Cycling from Guildford

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

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Route N2: North Bank of the Thames: Purfleet to Southend-On-Sea

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Summary: This ride starts where Route N1 ends ie Purfleet Railway Station. Near here, there is access to a good concrete path following the river defences under the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge (aka Dartford River Crossing) all the way to Grays. You are sandwiched between the river and a series of oil depots, cement works and the like. The 'docks' further upstream are all now heritage sites, but these are real working concerns, with large ships unloading their cargoes at dedicated jetties. Beyond the QE2 Bridge, the river wall has been covered in graffiti panels: whilst its not quite Banksy, this is quite high quality art. East of the busy port of Tilbury, is the eponymous and formidable Fort dating from Tudor times, and from here a path - the Two Forts Way - leads along the river to Coalhouse Fort, dating from the Victorian times. Between Benfleet and Leigh-on-Sea a path takes you beside the Benfleet Creek, overlooked by the hills of Hadleigh Country Park and Farm, the venue for mountain biking in the 2012 Olympics. These paths are footpaths rather than bridleways. I don't normally encourage riding on footpaths, but these do seem quite widely used by cyclists. (NB On these paths, especially on the Purfleet-Grays path, there are several sets of steps over various pipelines and fences, and you must be able to manhandle your bike over these.) End at Southend-on-Sea, which boasts the longest pleasure pier in the World. Between these off-road sections, there is as yet no alternative to following busy roads, though in the main these have reasonable cycle tracks. The Thames Estuary Partnership is considering opening up the riverside sections which are as yet inaccessible: this would make a great trail beside the Thames Estuary.
Distance/time: 38 miles; whole day
Start/Finish: Start from Purfleet station, reached by train from Fenchurch Street, or drive there via the M25 and park in the (small) pay-and-display station car park.

Finish at Southend-On-Sea station, for trains either back to Fenchurch Street direct, or changing at Grays for Purfleet.

Conditions under the tyre: Purfleet to Grays is mainly on a good concrete surface. The Two Forts Way and the Benfleet Creek path are both quite rough, and for this reason a mountain bike is preferable.

The area between Purfleet Station and the river is subject to regeneration plans, which might modify or restrict acess to the start.

Take care on the busy on-road sections, especially anywhere near Tilbury port where there is heavy fast lorry traffic.

The depots along the river are security conscious (they have been subjected to the attentions of environmental activists). It is possible that access to the path may be restricted (eg gates closed) at times of heightened security.

It is necessary (unless you wish to use busy roads 'inland') to dismount and push the 1km path between Leigh and Westcliff.
Reverse route: Wind direction is an important factor: for an easier ride, chose whichever direction puts the wind behind you.
Route variations: You could tack the Purfleet-Grays part of this route onto the end of Route N1, making a good ride from London to Grays.

You could cheat and avoid the rather tedious ride on roads from East Tilbury to Benfleet by taking the train.

It is possible to cross the Thames by the QE2 Bridge (see under "Points of Interest") and the Tilbury-Gravesend ferry, and link up with my Route A along the South bank of the Estuary.
Route description:
  • Leaving Purfleet Station, take the footpath signed next to the level crossing. This passes through a row of houses to a wicket gate, the 'gate' part of which has been removed, allowing bikes to pass, giving access to a concrete apron over which you ride to the river wall (this apron may be high in weeds in summer, but persevere, they soon give way). (NB This site is subject to a regeneration plan, which might affect access in the future.) Now follow the obvious concrete path behind the wall eastwards towards the equally obvious QE2 Bridge. You soon approach the various riverside complexes, and the path weaves between these and the river wall, passing over various obstacles (jetties, pipelines) on steps: you must manhandle your bike over these, take great care.
  • Pass under the QE2 Bridge. Soon, a concrete ramp gives optional access to the other side of the wall, so that you can ride in sight of the river. The wall on this side has been covered in intriguing graffiti panels of quite high quality. You will reach the huge, red, Proctor and Gamble plant. A short diversion on a footpath will take you to St Clements Church, now disused and its graveyard a nature reserve: surely the most bizarrely located church in the land.
  • Carry on along the riverside in front of the P&G plant and you will eventually emerge onto the riverside frontage at Grays, which, inevitably, has been renovated to make a good promenade leading to Grays Town Wharf. To get to the next segment of riverside, you will have to take roads to Tilbury - see the Google map, for the route through the outskirts of Grays, and via a circuitous loop to join the cycle path beside the busy A1089 towards Tilbury.
  • Cross over the A1089 just before the roundabout (CARE) and take the first exit A139 Dock Road into Tilbury town. Go past Tilbury station and about 600m beyond, cross the railway on a dedicated pedestrian and cycle bridge. Back on the A1089 (but having lost most of the heavy lorries into the container port) head down to the London International Cruise Terminal. Head East along Fort Road to Tilbury Castle.Follow the riverside path in front of the Castle to the boundary wall of Tilbury Power Station. Another set of steps must be crossed (CARE) to join the Two Forts Way path which starts as a narrow concrete apron beside the river, in front of the power station.
  • The path soon turns into quite a rough track. At a fence barrier (lift over required), you join the tarmaced cycle route (this is as far West as Cycle Route 13 has got), which gives good riding to Coalhouse Fort, whose grounds and 'moats' are now a pleasant park.
  • Unfortunately, at present, creeks and the huge Mucking landfill site bar further progress along the riverside. You must head inland on the only road from Coalhouse Fort, passing the old Bata factory on your left and East Tilbury Station. Turn right to follow the road to Stanford-le-Hope, the A1014 to Corringham, then the B1464 through Pitsea (there is a shared use cyclepath much of the way). At a busy roundabout with the A130, cross to the A13, and after about 450m, take High Road (aka B1006) on your right. Where this bends sharp left, carry straight on into Benfleet Park Road and (see Google map) make your way down to and through a park to Benfleet Station.
  • Go under the railway and past the front of Benfleet station. Where the road bends right onto Canvey Island, keep straight on into and through the marina car park. At a gate (which you may have to lift your bike over) you enter Hadleigh Country Park, and a rough track takes you beside Benfleet Creek, a relatively peaceful place after all those sprawling suburbs. At the road to Two Tree Island, bear left and follow the road past the golf club. Just before Leigh-on-Sea station, turn right down a hill to enter the bustling High Street of Leigh-on-Sea.
  • At the eastern end of Leigh High Street, the road dead-ends: now you must WALK the seaside path about 1km till you join the Southend seafront cycle path at Chalkwell. It is then a straightforward ride along the seafront to Southend Pier (from a distance the pier head looks like an island out in the sea, it's so far out. You now need to head into town to the station. Opposite the pier, an impressive construction gets you up the slope, whether by lift or ramps. You could then either walk up the pedestrianised High Street the 300m or so to the station, or alternatively ride down Royal Terrace and make your way round the (irritatingly circuitous) one-way system as best you can. Get the train back to London Fenchurch Street (or Purfleet if you started there, changing at Grays).

You pass through several towns (perhaps too many) so are never far from sustenance of some kind, though these are in the main fairly down-to-earth places.(A sign on a shop in Grays - "European food sold here" - indicates this is an area of some culinary diversity.)

A short distance west from Purfleet station is the Visitor Centre at Rainham RSPB Reserve which has a welcoming cafe.

The Worlds End just before you reach Tilbury Fort, is a large pub doing snacks.

Leigh-on-Sea High Street is a bustling place with several pubs, cafes and restaurants overlooking the estuary, several specialising in shellfish.

Points of Interest: This stretch of the Thames is overseen by the Thames Estuary Partnership, a charity which provides "a neutral forum for local authorities, national agencies, industry, voluntary bodies, local communities and individuals to work together for the good of the Thames Estuary". They have conducted an informative survey of a planned Thames Estuary Path (strap line "from City to Sea"). The survey is downloadable as PDF parts for each segment of the route. My ride utilises those parts of this planned route which are currently accessible. It is to be hoped that TEP (and their partner, Sustrans) are successful in opening more of the northern estuary bank to cycling where this is feasible, and providing the necessary infrastructure (such as bridges over the various creeks which impede progress). Some obstacles will be unavoidable (such as Tilbury Docks), but perhaps a way could be found round others (such as the large landfill site at Mucking, or the developing London Gateway port near Canvey Island). In any event, there is scope for improving inland footpaths and bridleways to provide some alternative to the busy and (no disrespect) dreary towns around Basildon.

The riverside path from Purfleet to Grays is lined with flowers in summer (OK, weeds) and is surprisingly pretty nevertheless. The river frontage is lined with depots, container yards and factories, many served by large ships docking at dedicated jetties and pipelines.For example West of the bridge is the massive Cobelfret container port, and the Cobelfret ships can be seen moored at the jetty. Its certainly not pretty, but in some respects it makes a change to see sites that are in use, doing a job and providing employment, rather than yet another heritage theme park.

The Queen Elizabeth II bridge carries the southbound M25 over the Thames as part of the Dartford crossing. Northbound traffic is carried in the old Dartford tunnel. In fact, the road is actually the A282, which provides the final link in the M25 circuit. It opened in 1991, has an overall length of 2.8km, a maximum span of 450m and a deck height above river level of 57.5m. Both directions are tolled, and although the toll masquerades as a congestion charge, the toll booths actually cause congestion and are suspended at busy times to ease the flow. Believe it or not, whilst you may not cycle across the bridge, the bridge governance obliges the operators to make provision for cyclists to cross. They will load your bike onto a car and transport you across for free!

East of the bridge are the Lafarge cement depot and the Vopak oil terminal and then comes the huge red Procter and Gamble plant. Incongruously, in its shadow, a slight diversion on a footpath from the riverside, is St Clement's Church.Dating from the thirteenth century, but extensively rebuilt and restored over the years, it fell into disuse in the 1970's, but was restored in 1987 by P&G. The churchyard now serves as a nature reserve for rare plants.

The river defence wall between the QE2 Bridge and Grays is covered in graffiti of some artistic merit. This is apparently part of an officially sanctioned scheme supported by Thurrock Council, Thurrock Youth Services and the Port of Tilbury.

Grays used to have a busy port. In the nineteenth century it was served by paddle steamers plying the Thames until this traffic was killed off by the arrival of the railway. It continued as a port until after WW2. After a period of dereliction the river front and town wharf have been spruced up, providing a pleasant cycling surface. Visible to the East beyond Grays is the huge Grain Terminal and beyond that the cranes of Tilbury dock, the principal container port for London, and best avoided on your bike because of the heavy lorry traffic. On your way out of Tilbury you will pass the London International Cruise Terminal, where various cruise ships might be seen.The ferry from Tilbury to Gravesend leaves from the pier here.

On the Two Forts Way from Tilbury to East Tilbury you will pass 6 centuries of estuarine defences. Tilbury Fort (English Heritage, entry charge) dates from Tudor times, and Queen Elizabeth I famously rallied her army nearby to face the threat of the Armada. There were similar fortifications at Gravesend on the opposite bank, and cables were stretched across the river to hinder progress upstream. The present fort is much the best example of its type in England, with its circuit of moats and bastioned outworks, and is an impressive sight. Coalhouse Fort was built between 1861 and 1874 to defend against French invasion, but was rendered redundant by advances in weaponry within a few years.On the approach you will pass a battery built in the 1890s to house quick firing guns to take out fast torpedo boats. On the foreshore there is also a WW2 radar tower, which was marked on maps as a water tower to hide its true purpose.

Further East along the coast, but not actually seen on this ride, the vast landfill site at Mucking blocks progress around the coast. Barges bring waste from London. Part of the site has been reclaimed as a nature reserve.

On your left as you enter East Tilbury you will pass the old Bata shoe factory, built by the eponymous Czech shoe magnate in the thirties, along with the adjoining housing estate. Bata's philosophy was 'happy workers = profitable company', hence he provided good housing and community facilities for his workforce. The township is based on a larger version in Zlin in Czechoslovakia. Bata's well-tended statue stands outside his now sadly decaying factory buildings.

There is little of interest on the ride through the suburbs of Basildon between East Tilbury and Benfleet, and it is a relief to reach the waterside again at Benfleet Station. Benfleet Creek separates Canvey Island from the 'mainland', and is home to Benfleet Yacht Club, beyond which there is a pleasant trail between the water and the railway. Beyond the railway rises Hadleigh Country Park. The adjacent Hadleigh Farm is operated as a training centre by the Salvation Army, and played host to the Mountain Biking events at the 2012 Olympics. It is planned to reopen the course to the public after it has been made safe for mere mortals to ride. On the hill top are the remains of Hadleigh Castle, built in the 1360s for Edward III (yet another fortification guarding the estuary). It was memorably painted by John Constable.

Before you reach Leigh you will pass the bridge to Two Tree Island, which is run by the Essex Wildlife Trust as a nature reserve. It's a good spot for geese and waders.

The narrow High Street of Leigh-on-Sea is sandwiched between the railway and the estuary, and this sense of isolation has probably helped preserve some of its old world character. There are some good restaurants and pubs; shellfish are a speciality. It can get very crowded in high season.

On the path between Leigh and Westcliff, you pass the Essex Yacht Club, whose club house is a conversion of the first ever glassfibre warship, the Mine Hunter HMS Wilton.

Southend-on-Sea is a popular seaside destination for day trippers, but is also a major residential and working town in its own right. It boasts the longest pleasure pier in the world at 1.34 miles long. It was built in the 1830s to receive ships and steamers from London, being finally extended to its current length in 1929.It must surely also be the unluckiest pier in the world, having suffered no less than 6 major fires since 1959, and having been pranged on numerous other occasions, including being sliced in two by a ship in 1986. Undeterred, the denizens of Southend have kept it open, most recently opening a futuristic new pier head, which appears from a distance to be an exotic island way out in the estuary. The pier head is served by a railway, but alas bikes are not allowed. The area around the pier entrance and funfair has been improved, with jazzy gardens, walkways and a lift up the steep hillside to the upper town. Along the clifftop is the fine Royal Terrace built in the 1790s.

Finding your way Supplement my Google map on this page with the relevant OS Explorer map sheets . Also, check out the latest OS Explorer mapping online at Bing maps: make sure you select 'Ordnance Survey' from the drop down, and zoom in till 1:25K Explorer mapping appears. Download the Sustrans National Cycle Network app onto your smart phone.