Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 6: River Cray and River Darenth

Featured waterways: Croydon Canal, Chaffinch Brook, River Beck, River Pool, River Ravensbourne, River Cray, River Darenth

Distance ridden: 68km 

Cumulative distance: 386km

Distance left: 114km

Terrain: Mainly road, with gravel in Beckenham Place Park

Weather: Overcast, 3degC

Nutrition: None. I felt too cold to drink anything! I just wanted to burn off yesterday's dinner and return home!

Route on Strava:


Whenever I do the Rapha Festive 500, there is always a slightly difficult day. It can be for different reasons. Sometimes it is because the weather is challenging; maybe there's a mechanical issue with the bike, or maybe I just feel tired and slightly demotivated.

Today seemed to be that day for me. The weather looked very dull and uninviting, with temperatures forecast to not go much above 3 degC - colder in the suburbs. Also, I had a slightly tickly throat and a runny nose.

The thing is, I was getting tantalisingly close to the end of the challenge. I had roughly 180km left to do over three days - 60km per day is doable. I could even get this done in two days. The weather was forecast to be quite nice the following day, so I could do 100km on that day and then spread the remaining 80km over two days. Or maybe, I could just do nothing today and then do 180km over two days. It would still be doable, but there would be a bit less margin for error, and a bit more pressure. Also the weather forecast suggested there might be snow on New Year's Eve. I wouldn't want to ride 50 miles in that!

My original itinerary had been to go out to the River Cray and Darenth confluence, ride up to where they meet the Thames, follow the Thames Path to Greenwich and then return home on the Waterlink Way (Ravensbourne and Pool Rivers).

In the end, I decided that given how I was feeling, I figured it would be prudent to be kind to myself and do a ride that allowed bail-out points if I genuinely was feeling unwell. I calculated that a 40km ride taking in the River Ravensbourne and the River Cray would be just about doable without breaking me; I could finish early, get some rest, and then still be able to resume tomorrow with a doable 140km over two days. 
If, after 40km I was feeling fine, I would carry on, and aim for the River Darenth at Eynsford, then turn back. These are the thought processes that go through my head on days like this - as well as just willing myself to get on my bike.

Before heading into these nearby suburbs, I gave a nod to a couple of the waterways right in my neighbourhood. Just around the corner from me in Betts Park, is the Croydon Canal. The original canal ran from Croydon and fed into the Grand Surrey Canal at New Cross. But it is now defunct, with only a small channel of it still functioning in this local park. 

Nearby, at Elmers End, is Chaffinch Brook. I don't know anything about it, but it is there and runs through South Norwood Country Park, where I do my runs as well as behind people's houses at Clockhouse before joining the River Beck, and later the River Pool.
We don't have significant rivers in my neighbourhood, but it seems there are enough waterways to create a mini flood risk if we had lots of rain!

From there, I moved on to Beckenham Place Park, which was still very busy despite the dismal looking day. It was good to bump into Geoff Nutter, a local cyclocross racing buddy while there. I was happy to stop and chat, where normally I would have ploughed on trying to keep to my schedule. But today I was feeling half-hearted so didn't mind looking for an excuse to stop! He seemed impressed when I told him I would be riding out to the River Darenth and the Cray, so in a way I realised I had inadvertently roped myself into carrying out the task!

Eynsford Village (the only photo I took on this grim day)

When I reached the River Cray at the village of St Mary Cray I was pleasantly surprised to find a little cycle path that ran alongside the river. I would have liked to follow it all the way to Footscray Meadows, a place where we used to do Christmas cyclocross races a few years ago. But my plan was to move East rather than North, towards Eynsford. By this point I was feeling quite good, and distinctly more motivated than at the start of my ride, so the idea of turning back early was now history and I was happy to continue a bit farther along the route. 

Soon I reached Lullingstone Country Park and castle, which made for a handy spot to take a break - and more importantly, to go to the loo. The cold was having that effect on me.

The River Darenth runs through the Country Park, with a path alongside it. However, it is prohibited to cyclists, so I had to ride parallel to the river, on the road - not a problem as the road was quiet. 

From here, my route followed the River Darenth right through to Eynsford, and beyond as far as Horton Kirby and South Darenth. If this had been a long sunny day in the summer I could have just continued North towards Dartford and Crayford to reach the Thames, played around in the marshes and then ambled along at a leisurely pace to reach Greenwich. 

But this was not one of those days. It was cold, and the day looked grim. I would normally have seen lots of club cyclists along these lanes, but it seemed that the weather really had scared people away. At Eynsford I saw four or five hardy souls out too, but that was it. Most people had the good sense to stay home and watch the latest Neflix series or Shrek or Wallace and Gromit!

Once I had reached the apex of my ride, at South Darenth I turned back towards home. I must say, a lot of the villages around this area are quite picturesque - Eynsford - with it's picturesque bridge and riverside, with the Darenth literally flowing right through it, plus Farningham, and Horton Kirby with their quintessential Kentish village ambiance. But South Darenth somehow seemed to buck that trend, and just looked rather shabby. Not sure what was going on there.

Once past Swanley, I felt more content and relaxed to be in familiar territory again. There remained the small matter of climbing up Leeson's Hill - probably the only hill of the whole of my Festive 500! It was no pimple either. Leeson's Hill, just outside Orpington, lasted about a mile, and was similar to Anerley Hill, in Crystal Palace. I should be used to this sort of gradient, but on days like this the cold saps your energy so I had to take it easy when going up and not think I was in a hill climb race! 

By the way, I wouldn't recommend riding on this road. It's not pleasant - not simply because of the hill, but it is a popular cut-through for motorists heading towards Orpington and maybe joining the M25. Plus everyone seemed to drive at ridiculously fast speeds like they had to be somewhere yesterday. It seems as though since lockdown some people think empty roads mean people can just drive as fast as they like. It was similar on St Paul's Cray Road, going into Chislehurst too. If I had given it more thought I would have taken the bridleway that was in the nearby woods. After all, I was on a gravel bike, the Liv Devote, which would have been well suited for it. I will probably do that next time.

Finally, I reached Bromley where I felt very much in the home strait of my ride. I hadn't seen many cyclists today - but I did see a man on a Penny Farthing riding through Bromley Town Centre. He was dressed in Tweed, and looked very elegant, attracting lots of stares. Initially I saw him on the main road, and then later I saw him again riding towards Shortlands where he gave me a wave. He was probably doing circuits of Bromley and waving to everyone. He was properly perambulating, 19th century style in a 21st century world. That was quite a fun sight, and brightened up an otherwise gloomy day.

Soon, I was back in my world ready to rewards myself with some left-over turkey and a mince pie. I was glad to have got in almost 45 miles, and the scratchy throat I had had early in the day had gone. So the remaining 70 miles looked very doable. 


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