This cycle ride follows the entire UK coastline with a few inland diversions so that a few extra pubs of note can be incorporated into the route. Not too many detours mind you, otherwise it would get rather silly. But it is easy to get go off-piste and get pissed instead of focusing on the mission.
The route sticks to the coastline and all tarmac roads are included along with some off-road riding and cycle routes. Only where it is impossible to follow the coast does the route go around obstacles such as oil refineries, secured docks or ports and nuclear power stations. There are also some areas where cycles are not permitted on footpaths. However, the route is pretty pedantic or punctilious in that it goes along plenty of dead ends in order to tick the completist box. The route also calls upon some long-lost taverns where the tide has gone out for good. Consequently, if you are a tadge obsessive then you may wish to follow in our wheels. Alternatively, you can pick and choose amid these travel notes and do a little corner-cutting. We will not be scoping your Garmin or Strava pages to check!
There are people who like to cycle from A to B in rapid time. For example, in June 2018 Michael Broadwith cycled from Land's End to John O'Groats in 43 hours, 25 minutes and 13 seconds. In the previous year Mark Beaumount pedalled for 221 hours over 14½ days to complete his journey around the coastline of Britain. Clearly this pair did not call into a pub for a few beers en-route. Indeed, their average speed suggests that calls of nature were conducted in the saddle!
For me, the best record-breaking End-to-End attempt was that of Ellie Bennett who, along with her best friend Mick, ran up a massive bar tab between Cornwall and Caithness. On the first day they got waylaid by an excellent pub just 16 miles north of Land's End and ended up having a session. Somehow between rounds she managed to scribble down her account of the journey for a wonderful book entitled "Mud, Sweat and Gears." Treat yourself to this book - believe me, you will fall off your bar stool at some of her stories.
So where am I heading with these examples at both ends of the cycling spectrum - from G.C. Contenders to the Lantern Rouge? Well, if you are chasing Strava KOM's then this route guide is not for you. This is more about seeing Britain close-up and personal, along with meeting people on the way. The journey is broken up into leisurely days of around 80 kilometres each stage. This allows for lots of exploration, enjoying the scenery and nipping into the pub for a beer. We stopped to look at most places and locations of interest so each day is full of intrigue and adventure. So forget the average speed for what is the point of circumnavigating the country without appreciating the rich tapestry the journey has to offer.
Did I mention the tent? No? Sod that for a game of soldiers. Indeed, once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I did rough it in uniform. On leaving the world of bivvy bags and trench-digging, I vowed that I would not be kipping under canvas again. If you require a new definition for the phrase "pissing in the wind" try to conjure up an image of darting out of a tent after downing a few pints of bitter in the local cliff-top hostelry. Add to that the inevitable stumble over the guy rope or worse - treading barefoot on a protruding tent peg. Or how about a flip-flop blowout in something squelchy underfoot in the dark. No thank-you, I want a comfy bed, a proper loo and a hot shower at the end of a day in the saddle.
Fellow grimpeurs, consider also the fact that only a complete idiot would want to lug extra kilograms of canvas and equipment up steep climbs out of sleepy fishing villages. If you look up oxymoron on your favourite online encyclopaedia there will be an image of a glamping cyclist. And yet on the road we have encountered those who insist on carrying their kitchen sink around the countryside. They are usually pushing their bike up an incline. The term push-bike went out of fashion when fancy derailleurs became standard equipment. Sir Cliff saw out the 1950s by singing "No comb and no toothbrush, I've got nothing to haul, I'm carryin' only a pocket full of dreams, a handful of love, and they weigh nothing at all." You can even hum "Travellin' Light" as you glide past pannier-bursting cyclists struggling up the hill out of Robin Hood's Bay after a hearty lunch and a few beers in the Laurel Inn.
Undoubtedly, the most leisurely way to cycle around the coast is to be a free spirit and park up overnight wherever your heart desires. Alternatively, if you plan ahead you can sleep in relative comfort at very affordable prices within a Travelodge or Premier Inn. The key reason that we use these hotels is that you can take your bikes in the room for extra security and added peace-of-mind. Indeed, when you stop anywhere for a beer or to have a mooch, DO NOT leave your bike unattended. Bike locks can be removed in seconds and your heart will sink when your pride and joy, along with all your valuables inside the panniers, have vanished. Some of the folks running B&B's do not seem to appreciate this when you ask to park inside the house or garage. By the way, if you wish the likes of Travelodge or Premier Inn to continue allowing bikes within their rooms, please do not treat the place as a garage. Bike cleaning, repairs and maintenance should be conducted outside the building. Care should also be taken not to mark or scratch the walls and/or furniture.
Technically, you can start and finish the route from anywhere on the coastline. However, the geographer within me determined that the logical place to embark on such a trip is the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Hey, there's a quiz question ... how many times will this journey cross the prime meridian?
The second quiz question, and one I come back to often myself, is why did I elect to travel in an anticlockwise direction? Most people undertaking the End-to-End ride start at Land's End because the prevailing south-westerly wind provides a little assistance during the ride. Or a lot of assistance when it is blowing a gale. Unless, of course, one rides during the Spring when there is a higher frequency of north-easterly winds. Considering that Greenwich is partly a memorial to John Harrison, a good quote to roll out here is courtesy of Stefan Emunds who once said "Time is an illusion, timing is an art."
So, logic would seem to suggest clockwise is the correct way to travel around the coastline. However, the poet and author Anthony Liccione once said that "timing is everything. But then they say, there is never a perfect time for anything." One element of my logic was that my riding partner, La Goddess du Vélo, does not particularly like riding up steep hills. Consequently, I thought the gentle terrain of Essex and Suffolk would be a good opening gambit rather than hearing obscenities being hurled at me when climbing out of Kent's shoreline villages. Apparently, it is my fault that the map contours are closer together in such locations. It doesn't matter how good the beer may be in The Coastguard at St. Margaret's at Cliffe, the climb up Bay Hill is guaranteed to get the heart rate going and the language blue.
I won't bore you to death with too many details about equipment and planning as everyone has their own method of doing things. I purchased a used bike on e-bay for this trip so I wouldn't fret too much about getting it knocked about a bit. The previous owner had looked after the bike and, after a bit of a clean-up this is pretty much how it looked. The Van Nicholas Yukon, a titanium touring machine, was almost a decade old but still rolling along nicely. As luck would have it, a matching titanium seatpost appeared on e-bay a few days later so this was quickly added, along with a new saddle to fit my wider hips.
I took the second-hand machine to my local bike shop to have a safety check and service. Reece Lowe of Brotherton Cycles also set the bike up to the measurements he determined on a recent bike fit. And, as he is also an all-round good bloke, he ensured the bike was in tip-top shape for the journey. The tyres had plenty of tread but I inserted some inner tube liners for added puncture protection on this trip.
Van Nicholas had issued this bike with a triple groupset and the teeth on the chainrings were in reasonable shape. A long cage derailleur also enabled large sprockets so, combined with the lightweight frame, I was well equipped for the climbs. I added a Tubus titanium pannier rack. These are fairly expensive but they weigh next-to-nothing. I did have to bend the titanium rods to custom fit to the bike and to avoid the rear caliper brake. If you go down this route I thoroughly recommend that you buy a tube bender. These can be picked up for less than £20 and make the job so much easier and neater than pliers, grips and a vice, the bonus being the rods do not get scratched during the process.
Ortlieb panniers are not the lightest bags on the market but they are renowned for being both robust and waterproof. You should only head off with cheap canvas panniers if you have everything wrapped or double-wrapped in plastic bags! Ortlieb panniers also hold a lot of kit - not that you want to fill them up too much. As you can detect from the above paragraphs, I tried to go as light as possible. Weight-saving can be the key to success or failure on the hill climbs. That is, of course, if you consider walking uphill to be a failure. It isn't, especially when you are lugging heavy bags so give yourself a break and do what is comfortable. I am rather stubborn or pig-headed when it comes to climbing uphill but remember you are supposed to be having fun not torturing yourself.
I do not normally use a saddle bag because the road tart in me worries about ruining the aesthetic of the bike. However, for such a journey one needs to carry mucky stuff like chain lube and a convenient place to store a bike lock. If I have a criticism of the Ortlieb bags it is that there is no small compartment for stuff that you do not want to leak into your clothing. I guess they do not want to compromise on the waterproof properties by stitching a pocket on the outside. Anyway, there was no way I was going to risk putting a bottle of chain lube into the main bag.
The bidon attached to the seat tube is used for emergency repair equipment such as tools, levers, one of the spare inner tubes, chain links, and a host of other bits that will get the bike going again should something pack up. If you think that you require two water bidons then you are clearly not spending enough time calling into a hostelry for a locally-produced beer. The front end or cockpit should have a light, mapping device, top tube bag for food bars, lens wipes, latex gloves etc. The latter are essential for preventing the transfer of oil or grease to your clothes and bar tape should you need to fix something. A bell is also a must-have bit of equipment for warning pedestrians that you are approaching on a shared path. Right, that's enough on kit - if you need further help or advice you can send a message and I will try to help you out.
Reserving spaces for our bikes, we travelled to London on the Virgin Trains service to Euston. We were not starting our coastal journey until the following morning so we had an afternoon to explore the areas further upstream from Greenwich, particularly Rotherhithe.
To avoid the pedestrian clog on the South Bank, it is best to cross the river at Tower Bridge before heading eastwards alongside the Thames. From the bridge one can see part of the old Courage brewery that operated on the southern side of the river. Once over the bridge it is only a few wheel revolutions to the first of this journey's pub stories. Although now gentrified, from the footbridge across St. Saviour's Dock it is possible to visualise and get a sense of the busy activity tackled by the cranes and warehouses in days of old.
A tidal inlet first dug out by Bermondsey Abbey's monks in the early 12th century and named after their patron Saint Saviour, the dock was created at a point where the short River Neckinger enters the Thames. Apart from times of flood, the watercourse was never up to much and is now largely within the sewer network. However, its macabre name is thought to derive from "devil's neckcloth," otherwise known as the hangman's noose, due to it being one of the locations used in the 17th century to hang convicted pirates.
The Victorian historian Henry B. Wheatley wrote in 1891 that there was 'much good evidence' that the 'Devil's Neckinger' ... the ancient place of punishment and execution' was at the site of the Dead Tree Inn on Jacob's Island.' Looking from the footbridge, Jacob's Island is to the left of the Dock.
Rolling alongside Bermondsey Beach, the path passes through Cherry Gardens in which a number of cherry trees were re-planted in the early 1980s to commemorate the orchard frequented and patronised by the likes of Samuel Pepys. As an administrator of the navy, the diarist would often pass through the gardens on his route to the Royal Dockyards in Greenwich. His diary entry for June 13th, 1664 records "and so to Cherry-gardens and carried some cherries home." Pepys possibly believed that the cherries possessed some aphrodisiac properties for he wrote that, following his supper, he went to bed with "my wife lying with me." On another occasion she, along with two maids, accompanied Pepys to play bowls at the nearby pleasure gardens connected with Jamaica House.
After a few wheel revolutions the statues of the Salter family come into view, along with one of the great pubs of London. Here, Dr. Alfred Salter looks towards the river. His wife Ada Brown is stood a few metres away and against the wall is their daughter Joyce, along with the family cat. The figures were created by Diane Gorvin and unveiled in 1991 but the statue of Alfred waving to his daughter was stolen in November 2011, presumably sold for scrap metal. A local campaign group raised £60,000 which, combined with funding from Southwark Council, enabled a replacement statue to be placed here in 2014. Named Dr. Salter's Daydream, the ensemble of statues shows Alfred in his old age imagining his daughter Joyce as she was before her tragic death at the age of 8 through Scarlet Fever. It was a terrible price to pay for the couple who elected to live in the slums of Bermondsey in order to improve the conditions of the poor and impoverished. Social reformers, environmentalists, pacifists and Quakers, they launched the 'Bermondsey Revolution,' an experiment in municipal government that attracted attention throughout Europe. After reading about their lives and personal beliefs, they were perhaps the greatest socialists of the 20th century.
As teetotallers and supporters of the Temperance Movement, Alfred and Ada would have been saddened to see us retire to The Angel. However, this historic house is a place to enrich the soul. This view from Bermondsey Wall shows the relationship between the building and the River Thames. Affording superb views across the river, it is thought that J. M. W. Turner painted The Fighting Temeraire from the tavern's balcony. If this story is accurate then the plasterwork within the building was still drying alongside the artist's oils for the building was, according to the corner panel, erected in 1837. A survivor of the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Temeraire was towed to the breaker's yard during the following year.
As you can see from this photograph, The Angel stands in isolation these days but the building was once surrounded by the workshops of barge builders, grain warehouses and a sea of housing. Just behind our bicycles was the old Rotherhithe Stairs. The tide was in and the water was slapping up against the building. A sign inside the pub asks customers to close the windows at high tide. The panel on the corner states that: "The Angel, rebuilt c.1837, in its present form is by far the oldest tavern sign in Rotherhithe. It is recorded in the 17th century and may go back to the Middle Ages. The Angel was once diagonally opposite, alongside the moat of King Edward III's mansion." You will find an information board next to the foundations of this manor house which was discovered when the old warehouses were demolished. The old tavern was referenced by Samuel Pepys in 1682 when he no doubt enjoyed a tipple or two at "the famous Angel." Less authenticated is the legend that James Cook prepared for his voyage to Australia from here.
The remains of King Edward III's pile were of lesser interest to us than seeing the fabulous interior of The Angel. The former Courage pub was saved from long-term neglect by Samuel Smith's Old Brewery at Tadcaster. The Yorkshire firm also operate the Anchor Tap, another fine old tavern nearby in Horselydown Lane. Undertaken around 2005, the restoration project saw the introduction of new timbers but the dark-wood partitions look terrific and maintain the Victorian feel of the pub's interior. Purists may sneer at the absence of original timbers but the Tadcaster brewery made such a splendid job of the restoration it is something of a showcase. Indeed, it could be argued that it should act as a template for other pub companies who have gone down the 'contemporary' route and created empires of homogeneity.
Not so Victorian but lovely nonetheless is the terrazzo flooring of the bar areas. You can see how low you have to stoop to access the other areas of the bar through the partitions. It's all very lovely. A group of old men were playing dominoes in the far room. Indeed, the Tadcaster brewery like to promote traditional bar games in many of their houses. Already noted for banning piped music, in 2019 the company introduced rules forbidding the use of mobile telephones, tablets and laptops inside their pubs, the aim being to bar activities that discouraged conversation. We love this but I wonder how the younger generation will cope without an electronic device?
The Tadcaster Brewery produces very little cask ale and some of the pubs do not stock any at all. However, we compensate for this by ordering the rather excellent Pure Brewed Organic Lager Beer. We have enjoyed a couple of great moments when rolling up to a pub on a hot day and ordering this lager. It really is a great thirst-quenching drink and enjoyably more bitter flavoured than many lagers. Officially, the beer is produced "using only organic malted barley, organic hops, medium-soft water and a bottom-fermenting yeast which is matured at low temperatures to bring out its delicate flavour and soft hop-character finish." Today, on a hot afternoon it was most agreeable.
Back outside we were surprised at how quiet it was on this section of Bermondsey Wall - and yet we were only a short distance from busy central London. The 21st century visitor can perhaps yearn to hear the calls of boatmen, barges being unloaded, cranes hoisting up sacks into the warehouses and the general sounds analogous with the old river trade. Today, when the tide is low, one is more likely to encounter mudlarkers unearthing the city's past on the muddy foreshore. On a larger scale, the old warehouses may have gone but there is something quite pleasurable with London's palimpsest being rolled back to reveal fragments of the 14th century next to one of London's pub treasures.
We cycled a short distance before stopping to look across the Thames towards Wapping. The focus of our attention was the Captain Kidd public-house at St. John's Wharf. The pub was opened in the 1980s within a former coffee warehouse. At one time coffee was just one of the more expensive commodities to be brought up the Thames to the docks at Wapping. All manner of spices, rum, tobacco, silks and fur were deemed ample booty by the pirates that plundered ships operating to and from London.
The pub commemorates William Kidd, one of the most notorious pirates who was eventually captured and put to death at Execution Dock in 1701. Judge George Jeffreys, the man dishing out many of the death sentences, was said to visit the aforementioned Angel public house in order to watch men perish across the water at Execution Dock. It is also claimed that gallows were located at the dockside so that the tide could wash over the body three times. To deter potential thieves, pirates and other miscreants, convicted nautical plunderers were left to hang in a metal cage in what was a ghastly spectacle. William Kidd was hung twice as the first hangman's rope snapped. His decomposing body was gibbeted over the River Thames at Tilbury Point for three years.
Rolling into the heart of Rotherhithe we trundled along Elephant Lane from the site of The Torbay to appreciate The Ship, a very tidy-looking inter-war edifice on the corner of St. Marychurch Street. Looking at old maps, it would appear that the older Ship was on the other side of the street close to the graveyard. According to a sale notice of 1868 The Ship still occupied a corner position. The building stood at the northern end of Henley Close, a housing development named after Alderman A. G. Henley, who was killed fire-watching during World War Two. Many of the immediate buildings and yards were devoted to the timber trade, almost all for barge builders. At the time of The Ship opening on this site in 1939 one old barge builder told a reporter that in his younger years the old sailing ships used to lay up with their bows, figureheads and all, jutting across the streets of what was still a village. He remembered The Ship and Pilot, the Waterman's Arms, the Black Bull, the Jolly Waterman, Bunch of Grapes, White Lion and The Torbay, the latter being the only survivor at that time.
Further along St. Marychurch Street is St. Mary's Free School, a building with two figures of school children on scroll corbels. Thought to be the oldest elementary school in London, it was founded in 1612 by the seafarers Peter Hills and Robert Bell for the education of children of other local seafarers. The school was moved to this house in 1797. The school was later amalgamated with other local charity schools. The building was requisitioned during World War Two and used by the fire brigade.
The small building to the right of the old school is the former Watch House from which local watchmen would patrol the locality keeping an eye out for criminal activity, particularly body-snatchers in the graveyard. There was a demand for bodies by surgeons at the nearby Guy's hospital who required corpses to conduct medical research or for use in anatomy lectures. The Anatomy Act was passed in 1832, which made it an offence to rob a grave. Prior to the Act the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes were the bodies of those condemned to death.
The Church of Saint Mary at Rotherhithe was rebuilt in 1714-15, to a design by John James, an associate of Sir Christopher Wren. Due to a lack of funding, the tower was not added until 1747. There are many interesting links to the church, particularly the story of Prince Lee Boo of Palau who came to Rotherhithe from the Pacific Islands and lived with Captain Wilson and his family. He contracted smallpox and was buried close to the entrance to the church. A communion table and two bishop's chairs within the church are said to have been crafted from timbers taken from HMS Temeraire, the warship immortalised on canvas by J. M. W. Turner from the balcony of The Angel.
Within the churchyard of Saint Mary's there is a memorial to Christopher Jones, master of The Mayflower ship that sailed to the New World in 1620. Around the ship-shaped base of the statue there is an inscription that reads: "To the memory of Christopher Jones 1570-1622, master of the Mayflower. He landed 102 planters and adventurers at Plymouth, Massachusetts 21st December 1620. They formed the Mayflower Compact and the first permanent colony in New England. The statue is thought to represent Jones looking back at England, while a child he is holding is looking towards the New World. The statue was paid for by the 'Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims.'
Christopher Jones was almost certainly born in Harwich, the Essex port where it is thought that The Mayflower was built. There is no certainty on these facts, though there are very strong grounds that both are accurate. Jones was married twice at the Church of Saint Nicholas in Harwich, both wives being from families with maritime interests. By 1820 Christopher Jones was a part-owner of The Mayflower and living in Rotherhithe from where the ship was operating as a goods vessel. Some sources suggest that he cunningly moored close to Saint Mary's Church in order to avoid paying dock fees and taxes further down the river.
Considering that this was the place from which The Mayflower sailed, it was something of a surprise that we did not encounter any tourists from the United States. The ship is something of an icon in American culture. More surprising, perhaps, that there was not an inn sign commemorating the ship in Rotherhithe Street until 1958. And so, like true pilgrims, we made our way to the tavern. We walked our bikes through the churchyard and narrow cobbled street which, with only a little imagination, conjurs up the image of a pea-souper fog in the dark. Perhaps the odd scream or two in the distance! Certainly, the locale is evocativley Dickensian.
The Mayflower is a charming little pub. There were 102 passengers aboard The Mayflower and, despite the fact that the tavern has a first-floor dining area, I get the sense that they would struggle to squeeze 102 people into the premises. Thankfully, there is a toilet - there was no such fancy convenience on the vessel crossing the Atlantic ocean. On their way to the New World, passengers were expected to make their own arrangements! Sailing into westerly winds, the journey took two months and rations were running low so I imagine that the bowel movements of most passengers was thankfully not so regular!
Beer was the safest drink on the voyage to the New World and the passengers drank little else. In the spirit of the 17th century voyagers, today's Mayflower is well-stocked with real ales. The handpulls dispense beers from regional brewers and a few exciting ales from the likes of Dark Star. One handpull often has a house beer named Scurvy, a disease from which the pilgrims suffered en-route to the New World. The 17th century theme is palpable throughout the interior fixtures and fittings whereby a sense of being at sea was the objective of its design. Contrivance I hear the from the pub puritans but such stratagems have been rolled out in many a tavern over the years.
The alternative to a retro-styled public house was a modernist new build once the dust had settled after World War 2. Rotherhithe was hit very badly by Luftwaffe bombing missions and a merry night in the pub was wrecked by a high-explosive bomb blowing the upper floor off completely. The boardroom members at the Charrington's brewery made the decision to rebuild from the ground floor shell up.
Following its restoration, the building was subsequently named The Mayflower. It had previously traded as the Spread Eagle and Crown and remained as such immediately after the war when the house continued to trade, presumably with a temporary roof! A glimpse of the old tavern can be see in the wonderful Pathé film above which shows how the building was both pub and post office. Apparently, The Mayflower is still the only pub licensed to sell US & UK postage stamps.
The post-war rebuild was not the first time that the pub has had to be repaired. The building was badly damaged by fire in the early 19th century. The building lost its roof when fire spread from the neighbouring Blue Mountain granary at Church Stairs in November 1834. The firemen concentrated their efforts on preventing the flames spreading to the church. The pub and several houses were severely damaged by the conflagration.
The first tavern to stand on the site was the Shippe Inn and may have dated from the 16th century. Serving ales to thirsty sailors and boatmen, it is thought to have been erected with the timbers of wrecked vessels. Of course, there is conjecture that the house featured timbers from The Mayflower which was left to rot in the Thames after it sailed back to Rotherhithe battered and bruised from the trans-Atlantic ordeal. Something to ponder if you nab a seat on the wooden jetty at the rear of the pub from where there are fine views of the river.
There is a milestone embedded in the frontage of The Mayflower; Rotherhithe Street once formed part of a key route along the docks. Across the street is the Sands Films Cinema Club and Theatre, a marvellous resource and facility founded by Richard Goodwin and Christine Edzard in the early 1970s. The cinema hosts a wildly eclectic programme throughout the year.
A few metres further on Rotherhithe Street opens out into a square, the centrepiece of which is the Brunel Museum located in the old engine house designed by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel as part of the infrastructure of the Thames Tunnel. Connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping, this was the first tunnel constructed successfully beneath a navigable river. Though the project was long and arduous, including the loss of lives, it was an engineering triumph and became a major tourist attraction in the mid-19th century. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, son of the designer, saw the project through and the tunnel opened to the public in March 1843.
Entrance to the museum is £6 but we were pressed for time and didn't want to leave our bikes for any lengthy period so we will return to the old engine house on another trip. However, we still had some fun outside. La Goddess du Vélo plonked herself on a model of Hungerford Bridge. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the suspension bridge was opened in 1845 but was demolished in 1860 to make way for the railway. The piers of the bridge are still in use. The chains from the old bridge were recycled and used in the Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol.
Route Notes to be continued...
Have Your Say
If you would like to share any further information on this route - perhaps you drank in different pubs? Or maybe you spotted something I missed en-route? Whatever the reason it would be great to hear of your stories or route guidance for others. Simply send a message and I will post it here.