Dedham, Saturday 6 May Day 7 235 miles
Arrived here 6.15pm Thur 4 May absolutely exhausted. Left knee seized up, pedalling for last 2 hrs with only one leg. Otherwise fine! Hope to be fit enough to set off again Monday morning after three days' rest.
235 miles so far, having cut off a few corners through tiredness. Developing a pattern of cycling three or four hours in the morning, a lunch break of 1-2 hrs including sleeping for an hour in a field, then another three or four hours.
I have been very lucky with the weather, sunny the whole time. Ideal for meandering around, stopping whenever the mood takes me. There are a lot of little sailing villages on the muddy creeks. And endlessly flat hazy fields and marshland. But on a bike Essex is not as flat as it seems, so I'm getting a lot of short, steep hills to build up the strength for the northern mountains.
Lots of love,
It was 10.30 on a Sunday morning and the traffic was light. Just as well; it was the first time I had ridden a laden bicycle. With all the luggage on a rear rack the front end felt light and skittish, the handling was going to take some getting used to. The first obstacle was to cross the Marble Arch roundabout to get into Oxford Street. I rode as if I was driving a car. No time for shrinking apologetically next to the kerb; occupy a lane, look them in the eyes, bold hand signals to emphasise my presence, decisive changes of lane.
I was tired from a disturbed sleep, and light-headed from the emotion of the departure and uprooting myself from the cosiness of my home. But it felt good to be riding down Oxford Street, so long forbidden to me as a motorist. A smattering of early tourists brought out by the fine, warm weather; a few buses and taxis working on the Sabbath; and me, setting out on my journey.
Along High Holborn and through the deserted City of London to Tower Bridge where I paused to take stock. This is where the journey began and where it would end. In six months time I would cycle over Tower Bridge from the south to re-enter the City and complete the circle. This is where my coast road started and finished. It was an inspiring but improbable thought; I could anticipate the joy of that completion, but dare not contemplate the intervening toil. I turned my back on the future to concentrate on the day.
Through the gentrified Wapping warehouses to the first stop of the day at Wapping New Stairs. A drink of water and a muesli bar on the banks of the Thames. A photograph looking over the pier of the River Police to the misty magnificence of Canary Wharf emerging into the hazy sunshine. Go east, young man!
I rattled on over the cobblestones and round the Isle of Dogs, then back up to the dreaded A13. This trunk road east to Southend has earned a reputation as one of the worst journeys in the world, but today the traffic was light. Just as well, because there was no way of avoiding it if I was to follow the coast road. Confidently I surged out into the second lane to take the overpass over a roundabout, experiencing for the first time the adrenalin rush of accelerating up to the speed of the rest of the traffic; to show them I could hold my own; this cyclist would not be at a disadvantage. A forlorn hope, of course, but I was to discover repeatedly that speeding traffic made me bold. It required a conscious effort to ride defensively. Getting up on to the overpass was little problem. Getting back into the inside lane after the overpass was more difficult, calling for ever wilder hand signals to cut through the motorists accelerating past on my nearside. In my enthusiasm for this overpass I missed the turn for Silvertown. No matter, I wasn't turning back on this highway to go back to the turn. The rhythm of the road was taking over; once on a roll there could be no digression. It was the first compromise on the coastal road.
I stopped for lunch at some playing fields in Dagenham. With the bike propped against a fence, I spread out sandwiches, fruit and coffee on the grass, gulped it all down, and settled myself for a snooze. With the bumbag as a pillow, face covered by my cap, I drifted off to sleep. It was one of those light sleeps where you're half aware of things going on around you, and half aware of them taking place in your dreams. Reality intervened in the form of a football bouncing off my head. A teenager apologised as he collected the ball, trying not to smirk. I half watched and half dozed as six of them fired corners and penalties at a rubber-legged goalie springing upwards, outwards, and across with outrageous style. Would that I had legs like that! After a break of an hour I felt refreshed. Waving the lads goodbye, I mounted the bike and rejoined the A13.
There were several more roundabouts and overpasses before I turned off to go through Purfleet to Grays and Stanford-le-Hope. Passing under the arches of the approach roads to the M25 Dartford Crossing amid a wasteland of old railway lines and marching columns of electricity pylons, now at last I was leaving London behind. I stopped for quarter of an hour on a bench by the church in Grays, partly for a drink in the sunshine, partly out of shear pleasure at the spot. I had only ever seen Grays and Stanford-le Hope as signposts at junctions on the A13; it was a real surprise to find them so attractive on that quiet Sunday afternoon.
I stopped again for half an hour in the park at Fobbing to finish off my coffee and sandwiches. I was now very tired and needed to gird up my strength for the final few miles to Hockley. Across the park I could see a peculiar grey archway, covered with swirling figures and faces like a Hindu shrine, a most improbable sight in an Essex village. It turned out to be an amusing stainless steel sculpture of serious intent erected in 1990 to celebrate the Poll Tax rebels of 1390.
Slowly I ground my way forward, the slight hills getting steeper as my legs got weaker, the headwind increasing the further east I got. The short loops round Tilbury and Canvey Island were ignored, four more miles of the A13 endured, the 1-in-10 gradient up to Thundersley crawled up in bottom gear. I arrived at Jane and Martin's house in Hockley after seven hours on the road.
They welcomed me like a conquering hero; I felt like a conquering hero! It was as far as I had ever cycled but this was only the first of many, many such days to come. A couple of cans of beer, a bath, an excellent dinner of venison and my feeble body began to revive. Martin was a whale specialist at the Natural History Museum and Jane a scientific instrument curator at the Science Museum. But the intellectual nature of their professions was no bar to the earthier pursuit of bringing game to table. Cooking and eating is a serious business in their house.
That night I sat up in bed writing my logbook and reflecting on the day: a good mileage, fifty-or-so; good weather, light traffic, and pleasant stops. I could not believe it had gone so well after such a fraught last few days. I was very tired, but not exhausted. It had been a very satisfying day.
I slept for a solid six hours, dozed a while longer, then rose at eight to a fine, sunny morning. By ten I was out on the road again but with only half a load. Today I would cycle round the coast through Southend and return for a second night with Jane and Martin. I retraced my steps to the A13 and then continued down to the estuary at Old Leigh, a tight little street of cobbles and cottages. For the first time I picked up the scent of the salt sea air which was to be my invisible companion and comforter for the rest of the year. I paused in a cafe for coffee and carrot cake, and to buy sandwiches for my lunch.
The proprietor assured me that I could follow the sea wall all the way into Southend. Don't worry about the no-cycling signs, everyone ignores them. I cycle down there all the time. The signs were repeated every quarter of a mile. I felt guilty as I cycled slowly along into the stiff east wind, dismounting every time I encountered pedestrians. Training in central London, I had become aware that I was possibly the only cyclist in the capital who did not ride on the pavement, fail to stop at zebra crossings, or go through traffic lights on red. And now on my first day out in the country I had broken my vow never to be an illegal cyclist.
Southend was open for business. It was open for burgers, fish and chips, pizzas and kebabs; for bingo, candy floss and for fun. It was not for me; I carried on cycling. That's a little unfair. It looked bright and cheerful in the mellow spring sunshine, with the wide sidewalks uncluttered by people. It was May Day but the bank holiday had been decreed by a parsimonious government to be on the following Monday to coincide with VE Day. Next weekend Southend would be awash with people, today it was delightfully empty.
Suddenly I was out into open countryside with large hedge-less fields of heady-scented flowering rape. I cycled up to the Ministry of Defence guardpost at the entrance to the firing ranges of Foulness but the flags were flying; there would be no entry until the end of the day.
Lunch was consumed on the grass verge by the side of the road. Awakening rather dopey from my lunchtime doze, I soon found that I was tiring fast as I pedalled through the afternoon, going slower and slower in lower and lower gears on the flat, flat roads. Nonetheless, I was into a leisurely rhythm making slow but steady progress going west now past Southend airport. Then round through the outskirts of Rochford where the graveyard of the fifteenth century church of St Andrews lurks like a menacing nineteenth hole at the end of the golf course, and back east again along the north side of the River Roach and the two mile dead end road to Paglesham. Here I stopped for coffee by the new flood gates in the sea wall, idly watching the boats on the river, listening to the flat boom-boom of the guns drifting across the Roach from Foulness. Life on the road seemed good; eat when you're hungry, drink when you're thirsty, sleep when you're tired. I began to sense that this journey really was do-able.
Returning westwards I was struck by how many new houses there were, and how many had crisp, new pargeting: animals of all shapes and sizes climbing up their gable ends. A startled rabbit bounded out from the side of the road to run between the wheels of a car ahead of me, turned to run towards me then saw me approaching, turned again to run ahead of me for a hundred yards until having the sense to swerve left into a field. Later a skinny fox shot across the road in front of me for no apparent reason. Of such small pleasures was the day made.
Back at Hockley an inspection of my bottom by mirror revealed two red, inflamed areas which I hoped a liberal application of emollient cream would soothe. I was further soothed by liberal applications of beer and wine, and another excellent meal with Jane and Martin.