The Doorstep Mile – London to France

The hardest part of any journey is setting off, which the Scandinavians call The Doorstep Mile. It defines the difficulty to step out of your comfort zone. For me, starting this journey was difficult.
I had to decide whether to return to working overseas or take the chance and set off for an unknown length of time. I had little money, in fact, I only had half of what I thought I would need. However, on that sunny August day, I set off anyway.

Here are my tips for ensuring your adventure starts.

Tell Everyone.
Once you’ve told enough people it makes it difficult to back out. As you’ll lose face and you think those people won’t take you seriously any more.
The closer the relationship the more resistance you’ll get. I told my mum last, as predicted she said I shouldn’t go as it wasn’t safe and I would surely die.

Set a Date
Whether it’s today or a year down the line. Setting a date focuses you on everything, savings, gear, cancelling the milk and all the other stuff that bogs us down in everyday life. In 2016 I planned to set off on a cycle tour on August 5th as it’s my birthday but didn’t go until the 14th. This was due to bad weather and the Blackpool airshow. It didn’t matter that I was late as I was in no rush. Experience and enjoyment are my priority so bad weather wasn’t a good experience but the airshow was.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.
Deciding what gear to take can be fun but if you haven’t got everything you want don’t worry. You’ll soon discover what’s necessary and what’s a nice to have. Setting off with less gear is both a weight and cost advantage. I took 24kg I could have managed comfortably with 15kg.

It doesn’t have to be expensive.

I bought a used bicycle for £45 and some cheap panniers from Aldi. Others have done it cheaper Tom Allen cycled from John o Groats to Lands End and spent £25 total. You can spend as much or as little as you want.

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My budget was £15 a day average, I left with £3000 and came back with £1000. So £2000 for a 6-week cycling tour across Europe and I bought a new bike part way. As you have probably noticed, I blew my budget by a long shot.

On my first trip, I did most things wrong but still had an amazing time. This taught me a lot and my subsequent trips were better planned and almost to budget. In 2016 I managed to cycle 1000 km from Blackpool to Amsterdam then went to Asia for 2 months then cycle back from Amsterdam to home on less than £2000.

I wanted to record my journey, mainly to share with family but also to look back on when I’m unable to cycle. I wrote a journal along the way and filmed. I messed up both, again I’ve learnt and will hopefully improve.

I have edited and posted the video once before, however it was deleted in error. I recently discovered all the original video recording on a hard drive. I watched all the clips and decided to put together a new version which included all the clips I missed out the first time.

I can’t see anyone, except myself watching 4 to 5 hours of video. So I cut it up into episodes of no more than 30 minutes. I was told (by my mum) to end each episode as a cliffhanger. This is proving difficult but I’ve attempted to keep it logical.

I’ve edited episodes one to four so far and every time I watch them I’m tempted to edit them further. I have managed to stop myself as I want them to reflect what I went through. I had problems editing out the wind noise from some sequences and had to make do. I may tweak the sound in the future.

This leads me to the first episode titled “London to France”. I actually start at my home in Blackpool at 06:45 am on August 5th 2014 by cycling 10 minutes to a local train station. I had thought that I would follow the route as laid out by Anne Mustoe. Anne a retired headmistress who decided to cycle around the world started her journey from St Paul’s Cathedral. I was, therefore, making my way to the start line.

I should’ve started filming before I set off as setting the bike up, packing the panniers and saying my goodbyes would have been a good beginning. I didn’t so the video starts with me waiting for my first train.

I was worried about getting my bike on the first train as I had emailed the company to explain I had to get a connection at Preston. The train company replied with a standard “you can’t reserve a place”. So I deliberately went to the station early to catch the train in the wrong direction.

You see I cycled to Blackpool Pleasure Beach station because there were no steps and it is only 1 stop away from Blackpool South. The railway line from Blackpool South to Kirkham is a single track. The theory was to be on the train before anyone else heading to Preston. It worked out as the conductor let me on and there were 3 people with bicycles waiting to board the train at Blackpool South.

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The journey to Preston was a good one I chatted with another cyclist. Who was very impressed with my attempt, this confirmed that only close friends and relatives think you’ll die.

I was an hour early at Preston which to my relief allowed for a spot of breakfast and to tighten a few things on the bike. A Virgin employee gave me the wrong information about where to board the train but the thought was there. Even though I nearly missed my connection.

I stood for the whole three hours and thirty minutes. I had booked a seat but it was the other end of the train so I stayed with my bike. I filmed, nibbled on snacks and chatted with fellow standing passengers.

Arriving at Euston was a bit stressful so I didn’t manage to film. I pushed my bicycle through the concourse and out a side door. I could’ve taken a shorter route via the front doors, I’ll know for next time. I did manage to relax for half an hour in Euston station park. I had prepared some lunch so sat under a sycamore tree and ate it.

Cycling through London was a bit frustrating and within 10 minutes a car pulled out from a parking space in front of me, the driver stopped in time and then indicated his intentions. I was going the wrong way for the first hour, it took me a while to realise this but when I did I stopped on Ridgmount Gardens to checked my map, I got back on track fairly quickly. London has a remarkably good cycle network and I found most of my route was quiet. I felt safe riding towards Abbeywood, which is where I was planning on camping.

I got lost many more times before I was out of the city and even pushed the bike a while. I followed the Thames River all the way to the flood barrier. I was running on excitement because even though I was lost most of the time I was enjoying the experience. I originally followed my tablet which had an application for offline maps but I had put the campsite as my destination. The app was set to shortest route and I wanted to follow the National Cycling Network Route 1 along the Thames.

Even before I left home I had looked at Google Maps Street View to walk my route and on Tavistock Place it was looking familiar. I had a lot of weight on the bike so kept in low gear through London to save my knees. The cycling route was better than I was expecting and other than a few confusing junctions kept me on quieter back roads. I even spotted some “Boris Bike” when I had crossed a busy junction. On Farrington road, I had to change gears a few times, between the weight of the bike and a slight incline I was struggling. Farrington road led me across the Thames river but past a Holiday Inn, which I was tempted to stop at.

I was too busy looking at all the sights around me and forgot to change to a lower gear at a set of traffic lights. It was a struggle setting off especially as I was scared that I would swerve in front of the big blue bus next to me. I managed to swerve to my left to avoid the big blue bus, I bet the driver was relieved. I was struggling with finding the correct gear and was worried about wandering into the traffic. I reached another set of traffic lights and something fell off my bike with a clang!

I stopped in an entrance to a building site to retrieve the tin of GT85 which had fallen off the bike rack. Luckily by the time I had dismounted a passerby had picked it up and handed to me. I was getting very tired and hadn’t really cycled that far by the time I was at Blackfriars tube station I needed a rest. It came just over the Thames at Borough Market where I also managed to fill my water bottles and buy some fruit at one of the stalls. I pushed the bike along the embankment and past Greenwich, I remember catching my watch on a wall and breaking the strap.

I checked the map and headed towards Abbeywood where the campsite was. I arrived at Abbeywood campsite at 5 ish and found a spot fairly close to the shower block. Setting up camp was a breeze and the tent seemed huge, after a hot shower and shave I fell asleep. The rain fell all night but I was warm and comfy, I only had to move the footprint in the porch to stop it getting wet.

I woke at 02:00 to the sound of heavy rain, I had set my alarm for 05:30 as I wanted to get close to Canterbury so I could have a look round tomorrow before it got busy, but as it was pouring down I reset the alarm for 08:30 only to wake at 05:00 so decided to just get up.

I could hear the rain dripping off the trees but it wasn’t hitting the tent so I thought it had stopped and I started to pack everything up and as I was loading the bike the heavens opened again. (It’s that fine rain that soaks you through.) As I left the campsite early I encountered the gate that only opens halfway and got wedged with my bike and panniers the only way to get through was to fall off the bike and push it through in front of me, all this in the rain.

It was 07:00 by the time I was on the road and it rained until 08:30 I had to keep stopping to clean the rain off my glasses The only annoying thing was my panniers made my bike too wide to fit through the barriers on the cycle paths and everyone was a challenge to get around.

I stopped outside a church in Crayford at 09:00, sat on the wall and ate a tuna pasta snack for breakfast, my back was aching but I carried on following the national cycling network 1 and 77, although I missed a few turns and kept getting lost.

As the sun came out I used the navigation app to get back on track, this made things easier and I stopped every hour or so for a rest. I had to get off and push up some of the hills, especially near Rochester, there was one like that old Hovis advert, back on the A2 Watling Street an old Roman Rd. I rode across Rochester bridge, unfortunately, my GoPro was flat so couldn’t film it.

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After dumping my backpack, polo top, sweatshirt, snickers (melted), base layers I pushed on only to end up on a cycle path next to the A2, there was a grass verge and barrier between me and the road but when a truck went past the wind hit me making me wobble every time, apart from that and the broken glass it was 3 miles of free wheeling. I stopped at a lake side hotel and asked at the kitchen door if I could fill my water containers, they were very obliging.

Once again I took a wrong turn and ended up in Chatham with its steep hills I sat under an advertising hoarding in the shade, Rainham flew by, then disaster struck as my pannier got jammed in the spokes as I was going across a set of lights, stopping my back wheel, but not before tearing the back of the pannier. The corner had curled up and the spokes had taken a chunk out of the corner. I spent 20 minutes under a tree out of the sun making the repair. Just after I set off again I saw a sign for Sittingbourne railway station and was tempted just to get on a train, you’ll be pleased to know I didn’t get the train, not because that was cheating, it’s because I missed the turning. (There’s a theme here).

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I continued and spotted Crispin’s fish and chips so stopped for a rest and some tea. I discovered I was halfway between Rochester and Canterbury I pushed on only to be cut up by another cyclist, that turned out to be Robbie Ferri.

Robbie and I had worked in Italy together and he was cycling from Trafalgar square to Brussels in 24 hours for charity, we walked with our bikes until we came to a driveway and stopped for a chat. Robbie’s bike was unbelievably light and he had very little gear, just spares, a monkey and some drinks, he was kind enough to share his lucozade sports drink, we swapped notes and caught up, then Robbie had to go so he could keep his timing. I must say that meeting was a real morale boost for me, thanks Robbie.

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It was dusk and I started to look for a place to wild camp, it was to be my first and I made all the mistakes possible, with hindsight I past a dozen ideal place. I pulled into a corn field, not with corn husks just the stalks and discovered they’re really sharp, I didn’t stop. I spotted a footpath sign heading off into a field with a wood on one side, I went down the path. It was now dark, the trees were spaced far enough for my hammock so I decided to stay there. Turns out the ground was covered in nettles and I had shorts on (fail), there were also nettles as tall as me. I put a bin bag on the floor covering the nettles and put my wet waterproof pants on, so I could continue without being stung. I pushed my bike further into the wood and found 2 suitable trees, only problem now was my hammock was in the bottom of one of the panniers. I managed to set up the hammock and tarp (badly) in the dark. (not using a torch as wild camping in the UK is illegal)

I was pouring with sweat and just lay in the hammock to cool off but fell asleep and woke up an hour later freezing, I couldn’t see a thing so grabbed my wet coat and shivered for the next 4 hours, wide awake until dawn appeared, as soon as I could see I packed up and left. I pushed the bike for 5 mins into Faversham and repacked, I put on dry clothes. I cycled on and met a young couple walking in the opposite direction who had been walking since 2 am from Canterbury, we chatted, a lovely couple who I thought I would never see again.

I foolishly followed the signs for Canterbury A2 and ended up in hell, the meanest 2 miles of road, up hill with no junctions at 06:30 in the morning. I managed it but had drunk all my water by the time I got to the top, I enjoyed coasting down the other side and by 07:30 I was at a rest stop which was a petrol station and a holiday inn, I wanted to book a room and sleep for a week. I stripped the bike, cleaned the chain, indexed the gears, got changed and cooked up some porridge and coffee on my stove. I stayed there until 09:00 and dumped some more, over heavy unnecessary gear, mainly clothing.

Once I left the rest stop I managed to get off the A2 and by 10:00 had stumbled across Canterbury. I followed the cycle paths to the train station and caught a train to Dover, Mum would be waiting there. Mum had traveled down by national express as it’s £16 from Blackpool to Dover on Tuesdays for oap’s. Her plan was to come to Calais, Saint Omer and Lille then wave me off.

Mum was waiting at Dover priory station, the first thing she said was that Dover was shit, so we had a quick coffee and got on a train to Canterbury (which is not shit). Arriving at Canterbury east station we had to walk a long way round to the front of the station as there’s only a foot bridge over the track, my bike was too heavy and Mum can no longer do lots of stairs. Mum had also over packed so I tied her suitcase to the back of the bike and towed it. As we got to the front of the station lots of people were coming out, a train must have just arrived, I caught the eye of the couple I saw walking in the early hours of the morning in Faversham, we chatted. I pushed the bike and towed the suitcase along the city walls to the premier lodge, we stayed for 2 nights and explored Canterbury on foot.

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Saturday 9th

19:00 hrs; I’m now lying in a field 6 miles from Dover. Tonight I’ll be sleeping under the stars, no tent just my sleeping mat and bivi bag.

On Friday it had rained through the night but at 5:00am the sky was clear and the day was starting. I was up and ready to cycle around Canterbury by 06:00 as I wanted to see the city without the crowds and 06:00 was a perfect time. Canterbury was starting to wake up too, the street cleaners were out in force and there were a few people milling around, either last night’s revelers or people heading to work. I notice a lot of homeless people sleeping in shop doorways, it was really sad.

I managed to see Canterbury in the early hours and get some filming done, I even met a statue which looked like Les Dawson and saw a huge sculpture of a face. I cycle back to the hotel to meet mum for breakfast. Once we had packed mum headed back to Dover to stay Saturday night, whilst I slowly cycle to Dover, my plan was to enjoy the journey, stop often and in the true Anne Mustoe spirit cycle from London to Dover.

I followed the national cycling network route 16 followed by route 17 this took me through forests, past army training grounds, picturesque villages, through a ford and over some steep hills but it was all worth it. I stopped on the top of a hill in Bossingham next to some recently sheared sheep they all had the wool left between their ears and I wondered if that’s where the saying came from. I continued on through dense forest tracks and could hear a shooting range. I was away from traffic so put my headphones on and the first song was Michael Jackson’s Don’t stop til you get enough, I free wheeled all the way to the next village.

Eventually I went through Paddlesworth and Hawkings, picturesque villages I had never known existed until now, Alkham village had signs up saying remember 9th and 10th August referring to WW1 and had an old aerodrome which had been turned into a Battle of Britain museum, I didn’t visit as I was looking for a place to change out of my cycling gear.

Passing the village of River I came out of the country lanes at the A256 a dual carriageway heading to Dover 6 miles away. Across the road was a construction site and I walk into the entrance and propped my bike on the fence, it was 5 o’clock on a Saturday night so no one was around. A security guard arrived for his night shift and I told him that I was cycling solo around the world and had just started my journey and was looking for a safe place to sleep, he pointed to the back of the field that the construction company had taken over, result, or so I thought.

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