Words: Matt Lamy; Photos: Chris Catchpole
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It’s amazing how many times you see new roads or paths when you’re out on your bike. But how many times do you actually decide to head off on an adventure down one rather than stick to your trusted route? For years I have gone past signs for the National Cycle Network Route 21 — from Gatwick to Greenwich — and I’ve often fancied following it, but I’ve never taken the opportunity. So when we needed a London-based Rides story it seemed the perfect excuse.
A rather overcast Saturday morning saw three of us congregate in the car park of Evans Cycles’ corporate headquarters, within sight of the runway at Gatwick Airport. It was a pretty convenient place to start as it turned out, because Chris, our nominated snapper for this mission, needed a minor technical issue rectified on his bike. A quick visit to the on-site Evans store sorted that out and we were away.
With jumbos landing and departing to our left, we made our own rolling thunder — Chris was on a smooth-running hybrid; I was on a slightly more humming, wider-tyred cross machine; and our third compadre, Nigel, was positively rumbling along on a dedicated mtb. The thing about the National Cycle Network is that it can take in all sorts of under-wheel surface and, having a smidgen of local knowledge about this route, we realised there was a case for using any type of bike.
Soon off the main road and onto a cycle track, we passed an unexpected sight — a Monet-esque lake complete with lily pads hiding within the shadow of Gatwick’s South Terminal. No time to enjoy the view, though — we’d only done two miles; 39 to go.
Don’t you know who I am?
A mixture of paths and road sections took us to Horley, and our first confrontation. Following the NCN Route 21 signs — which can become a bit of a game in itself — we turned onto a pedestrian precinct. An upstanding member of Horley’s pensionable community stopped to remonstrate with me about our usage of it, until I pointed her towards the Cycle Path sign.
“Well, they want to do something about that,” she said. Not quite the apology I was hoping for, but better than being clouted with her walking stick.
We cruised onwards, taking to housing estate cycle paths and countryside tracks before hitting the urban expanses of Redhill. Then it was back onto a delightful bridleway and a chance to enjoy the fresh air of Mercer Country Park. Here on the flatlands below the formidable North Downs there was a strange sense of calm. And it seemed others were enjoying the opportunity for a Saturday morning pedal — a phalanx of mini mtb’ers with their dads came towards us along one farm track.
“They looked pretty muddy,” Nigey said with relish — he was the one on the mountain bike.
We soon saw where they had come from as our route took us up, up, up the North Downs’ muddy, forested slopes. All three bikes and their riders just about managed it before a rollercoaster of descents and climbs, all under the trees, spat us into a clearing and a viewing point looking out towards Kent, Surrey, the Sussexes and — on a good day — even the South Downs.
Undies and over
More than two hours had passed and we were barely a third of the way to Greenwich, so we pressed on. A hitherto rare road section sent us past the home of Ann Summers and West Ham owner David Gold on one side, and a slightly less palatial traveller encampment on the other, before we bibbled and bobbled along another tree-lined track. Such is the ever-changing nature of this route it wasn’t long before nice, flat asphalt beckoned and we could smoothly meander through the rolling hills that hide Woldingham girls’ school. It just so happened today seemed to be the school fete and vast ranks of Mercs, Beemers and a Lexuses (or is it Lexi?) stood waiting for the little darlings.
Cyclists get a bad enough rep at the best of times without hanging round girls’ schools, so we didn’t loiter, and soon another requisite of high-earning commuter belt life came into view — Woldingham Golf Course. A gentle track ran adjacent to the fairways but then it cut left, past the clubhouse and up a barely negotiable rock-strewn wall of a climb. Nige got the better of it with rather embarrassing ease, but Chris and I decided discretion was the better part of valour and opted for a push. (We weren’t being wimps – it really was pretty tricky.)
Cresting the climb and emerging into daylight it was time for lunch. A quick nip into Sainsbury’s garnered me a sarnie or two — pasta salad for my high-carb companions — and then we took a moment to relax under a weeping willow.
Into the city
If the climbs had been our biggest challenge so far, from here oozy mud gave us its best shot until we reached the rabbit warren of roads that is New Addington. Around here the NCN signs seem to go missing in action, but we knew what general direction to head in, rejoining the trail at Addington Village and climbing up and inwards towards London. By now the route’s former abundance of tracks through forest and field were losing out to urban thoroughfares, and we found ourselves zig-zagging between domestic streets. A green respite came in the shape of South Norwood’s pleasant country park, but then it was back to the asphalt.
With Chris’s bike finally coming into its own, we expected a hard-to-navigate, road-based run-in to Greenwich, but we were in for a pleasant surprise. The vast majority of the route took us on the Waterlink Way, a delightful course that steered us from one park to the next, taking in a grand tour of South-East London’s open spaces. If you’ve got kids and you want to know where children’s playgrounds are in Bromley, Lewisham or Greenwich, just go for a cycle on Route 21.
With Old Father Thames soon alongside us, and the sounds of Greenwich emanating from up ahead, we knew we were almost at our destination. Rounding a corner, there it was — a sad sight — the charred body of the Cutty Sark.
Still, in every other way it was a joyous experience. The Greenwich festival was in full swing, with entertainments and excitement, but more to the point, we had made it. From the jet age at Gatwick to the historic naval environs of Greenwich this had been an incredible, sometimes hard, but beautifully varied ride.
There was one last question to answer, however: what was the most suitable bike? Well, they all had their moments of superiority: Nigey’s mtb ruled in the first half of the ride, and Chris’s hybrid was ahead by a nose for the run-in to Greenwich. But we all agreed mine was probably the best compromise. So if you want to head from Gatwick to Greenwich, get a cross bike!