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Okay. So this ride is technically a bit outside the boundaries of the five boroughs.
I recently returned to Brooklyn after spending the first half of August traveling around England, France, and Germany. The first of three posts documenting my short time in Europe, “Escaping London” recounts my thoughts and experiences of riding in England on July 31, 2013. The focus of my trip was more or less a reunion of sorts with old friends and riding was something of an afterthought. Therefore my planning and expectations were minimal. That being said, I was able to wrangle a bicycle in each country I visited, and as I discovered, a lack of planning can frequently lead to more interesting scenarios than if I had sketched out each step of the way.
LOOKING ON THE BRIGHTON SIDE
I arrived in London late on Tuesday night and took the Piccadilly tube line from Heathrow to Arsenal. I was staying with my friend Martin who lives in a flat near Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal F.C., on the outer fringe of the northern neighborhood of Stoke Newington.
The plan was to decompress in London for a couple of days before traveling to Paris via the Eurostar on Friday morning. Thursday we were scheduled to meet up with some friends from San Francisco who were flying into London and also hopping aboard the Friday train to Paris. So that left Wednesday’s itinerary wide open. A perfect day to get acquainted with London, and possibly escape it, on a bicycle.
The week before my flight I was studying some maps of England and decided, if time and weather permitted, I’d like to attempt a ride from London to Brighton. On the map the route appears to be more or less as the crow flies – a straight line following the A23, roughly sixty miles south to the coast. I spot-checked some of the highlighted paths on Google street view and it looked like a nice and easy ride – bike lanes within the city and quiet country roads once outside. My hope was to get down to Brighton in about six hours, grab some fish and chips, wash them down with a few pints of English ale, and then throw my bike on the train for the hour-long ride back to the city.
I contacted my friend Tom, a London native and adventure eccentric. A public schoolteacher, Tom’s summer weekdays are free and I asked if he’d be interested in joining me to Brighton. Tom replied that he’d done that particular ride before, that he’d be into doing it again, and that the only issue would be finding me some suitable wheels. Local guide and riding companion in place, I packed my helmet along with a few other riding essentials and prepared for my three-week trip.
The Tuesday that I arrived in London had been a mess of rain and they were predicting the distinct possibility of more of it on Wednesday, putting a potential damper on our sixty-mile ride to the coast. I had located a bike shop close to Martin’s flat that did rentals, and after a quick conversation with Tom on Tuesday night we decided to reconvene Wednesday morning at the shop and decide on our plan of action. At the very least, Tom said, we could ride to his folks place in Croydon, a suburb about 11 miles south of central London. His parents had some French maps and a self-breathalyzer kit that we needed for our trip to France (a bizarre new law put in place by the French interior ministry requires all drivers to carry their own breathalyzer. Why not carry your own handcuffs?).
Waking up Wednesday morning with a heavy dose of jet lag, I was surprised to look out the window and see relatively dry conditions. The sky was cloudy and the ground was a bit wet, but it wasn’t raining and it didn’t look like it was going to start anytime soon. The air temperature was somewhere in the 60s, a marked difference from the 90-degree scorchers we’d been having in New York, and I momentarily regretted not packing a long-sleeved thermal.
THE RED BIKE SHOP
The North London bike shop that I tracked down online turned out to be a good find. The Red Bike Shop, located on St. Paul’s Road in Highbury, rented me a Charge Grater for £20 per day which translated to about $30. The two shop employees that helped me were friendly, unpretentious, and accommodating. The rental period was for 24 hours, not just the day, so there was no extra charge involved if I returned the bike the next morning as opposed to before closing hours that evening. They also waived the deposit charge to my credit card, and when I told them that I was planning on riding to Brighton they threw in a spare tube at no extra cost and told me to simply return it the next day if I didn’t use it. I would definitely recommend this shop for short-term London bike rentals and will give them my business again the next time I’m in town.
THE CHARGE GRATER
The Charge Grater that I rented was a simple, lightweight, 8-speed urban commuter bike. The tires were 32c Charge Coasters. Despite being all-weather grip, I found myself fishtailing a bit when braking hard on the wet pavement so I just tried to be careful with the sudden stops. I found this bike to be well-suited for my purposes and the only minor gripe I had was with the pterodactyl-sized wingspan of the handlebars, slightly unwieldy for weaving through traffic.
LONDON VS. NEW YORK
The first question that Tom asked me once we left The Red Bike Shop was, “So, have you mapped a route?”
Fair question. No, I hadn’t. “Isn’t it pretty straightforward? Don’t we just keep the Earth’s sun on our right-hand side? I thought maybe you knew the way,” were just some of my possible answers. “Shit,” I started to think. “Maybe I should have put a little more thought into this ride to Brighton.”
As I soon discovered, I had underestimated the ease of riding a bicycle inside and outside of London. That’s not to say that a ride from London to Brighton can’t be accomplished with safety and comfort – in fact, from what I’ve heard, it’s a fairly popular ride among London cyclists. But a detailed route is a necessity. Relying solely on the A23 and other major roads heading south makes not for an enjoyable ride.
Coming from New York I think I’ve developed something of an ego. People are always marveling at how scary and dangerous it is to ride a bicycle in the city, and as someone who does it regularly, I’ve come to think of myself as a kind of fearless soldier. I’ve inherited a kind of “if I can ride here, I can ride anywhere!” mentality. But from my perspective, London, with its left-hand traffic, schizophrenic layout, and chaotic roundabouts makes riding in New York City look like a leisurely cruise down Venice Beach.
Unlike many other major European cities, and New York for that matter, London’s system of roads is not particularly well suited for cycling tourism. Looking at a map of London’s streets is like looking at a map of the brain’s neural connections.
This is compared with the relative simplicity of New York’s utilitarian numerical grid. Unless you have the internal compass of a local London cabbie, navigating the city’s side streets without consulting a map every fifty feet is an exacting task. Luckily Tom has the internal compass of a local London cabbie and I was able to switch my mind’s navigational settings from manual to autopilot.
Another aspect of London’s streets that works against cyclists is a low priority assigned and lack of resources devoted during urban planning. For example, bike lanes in London seem to be more of the exception than the rule. Bus lanes are the de facto bicycle lanes of the city, forcing cyclists to compete with London’s towering double-decker buses for road space. However, London bus drivers seem fairly accustomed to cyclists sharing their turf and I personally did not witness or experience any aggression from them. Riding alongside the city buses felt to me what it might feel like to swim alongside a pod of benevolent whales. But the last thing you want is to get stuck beneath a whale, benevolent or not.
Which perhaps explains the remarkable etiquette exhibited by the majority of London’s two-wheel commuters. While riding through the city I looked on with bewilderment as cyclists actually stopped at red lights and paused at crosswalks (locally referred to as zebra crossings) to let pedestrians pass! These occasional breaks allow one to compose, adjust, recalibrate, and reel in the pace of the ride – in my opinion, a much safer (and enjoyable) alternative to the frenetic head-down, mad-dash style of riding you often see in New York.
ONWARD TO CROYDON
From the bike shop in North London we grabbed Upper Street at the first roundabout and sliced our way southeast through the city towards the River Thames. Crossing London Bridge into the southern part of the city you can get a good glimpse of Tower Bridge to the east, the iconic fairy tale-looking structure that many tourists (myself included) often confuse for London Bridge.
I confidently remarked to Tom that the original London Bridge was sold to an American and reconstructed in Lake Havasu City, Arizona where it stands today. Tom corrected me and pointed out that it was the previous London Bridge that I was referring to, not the original. The original London Bridge was made of timber and built by the Romans thousands of years ago.
“Damn,” I thought to myself.
Traversing south through the neighborhoods of Elephant & Castle, Camberwell, and Brixton I kept my eyes on Tom’s hand signals as we nimbly drifted and floated through London’s morning rush of traffic, avoiding car doors and negotiating with city buses as we left the confines of the London Underground system behind and approached Croydon.
As you’d expect, the more of London we left behind, the quieter the streets became. After about an hour of riding, we rolled upon Tom’s parents’ home – a skinny, two-story building with an impressive garden in the back that stretches out into a dazzling emerald corridor.
We collected the French maps and breathalyzer kit and sat down for some lunch with Tom’s folks. At this point we were still on the fence about trying all the way for Brighton as rain was still something of a possibility, we had no clear route in mind, and we still had at least forty miles ahead of us. But reinvigorated by hummus sandwiches on soda bread we decided to go for it. Tom’s folks gave us some old maps and a couple of flapjacks for the road and we were off.
BELLIES FULL, RIDING IN CIRCLES
England’s major thoroughfares are more or less divided into A-roads and M-roads, the main difference being that A-roads are generally no more than two lanes per side and allow bicycles.
M-roads, on the other hand, are multi-lane, high-speed parkways that do not permit bicycles.
Now simply because you CAN ride your bike on an A-road doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea. A-roads often transform quickly from mellow main streets bisecting a town to quasi-highways with no bike lanes or shoulders. Therefore, in addition to figuring out the right direction, you also have to decide on the best roads available for your bike.
Upon leaving Croydon, Tom and I jumped on Brighton Road (A23) heading south. This manageable piece of the A23 led us to the town of Purley where we were faced with our first directional decision: continue on Brighton road (A23) to the southwest or switch to Godstone Road (A22) to the southeast. We both agreed the A22 looked less hectic.
The A22 turned out to be ridable, though narrow with almost no shoulder. We stayed on this road through the town of Whyteleaf and soon met our next quandary at a major roundabout in Caterham. From an aerial view, this intersection resembles a malformed octopus, gesticulating six tentacles of road option in every direction. The center of this octopus looks like an abandoned gladiator arena, offering its participants a variety of tunnel escape routes to each road.
Did I mention that Tom’s London cabbie internal compass ceases to be operational outside of London? Well, not a big deal. Navigating without a compass! To hell with smart phones, GPS, and sat maps! Armed only with our flapjacks and a stack of old maps (probably from the days of the original London Bridge), we didn’t need any sophisticated tools to tell us that continuing on the A22 was going to be a nightmare.
Placing forefinger on the tongue and raising it to the winds of chance, we descended into the gladiator pit and picked our door. It turned out to be a nice choice.
Emerging from the tunnel onto Woldingham Road, flanked on both sides by grazing horses and rolling farmland, it was dramatic in contrast to the city and suburban landscape that had previously surrounded us. That being said, despite its being a country road, cars flew past at a rapid clip, and with no shoulder, the margin allowed for bicycles was slim.
Therefore we elected to ride on the skinny strip of sidewalk that curved along the right-hand side of the road, having to dodge the occasional clump of brush jutting out over the path.
We followed Woldingham Road to the east where it briefly forked at a large red brick overpass. Although we didn’t know it at the time, following the road to the right would have put us on a pastoral country lane that more or less winds due south through tiny picturesque farm communities, crosses the ineludible perimeter of the M25, and shepherds you almost all the way to Blindley Heath.
In other words, the exact road that we wanted.
Without question we bore left and continued on Woldingham Road to the east and then to the south where we arrived at Woldingham Station. I think it was at this point that we both realized our goal of reaching Brighton might not happen, and we accepted with open minds the reality of Plan B – that is, not stressing over a destination, riding wherever the hell we wanted, and generally getting lost in Surrey.
At the station, we continued south along a small road named Church Lane which eventually turned into a dirt path. However, just before the dirt portion of the road we crossed a small pedestrian bridge which opened onto a quiet street that passed through the elegant Marden Park Farm. It almost felt as if we were trespassing on private property and the alternate road mentioned above, had we bore right at the earlier fork, was visible off to our right.
The paved section of this road soon turned into a rocky dirt trail that rose up to a ridge and traversed its way through a narrow crop of trees. Once again we found ourselves in the company of cows and horses and rolling green hills. Parts of the trail were muddy and uneven due to the previous day’s rain and we were forced at times to dismount and walk our bikes up the steeper sections of the path.
Oh yeah – did I mention that Tom was riding a fixed gear?
Eventually this trail tumbled down to the grounds of Woldingham School where there was a small cemetery and a road called Horse Chestnut Avenue.
We followed this road to a fork where there stood a diminutive, white stone A-frame called South Lodge. Here the road split off into two directions with a sign post advertising National Cycle Network 21 to the right.
Again, there was no way of knowing it at the time, but we had briefly rejoined at Horse Chestnut Avenue the alternate road that we had missed earlier. Had we gone left at this fork in the road at South Lodge we would have continued more or less due south across the M25 towards Blindley Heath.
But in the end we could not resist its sweet siren song and headed west along Quarry Road into the labyrinth of trails that is National Cycle Network 21.
According to Wikipedia, National Cycle Network 21 is a route that runs from Greenwich to Crawley where it connects with National Cycle Network 20, which in turn connects Crawley and Brighton. Also according to Wikipedia, “several sections are not suitable for road bikes.” Yes. Once again, hats off to Tom and his fixed gear skills.
I’m not exactly sure how the UK National Cycle Network perambulates throughout the country, but from my experience it dispatched us in loops through the woods until we came across a misplaced-looking, metallic pedestrian bridge in a clearing of tall grass.
The bridge escorted us over the A22 and onto Tupwood Lane. Dutifully following signs for Cycle Network 21, we meandered through the forest of Fosterdown Wood until the road finally spilled out of the thicket onto the majestic plateau of Caterham Viewpoint. Here we grabbed some bench and waxed philosophical about the economic collapse of 2007 while devouring our flapjacks and gazing out at the towns of Bletchingley and Godstone in the distance.
We also decided that this would mark the end of our ride and we called it a day. Brighton would have to wait for another time. Picking up our bikes we headed onward, following Gravelly Hill briefly to the right and reconnecting with good old National Cycle Network 21. Finally escaping the ring of the M25 we rode south through Bletchingley and crossed over the M23 into Nutfield where we found the train station.
A straight, uninterrupted shot from The Red Bike Shop in Highbury to Nutfield is about 25 miles, but I suspect we rode closer to 40 miles if not more. The train ride from Nutfield back to London Victoria Station cost £10 and took roughly 30 minutes. It was approaching late afternoon by the time we returned to the city and the masses were all leaving work. The ride from Victoria to Stoke Newington was a hurried contest as we were absorbed by the herd of commuting cyclists, racing from their offices like chased prey.
OKAY, LET’S HAVE A BEER
Back in Stoke Newington we picked up a few tall cans of Kronenbourg 1664 in spirit of our upcoming trip to France, a couple bags of chips, and a took a load off in the comfort of Tom’s flat. It felt good to eat and drink like a maniac after all that riding, not to mention sitting down in a chair and resting your elbows on the table.
After our beers and chips in the kitchen we walked over to The Clapton Hart, a beautiful English pub located on Lower Clapton Road. With its plush furniture, exposed brick, high ceilings, and open fires it’s the perfect place to lounge with a beer after a long day of riding.
Although we didn’t make it to Brighton it had been a good day. I had the frenzied experience of riding in London and then getting charmingly lost in the bucolic parts outside the city. Pretty much exactly how I wanted to spend the day. Tom, too, had seen new parts of England that afternoon for the first time.
We had eschewed smart phones and Google maps for instinct and gut feeling and it got us precisely nowhere. Which is exactly where we sometimes need to go. Nowhere can be beautiful and fascinating. It can be marvelously raw and lonely. It can surprise and confound us and stir the ingredients of our everyday recipes.
Ironically enough, the next day I was emptying my pockets and pulled out Martin’s set of keys which he had loaned me for letting myself in and out of the apartment. I laughed when I saw what was attached to the key ring that had been in my pocket the entire day: a functioning compass.
Next time, Brighton. Next time.
As always – any questions, comments, or updates to share please feel free to leave a comment below or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @escapebklyn. Keep rolling.