London to Ashford - April 2021
We gathered in anticipation outside the National Theatre as though we’d never been away. Old friends greeted each other, new riders were warmly welcomed. And many of us were slightly apprehensive about how we’d cope - for most of us, this was our first Friday Night Ride for quite some time. There was plenty of room at our usual meeting place for us to keep our social distance, unlike some of the other folks in the area for whom Friday night was clearly party night. There was a very lively atmosphere.
With spirits high we set off, one group swinging by Stompie’s Garden to admire the WW2 T-34 tank parked there. A wonderful example of British eccentricity. Our escape from London saw us pedalling along the very quiet Quietway 1 to Deptford, passing the shadows of Millwall FC, and a subdued Lewisham before tackling the first of our hills at Eltham. Onwards into the night we went, rubber on tarmac, chains whirring through willing gears as we passed through the sleeping towns of Sidcup and Swanley before crossing the M25 and plunging into the darkness for the descent of Crockenhill Lane to the riverside village of Eynsford. We discussed briefly riding through the ford over the Darent but from experience we knew that wouldn’t end well, so we took the ancient bridge instead.
And then it was time to climb to the top of the North Downs. Lock Down Legs moaned and resisted as we laboured up. But spirits were still high. A nervous descent of Cotman’s Ash made harder by a dreadful road surface and all of a sudden were were in the historical village of Wrotham knowing that we were only a few miles from our half way stop at the petrol station in West Malling. A fifty yard stretch of mandatory Comedy Off Roading under our belts and we were back on the road skirting the Downs as we passed through the ancient Saxon village of Ryarsh before emerging blinking onto the A20 at our half way stop.
Oh, the glamour as we sat outside the petrol station eating our freshly baked pastries, washed down with half decent (for machine made) coffee. The first group had arrived pretty much on schedule, and the second group did too. Except they weren’t supposed to be there at all as their stop was meant to be a different service station, which turned out to be closed. However, there was plenty of room, plenty of food in the well stocked shop, and we had no problem keeping in our socially distanced groups.
Suitably refreshed, and getting away before we chilled too much in the quickly dropping temperature, we set off into the night knowing the hills were largely behind us and that the delights of night riding through the prettiest lanes and villages of the Garden of England awaited us. Dawn peeped its head over the horizon as we experienced the wonderful atmosphere of the morning mists over the river at Wateringbury, admired the 15th century bridge in Yalding as we rolled over it, and listened to the amazing dawn chorus as nature awakened. Night riding at its best.
The Dawn Chorus (turn your volume up)
Onwards we pedalled, adding clothing layers as the temperature dropped well below forecast - our devices telling us it was -2. Through Marden, Staplehurst and Headcorn we went. Then came Smarden with its picturesque grand medieval houses and before long we were cruising along Etchden Road - one of your correspondent’s favourite cycling roads in Kent. We emerged from the tree tunnel at Great Chart and before we knew it we were in Ashford town centre with smiles on our faces and a hunger in our bellies.
Our chosen cafe was By The Tank, which is right next to the WW1 tank in Ashford town centre - making this a ‘tank to tank’ ride. But the cafe wasn’t open - a sign of the times and low footfall in town centres probably. Nevertheless all tastes were catered for as both Greggs and Starbucks were open and we had a lovely patch of sunshine to sit in as we devoured our well earned breakfasts.
All in all, a splendid night, re-igniting our love of these unique bike rides. Only one mechanical of note in group B, involving a short walk to the railway station, and a clean sweep in group A.
A great start to the 2021 season. Next stop, Maldon.
Pictures and videos courtesy of Jenny Hung and Mark Woollard.