Alpine passes and blossoming meadows are a luxury that not all of us have access to – especially not when working the Monday to Friday grind. Fortunately, when it comes to road riding, the humble territory to the North and Northeast of London have some serious steez. Quiet lanes, rolling hills, optimistically coloured fields, and expansive views that are almost beyond belief; here’s where your rhythm is easy to come by, with gentle inclines meeting you head-on with a gregarious smile – it might just be the wind that catches you out.
If you’ve ever thought about how your work-life balance should be sacrosanct, these quiet, winding lanes of north and northeast London should confirm that you’re getting somewhere close to equilibrium. Out past the M25 (or earlier if you’re heading through Epping Forest), there’s natural beauty in spades so that you can recharge on this rich network of riding routes.
Riding from one tranquil hamlet to the next is like meandering through the centuries, with Norman Keeps, centuries-old windmills, and medieval barns. The places you’re most likely to have heard of will be the timber-clad market town of Waltham Abbey and the frequently overlooked Colchester, but the lure of these rides is really down to the twisty lanes that go between them, dotted with tucked-away villages and beautiful green fields. Sounds too good to be true, right? The antidote to the rushed laps of Richmond or Regents Park that are forced upon many riders in central London, this collection proves precisely why it’s worth the effort to get out the city – either by train or simply by riding out on the quietest roads possible.
While the discourse of the London cycling scene usually revolves around safety, and the contentious act of running red lights, it’s well worth reiterating just what a beautiful canvas is spread across the London basin and beyond. There’s the good stuff in droves, and Essex and Hertfordshire have it all: from quaint villages that merit a postcard back to London; winding, quiet lanes that wouldn’t be out of place in a late spring Ardennes Classic; and productive farmland that translates into rich and delectable wares at the many farm stores and cafes – of which the most notable is the Blue Egg in Great Bardfield, a real cyclists’ institution. If you’re really lucky, the UK might put on its best weather for your ride.
Why we love this route: Non-stop London views and fast hills for raising your heart beat and escaping the traffic. Always begin with a decent espresso from Rapha because there are plenty of rolling roads of North London that await you on this punchy route. Despite its proximity to the centre, this one is able to dish out an amazing overlook over the city.
It's the sort of route that is best done when you're tight on time but high on motivation. It gives hard-earned views, in the truest sense of the word.
Once you've ticked off most of the hills, the route swoops around Hampstead Heath and whisks you back to the bottom of Swain's Lane where Gail's Bakery is stocked with some of the capital's greatest baked goods and most delectable coffee. That should see you safely back to Soho!
Exercise caution when riding away from and back towards central London; cars are getting better in the capital but there's still a long way to go until harmony is reached.
Hertford has beautiful lanes for you to scope out and enjoy rather than endure. This is something that'll hit you from the moment you exit Knebworth train station (around 45 minutes from Kings Cross). It's a recreational route that follows little lanes and cuts a slightly mad scrawl across the map before dropping you off at Hatfield Station for your train back to the capital.
Popular with local riders, these winding lanes skirt along farmers fields and villages that wouldn't look out of place on a wish-you-were-here holiday postcard. The route offers a few select undulations rather than anything you'd deem a hill, but watch out for some sharp corners.
The route can be ridden in either direction, but as you don't really want to hit the Country Bumpkin cafe in Tewin too early, it's best done from north to south.
For train times visit nationalrail.co.uk
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Just next to Stanstead airport, you might not expect to be in the midst of glorious, rural Britain – and that's exactly what makes it so great for riding. Surely the fact that the Tour de France passed through this area in 2014 speaks volumes?
For a road rider, these lanes are a pristine paradise with very little traffic. The kind of roads you'll soar along, coasting almost effortlessly across the tarmac. Much like the flatness of the nearby airport, this territory is similar so expect to tick off the distance with ease, expending more energy admiring the wildlife and cute villages.
An untouched gem, this route skirts through cute villages until you reach Saffron Waldon, an idyllic (no hyperbole!) market town that's popular with London commuters.
As you enter the outskirts of Saffron Waldon there's the option to visit the famous Walled Garden at Audley End - entry costs £4 and you'll have to lock your bike up outside. If you're into landscaping and architecture, these tranquil gardens and orchards come highly recommended.
With more vitamins added to your system, just roll up and through the village of Littlebury before dropping into Saffron Waldon, where the super cool Bicicletta cafe awaits and a whole host of remnants from the Tour de France's passing in 2014.
You might be knackered at the thought of having to take a train out of the city, but the lure of the little lanes and the vitamin D-rich air should easily win you over. It's a superb circular route from Braintree station that takes you on a whistle-stop tour of cute villages, rarely used roads, and gives a whole new definition to the words 'capital city day-trip.'
Rich in understated beauty, there's a steady stream of laidback villages with spectacular (small-scale) churches, village greens and snatches of local, countryside life.
Just 13 km out from the end of the ride you'll pedal up towards the infamous Blue Egg cafe, whose walls are lined with authentic cycling paraphernalia from local and international heroes. Peruse the goods while tucking into some substantial fare to fill you up for the train ride back to the big city.
You'll then head back towards London, slumped onto your train seat but fully revitalised with Vitamin D and fresh air. Trains are really regular but it's always worth booking in advance on nationalrail.co.uk
You might live in the country's capital but sometimes it's nice to pay due deserves to a city that's famous for being the UK's oldest town on record: Colchester. And while it might not immediately conjure up images of rural beauty, this route will certainly make sure it does in future. As it's just an hour-long train ride back to London Liverpool Street station, it provides a great opportunity to break out of the London basin and explore further afield.
The route starts from Epping station and escorts you swiftly onto lovely lanes, with expansive views and really gentle rolling roads that set the tone for the rest of the ride. With so many villages and their pastel-coloured thatched cottages that can be considered highlights, the standout one is probably Finchingfield which would deserve its place on any postcard back to the capital. The Tour de France passed through here and the whole village (and more) came out in their droves. It won't surprise you in fact, as you'll just have stopped for a coffee at a veritable institute of cycling: the Blue Egg cafe, testifying to the passion for cycling that runs through this part of Essex.
The landscape changes as you head southwards, with blisteringly bright yellow oilseed rape fields on either side of the road. More photo opportunities abound. You'll then hit a more tepid pace as you cross the reservoirs and reach Mersea Island. From there, there's about 5.5 miles (15 kilometers) of easy riding up to Colchester train station for the one-hour train back to central London.
Trains are regular, especially on weekdays and it's always cheaper to book in advance. Head to nationalrail.co.uk for the timetable.
If the distance makes you hesitate, you could easily split the route into two days and nestle down for the night in a cute Essex b&b.
The lovely, long ride starts in the Leyton Marsh car park besides the River Lea in a rare-for-London rugged, marshy landscape. While it's all about little lanes and fresh country air, there's still enough in this ride to shake you awake at times!
It makes use of Waltham Forest’s new cycle lanes, keeping you away from the traffic on Lea Bridge Road, and escorting you out through the borders of Epping Forest near Walthamstow, before venturing deeper into the forest and taking in the picturesque Essex villages of Matching Green, High Ongar, and Lambourne End.
Heading back into London takes you via Chigwell, past the infamous Sheesh restaurant (frequented by The Only Way Is Essex set), and alongside the sprawling mansions of Roding Lane. A bit of luxury that you might not have expected out East!
Norton Heath café is a popular spot for riders, coming at a well-timed 40 miles (70 kilometers) into your ride.
A route that goes East is almost always flat, which is why this one has really upped the distance to make the most of your day out in Essex. Even with its potentially fear-inducing length, the route is predominantly flat (as mentioned), taking in all the quietest lanes and quaintest villages (which, yes, do exist in Essex). Once you reach the Blue Egg farm and cafe after 85 km you'll be able to tuck into something substantial and fill your pockets for the return leg of the ride. It's a bit of an institution for southern road cyclists - once you spot the signed paraphernalia on the walls, you'll definitely agree.
The route starts and finishes from central London's Look Mum No Hands bike cafe, which is just about unbeatable when it comes to a slap-up quiche and cake after the ride, where you'll no doubt regale everyone with tales of actually just how beautiful Essex really is.
Given the distance of this route, it's best done in a group so you can keep pulling turns on the front! If you're on your own, there are two get-out clauses on the route, which lead you directly across to the return side of the route and avoid major traffic. These are either at Felsted and the road that joins up the two cute Roding villages.
Starting and finishing at Hub Velo - Dalston's hippest bike shop – this 43 miles (70 kilometer) route does its best to avoid the inevitable barrage of traffic to exit and re-enter the city limits. It's a ride that's really characterised by achingly cute Essex villages, small lanes, and grand houses.
It offers two-for-the-price-of-one on cafe choices, with two wholly unique options: the Original Tea Hut inside Epping Forest's High Beech district, which is something of an institution as it has been around for 80 years. Alternatively, hang on until 50 km into the route when you'll reach the beautiful market town of Waltham Abbey with its huge abbey and timber-clad buildings. A refreshingly scenic space amidst the backdrop of London and its concrete.
There's a bit of main road as you leave Waltham Abbey, before taking a left off Stewardstone Road onto the very pretty and quite steep Avery Lane. The area here called High Beech is super cute, and really only has the church and Original Tea Hut as well as a legion of trees. Fresh air isn't that far away from the city after all. From here, you'll rejoin Epping Forest New Road, which is still flanked by trees, with nature that's verging on untouched (for London, at least). Try and breathe in as much clean air as possible before the final few kilometres back into busy Dalston.
Exploring outer London's industrial estuary landscape, this route unfolds from Billericay, with quiet roads that do eventually get a little busier as you head towards Tilbury.
Once you're through Tilbury just hop on a quick foot passenger ferry for a slight detour to Gravesend. When you've refuelled at Marie's Tea Room and headed back across the River, you'll ride past six centuries of Estuary defences before the delights of East Tilbury await.
This is a super interesting village, which is so full of contradictions that it really blows you away. Originally built to house the workers at the Bata shoe factory, the small town followed a real East European blueprint. Eventually the project dissolved and the town began to fall into disrepair. Right now, it's a stark reminder of how industry once flourished. Its distinctive Bauhaus architecture is rendered even more interesting when you observe the landscape in which it its hemmed in: pure, unspoilt marshland.
With nice flat riding but far from flat views, this route gives a unique perspective on London's riverside history.
There is a semi-concrete riverside path from Tilsbury fort to Coalhouse fort but as it has such a poor road surface it isn't included on this route – next time you're out with your gravel or cyclocross bike it is seriously worth exploring.
The foot passenger ferry from Tilbury to Gravesend runs daily apart from Sundays and costs £4 per adult. Bikes can be taken too and tickets are bought directly on the ferry. A nice diversion from the route takes you across to Marie's tea room for some delectable refreshments and a different view over the River Thames.
For ferry updates: twitter.com/TilburyFerry
For train tickets: nationalrail.co.uk