London to Southend March 2022
Fridays Central on the South Bank had returned to some semblance of post-pandemic calm, with much of the revelry now indoors in the bars that had fully re-opened, although the assembling bunch of hi-viz clad, excited cyclists did draw the occasional shout, cheer and “Oi!, Oi! It’s the Tour De France” from the enthusiastic night owls on Waterloo Bridge high above us. We cheered back.
We were there because we were going on an adventure. We were heading for the seaside. Overnight. For breakfast. By bicycle. Not one of us thought this was odd, although curious passers-by did.
This was our first ride of the season and it’s traditional we head for Southend-on-Sea because it’s our shortest night ride and the weather in March can sometimes be ‘challenging’. Old hands reminisced (and scared the first timers) about the Southend ride a few years back when we emerged blinking into the night after our half way stop to find our water bottles had frozen solid, and even various bike parts had decided to no longer function because of the extreme cold.
But tonight was not going to be like that. The weather forecasters had looked into their crystal balls and told us we’d be cold and have to battle a testy headwind. The reality was different - never too cold and the wind didn’t show up until we were already in sight of the sea.
After our leader gave the safety talk to a sea of expectant faces, 50 or so enthusiastic and excited riders set off over Waterloo Bridge and headed along the excellent segregated cycling lane along The Embankment, admiring the riverside lights of London Town.
We paused to marvel at the Tower of London and the illuminated Tower Bridge before diving into St Katherine’s Dock to wend our way through the quietness of Wapping. Even the cobbles (or stone setts as they are more accurately described) couldn’t shake our enthusiasm. We passed St Dunstan Stepney - the mother Church of the East End - with its red ensign flag barely moving in the light breeze, and we caught a glimpse of Anish Kapoor’s Orbit Tower standing over the Olympic Park before we re-grouped at Stratford. Here we were entertained by the late night party goers searching out fast food in the “German kebab shop’. Some of our number took the opportunity for a McComfort Break.
On we went, through a surprisingly busy East End, crossing the A12, then the M25, before we suddenly found the rest of the world had gone to sleep and we had the roads to ourselves. This is what we had come for.
The ride rolled gently-ish up and down for a while and before we knew it, we had arrived at our half way stop - the 1st Doddinghurst Scout hut. And what a welcome we received! This ride to Southend was a new route for 2022, and this was the first time we had enjoyed the hospitality of the Doddinghurst scouts. And they were brilliant. The hall was warm, the welcome warm, the tea hot and the food perfect. And when it came to cakes, we were spoiled for choice - it turns out the scout leaders had called upon cub, scout and beaver parents to make and donate cakes. It almost looked, and tasted, like they had tried to outdo each other. Scrumptious!
Speeches were made, thanks given, extra portions of cake stashed in back pockets, and we were off again. But what a brilliant job the scouts did for us - and all in the middle of the night.
We rolled on, taking time to admire the windmill in Stock, clamber past the ford at Buttsbury - although one brave soul decided to ride through it, and listen to wild life beginning to stir from slumber. The world was waking to a wonderful warm orange glow from the east, a foretaste of the sunrise that would make us glad to be alive and on a bike.
We continued coastwards, slipping through a sleeping Battlesbridge with its antique centres and ancient bridge, and then we climbed to Rayleigh passing the unique octagonal 17th century dutch cottage on the hill which looked strangely out of place amongst the modern housing. Some may have missed it as they focussed on pushing hard on the pedals to reach the top of the hill.
Sometimes on night rides, there’s a quiet spell when riders are lost in their thoughts and at one with their bicycle and the world around them. That wasn’t the case for most on this ride. Spirits were high all night, the chatting and laughter continued all along the route. New friendships were forged across the uniqueness of such a mad undertaking. It was a night to remember, one of our best.
And then we saw it - the sea. We emerged high up on the cliffs at Leigh on Sea and paused a while to admire the views of the estuary, Hadleigh Castle and in the far distance, Southend pier - our final destination. All that remained was for us to make our way along the seafront to a waiting breakfast at the Beaches Cafe in the shadow of the world famous pier.
The Friday Night Ride only works because of the effort that is put in by the whole group - the ride leader, the way markers, the Tail End Charlies, the people who give up their warm beds to feed us in the middle of the night, and the cafes that open early to cook us breakfast. We thank them all. And we are full of anticipation for our next wonderful night-time adventure - the benchmark has been set.
Photo credits: Ross Chestney, Bob Halliwell, Jenny Hung Greg Taylor