Cycling from Guildford

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


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Route N1: North Bank of the Thames: London to Purfleet

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Summary A ride of contrasts. Starting from Waterloo Station, this ride takes in the tourist hotpots along the South bank of the Thames before crossing Tower Bridge and passing through the quieter parts of Wapping beside a little known canal and the old dock basins such as Shadwell. Passing One Canada Square Tower ("Canary Wharf") you will cross the River Lea (distant views to the Olympic Park) and arrive at the Excel Centre, with its Cable Car across the Thames to the O2 Centre (opened June 2012), and then take a pleasant green avenue through Beckton District Park. From here it is impossible to avoid proximity to busy roads, but Mayor Boris' Cycle Superhighway CS3 and subsequent cycle path will whisk you rapidly to Rainham. Beyond here the contrast could not be greater: an excellent cycle trail gives views over the Thames and the RSPB reserves of Rainham Marshes. Return to London by train from Purfleet, within sight of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge.This route and its companion Route N2 to Southend-on-Sea, complement my Route A (London to Rochester) on the southern side of the Thames.
Distance/time: 38 miles; whole day
Start/Finish: Take the train to Waterloo Station to start: bikes are carried outside weekday rush hours.

Finish at Purfleet station, and get the train back to London Fenchurch Street.

A one day travelcard will cover all your travel up to Rainham; so all you need in addition is a single from Purfleet to Rainham.

Conditions under the tyre: All on good roads and tracks, so an 'ordinary' bike should suffice.

You will need to cycle across busy Tower Bridge. The cycle paths adjacent to the busy A13 can themselves be quite busy at times (due to the growing popularity of commuting by bike). The A3106 into Rainham is also a busy road. Take extra care here.

Whilst this route is perfectly safe during the day, it does pass through some quite edgy areas of east London between Docklands and Rainham, and I imagine these are best avoided after dark.
Reverse route: Wind direction is an important factor: for an easier ride, chose whichever direction puts the wind behind you.
Route variations: For an interesting circuit, ride just to the Excel Centre, take the Cable Car across the river to the O2, and either return to Tower Bridge along my Route A via Greenwich, or take the Thames Clipper boat back to the London Eye from just near the O2 cable car station.

You could also extend the ride by doing all or part of Route N2 (for example to Grays), though the complete route to Southend would be a very long day and leave little time to stop at the many interesting sites along the way.
Route description:
  • Exit Waterloo Station via the central exit adjacent to the famous clock. (This exit from the station avoids steps.) Cross the road to a cycle track past Boris bike racks down to traffic lights. Cross the road and cycle on pavement under the railway, and take the road up to the rear of the Royal Festival Hall.
  • The official cycle route follows the road parallel to the river, and use this if you want to make rapid - but dull - progress. Alternatively, it seems that cycling on the riverside promenade is tolerated. (The official rule seems ambiguous, but many cyclists - including many tourists on Boris Bikes - do cycle along the promenade. It is usually very crowded and you must go slowly and dismount at pinch points, but take your time, admire the views across the Thames and take in the sights: National Theatre, Tate Modern, Millennium Footbridge, Globe Theatre. Pass under Waterloo Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge, Southwark Bridge and London Bridge, where you have to emerge onto busy Tooley Street by London Bridge Station. Either now continue along Tooley Street, or turn left on Hays Lane to reach the riverside again, and cycle past City Hall ("the TV set") and cut through the small park (Potters Field) back to Tooley Street. Either way, now fork left on a short road to reach the road onto Tower Bridge.
  • Cross Tower Bridge with care (busy) and carry on right past the Tower of London. Cross to the other side of the road at the traffic lights, and take a sloping road (St Katherine's Way) down to the Tower Hotel. You can go to the front of the Hotel to view Tower Bridge, but then return and pass behind the hotel on the service entrance road, and, passing St Katherine's Dock on your left, cross a bridge (best to walk over this, as it has a metal grid surface in which you might trap your wheels).
  • Carry on along St Katherine's Way until, past a roundabout, you reach Redmead Lane on your left. Here there are two choices. EITHER continue along Wapping High Street and Wapping Wall to the rolling bridge over Shadwell Basin entrance (this route is cobbled and quite bumpy). OR use the cycle route signed up Redmead Lane, which immediately forks off through a gate to the left and follows the tranquil Spirit Quay path beside Hermitage Basin then the old ship canal, passing Tobacco Quay with its old ships in dry dock, going under Wapping Lane and carrying on across a park area to reach the expanse of water which is Shadwell Basin. Cycle round it to emerge by the red 'rolling bridge'.
  • Now take the path on the opposite side of the road (its signed as a cycle route) to the riverside walkway, passing the round building which is the ventilation shaft for the Rotherhithe Road Tunnel. You now follow a short stretch of the Thames Path with views straight ahead to the office blocks of Docklands. Leaving the river, you join Narrow Street and follow this straight on over Limehouse Basin and just after Barleycorn Way, you will see on your right a path under buildings with a Cyclists Dismount sign. Take this and once back on the river mount up again to cycle over Dunbar Wharf and on a good riverside promenade to Westferry Circus.Proceed towards the steps and on the right you will find a lift to the 'deck' level. Cross to the broad dual carriageway, W India Avenue. Take this: it passes under Canary Wharf to emerge at Cartier Circus where there is a view across the river to the O2 Arena.
  • Take the bridge over the dock entrance and go up Trafalgar Way to a roundabout beside the entrance to the 'new' Billingsgate Market. Head East to cross the A1206 into Baffin Way, to the right of the IBIS hotel. Turn left along Blackwell Way. Follow this road which soon runs parallel to the elevated Docklands Light Railway. At a roundabout go under the DLR, then cross before a busy roundabout to go back under the DLR ( on the right, duck into the East India dock basin for a diversion into a peaceful nature reserve with good views over to the O2) and take the cycle path beside the A1020 which rises to a bridge to take you over the River Lea (views north to the Olympic Park). Come down to a roundabout, pass under the flyover and take the road (Western Gateway) into the Royal Docks complex passing the cable car station.
  • Cycle along the dockside in front of the restaurants and on in front of the Excel Centre, then under the Connaught bridge, and before reaching Royal Albert DLR Station, exit the complex by a wide traffic free bridge North over the Royal Albert Way, then turn right on Jake Russell Walk, then carry straight on along a long straight tree lined avenue through Beckton District Park.
  • Reach and cross over the A117 Woolwich Manor Way, and pass down a path to the left of Beckton DLR station. This emerges on Stonewall, then right over the railway, then left on Newark Knok. Where this road turns sharp right a path heads straight on and continues North East parallel to the A1020 but separated from it by trees.Continue past a retail park to a major roundabout. Here pick up the blue-painted Cycle Superhighway 3 heading east beside the A13.
  • Continue on CS3 for some way: it changes to a normal cycle path.Eventually you will reach a roundabout marked by a weird wizard's hat shaped cone. Here, go under the flyover on cycle paths and take the A1306 through Dagenham to reach a roundabout. Take the Bridge Road exit towards Rainham. Either, at the next roundabout take the Lanson Road exit to go over the railway on the road bridge, or continue to Rainham station where you can cross the railway (it's the Channel Tunnel link line) on an impressive ramped pedestrian/cycle footbridge.
  • Either way you pick up a cycle path beside Ferry Lane. Go under the A13 (signed RSPB Purfleet) and then take the signed cycle path on the left of the roundabout. Turn immediately right on a signed path. In summer, this may be overgrown by wild flowers (aka weeds) but it has a good surface and is reasonably easy to ride through (quite an unusual sensation!).The path comes alongside the road (Coldharbour Lane) beside an industrial estate. You emerge to cross this road and pass on a path between the industrial units.
  • You can now cross over waste ground to finally reach the river wall again, with views across the river to Erith and upriver towards East London: it ain't pretty but it is impressive in its own way. Cycle along beside the wall. The path continues past an industrial plant (the Tilda Rice factory) and its jetty. DISMOUNT at this point to push a short narrow stretch of path: its fine to walk but there is a steep drop to the river, so unwise to ride. Soon you can mount up again, and an excellent track is joined passing a picturesque collection of rusting concrete-filled barges, and a wacky 'submersible' sculpture, "the Diver". The path takes you all the way round the 'headland' (Coldharbour Point).You pass a recycling plant, and then a land fill, but the grassy slopes hide the site creating a surprisingly rural feel, covered in wildflowers in summer.
  • After the landfill, with the QE2 Bridge clearly in view, the path drops behind the sea wall and you are now on the edge of the RSPB Rainham Marshes reserve with its acres of lush reed bed. You will soon arrive at the excellent Visitor centre (with cafe and toilets).(There are good views back to Docklands and the City.) Cross a fancy bridge to leave the reserve site, and carry on past the Purfleet Military Heritage Centre to arrive at a sort of riverside village green with a Purfleet village sign on it. Shortly after, a path forks left between houses onto London Road and and then it is a short ride to Purfleet Station.
  • If you want a longer ride you could continue along the river under the QE2 bridge to Grays station (trains back to Fenchurch Street- see my Route N2.
Refreshments:
  • Plenty of cafes along the riverside promenade along the South Bank.
  • There are many restaurants and cafes around St Katherine's Dock, but in Wapping, a little way off the route but well worth the diversion is the Turks Head. This old pub was threatened with demolition but the local community saved it and it is now run by a charitable trust as a hospitable cafe, including traditional breakfast. It is said to be where condemned men had their last quart of ale before going to the execution dock on the site of what is now Wapping Station.
  • Various formulaic cafe's around the Excel Centre.
  • The Visitor Centre at Rainham RSPB Reserve has a welcome cafe.
Points of Interest: The stretch of this route along the South Bank and Bankside has so many sights of interest that it would take you a whole day if you stopped at them all - Royal Festival Hall, National Theatre, Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge, Shakespeare's Globe, Borough Market, HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London.Its probably best just to take in the vibe as you cycle by and also enjoy the views across to the North bank. East of Tower Bridge St Katherine's Dock is generally rammed with tourists, but further East, Wapping has a different atmosphere, quieter, and somewhat melancholy as if bemoaning its bustling past as home to the thriving docks. The route via Wapping High Street and Wapping Wall passes Wapping Pier Head, where two rows of Georgian houses are separated by railed riverside gardens. These were originally houses for London Docks officials, and their gardens cover the original entrance to the docks. Next is the Town of Ramsgate pub, beside which are Wapping Old Stairs. At low tide you may descend to a stony beach from which there are views over to the Surrey Bank.

Slightly off-route in Scandrett Street (towards the aforementioned Turks Head pub) is the former Charity School, now converted to housing. It is one of the Bluecoat Schools with their distinctive statues of a boy and a girl in recesses above the doors. It was founded in 1695, and the present building dates from 1765. A little further along is the venerable Prospect of Whitby Pub.

The route along Spirit Quay follows a "canal" which is the last vestige of the old nineteenth century London Docks (opened 1805) , now mostly filled in, apart from Shadwell Basin. Just to the North is the News International building. The canal is lined with new houses, and the area is a bit soulless at the weekend: presumably the owners are city workers away at their places in the country.You pass Tobacco Dock, based around a two hundred year old tobacco warehouse. There are a couple of old sailing ships in dry dock. An attempt was made to turn the complex into an upmarket retail and dining centre, but evidently this failed, the area being too off the beaten track to survive the recession. .

Limehouse Basin is the point at which the Regent's Canal enters the Thames.From here, the canalside path provides a green route round to Regents Park and beyond. Limehouse was regarded in the early twentieth century as China Town, as it was a haunt of Chinese sailors, and the area gained a rather lurid reputation, probably greatly exaggerated, with tales of drug dens and other seedy goings on. It's fairly tame now.

One Canada Square was the tallest building in Britain until topped by the Shard in 2012. It is the centrepiece of the Canary Wharf development in the 1980s to regenerate the area after the docks, unable to compete with more efficient, more accessible container ports elsewhere, closed.

Billingsgate Fish Market relocated here in 1982 from its historic position on the Thames between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. I recall the commentary on tour boats saying that the ground underneath the old cold stores was still frozen years later. Crossing the River Lea there are views North to the Olympic Stadium. Hopefully the Games will leave an enduring legacy of traffic free routes in the area for cyclists.

The Excel Centre is situated on the Royal Victoria Dock. The new Emirates Cable Car has a terminal next to the centre, and provides a novel means to cross the river to the O2, giving great views. Bikes are carried, and if my experience is anything to go by, staff are welcoming, and assign you and your bike to your very own car.

Beckton was home to Beckton Gas Works, which operated from 1870 to 1967 as a vast complex supplying gas to London. It was served by a railway bringing coal, and the cycle path through Beckton District Park follows the trackbed. The slag heaps from the works created a vast artificial hill known as Beckton Alps. The last remnant is much reduced in size and is a nature reserve.Beckton also has the dubious distinction of being the site of a huge sewage treatment works, currently being extended as part of the major Thames Tideway Tunnel project, designed to prevent sewage overflows into the river.

There is little to detain you between Beckton and Rainham. You will pass just North of the huge Ford Dagenham Factory, which produced its first vehicles in 1931. It had its own power plant and steel mill, and jetty on the river. It now concentrates on engine production.

When you return to the riverside after Rainham, the path takes you past the Tilda Rice Packing plant (which has its own jetty), and then joins the Havering Riverside Path, which opened relatively recently all the way to Purfleet. Before Coldharbour Point, there are some rusting barges filled with concrete: these were apparently used as part of the D-day Mulberry Harbours, and were beached here as flood defences in the fifties. Next to them on the mud is the Diver Sculpture. This was created by sculptor John Kaufman as part of the Havering Regeneration Project: it is a tribute to the divers who used to work along the Thames.

The Rainham Marshes RSPB Reserve comprises an extensive area of marshes between the Thames and the A13 with the adjacent Channel Tunnel Railink. (The reserve is actually nearer to Purfleet than Rainham.) The habitat was preserved by virtue of its bogginess and the fact that it was a major military rifle range, and various structures (shooting butts, and 100 yard marker ridges) can still be seen. There is an entry charge for the reserve,but access to the reserve visitor centre is free: it has a cafe, toilets and good views over the reserve. The military history of the area is recorded in the Purfleet Military Heritage Centre, housed within the one remaining magazine building of the Royal Magazine for Gunpowder, which was built in 1759, and was in use as a gunpowder store through the Napoleonic Wars and was still in use in the 1960s.

Finding your way Supplement my Google map on this page, with the free London Cycle Guide maps, sheet 7 as far as Beckton, and Sheet 8 for the rest of the route. The coloured part of sheet 8 ends at Rainham, but it continues in black and white beyond (here be dragons). OS Explorer mapping is also useful, but since the paths from Rainham are relatively new, check out the latest mapping online at Bing maps. Also, download the Sustrans National Cycle Network app onto your smart phone.