Cycling the Kent
The National Cycle
Network is 20 years old this year and now extends 14,000 miles around Britain.
Nicholas Crane marks the occasion by taking his son for a traffic-free spin
Original source: www.telegraph.co.uk
In 1995 Sustrans founded the National Cycle Network, which has
grown to 14,000 miles of routes Photo: AP/FOTOLIA
GMT 20 Mar 2015
We were flying along the
crest of a chalk cliff under a blue sky and I was thinking of that Louis MacNeice line about grasping the heat of the summer in the
handlebars. It was the first warm weekend of the year and the skylarks were
already singing above ancient downland. I’d been
wanting to ride the Kent
coast for decades. On this island of evocative promontories there are many that
merit a visit by bicycle. John o’ Groats and Land’s End are the boxoffice
capes. The quartet of Corrachadh Mòr
(most western), Lowestoft Ness (most eastern), Dunnet
Head (northern) and the Lizard (southern) attract a more select species of
extremist. Cape Wrath easily wears the crown for being most remote extremity: a
ride to the north-western tip of mainland Britain begins by lowering your
bike into a small boat on the Kyle of Durness. I took
a tent on that one. At the opposite, south-eastern tip of Britain, Kent
can now claim to have the Freewheeling
The path to peaceful
cycling began with a twinkle of genius in 1984 when a community movement called
Sustrans opened a bike route along a disused railway
line linking the cities of Bristol and Bath. It was a magnificent success and in 1995 Sustrans founded the National Cycle Network, which has
grown to 14,000 miles of routes. More than one third of them are “traffic
free”, Sustrans shorthand for routes devoted to
cycling and walking, with occasional sections of quiet roads.
The River Stour in Canterbury
To mark the 20th
anniversary of the Network, Sustrans has recently
published a guide to 150 traffic-free day rides. Three of them are in Kent. On a pair
of hire bikes, and with most of the luggage in my son Kit’s panniers, we pushed
off from Canterbury
on a quest for tranquillity.
The Crab and Winkle Way lifted
us quietly out of the city to the grassy heights of the university campus and a
countryside path that I can only describe as blissful. I kept wanting to stop.
First there was the tiny, flint-knapped church of St Cosmus and St Damian. It’s
one of only four such dedications in the country. In the third century, the
twin brothers lived in what is now coastal Turkey where they were celebrated
among the sick for running a free-at-point-of-delivery transplant service. A
15th-century painting shows the twins attaching the leg of a black African to
the body of a white verger. Strangely, the next place on the Crab and Winkle
was Cutballs Farm.
Beach huts in Whitstable (Photo: AP/Fotolia)
One of the many maps
in Kit’s sagging pannier bags was the Ordnance Survey, inch-to-mile “New
Popular Edition” of 1936. It’s a picture of lost landscapes and it shows a
black, pecked line snaking through field and orchard between Canterbury and Whitstable. The C&W
Railway is celebrated among piston-heads for being the first regular steam
passenger line in the world. The 5.75-mile line was designed by George
Stephenson and opened 15 years after the Battle of Waterloo, when steam
locomotives looked like wood-burning stoves on cartwheels and had less
horsepower than a modern ride-on mower. Invicta, the
locomotive on this particular line, couldn’t get up the gradient from
Whitstable, so carriages had to be hauled by a cable attached to a stationary
steam engine drawing water from an adjacent “winding pond”. Today, Invicta lives in Canterbury
and the pond is a reflective, woodland oasis beside the cycle path, framed by a
Sustrans picnic area. It’s a nice place for a
The line Invicta couldn’t manage is now a downhill swoop by bicycle
to the outskirts of Whitstable, where the Crab and Winkle engages in a
labyrinthine, road-avoidance wriggle by descending a flight of steps to a small
tunnel that opens to a concrete path sneaking behind back gardens. It’s a bit
like the Yellow Brick Road
in The Wizard of Oz, with Whitstable Harbour as the Emerald City.
These days, Whitstable’s fisherman’s huts (from £75 a night) are more likely to
have a Porsche outside than crab pots, and yet this is still a working harbour,
with heaps of aggregate and slag piled on the quay.
That was it for the
Crab and Winkle. From Whitstable, we switched to the Oyster Bay Trail, which
follows the concrete promenade beside the sea. Bright beach huts gazed across
the rippled blue and the westerly wind was kind enough to push us effortlessly
towards the beckoning villas of Herne
Bay. The thing about
these traffic-free routes is that you need to roll along with an open mind
because it’s in their navigational DNA to take you off the beaten track and
present you with unexpected stories.
The trail to Reculver ends with a freewheeling whoop down to a visitor
centre selling, among other things, a booklet telling the tale of Lady Stardust
II, a B17G Flying Fortress that had been shot up over Germany and then lurched
and banged back to Britain with three engines out and a smashed nose. One of
the crew was dead and several were wounded. And yet 2nd Lt Milan Marecek from Chicago managed
to put the crippled plane down on the water off Herne Bay
without it breaking up. The surviving crew took to the aircraft’s dinghies and
were picked up by a dory from one of the sea-forts guarding the Thames Estuary.
Reculver (Photo: AP/Fotolia)
In clear weather, you
can see the forts from Reculver. It was at Reculver, too, that the aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis
perfected the bouncing bomb that would be used in the Dam Busters raid. In May
1943, 617 Squadron trained for their mission by skipping concrete-filled
practice bombs across the sea and up Reculver’s
beach. These days, it would be hard to find a more peaceful spot. The grass
around Reculver’s ruined church is perfect for
picnics and on the morning we were there, the only skyward motion came from a
couple of small, languid clouds sailing for open sea.
From Reculver, we were on the Viking Coastal Trail, which
secured its traffic-free status by following the top of the sea wall for a
couple of miles, with the beach on one side and flat-as-fenland fields on the
other. It’s rare in this motor-mad age for a cyclist to feel privileged but the
effect of these routes is to give the humble crank-spinner a sense of
We reached Margate in time for some
art and ale. David Chipperfield, architect of the
Turner Contemporary gallery, shaped the building to provide an even diffusion
of natural light. Beyond sea-filled windows, the coast winds blow and yet
within, all is calm. The current show, Self, looks at self-portraiture, which
only adds to the intensity.
It’s generally taken
recovery began with the opening of the Turner, but Julian Newick
turned the taps of his alehouse one year earlier. The building probably dates
back to the 1600s and one floor is held up by a ship’s mast. Before it became
the Lifeboat Ale and Cider House in 2010, it was a school-uniform shop. With
tweed-and-spectacle scholarship, Julian is introducing a new generation to
meads, ales and ciders. Goacher’s Fine Light Ale
worked for me. Later, we ate at The Sands on the seafront. The food was as
sensational as the view. While peachy reflections played on the tideline, Kit tucked into terrine of rabbit, octopus and
langoustine while I kicked off with cauliflower panna
cotta, chestnuts and Kentish blue. It was one of those meals – and evenings –
you don’t want to end.
Day Two dawned bright
and mildly Goachered. Route 15 led us along a
deserted clifftop promenade towards The Cape. The
path to North Foreland isn’t exactly Cape Wrath (there’s the Margate wastewater
pumping station, for a start) but it’s empty of traffic and it’s a momentous
turning point separating the North Sea from the English Channel. As soon as we
turn the corner, we’re on a new coast: Broadstairs is
so ridiculously picturesque that it wouldn’t look out of place in south Devon. When Dickens used to stay here, the public balls
were but a memory and Broadstairs had lost its
reputation as a gay place for “tip-top Nobbs”. But it
worked for him and he managed to write David Copperfield in a house on Fort Road. And
today, Dickens works for Broadstairs: there’s a
Dickens museum, a David Copperfield Harvester, a café called the Old Curiosity
Shop and for £135 you can have a night on Fort Road in Little Dorrit’s
Classic Double (with en-suite shower).
Really, I liked
Ramsgate more, but that’s mainly because we bumped into a retired Metropolitan
Police officer called John Ouzman. This one-time
cross-Channel port has been transformed by the restoration of a row of
Victorian waterfront arches that have been colonised by all kinds of
businesses, among them John’s emporium of classic automobilia.
Stocked with such gems as a Vespa ice-cream trike, a U-boat compass housing (£1,650), Rock Ola jukeboxes and an exceedingly rare BSA Gold SR 500
motorcycle, it’s more museum than shop. Parked with a For Sale sign in the sun
outside was a 1965 750cc Russian motorcycle and sidecar in olive green,
complete with a light machine gun, rocket launcher, night vision goggles “and additional
tools”. It also has a full MoT.
Powered by pedals, we
let Route 15 lead us from Ramsgate to a delightful path along the fenny edge of
Bay. Saxons landed here
(a replica ship marks the spot), as did St
Augustine. But the really big landing happened much
earlier, at a site we reached by taking Route 1 out of Sandwich.
Richborough is the most underrated Roman site in Britain.
Hadrian’s Wall, Bath, Verulamium,
Cirencester and the Museum
of London are besieged
each summer, but Roman Rutupiae, where it all
started, gets bypassed. This was the beachhead where the legions splashed
ashore and changed the face of Britain
for all time. The ditches they dug to prevent counter-attack are still there,
and so is the base of the monumental arch that was so high it could be seen
from far out to sea. Framing the invasion beach is the enormous stone fort
built when it all began to go wrong and Rome
had to protect her British province from acquisitive Saxons.
The road out of Ramsgate (Photo: AP/Fotolia)
By the time we pulled
ourselves away and headed on along Route 1, it was clear that this modest
54-mile journey could be stretched out over a week at least. There’s just so
much to look at. The (almost) traffic-free toll road across the coastal levels
to Deal got us into town with enough time to have a quick look at Henry VIII’s artillery fort on the waterfront before racing the
dusk up a tranquil, downland climb behind the White
Cliffs of Dover.
My Thirties map
recorded Otty Bottom, Hog’s Bush and a prehistoric
tumulus. Like so many of the paths we’d been on, this one was traffic-free, and
just for a moment we really were back in an age when tranquillity was normal.
Sustrans’ Traffic-Free Cycle
Rides: 150 Great Days Out by Wendy Johnson was published last week. It costs
£15.99 and can be ordered from sustrans.org.uk/shop.
In Canterbury, Nicholas and Kit Crane stayed at
7 Longport b&b (01227 455367; 7longport.co.uk).
Double rooms from £90 a night with breakfast, singles from £60. You need to
book well ahead. In Margate
they stayed at Sands Hotel (01843 228228; sandshotelmargate.co.uk). Double room with
breakfast from £120 a night. Set lunch from £15 for two courses, dinner from
Lifeboat Ale and Cider House, Margate
(01843 447118; thelifeboat-margate.com).
Kent Cycle Hire has
stations at Canterbury, Whitstable and Herne Bay
(01227 388058; kentcyclehire.com). Prices start at £20 per
day for an adult bike.