London to Paris by bike in three days: London to Dieppe

The day gets off to a confused start. Mark and I are due to meet in Trafalgar Square around 11:30, along with my sister Matilda, who will see us off. However, she is crossing the channel this morning and is very much delayed by problems at the port of Dover.

The weather is fantastic, it’s bright sunshine, with more of the same forecast for the next few days. Indeed, this could be the sunniest weekend of the summer! And while we wait, a friendly photographer takes some candid pictures of us.

We take advantage of the delay to check our route and decide that we’ll attempt to follow National Cycle Network route 21 to Crawley, and then improvise a south-easterly path straight to Newhaven. Matilda finally arrives just after 13:00 and we’re on our way by 13:30, heading down the Mall, past Buckingham Palace and along the edge of Hyde Park.

We cross the Thames at Chelsea Bridge and head up our first hill on to Clapham Common, then across Tooting Bec Common, in to Streatham, where we make our first stop at De Ver Cycles. In a sudden onset of caution, we prepare for the worst and buy an extra inner tube, a gear cable and some peanut butter energy bars. Mark gets all sensible and even buys himself a helmet.

Despite our best efforts, cycle route 21 eludes us and we therefore take the direct (albeit busy) A23 road through Norbury to get to Purley and then on towards Redhill, where we cross the M25 and reach the countryside.

Worryingly, it’s already 15:30 as we cross the M25. But we do have a stroke of luck when what at first seems like a wrong turn eventually leads us straight on to route 21, at last. We pick it up at Nutfield and follow it along mud trails, through forestry and fields, towards Crawley.

Bizarrely, the path eventually takes us straight through the intricate compound of Gatwick airport and we find ourselves in the shadows of dirty concrete blocks and depressing tunnels, then alongside the runway and eventually back in to normality.

As we reach Crawley, we bravely leave route 21, as planned, to make our own way down to Newhaven in a more direct manner. I keep my A-Z of Great Britain close at hand, although the absence of any clear signposting to anywhere is of some concern.

In the end, we opt for astronomy and decide to head towards the sun, in the vague hope that it might direct us South (note to self – bring a compass next time).

On a more practical level, we also consult local knowledge, though this turns out to be a time-consuming error of judgment. One particular fellow describes, at great length, the one-way structure of Crawley. And as we finally shake him off, we’re dismayed to see him turn back towards us to describe a new, entirely different, route.

We break for a very late lunch at 17:00 and discover that daylight doesn’t stick around even for a couple of determined cyclists. By 19:00, dusk is really descending upon on us in a very real way, as is a serious degree of panic. Following a theft, Mark doesn’t have any bike lights while the roads are not equipped with streetlights – not a pleasant combination.

By now, the only apparent road signs point to either London or Brighton, via the A23. Given that choice, we opt for the latter and end up on what may as well be a motorway. There are occasional pictures of bikes painted on the carriageway, although they contribute little to our sense of safety, as cars and trucks fly past at 70 mph.

Since Crawley, we’ve passed through Staplefield (Mark is convinced this place is related to his surname and we pause to take some photographic evidence of our passage), Cuckfield, Burgess Hill and Hurstpierpoint. We’re aiming for Lewes and eventually Newhaven but I’m under the impression that we’re going around in circles.

This is sadly confirmed when we arrive at a junction in which every road leads to a village we have previously cycled through. And now it’s total darkness, of the kind where potholes, pedestrians and bends just occur, without warning. On the road to Hassocks, we meet two friendly chaps who subsequently become our saviours.

They sound astonished when we tell them that we’re heading to Newhaven. And they sound absolutely gob smacked when we announce that we must be there by 21:30. After a very brief attempt to convey our cycling ability, we follow their instructions to Hassocks railway station. The train leaves just after 20:00.

Initially, it feels like failure. But we quickly convince ourselves that we’ve probably covered the total distance, it’s just the direction that wasn’t quite right. It’s a short hop to Brighton and then a coastal line to Newhaven, arriving just before 21:15. The map suggests we would probably have had to cycle a further 25km, had we kept going – in the right direction.

We board our ship at about 22:00 and we’re pleasantly surprised by the size and comfort of the vessel. After dinner, Mark heads to one of numerous TV lounges and I finally get to take a shower, in what looks just like a toilet cubicle from the outside. Indeed, one man hears the constant flow of water and indiscreetly asks how much I’ve had to drink tonight…

There are a surprising number of cyclists on board the late crossing, including a small group who claim to be cycling from Brighton to Paris in under 24 hours. Then we all fall sleep, to be woken just before 4:00 by a message. We’ve arrived but the loading ramp is jammed and we must wait a few minutes for the engineers to fix it.

By 4:15, we’re cycling off the ship and in to the crisp night air. I feel surprisingly refreshed. Mark doesn’t. The immigration check is a little improvised, as a customs official stumbles out a ditch and vaguely checks our passports, having totally missed the first batch of cyclists.

Then we follow a large group of cyclists along the quiet road and in to the centre of Dieppe. We’ll be staying at an IBIS hotel for what’s left of tonight, a hotel located at the top of a mountain, as we now discover. We check-in at 5:00, after a little debate with the receptionist who initially cannot find any record of our reservation. Bed feels good.

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