With the weather forecast predicting a strong northerly or NNW wind, I planned a route heading north. The problem is that you can’t really go far in a northerly direction from here without being blocked by the Thames. I briefly considered riding one of my previous circular routes, but while surfing the web I learned (or more correctly was reminded) of the existence of the Gravesend to Tilbury ferry service. This was an amazing discovery for me. It opened up a whole new unexplored area in which to ride, namely Essex. The ferry is the most easterly of the Thames crossings. It runs every half an hour and costs just £3 to use. I was stoked, and immediately set about planning a route. I came up with a 90-mile route to just south of Chelmsford. In fact the destination was Stock, a small village where I used to regularly meet a friend for a beer back in the 90’s.
From my house to the ferry is 21 miles. I estimated I could ride at about 14 mph average (taking into account the climb of Birling Hill), which meant it would take me 90 minutes to get there, so I aimed to leave at 9:45 to get to the ferry in time to catch the 11:30 crossing. In the end I left just before 10:00. The weather was warm and mainly sunny but with plenty of cloud around, and that strong northerly wind.
The ride started off well and the wind wasn’t too bad. I made good progress towards the North Downs including climbing Birling Hill 40 seconds faster than my previous best. It was just after this that I checked the time of day and realised that I had about 45 minutes before the ferry left and still had 10 miles to go, so I would need to average about 15 mph at least in order to get there with time to find the ferry and board. So I found myself really pushing it for the rest of the ride to the Thames. The last thing I wanted was to miss the ferry by 2 minutes and have to wait half an hour for the next one! So I went flying through Gravesend, hampered at times by lots of traffic lights that I hadn’t counted on.
From research, I already knew that the ferry wasn’t exactly easy to find and there was just one small sign advertising its location, leading to an alley between two buildings.
I spotted the sign straight away and rode up the alley. From there it wasn’t clear where to go. To my left was a locked gate, straight ahead was a brick wall and to my right was a set of ridiculously steep steps. Seeing as the steps provided my only means of getting further I got off my bike and carried it up the steps. I could now see the jetty, at the end of which, presumably, was the ferry. But I now found myself on a bridge going over the jetty and I could see no way of getting down onto it. By now I was getting really worried about the time; I knew the ferry was about to leave. I spent a while looking for a way to get down there. I checked that gate again but it was definitely locked so that couldn’t be it. I noticed an old man sitting on a bench on a grass verge about 20 feet away. “How do you get to the ferry?” I shouted. He said something I didn’t quite catch. “Sorry?”. He tried again: “It’s broken down”. Damn! I asked him a few more questions trying to find out if this was usual. He seemed to talk in brief phrases. The only two I remember were “It’s unreliable” and “built in the 1930’s”. I assumed he was talking about the ferry and not himself! He reminded me of the postman that Will Hay meets in “Oh Mr. Porter”.
After the focus and effort of trying to get the ferry on time, I was now completely discombobulated (I had always assumed that Black Adder had made that word up!) – my adventure had come to an abrupt stop. I was totally at a loss as to what to do next. I rode by the river a bit and sat on a bench. I thought I’d better confirm what the old man had said so I searched on-line using my phone. There was a notice on the ferry webpage stating that it wasn’t running today due to technical reasons.
After briefly considering other places to ride to, I decided to just go home and continue this journey another day. As can be seen from the map, the route back involved a different way around the Meopham area. It was during this section that my Garmin said to turn left down a gravel track. The surface didn’t look too bad so I continued down there. It was pretty good going for a while, but then started to get rougher.
Then my Garmin informed me that I had gone past a right turn. Hmmm, I didn’t remember seeing anything so I back-tracked about 50 metres and discovered where it wanted me to go. It was just a footpath (not even that, really) across a field of wheat. Well I wasn’t going to attempt cycling through that! So I carried on down the bridlepath which by now was getting really rocky. I approached a couple walking their dog, so I asked them if there was a road in the direction I was going. They didn’t think so. I carried on anyway, but just a couple of hundred metres later the path split and ended up in two fields, through which there was no sign of any access. So I decided to give up and head back to the road, passing the couple again.
A couple of miles after that little off-road excursion, I got held up behind a slow moving house, travelling down a very narrow country lane on the back of a lorry. The driver seemed hell-bent on destroying the scenery, with bits of trees and hedgerow ending up in the road. I was wary about riding too close. At one point, some sort of chimney stack was ripped from the house and clattered to the ground behind the lorry. I tried to let the driver know what had happened but he probably couldn’t hear my shouts over the noise of the lorry. Eventually he turned off and I could get past and continue my ride at a decent speed again.
Birling Hill is very steep going down (and up, of course!), so you have to be on the brakes virtually the whole time. It was during the steepest section, while I was doing my best to stop the bike getting out of control, that I felt a sharp and steadily-increasing pain on my throat. Some sort of insect was biting or stinging me, but I could do nothing about it – there was no way I could take my hands off the brakes. All I could do was verbalise “arghhh, you f*cker!”
I took my usual shortcut through the woods round the back of Barming. But this time there was a diversion. “How can you have a diversion in the middle of woods?” I thought. There were two alternative routes according to the signs, “bridlepath diversion” and “footpath diversion”. I took the latter, and wished I hadn’t. It just got muddier and muddier. My bike-handling skills were tested to the max, but ultimately I had to get off and walk! By the time I emerged at the other side my shoes were caked in mud and there was so much mud on the bike it had clogged around the brakes, causing a sort of scraping sound as I rode along. It must have caused some drag but it didn’t prevent me getting personal bests on St Helens Lane and Charlton Lane! It was still clogged by the time I got home.
So, my ride hadn’t gone as intended, but I was able to consider it as a worthwhile ‘dry-run’ for the following reasons:
- I now know how long it takes to get to the ferry
- I now know how to get onto the jetty
- I have modified the route to avoid both the off-road bits
- I now know to look on the ferry website before setting out from home!
I’ll re-attempt this adventure another day…