Cycling routes throughout the South East, accessible from Guildford in a day
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Weather at Start:
Route A: London to Rochester via London's working river and the Kent Marshes
Weather at Finish:
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|Summary This ride takes you through the centre of London and on to Rochester. It follows the Thames using National Cycle Network Route 4 (NCN4) to Greenwich, then NCN1 via Dartford and Gravesend to Rochester. From Rochester, return to the start by catching the train back to Waterloo East. This full day ride provides easy going, and passes by and through many sites of interest, including classic tourist sites beside the Thames such as Tate Modern and the Royal Naval College, trendy housing developments coexisting uneasily with edgy estates, the (relatively) wild Kent marshes of Cross Ness and Eastcourt, and open countryside, finally arriving at the historic city of Rochester.|
47 miles; whole day
London Waterloo Station
You could shorten the route by terminating at intermediate stations like Dartford or Gravesend.
|Transport: Reach Waterloo by train from Guildford station (journey time approx 40 minutes). To return from Rochester, take the train back to Waterloo East (journey time approx 1hr 15min), thence train back to Guildford. Waterloo mainline station is accessed from Waterloo East via a footbridge and lift. Check train web sites for cycle carriage policy, but bike carriage is usually OK (and at present free) outside weekday rush hours. There is usually one or more special bike carriages: look for the bike logo next to the door. Check train operator websites for engineering works, especially at weekends: replacement bus services will not carry bikes.|
|Conditions under the tyre: The route is flat from London until reaching Little Higham east of Gravesend. The route then goes through gently rolling countryside, with few major gradients. Surfaces are good on London streets, tarmacked sections of the Thames Path, or roadside cycle tracks. Short stretches of the eastern Thames path (eg round Erith) can be gravelly, but still quite firm. The roughest sections are the tracks across Crayford Marshes and the Chalk Marshes, though I negotiated these using a conventional bike without any great discomfort.|
|Reverse route: I think its best to leave the longer train journey till the end, and do the route London-Rochester, thus maximising daylight time for cycling, but its largely a matter of taste. Another factor is wind direction. A westerly wind favours London-Rochester, and vice versa.|
My route departs from NCN4 to stay close to the Thames between Rotherhithe and Greenland Dock: you could cut some distance by sticking on the NCN4.
It is possible to cross to the north bank of the Thames at Tower Bridge, then follow cycle routes through Docklands to the Woolwich ferry, then cross back to rejoin the route. I haven't done this yet though.
On the forecourt of Waterloo station, a cycle lane leads down to a pelican crossing over York Road. Cross and take the pavement under the railway to emerge
on Belvedere Road behind the Royal Festival Hall. You should pick up signs for NCN4, which are followed all the way to Rotherhithe. The route mainly follows
back roads more or less paralleling the Thames, with only short sections on main roads. It seems that cycling along the Thames esplanade itself, whilst
technically verboten, is widely practised and largely tolerated, although you never know when a crackdown might take place. Further, although the esplanade
is wide, it can seethe with people, so it is best to stay legal and stick to the
official route, from which short deviations to the riverside will bring you to
key sights along the way. These include Tate Modern, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the Golden Hind replica, City Hall and Tower Bridge: these diversions are
well worthwhile if only to take in the views of the City on the far bank.
Beyond Tower Bridge, the crowds disappear as you progress through Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. At Rotherhithe, NCN4 cuts 'inland', but my route stays close to the river by following Rotherhithe Street for a long loop round the Thames. At the entrance to Surrey Water an unusual red 'Rolling Bridge' is crossed and you eventually pitch up at the large expanse of Greenland Dock (where NCN4 is re-joined) and on to Deptford. After a short stretch of main road you arrive at Greenwich. Cycling is not allowed in the grounds of the Royal Naval College, but it is worth taking the time to walk your bike through and admire the architecture and views.
From Greenwich, follow NCN1, which shortly joins the Thames Path which will take you all the way along the river to Erith. This is not the 'pretty' river you encounter to the west of London, but a working waterway flanked on both banks by down-to-earth towns like Woolwich, Thamesmead and Erith, as well as signs of industrialisation in the form of various works, depots and factories. The ride is full of interest and great views, nevertheless. First, you cycle right around the Greenwich peninsula, home of the O2 (fka Millennium Dome). The views across to Docklands, dominated by Canary Wharf, are impressive. Then you reach in turn the Thames Barrier, where it is necessary to leave the river for a short stretch (I believe a cycle route along the river is planned), Woolwich Ferry and the Royal Woolwich Arsenal (which houses inter alia) the Royal Artillery Firepower Museum.
Thamesmead is passed (and perhaps mercifully, not entered) and, passing the buildings housing the historic Crossness Beam Engines you arrive in Erith, which is not a place to linger. Beyond Erith, the Path reaches Crayford Ness, the junction of the River Darent with the Thames, marked by the River Darent flood barrier. Here the Thames is left for a while. A track beside the Darent (look out for wildlife in the surrounding Crayford and Dartford Marshes) takes you to the A206. From here to Gravesend the riding is beside some quite busy roads, but they are in the main provided with good cycle tracks. Follow NCN1 signs carefully through Deptford and then out on the A296 past the weird looking Bluewater shopping complex, hidden in its chalk pit 'crater'. Then the A2 is joined, but again there is an excellent cycle track. At the junction with the B259 take that road, which will take you close to Ebbsfleet station on the high speed railway, and continue to follow the NCN signs till you reach the outskirts of Gravesend. Where the A226 Thamesway meets the London Road, go straight across into Pier Road and make your way down to the Shore Road and on into the town centre. On the other side of town, pick up Gordon Promenade, then Wharf Road, which finally takes you away from the Thames on a good track over Eastcourt Marshes, following the railway and the Thames and Medway Canal, but a welcome stretch of open country it is, nevertheless.
This track runs on into Canal Road to arrive in Lower Higham. Here, Higham railway station offers an alternative point to return to Waterloo East if you are tuckered out, otherwise continue on the NCN1 past the old School of Military Engineering at Chattenden and down to the banks of the Medway at Upnor, where there is a picturesque castle, then on to the roundabout on the busy A289. Here be sure to follow the main road a few yards north east, before turning sharp left on to quiet Upnor Road. After a climb and descent you will arrive on canal road beside the Medway, from which you access Rochester Bridge to arrive at your destination town. You will hopefully have sufficient time and energy to explore the historic town centre with its attractive High street and historic castle and cathedral. Then make your way down the High street to the station. Bon voyage!
Refreshments: Between Waterloo and Greenwich there are numerous cafe's, restaurants and pubs along or close to the river.
There are fewer opportunities beyond Greenwich, although the Firepower Museum at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal has a good cafe.
You could also try pubs in Higham and Upnor.
In Rochester High street there are eateries of all kinds.
Points of Interest
There is much of interest to see along the way. If you stop to see it all this route would take days!
The Thames between Waterloo and Tower Bridge is home to many attractions, which are easily reached from the route, including Tate Modern, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the Millennium Bridge, the Golden Hind (replica of Drake's ship,), Southwark Cathedral, Borough Market, City Hall and of course Tower Bridge itself. A few years back, this area was semi derelict, but has now been gentrified, with trendy apartments and shopping complexes such as Hays Galleria. Good views can be had of the cityscape on the far bank, including St Paul's Cathedral and the City towers such as the Gherkin. As explained in the route description, it is in theory not possible to cycle by the riverside, but all these sights can be readily accessed by a short diversion from the official route.
The area beyond Tower Bridge is less obviously touristy, but is more subtly interesting. Running parallel to the river just beyond Tower Bridge is Shad Thames, a street separating the old warehouses and spanned by walkways between them: these were used by the porters to transfer goods to and from the river. The riverside walk here is quieter and gives good views back to Tower Bridge. The Design Museum (with cafe) is to be found here.
Near Cherry Garden Pier is a group statue called Dr Salter's daydream. Dr Salter was a local MP and benefactor who did much too improve the health care and living conditions for the poor of Bermondsey in the early twentieth century. His own daughter Joyce died of scarlet fever. His statue sits on a bench beside the river, gazing wistfully at the statue of his daughter, whilst on the river wall sits her cat.
On Rotherhithe Street, find the quaint Mayflower pub, bedecked with flowers in the summer. The Mayflower, which carried the Pilgrim Fathers to America, was based near here, and the ship's master, Christopher Jones is buried in nearby St Mary's Churchyard. The pub was originally named the Shippe, and it was renamed in honour of the historic ship following restoration in the 1950s.
Opposite the Mayflower is the Brunel Museum. This is housed in the old pump house for the Rotherhithe tunnel, which was built by Marc Brunel, assisted by his subsequently more famous son, Isambard Kingdom. Work started in 1825 using an innovative new tunnelling method, but was plagued by technical and financial difficulties. it operated as a pedestrian tunnel before being taken over as part of the London Underground. The tunnel is currently being renovated as part of the new East London line.
Further down Rotherhithe Street, you pass over the unusual red Rolling Bridge spanning the Entrance Lock for Surrey Water. On the other side of the Rotherhithe peninsula, you pass the impressive Greenland Dock (so called from its time as base for a whaling fleet). These are the last vestiges of the thriving docks which operated here from the eighteenth century, and latterly collectively known as the Surrey Docks. (for an excellent PDF guide to this area, click here. The area and the docks were severely damaged by bombing in the Second World War, and never fully recovered. Now, new riverside houses and apartments coexist alongside post war housing estates.
As you cycle down Rotherhithe Street, the skyscrapers of docklands provide an impressive backdrop.
At Greenwich, be sure to at least pause to admire the Royal Naval College with its painted hall and grounds running down to the river. It is possible, if you have time, to cycle through Greenwich Park to the Observatory, with excellent views over the National Maritime Museum and the City.
The Greenwich Peninsula offers great views over to Docklands, and the O2 arena is unavoidable. Less well known is Antony Gormley's sculpture, Quantum Cloud, on the QEII pier. Initially this appears to be a formless mass of metal needles, but on closer examination a human form can be discerned within.
The Thames Barrier became operational in 1982. Its gates are raised at times of exceptionally high tide to protect London from flooding. There is a visitor centre and cafe.
At Woolwich, the Royal Arsenal is an impressive complex of buildings. Originally, this was the site of the Royal Laboratory, founded in 1696 and the Royal Foundry (1717) to manufacture respectively all government munitions and guns. It was renamed the Royal Arsenal in 1805, and expanded considerably through the years, employing 80,000 people during the Great War. The MOD finally vacated the site in 1994. The site houses the Royal Artillery Firepower Museum and the Greenwich Heritage Centre, and has an impressive array of historic buildings many of which have been converted into dwellings. The walls surrounding the Arsenal were built by convicts housed on convict ships on the Thames nearby.
Between Thamesmead and Erith, lies the Crossness Beam Engines house. This magnificently decorated engine house contains 4 Victorian Beam Engines, part of Joseph Bazalgette's sewage system for London. (NB I don't think it is possible to enter the House from the path, and further the engines are currently undergoing extensive refurbishment, so best to contact the Trust if you want to make a visit.) Nearby is the futuristic Crossness Incinerator: this plant incinerates sewage waste to generate power and fertilizer (previously the waste was loaded onto barges to be dumped at sea). Next to the incinerator is Crossness nature reserve. Opposite Crossness, you can't mistake the Ford Motor Works at Dagenham: this ceased making cars in 2002, but now makes diesel engines.
From Erith riverside, there are views across the Thames estuary. Erith was a popular calling off point for Victorian steamers heading down the Thames, and the town has an illustrious industrial heritage. However, modern Erith does not seem to be a good place to linger. Rather, press on to Crayford Marshes along the Darent river. This area of grazing marsh is a designated SSSI. At the mouth of the River Darent is a gantry-like flood barrier. The muddy banks here are good for waders, and many other interesting birds can be sighted here and the adjacent Dartford Marshes. There are also views across to the QE2 bridge carrying the M25 over the Thames.
Gravesend was a major port on the Thames until the docks at Tilbury opened on the opposite bank in 1886. Joseph Conrad sets the opening of Heart of Darkness on a cruising yawl bound down river off Gravesend: "A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and greatest, town on earth." (ie London, not Gravesend). The Town Pier (1834) is apparently the oldest surviving cast iron pier in the world. The Indian princess Pocahontas died in Gravesend in 1617 on her way back to America, and is buried in St George's churchyard.
Eastcourt Marsh (one of the 4 Chalk Marshes ie Marshes in the parish of Chalk) is another area of grazing land. It is crossed by the Thames-Medway canal and the Gravesend-Strood railway line. The Metropolitan Police have a training school and firing range here.
Upnor has an attractive high street running down to the Medway. Upnor Castle (English Heritage) is an Elizabethan artillery fort established to protect the approaches to Royal Dockyards on the Thames.
Rochester has an attractive High Street, a castle dating from c1172 with a massive Norman keep, and a majestic cathedral, surrounded by olde worlde streets.
|Finding your way The route essentially follows National Cycle Network Route NCN4 to Greenwich and NCN1 to Rochester, and is reasonably well signed, though this does mean quite a lot of 'ducking and diving' around side streets in London. Ordnance Survey Explorer maps 161 (London South), 162 (Greenwich and Gravesend) and 163 (Gravesend and Rochester) cover the ground, but for street navigating in London, I recommend the FREE London Cycling Guide maps. Sheet 1 covers Central London at large scale and includes the route a far as Tower Bridge. Sheet 7 at a lesser scale covers the route as far as Woolwich, and sheet 8 covers from Woolwich to Crayford Marshes. See the links page for more details. The leaflet 'Walking the Thames Path: Exploring London's Working river" is an excellent companion to the ride from the Thames Barrier to Erith.|