The persistent rain in May 2021 gave way to a spell of dry warm weather at the start of June and unusually this coincided with a planned cycle trip along one of the national trails. The North Downs Way runs between Farnham and Dover. Seems a little obscure why Farnham is the start, but when you reach Dover further progress by bike is a little difficult. Though in less travel restricted times hopping on a ferry at Dover opens all sort of possibilities, the continuation route related to the North Downs way would be the Via Francigena all the way to Rome.
Cycling UK have devised a bike route for the North Downs Way as the national trail includes several lengths of walker only footpaths, which has a claim of being 220km with only 53km on roads. Despite being a ribbon through some very dense urban commuter belts it achieves the feel of a sustained off-road gravel adventure. You can download the route from the Cycling UK website.
We decided to do it in four days and using Premier Inns which proved once again to be cycle friendly and comfortable, allowed us to travel light and thanks to some advance planning and booking worked out very cost effective. Special mention goes to the helpfulness of the staff at the Premier Inn at Redhill. Our days were Farnham to Redhill to Rochester to Canterbury to Dover (and on the Deal for celebratory fish and chips on the shingle beach).
Lots of nice things are written about Farnham, and I can see the potential but found it to be currently suffering from developers’ blight. The Premier Inn at Farnham is conveniently close to the cycle route start at a roundabout which also seems to be the start of a route called the Christmas Pie trail (one for a winter season?), but the national trail route starts nearer the town centre and has a significant photo opportunity. The route makes a rural transformation very rapidly from Farnham and after an eye-opening sojourn through an estate of millionaires’ mansions takes you along up and down sandy trails through woodlands and across heathland. An annoying trail closure with no alternative diversions signposted provided a frustrating time for riders and satnav approaching Guildford, but day one was a great journey through the Surrey Hills with an excellent lunch at the Watts Gallery artist village.
The next day continued with some lengthy climbs up bridleways and tracks rewarded by long off-road sections were aided by gravity good progress could be made with enough technical interest to ensure one eye kept to the route, while the other was free to take in the delights of the natural world. Highlight was a bird of prey swooping down the tree tunnel ahead of us.
This section unfortunately also incorporates a mix of some very risky roads including A roads and the narrow single width Pilgrims Way which was busy with cars driven by poor and inconsiderate drivers. A great hunting ground for cyclists that like to post videos of close passes. This section is recognised by Cycling UK as needing further action to improve safe routes for cyclists. Their website contains interesting pieces on the vagaries of the public rights of way infrastructure in the UK. For now, the road portions are a necessary evil to link the superb sections of off-road track and from Trottiscliffe onwards the therapy given by riding rough trails through woodland works a soothing magic.
Rochester to Canterbury continues in this vein with long spells of undulating jeep track, by now the flint and chalk very obviously replacing the sands of Surrey and finishes with a delightful saunter along the flood plain of the Great Stour River right into the heart of historic Canterbury with the medieval streets, city walls and cathedral.
The final day is characterised with single track across fields and meadows intertwining with the Sustrans road route 16 and popping up in little Kent hamlets before reaching the higher ground overlooking the port of Dover.