A Trail of Two Cities: A new route from London to Paris by bicycle
Mike Wells’ new guidebook to cycling from London to Paris outlines a proposed route to reach Paris by bike for the 2024 Olympics, but you can ride it now!
On 5 July 2005, to the surprise of almost all observers, Olympic chiefs chose London as the venue for the 2012 summer Olympics. It was a tight-run contest, with London snatching victory by a small margin over favourite Paris. Following the award of the Games, construction progressed quickly to create an Olympic Park in London, with stadium, aquatic centre, velodrome and other venues to enable the dream to come alive. In addition to these ‘hard’ activities, many ‘soft’ actions were also undertaken to enhance London’s attractiveness to visitors in 2012. These included upgrades to the public transport system and a city-wide programme to erase graffiti. All of these came together to make the London Games one of the best attended and most successful Olympics ever held. An ancillary aim was to create a lasting sporting legacy and this has had mixed success.
One soft action that received less publicity at the time, but has left a lasting legacy, was the creation of a fully waymarked cycle route between Paris and London, designed to provide a different way for French visitors to reach London for the Games. British and French cycling organisations and local governments in Surrey, Sussex and Normandy came together to create the Avenue Verte, a 387km (241mile) trail using a mixture of suburban streets, quiet country roads, disused railway lines and canal towpaths. It starts at the French ‘zero point’ (a bronze plaque in front of Notre Dame cathedral from which distances from Paris are measured) and ends beside the London Eye on the Southbank in central London. En route, it crosses the English Channel by way of ferry between Dieppe and Newhaven and runs through attractive countryside of chalk downland, limestone plateau and Wealden valleys.
But this is not the only route by which cyclists can journey between the two great Olympic cities of London and Paris. For centuries, the most popular route was to follow the old Roman road of Watling Street from London to Dover, cross the channel by way of the short ferry route between Dover and Calais and then follow Napoleon’s Route National 1 from Calais to Paris.
I believe that the recent decision to award the 2024 Olympics to Paris provides an opportunity to declare this route as a second recognised cycle route between London and Paris and a way by which British cyclists can be encouraged to visit France for the 2024 Games.
Tower to tower
In order to avoid heavy traffic on main roads, I have devised a route following Sustrans cycle trails through south-east London and Kent in England and country roads, voie verte and canal towpaths in France. The result is a cycle ride that runs from the Tower of London to the Eiffel Tower, a tower-to-tower route that I have named the Trail of Two Cities. On the approach to central Paris, it passes right beside the main Olympic Park surrounding the Stade de France in St Denis.
This route, together with the already waymarked and established Avenue Verte, is the subject of my new guidebook, Cycling London to Paris. This book gives detailed route descriptions of both routes in both directions, a feature that I hope will encourage enthusiastic cycle tourists to travel between the two cities, going out by one route and returning by the other. The Trail of Two Cities is 490km (304miles) in length, with 147km (92miles) in England and 343km (211miles) in France. Returning by Avenue Verte would give a total round-trip route of 877km (545 miles). A fast cyclist could complete the return journey in eight days, while a more leisurely pace would enable less fit cyclists to get to Paris and back in two weeks. In Kent and in northern France, the route occasionally undulates over chalk downland. There are a few short hills, but as the highest points reached are only 183m on the North Downs in England and 178m at Crèvecœur in France, these are not much of an obstacle.
Leaving from the Tower of London, the route immediately crosses the Thames and follows the proposed route of cycle superhighway CS4 to Woolwich. It then uses part of the London Cycle Network to reach the edge of Greater London where Sustrans route NCN1, part of the National Cycle Network, is joined and followed beside the A2/M2 motorway to Rochester in Kent. A short, steep climb through shady woodland takes the route over the North Downs, then it undulates through the Weald along the traffic-free Pilgrims’ Way, part of the old pilgrim route from Winchester to Canterbury.
After passing through the growth town of Ashford, quiet country roads and the towpath of the Royal Military Canal are used to cross Romney Marsh before reaching the English Channel near Folkestone. Here cyclists have a choice of ways to reach France. They can either take their bikes on a Eurotunnel Shuttle train from Folkestone to Calais (two departures a day include a van adapted to carry cycles), or continue along the top of the white cliffs to Dover and catch one of the 40 car-ferry sailings a day (depending upon season), which all carry cycles.
Once in France, a canal towpath and disused railway line are used to cross the coastal plain before the route undulates on minor roads through downland, climbing in and out of pretty valleys, to reach the river Somme at Abbeville. After a level ride along the towpath of the canalised Somme to Amiens, the Coulée Verte track along another old railway is followed up the Selle valley and over more downland to Beauvais. To avoid low hills and the limestone Vexin plateau that lie across the route to Paris, the route turns south-east down the Thérain valley to Chantilly, then climbs over one last ridge to reach the Paris basin.
A mixture of cycle tracks, canal towpaths and city street cycle lanes enable cyclists to reach the end of the route below the Eiffel Tower.
All along the route, in both England and France, are places to stay and eat. There are lots of bed & breakfast establishments in England and their French equivalent, chambres d’hôte, in France, where cyclists can stay the night with somewhere safe to store a cycle. Most English villages have a pub, while many French ones have a café/bar where you can eat and drink. France is rightly known for the quality of its food and even the smallest restaurant usually has a varied menu of home-produced meals. Every French village has a bakery that produces fresh bread daily, making it easy to put together a lunchtime snack.
Once you have reached Paris, you can either continue on Avenue Verte, reaching London in four/five days via the Dieppe–Newhaven ferry, or you can return to London in under two-and-a-half hours by using the hourly Eurostar high-speed train service from Gare du Nord to St Pancras International. Cycles booked in advance (£30) travel in the same train as you. There are two spaces per train for fully assembled bikes, plus four more for dismantled bikes in special fibre-glass bike boxes provided by Eurostar at the station. Last minute bookings (£25) are guaranteed carriage within 24hr. If you look closely out of the window on your way back, you may just recognise a couple of places where high-speed railway line and Trail of Two Cities cycle route coincide.
Cycling has been a great British success story, with record medal hauls at the past three Olympics and many recent wins at the Tours de France. It is time to start a campaign to get a record number of British cycling supporters to Paris to cheer on more success in 2024. So, when the Paris Olympics arrive, how should cyclists travel to Paris to see the games. If cycling authorities and local government take up my proposal to waymark the cycle route from London to Paris via Dover–Calais, they can combine exercise, great food and the Olympics into one holiday package by following The Trail of Two Cities.
These things do not happen overnight. It will take some years of planning to implement, so let’s get the wheels turning. The campaign starts now!
Better still, if you cannot wait until 2024 to cycle to Paris, why not ride the route this summer and join the campaign to get The Trail of Two Cities recognised and waymarked, ready for the Paris Olympiad.
Mike Wells has been a keen long-distance walker and cyclist for over 20 years. He has walked all the major British trails, the GR5 through the Alps from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean and has explored the Italian Dolomites' Alta Via routes. He has also walked in Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Norway and Chilean Patagonia.
Mike has cycled the C2C route across northern England as well as the Camino and Ruta de la Plata to Santiago de la Compostela. He has completed an end to end traverse of Cuba, a circumnavigation of Iceland and a trip across Lapland to the North Cape.