Preparing for London to Brighton #2: Over the North Downs

The view from the North Downs

The view from the North Downs

It is downright impossible to cycle at your peak speed when you’re not too sure where you’re even going. Of course I had a rough idea; I was continuing my adventures along Route 21, one of 96 routes that make up the National Cycle Network. Having made it through the formidable urban sprawl of Manor Royal and Gatwick Airport, I now had no clue of where I would be heading, save the name of a village (Woldingham) and a general direction (north-east). All I had to guide me were little blue signs telling me I was going the right way.

Beyond Gatwick, Route 21 takes you through the towns of Horley, Salfords and Redhill before sending you off across the North Downs, where your perseverance on the slopes is rewarded with spectacular views. You glide through the environment at such a pace that they barely register; a suburban town soon becomes the quiet countryside, before giving way to a sprawling quarry to a congested motorway. It even takes you directly through the extensive grounds of Woldingham School, a Roman Catholic independent school for girls, giving you an intriguing glance into a different world of education from the one you might have experienced.

A country lane north of Redhill

A country lane north of Redhill

A plane coming into land at Gatwick

A plane coming into land at Gatwick

There are plenty of occasions like this where you can’t be certain you’re going the right way. You dart past warehouses, farms and schools all adorned with signs screaming “private property” in extra-large print; it wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve had one too many lost cyclists creeping down their drives and they’ve simply had enough of it. It’s a viewpoint I totally understand, but it’s not exactly as if we’re deliberately trespassing with malicious intent. We’re just trying to find the next part of our route, which is why it’s always such an immense relief when you see one of the blue route 21 signs spurring you on.

As you make your way through the bleak technology parks around Gatwick airport, it’s hard to imagine why this particular route was chosen for the Avenue Verte, an initiative to develop a largely traffic free route between London and Paris. On this side of the English Channel, it mostly follows Route 21, and when Gatwick greets you with a wall of noise as you scurry past the South terminal… well, it’s certainly not what you might expect from a cycle route. But once you’re through it, suburbia gives way to lush rolling hills, deserted country lanes and fields bursting with colour; there are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon, and it’s an immense feeling of satisfaction when you reach your goal.

A quarry just before the North Downs

A quarry just before the North Downs

It's nature innit?

It’s nature innit?

I thought this would be a good time to post an update as I’m now getting into the swing of things with my London to Brighton training (today’s ride was over 30 miles!) and I also talked to my local paper, the East Grinstead Courier and Observer, about the value of the Worth Way and Forest Way as platforms for cycling, horse riding, and generally just improving our health. Have a gander here if you like! Or click here to read my previous post on Route 21.

The Agony Of The Common Cold In The Middle Of Spring

Tea and tablets- the solution to a common cold!

Tea and tablets- the solution to a common cold!

There is nothing more disdainful than the onset of a cold in the middle of spring.

Over the last few days the sun has been dousing East Grinstead with an abundance of rays, leading to a heightened anticipation for the summer months. Would you believe it, there were even whispers of heading down to the beach! In April! And who can blame them? By the time spring finally leaps into action, everyone is crossing their fingers for warm weather. But although I was basking outdoors and enjoying the immense satisfaction of wearing shorts and not feeling a bit nippy for the first time, I was also struggling with a blocked nose and constant sneezing. If I even dared to leave the house without a box of tissues, I was done for.

It doesn’t help that my Dad, who often works from home, is also stricken with the virus, although the combined pressure and stress from a formidable workload has made his spell far worse. The constant coughing from his study could give the sound effects department for Jurassic Park a run for their money, and whenever I ask him how he is his reply is low and hoarse, which doesn’t exactly reinforce his assurance that he’s “getting by”. But that’s the problem with the common cold in 2015; we are all too aware of its symptoms, and we know how best to treat it- rest, plenty of fluids and eat healthily- but instead we take it for granted that we will simply “get better.”

In this instance, the fact my Dad works from home is both a blessing and a curse. On a positive note, he doesn’t need to go into the office in any case, meaning there is no risk of him passing on the virus to other workers and making them fall behind with their workloads. On the downside, it’s even easier for him to hobble down the landing to his study and get on with his work- for if he doesn’t do it, who will? Shrinking work forces mean there is no one to pick up the slack. In this day and age, we simply cannot afford to be ill.

Maybe I just worry about my Dad too easily; I mean surely I should be getting some rest too? The difficulty is that I don’t feel like I need it. After all, the severity of the common cold can range so widely, and the general advice is that only you yourself know when you’re fit enough to resume work and regular activities. Of course, if I was feeling particularly lazy, I would use the cold as a way to spend the day in bed cuddled up with a hot water bottle; lord knows it would be a good chance to immerse myself in all the shows I want to watch on Netflix. But thankfully I know better than that, or at least my conscience does, and after persevering it feels like I have made it over the hill. What did I have to be worried about in the first place?

Nothing I suppose; it was only the common cold, after all. But as my Dad sits spluttering next door, I can’t help but wonder how severe it has to be before we finally say enough is enough.

Preparing for London to Brighton #1: Beyond the Worth Way

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How do you react to one of your best friends asking you to take part in the London to Brighton ride? Do you frown with apprehension or cheer with full blown excitement? For me, it was a bit of both when my good friend James asked me last week. I love cycling- more for the rush as you fly along country lanes and roads than the abundance of lycra- but until recently I was very much a casual cycler, more concerned with enjoying the views than the amount of distance covered and maintaining speed.

Now, the London to Brighton bike ride is a fantastic cause, but it is certainly not a “casual cycle;” only the most arrogant and ignorant of beings would stroll up to the starting line without any prior preparation. James is much more of a serious cyclist than me (his collection of lycra proves this), but how could I let him down?  More than anything, signing up would give me the perfect excuse for working on my riding technique and overall fitness, so I agreed.

Two of the redeeming features of East Grinstead (for bike lovers in any case) are the cycle routes that lead out to the west and east of the town. Both mostly follow an old railway line from Three Bridges to Tunbridge Wells, which has now been revitalised as a peaceful wildlife corridor. The previous existence of the railway line means the trail is mostly flat with little change in gradient, making it perfect for hikers, horse riders and cyclists. The route ends at Three Bridges, but then continues north as part of route 21 on the National Cycle Network.

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Waking up on Wednesday morning to glorious weather, I decided today was the day to go beyond the usual route and see what I found. The journey west was remarkably smooth, with numerous families and dog walkers out enjoying the weather. Cyclists always make for interesting encounters; they smile in acknowledgement of your shared passion when they pass, but they’re also quite solitary for the most part. Even in groups, they often tail each other with barely a word spoken, focusing more on technique and speed.

I was quite happy in my own world as well, taking in the lush scenery and enjoying a few podcasts on my iPod. Before I knew it, I was at Three Bridges and the Worth Way was finished- now it was time to venture into the unknown, keeping an eye out for directions while impatient drivers looked for the right moment to overtake.

Once I began heading into Crawley’s suburbs, the journey took a very different tone. Not that it was unpleasant, but the dense greenery of the Worth Way vanished altogether. Bleak, monotonous buildings that go for purpose above character dwarfed every corner, and as I got closer to Gatwick Airport I encountered vast technology parks, where the only inviting attribute was the smell of bacon frying from the occasional burger van

Before my ride I had been enamoured with the idea of finding somewhere to sit and watch the planes, like a cyclist version of Elton John (I could certainly give him a run for his money with the lycra). But as the landscape became more rigid, I decided to focus on moving along as quickly as possible; at least the scenery encouraged me to up my speed! The only difficulty I had was keeping track of where I was going, and I found myself lost on two occasions; I can’t imagine what the suave, desk bound office dwellers thought of me circling one of the technology parks in my luminous cycling jacket, looking like a rave on wheels.

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Suddenly I emerged from Gatwick’s south terminal into Riverside Garden Park, a welcome flash of nature after the urban onslaught. Unsurprisingly, nothing greeted me as I dismounted and looked over the lake; there was only a robin on one of the benches, and even he buggered off as I moved closer. I did spy a rabbit hidden in the undergrowth, and I felt a tinge of sadness as he navigated the brambles and found his way blocked by Styrofoam boxes and crisp packets. The problem with nature is that is always so easy to ruin it.

After resting a while, my mind turned to lunch and I decided to head back. That’s always the hardest part of the journey, when you have to start making your way home. I always find that’s the hardest part of the journey, when you have a long way ahead of you with rarely anything new to see and you’re well on your way to being knackered. Even so, as I left the technology parks behind me and got back onto the Worth Way, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have such an amazing cycling route on my doorstep, secluded from traffic and idyllic for the most part.

The ride was meant to improve my fitness and set me up for an afternoon of work. Instead, I gorged on treats and felt knackered for the rest of the day, as you would expect from having ridden twenty-six miles. Not exactly peak performance but hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere. London to Brighton is still eleven weeks away…