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This is England: the joys of cycling in Kent

In-depth
2 Jun 2021
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Scorched fields, blistering sun and relentlessly rolling terrain… when Kent and the weather conspire, there really is no place like home!

Words: James Spender Photography: Mike Massaro

The smell is somewhere between the back seat of a hot car and spilt earth, as if an oil fire has been choked with damp rocks.

Apparently the technical word for the smell of rain is ‘petrichor’, from the Greek petros, meaning stone, and īchōr, the substance that was said to pump around the veins of Greek gods. It’s a funny old phrase, ‘I can smell the rain.’ What it should really be is, ‘I can smell the rain is coming.’

I don’t know if petrichor has an opposite, but there’s certainly a summery yin smell to its heavens-bursting yang. The day is early and I can already smell the sun is coming, the air drawing closer like gathering grass clippings. If the fields’ bleached stubble and cracked furrows are to be believed, by midday we will actually need shade. We live, of course, in ‘unprecedented times’, to which today this tropical-feeling Kent is no stranger.

Roads unknown

Joe is from around here and, in a roundabout sense, so am I. My mum’s side of the family farmed the fields around Sevenoaks for generations, and my uncle is still a genuine paid-up combine harvester operator, as well as a one-time long distance lorry driver-cum-detective, delivering ladies underwear and seeking out fake Levis in the wake of the dissolution of the USSR. You’ve got to keep yourself busy in the off-season.

I now live in east London so Kent constitutes my more indulgent Sunday spins – 80km minimum but worth it for the promise of real British countryside. Kent is a fair size county, however, so today’s ride is a mix of the familiar and the unknown.

We start in Kemsing, a village I’ve rolled through time and again but which I never knew contains ‘Britain’s finest Italian deli’ (Joe’s words), the aptly named Kemsing Italian Deli. We then tap along Shoreham Road before an easily overlooked right-hander rears up into the kind of climb usually reached by cross-Channel ferry and referred to as a berg.

The next 2.5km see a mean kilometre at 7% average interspliced with spikes of 12%. I learn that this road is called Fackenden Lane, a vowel sound away from being similarly aptly named.

The narrowing Fackenden buries itself in forest, tree-for-tree spindly but growing together as densely as a thicket. It blocks out the light and temporarily sucks warmth from the air, but the forest thins as the road flattens, giving way to slatted fences with home-security placards dotted along their boards. Another sure sign we’re in English countryside, what with homes being castles and all that.

We pass St Mary’s, one of the many tiny flint and rag-stone churches that scatter these parts, still valiantly standing some 800 years after being built. The road rolls down, levels out, then goes up again.

Coming out to Kent by bike in the darker months, the surface of the tarmac becomes a litany of potential cycling errors. Follow in the wake of car tracks and you can expect significant potholes, but try to ride on the crown and you risk sabotage by leaves, mud and twigs. But with Britain in the grip of a since-records-began heatwave, the central channel of mud is now dust, and the twigs crack dryly under our tyres.

Some of the potholes have even been repaired, although I’d wager those repairs won’t survive until next spring. They seldom do.

In all this, Kent reminds me of Belgium. Nothing is entirely flat, yet nothing is downhill long enough to grant reprieve from the myriad little ups. Throw in the less than perfect surface and weather that is often terrible and the area can happily provide an Ardennes-esque experience. It’ll even dish up some very decent beer.

We cross under the M20. On another day I would have lost the end of Joe’s string of beer-related facts to the noise of lorries thundering overhead but, like many motorways in Britain this summer, the M20 has yet to reawaken from its lockdown nap.

And so I come to learn that Shepherd Neame is the oldest brewery in Britain, but that if you’re into craft beers, No Frills Joe, which brews out of a garage in Greenhithe, ‘is where it’s at’. Kent isn’t the home of British hops for nothing.

‘Although, great fact – original beer was spiced ale, made from malt, and originally they only added hops to make the beer last longer. It’s why India Pale Ale is so hoppy – back in the day they used to over-hop the beer so it survived the journey to India.’ Joe isn’t sure who the ‘they’ is, but the rest it seems is essential knowledge for anyone growing up here.

A river runs by it

We cross back under the M20, the cool shadow of the bridge briefly highlighting just how hot the sun has become. This is a road I have used before, going towards Eynsford and past the very church – St Martin’s – where my parents married some 40-odd years ago. I have fond memories of my dad driving our family car through the ford outside the church, the old brown Volvo morphing into something of a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in my young and slightly hopeful mind.

Today, adult me is struck with envy. Given the heat and the nationwide ban on holidays, the locals are improvising and the banks of the Darent are rammed like a riviera. Families picnic, kids splash around and everyone is generally having a jolly good time in spite of it all.

Yet in a strange twist, this parochial harmony sits in stark contrast to the church in the background. There, people in masks and dark suits stand at state-sanctioned intervals, eyes fixed on an approaching hearse.

We make a shallow, draggy climb out of Eynsford and hook a right to skirt Lullingstone Castle, which on a sunny day forms the backdrop for a lovely stroll, the kind that puts you in the frame of Harry Potter visiting Downton Abbey. To our left the sun has turned lavender fields a washed-out mauve, while ahead is the fearsome Redmans Lane, a kind of Kentish Koppenberg: 600m long, 11.3% and as famous for its fly-tipping as the Kopp is for its cobbles.

Redmans is an ascent I love and hate in unequal measure, so when we turn left at its bottom to beat a path up a shallower slope hung with trees I’m much happier. And much cooler. In the darkened light our arms grow deep gold, glistening with sweat and caked with dust in the crooks of our elbows and the bends of our wrists.

We break the trees’ cover and pass alongside places that are less names, more statements: Badgers Mount, Well Hill, Pratts Bottom. It’s quiet, albeit I’m happy when the prefab bungalows are replaced with views of curving fields and a tremendous descent down a road named Starhill.

By the bottom the sweat on my arms is dried to a crispy salt, but a few minutes pedalling on the flat and the same arms sparkle again. It is comfortably in the 30s, and by the time we hit the village of Westerham I’m not just thirsty, I’m cooked.

A statue of Churchill presides over the Westerham green, Winston having lived at nearby Chartwell House and this area of Kent having played a pivotal role in the war effort, in much part thanks to the aerodrome at nearby Biggin Hill. Today the runways are silent, and you could fry an egg on Churchill’s bald pate.

I clack into the nearest supermarket and finish the first bottle of water before I’ve left the till. Somehow Joe seems in much better shape but he takes little persuading to stop off at the local pub, where the salty chips are as useful to me as the multiple rounds of Coke.

Punching till the end

I make it through the next 20 or so kilometres thanks to distracting chat, which is a sure-fire way to contend with a tough ride. The main topic of conversation is top fives. Top five cycling kits? The first answer: LeMond’s Z Team. Top five chocolate bars? Joe sees my Crunchie and raises me a Boost bar. Top five beers…

At this last category my hands can almost feel what it would be like to grasp a slippery, cold pint, as if I have a phantom limb. But as is the wont of cycling, I’ll have to earn it first.

Some toils come easily. Ide Hill and the Bough Beech Reservoir offer gratifying descents and hazy vistas that offset the key that is seemingly being twisted to tighten the skin around the back of my head and neck. Other stretches are just sheer toil and have no names I can discern.

Through the gaps in fences I glimpse Knole Park, the famous deer too lazy to move, their grounds more like African savannah than Home Counties scrub. Stopping to scrump blackberries leaves me feeling heady and sick, although liberating the seeds stuck in my teeth at least proves another distracting game.

By now I’m almost embarrassed at how difficult I’m finding this ride – it’s only England after all, and I’ve even been here before. But as we finally roll past a sign for Kemsing, any embarrassment gives way to amazement.

I had forgotten that barely 30 clicks from Central London, good old Blighty could offer such challenging and ultimately glorious riding, and it has been a lesson in re-examining ‘things you think you know’ – I am already cooking up multiple alternative routes to my hackneyed usual one thanks to Joe’s expert guidance.

In Kemsing I finally lose my bike and my legs to a pub bench as Joe disappears inside. Moments later he clacks along the flagstones, slopping the shandies as he goes (let’s face it, shandies are delicious and should be in anyone’s top five). I raise the condensation-glazed glass to my lips. ‘We could be in another country,’ says Joe.

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

Round the bends

Follow Cyclist’s route through the lanes of Kent

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/113kent. From Kemsing proceed west onto Pilgrim’s Way. Take Shoreham Road, then third right for Fackenden Lane. From here Kent is a warren, so it’s easier to navigate via place names.

First, loop under the M20 towards Southdowns via Fawkham, then on towards Farningham. Continue south to Eynsford, past Lullingstone Castle on the Castle Farm Road, which turns northwest to Chelsfield. Loop round and back south, cross the A21 and proceed to Pratts Bottom, then towards Dunton Green.

Before Dunton take the B2211/Sundridge exit at the roundabout, skirt the M25 and from there it’s south, ticking off Toys Hill and Chiddingstone before looping back north towards Knole Park, Bitchet Green, Ivy Hatch, Heaverham then Kemsing. Got it? Probably best to just download the GPX.

The rider’s ride

Cinelli Laser Mia, £4,499 frameset, approx £10,200 as tested, chickencyclekit.co.uk

I’ve loved this bike almost as long as I’ve loved bikes. OK, not quite this bike, because the original Laser came out in 1981 and was steel. But the colour and aesthetic of this carbon reimagining are inherited, so too the proud ‘made in Italy’ label. Geometry is traditional Italian race, with short wheelbase and trail and near-horizontal top tube, the former meaning the bike swivels on a sixpence, the latter lending a bit more lateral flex to the frame due to the larger front triangle it creates (as compared to a compact frame).

Given that, it’s fair to say the Laser won’t win any stiffness trophies, but the flipside is that it holds corner lines beautifully – overtly stiff frames just don’t track turns as well. However, as edifying as it is to corner on it’s even more delightful to ride. The 890g (claimed) frame is light enough, so too this sub-7kg build, but it’s the round, slender tubes that give this bike its endearing, steel-like zing and beautiful balance. Which is just what I imagine its forebears had.

Do it yourself

Travel

Kent isn’t exactly darkest Peru, and train stations to make Paddington proud abound. These include Kemsing, the starting point for our ride, which is serviced direct from London Victoria. A return costs £17.20 off-peak and takes little more than 40 minutes each way.

And also…

Travelling east from Kemsing towards Yalding swaps the lumpy North Downs for gentler but no less picturesque roads, and also takes you to Teapot Island, perhaps the most British tourist attraction ever: a museum showcasing 6,700 teapots from Sue Blayze’s personal collection.

Thanks

Riders need bikes and photographers need drivers, so it’s a huge thanks to Joe’s dad, Mr Paul Robinson, for driving our photographer Mike expertly around the confusing Kent lanes. Big thanks also to Joe who expertly put together this ride, then got a free day off work to do it.