Wednesday 30 December 2020

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 7: River Cray and River Lee

Featured waterways: River Pool, River Ravensbourne, River Quaggy, River Cray, River Thames, Limehouse Basin, Regent's Canal, Hertford Union Canal, River Lee Navigation, River Lea

Distance ridden: 95km 

Cumulative distance: 481km

Distance left: 19km

Terrain: Mainly tarmac, with gravel at Regent's Canal and River Lea, plus single track trails at River Cray

Weather: Sunny, 2degC

Nutrition: Half a banana, trail mix, a chocolate bar, half a litre of water

Route on Strava:

This was the day I had been waiting for, as it had been billed in my mind as a bumper day. The weather forecast was set fair - well by winter standards at least. That meant the sun would shine, and that alone motivated me to go out riding. I just needed to wrap up warm since the forecast was for highs of 2 degrees above zero, with the mercury at barely 1degC for most of the day!

I would be going into a fair bit of hazy or unknown territory, with some brand new waterways on the menu - for example, Quaggy River. Even though it's just in nearby Lee, near Lewisham, I had never heard of it. So I was looking forward to seeing this new place.

There were other places I had been to before, but so long ago that I couldn't fully remember. The River Lee and Hackney Marshes were in that category. I had even done a cycling article on canals sin East London for the former Cycling Active magazine years ago, before the Olympics came to town. So I did a few rides there at the time. I remember doing the photo shoot one Sunday morning with Andy Jones the photographer. He'd parked up at Hackney Marshes where loads of folks were playing football, when a random passer-by, intrigued by what we were doing as we set up for the photoshoot stopped to chat to us. He smelt of dope and seemed a bit stoned! I was quite embarrassed in front of Yorkshireman Andy, who had travelled down from his home in Sheffield to do the shoot. I had hoped he see a cool, hip side of London. Some might say, in a way he did!

I was also looking forward to riding along the River Cray, this time at the part near the Thames. I had ridden that area about a year or so before, and remember it being pleasant marshland with single track. I would be approaching the area at a different angle from my previous visit given that I would riding up from Bexleyheath. So for that reason it felt like a new venue.

One area that was completely unknown to me was the River Ching and the River Roding, further into East London. However, it wasn't sure if I would get to ride there. I had 114km left to do, and there was a possibility I would cover that distance before I had the chance to go to those places. 

The prospect of completing the Festive 500 a day early was quite exciting. I did so at last year's Festive 500, which was handy given that New Year's Eve was a wash-out in London.

So I set off first thing in the morning - not too early to avoid the icy roads - and looked forward to what would be a fun-packed day.

The River Quaggy was just a small river that flowed through Manor park in Lee, near Lewisham. It didn't look much more than the Croydon Canal, in the park near my home. It was much longer than Croydon Canal though, and I was able to follow it along the back streets of Lee, as far as Blackheath. If I had continued with this river I would have ended up in Chislehurst, where it joins with Kyd Brook, probably the original name of the nearby neighbourhood of Kidbrooke.

My ride pressed on into the bowels of South-East London - Charlton, Eltham, Bexleyheath - places I normally zoom past along the A2 in the car without taking any notice. So today was an opportunity to see these places and the folks a bit closer up.

As the weather was quite pleasant, many people were out in the parks, and town centres too. I discovered the area was surprisingly green, with Eltham Park, Oxleas Woods and Danson Park, all very close to one another. The nearby town centres of Welling and Bexleyheath were just town centres like anywhere else. Well, at these town centres seemed to have more shops open and people shopping there than I had seen in other places in London during this lockdown period.  

Crayford marshes with Queen Elizabeth Dartford crossing in the distance

Eventually I reached the River Cray, which at this end looks totally unglamorous compared with where I had been the previous day at St Mary Cray. The whole area is industrial, with a couple of desolate dual carriageways to cross. I almost wondered if I totally gone the wrong way, as the only sign of life I saw were folks wearing hard hats and driving cranes. 

However, there was a small sign on a lamp post indicating National Cycle Network, and that was reassuring. Nearby, another sign pointed down a driveway into an industrial estate, apparently to reach the Thames Cycleway. I wasn't sure if I should blindly follow the sign, but the direction did correspond with what was on my Ordnance Survey map. Furthermore, there were additional signs instructing cyclists to stay on the pavement. That made sense, as I wasn't keen on the idea of riding down this narrow carriageway and coming face to face with a fork lift truck on a blind corner!  

At the end of the road, a narrow gap in the wall opened out onto marshland, and the sight of a guy with a camera and birdwatching binoculars told me I was in the right place. In fact, it was quite a pleasant place, and I was treated to a fun bit of single track that twisted and turned through this marshland in the shadow of the M25 Dartford Crossing. 

Canary Wharf complex seen at a different angle to when I normally head the away

Apparently, this confluence of the River Cray and the River Darenth is popular with birdwatchers, walkers and recreational cyclists, as a number of people were making the most of the bright sunny weather. Surprisingly, the ground was dry, in contrast to some of the rather muddy riversides that I had been to over the week. It seemed that I wasn't the only club rider enjoying the Crayford trail, as some cyclocross riders were doing on full-on training rides along this section. Maybe this is a local haunt for club cyclocross riders like we have at Addington Hills near where I live. 

Considering the back-end of nowhere atmosphere, with just the Dartford Creek Tidal Barrier, Queen Elizabeth Dartford Crossing Bridge in the distance as the main landmarks, and a waste management company nearby, this was quite a popular place!

Thames Path at the Thames Barrier

Eventually, the River Cray joined into the Thames at Erith and I was back on the old favourite, the Thames Path, which I followed for a long stretch all the way to Greenwich. Along the way, I got the chance to see the Canary Wharf complex and the Greenwich Peninsula from a whole manner of angles as I meandered along.

After a quick snack outside the Cutty Sark, I headed north via the foot tunnel (both lifts were working, which is always handy) to reach the East London canals.

By this time, it was after 2pm, and the prospect of getting to ride along the River Ching or the River Roding was becoming unrealistic. Sunset would be at 4pm, so it was questionable how far I would even be able to advance along the River Lee.

I hurried myself along the Regent's Canal, which was quite busy like it had been a couple of days previously, and then dropped down onto the Hertford Union Canal. Now that Canal was quite refreshing and peaceful. There were very few people on it. Since it runs along Victoria Park, people probably preferred to be in there than on the canal towpath. That was handy for me as I was able to pick up a bit of speed to reach the Lee Navigation. This area definitely brought back memories of the time I did the photoshoot for my Cycling Active article. It looked quite familiar, apart from the addition of the Olympic Stadium (now the The London Stadium, the home of West Ham United).

River Lee Navigation

The canalside looked arty, with lots of barges owned by hipster looking folks playing music. It had been a sunny day and folks had made the most of it, even having lunch parties on their boats that afternoon. As well as folks hanging out at the side of the canal there others gathered near different microbreweries enjoying a takeaway beer with a slice of gourmet pizza. 

Although it was still bright, I could sense that nightfall was not far away, and I realised the farthest I could go would be to the Friend's Bridge where I double-backed along the River Lea along Hackney Marshes.

Riding a themed Festive 500 makes for a great opportunity to discover and rediscover places. Nowhere was it more apparent than today, when I passed through Crayford marshes, and then later on in Hackney Marshes. This vast area, famous for its 82 football pitches is more than a Sunday league paradise, but it is also flush with nature reserves and woodlands. Sadly, I couldn't spend much time there, but I know I will definitely be back there to explore the area further in the near future. 

It was now dark, so I knew this was the time to make the homeward trek, through Bethnal Green, Broadway Market, down to Aldgate and then along the River Thames past a very colourful Tate Britain Gallery.

I had hoped to wrap up the whole Festive 500 today, but time ran out on me. Once night fell, the temperature dropped dramatically. Luckily I had and extra gilet and jacket to put on, but it wasn't pleasant being out in what was now 0 degC. 

Tate Modern being especially jazzed up in its latest exhibition

It had been a good day, and I thought it better to quit while I was head, so I crossed Vauxhall Bridge to return to Crystal Palace. I had done 95 km, so there were just 18km left to do for my final stage. I could taste the finish.

Related posts

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 1

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 2

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 3

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 4

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 5

Rapha Festive 500, London Waterways - Day 6

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