London is a cyclist’s nightmare, so they say. Bus drivers cackle as they deliberately squeeze commuters onto the pavement, pedestrians wander into busy roads with complete disregard for silent pedallers, and what about the smoggy, toxic city air? There's no doubt that cycling in the heart of London can be a bit of a slog, but there’s still hope for those city dwellers with itchy calves. Away from the congested centre there is a whole host of scenic, low-traffic bike routes available; here are five of my favourite ways to escape the big smoke on two wheels, ranging from a laid-back day in south London to a 100-mile epic to the coast.
Watermills and wildlife on the Wandle Trail
The 20km (14 mile) Wandle Trail is an easy-going ride suitable for cyclists of all ages and abilities. Starting from King George’s Park in Wandsworth, the low-traffic route creates the rare illusion that you have escaped the bustle of the city, wiggling along the river Wandle through a number of city parks and nature reserves. Cyclists share the trail with walkers and joggers, inviting a slower pace to enjoy the varied birdlife (including herons, which have recently returned to the area) and the rusting old watermills that flank the route. Keep an eye out for the blue plaques that commemorate understated events that have taken place along the trail, for example “Tony Trude moored his houseboat, Land of Cockaign, and watched river life. The boat sank in 2001”.
A low-traffic ride from London to Cambridge
The London to Cambridge cycle route is an oft-overlooked way of reaching Britain’s academic motherland, but at just 60 miles – and with no climbs of any note – it’s a great option for anyone with a day and a pair of wheels at their disposal. Nick Martin’s blog maps the best traffic-free route, taking in a practically deserted stint through the farmland between Standon and Stanstead Abbotts. If it’s a sunny day there’s even the chance to get your feet wet in a couple of fords in the depths of rural Hertfordshire. For those who don’t fancy the cycle back, it’s a one-hour train ride from Cambridge into the city.
Ups and downs in Kent
This is the ride of choice for cyclists looking to push their legs to the limit, taking in three serious hills in the wooded Kent countryside just outside the M25. Heading out through Bromley and West Wickham, cyclists embark on this popular bike ride to face three mammoth climbs – Toys Hill, Ide Hill and Crockham Hill. With gradients pushing fifteen per cent, these hills have become the stuff of legend even among drivers, and should only be considered by the kind of cyclists who revel in the pain of a long, uphill ascent and the cathartic, eye-streaming downhill that follows.
From Victoria Park to Epping Forest
Teeming with well-groomed hipsters and dog-walking cockneys, Victoria Park is the ideal starting point for a day trip out to Epping Forest. Shortly after leaving the park the route follows the River Lea towpath for 16km (10 miles) from the Olympic Park to the reservoirs in Ponders End. The only on-road stint (and contour of any description) is the climb up Kings Head Hill just a mile away from the forest. At 6,000 acres, you could easily spend hours exploring London’s largest open space, with plenty of bumpy off-road tracks available for those with thicker tyres. For a pint with a view, the Butler’s Retreat offers sweeping panoramas from the edge of the forest; if you have one too many, trains run direct from nearby Chingford to London Liverpool Street.
The South Downs Way National Trail
This epic off-road route doesn’t begin from England’s current capital but rather its first, the ancient city of Winchester – a fifty minute train ride journey from Clapham Junction. Starting just east of the town, the South Downs Way National Trail runs for 100 miles to Eastbourne on the south coast, passing through some of southern England’s finest countryside. The route follows bridleways, open farmland and loose-gravel tracks, so is only feasibly tackled with a solid mountain bike. There are also plenty of steep climbs, so only the fittest of the fit will plan to tackle this in a day – more enjoyable is to take a long weekend and make the most of the quaint villages and classic English pubs that are dotted along the way. The overall elevation is around 3800m, so whatever you do be sure to pack the panniers light!