Cycling from Guildford

Cycling routes throughout the South East, accessible from Guildford in a day


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Route B: Herne Bay to Rochester: Oysters and the Swale

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Summary This ride forms part of my complete circuit of the south east coast, the previous section being London to Rochester, and the following one from Herne Bay to Dover using the Viking Coastal Trail. I describe it from east to west. Starting from Herne Bay station, proceed east along the coastal route to Whitstable using the new Oyster Bay Trail. There is then a cross country section, following National Cycle Route 1 (NCR1) across the Swale Marshes and through the pleasant town of Faversham and the less pleasant town of Sittingbourne, followed by a stretch along the Medway estuary before finishing on cycle paths past Chatham Historic Dockyard to Rochester.
Distance/time: Approx 42 miles, 5 hours cycling.
Start: Herne Bay Station
Finish: Rochester Station
Transport: This route is most efficiently done using a combo of car and train. Drive to Rochester (A3, M25, A229), and park in one of the long term car parks (eg I used the one at ‘The Common’ next to the A2 Rochester Bridge – see Google map). Trains between Rochester and the start at Herne Bay: 2 trains per hour, journey time 50 minutes.

It is also possible by train: From Guildford, get the train to Waterloo, then go to Waterloo East and get the train to Herne Bay via Rochester. Guildford to Waterloo trains approx. 3 per hour, journey time about 40 minutes; Waterloo East to Rochester: 2 trains per hour, journey time approx. 1hr 10 minutes; Rochester to Herne Bay approx. 2 per hour, journey time 50 minutes.
Conditions under the tyre: The Oyster Bay trail uses the seaside promenade (which is a good concrete surface, apart from a short stretch of rough track approaching Swalecliffe) or nearby roads.

The NCR1 between Whitstable and Rainham is on good but mainly quiet roads with short stretches on good tracks. The only busy stretch is likely to be through Sittingbourne, where a planned traffic free alternative across Milton Creek shown on OS maps was not yet (Summer 2010) open. Near Rainham you join the Saxon Shore Way beside the Medway estuary, which is a good track. Then you follow good roadside cycle paths through Chatham.

I did this route on a conventional bike, and this was fine in summer. Off-season and/or after prolonged rain, a mountain bike might not come amiss.

There are no significant hills (so far as I can recall), but the countryside on the stretch between Whitstable and Rainham is gently rolling.
Reverse route: It should be straightforward (and desirable with an Easterly wind) to reverse this route: cycle from Rochester and get the train back from Herne Bay.

Route variations: The Oyster Bay trail follows the seaside promenade between Herne Bay and Swalecliffe. Between there and Whitstable, use by cyclists of the promenade is still (2011) under negotiation. Whilst the authorities seem to be turning a blind eye to cycling along the prom, you do so at your own risk: otherwise stick to fairly obvious roads running behind the sea front.

My route out of Whitstable likewise sticks to the coast as long as possible, but this does require carrying your bike over a railway footbridge. The official NCR1 takes inland roads.
Route description:

These route directions should be used in conjunction with the Google map at the head of this web page (it can be opened in a new window).

On exiting from Herne Bay station, head straight down Station Road to the sea front, where turn left and proceed along the coastal route. As noted above, the situation regarding cycling along the promenade seems ambiguous beyond Swalecliffe: if in doubt follow the parallel roads. To the extent that you can stay beside the sea, this is a pleasant and airy ride past Hampton, Swalecliffe and Tankerton, before finally arriving in Whitstable.

Stop for a look round and refreshments in the harbour area, then continue on along the roads heading west paralleling the shore, ie Sea Wall and Island Wall. Island Wall becomes a road through a caravan park and past some beach huts, until on your left you will find a path to a footbridge over the railway (The seaside road continues, but eventually reaches a dead end: there seems to be no easy way through.) Carry your bike over the footbridge then join Joy Lane. Follow roads round the back of Seasalter to rejoin the coast at Faversham Road (though the sea is hidden behind a sea wall). Either stay on this road, or try the track which runs along the top of the sea wall.

The road soon heads inland and after passing through the village of Graveney, just before the main road crosses the railway, take Sandbanks Lane on your right (signed NCR1). Towards the end of this lane, you will see NCR1 signed left on a track which takes you beside the Faversham Creek and on into the attractive town of Faversham along Abbey Street. Go right into Quay Street and follow NCR1 signs out across the town bridge, and across the countryside to the village of Conyer.

Here, the route is signed west on a track past the Marina and beside Conyer Creek to rejoin tarmac at Blacketts Road. The preferred route of the NCR1 seems to be being replanned, but I went north through Tonge Corner, then south along a track past Little Murston Nature Reserve. There is a rather ugly short stretch past (through?) a gypsy caravan site, with much rubbish strewn around and rather threatening barking dogs. You then enter Sittingbourne via a drab industrial estate, and pass through and out of the town on the busy B2005. Carry on up the B2005 crossing the railway, then watch out for the NCR1 signed left on a side road to cross the A249 on a bridge. (I was misled by one NCR1 sign which had been turned to point in the wrong direction: this town seems a bit chavvy.)

The NCR1 now meanders across country, including an off road track through orchards at Gore Farm south of Upchurch, then skirts north of Rainham on the Lower Rainham Road B2004. Watch for Old Motney Way on the right, which takes you up to the Saxon Shore path west beside the Medway Estuary (the Riverside Country Park). After three or so miles, you join cycle paths beside A Roads past Gillingham (A289) and Chatham (A231), which becomes Rochester High Street back to Rochester Station.
Refreshments:

There are snack bars and cafes along, or near, the sea front from Herne Bay to Whitstable. Whitstable itself has many eateries, especially around the harbour. Faversham (as opposed to Sittingbourne) looks like a pleasant place and must have some cafés, tea shops etc.

There is a visitor centre and café at the Riverside Park, and eateries in Chatham and Rochester.
Points of Interest The Oyster Bay Trail between Reculver and Whitstable is one of Canterbury city council's high priority cycle route schemes as it is a missing link in the coastal national and regional cycle route network in Kent. Hopefully, the necessary bylaw changes and re-signing will be completed in 2011, to make the route official. The towns along the way – Herne Bay, Swalecliffe, Tankerton – have a somewhat faded feel, although they are becoming fashionable again: the beach huts at Tankerton, with its pleasant green ‘heights’, for example, are said to change hands for considerable sums. At Tankerton, a strange shingle ‘finger’ known as the Street is exposed at low tide.

Relatively speaking, Whitstable is booming as a trendy place to visit. Whitstable has been famous for hundreds of years for its oyster beds. It claims to be the first port to be connected by a steam railway (the ‘Crab and Winkle Line’ to Canterbury) opened in 1830 – this is now a cycle track. After hard times post war, substantial regeneration works have revitalised the harbour area, with its black wooden fish sheds. A number of celebs are said to own houses in Whitstable and nearby Seasalter.

Faversham is a pleasant town, with many listed historic buildings. Its prosperity came from its port on the Faversham creek, which was a major port for the export of wool, and also its prosperous farming hinterland – the surrounding area is still notable for its orchards. The old port area can be viewed from the bridge on this route. The Ordnance Board had a gunpowder works here in the Napoleonic Wars. Looking back from the bridge you will see the distinctive ‘flying spire’ of the church of St Mary’s of Charity. Although the church is medieval in origin, this spire was added in the eighteenth century.

To the north of this route, between Graveney and Sittingbourne, the Swale Wetlands are great for birdwatching. The closest you come is at Conyer Creek.

Compared to Faversham, Sittingbourne presents a less attractive face. It is home to the heritage Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway along Milton Creek north-east from the town centre, which served the Sittingbourne paper mills. In 2008, during building of the Meads residential and retail development, a wholly unexpected Anglo-Saxon cemetery was discovered, and many of the finds are on display in the town museum.

The route west of Faversham passes through orchard country, including many non-intensive orchards: I imagine this part of the ride would be good for blossom during the spring.

The Riverside Country Park north of Gillingham covers 100 hectares alongside the Medway Estuary, including Motney Hill reed beds and Berengrave Local Nature Reserve. There are various habitats within the park, including mudflats and salt marsh, ponds and reed-beds, grassland and scrub, which provide a haven for wildlife. You will pass Bloors Wharf, a large area of concrete being all that remains, and Horrid Hill, a mound connected to the shore by a narrow peninsula into the Medway. Kingsnorth Power Station is seen across the Medway estuary, as well as two low profile forts on islands – Hoo and Darnet – built in the nineteenth century to defend the Medway approaches.

On your way to Rochester you will pass Chatham Historic Dockyard which provided shipbuilding and repair services to the Royal navy from Tudor times to their closure in 1984. There is a host of exhibits to see, including the unique complex of rope making buildings.

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 is reasonably well signed as National Cycle Route 1, although I found the signing to be patchy around Sittingbourne.

The route is covered by Ordnance Survey Landranger 1:50K maps 178 and 179 and/or Explorer 1:25K maps 150, 149 and 163. A print out of street maps of the route through Chatham and Rochester would be handy, too.