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Pedalling into London’s countryside

By Delia Ray, Content and Communications volunteer | 17 November 2023

As we pedal by, there’s a flash of blue-green. A kingfisher skims across the water and settles on a low branch, scanning the teeming waters below. The colours along the Lee Valley are ablaze in the sun, a bright day amid a drizzly autumn. There are herons too, and cormorants stretching an arc of dark wings, delivering an exhilarating vista of wild country just metres from the M25. No cars involved.

If you want to escape the grime of the capital for an hour or two, it’s ever easier to do so on two wheels. Waltham Forest’s cycle-friendly streets tip cyclists gently onto National Cycle Route 1, which stretches along the River Lee valley from Hackney far into the Hertfordshire countryside. We bump our bikes along the canal path and try to dodge the puddles. Before long, we tunnel below the North Circular, and scoot along a narrow section of path with unexpected vistas of local business parks.

Lock cottage at Enfield
Enfield Lock – Escape the city along the River Lee

The path becomes more pitted with gravel. The colourful canal boats which line the route are settled homes, where washing lines flap in the breeze. The landscape opens out as the route heads north, skirting the perimeter of Chingford’s great reservoirs. Devoid of the usual road landmarks, you measure progress by locks. At Enfield, the pretty lock keeper’s cottage with its white railings was once a busy hub for the neighbouring rifle factory, now a housing estate.

Reaching Waltham Abbey just an hour into our journey, the route shakes off the city’s shadow. The surroundings broaden into the wider, cycle friendly, Lee Valley park, with its waterways, wildlife and farms. Fingerposts point us to our destination, Broxbourne, and beyond, to Ware. Near here the canoe slalom events of the London 2012 Olympic games were held, at the Lee Valley White Water Centre.

There are plenty of inviting pubs along the route, and after a lunch stop (a few minutes off the canal path in Broxbourne), we set out again. Ahead, the path forks, with route 61 offering the opportunity to strike west towards Welwyn and Hertford. But our plan is to circle back eastwards, joining the bridleways of Epping Forest to make our way back to London.

Canal boats along a canal in London
The route is very cyclist friendly

My companion is confident that a cross-country route will slice busy roads and time off our schedule. But minutes later we are dragging our bikes on foot round a field of claggy clay soil, in pursuit of a path that turns out to be half green lane, half lake. Happily, by setting my machine on the lowest gear, I manage to scoot over the turf and find time to luxuriate in the scent of wet grass, a blackbird’s song, and the red and yellow of autumn leaves against the deep azure of the sky.

By the time we reach Epping, the sun is dipping. In Epping forest, ancient tracks twist and turn between pollarded oaks, lined like haggard old faces. Most routes are open to two wheels. But today, beneath the branches, the growing darkness lays traps of silty pools under a carpet of leaves, designed to catch a cyclist unawares.

The Forest routes will wait for another day. Now it’s all downhill, following the cycle path along Epping New Road, back to the suburbs. In the distance, between the lines of trees glows the last of the sun, framing the distinctive skyline of the City. It’s a reminder that, for all the fields, lanes and waterways, we’ve never been too far from home.