London to Brighton by Bicycle! Hove, actually.

Welcome back and sorry for the delay! After our wonderful 6+ weeks of exploring Ireland, we left Dublin under the threat of rain to catch an early boat to Holyhead, Wales. Our ultimate destination was a house and cat sit stay in Hove, on England’s historic south coast, and part of the lively Brighton and Hove municipality.

Cruising South Downs National Park towards the water and Brighton
Riding to the Port of Dublin, which is really a work in progress.

Luckily the rain managed to hold off while we rode to the massive Dublin port and terminal area, and the Irish Sea was thankfully calmer than predicted. We also decided to try out Irish Ferries instead of Stena Line, but we’ll fill you in on all the nuances of our year of ferry, train and bike travel in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.

Posing with our new friend waiting to board the Ferry in Dublin
Successfully off the train at London Euston, at a very quiet spot at the end of a platform and 10 car Avanti West train! One other intrepid cycle tourist with us.
Central London rush hour cycling was a breeze, even in a bit of rain.

Since we didn’t have time to ride all the way from Wales to Hove, we decided to train from Holyhead to London and then spend 3 relatively short days cycling to Hove via scenic back routes and footpaths. So we boarded the train in Holyhead, and after one transfer arrived in London.

Further along the Thames towards Wimbledon the roads got a lot more hectic

But unlike our last ride across London, which was on a quiet Saturday morning, we had 17km of pure evening rush hour riding from Euston Station to Wimbledon. I had found a nice guest house in Wimbledon that was bike friendly, walkable to dinner, and much cheaper than any part of Central London. It also got us a bit on our way towards Hove, and allowed a bit of the stretching of the legs after the ferry and train time.

Loved the Marple Cottage Guest House in Wimbledon

The irony of our ride was that Central London was still easy peasy due to light traffic, great bikeways, and smooth pavement. But as soon as we left the core and headed southwest into SW3, 11, and 18, the roads got a lot busier and the bike accommodation was less. The reimagined cores of global cities are now often ahead of their more suburban car oriented neighbors. Regardless, we made it to Wimbledon just fine, and were pleased to have a long 13-hour travel day over! It was then an easy walk to a great pub (The Alexandra) for dinner and some libations. We liked that the Alexandra had a sports side, non sports area, and upstairs loft, so you could choose your setting based on your mood. (Or passion for Arsenal or Liverpool!)

Finally, a bench atop Farthing Downs to have some lunch!
Unsuitable for trucks means more suitable for bikes!
A nice dry foot path in Sussex.

We had been to Wimbledon a few times when staying in London, as the area is nice, and walking though Richmond Park via Wimbledon Common is lovely. With easy train connections to central London, it’s a good alternative neighborhood to stay in if you want a bit less hubbub and cost than central London too.

The breakfast at the Godstone Inn was fantastic; Gourmet Full English and Avocado Toast with Scrambled Eggs.

There is no single “route” from London to Brighton and no National cycle network route that gets you there directly unless you divert fairly far east or west. You can head west via the NCR4 and 223 (rail trail-flat!) or east via the Avenue Verte, which is a good route to Paris via the Newhaven-Dieppe DFDS Ferry. We still went fairly directly and used Komoot, and a route on the Cycle.Travel site. I then tweaked each daily route to try to avoid busier roads, take in some sights, and hit sections of quiet lanes tagged by Komoot users. The big advantage of cycle touring on a leisurely schedule is that it is always easier to lengthen a journey and day as desired, but not the opposite. If you’re more time pressed, then you often have fewer choices and can be forced to take busier roads and ride through the worst of the weather.

Ready for Day 2 from Godstone.

The main roads south of London and in Sussex are all pretty busy, so we were happy to have the time to explore via smaller routes. It was also supposed to be rainy, and rain it did, so our schedule allowed us to duck under cover for showers, and not fret about excessively long days out in the wet. About 40-50k a day, but it did feel much longer on wet hilly roads, muddy paths, and stops at little sights along the way. Slow travel for sure.

Sometimes the footpaths turn foul.
Cheryl trying not to shred her legs through the briars…mostly successful.
Heading down into the green abyss near Ardingly via some very steep hollows.

One challenge of routing via Komoot or OS maps is knowing what the real condition of a footpath or bridleway will be. They vary widely! Smooth forest floor, decomposed rock or grass can be easy. Roots, mud, briars, and kissing gates or stiles can be a real challenge….your best bet is to look at notes/markers people have tagged in Komoot and be ready to turn around and divert back to paved roads as needed.

A memorable night at the Ardingly Inn, sharing in the shock of the Queens passing with the locals.

Even with our planning; we inevitably were on some busy stretches of A and B roads to connect up the quiet lanes, but they were not too bad for short stretches, but not recommended for longer distances, with large trucks and often mixed/no shoulders. Some A roads have bike lanes indicated on Google (light green solid lines), but these can consist of 2-3 foot shoulders, and with grit, wet roads, and high speed traffic, are not really anywhere you WANT to be. There is still a lot of work to do in the UK to make safe cycling networks complete and practical for those other than hard core sporty types. Or those with a lot of time (like us-:).

St. Martin’s Church, Westmeston.

The other variable on footpaths is how they are maintained, as clearly some landowners don’t really seem to want to accommodate the rightful access. But don’t get me wrong, the public footpath and bridleway network in the UK is an amazing thing and really allows unfettered and peaceful walking almost anywhere you want to go. We really missed this in Ireland. So as we build our perfect country, we’d take the footpath system from the UK, and the cycling access from the Netherlands.

Ready for our final short day via the Ditchling Beacon from Ardingly
Cheryl’s final assault on the Ditchling Beacon! And about to cross the South Downs Way long distance walking path.
Atop the Ditchling Beacon looking back towards London
Hove’s iconic beach cabins on a Saturday morning as a local triathlon finishes up.

All in all, the three days were very nice despite the rain. Sussex countryside is beautiful and the rains of the past few weeks had regreened the landscape from the late summer drought. (But not enough to fill the reservoirs again!)

The English Channel….France in the far distance!
Brighton’s waterfront quay has been reimagined with eateries and art galleries….but this day required some clean up after much needed rains.
It was a dramatic change from Summer to Fall over our two weeks in Hove
Great old timey rides on the Brighton Pleasure Pier
Steel pilings and railings take a beating on the English Channel
The skeleton frame in the distance is all that remains of the West Pleasure Pier; which hosted up to 2 million people a year in its heyday in the early 1900s.
People were a bit more friendly and laid back in Brighton and Hove
Day hike via the Thameslink to Balcombe…great place to start walking right into the woods.
Approaching the Ouse Valley Viaduct
Another engineering marvel, the 1,500 foot long Ouse Valley Viaduct. Designed by John Rastrick and opened in 1841. It still serves the main Brighton to London line today!
Great rambling on the South Downs
Cheryl with our morning pastries on the Undercliff walk near the Brighton Marina. (The Marina is bit of a 1970s design nightmare)

We arrived a bit early for our house sit, so decided to head to Hove Park, which is a very nice central park with a great cafe. Immediately we were greeted by a friendly cyclist who inquired about our travels and told us that would love Hove. Which we did.

The upbeat vibe of Hove

Brighton and Hove have a temperate and pleasant oceanside climate, long established LGBTQ community, art scene, good restaurants , a walkable grid, and connectivity by bus and train. It’s hilly with both broad slopes and steep valleys that frequently reward you with views. It’s also flush with parks and borders the large South Downs National Park. It really reminded me of San Francisco and is a place we would consider staying awhile.

Sunset on the Regent’s Canal during a day trip to London.
The Camden Canal on one of our easy day trips to London. The narrow boaters yelled to us that it was only their second day on their new boat- they were very excited!
Pub stop in London.

The rail connectivity means you can be at Gatwick airport in 30 minutes, and London in less than an hour. And you can even go all the way through London to Cambridge in 2 hours without a transfer. Getting to France is easy via Eurostar (from St. Pancras) and ferries from Portsmouth and Newhaven to the Normandy Coast.

Lots of space on the South Downs for cows and walking.
That’s Cheryl at the bottom of the fascinating formation known as the Devils Dyke

So, with such great connectivity, we met friends from London on the Thameslink to hike, a friend in London for the day, and other friends in Worthing, an easy train ride west. It was also fairly bike friendly, especially along the coast. It was wonderful to get so much social time with friends.

Another engineer bucket list item? Thanks Joe and Justina for the ride!

The great waking and SDNP adjacency came in handy as we mostly parked our bikes and walked and hiked from our house sit in every direction (except the ocean). The comfy double decker bus system, with USB ports at every seat and easy contactless payment via credit card or Apple Pay (capped day fares!), was the most fun, especially along the coast.

Couldn’t miss a ride on Volk’s Railway along the waterfront. Some dedicated folks (ok train nerds!) keep this running.
We loved the extremely walkable streets of Hove and Brighton…Street party around the corner from us in the Wilbury Villas neighborhood.
Independent neighborhood organic store and coffee….dense and car free living means more to discover around each corner.

The two weeks flew by, and we had to pack up, clean the apartment, and say goodbye to the sweet cat we had bonded with over two weeks. So we caught a train to Portsmouth and a ferry to Caen and another 3 day journey via train and bike to the Valleé Verte.

Our sweet house sit cat…mostly blind and deaf, but incredibly affectionate.
Hove Station at night with a huge new high rise neighborhood being built beyond; a great place for housing given walkability, transit, and weather.
Along the miles long promenade.

But where to next you ask? Let’s just say we’ll need all the walking fitness we can muster. But another update from Cheryl is coming soon. Bon Voyage!

The happy travelers in Hove…ready to move onto France and our next adventure

UK Heatwave! Bikeways, Bunnies, and Bristol

When traveling long term, you strangely become both more tolerant of discomfort (especially when out of your control), and obsessed with small comforts. And sometime the smallest things can give you a feeling of satisfaction in an often disorienting lifestyle.

Trying to cool off in a top floor hotel room in Clifton/Bristol, UK

For example, our little down travel pillows always provide a modicum of comfort, even over the hardest “pillow” found in some lodging. Carrying our own salt, pepper, picnicware, and hot sauce brightens otherwise dull meals or take out on the road.

Wait, we’ve seen this cat pub before!

Another way to ease the stress of constant travel is to return to a place…maybe a few times. It’s always easier once you know the lay of the land, favorite neighborhoods, and how to get out of the train station in the right direction. In the past year we’ve been lucky enough to visit London and Paris multiple times, in completely different neighborhoods. Plus, you can venture deeper into new places, see obscure sights, and generally settle in with the more relaxed lens of a quasi-local.

Arriving at Liverpool Station by train from Harwich…our arrival port from The Netherlands

As we left the Netherlands for the UK, the warnings of an impending heat wave across Northern Europe were growing, so we thought about where we could ride it out as we approached the next leg across of our planned 4 month summer European cycling, train, and boat tour.

Along the Thames; Cheryl looking much more London than me in my high viz helmet cover!

Our primary goals in the UK were to see our friends in Wales, and connect to a ferry to Ireland, so we did not plan on too much cycling. The heat wave clinched the decision to settle in somewhere for a longer stay. So we looked back on places that we could (somewhat) easily get to with our bikes on trains…our train from the ferry landing in Harwich went to London, but London would be too hot(100+) and is $$$ in August, plus we wanted to get further west where it would be a bit cooler, and closer to a house sit we had scheduled in Gloucester.

Love the Thames Cycle Superhighway!
This area near Bank was the only part of our 10km ride sharing the streets with cars and buses
And Big Ben will be on your right!
Is that the Queen over there?!

So we decided on Bristol for a third visit, via a single train transfer in London. The only catch was one train came into Liverpool Station and the other departed from Paddington. But no problem on bikes, as the 10km ride across London on a Saturday morning was a pleasure due to all the new cycling infrastructure. London’s wide new paths, protected lanes and bike signals have made cycling a much more viable alternative in the Capital.

10 relaxing kilometers later at Paddington, ready to catch (Brunel’s!) Great Western Railway to Bristol. Quiet here, but the station was packed inside.

Bristol was also a good base for some day cycling trips and we could go back to our favorite falafel stand, noodle restaurant, and cat pub!

Heatwave exploration along the Avon River towards Bath …shady and you can swim in the river!
A very welcome cold and drippy tunnel along the Bath Bristol Cycle way

And yes, we could go back to the S.S. Brittanica and Brunel Museum…and for free! Ha, even the staff was impressed (and a bit surprised) when Cheryl pulled out our printed tickets from last year, which they sell at the relatively high price of £20 each, with the caveat that the tickets are good for a year.

On deck at the SS Great Britain

Of course, most non-locals never make it back within the year…but these frugal Americans did! (Thanks to Cheryl -:) We enjoyed seeing more of the museum that we missed on the first visit due to school groups and also took another walk through the ship. This was a small satisfaction for these frequent travelers!

A rather scruffy Isambard Brunel
Still love this bridge and this woman!

We spent one warm night in the top floor of a old school hotel in leafy Clifton (nicely near the Suspension bridge), but then strategically moved to an air conditioned room downtown for the peak days of the heat wave.

Bristol Harbour….so familiar on a third visit, and hey, our favorite brew pub is right there!

It WAS hot and the Hilton Garden Inn’s British AC system could barely keep up, especially when the sun bore down on our windows in the afternoon. Luckily we like this hotel due to its adjacency to a small park with nice mature trees that cooled it down a bit.

Tracking down Banksy’s street art in Bristol was a goal of our third visit
Banksy’s take on improving the planning process
Our Banksy hunt led to more great street art in Stokescroft
It certainly is!

This heat wave set all-time records throughout the UK…43c/104f in a land not adapted in culture, architecture, or A/C systems to such heat. Southern England is now experiencing a drought along with about 50% of the rest of Western Europe. The adaptation to the climate change that seems to be happening is going to be difficult, expensive, and disruptive to life as we know it….and of course, we are the lucky ones that can afford to move and adapt, while other poorer and more impacted nations suffer unduly for greenhouse gases they contribute little to generating.

The Cornubia Pub…a nice old pub in the heart of redeveloped Bristol
Cheryl’s heatwave adaption? Outdoor pomegranate cider at the Cornubia

But let’s move on to happier topics, like house bunnies. We had a nice 70km cycle from Bristol to Stroud, a pleasant historic canal town on the edge of the Cotswolds. It was a little hectic getting out of Bristol as the cycle infrastructure is spotty and confusing to the first time user.

Heading to Stroud

But the ride was generally pleasant, and Stroud made a good overnight stop, with the convenince of pub lodging….drinks, dinner, sleep, breakfast…check. We then rode back to the Gloucester Canal via the Stroud water, where we house sat for a nice young couple for the weekend, with primary duties looking after their two bunnies. The bunnies were super cute and lots of fun. Who knew rabbits had such personalities!? And Gloucester has an interesting revitalized docklands area and a spectacular cathedral.

Bunny dinner time in Gloucester

So one of the surprises of our first cycle touring days in the UK was the fact that it wasn’t that bad! After spending the better part of last winter in the UK, we had not deemed the roads, drivers, or train system too hospitable to bikes and basically decided that we’d use our precious cycling time elsewhere where the cycling seems safer and offered more freedom to discover. However, a critical law enacted in February mandates passing clearances of 1.5-2m for cars, as well as improved cyclist and pedestrian rights at intersections and crossings. Way to go UK!

You need a Canal and River Trust Key to work the locks….hmmm?

There is a also nascent national cycling network (with gaps), as well as local tourism loops and other marked routes in many cities and towns. But it’s hard to find online cycling maps and data, despite downloading and paying for the Ordiance Survey (OS Maps) App at the premium level. We had to piece together routing from Komoot, Google, and some of the National and local signage to find a good route. It should be easier.

On the Gloucester Canal

And many of the A or B roads are still absolutely no go in my view. For example we crossed a few primary roads (A roads) that Google had routed us on, and spent a km or two on some, but quickly bailed or found an alternate route as they were just too high speed with no shoulders. Some have bike lanes that disappear or are just way too narrow for traffic speeds.

Better signage along the recently restored Stroudwater Canal

As we alway say, England is a pretty crowded place and car use has run rampant since the 1970s, without the concurrent development of connective cycling infrastructure. It’s a similar pattern to the USA; the cities have led the way, while the suburban and rural areas have been neglected or fallen through the planning/funding cracks. In the UK, the physical challenges of the narrow roads are also harder to overcome, whereas in the US it is often more a lack of political will.

Cycle touring allows you savor all the small sights along the way

On the quieter backroads though, the cycling can be very rewarding as the small scale and undulations of the historic road system is perfect for cycle touring. And millions of British cycle frequently and we saw many out there….but they are mostly in high vis vests and it feels like a bit of a road warrior mentality that is not going to get the other 98% of the population out on bikes.

Gloucester Cathedral…part of the original Abbey dating back over 800 years
The magnificent modern stained glass tribute to Gerald Finzi done by Thomas Denny in 2016. The cathedral has some of the best stained glass in the world

The other huge positive was that almost all the drivers are respecting the new laws, so this did make it feel safer and more pleasant on many roads. However, heading up a steep narrow road with 5 cars stuck behind you waiting to pass safely is still not exactly the relaxing experience of a 5m wide Dutch cycleway. So we decided that we will try out a bit more of the National cycling network next time through the UK in September.

On the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, ultimately opened in 1827 after 30 difficult years. It provide boats a safe navigation past the dangerous tidal reach of the Severn River

So we headed out of Gloucester by train to Carmarthen, Wales, where our kind friends picked us up in their van for the final leg to Tenby. It was great (as always) to see our friends and we still are so thankful for their kindness in providing us some grounding for our European travels. Cheryl has known them for almost 40 years, and we feel especially close as generations age and kids turn into young adults. But somehow, we stay the same age, right?

Everybody smiling…except the dog!
We definitely get by with a little help from our friends…the drop at Fishguard
Beautiful Tenby Harbour at sunset

The swimming in Tenby was particularly pleasant in August and we enjoyed recuperating a bit before moving onto our next adventure; cycling and exploring Ireland, so we packed up our bikes and gear and our kind hosts shuttled us again to the Stena Line ferry in Fishguard, Wales for the 4 hour trip to Ireland. I’ve heard the Irish are pretty friendly too, but more on that next time.

My favorite traveling companion enjoying the views leaving Wales

Happy travels!

Our race across the Netherlands – by bike.

The best kind of photobombing. A happy cyclist behind a happy cyclist. The gorgeous bike parking garage in downtown Groningen evokes these feelings.

This was our second time cycle touring in the Netherlands, our first was in 2017. This felt different because we were on a longer cycle trip, and we had just come from countries widely considered to be cycling heavens – Germany, Sweden, and Denmark.

The all green for cyclists signal phase in Groningen. Fun to ride.

We were quickly reminded of why the Netherlands is still the gold standard for cyclists around the world. We needed to run a few errands while in Groningen for two nights, and those errands took us out to big box store land (A big cycling store, of course.). It was a breeze, a joy, to cycle there on wonderful protected cycle tracks. Almost no stop signs and maybe one or two traffic signals. The traffic flow was controlled with yield symbols which allowed for such seamless cycling. It was so fun to note that people on bikes are separated from people driving cars by space in so many situations. Underpasses for bikes. Bridges for bikes. Wide wide lanes where we could ride two abreast and chat and other people on bikes could easily pass us. If you’ve ever tried to cycle to big box store territory in the US you will understand our delight.

Enjoying a Groningen evening with drinks and the parade of people on bikes.

But our ferry reservation to the UK from the Hook of Holland (Hoek Van Holland) beckoned. We needed to get on our bikes and enjoy the riding. Quite a bit of riding to make the ferry. We could have taken a train hop, but the riding was so nice. And it’s flat in the Netherlands we said, right?

So off we went. Towards Zwolle.

Flat is nice, and easy in theory. And usually in reality. But with headwinds and crosswinds the flat kilometers start to hurt. 115 kilometers from Groningen to Zwolle, on loaded bikes, was a long day. I realized why I don’t have many photos from Zwolle. Too tired. And it was pretty warm weather so that takes it out of you too. Flat kilometers mean you stay in the same riding position a lot, and don’t get the hill climbing up and coasting down break for your legs. And as Rich’s cycling buddies is SF will attest, he is much happier on hills!

Warm enough that I switched to my hat from my helmet. I love that it feels so safe in the Netherlands that I can do that.
Signage along the National route we took.
So much of the route was completely car free. And a lot was asphalt free as well.
Way finding is still necessary though. Rich mixes in some Komoot routing. Shaded spots to stop were very welcome.
Ah… finally Zwolle.

When you get to your destination, you check in to the hotel, shower, and then head back out to get dinner. With a tight time line this was a one night stop, so the walk to and from dinner is your chance to sightsee in town.

Kitty wants back inside.

Up at 7:00, hotel breakfast, pack up, and back on the bikes! Next stop, Amersfoort, 92 kilometers away. It’s not fair to say we don’t get a chance to sightsee since we are sightseeing all day as we ride. And riding from town to town lets you appreciate what distances felt like pre automobile. You understand how separated places were in the days when walking, horse drawn conveyances, and canal boats ruled the landscape.

Leaving Zwolle, another physical separation of bikes and other modes.
A ferry just for bikes and pedestrians across the river IJssel.
On a long hot day sometimes the only thing that sounds good is cold chocolate milk!
Still smiling.
Big guy and a big bike.

Amersfoort was a logical place to stop for a night. It’s unlikely I could have gone much further in a day. It’s also a beautiful place to stop. There is a lot to be said for intensive travel planning, but the surprise of not knowing much about where you’re stopping, and finding it to be so beautiful, is like an unexpected gift. Instead of looking for the city you saw depicted in your research, you have a surprise around every turn.

Where are we? This is beautiful. Is what I said as we walked into the old part of the city.
Although we were both tired after supper we had to keep walking around.
And keep walking. Ahhh…Amersfoort.

Up again, breakfast again, on the bikes again. Today would take us through Utrecht and on to The Hague. Only 82 kilometers. In most countries the idea of riding through a major city and out the other side would be daunting. But this is the Netherlands.

Even animals get their own safe pathways across the roads. This is one of two wildlife overpasses we rode under while crossing the Panbos National Forest.
A quick stop to pick up lunch in Utrecht.
And across and out of Utrecht we go. With many other people on bikes.
Infrastructure like this makes cycling such a popular and valid way to travel. You truly feel seen and cared for as a person on a bike.
And on towards Den Hague we go.
Summer cycling sights.

Although we only slept one night in The Hague, our ferry didn’t start boarding until 7pm for a 10pm departure. So we had a full day for a museum visit and buying replacement panniers for me, my old ones having failed and no chance of getting them repaired before we left town. I left them at a bike shop who said they would repair and put them to good use and we pulled out of town around 4pm to ride the 28 kilometers to the ferry terminal. A good travel tip for transition days is to stay at a nice hotel, if you can. The staff at the Mövenpick Hotel were super helpful and we left our bikes and bags after checkout, visited the Mauritshuis Museum, and then picked up just the bikes and set out to get a new set of Ortlieb panniers for me. Back to the hotel, unpack and pack panniers, drop off old panniers and head out to the ferry.

On the way to the ferry.
The lovely cycle track heading to the ferry.
Seriously nice infrastructure all the way to the ship, which you can see to the left of the happy travel planner. We made it! And no one had an emotional breakdown by the side of the cycle track (that would have been me.).
Very smart ferry company. Sure, get on hours before we set out and enjoy a few drinks and dinner!

Watch for an all ferry post in the future, we have three more bike/ferry trips planned – it’s not only how we avoid flying, but also so much easier with bicycles. And for parents with small children it appears. Load the car with kids and your gear and then have fun on the ship while you cross to the UK.

The happy travelers on the ferry boat to Harwich.

This concludes our self imposed race across the Netherlands. We’re glad we didn’t miss a single kilometer of this over 300km ride in cycling nirvana.