Like many Londoners, I’ve used successive lockdowns over the past year or so to explore the city on two wheels. I’ll never forget the frisson of cycling down empty and silent central London streets in the spring of 2020.
Now, however, as Covid restrictions begin to loosen, traffic is returning to something approaching its pre-pandemic levels, making cycling in the city an altogether less serene experience.
I still ride my bike in town but I find myself yearning for the open road, too.
London is enormous, of course, so you’ll have to cycle between 15 and 20km before the ambient hum of traffic gives way to birdsong. But in doing so, you’re presented with a very vivid picture of the way that what we now call “Greater London” is arranged as a series of concentric rings, each with its own distinctive architectural and historical character.
In his 1944 Greater London Plan, written as policymakers contemplated the capital’s postwar future, Patrick Abercrombie tried to discern some structure or pattern in London’s “apparently amorphous sprawl”. First, he wrote, the “central overcrowded urban mass” gives way to the “fully developed suburbs”. These in turn are encircled by a “zone with sufficient openness to have enabled attempts to create a Green Belt”. And once you’re through that, Abercrombie went on, you reach an “outer zone” in which “communities old and new are still seen against an agricultural background”.
That description still holds up today, pretty much, and there is no better way to test it than on a bike. Given the distances involved, this is best done on a road bike equipped with enough gears to get you up some fairly exacting hills.
What to take
You’ll need to make sure you take a saddle bag to accommodate a spare inner tube and tyre levers in case of a puncture, and a multi-tool to deal with any mechanical problems. Any good bike shop will stock these. And don’t forget a water bottle (or two) and some snacks as well.
Each of these rides begins from my home in south London, but it’s easy to put your bike on the train and start at a point further along the route.
1. Into Essex: Epping Forest, Theydon Bois and Abridge (75km)
Good for: Tea and coffee stops
Not so good for: Anyone unused to riding long(ish) distances
FYI: Epping Forest is a designated site of special scientific interest
Epping Forest covers 2,400 hectares on the border of London and Essex. To reach it you head out of town through Dalston and Hackney and then head north-east along Lea Bridge Road.
From Whipps Cross, continue on the A104 as it heads out into Essex. This is a busy road, so you’ll need to keep your wits about you. Leave it at Buckhurst Hill and head along the A121 into the attractive small town of Loughton. From here, turn left off the A121 at Forest Road until you reach Earl’s Path, which climbs into the heart of Epping Forest.
You’ll probably want to stop once you’ve climbed the hill, and the forest is happily well served with refreshment options. At the junction of Fairmead Road and Cross Roads is a local landmark, the Original Tea Hut. Make sure you’re carrying cash if you want a cup of tea — they don’t take cards.
A bit further on, at High Beach (also spelt High Beech) — an open space with views out over the Lea Valley — is the King’s Oak Hotel, a pub with a tea shop attached. And there’s another little shack, selling tea, coffee and cakes, further along the road.
From High Beach, the ride describes an arc through the forest and east towards Theydon Bois, one of the most far-flung outposts of the London Underground. Head through rolling farmland to the village of Abridge, where you begin a reasonably long and quite sapping climb up Hoe Lane to Lambourne End.
From here, turn right and head back towards central London, the route taking you through Chigwell, which Charles Dickens once described in a letter as the “greatest place in the world”. Today, Chigwell’s “Millionaires’ Row” is lined with gated McMansions.
The urban fabric becomes grittier the closer you get to central London, passing beneath the M11 motorway, through Wanstead, Leytonstone, Stratford and back into the old East End.
2. London to Windsor (65km)
Good for: A fast getaway out of London
Not so good for: Climbing
FYI: Made with columns taken from Leptis Magna in Libya, the Temple of Augustus, on the shore of the lake at Virginia Water, is an early-19th-century folly built to resemble a Roman ruin
Seasoned riders call this route the “Bun Run” because it ends with a coffee and a pastry at the Cinnamon Café, a cyclists’ mecca opposite Windsor Castle. It’s a point-to-point ride rather than a loop, and mostly flat. Do the return leg on the train.
Head west through Putney and Barnes and into Richmond Park. Any London-based cyclist worth their salt will have tackled the 11km circumnavigation of the park. You’ll be doing half a lap, though, climbing Sawyer’s Hill and leaving via Kingston Gate.
After crossing the Thames by Kingston bridge, the route bisects Hampton Court Park on your left and the handsomely landscaped Bushy Park, the second-largest of London’s eight Royal Parks, on your right.
When you reach Hampton Court Palace, follow the A308 in the direction of Sunbury-on-Thames, with the river on your left. The route hugs the Thames, which by this point is non-tidal, through Shepperton and out to Chertsey in Surrey.
From Chertsey, head towards Virginia Water. The lake here, surrounded by woodland, was created by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, in the 18th century.
3. Biggin Hill and Downe (49km)
Before London’s local government was reorganised in 1965, Biggin Hill and Downe were in Kent. Today they are at the southernmost tip of the borough of Bromley, but the landscape is bucolic enough to make you feel you’re deep in the Garden of England.
The first half of the ride takes you through some of Abercrombie’s “fully developed suburbs”: Anerley, Penge, Elmers End and Coney Hall, which is one of those “open” zones where semi-detached houses abruptly give way to farmland and narrow country lanes.
Jackass Lane is a long, steady climb that brings you out a mile or so from Biggin Hill Airport, built on the site of an RAF fighter base that played a pivotal role during the Battle of Britain. From there, the route takes you along leafy lanes past Down House, Charles Darwin’s home, to the village of Downe. This is a good place to stop, and either buy a coffee from the shop attached to the Queen’s Head pub or a pint from the pub itself.
The homeward leg of the journey takes you through High Elms Country Park, with a thrilling descent through the woods, and then on to the A21 and into the south London suburban sprawl.
Think of this ride as a gateway drug: if you’re anything like me, you’ll find that you soon want to be heading further south to explore the bigger and more testing hills of the North Downs.
Maps by Liz Faunce
Do you have a favourite cycling route on London’s outskirts? Tell us in the comments
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