The best bike-packing trips near London — from the Thames Path to the South Downs

·8-min read
The best bike-packing trips near London — from the Thames Path to the South Downs

Like millions of Britons, my mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly during the pandemic. For me, lockdown wasn’t a cosy experience. Instead, it left me feeling like a caged animal, desperate to be set free.

By autumn 2020 my stress and anxiety levels were spiralling out of control. I’d lost my job, I’d lost close friends, I’d spent my savings, I’d been forced to take a mortgage holiday. I was lucky if I could sleep for more than a couple of hours each night. It felt as though I was suffocating; like a belt was being pulled tighter and tighter around my chest each day.

Desperate to take some sort of control back in my life, I decided to put my faith in two therapies that have served me well in the past: travel and exercise. Specifically: the joy of touring the country on two wheels, otherwise known as “bike-packing”.

I’d eventually go on to cycle 3,427-miles around Britain, at one of the most fascinating periods in its history: the Covid pandemic. I’d travel through 55 counties, from Shetland to Scilly and back again. Exposed to the sun, wind and rain, I slowly began to heal, and in the process, I’d end up meeting hundreds of resilient Britons who were all, in their own little ways, riding out the storm just like I was.

ravel writer Simon Parker on his bike on the Thames Path near Oxford (Matt Writtle)
ravel writer Simon Parker on his bike on the Thames Path near Oxford (Matt Writtle)

But you don’t have to travel to the other side of the country to experience the healing power of bicycle touring. There are dozens of single and multi-day rides, right here in the southeast. Put on your helmet and pack your panniers: here are five of my all-time favourites.

The epic day ride: The Ridgeway

Distance: 87 miles

Time from London: Just over 60 minutes from London Paddington to Chippenham

USP: More sheep than humans

Refuel: Sink a pint at the Coachmakers Arms, one of Wallingford’s oldest pubs, roughly halfway through the route

 (Alamy Stock Photo)
(Alamy Stock Photo)

Once you’ve built up your cycling fitness, this 87-mile epic along the Ridgeway National Trail could certainly be doable on a long, albeit tiring, midsummer’s day. “England’s oldest road” cuts through the Chiltern Hills and the North Wessex Downs and is mostly formed from chalk and gravel. The peaceful route passes Stone Age long barrows, Iron Age forts and the white horse of Uffington in south Oxfordshire. You’ll almost certainly encounter more sheep than you do humans, but from the summit of the Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, you can just about make out London to the southeast.

Travelling from west to east is probably the most convenient, allowing you to finish close to West London and the train stations of Tring and Wendover. If you didn’t fancy tackling it in one go, then you could overnight, roughly halfway, in or around Goring. There are also plenty of shorter circular cycling and walking trails that enjoy flirts with the Ridgeway. A seven-mile loop starts and ends in Princes Risborough and passes the Lacey Green Windmill – England’s oldest remaining “smock mill”, so called because of its resemblance to an old-fashioned farmer’s smock.

The Kent weekender: Folkestone to Whitstable

Distance: 60 miles

Time from London: Less than 60 minutes from London St Pancras to Folkestone Central

USP: Foreign lands. On a clear day you can see France from the top of Dover’s white cliffs

Refuel: Grab fish and chips in Walmer for lunch on day one (but beware of the seagulls)

 (Alamy Stock Photo)
(Alamy Stock Photo)

Without a doubt one of the most picturesque legs of my entire journey, this 60-mile cycle around the perimeter of Kent – the Garden of England – is a combination of flat coastal riding and challenging climbs to the tops of epic cliffs. And they don’t get more epic than the white cliffs of Dover, where from the summit you can see all the way to France. On a calm and sunny day, the Channel is like a mirror, and distant yachts and tankers look like toys.

There’s plenty of history to stop and see on this route. You’ll pass the 12th Century Dover Castle and its 80 acres of sprawling grounds. In Saint Margaret’s Bay you’ll find the South Foreland Lighthouses; a pair of Victorian beacons that have warned passing ships of the treacherous Goodwin Sands. Most accessible, though, is the Second World War “Sound Mirror” at Abbot’s Cliff – an early warning system for detecting enemy aircraft. Conveniently, there’s a direct train between London St Pancras and Folkestone, and the fastest services take less than an hour. The best places to overnight would be around Sandwich or Ramsgate.

The mountain bike challenge: The South Downs Way

Distance: 100 miles

Time from London: 60 minutes from London Waterloo to Winchester

USP: Pristine countryside a stone’s throw from London

Refuel: The Chicken Shed Café in Cocking is a popular spot with cyclists and does good coffee and great cake

 (PA)
(PA)

Better suited to a mountain bike with front suspension, this well signposted 100-mile ride between Winchester and Eastbourne, winds up and over one of the greenest corners of Britain. In Riding Out, I tackled the South Downs in a summer heatwave, but hopefully you’ll get milder weather, because the route is rarely flat. There’s 12,400 feet of climbing, along mostly chalk, flint, grass and gravel tracks. Cycling west to east is probably the slightly easier option, because the climb out of Eastbourne is notoriously gruelling.

The great joy of cycle touring, however, is that it’s not a race. You can travel as fast or as slow as you’d like. Sure, some serious MAMILs will do this in a day, but I’d say that three days, two nights, is much more fun. The region feels like an Eden in contrast to the grey sprawl of the Big Smoke, with pristine polo fields rambling in to undulating pastures, punctuated with polka dot cows. You don’t want to rush, especially when there are pubs and tearooms aplenty. There are lots of campsites, hotels and B&Bs near to the route, but make sure you book ahead – especially in summer. Most people overnight in Upper Beeding and Petersfield.

The riverside meander: The Thames Path

Distance: 215 miles

Time from London: 72 minutes from London Paddington to Kemble

USP: Watching Britain’s second longest river grow from a trickle before emptying into the North Sea

Refuel: Make a pitstop at Oxford’s covered market for a meat pie or Cornish pasty

 (Alamy Stock Photo)
(Alamy Stock Photo)

One of Britain’s greatest bike rides can begin or end in London, and meanders through the counties of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Surrey. The best direction of travel, however, must be west to east, allowing you to see the river begin as a trickle at its source in the Cotswolds, before building in size and force, on its way to the Thames Barrier and out to the North Sea.

Highlights include cycling past Lechlade’s 15th Century parish church – one of the four great wool churches of the Cotswolds – and beneath central Oxford’s “dreaming spires” where Harry Potter, Inspector Morse and The History Boys have all been filmed. The river dissects the Chiltern Hills and the North Wessex downs, before then cutting through Henley and Windsor. Riding beside a river is one of cycle touring’s simplest joys. Almost entirely flat, you’ll barely have to strain a quadricep, and at a distance of 215 miles, most people should be able to complete this in four or five days. From London Paddington, take the train to Kemble – six miles southwest of Cirencester.

The East Anglian adventure: The Suffolk Coast and the Prime Meridian

Distance: 350 miles

Time from London: No need, you can cycle the whole way

USP: Tracing the Prime Meridian, an imaginary line that transformed timekeeping and navigation forever

Refuel: Treat yourself to a dressed crab from one of Aldeburgh’s beach huts

 (Alamy Stock Photo)
(Alamy Stock Photo)

One of the most picturesque routes out of London is via Epping Forest, northeast of Walthamstow. This 5,900-acre ancient woodland boasts 176 miles of shared-use pathways, meaning cyclists can escape the city without the constant whir of traffic. From Chelmsford, you can follow mostly country B-roads all the way to Colchester, before then following the mostly pancake-flat Suffolk coastline – via the 88-mile Suffolk Coastal Cycling Route – towards the seaside towns of Aldeburgh, Southwold and Great Yarmouth.

In Riding Out, I stayed close to the North Sea as I entered Norfolk, then headed north via the Queen’s sprawling and pristine Sandringham Estate. Londoners, however, could head west a little further to Spalding and then turn back south and follow the Prime Meridian, all the way to Greenwich. This imaginary line runs from Hull to Eastbourne, and you’ll be on the same longitude as the Pyrenees mountains and the Sahara Desert. Cambridge is a cycle-friendly city where you could hole-up the night before making a final assault on the capital. Or, if you didn’t fancy the ride through Hertfordshire, there are six trains an hour to St Pancras.

Simon Parker’s book Riding Out is published by Summersdale Publishers on April 21. To coincide with the book’s launch, Simon Parker is speaking at dozens of theatres and festivals all over the UK, including a night at London’s Stanford’s book shop on April 26. For more information visit simonwparker.co.uk

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