The bicycle is the only way of travelling that combines almost effortless freedom and speed with total immersion in our surroundings: the sun, wind and rain, every sight, smell and sound. Ernest Hemingway said, “it is by riding a bike that you learn the contours of a country best” and I’ve ridden thousands of miles throughout southern England in search of the best bike rides in the most beautiful and inspiring places. Here’s my selection of the ten most tranquil, often entirely traffic-free places that are perfect for a pleasurable spin.
1. Windsor Great Park
‘The Royal Landscape’, as it’s billed, is a cycling paradise. The paths, which are shared with walkers, are well-surfaced and mostly traffic free. From the Savill Garden, with its futuristic pavilion and 35 acres of ornamental planting and exotic woodland, there’s a 5 mile lakeside circuit around Virginia Water, once the biggest man-made lake in Britain. The ride takes in a sequence of unexpected curiosities: a colossal totem pole from British Columbia, a surprisingly big waterfall and the ruins of a Roman temple, shipped all the way from north Africa in the nineteenth century. The north of the Park is emptier and quiet roads through magnificent groves of trees offer commanding views over Windsor Castle and the Thames Valley.
2. East Kent coastline
One of the first railways to carry passengers, the ‘Crab and Winkle’ line from Canterbury to Whitstable was never a commercial success but has been given a second life as a popular cycling and walking path. Pretty Whitstable is home to famous oysters and a visual arts biennale and from here it’s possible to follow the seaside promenades for miles, passing through Herne Bay and eventually reaching the imposing ruined towers at Reculver. Head inland along lanes though the sleepy villages of Marshside, Stodmarsh to Fordwich from where a cycle path follows the course of the Great Stour back to Canterbury.
3. Upper Thames, Reading
The Thames Path is an perfect escape route from the centre of Reading (in either direction). A couple of miles east along quiet lanes and tracks lies Mapledurham House, a red brick country house in the grand ‘Jacobethan’ style. Nearby nestles a small church and a working watermill, the last of its kind on Thames. In early summer the bridleways that lead to picturesque Whitchurch-on-Thames are are lined with marsh orchids and continuing upstream, a riverside track through the woods offers plenty of opportunities for a wild swim in the river. At Goring there are trains back to Reading, though the more energetic might follow the ancient Ridgeway up onto the Berkshire Downs, from where the views across Oxfordshire are exceptional.
4. Walberswick, Blythburgh and Dunwich, Suffolk
The seaside village of Walberswick has an arty feel about it with a pretty green and ramshackle wooden buildings dotting the shingle beach. A raised path along the estuary leads towards Blythburgh, where stands the arrestingly grand ‘cathedral of the marshes’, a reminder of the wealth that wool brought to medieval Suffolk. Lining the timber roof of the church are angels in flight, carved in wood. From here it’s quiet back lanes, first through farm land then through pine scented health as far as Dunwich whose tiny village museum tells the story of how the city was lost to the waves.
5. Royal Parks, Central London
London is the epicentre of Britain’s cycling revival and at its vanguard the hardened commuters who speed in and out of the city. More leisurely cycling can be found in the Royal Parks on Sundays, when motor vehicles are banned from the Mall and Constitution Hill. This makes it possible to ride all the way from the Houses of Parliament to Notting Hill on broad, traffic free boulevards and cycle paths across the parks. Once in Hyde Park take a break from the saddle by paddling in the Princess Diana’s memorial fountain or pop into the Serpentine Gallery, whose exhibitions of contemporary are usually free of charge. Beyond Kensington Palace is London’s ‘embassy row’, closed to through traffic but open to cyclists who are free to admire the grandiose ambassadorial residencies.