Full Of Sap, Short Of Maps

I prepared badly for my first big cycle ride of the year – but as I get older, I’ve learned to grit my teeth and improvise

A map with possible cycle routes to East Anglia
Original map image: NordNordWest/Lukasb1992/Ottobdn via Wikimedia Commons

AS THE SONG so eloquently puts it, it’s been a long cold lonely winter, little darling.

But, lately, the Springtime has got to work on this old-enough-to-know-better body.

Outside, The Sap was beginning to rise and it was pleasant, at my age, to realise that I was still capable of stirring in response.

It was March already, and the wind and the rain had stopped for a bit: time to dust off my bike gear and get out there.

I’ve long fancied cycling from London to Amsterdam – a 250-mile trip via Chelmsford, Colchester and Harwich, from where I’d sail to Holland, then pedal on to The Venice Of The North.

The only trouble was: the ride was through country I didn’t know in the slightest, and I wasn’t sure how long any stage would take me.

So I settled on a day trip to Colchester – a do-able sounding 75 miles away – that would also allow me to recce the Amsterdam route.

All I knew was that it was east out of London… then up a bit”

Beyond that – and despite some desultory Internet searches – I had no clear plan.

All I knew was that Colchester was a Roman town (though I kept confusing with nearby Chelmsford) and that it was east out of London…. then up a bit.

When the map I’d ordered failed to turn up on time, I thought Fuck It! And went anyway.

Perhaps it was The Sap talking, but I thought it would be all right – even if 75 miles was a lot of space to get lost in…  

Using a road atlas, I made it to Tower Bridge and The Olympic Park, through the samey East London suburbs and into the Essex countryside.

After that, I relied on friendly locals in pretty villages like Havering-Atte-Bower to keep me on course.

I’d also photographed some written directions with my iPhone – but then needed to beg pub landlords and tea shop owners to recharge it, rewarding their kindnesses with generous tips.

But it did kind of work, all this improvisation. I got to the outskirts of Chelmsford, about 50 miles away, before my meagre maps finally ran out.

“I rode triumphantly into town, fish wriggling in my sopping socks”

I did know that I needed to stick to National Cycle Route One after that – which was all fine, until I found it submerged under three feet of water a few miles outside town.

But with a determination borne from desperation – I feared losing the signposts much more than a soaking – I plunged my bike into the flood.

At first, it went all right. But when the water got above knee height, I realised that I was slowing to a halt…

I changed down a couple of gears and – wonder of wonders! – they clicked into place despite being submerged, allowing me to ride triumphantly into town, fish wriggling in my sopping socks…

Once in Chelmsford, I dried myself off and tried to get organised. I’d also left London without a bike lock, somehow, and I had no map at all for the last 25 miles to Colchester.

I passed an Oxfam shop and, keeping an eye on the bike outside, bought an old local map for £1.99. Back in the game (!) even if it didn’t cover the first seven miles out of Chelmsford…

Fifteen minutes later, I bitterly regretted those seven miles….

I knew enough not to panic completely. Riding terrified on trunk roads is an inevitable part of any long cycle trip”

By then, I was cringing on the hard shoulder of one of Britain’s busiest roads – having drifted onto the six-lane A12, where speeding is a way of life.

The gap in the map – and my lack of prep – had done for me at last, although I knew enough not to panic completely.

I’ve spent enough time riding terrified on trunk roads around Europe – being assailed by the constant mosquito whine of passing, Ton-Up, Hunt The Shunts – to see it as an inevitable part of any long cycle trip.

Because, even with the right map and the right amount of care, I inevitably take a wrong turn somewhere: it’s just something I’ve grown to accept, the more trips that I do.

And then, I’ve learned that you just have to take your medicine, grit your teeth and get to safety as soon as humanly possible. I guess you could call it experience.

Just before dark, I pulled triumphantly-ish into Colchester.”

After a few miles, all was well again. I was back on country roads and – while my phone gave up an hour from the end – the Oxfam map was already proving well worth the £1.99.

Just before dark, I pulled triumphantly-ish into Colchester High Street – and then headed immediately for the train back to London.

I’d wanted to visit the town’s notable Roman ruins, its castle and historic Dutch quarter – but I’d already wasted too much time with charging phones, asking for directions, getting lost and other avoidable distractions.

I promised myself I’d see the sights on my next visit, en route to Holland, when I’d also reward myself for getting to Colchester with a nice soft hotel bed.

But above all, I promised that I would take a proper bloody map.

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