Sunday, August 08, 2004

London to Brighton by Bicycle

My first ever long cross-country bike ride in Britain, (I've only ever done Normandy), and my first cross-country alone. My longest ever bike journey. I did it!

The 13:30 Brighton Service from Manor Park, calling at East Ham, Beckton, Woolwich, Eltham, Mottingham, Bickley, Keston, Biggin Hill, Westerham, Crockham Hill, Crowhurst, Lingfield, East Grinstead, Forest Row, Danehill, Bletching, Chailey, Offham and Lewes, departed from my front door. Due to night darkness, bicycles could not serve the Lewes to Brighton section. A replacement service on the train was still running at 22.42 pm.

On Friday morning I was thinking of how to get to Brighton for Saturday. Friday was a stunningly beautiful Mediterranean hot day. The whim of cycling there began at about 11 am.

As you get older, the things you have done before, have become things that you take for granted, and no longer excite you. It is the things that you "feared" when you were younger that become challenges which excite you. But to pursue them with impetuousity is necessarily and fortunately tempered by wisdom and experience of failure. Finding the balance between "following an impulsive urge" and "being careful to have a risk-free plan" is always the challenge.

So veering towards the impulsiveness, my mad idea grew very quickly. A check of my road map. A few route alternatives briefly considered. A few things thrown into my panier. Money. Thoughts of how I might be able to give up and turn back if it didn't work out. And I had to be off.

Getting out of London became such a burning desire! Even getting out of Manor Park and East Ham seemed like chains falling off my brain. What a damn ghetto North Newham has become. It was amazing to see completely different people types in East Ham South, for example sunbathing in the park by the Thames.

Over the Thames on the Woolwich Ferry. Up to see the grand Artillery buildings in Woolwich. Over the Common. Being utterly astonished at Eltham, because it looks like a nice place to live, with some very independent shops in its parade.

From Mottingham I took side roads through Bickley to the A21, after which I ceased to be a tourist and became more aware of my mission. The road became obviously non-urban here, which actually made cycling feel strange and a bit scary to me. It was a scorching hot afternoon and dressed skimpily, I still had to be careful to stay cool, hydrated, and not be burnt. Frequent stops throughout the afternoon, meant I didn't arrive in Biggin Hill until about 4.30/5.00 pm where I took another long stop and decided I could still turn back if I had to, but might as well go for it.

The A233 comes down a steep winding hill, called Westerham hill, then to run over the M25 and further down into Westerham. It was rush-hour and there were far too many open-topped sports cars with London's Spoilt Adults racing down the hill around the curves, aiming to take advantage of some serious Friday evening country pubbing. I had serious misgivings here, worrying about being not seen on the other side of a blind corner, worrying about hitting a hole or a bump or a fallen tree stick in the road. So it was a wasted downhill run that made me once again wishful for a ten-speed racer, whose cycling crouch allows a more effective braking response than a traditional upright 3-speed bike.

Westerham is a very pretty town, and is obviously on the map for many tourists. The B road down to Edenbridge calmed me down a bit, but then I wished it was a little faster, for its road surface left something to be desired for a cyclist, and it was winding and a little bit hilly. Pleasant enough to cycle along, I was finally thinking about time, and having reached the half way mark to Brighton, I was committed to the entire journey. Now I understand why good cyclists go for the faster "A" roads - they might be busier, but they can in some ways be safer.

So I avoided Edenbridge and headed into the country lanes. This was the first True Countryside I had yet seen so far on my journey. The first livestock - long-haired cattled; the first wildlife - bunny (not common) rabbits. It was beautiful, but I was already past able to linger and soak it all in.

Working from an ordinary AA roadmap is of course not very clever, and I seemed to be doing circles trying to find my way to Crowhurst, since signs were not posted at many junctions. Eventually I saw signs for Lingfield, without ever knowingly been in Crowhurst. Now I can't even remember what Lingfield looked like!

I carried on through Felcourt to East Grinstead. There while sitting on a roundabout, I noticed a cycling path signed for Forest Row, and went for it. I soon found it was part of the Sustrans network, and a cyclist passing by told me to follow it all the way to Forest Row because up ahead was a beautiful section that was once a railway line. No kidding! The near perfect cycling ride ensue - a perfectly graded downhill run through quiet and trees.

From Forest Row I followed the A22, which must have been easy, although I have no recollection of it now and took the A275 towards Lewes. This stretch of road is a cyclist's dream... smooth, perfectly sloped downhill run. I thought I would reach Lewes in no time. I was looking at Ashdown Forest and marvelling at the beautiful Pine trees.

The sun was already setting and I was having to hurry, but again it was forcing me to be careful. I hadn't gotten as far as I would have liked - only to the entrance of the Bluebell Railway, opposite which there was an Arla foods factory. It was pitch black night very soon after, as the moon had not come up yet.

Where was it that I saw a Security Training Unit? A very obnoxiously out of place building compound with a company name that made me think, "Oh, this is where private security firms train people for work in places like Iraq".

At North Common, the intersection of the A272 and A275, I had already been cycling in total darkness for what seemed like forever. LED bike lamps are superb at making you visible to car drivers. They are not adequate for lighting up the road, its bumps, its holes, any rocks or branches that might litter its side. I instinctively kept my speed down and hugged the white line as much as possible.

The pitch black road down to Lewes was lit up only by top-of-the-range Country Pubs whose parking lots were graced with expensive cars and weekend playboys. It was already after 10 pm when I went off the A275 to follow the road into Lewes town centre. Another long downhill stretch, which I really didn't want to have to go back up again. I was decided there and then, and thank goodness there was a train at 10.42 into Brighton.

75, 80 miles? Not bad for a kid who in school was physically so bottom of the class, I couldn't argue with being called a weed. And coming off the train at Brighton, two teenage boys and a girl pointed at me (Get a look at that) and started laughing at my bike and my attire. But now I know why they do it, and enervated but fatigued, I just replied to them with my body: Yes, I heard you, and I'm ignoring you not because you annoy me, but because it's your opportunity to broaden your mind, and not my responsibility to teach you.


Astolath said...

You would have been in my neck of the woods briefly...

I'm in Chislehurst, just down the road from Mottingham. You're right about Eltham, I quite like it - despite its reputation.

Anonymous said...

Riding through Bickley - that is about a 10 minute train ride away from me. If you went along the Chiselhurst Road, past Loggs Hill and Pine Road, then you will have been very near to where I often go to do odd bits and pieces.