“Hey, look at those seals,” Russ cried out, pointing towards the low waterline. Seals? In the River Thames estuary? Surely not. I could see four shapes that looked like the usual debris deposited by the receding tide. Logs perhaps, or plastic tanks. I grabbed my longest lens, and even at that range, the objects only mildly resembled large sea-faring mammals. But then one moved; it did that Seal Thing of bending in the midsection, its tail and head simultaneously lifting skywards. Like a fortune-telling fish in a Christmas cracker. They were, indeed, seals!
Apparently, this was no rare sighting, and is just one of the many that can be had on a ride along the banks of Britain’s most famous and important river: a waterway steeped in thousands of years of history and a view that constantly changes—with time and tide.
Thanks to the enthusiasm of Hackney GT founder Russ Jones, I found myself on the north shore of the river in a car park under the A13, the busy trunk road that carries traffic from the heart of London’s East End out to the Essex hinterlands. Russ and teammate Niki Kovacs and I wanted to trace the route out from London City Airport to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford and back along the south side to Woolwich, where we would board the ferry and ride back to our starting point. A roughly 45km route, shaped like a long wedge of pizza, that takes in all surfaces, from tarmac to gravel to cinder track. Best negotiated on a ’cross or gravel bike. Of course.
Our first pedal revs took us through dirty—no other word for it—streets, down River Road in Barking and past the permanent Dagenham Sunday Market site. All around signs of regeneration. Then a right turn at Barking Riverside Campus and we were on a grassy doubletrack on the river’s edge, with huge sea-faring ships cruising downstream in the wash of the Thames pilot tugs. Across the water, Thamesmead Ecology Centre and the Crossness Pumping Station were easily recognisable landmarks. A downstream wind at our backs meant easy work, and soon we found ourselves at one of the first natural barriers, the Gores river, one of many smaller tributaries that run into the Thames and have no crossing at their confluence. Time to turn back inland.
The Essex bank of the ride is the most tricky to navigate, thanks to the amount of industry and service roads that lead to nowhere. We found ourselves circumnavigating the remnants of the huge Ford Motors plant at Dagenham, all 475 acres of it! For anyone raised in the county, Dagenham and Ford are synonymous and many drove ‘Dagenham Dustbins’ at least once in their lifetimes. But I had no idea the first turf for the plant was laid in 1927 by the son of Henry Ford, Edsel, in May 1929. The site took over 28 months to build and involved 22,000 concrete piles being driven into the marshland to support the factories. Impressive. A quick look at Google Earth and you can see the extent of the works, reaching down to the shoreline where the ships still dock to load.
Squeezing through a narrow gate in the security fencing, we found ourselves on Choats Road, threaded our way through the depots, trucks and warehouses north of the A13, and then back south to hit the route again at Ferry Lane and onto Rainham Marshes. Once a military firing range, the marshes are now an RSPB reserve and a haven for nature lovers. The path flows through shoulder-high bullrushes and reeds, over small streams, and is a relief from the heavy industry. Gravel follows the tarmac path, good-sized shale on a flood bank offering the first real view of the suspension supports of the Dartford bridge crossing. If you are feeling a ‘bit coffee’ at this (early) juncture, the RSPB cafe is an unmissable building towards the end of the signposted marsh route.
A small bridge takes us over the Mar Dyke and into the small town of Purfleet. Once past the Heritage & Military Centre on one’s left, there is no option but to again turn inland. Jetties for the huge ships that moor off Purfleet means there is no direct way through. So, we turn. Past the war memorial and onto the London Road. Our destination is the free shuttle service that carries bikes and their riders across the bridge; we know it closes between two and three o’clock and we have about 15 minutes to find it. A carefully concealed mild panic ensues as we ride up and down the wrong roads. Just so you know—when you climb the incline to the first large roundabout, the London Road continuation is the fourth exit. It travels under the Dartford bridge approach and then you must make a left turn and ride up the hill to the rendezvous point. If you reach the T-junction and traffic lights, you have gone too far.
At the RVP we get on the blower and call our man. Traffic thunders across the bridge. Even at 50mph it is pretty daunting. We load the bikes into the van and sit in comfort as the driver makes the short journey and deposits us on the Kent side of the river. We are all duly impressed with the system. The road on the bridge itself is an A road and not part of the M25 motorway so the shuttle service is mandatory. The driver tells us that he has already had 20 riders that day and many use the service to commute to their jobs at Thurrock Lakeside Retail Park. Who knew?!
Kent side, the story’s the same. Industry and a maze of roads to negotiate to find the path by the river. We are standing at a hole in a chainlink fence at the back of a warehouse, looking at the deep ditch that separates us from the clearly visible path. We almost admit defeat when a man comes up to chat and tells us he used to drive his Land Rover around here 30 years ago and that he got in this way. He is an angel. To save yourselves from our frustration, here is the way to find the river again:
The driver will drop you off at the Kent Dart Charge point. From there, ride about 50m south to the first roundabout and get onto Rennie Drive. Continue on Rennie Drive over two roundabouts. A huge Sainsbury’s Distribution Centre will be on your right. Then take a right turn to go around the back of that Centre. This roads takes you under the bridge approach and onto the A206. At the first roundabout, take the first exit onto Galleon Boulevard (!) At the next roundabout you will see an ASDA warehouse. Turn left into Clipper Boulevard West, and about 30m in, you will see the entrance to the path across the road. Ride down the singletrack next to a brook and the vista will open out onto the mighty Thames and you will ride directly below the bridge span. I only save the word awesome for this kind of occasion. Because it is.
And now you are on the longest stretch of off-road. Ride past the Littlebrook Power Station and the Longreach Sewer Treatment Works (hold your breath), until you reach the River Darent, where there is a sluice gate but no way over. Follow the river until you reach the A206 and ride towards Crayford, where you will cross the River Cray and once again pick up the west bank of the Darent. The gravel tracks follow the river in pleasing twists and turns, and you genuinely feel miles away from the country’s capital. Horses graze on the marshes and seabirds fly overhead. As we round onto the Thames Path, we can see Rainham Marshes across the water.
The gravel riding continues. Russ’s front tyre slowly deflates. We pump air in and ride. Don’t want to faff with a tube change. Past Thamesmead where scenes from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange were filmed. In the water sit ruins of old wooden piers, covered in barnacles and seaweed. It’s all very Oliver Twist. Flotsam and jetsam. Joyridden and ditched mopeds. Glimpses of the city skyline. We ride concrete staircases for ‘practice’. Past WW2 pillboxes and the Royal Arsenal. If you’re feeling it here and need sustenance, head for the Cornerstone Cafe in Major Draper St. The coffee and the sausage baps are bang on!
Ride the wide path on the final stretch to the Woolwich Ferry. The lights of Canary Wharf, and beyond, the City, shine in the twilight. People are still inside buying, selling. The ferry is free. Ride on in front of the cars and off to trace our path back to our starting point.
A worthy loop. Do it fast in the winter on the short days, or make a big day out and ride on the Kent side to Gravesend to pick up a ferry across to Tilbury and then back to the Woolwich Ferry northside. Or if you fancy a monster day, ride all the way to Margate for an ice cream! Or across the bridge and track the London Loop from Purfleet, which can take you north into the Hainault and Epping Forest. Like London itself, the possibilities are endless.