Title: Lost Lanes - 36 Glorious Bike Rides In Southern England
Author: Jack Thurston
Publisher: Wild Things
Order: The Bike Show
What it is: A mix of travelogue and riding suggestions covering southern England with downloadable maps and GPS files
Strengths: The mix of history, culture and geography brings the routes alive, as do the sumptuous photographs illustrating the rides.
Weaknesses: As always with these guides there is room to debate what makes a glorious bike ride.
I can remember one of the first bike rides I did in England, shortly after I'd moved there for work. I was living in the north-west of London and had sought out a local cycling club to ride with. At the time I didn't know much about the geography of England - what was where and all that - and, as we rolled through countryside that seemed to roll flat in all directions, I could see grey shadows on the horizon. My heart hoped that the grey shadows I could see were hills coming up before us. My head, of course, told me to stop being such a pillock, there were no hills within riding distance of London.
Back home in Dublin, I could get on my bike and in twenty minutes be suffering in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. In London twenty minutes wouldn't even take me north of the M25 motorway and away from traffic. If I wanted to play in the hills - which, at the time, I thought was the best way to play bikes - it'd have to be on stolen weekends up north, in the Lakes, the Peaks, Wales or Scotland. The thought of all the driving needed to do that was almost enough to make me homesick.
Over the next few weeks, though, I quickly learned to appreciate the English countryside. I particularly learned to appreciate the Chilterns. Ivinghoe Beacon and Stokenchurch were but pale shadows when compared to Stone Cross or Tibradden back home, but they were hills and all hills are fun, even the short ones. But I also learned to love England's back roads, the quiet lanes that are the subject of Jack Thurston's Lost Lanes.
Thurston, for those not familiar with the name, is the presenter of Resonance FM's The Bicycle Show, co-editor of The Bicycle Reader and one of Rouleur's stable of regular contributors. Lost Lanes is his love song to the by-roads of the Home Counties:
"there is no better war to explore southern England than by riding a bicycle along its 'lost lanes; the quiet capillary counterparts to the network of thundering arterial roads. Those strips of serenity represent as much as a third of the road network by length, but carry just a tiny fraction of the motor traffic. Lanes classed as 'generally less than 4m wide' are perfect for cycling for the simple reason that most motorists shun them. They're too narrow for cars to pass each other without slowing to a near halt or backing up to a passing place; not knowing what's around the corner, those people who do have to use them drive slowly and carefully. It's an ideal environment for cycling."
Lost Lanes isn't just about lanes though. It's also about history, culture (high and low), geology, even beer and cakes. It's about all the stuff you can connect with as you ride somewhere. It's about getting out into the local countryside and enjoying yourself.
What is that countryside? Let's do the menu of routes:
|Ride||Start / End||Distance||Ascent|
|Valley of Vision||Swanley (Kent)||36 kms||437 m|
|Houses & Hills||Sevenoaks (Kent)||49 kms||595 m|
|Between Downs & Weald||Lingfield (Kent)||46 kms||473 m|
|The Fifth Continent||Ashford (Kent)||101 kms||299 m|
|Crab & Winkle||Canterbury (Kent)||51 kms||249 m|
|The Loneliest Landscape||Gravesend/Stroud (Kent)||49 kms||221 m|
|The Wild Weald||Tunbridge Wells (Sussex)||58 kms||917 m|
|A Quintessence of England||Liphook (Sussex)||60 kms||634 m|
|Turf & Surf||Chichester (Sussex)||44 kms||43 m|
|Windsor Great Park||Egham (Surrey)||24 kms||189 m|
|Surrey Hulls Legbuster||Effingham (Surrey)||74 kms||1,296 m|
|The Ripley Road||Woking (Surrey)||32 kms||145 m|
|Everything Stops for Tea||Westhumble (Surrey)||37 kms||240 m|
|Winchester Winter Warmer||Winchester (Hampshire)||63 kms||632 m|
|Around the Wight||Ryde (Isle of Wight)||109 kms||1,048 m|
|Escape to Cookham Island||Iver / Slough (Berkshire / Buckinghamshire)||51 kms||157 m|
|A Thames Meander||Reading / Didcot (Berkshire / Oxfordshire)||57 kms||357 m|
|River to Ridgeway||Reading (Berkshire / Oxfordshire)||48 kms||339 m|
|A Cotswold Getaway||Long Hanborough (Oxofordshire)||106 kms||864 m|
|Chiltern Rendezvous||Harpenden (Hertfordshire)||70 kms||507 m|
|Hidden Hertfordshire||Knebworth (Hertfordshire)||60 kms||586 m|
|Farmland Fantastic||Baldock (Bedfordshire)||56 kms||195 m|
|Empty Essex||Southminster / Burnham-on-Couch (Essex)||44 kms||62 m|
|The Oyster Run||Colchester / Witham (Essex)||63 kms||149 m|
|Joy of Essex||Elsenham (Essex)||62 kms||243 m|
|Sun, Sea & Suffolk||Dunwich (Suffolk)||71 kms||180 m|
|Waveney Weekender||Diss (Suffolk)||77 kms||183 m|
|An Eastern Excursion||Broadway Market (London)||33 kms||27 m|
|Garden City||Lambeth / Soho (London)||22 kms||119 m|
|Wimbledon to Weybridge||Wimbledon / Weybridge (London)||31 kms||104 m|
|Dunwich Dynamo||Hackney / Dunwich (Essex / Suffolk)||180 kms||1,189 m|
|Ride of the Falling Leaves||Dulwich (Kent)||100 kms||950 m|
|Summertime Audax||Stevenage (Hertfordshire)||101 kms||520 m|
|Foulness Island Bike Ride||Great Wakering (Essex)||37 kms||43 m|
|London to Brighton||London / Brighton (Surrey / Sussex)||87 kms||709 m|
|Midsummer Madness||London (London)||19 kms||116 m|
At its heart, to really appreciate Lost Lanes you have to get out and ride the roads that Thurston writes about. Me being in Dublin and Podium Café's expense account not even stretching to one of Ryanair's cattle class flights I've obviously not done that. Many of the places I do know from personal experience, even if I haven't done the exact routes mapped by Thurston. But what I most loved about Lost Lanes was what it said about the British countryside and the way it said it, the way it added extra layers to places I thought I already knew. Try this passage, from a route through the Cotswolds:
"A ride starting just west of Oxford and heading though the Cotswolds might conjure images of dreaming spires and quaint teashops in picturesque villages. It might sound a bit too chocolate-box. But the Cotswolds I was looking for may have been cycled by Edward Elgar, said to have ridden every lane within 20 miles of his home and many beyond, and were the eponymous subject of the first orchestral symphony by Gustaf Holst, also a pioneering cyclist. In poetry, this is the countryside where Burnt Norton provides the anchor for TS Eliot's reflections on eternity and salvation, and where time stands still in a vanished railway station. For romantics or historians, stone warriors stand frozen on a hilltop."
Those stone warriors Thurston goes on to describe thusly:
"There is no shortage of legends and superstitions surrounding the stones, from medieval times onwards. The King's Men is a wide circle of 77 irregularly shaped stones that resemble a gap-toothed mouth. A little way away is the smaller, fenced group of Whispering Knights, and across the road in Warwickshire sits the King Stone, more than two metres high but also somewhat brutally caged in by a metal fence. Its odd, sinuous shape was not the work of its prehistoric builders but of much later tourists chipping off souvenirs. The stones featured in a 'Doctor Who' story called The Stones of Blood, which I vividly remember watching in a state of terror, more or less from behind the sofa."
Over the last few years reviewing books for the Café Bookshelf I've noted several times how the cycling renaissance Britain is going through has been a boon for the publishing industry. In the Lance Armstrong years in the States, the boom tended mostly to produce books about Armstrong. In Britain the dividend is much richer. Yes, many of the books being put out are Tour-centric affairs and those that aren't are tied to the Olympics. But there is also a wealth of other books being produced too. Lost Lanes is just one of those that feeds the growing taste of those taking to the bike in a born again cycling nation that, for too long, has been in sway to the motorised population.
As with Dave Barter's Great British Bike Rides, Lost Lanes is not a cheap-and-cheerful attempt to cash in on this cycling boom. It's beautifully produced, with excellent (original) photography and good sketch maps (which are supported by downloadable OS-quality maps and data files to upload the route to a GPS device). It's also lovingly researched. This is a book that wants you to use it and not just be left sitting on your coffee table for friends to admire.
You don't have to ride the exact routes mapped by Thurston. Consider them serving suggestions and mix your own ingredients in to find something that's right for you. And even if you already know the routes Thurston prescribes then sit back and let him open your eyes to aspects of them you might have missed.