London to Southend Bike Ride

Well, we just completed this and, as Tim C says, jolly good fun it was too.

To my complete surprise, when I rose at 5.30 and went round to wake the other participants, all were already awake and one was in the shower! A reasonably leisurely breakfast (porridge) was followed by a short trip to Southend Victoria station where there were enough cyclists around to make me think we had got the right day.

A 12-coach train was laid on but it wasn’t until we had walked the entire length of the train that we found somewhere to put the tandem. Why cannot any of the train companies “sacrifice” a few carriages, take the seats out of one half and put in Sheffield stands? Plenty of room for bikes, plenty of room for passengers. Put one carriage like this on every train running at rush hour or weekend, cyclists catered for for ever.

I am very familiar with the Southend to Liverpool Street service, and I was most disappointed (although I don’t really know why) that this non-stop train to Stratford actually took longer to get there than the normal weekday stopping service. Then, towards the end of the journey, the driver announced that they “hoped” that we would be approaching a platform so that the bikes could be unloaded on the same side as that from which they were loaded. Was he being facetious? Possibly, but I felt that there was a very real possibility that the most inaccessible cycles would need to be taken off first.

Getting out at Stratford still presented problems. Bikes had to be carried up and down several flights of stairs. More steps outside the station when following the directions to the official start of the ride. Then, when we arrived at Victoria Park, every bike had to be wheeled through a narrow pedestrian gate and lifted over a barrier when there were (locked) double gates right next door. Why didn’t anyone alert the London Borough of Tower Hamlets to the possibility that cyclists’ progress should be facilitated by actually letting them get into the park?

After a loo queue we were ready, and at almost exactly 9 a.m. we started on our journey.

If you have to cycle through Leytonstone, then I suppose that just after 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning is as good a time as any. We crossed the A12 via the Lea Interchange and then skirted Wanstead, arriving at an eerily deserted Charlie Brown’s Roundabout before heading to Chigwell. It was at about this point that we actually reached some pleasant countryside, but I think that the truth of the matter is that, for the greater part of this ride, you are just too close to London for the roads to become quiet; or, when you do finally shake off the metropolis, the pleasant rural roads don’t last long enough. The last 10 miles or so into Southend are on over-used, often fairly narrow, roads, because Southend dominates a peninsula. OK, I have learned from Nutty that there are some ways of escaping from Southend which are quieter than others, but you would hardly recommend them for a ride of this sort.

The four of us who rode were my daughter Ellen, her fiancé Ben, and younger son Graham, acting as a substitute for his older brother: the kidney transplant was nearly 6 weeks ago, but Denis has wisely decided to lay off any sort of exerting physical activity until he really feels ready.

Ben rode his ancient Raleigh, which has definitely seen better days. Ellen was on her lovely little Ridgeback, while Graham and I rode the tandem. Graham’s first ever ride on a tandem was the previous evening, and he had done virtually no distance cycling before, so this promised to be an ordeal. An interesting point was that I could tell the difference between Graham and Janet being on the back. With Graham, initially the beast became much less manageable, but by the day we were “pulling together” really well.

The Epping Forest area is, for Essex, rather hilly, and that put us through our paces early. It was not long before G & I had pulled well away from E & B: our hill work was no less effective than theirs, and of course our wind resistance was less (more favourable weight to surface are ratio on descents), our road resistance was less and we had a lot more power. This was the first time I had ridden a tandem on a communal ride and was agreeably surprised at our ability to outstrip pretty well any but obvious greyhounds on slender frames.

Once we had left the forest, we rode along more and more familiar roads. Kelvedon Hatch is getting close to my “stomping ground” and Mountnessing definitely so. Nevertheless, it was a surprise when we suddenly came upon the half-way stop at the windmill, and G & I spent quite a long time there, drinking tea and eating flapjack, until B & E arrived.

After Mountnessing, we travelled through Stock and, to my surprise, the route avoided the Lower Stock Road to West Hanningfield (a quiet, pretty and narrow lane) in favour of rather wider, busier roads. Thus we all but circumnavigated Hanningfield reservoir when there was a much more direct, and, in my view, preferable route. In addition, we “messed about” approaching East Hanningfield from the north. This meant that the Windmill was the second pub we reached. The hot dogs were acceptable butthe beer (Maldon Gold) was superb.

It was on the road between West and East Hanningfield that we chanced upon by far the most objectionable motorist of the entire journey. The road was narrow and with cyclists as far as the eye could see yet this fool still insisted on trying to overtake, just to get held up by the next set of cyclists. I decided it was too narrow a road to allow him the space to try, so I held the middle ground while he revved his engine behind me. At one point he made an attempt at overtaking but stopped because he clearly didn’t have room. It would be euphemistic to say that we exchanged greeetings, but it was a good mile later that the road became wider and I did give way for him to pass. Within a minute he had had an altercation with another cyclist who did nothing whatever to annoy him that I could see, and this chap was understandably aggrieved. Apparently our four-wheeled friend had made some comment or other along the lines that he paid his road fund licence and cyclists didn’t so he was perfectly entitled to drive in any way he wanted and it didn’t matter who got killed in the process.

After East Hanningfield there is a faily long downhill section which took us to the old A130. This has receently been converted from dual carriageway to single carriageway, and a cycle lane has been put in. This would be great except, of course, it disappears into nothingness at one point and, where it reappears, it is cluttered with gravel and other surface litter which makes it quite hard to cycle along.

Soon after this we reached Battlesbridge, the lowest bridging point of the River Crouch. From here to Southend, none of the lanes is quiet and there were far too many 4*4s, so, as TimC pointed out, it is pretty boring and none too pleasant to cycle.

Our arrival in Priory Park was greeted with a reception committee which reminded me somewhat of “Porky’s”: a buffoon in a yellow suit was accompanied by helpers who looked like superannuated cheerleaders. We were applauded in by people who somehow think that riding 60 miles on a bicycle is an extraordinary feat and would be quite amazed if they ever found out that there are people who do this sort of thing pretty well every Sunday.

Total mileage: 60.23. Total time: 7 hours 20 minutes. Time in saddle: about 5 hours.

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