The London Sightseer is a 100 km ride around London organized by Bill Carnaby of the Hounslow and District Wheelers. There are two versions: a Wednesday ride on 30th June (ridden and blogged by Ian Driver) and a Sunday ride on 5th September.
The ride starts at Hampton Hill in west London, heads east through the City to Greenwich, mostly along the north bank of the Thames, then crosses the river and returns mostly on the south bank, taking in as many famous landmarks as possible, and keeping to parks, back streets and cycle routes as much as is practical.
I persuaded my friend Nick to ride with me, since he lives just 10 miles from the start. I rode down from Cambridge on Saturday, going via Baldock, St Albans, Uxbridge, Staines. This is a very nice route as far as Uxbridge. The first section, over Barrington Hill to Bassingbourn, Litlington and Ashwell, is familiar territory for CTC Cambridge. The route from Ashwell, through Baldock and then over the A1 and around the south of Letchworth, I learned from Mike Stapleton, who took us along it on a day ride in August 2008. Then there’s a pleasant fifteen miles or so along the B651, taking in some wooded hills and passing through the villages of Whitwell, Kimpton and Wheathampstead before arriving in St Albans, where I stopped at the Merchant Tea and Coffee Company, but balked at the cake prices (£3.95 for a piece of carrot cake!) and bought doughnuts at the market instead. From St Albans some quiet lanes weave over and under the M10 and the M1 to Bedmond, Abbots Langley, Rickmansworth, and over the hill to Harefield and Uxbridge. The last ten miles are a bit grim, taking in some very busy roads around Heathrow and the M25/M4 junction. It would be nice to figure out a better way through this section, without going too far out of the way, but the main difficulty is crossing the M4. I’ll say more about this later.
On Sunday morning Nick and I rode up to Hampton Hill under cool and cloudy skies. There was a good turnout, with riders already lined up along the street at 09:00.
Bill Carnaby sent us off about half an hour before the official start, with fifty or sixty brevet cards still waiting on the table.1
Nick and I were sharing the burdens of navigation on this very complicated route. I had a set of Transport for London cycle maps (which TfL will send you for free—well worth it) with the route marked in red, and Nick had the route sheet. Mostly the map was best, but later on the fiddly bits of the Thames Cycle Path in Rotherhithe, Bermondsey and Southwark the routesheet was essential—for example, the instruction “L up ramp before RH bend (easy to miss)” was indeed easy to miss (it was up here and then though the building to the right).
The first leg of the route crossed the Thames at Teddington Lock, then followed a gravelly riverside path for about three miles before crossing back again on Richmond Bridge. More riverside paths took us into Twickenham, and through Syon Park to Brentford, Kew, and Chiswick to the first control
The Thames path near Ham.
We turned away from the river, under Hammersmith Flyover, and into a maze of backstreets up and over Notting Hill to Kensington Gardens. In Hyde Park barriers were set up for the Adidas Women’s 5k Challenge (won by Linet Masai) and there seemed to be some kind of fun run too, plus many cyclists heading for the London Skyride. It took quite a while to get through to Hyde Park Corner.
Along Constitution Hill and the Mall we mingled with the Skyriders. Apparently there were around 85,000 cyclists on this 15 km route. Who knows, maybe some of them will graduate to the Sightseer in years to come? It was nice to see so many cyclists on the streets, and also nice that it was early enough that the route hadn’t got really crowded yet.
Near St Paul’s Cathedral, we found ourselves following the organizer himself as he rode to the control at North Greenwich. By sticking to his wheel, we avoided many route-finding difficulties and we were through the City, Wapping, Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs, reaching the main control at the Island Gardens Café in North Greenwich at about midday. We had averaged just 14 km/h for the first three hours.
We wheeled our bikes under the Thames only to discover that the lift on the south bank was out of order. Carrying our bikes up the stairs was the hardest bit of the ride, much harder than any of the small hills that London has to offer.
Walking under the Thames in the Greenwich foot tunnel. The steel lining on this section was added after the tunnel was damaged in World War II.
We zoomed down the 17% Vanbrugh Hill and joined the Thames path encircling the Greenwich peninsula. This path starts out very pleasantly, but then peters out into an industrial wasteland. The inadequacies of this path were to become a bit of a theme for the next section of the ride, as we followed it through cobbled streets, narrow back alleys, across locks, and along crowded embankments in front of Victorian warehouses converted into posh flats.
The fancy Butler’s Wharf development near Tower Bridge.
I enjoyed the little sections of canal along the route—Spirit Quay and Shadwell Basin in Wapping, and Surrey Basin in Deptford (formerly part of the Surrey Commercial Docks). Russia Dock, formerly a landing point for timber from Scandinavia and Russia, has been infilled to make Russia Dock Woodland, which made a pleasant spot for a short rest.
Westminster Bridge had been closed to motor vehicles for the Skyride, which was great. It was also great to get off the Thames path. I guess Transport for London means well, but really it’s a very shoddy route—poor road surfaces, cobbles, twists and turns and “Cyclists Dismount” signs.
We crossed and recrossed the river several times here: north over Westminster Bridge, then south over Chelsea Bridge, north again over Battersea Bridge, and south over Putney Bridge, where we left the river and entered Richmond Park. Near the top of the hill I missed a turning but the afternoon was so pleasant it didn’t really matter, and soon we were back on route and crossing Teddington Lock for the second time, and onto the final page of instructions.
Round Hampton Court Palace, through Bushy Park, and we were home. 104 km (which includes an extra one for the mistake in Richmond Park) in 8:10, at an average speed of just under 13 km/h. I don’t know if it was the cobbles or the navigation, but I was quite worn out. A fantastic ride, and quite an occasion. I recommend it highly.
On the way back to Cambridge, I wanted to see if there was a good way to bypass Uxbridge. With the TfL cycle maps to hand, I could see that I could take a bridleway alongside the M25 to Stanwell Moor, then roads to Colnbrook, another bridleway to cross the M4 near Ritchings Park, and then get on to the Grand Union Canal towpath, which would take me all the way past Uxbridge, Ickenham and Harefield to Rickmansworth.
This is a scenic route and I think it would be good for a day out if you lived locally, but the unsurfaced paths are ever so slow. It took about three hours for me to do the 40 km to Rickmansworth, and then there was a vicious north-easterly headwind with occasional spots of rain, so I packed the ride and caught a train home from Welwyn Garden City. Not a bad weekend, though: 334 km (208 miles) in all.
A flooded gravel pit next to the canal provides many moorings at Harefield Marina.
Cambridge to Staines in magenta and the London Sightseer in red
↩ The results list shows 108 finishers.