dumped me in the middle of Northfleet cement works. Immediately I doubted the existence of cycle routes in this area following the Thames along to London.

After riding around in circles for a while I decided to ask a bunch of lorry drivers if they knew of a a cycle path heading west. I approached one driver and enquired if they knew of the cycle path. The guy I asked simply looked at me at said" Check?"  Clutching my google map print out I replied that I had several times but couldn't find it, to which he replied again, this time more assertively, "Check!" I asked him where again to which he replied and pointed to his lorry with 'Praha' on the side, " No, Czech!, Czech Republic, no speak English..."
 Embarrassed I turned around and asked a guy on the gate to a cement works where to go and he pointed me to another set of concrete steps back up to the road I needlessly had left.

Approaching the Dartford Crossing.
I followed the road through Northfleet and Bean, stopping for lunch at a MacDonalds and a coffee in a park in Dartford on the six mile leg down to my next crossing, the Dartford Tunnel back to Essex.

 Officially being an A road the highway authority are obliged to maintain access to cyclists over the river and provide a free escort service across the Thames.
Dartford Tunnel and Queen Elizabeth II bridge.

I called up the Highway staff for my escort over and awaited to make my second crossing of the Thames.

I asked the Highways bloke to fasten it for me, didn't want my bike to fall off halfway through the tunnel...

Crossing Two: Dartford Tunnel

I had nothing to do back in Essex, all I wanted to do was turn back to Kent via the bridge, but thinking this wouldn't please the Highways boys,( " thanks for the lift, now can you take me straight back please?"), I decided to kill half an hour by cycling around to Ikea.
I returned to the waiting area and requested a ride back over to Kent, whilst waiting I stood chatting to a another cyclist who was riding from Dagenham to Sevenoaks. He asked what I was doing so I told him of my plans. He seemed genuinely interested about my ambitious plan, but he too shared my doubts that it would be possible to finish it- and enjoy it in one day.
Our patrol arrived, strapped both bikes to the back and transported us back over the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. The patrol guy was very friendly and knew his stuff about the bridge, apparently every leg of the bridge contains a lift up to a walking platform, never knew that!

Crossing Three: Queen Elizabeth II Bridge.

Back in Kent, I set off on the longest gap between crossings; the 12 miles to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel and ferry. This is by far the longest leg.

After leaving the bridge behind I checked the cycle routes app on my phone, this time convinced I could access a Thames hugging cycle path. So I followed a bumpy path in the direction of the river, only to come to a solid metal gate blocking the path. There was a opened part allowing pedestrians to walk through that I could have carried my bike through but my attention was drawn to a sign saying " Warning -Dartford Shooting Club Area". This put me off from proceeding, didn't want to get caught in some friendly fire; I didn't know, they could have had American members for all I knew...

I retraced my steps back to the main road and continued on to Erith. I had misread the cycle path location on the phone and now I knew it followed a pretty clear path from Erith train station all the way to London.
I saw my first NCR ( National Cycle Route) sign for ages on the approach to Erith and followed it all the way to the train station and the first time I had seen a cycle route with Woolwich on it. As I passed it my eye just caught a sign saying " Alternative Thames Path Cycle Route". Now I had a dilemma! After finally finding the NCR route to Woolwich should I follow it or gamble on this alternative, which if I was honest was the one I really wanted to do? I took the second option, backtracked and joined the Thames Path. And I was so glad I did.
Quite like the lighting in this photo...

The path was a wonderful, purpose built cycle path following the contours of the Thames as closely as possible and far enough away from the roads that it was impossible to hear any car noises. I could pedal along in the pleasant spring evening, taking in the sea air and watching boats going along the Thames.
Thames Riverside Cycle Path.

This was the ride I'd envisaged when I first discovered that website and I'd found it. With the new Bruce Springsteen album providing a nice soundtrack the miles along the river to Woolwich tumbled by.

After an hour or so I found myself in the very trendy areas of Thamesmead and Woolwich, under the flightpath of London City Airport on the opposite banks of the Thames.

With the light failing and time running short to get to Bethnal Green by eight, I decided I only had time to do one more crossing today, and that would be the Woolwich Ferry north back over to London. It wasn't immediately obvious where the Woolwich foot tunnel was so I decided that would be the starting point for Part two of this trip when I pick it up next.

A friendly cyclist showed me where to wait for the ferry and my final crossing of the day.

Crossing Four: Woolwich Ferry.

It was the first time in my life I'd used the Woolwich Ferry so I was quite excited about it!

I now had an eight mile ride via Canning Town and Stepney Green towards Bethnal Green and  a well deserved pint in Rick's lovely but quite expensive local pub. Three quid for a bowl of chips? No ta!

A lovely wheat beer in The Carpenters Arms, Bethnal Green.

My nearest train station home was Fenchurch Street so I headed off there via one of the most iconic streets in England, Brick Lane.  The traditional home to generations of immigrants to London over the centuries, it is now known as Banglatown due to the huge Bangladeshi community that reside there. Over the years it has been the first settlement to Irish immigrants, followed by Jewish settlers and now the current inhabitants. It was also the scene of the first murder of Jack The Ripper in 1888, a Martha Tabram.  The area didn't disappoint, for half past ten on a Wednesday the place was alive with an incredible atmosphere, I rode down the street almost at walking pace, taking in the smells, sights and sounds. The sensory assault led me not to notice I'd been riding the wrong way up the street, it was one way!

All I wanted to do now was a get a photo under the sign, so I approached a couple of American tourists who gladly took the following photo...

So that was my day, I was tired but had had a great day out, 12 hours and 45 miles later I was ready for bed, looking forward to whenever I manage to finish off this Crossings of London tour.