St Albans is a good place to aim for if you’re a central London based cyclist in a hurry. Start from St Pancras International, with a ride on the railway line which connects two ancient Christian martyrs.
St Pancras, who gave the area, which in turn gave your departure station its name, was a Roman teenager martyred in 304 for converting to Christianity. His legend accompanied Roman soldiers to the camp located in nearby Somers Town. He was quite a hero figure for early Christian in Britain and there are many churches and sites dedicated to him. St Alban was the first British Christian martyr, who met his end at some point in the third century AD. He was according to the Venerable Bede executed in Verulamium, the Roman settlement which is today St Albans. If you seek his memorial you’ll find it in St Albans Abbey. It is not a ludicrous suggestion that Alban should replace Palestinian lizard-stabber George as England’s patron saint.
You can ride out but I’d rather swap twenty minutes on the train for an hour fighting traffic through Kilburn and following the ugly-lovely Edgware branch of the Northern Line. The exception is the climb up Brockley Hill, a worthy test which gives you time to puff and ponder that the Northern Line would once have come this far en route to Bushey Heath.
It is a 20 minute train ride from St Pancras (less from Kentish Town and West Hampstead) by fast and frequent service and you’re straight out of the station and away. Left turn, right up the High Street, fork right up the hill to where there’s a glimpse of the abbey and off into the Hertfordshire countryside. Pretty villages like Wheathampstead, Ayot St Peter and Codicote come quick as you ride through the lanes of classic cycling country.
Less obvious is to then edge 100 miles east to Southend-on-Sea. But this is a fine ride. It’s rural and quiet and, unless you decide to do it on a snowy day like I did, you can weave through quiet roads and pop into larger towns as needed for sustenance. Route finding requires a map: Collins 30 Miles Around London worked for me. The OS 1:250,000 South East England. I like the Polaris Maptrap for keeping your map in view.
The route snakes its way east across Hertfordshire and into Essex south of Bishop’s Stortford. The B1256, predecessor of the A120 is your friend to and through the cockneys-made-good town of Great Dunmow. As pleasant and rural as the name suggests, I thawed out with a brownie and a coffee in a fab cafe here. I then skirted south of Braintree and past the epic and ancient Cressing Temple Barns. Villages in this part of England has Germanic crests at their parish frontiers and still feel like small fiefdoms. It’s only in larger towns like Witham that I came too next that you feel the modern world has made inroads.
By now the rolling hills of north and west Essex were giving way to flat, marshy stuff and inclines were at a premium. I missed the turning for my planned lunch stop at Maldon and bashed south to the muddy River Crouch at South Woodham Ferrers. It is not as glamorous as it sounds. But is is more glam than Southend-on-Sea. Reached by cutting, illogically, west then turning finally south-east through Rayleigh – via a giant hill which probably wasn’t necessary – it is not a place worth riding almost a hundred miles to get to. But the seaside town has its charms and journeys end is always nice. Hit the seafront, breathe deeply then retreat to the genuinely lovely Westcliff and Leigh-on-Sea for a well-earned fix of whelks and mussels.
Trains back to Fenchurch Street are every few minutes, with a few steps to negotiate at the end and a gentle weave through London’s traffic to home.
Undertake this route and you may just be the second person to follow it. Do let me know how you get on if you attempt it!
Distance: 86 miles
Time: 6-9 hours