Approximate route on Google Maps: http://tinyurl.com/6dmhqe
“Any worthwhile expedition can be planned on the back of an envelope”
- H W Tilman.
Day 1: London to Hythe
On Friday afternoon, three enthusiastic amateur riders set off from North West London on a ride to Lille in Flanders, with the stated aim of raising money for good causes, specifically AVERT, a British-based global AIDS charity.
Herrington and myself
The team consisted of Master Lewis “Bub” Crawley and Messieurs Will “Boy” Herrington and Sam “Crawleyman” Crawley, your author.
The support team for this endeavour consisted of Mr Crawley Senior, Miss De Pulford, Miss Kinsella, Master J Crawley, and not accompanying the group, Miss Cole and Miss Maeda. Mr Treadway, a fellow Old Canterburian, and family were kindly offering to accommodate us for the first night in Hythe.
Bub came close to missing the start by following Edgware Road up to Cricklewood and the North Circular, squeezing in a few extra miles of practice, contrary to regulations. He was soon intercepted.
From left, Herringtonboy, myself and Bub
In advance of the departure, a photographer for the Ham and High newspaper visited for the purpose of recording the this momentous ride with its gallant knights of the bicycles. The photographer requested that the riders completed several ride-bys in Randolph Avenue as he took photographs. The ladies were encouraged to wave accordingly, though this they apparently entered into with too much vigour, almost suggesting that they were pleased to see the back of the riders. With one near road miss and a police warning, we finally setting off slightly behind schedule, and cruised through central London.
Passing Marble and Wellington Arches, Victoria Station, Vauxhall Bridge and the Oval, the team soon worked their way up Blackheath and Shooter’s Hills, resisting the numerous filling stations stocked with the curious canned energy drink known as “Banana Nourishment”. Herrington’s newly-purchased GPS device frequently advised the team to “U-turn immediately”, but the team was not to be dissuaded from the mission in hand. Indeed Herringtonboy accelerated his efforts to the speed of 45mph descending Shooter’s – in excess of the speed limit for cars, never mind those on bicycles with questionable braking systems. Needless to say there is no photograph evidence of this – your author was too busy nervously stroking his brakes around a full 10mph slower.
After a dreary stretch of suburbia from Welling to Dartford, a climb brought us over the M25 – the true test of having escaped London’s reaches. Despite the best efforts of the GPS device to foil my navigative efforts, a cruise along the “National Cycle Network 1” alongside the A2 brought the first temptation of the ride – Ebbsfleet Station, home of Eurostar Passenger Services direct to our destination Lille. Happily though this thought barely registered, presumably as the station occurred in the middle of a long downhill cruise. How the reaction may have differed if the station were located on the hill out of Chatham is not recorded.
Gravesend, with its history and waterside location, has potential. There is some evidence of gentrification on the outskirts of town, but the centre is reminiscent of Faversham twenty years ago. To those of you unfamiliar with Faversham, this is not a complimentary statement. Happily it is now a quant and delightful town, and one can only hope Gravesend will follow. On the way out of town, we stopped at the inviting Canal Tavern for some food, as advertised outside. After parking bicycles and picking a table with a view of the marina, we discovered that they were only serving beverages. Therefore lunch consisted of beef and mustard crisps, spicy peanuts and scampi snacks. Washed down with ale. Herrington had some pork scratchings for dessert. The sun was glorious.
Next, the Thames and Medway Canal towpath was joined, which runs through marshland and a firing range till Higham. Luxuriously-flat by definition, the canal also provides a welcome respite from traffic. It was noted at this stage that Herrington’s tyres seems to be deflating at a worrying rate, necessitating frequent stops. Over Strood, the riders cut down Cuxton Road before joining a cycle route running along the edge of the M2 Medway bridge.
Lewis is going to Borstal
Here, navigational disagreements, possibly fuelled by testosterone levels running high, meant that Herringtonboy and Bub chose the high road, whereas your author more sensibly chose the lower road, running through pretty Wouldham village before we converged in Burham. The GPS then took us straight up a dead-end industrial estate, before we stopped for a supplementary meal of milkshakes and cookies. At this stage Herrington telephoned our hosts for the evening to advise that we might be slightly later than planned! Round the top of Maidstone, we traversed Bearsted.
The next stretch of journey was quite pleasant, as we followed a ridge high above the valley that the M20 runs through. The clouds had drawn in but the weather held. Passing through Grafty Green, Egerton, Pluckley and Little Chart, we bobbed up and down on the North Down hills, pausing only to sample the liquid wares of a couple of establishments. Comments were made about the author’s pace on the uphill, and it is true that one has not developed the love of ascent that seems to have infected Herrington.
Looping round Ashford on the ring-road, a decision was made to bite the bullet and stick to A20 for the remainder of the run into Hythe, if for no other reason than respect for our hosts for the evening whose patience would surely be wearing thin by now. Far from enjoyable, A-roads are nevertheless often the most direct route for a cyclist. Motorways are not advisable, as well as illegal. I’ve tried the short stretch of the M3 near Sunbury and would not commend it to the pedal-powered rider.
Little did we know what was in store!
The final stretch was a great long descent into Hythe town, whereupon Herrington informed us that Treadway lived back up most of the hill. One was not amused. Treadway’s family were extremely welcoming and hospitable to us, providing much needed food and washing facilities, and a very comfortable bed. Despite my best efforts, I could not motivate the team into going to the local nightclub, La Parisienne.
The riders retired, with alarm clocks set for 5:50am.
Day 1 Summary. Distance: 84 miles. Start 12:40. Finish 22:00. Status: Saddlesore.
Day 2: Hythe through Eurotunnel and Calais to Lille
Up a few hours later, and barely partaking in the marvellous breakfast array assembled for us, we are sent off by Treadway, round the corner and straight up the remainder of the nasty hill. A marvellous start to the day. The pickup point for the Eurotunnel bicycle service is in Cheriston, although we are almost thrown off the trail when some car-parking attendants try to send us back to the main terminal. Our friendly Eurotunnel chap though is waiting, and loads our bikes on to the trailer. We take our seats on the bus, and are driven round to the Eurotunnel terminal. No passports, no ID, no tickets. If one needs to jump the country anonymously, this is the way to do it. The driver is a affable chap, who takes us to the waiting area, where we have some tea and breakfast, before being driven on to the train for the short crossing.
In France, the team is dropped next to a wine and beer superstore, but this is no “booze cruise”. We gear up, mount, and are off, remembering to stick right on the roads. The change in country is obvious, with perfectly-tarmacked roads, cycle lanes clearly marked out, and above all, a landscape which is flat as a pancake as far as the eye can see.
Strangely, very little seemed to be open. The roads were very quiet, and no one seemed to be out on the streets. The weather was good though, and we cycled on, Bub soon hitting the 100 mile mark, with myself shortly after.
Bub hasn’t quite grasped the cycling concept
The big 100!
The team cut cross-country, relying far more on the GPS in France. Part of the reason for this is that cycle routes on the continent tend to follow roads, without much of the trickery in the UK where one can find cycle routes running alongside motorways or going up one-way streets the wrong way.
Passing through pretty villages, with poppies and cows in abundance, we came across the first of many Commonwealth War Graves we were to encounter, Esquelbecq, just before the Belgian border, with about 600 graves, mostly British.
Tilman served in the trenches in this war here:
'And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.'
He was twice awarded the Military Cross for bravery under fire, was wounded twice, and took part in the Battle of the Somme.
Lunch was partaken shortly afterwards, in what seemed like the only restaurant in Northern France. With our best French we were soon led to understand that here too, food was not being served, but if we so desired we could get food from a nearby mobile stall and eat it here with our drinks.
A split second decision was made to stay, and just as well, as this was the only food place that was encountered before Lille! Bub and Herrington went to get the food, which turned out to be kebab baguettes and chips.
The entire ride was really turning out to be a healthy food experience! Whilst eating, the rains commenced, but for the time being we were sheltered underneath umbrellas.
When after a carafe of wine and a large beer each, the rain had still not stopped, we bit the bullet and rode on, myself in my poncho, which did not prove entirely satisfactory as rain-proof cycle gear.
Whilst I’m at it, I’ll dance a little jig
It was important for Bub to keep his toes dry
Not long afterwards I removed the poncho as we entered into Belgium. The change was radical. The streets deteriorated in quality immediately, but conversely were lined with bars selling Belgian beers.
Overall, a positive change, one has to agree. The team initially resisted the charms of all that was on offer, until, riding out of Wormhout, it was noted that an enormous and very black cloud was heading towards us at high speeds. We turned around and headed into the nearest bar just in time to watch an almighty downpour flood the streets outside. St Bernardus blonde saw us through.
Where are my waffles and hot chocolate?
Slight confusion over bringing beer to mouth
Being recharged by Belgian-style lucozade
Given the weather, a decision was made to shorted the planned route – Passchendaele would not be visited on this trip, however, the route would still include Vlamertinghe New Cemetery, where a Doctor was buried that Will had researched. The Belgian roads were followed more carefully now they were wet. Furthermore the construction was generally of concrete, with gaps between slabs, and a generally quite bumpy cycle route at the side, separated from the main road by a gulley of tarmac. First thing in the morning, Herringtonboy had predicted that one of us would come off our bikes, and of course, no prizes for guessing who fate pointed his cruel finger at.
Racked in pain
Is that bone?!
Apparently having been beeped by a car, he was trying to cross from road to cycle path, at which point, in the wet, his wheels slipped, throwing him into the road. According to Bub, he was lucky not to get squashed by the following car, instead ending up with numerous grazes and a squashed camera. Doubled up in pain, it was all that one could do to capture the moment photographically. In the next town, we purchased some antiseptic cream which Bub seemed to derive more than reasonable pleasure from applying.
The second cemetery, Vlamertinghe, was in fact the wrong one, but still interesting, and included John Skinner VC DCM ,
who died on the 17 March 1918, aged 35. He was awarded the VC for most conspicuous bravery and good leading, saving six men then working his way round and taking out machine gun posts, taking sixty prisoners, three machine guns, and two trench mortars in the process.
Herrington recited John McRae’s In Flanders Fields, written in May 1915.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The visit complete, we could now head south to Lille, the end of our journey. We hit 150 miles on our computers as we whizzed along in the ever better weather.
Straight long roads
The home run was only marred by Herrington’s GPS recalculating every so often and adding time and time again to our journey time – frustrating for Bub and myself who had mentally adjusted for the remaining number of miles.
Rollin’rollin’rollin’, and my hide is so very raw!
Bub hits 150
Frankly now the team was somewhat fed up with cycling, giving us an additional reason to speed on. Tiredness was not an issue, but the groans on sitting as we remounted bikes after each stop did indicate where our bodies were failing us. One was surprised that we did not have to endure much in the way of suburbs for Lille, and so soon after reaching the city, the team was negotiating the cobbled streets of the old town.
Despite it seeming that the GPS was taking us on a tour of most of Lille, minutes later we pulled up opposite the Hotel Carlton, where the welcoming committee was in formation!
158 miles completed since yesterday afternoon!
The final record
After a small glitch with hotels was ironed out over a celebratory beer,
and our muddy bikes were deposited, we washed then met up again for a nice dinner at Les Jardins de Serrano.
The evening’s entertainment was provided by a visit to the clubbing district, and in particular Club Network, as recommended by the wacky crowd at the restaurant.
Sandy and Hedge take the lead
The end of the night
Day 2 Summary: 4 miles to Eurostar terminal. 70 miles in France and Belgium. Start: 6:15am. Finish 19:30pm. Status: No more cycling please!!
Total ride: 158 miles.
With the ride complete, I would like to say thank you to my fellow riders, to those who accompanied us to Lille, to the very hospitable Treadway family, and above all to all those of you who generously sponsored us, all of which spurred us on, as well as going to a cause which we chose as being important. For anyone who has yet to donate, the site is still open at www.justgiving.com/londonlille. See you next year!