Saturday, 26 September 2015

26 Sep: A ride from Ashford to Winchelsea, Rye and Dungeness

Nigel writes: With a warm, sunny weekend in prospect I decided to get on a train and go for a bike ride in Kent. I therefore got up early on a Saturday morning and caught the 0715 from Cambridge to London, crossing the road from King's Cross to St Pancras to catch the "Southeastern High Speed" service to Ashford International.

This runs on Britain's fastest railway line at up to 140mph (so is rather fun in itself). But more importantly, the journey from St Pancras to Ashford took only 35 minutes and by 9am I was wheeling my bike out of the station into a sunny Kent morning.

My ride today was a long, clockwise loop down to the coast and back and took me through three distinct areas of landscape: High Weald, the coast, and Romney Marsh.

I initially headed west into High Weald. This is an undulating, wooded landscape cross-crossed with miles and miles of tiny tree-lined country lanes.

Quiet lane near Tenterden. The first half of the ride involved many miles of shaded lanes like this

This is quite a "lumpy" landscape with quite a bit of up and down, but the elevation rarely exceeded 100m and none of the hills I climbed were particularly long or particularly steep.

Converted oast house (originally for drying hops)

After a couple of hours I found myself passing Bodiam Castle, a 14th Century moated castle in the care of the National Trust. It was now after 11am so I called in to visit the cafe and enjoyed a coffee and large slice of chocolate cake.

Bodian Castle

I continued south towards the coast, passing through the ancient hilltop town of Winchelsea along the way. It's the size of a village now, and although I spotted at least one cafe in its pretty streets I decided not to stop and to carry on south.

Strand Gate, Winchelsea

I reached the coast at the little village of Pett Level. The sea itself was hidden behind a high floodbank so I briefly parked my bike and climbed up for a view before continuing east along the coast road towards Winchelsea Beach.

Beachfront house at Pett Level

At Winchelsea Beach the road turns north towards Rye. However I was able to continue to follow the coast on a traffic-free path all the way to Rye Harbour. This was a really good path (with a lovely smooth surface), busy with people out for a stroll, but once again the sea was mostly out of sight behind a high bank of shingle.

Traffic-free path between Winchelsea Beach and Rye Harbour

Path between Winchelsea Beach and Rye Harbour

View from Rye Harbour towards Camber Sands

At Rye Harbour I turned north and continued on into Rye, another ancient hilltop town. This was a rather frustrating town to visit with a bike, with a network of narrow, one-way streets designed to make it impossible to simply cycle through in any direction without having to stop and dismount, but I persevered and found a peaceful bench in the churchyard to eat my sandwiches.

Landgate, Rye

I wheeled my bike back out of the town centre, remounted, and continued on my way. After a short section of bumpy cycle path I joined the road east to Camber.

This stony path from Rye towards Camber is part of NCN 2

The High Weald was now behind me and the scenery became bleak, monotous and rather windy. Once again I found myself riding along the coast road, with a shingle bank between me and the sea. After a while I turned inland towards Lydd and I discovered that the prevailing wind today was from the north. For a short length of time the ride began to be a bit of a slog but as I approached Lydd and turned back south-east towards Dungeness my moment of weariness passed as I approached what was probably the real destination of today's ride: Dungeness.

The windswept road from Lydd to Dungeness

Dungeness is famous for its wide-open shingle wilderness and its "end of the world" atmosphere, but it's undeniably a singular place to visit. There's not a lot here: two lighthouses, two pubs, a huge nuclear power station, one or two craft shops, a scattering of wooden houses (some old and run-down, some modern and stylish), and the little station at the end of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway.

Dungeness, the new lighthouse

After a coffee and a scone and cream at the Light Railway cafe it was time to turn north and ride back to Ashford.

Prospect House, Dungeness (the former home of Derek Jarman)

As I left the bleak desolation of Dungeness behind the landscape began to change once more as I found myself riding through the pancake-flat Romney Marsh. As the word "marsh" in the title suggests, it's a bit like the Cambridgeshire Fens with mile after mile of carefully-drained farmland. However it felt much less bleak than the Fens, and with rather better-surfaced roads. In the low sun of the early evening it looked very tranquil.

Romney Marsh near Snargate

About six miles south of Ashford, Romney Marsh came to an end with the crossing of the Royal Military Canal and I was back in a gently undulating landscape of wooded lanes. Ashford was temptingly close, and the sun was about to set, but I decided to add a few more easy miles to my total distance by taking a six-mile loop to the east. I then continued on into Ashford, arriving back at the station just before 7pm. My total distance cycled today was 100 miles. My Eddington number is now 79.

Download GPS track (GPX).

Bikes on Southeastern High Speed

I'd strongly recommend other Cambridge cyclists use Southeastern High Speed for a day out in Kent. To help others doing this, here are a few more notes on how to take a bike on one of their trains. In summary, it's really easy.

My "Southeastern High Speed train" at Ashford. The yellow patches below the headlights shows which end of the train to get on with a bike.

South Eastern's bike policy is here. They don't impose any special rules for their high speed trains, just the standard ban on rush-hour trains.

Rather surprisingly I didn't see any designated bike spaces (hence there's no advanced booking). When I asked the conductor where to go I was directed to use an area at one end of the train which has the wheelchair spaces and a lot of tip-up seats. It's the last-but-one door from the end, with an orange stripe above.

Southeastern High Speed train at Ashford. The orange stripe above the door shows the location of the wheelchair spaces with areas of tip-up seats where bikes can be placed.

As the train draws into the station, the conductor advised me to look for the yellow patches below the headlights (see first train photo) which identify the end of the train to go to.

If this area isn't already used for seating (and these trains are longer and less crowded that Cambridge-London trains) you can easily fit in four bikes and could probably squeeze in six.

This is a wheelchair space, not a bike space, but my Airnimal fitted in neatly. There's more space opposite and further along.

When you purchase your train ticket, ask for Ashford International. Make sure you don't end up with a ticket to Ashford (Surrey).

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