It was a trip down memory lane that we had wanted to make for some time; Canterbury is a place that has a very special place in the hearts of my wife Charlotte, and I. We both grew up in the north eastern village of Tynemouth. Bizzarely, at different times in our younger lives, we both lived in THE SAME northern terraced house! We moved in the same social circles, yet we had never met until university, and we began our relationship at the opposite end of the country in Kent! We are fortunate to have enjoyed a very happy marriage ever since.
That was twenty years ago. The arrival of our loving, lively, and adventurous son James has enriched our lives further. Now that James is old enough, (and an incredibly competent bike rider for one of so few years) we jumped at the opportunity to revisit an area that holds so much meaning for us; I got a call from Graham at cycling holiday company Saddle Skedaddle to ask if we could go and check out some routes in Kent. Apart from the nostalgia, we were really excited about showing James the places that made our university years so memorable. The fact that there is plenty of beautiful countryside and fun riding, both on and off-road, made the trip extra appealing (I probably spent too much time mountain biking instead of studying whilst at university). After so many years, would the medieval city of Canterbury and its environs have changed?
Canterbury is also the start of another special journey; the Via Romea Francigena, (VFR) ‘The Road to Rome’, (though the full cycle route ends in Brindisi on the south east coast of Italy). The VFR utilises the Eurovelo 5 route. It is one of 15 long distance cycle routes throughout Europe, funded by the EU, to promote sustainable tourism. The cycle route is based on the pilgrims route first travelled in the early middle ages by Canterbury Archbishop Sigeric, and took in an extensive itinerary of sites of religious significance. You can find out more about the history here, along with lots of good information about the walking and cycling route versions.
After a relatively quick train journey, we arrived to warm Autumnal sunshine. It was disorientating; as we wandered in the direction of Wincheap and our hotel, Canterbury felt familiar yet strange. It was clear the city had changed in many ways.
The Canterbury Hotel gave us a warm welcome and showed us to an immaculate and comfortable family room. Throughout our stay, the staff were excellent and accommodated our every request. The breakfasts were superb and cooked to order. Thoroughly recommended.
We wandered back to the city centre and searched out Bike Tart; a bike and hire shop just north of the cathedral. James had taken his own bike but Charlotte and I hired well maintained hybrids to make the train journeys easier.
It was all a bit hectic! We had forgotten just how busy and bustling Canterbury can be! The plan on day one was to ride out to Whitstable on the Crab and Winkle Way, which utilises National Route 1. Whitstable was an old haunt for us and as we climbed out past the much changed University of Kent, I started to remember the tranquil appeal of the rolling North Downs countryside. We passed close to Blean Woods, a rabbit warren of woodland singletrack, rode through apple orchards, and more ancient woodland behind Pean Hill (where we once rented a room in a huge country mansion!). The late summer air was warm but had a slight haze that heralds the change in the season.
We pulled up on Whitstable sea front in stunning early evening light. Not a breath of wind and the slight aroma of soft sea air. After riding to the harbour, we picked out The Lobster Shack for an evening meal. It was a great choice, and we all wolfed down perfectly cooked fish and chips as the sun set over the Isle of Sheppey.
It had been a long day already, with a longer ride planned for the morning. We had lights but opted to take the train back to Canterbury to save James’ legs! Getting the local trains with bikes could not be easier, and all the train staff we met were friendly and helpful when taking our cycles on and off the trains.
The morning dawned misty and damp but the forecast promised warm sunshine. Today our plan was to ride the first leg of the VFR, utilising the The Cathedral to Coast Cycle Route (that is mostly National Route 16) all the way through to Dover. We passed Canterbury cathedral as the very european feeling lanes slowly filled with tourists.
Once again, the crowds and the bustle gradually melted behind us as we headed south east on gently shallow climbs. In a short space of time, we virtually had the tranquil north downs to ourselves. Soon we passed through Patrixbourne; a quintessential Kentish village, complete with oast houses and rose gardens.
Soon after, the sun started to burn through the morning mist and the temperature climbed to a very pleasant twenty degrees. Now, James is definitely a bit #rad when it comes to bike riding (self proclaimed). He rides black runs at mountain bike trail centres. He loves it steep, rocky, rooty, and preferably slippery and wet! We were slightly concerned that the ‘gentle’ and ‘relaxing’ Kentish route would not keep him entertained, especially over our twenty five mile plotted route. Fortunately, the rolling country lanes and tunnels of trees had a very calming effect and he happily pedalled away, settling in to the calming rhythm of the undulating terrain, and enjoying the nuances of the old buildings and local landmarks. Only once did he get ‘carried away’… a couple of road riders went past at the bottom of a climb and James went sprinting after them. At a pretty alarming pace. Fortunately for them, they crested the climb just as James was convincingly bridging the gap! There were some alarmed faces as they glanced over their shoulders to see a six year old, on flat pedals, chasing them uphill at well over ten miles an hour 🙂
Soon came the highlight for James, and a convenient refuelling stop for us; we diverted into Aylesham to stock up at the Co-op. There was also a fair on. James won cuddly toys. It was a GOOD day.
We got going again. We had an eye on the clock and still around fifteen miles to go. Let’s push on…
Erm, not quite. I’d been browsing for interesting places to eat and drink. A name that caught my attention was The Wrong Turn micro pub. Soon after Aylesham, a sign for the spot drew us down a quiet gravel lane. Piano music drifted out the door across the now hot still air. It would have been VERY rude to have not gone in… How nice to play some relaxing music instead of the usual canned pub music.
We were very pleasantly surprised to walk in the tiny front room style bar and see the back of a young guy playing the upright piano with skill and grace. It was a magic moment and we just stood and listened for what seemed like an age.
Charlotte tried a local cider and I a local real ale. We sat in the very warm sunshine. We’ll get moving again in a minute…
Moving properly now, we soon passed through the medieval village of Barfrestone. The village has been inhabited for over a thousand years and its centre piece is its church, which is regarded as one of the finest examples of Norman ecclesiastical architecture in Britain. Churches from this period can be found all the way along the route and lend a timeless air to the small country villages that have grown up around them.
By now, the late afternoon sun was loosing its edge and James’ hill sprints had lost a bit of their kick. However, we kept moving consistently and eventually began the sweeping descent towards the headland on which Dover castle sits imposingly. Seeing the channel and explaining to James that we had essentially ridden from the north coast of Kent to the south made him immensely proud; it was his first Coast to Coast ride and he’s already got plans for bigger and longer…
After the peaceful and quiet country roads we had ridden, (we never had any issues with traffic, or felt concerned for James) the final descent into Dover requires some care and thought; there are two roads down; one is the left fork, marked as the National Cycle Route option. It looked pretty steep and dark from overhanging trees. The right fork is a faster road but with better lines of sight, despite the footpath being fairly narrow. this is the option we took, and with care we confidently descended into the back of the town.
Down on the seafront we meandered up and down the promenade, got some great views of the white cliffs behind the ferry terminal, and James devoured a family size bag of popcorn. He’d earned it.
We gazed up at the Dover underground hospital, embedded high up in the white cliffs. The hospital was built to care for injured troops in the second world war and is a stark reminder of the frontier status of this incredibly busy and symbolic port.
We were all ready for a square meal. A quick ride up to the train station, a five minute wait, a fifteen minute journey and we were back in Canterbury! It seemed surreal to return so quickly after travelling by bike all day, albeit it at a leisurely pace!
After storing the bikes, we headed into the city centre, which was now heaving. Fortunately, we found a table at a Greek restaurant; Zeus. Now, when it comes to Greek food, Charlotte and I are a pretty tough audience; we lived and worked in Greece together for two years and prior to meeting, Charlotte ran a kitchen on Rhodes. As it turned out, the food was superb. I would even go so far as saying it was one of the best Greek meals I’ve had.
We ambled back to the hotel and James had a second wind when he returned to the incredibly bounce-able king size bed… The, ‘sooner you go to sleep, the sooner you get to breakfast’ line worked pretty well and once his head was down, he was out in seconds.
On the final morning James had definitely lost his fire. So, whilst James and Charlotte wandered the excellent Canterbury shops and cafes, I went for a spin around the twisting lanes south of Canterbury. It was another perfect day weatherise and the Great Stour Way was busy with people of all ages walking and riding along the riverbanks in the early morning sunshine. Off the trail now and into a fantastic loop of narrow lanes, which wound through small hamlets and some iconic local landmarks. It was fantastic to revisit some old haunts, cut through the significant changes around the centre of Canterbury, and realise the historic countryside had retained it’s timeless charm.
The windmill at Stelling Minnis was stunning against the bluebird sky.
I also passed several spectacular oast houses and hamlet scenes reminiscent of a Constable painting:
After stopping to take in the characterful details of these places and snapping a load of pictures, I had completely lost track of time; I had to give it some beans back to Canterbury! Back in town we met up with an old university friend who chose to stay in Canterbury post degree. It was like we had never been away and the time we had before boarding the return train flew past. Outside Canterbury West station we dived in and out of The Goods Shed; a farmer’s market and foodhall. Another definite recommendation with loads of locally grown and hand made food. It seemed a shame to dash out and just make the train…
We had enjoyed a fantastic few days. The routes we rode were perfect for family or leisurely riding. We crammed a huge amount into our time and only just felt like we had scraped the surface of all the places I had naively assumed we would revisit! The decision was made to return in the not too distant future. On several occasions, I rode past the entrance to snaking woodland singletrack that looked so familiar and transported me back in time. James would love to disappear down that rabbit warren… Who knows, perhaps one day we’ll not stop at Dover and ride straight on to Italy. Now that WOULD be a special journey….
For further information you may like to visit:
(Skedaddle offer cycling holidays worldwide including trips on the VFR).