We had a ferry to catch today, so started early. Not so early that it was still dark, but at 5.15 am, it was early enough to raise questions about my holiday choices. We were heading to the Tilbury Ferry to hop over to Gravesend whilst attempting to miss the height of rush hour in the busiest parts of Essex and Kent.
Despite a last minute change of heart as to which bikes would be most suitable for the journey, there was still time to pack and load them last night. The eleventh hour switch to our touring bikes proved to be a good call early on as Komoot, almost immediately after Laindon, took us through wooded parks on gravelly trails up and over a hill that, presumably when it was named, it was limited to just one tree.
And as Basildon blended in to Thurrock, I was convinced we were going to battle our way through a car infested urban sprawl in which Corringham, Stanford-le-Hope, Grays and Tilbury were barely distinguishable from one another. Now, to be fair, there are some country roads in the borough, but to be even fairer, the council have done a fantastic job of getting cyclists from north to south (or vice versa) on segregated bike lanes or quieter roads. A friendly man on a shared pedestrian / bike path even pointed out my flip flop, having become detached from my bungee cords, was making a run for freedom along the A13 sliproad. Nice one Thurrock.
Ferry across the Thames
At 6.30, after around 25km, we cycled down the wooden pier at Tilbury just as the ferry was coming in to dock. Before we knew it, together with commuters, school kids and two other bikes, we were making the 800m crossing over the Thames towards Gravesend. Interestingly, this stretch of the river is a trap for invading armies who, if they had made it this far without being distracted by the kiss me quick hats and seaside rock of Southend-on-sea, would have been caught by the deadly cannon crossfire from Tilbury Fort and Higham Fort on the opposite bank.
Not being an invading army, the guns were silent as we docked. Too early for breakfast, we didn’t hang around to see what the town had to offer, instead setting off ready for more preconceptions to be shattered. Short of a little detour through an industrial estate to, apparently, avoid some dangerously stacked tyres on the Thames Path, urban Gravesend never materialised and we were soon gliding along unexpected hard packed gravel canal paths and quiet country lanes for the next 10km.
Taxis and Takeaways
It wasn’t until the end of this stretch at Wainscott, a smelly suburb of Strood, that reasonable-o’clock chimed and we were able to get breakfast. Due to there being no other choice, we chose a Co-Op whose car park smelt of raw human excrement. It was also home to idiots taxi drivers passive aggressively reversing at high speed towards us for no other reason that we were on bicycles and taking up space they didn’t need to be in. Finding the least smelly of all the walls we were finally able to enjoy breakfast of pastries and coffee.
Afterwards, with Komoot basking in the glory of it’s so far successful route planning, it continued to pull aces out of the ‘I know the way’ bag, finding the least busy of the busy roads through Stinky Strood. Before we knew it we were descending towards the Medway with Rochester Castle looming in the background and a former Russian Submarine lurking on the river.
This was the most towniness of the route so far and once over the river, Rochester merged in to Chatham without ceremony, seamlessly skirted Gillingham once up and over the aptly named Chatham Hill before finally morping in to Rainham and our gateway to the Garden of England. For the next few miles we were treated to undulating gravel tracks, quiet lanes and vast orchards that the Men of Kent or Kentish Men (other genders are available) are so proud of.
Although nothing so far had challenged us as much as Mount Chatham, the lumps and bumps in the terrain were enough of a reason to stop at the first local shop we found on the outskirts on Sittingbourne to grab some cool fizzy drinks and enjoy another taxi encounter.
In this part of the world, when taxi drivers aren’t trying to run cyclists over in car parks, they busy themselves with writing jingoistic slogans over their cars. The owner of a LEVC TX in this car park proudly announced on his front (right) wing that that his taxi was ‘Made in the UK’, with ‘British Built’ in parentheses followed by a Union Flag for good measure. Well who needs facts when you are caught up in such patriotic fervour? Who needs to bothered by the fact that Britain and the UK are different? Who needs to be concerned that the vehicle’s parent company is Geely Auto Group? From China.
Still, as he went home to tend his tattered England flag on a woodworm invested pole in his garden (probably), we headed off into Sittingbourne, our next stepping stone of urbaness dotted across our river of countryside. Our initial thoughts that the town wasn’t actually as bad as we expected soon evaporated into exasperated, deep longings for the never ending industrial estate to end.
Which it did and eventually we were twisting and turning our way through bucolic Kent towards Faversham and lunchtime. Infinitely nicer than Sittingbourne, and not just because behind the main high street is Shepherd Neame, one of Britian’s largest independent breweries. We found a cafe to replenish our carb and caffeine levels and watched life go by for half an hour without any worries in the world.
Well, two worries did spring to mind. Firstly, alfresco in this town meant plonking tables halfway out in to the cobbled street. Semi pedestrianised it may have been, but it doesn’t make it any less alarming when a beat up Beetle bombs towards you between bites of baguette.
Secondly, we locked the bikes up to some railings outside a charity shop adjacent to the cafe. Not usually prone to paranoia unless concerning the safety of my bikes, I couldn’t help recall the non urban, urban legend that a Swedish charity shop sold €5,000 bicycle that just happened to be locked up outside.
With one eye on the cars and the other looking out for rogue cashiers, we finished our lunch and pointed ourselves in the direction of Canterbury.
The route out of Faversham and towards Canterbury was surprisingly busy and surprisingly tough. A nice country road deceived as at the end by turning in to a long steep slog at Dunkirk before offering up a brief dalliance with a cycle path along side the A2. It was a short journey between the two towns, but to ensure we were fully fueled, we did what any good pilgrim would have done back in the day and had a cheeky pint and a retro packet of Golden Wonder crisps at the Cricketer’s Inn, Canterbury. Cricket and Golden Wonder crisps feature heavily in the sequel to the Canterbury Tales.
Wending our way from the pub through the suburbs of Canterbury, we were confused by two acts of motor kindness and quickly turned on to a short section of gravel before the dream ended. The next 19 miles were very rural and undulating with an overall bias towards the uphill. This section was the hilliest part of the route due to some to a random act of geography intersecting with cold hard logic. It was an obvious thing really: if you have spent all day at sea level, and your destination was the other side of iconic White Cliffs, we were probably going to have to gain some height somewhere.
Which we did in relative peace and quiet away from traffic, past Oast Houses, Water Towers and small hamlets until we hit the outskirts of Dover. Here, after one final stretch of bridal way to avoid a dull suburb, we descend quickly in to Dover, ignoring Komoot when it told us to go up the hill again, and found our Premier Inn for the night only a few hundred metres from the port.
Billericay To Dover