Launched in 2012, the Avenue Verte is a low-traffic cycle route connecting London and Paris, making the most of southern England’s extensive National Cycle Network and France’s bucolic north. Greg Dickinson took to the saddle and put the route to the test.
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” Words don’t get wiser than this. It may be quicker to book a seat on a budget airline than it is to fix a puncture, and you can pass through the Channel Tunnel in the time it takes to cycle from Big Ben to London Zoo, but Ernest Hemingway’s fleeting remark still holds true seventy years after he wrote it. There simply is no better way to explore a country than on two wheels, and with the creation of the Avenue Verte the path has been set for novices and seasoned cyclists alike. Falling somewhere between the two, my girlfriend and I were soon on the road, our panniers overflowing with fig rolls and crumpled waterproofs.
The route officially starts at the London Eye, although the bright blue cockerel erected on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square seemed a more suitable starting point for our four-day grand voyage. After slaloming around early-riser tourists at Buckingham Palace and dodging dog walkers on Clapham Common we had our first taster of the promised verte with the Wandle Trail: a ten-mile path snaking past old watermills along the River Wandle to Carshalton.
Our exodus from London continued over the North Downs. This ancient strip of chalk grassland could be mistaken for the Peak District, were it not for the occasional glimpse of the hazy metropolis in the distance. From here a steep downhill zoomed us over the M25 and into an uninspiring stint through Redhill, Horley and Crawley – which really ought to have been renamed "Suburbia Gris". The fact that the official (and very good) Sustrans guide lists Gatwick Airport as a notable sight says it all.
Leaving behind what is probably the dullest stretch of the entire cycle we joined what is arguably the finest. Here the Avenue Verte heads 20 miles east when the coast is actually 30 miles due south; frustrating for anyone in a rush, but a welcomed detour for pootling pedallers. This delightful section ambles along the Forest Way, through timbered hilltop villages and down the Cuckoo Trail before arriving in Newhaven Port, the spiritual halfway point of the journey.
Shortly before docking at Dieppe we were directed to the deafeningly loud loading bay, where a bundle of bikes and helmets were now knotted in a corner. During the four-hour journey we had met some fellow cyclists, ranging from retired, Lycra-clad gents with fist-like calves, to a group of university students supping Stellas with their packed lunches. We disembarked as a peloton, smugly before any motorised vehicle, not forgetting to keep to the right as we rolled along Dieppe’s mast-lined seafront.
A few miles south of the harbour we arrived in Arques-la-Bataille, the starting point of the disused Dieppe–Paris railway that cuts a smooth, 28-mile line through Normandy’s understated rural countryside. In the right conditions this could easily be completed in a couple of hours, but a gentle headwind slowed us down, allowing us to take in the distant church spires and smoking farmhouse chimneys that flank the route – a chorus of chickens and barking sheepdogs cheering us on as we rode.
Just when it was almost starting to feel a bit too easy the traffic-free path ended at Forges-les-Eaux, where we embarked on a welcome up-and-down through the hedge-lined Bray region, stopping over in Monneville at a particularly charming guesthouse run by a retired puppeteer and an opera-singing carpenter.
Keen to visit the Palace of Versailles, we deviated from the official route for the final leg of the cycle and followed Donald Hirsch’s acclaimed online guide, which led us right up to the gates of the lavish château. Here we spent a couple of hours cycling around the grounds, weaving between afternoon strollers and royal statues, and received a stern talking to when we accidentally entered the “no cycling zone” leading up to the palace.
Having sweated up our final hill, just after Versailles, we enjoyed a coast through Parc de St Cloud and down to the top of Avenue Andre Chevrillon, where the endpoint finally came into sight. I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower a couple of times in the past, but it had never lived up to the hype until I saw it rise up through Paris’s low-slung city skyline just a few miles in the distance.
Anyone embarking on the Avenue Verte cycle should be aware that the terrain is not the most challenging in the world, nor are the views the most jaw-dropping (or the routes always the best signposted). Yet this ambitious project will lead you to forgotten farming villages, into tangled Franglish conversations and to the kind of smoky, back-end drinking holes that you would never normally stumble upon. By cycling across the two hundred miles of green space that falls between two of the world’s great capital cities, you experience something that no budget airline or train operator will ever be able to offer.