Distance 290km (180 miles)
Climbing 1796m (5892ft)
Duration Two-four days
Maps OS Landranger 187 Dorking and Reigate, 186 Aldershot and Guildford, 176 West London, 166 Luton and Hertford, 167 Chelmsford, 177 East London, 188 Maidstone and Royal Tunbridge Wells
Download the route www.tinyurl.com/cplusnotM25
We can’t see anyone being inspired to write a rock song about the M25. Route 66 it is not. The traffic, the road works, the accidents… there’s not a lot to love about the 117-mile motorway that circles the capital. I used to commute around the M25 and hated every stop-start minute. But I’ve never shaken off the impression that there’s a different world just beyond the monotonous hum of tyres on tarmac – and one that’s worth properly exploring. I can’t think of a better antidote to motorway driving than cycling, which is why I’m putting my theory to the test on two wheels.
I begin from my home in Reigate and head west towards Dorking on the A25, the motorway’s more agreeable country cousin. The summer holidays mean the road is quieter than usual, even in rush hour. It’s a cool morning but a few sharp efforts bring legs and lungs up to operating temperature.
They need to be, as I soon reach the day’s first big challenge: Leith Hill. It’s a tough enough climb at the best of times but with panniers groaning with camping gear I’m glad of my triple chainset. At the top of the first and steepest ramp I stop for a breather and listen to… well, not much. ‘Civilisation’ is just down the hill but on a quiet August morning this feels like the middle of nowhere.
The road snakes around the south side of the hill before heading down to Shere. This quiet village has been the backdrop to several feature films, including Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. I’d rather take my eye out with a rusty tyre lever than sit and watch that movie, but there are other good reasons to stop in Shere. For one thing, there can’t be many villages with an old fire station as a public toilet, and The Lucky Duck tearoom is always worth a visit. I decide there’s nothing wrong with a second breakfast if you’re riding 110 miles and go inside.
Caffeine and blood sugar levels both raised, I set off again, crossing the A25 and heading up Combe Bottom. The long downhill through the woods towards East Horsley is a fine reward for the granny-gear grind to the top.
SO LONG SURREY
After a few miles the Surrey Hills are left behind. The riding gets easier but the traffic levels rise, too. I pass the McLaren F1 team’s HQ, then continue north past the imposing grandstand at Ascot racecourse and on towards Windsor.
With its tall oak trees and wide open spaces, Windsor Great Park is a pleasure to ride through on a warm summer’s day. From here it’s just a mile or so to the busy town centre. I slow down to walking pace to take a look at the castle, but the whole place is heaving with tourists buying ‘I love England’ T-shirts and royal memorabilia, so I don’t linger too long.
The next landmark has been around even longer than Windsor Castle: the Thames. Crossing the river means that, give or take a few miles, I’m already a quarter of the way around.
I wish I could say that the next few miles are all wooded hillsides, royal castles and ancient rivers, but there is the small matter of Slough to deal with. The line in John Betjeman’s poem, ‘Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough!’ is a bit harsh, but I do wish they’d finish the road works.
Still, a few miles of urban riding remind me that the M25 is a road, not a physical division between city and country. In places the capital’s high-rise tentacles stretch beyond the motorway’s arbitrary border. Elsewhere, the more green and pleasant England mounts a rear-guard action well inside the M25.
I find one of these rural enclaves between Chalfont St Peter and Rickmansworth. After crossing the M25 and heading towards the capital, I pass open farmland, lakes and the 137-mile Grand Union Canal. Soon I’m in Harefield, which ticks all the pretty English country village boxes despite being part of the London Borough of Hillingdon.
The rustic insurgency continues as far as Rickmansworth. From here on there’s a more suburban feel, although it’s apparent how much greenery there is on the outskirts of London. As often as not, rows of semi-detached houses face fields or parkland on the other side.
From Shenley I head into proper countryside again, crossing under the M25 to South Mimms. The next leg of the journey mixes rolling farmland with the towns and villages of commuter country. Heading east, I cross the River Lee and the Lee Valley Regional Park. Hugging the banks of the river, the park stretches some 26 miles from Ware in Hertfordshire, through Essex, all the way to the Thames at the East India Dock Basin.
I don’t know Essex too well, but this part of the ride turns out to be one of the best. Dormitory towns give way to quiet country villages with names like Fiddlers Hamlet, Theydon Garnon and Toot Hill. Just to the south, rush-hour commuters are being herded along the M25, but I’m pedalling along quiet lanes past cricket pitches, country pubs and fields of freshly harvested wheat.
It’s near-perfect cycling country, but having clocked up more than 100 miles I’m ready for a rest when I reach my campsite in Kelvedon Hatch. This Essex village is most famous for its secret nuclear bunker, which these days isn’t so secret. In fact it’s announced to the world by some unsubtle brown signs. This Cold War government hideaway is now a museum.
Showered and changed, I head back into the village and order half the menu in the local pub. I figure I need the calories – there’s another long day tomorrow.
Despite shoe-horning myself into a one-man tent that’s anything but man-sized, I sleep the kind of deep sleep you only enjoy when your body is truly tired. In the morning I’m woken by the sound of geese flying overhead and a strong breeze blowing through the trees.
Breakfast of crisps and chocolate isn’t exactly textbook pre-ride nutrition, but it seems to do the job and I make good time riding south. The closer I get to the Thames estuary, the flatter the terrain becomes. The last few miles to the Dartford Crossing are a bit of a maze but I’m keen to avoid main roads until the last minute. After a couple of wrong turns and some head-scratching I turn onto a cycle lane and ride up to the crossing control.
There’s nobody inside, but I spot a sign telling cyclists to pick up the phone to call for a lift. That’s just what I do, and 10 minutes later a pick-up truck with a bike rack arrives. I bungee the bike to the back and jump in the passenger seat. The driver tells me that quite a few riders make the crossing in summer, and some hardcore cycle commuters make the trip twice a day, all-year round.
Crossing the Thames for the second time makes me feel like I’m on the home stretch, although it takes a while to find my way out of Dartford. A road closure throws a navigational curve ball, but before long I’ve left the estuary well behind me.
The north side of the river is flat, but this part of Kent is anything but. The climbs are the most testing since the Surrey Hills. I stop at the village store in Eynsford to grab some lunch, then winch my way up onto the North Downs. The enjoyable descent on the other side makes the effort worthwhile.
The road passes under another motorway – the M26 – and drops into the village of Ightham, which marks the south-eastern ‘corner’ of the ride. Every mile from here is a mile closer to home.
A small lane takes me past the Iron Age fort of Oldbury Hill, then it’s back on the A25 for a big ring blast through Sevenoaks and out the other side. I’m not sure where this sudden burst of speed has come from, but I’m not complaining.
A left turn in Sundridge drops the pace back to single figures. Climbing on a heavily loaded bike certainly teaches you patience. I turn right at what I think is the top of the hill only to see the gradient kick up again, and I tell the road just what I think of it in my best Anglo-Saxon.
Anyone who has ridden the Hell of the Ashdown sportive will know all about Toys Hill. Fortunately this ride goes down the hill instead of up, and my brake blocks have their work cut out slowing to take the right-hand turn part-way down. To the south, the Weald of Kent looks beautiful, even under a mean and moody sky, but I’m having to keep my eyes on the road: the lanes here are narrow, twisty and steep – just the way I like them.
Another climb brings me back up towards Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s country residence and now a National Trust property. I look at my watch and decide there’s enough time for a quick stop-off. The gardens are beautiful (as are the views from them) and the house is fascinating. Just as importantly, the cafe serves delicious cake and strong coffee.
Payment for this cultural detour comes in the form of stiff legs and being caught in a heavy rain shower – not a great combination. But a sinuous descent puts me back in a sunny frame of mind for the final miles, and when I reach the windmill in Outwood, I know I’m nearly home. Five miles later the circuit of London is done. It certainly beats my old commute.
GOING ROUND IN CIRCLES
London isn’t the only urban conurbation that you can get dizzy about
The beauty of many British towns and cities is that just outside the concrete jungle you can find quiet roads, country pubs, and ruddy-faced yokels chewing straws… And brilliant circular rides. Down Cycling Plus’s way is the Avon Cycleway, an 85-mile route that skirts both Bath and Bristol and takes in some lovely scenery. Even more attractive is the West Yorkshire Cycle Route close to Leeds. It’s 150 miles long and follows the West Yorks county boundary. That means it includes the Pennines and the cobbled climbs of Haworth. Milton Keynes is home to the 12-mile Millennium Circle Ride which makes use of traffic-free green corridors, while the 54-mile Peterborough Green Wheel links all of the city’s ‘tourist sites and attractions’. Head up to Scotland and you have the Dundee Green Circular Route which takes in sights including the Tay Bridge, Camperdown Country Park and Broughty Castle.
There’s a station in Reigate, plus many others along the route. www.nationalrail.co.uk
Food and drink
You’re never far from a pub or cafe but we suggest The Lucky Duck in Shere and the Chartwell cafe (www.nationaltrust.org.uk).
Where to stay
We stayed at the Kelvedon Hatch Camping and Caravanning Club Site (www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk). For hotels, the Classic British Hotels website lists places to stay close to the M25 (tinyurl.com/class-hotels). There are also Youth Hostels at Cheshunt and Tanners Hatch (www.yha.org.uk).
Head for the Hills in Dorking (www.head-for-the-hills.co.uk), The Bike Company, Windsor (www.thebikecompany.co.uk), Bike Trax in Wanstead (www.biketrax.com).
Images: Tom Simpson