Five of the best cycling day trips from London

Biking is experiencing a boom in London, brought on by the onset of lockdowns and facilitated by an ever-expanding network of cycle paths. But beyond the landmarks are twisting rivers, rolling countryside and pretty villages ripe for exploration.

A ride to the top of Box Hill in Surrey is a trip that every London cyclist must make.

Photograph by Alamy
By Simon Usborne
Published 26 Jun 2021, 08:00 BST

Perhaps the most positive response to the pandemic has been a rush to get active — and a subsequent rise in people cycling. There are few better ways to spin away the worries of modern life — and in London, an ever-expanding network of segregated cycling paths are helping the capital to at last becoming a cycling city. Even beyond the sprawl, London offers a great base for exploring the Home Counties — Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Berkshire, Kent, Essex and Hertfordshire — where quiet lanes journey through wild nature and rolling landscapes, even within the M25.

The five routes below offer an introduction to extra-urban riding and are suitable for a range of abilities and bikes. And if you need a little push, London’s hilly surrounds make e-bikes a great choice, too.

1. Buckingham Palace to Box Hill, 80 miles

Though riding a bike up Box Hill is seen by some as a bit of a cliche, any self-respecting cyclist must, at some point, make a pilgrimage to the Surrey Hills and to what was the centrepiece of the 2012 Olympic road race.

From The Mall outside Buckingham Palace, head first to Richmond Park via Putney Bridge, to experience another mecca for London cyclists (the park’s seven-mile lap is a rite of passage). The Olympic course then looped south past Weybridge, Woking and Guildford, although more direct and quieter approaches to Box Hill are possible (you’ll find plenty of routes online).

The climb itself starts with a right turn while heading north on the road towards Mickleham. The aptly named Zig Zag Road is actually pretty easy by the standard of Surrey’s often fearsome ramps; a gentle, 1.4-mile ascent via two sweeping hairpins that offer the briefest illusion of Alpine climbing.

There’s a National Trust cafe at the top for a taste of something restorative with the benefit of a view before the return to London, via Leatherhead, Oxshott and Esher. And, if you’ve still got the legs, take a victory sprint back on the Mall.
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The London to Brighton route is a hilly classic for any cyclist to tick off, while ...

The London to Brighton route is a hilly classic for any cyclist to tick off, while also benefiting from good rail links for the return.

Photograph by Alamy

2. Clapham Common to Brighton, 55 miles

The official annual charity ride to the seaside is due to take place on 19 September, but the roads are yours for the taking all year round. And the London to Brighton route is a hilly classic for any cyclist to tick off, while also benefiting from good rail links for the return.

Clapham Common is the de facto start line for Brighton sorties. And it doesn’t take long after passing Tooting, Mitcham and Carshalton to hit quiet lanes. A hop over the North Downs gives a first taste of the climbing to come. Then it’s lumpy until Turners Hill. A long, mainly downhill section through picturesque Ardingly and the bigger town of Haywards Heath can be flatteringly fast but be sure to save some energy for the biggest test of the day, which looms above the fields of Sussex within the final 10 miles. The winding ascent of the South Downs to Ditchling Beacon is a lung buster even for a supremely fit road warrior, with steep ramps and moments where you think you’re nearly there only to find another twist and climb. Stunning views are the reward — along with the long descent to Madeira Drive for an ice cream and a dip.
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Read more: Exploring England's new long-distance cycle route, King Alfred's Way

3. Olympic Park to Epping Forest, 16 miles-plus

You could spend much of a day cycling without actually leaving the Olympic Park in Stratford. The Lea Valley VeloPark includes a pay-and-ride, one-mile race circuit of pristine asphalt that winds around the velodrome that was the site of such glory in 2012 (you can do a taster session on the boards if you wish). But the park also makes a great starting point for an adventure northwards towards Epping Forest, where off-road kicks are available along the bridleways and tracks of one of the greatest green spaces within reach of London.

To keep the journey to the forest quiet, head straight on to the towpath that winds from Hackney Wick along the River Lea (more of a canal, really) as far as Tottenham Hale, past the Hackney Marshes football pitches, as well as pretty locks, houseboats and reservoirs. Take a right on the A110 to Chingford and duck onto one of the forest trails off Bury Road.

The forest itself has more than 150 miles of tracks, many of which are smooth, packed mud and gravel (remember to give way to hikers and horses). There are dozens of routes, including the 13-mile stretch of this route from Walthamstow, which also hits the forest on Bury Road. Map your ride:

During a stretch through Essex, consider a short diversion to the delightful market town of Saffron ...

During a stretch through Essex, consider a short diversion to the delightful market town of Saffron Walden, which has its own cyclists’ cafe, Bicicletta.

Photograph by Alamy

4. Regent’s Park to Cambridge, 66 miles

There are a few ways to start a ride from London to Cambridge (you could do the Olympic Park to Epping Forest route and just keep going). But this route takes in a couple more cycling landmarks before it leaves the capital.

Any Londoner new to cycling should make a beeline to Regent’s Park. Its Outer Circle road hums with bikes most mornings. The quieter, perfectly circular Inner Circle is great for traffic light-free training sessions.

After a warm-up lap, head through Camden and Kentish Town to Highgate and the notorious climb of Swain’s Lane, a deathly ramp that rises past Highgate Cemetery. After Finchley and High Barnet, you’re into pleasant lanes populated by North London-based weekend riders. Head east through Hertford and Ware and the course rejoins the route up from Epping. During a stretch through Essex, consider a short diversion to the delightful market town of Saffron Walden, which has its own cyclists’ cafe, Bicicletta.

This is a fairly long route, so take your time — unless you have something to prove. Either way, the last 15 miles towards Cambridge, and up the excellent new cycle path of Hills Road, are largely downhill. You’ll be grateful for that — and for the frequent train services back to London.
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5. Greenwich to Gravesend, 25 miles

When cycling south of the river, it’s easy to neglect roads heading east that traverse the capital’s riverside industrial heritage. The green and pleasant hills and lanes of Surrey to the south are hard to resist as an escape from the city’s hubbub. But it’s worth mixing it up for this short and easy ride along the Thames into Kent.

Start with a bit of history at the Cutty Sark, the old tea clipper now standing proud in a dry-dock museum. And if you don't know Greenwich, spare a bit of time first to hike up to the observatory in the park for one of the most startling views in London; the stark outline of Canary Wharf beyond the 17th-century Queen’s House.

Then it’s straight on to National Cycle Route 1, which runs the length of the country and follows the Thames Path through Greenwich. And that’s it — just follow NCR1 as it first hugs the Millennium Dome and gets progressively quieter past Charlton and Woolwich. You’re then zipping alongside sand flats, big skies and the river as it widens. There’s an inland stretch after Erith to get around Dartford Marshes before you’re back on the Thames at the ‘beaches’ of Gravesend, which has direct trains to St Pancras or Charing Cross.
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