The London Orbital Ride 2014

Circumnavigation of London outside of the M25 Motorway

A Lap of London – April 2014

The M25 is London’s orbital motorway, and the second largest in Europe after that around Berlin. It is made up of 188 km (117 miles) of road which is forbidden to ride bicycles on! The M25 isn’t quite motorway all of the way around London, there is a small stretch of A road across the Thames river at the Dartford Crossing (the A282) but this too is illegal to ride a bike on (either on the QE2 Bridge southbound, or in the Dartford Tunnel northbound).

Starting from St Albans in Hertfordshire (to the North West of London) and travelling clockwise, the M25 crosses the following motorways: A1(M), M11, M2, M20, M23, M3, M4, M40 and M1, all of which need to be carefully negotiated. It passes through the counties of Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, Surrey, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.

I decided back in September 2012 that I would try to cycle around London, entirely outside of the M25. The attempt was plagued by route issues, namely because Google sent my boyfriend and I down some lanes that weren’t rights-of-way and because we both accidentally left our phones at home so we couldn’t navigate our way out of dead-ends to avoid crossing the M25! The main problem area was around Epping where seemingly every signpost points to Nazeing, yet it is impassable without quite a deviation away from the motorway itself. Having asked lots of locals how to get through without going under the M25, with no luck, we eventually stopped in a shop to buy a map which pointed us in the right direction, much further away. This wasted quite a bit of time to our planned day.

On this attempt we were however able to reccie the crossing of the river at Dartford. As mentioned it cannot be cycled across. When the QE2 Bridge was built, somebody decided in their wisdom not to have a cycle lane, nor a pedestrian route across the bridge, meaning that from then until eternity it is necessary to provide a service to ferry cyclists and walkers across the river. There are collection points on both the north side of the river in Essex and the south side in Kent, from which it is necessary to call an official to take you across the river by car. When we first attempted this, the service was completely on-demand for 24 hours. Since then they have introduced a timetable of availability, which makes sense really so that the poor souls who have to drop everything to accompany people across the river don’t have to keep leaving their dinner to go cold. The time taken to cross the river will depend on this availability and how many other people are being transported across. In 2012 it took us about 90 mins.

After crossing, we continued our planned route but eventually decided that we had eaten away at too much of the day to be able to get round successfully in one go. The challenge was abandoned and sidelined for another day.

2 further attempts were curtailed for bad weather. I knew that sitting at the Dartford Crossing for a while would be sure to make me very cold, so twice I cut short the route before the journey south of the river.

Fast forward to April 2014, when one Saturday I found myself looking for a route for my RAAM training. I thought I’d give it another go, taking on board the route issues I’d found in Essex and after examining Google streetmap at some awkward places to ensure the roads were really passable. The route came out at 258 km (160 miles) and I figured I could probably do this in 12 hours with some food stops and waiting for the transportation at Dartford.

I set off from St Albans at just after 6am on the Saturday morning. [As an aside, I wouldn’t recommend doing this on a Sunday as food and drink options were scarce until south of the river and opening times will be a problem].

There are some miserable roads around Cheshunt, so I was pleased to be hitting those before the Saturday shopper traffic. I successfully navigated the Nazeing Triangle and passed Epping. Soon after there are two places where the route almost touches the M25, but doesn’t cross it. The lanes around here were pretty and quiet. When I’d originally plotted the route, I’d proposed a coffee stop in Brentwood (a short deviation from the route), but this time I pressed on, since I didn’t want to run out of time again. I did pass a small Londis shop if any food or drink was required.

Around Thurrock it is necessary to navigate the back streets of the commercial estates to get to the Dartford Crossing northside meeting point. The trick is to head westbound on London Road and head up a cordoned off slip road to the right, just before passing under the A282 (the non-motorway part of the M25). It looks like you are heading up to the motorway, but opens out onto a parking area, where the motorway service vehicles are kept.

There is a small building and what looks like a bus stop. Here you will also find a phone! Don’t be confused by the fact it says for Emergencies Only – it has a plaque above it with a number to call for transportation across the river.

I gave it a call, and waited whilst tucking into a snack. Not knowing that the service was no longer 24 hour, I had a slightly longer wait as it was also a break time for the officials. I’ve attached the timetable here, with the caveat that it may change.

Still, it wasn’t too long before a guy drove up with a truck and bike rack for 2 bikes [bear this in mind if there is a big group of you attempting this challenge – you may be some time crossing the river!]. He helped me put the bike on the back and was kind enough to suggest finding a rag to protect my bike from the clamp (himself a cyclist). He then drove me across the QE2 Bridge.

Once on the other side, we were greeted by the sight of the police booking a BMW driver for either speeding or non-payment of the Crossing toll. We had a chuckle. I was dropped at another building on the south side (which would be the collection point had I been travelling northbound – the system is the same whichever way you are travelling).

I carried on my cycle ride, mainly on the A25. This road was getting busier and also bumpier as I was on the edge of the North Downs. Westerham has plenty of nice pubs for lunch and a plethora of shops for snacks. I think I stopped in a garage a bit before to stock up.

I was congratulating myself on skirting Dorking and the infamous Box Hill, when I turned up Pebble Hill – a far harder climb, which I crawled up! It’s the highest point of the M25 orbital circumnavigation. After that I had a nice downhill, a couple of little lumps and then a pretty much flat 40 km (25 miles) to the lakes outside Slough. Looking at my route again, I’m not sure why I went around Pyrford and missed the B367 – there must have been a reason, but it is entirely possible that a few kms could be saved by going up Newark Lane and Coldharbour Road.

The run-in home from Staines is one I know well, as I often open-water swim at Wraysbury and Datchet. Save a bit of energy for the evil New Road Hill in Sarratt which sadly falls just on the right (wrong?) side of the M25. Beautiful views though in the fading sun.

The whole route took me 10h47 of ride time, over 12h19. Distance 257.5 km (160 miles) with ascent of 2669 m (8756 ft). Maybe I should try circumnavigating Berlin next!