The Smoke Ring: A Bikepacking Circle around London (03/07/20-05/07/20)

By the time I write this, in late 2020, the brief respite we had from COVID-19 in the summer months seems a distant memory.

Sometime in July, I hopped on my bike to tackle a bikepacking route that I’ve had on my ‘to ride’ list for a couple of years. I’m not sure where I first heard of the Smoke Ring, but it’s been sitting saved in my bookmarks for a while as a reference point for out-of-London rides. I believe it comes from MTB Epics, and was run as an event a few years ago. There’s a guidebook printed about it – but I don’t have that. I did consider trying to get a copy, but actually it’s far more fun not knowing what’s ahead on a trip.

There’s not an awful lot of information about the route online, so hopefully this is a useful trip report for someone else…

The Smoke Ring is a 200 mile anti-clockwise route around London that passes through Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey, Kent and Essex. I read that the route was 60% dirt and 40% road. Mountain bikes were recommended, but I decided to take the Dawes, which I figured would be faster on the sealed sections. I didn’t want to take any days off work for it, so needed to knock it out in a weekend.

I began in Swanley on Friday evening. I was working from home – thanks to a certain pandemic – so it was easy to get out into Kent from Peckham on the train. From there I rode the first 20km to Gravesend, along some uninspiring lanes to the Thames. It was a slightly stressful ride, as I was cutting it fine to catch the last ferry of the day across the river. I made it just in time for the 7pm crossing.

The terminal was eerily quiet. The shops were all closed and the pub looked like it hadn’t seen a soul since we first entered national lockdown. There was a layer of dust along the railings. Guess the cleaners were on furlough….

Masked up, I crossed the Thames with about 2 other passengers that turned up after me, before continuing on the Smoke Ring. I cycled up flat, windswept Essex before detouring towards Basildon in search of dinner. The first place I found was MacDonald’s, which was open, but only to drive-through customers due to the virus. No problem, I thought, and walked my bike up to the outside counter after patiently waiting for a car to go before me.

“We can’t serve you, unfortunately. This is only for cars”.

“For real? I am driving… driving a bike”.
They were being for real, it seemed, and I was politely told to ‘jog on’.

I found some fish ‘n’ chips in an industrial estate and ate under a tree in the rain. It was getting dark and I had no idea where I’d camp. We weren’t off to the most glamorous of starts.

Fortunately I found somewhere hidden away in Childerditch Woods after a short stint in the dark and wrapped up a quick 50km post-work. It was raining, so I felt smug knowing that I’d picked the tent over bivvy bag for this excursion.

I cycled 150km on Saturday. Most of the riding was quick, much of it sealed quiet lanes or dry trails north of London. I was glad to be on the gravel bike – the MTB would have been overkill.

It was fun to cycle through familiar areas, like Epping Forest, that I normally just pass through. The waterside section past Rickmansworth (which happens to be where I stayed on the last night of my RTW cycle), was also familiar – as was the lovely ride through Windsor.

It was nice to pass through Swinley forest west of London too, somewhere I’ve wanted to ride for a while. The Smoke Ring keeps you on one of the blue MTB trails, which were fine on my bike, but I’d love to go back on my hardtail in spring and tackle some of the proper trails.

I camped somewhere in the forest, in a lovely spot on a hill over 100m asl. As I write this (a few months later), the COVID- timeline is coming back to me. This was the first weekend that the pubs re-opened after our national lockdown. I’d popped into a Co-Op to buy some dinner and a beer for camp, and rode past some revellers making the most of the bars being back open. There was a big crowd outside, all hammered. As a boozing nation, we had a lot of catching up to do.

On Sunday I had 120km to finish, the highlights of which passed through the Surrey Hills and followed the North Downs Way. Having spent all of my years in London south of the river, these are areas I’m used to visiting by bike or foot.

The Smoke Ring follows trails around Peaslake and Holmbury that are most definitely for MTB. It doesn’t take you down the gnarliest trails, but does bring you to parts that aren’t enjoyable on a rigid gravel bike loaded up with luggage. This is the only part of the loop that I actually wished I had the hardtail for. It’s worth tentatively doing these sections – even if grossly under-biked – but there are plenty of alternatives to quickly divert and the riding is straightforward once again when you reach Westcott.

From there, the Smoke Ring loosely follows the North Downs Way to Warlingham, more or less along the same route as my mega coastal there-and-back gravel route.

The sun was out, and it was nice to be riding along the sections I’ve become so used to since building back the Dawes. While training for the TCR last year, I rode the Kent lanes around Westerham to death – but this summer I’ve been exploring the dirt options around the M25 and started used the NDW to make a longer mixed terrain 100km route when visiting my dad in SW London. 

This was by far the best section of the Smoke Ring. I’m biased, but I think the riding south of London is far better than north.

I was knackered by the time I reached Swanley in the late afternoon. I popped my mask on, jumped on the train and was home for dinner and an early night. The Smoke Ring would definitely be more leisurely over three days. Having done the route, I don’t think it’s worthy of a day holiday – so I’m glad to have knocked it out over the weekend.

There are more exciting bikepacking routes close to London – the NDW, Ridgeway or South Downs Way being obvious examples – but the novelty of doing a full loop around the capital makes this one quite unique.

Hopefully the virus will leave us alone soon so we can venture a little further afield!


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