I’ve been following a number of interesting people of Strava for a while now and get to see some really tasty rides popping up in my feed along with the usual ‘Morning ride’ commutes (I wish you could mute these). Every now and then I’ll see some had an interesting little adventure and reach for the ‘export as GPX’ button and then pop the file in ridewithGPS for later use. One of those rides was by either Duncan or Lindsey a few years back where one (or both) cycled to the chapel of St Peter on the Wall on the Dengie nature reserve on the solstice and slept out on the beach before riding back the next day I think.
I have a list, both written down and in my head, of interesting rides to do and try and complete or do again. This was pretty high up there and I was really frustrated when I saw that I’d missed the solstice last year as would have loved to get out for a bit of camping and see the sunrise. I’m in no way spiritual but seemed like a good excuse to mark a point in the year and get out of London into the fresh air. This year I resolved to make sure I didn’t miss it and added it to the diary and made a loose plan to get out there and do something. The St Peter on the Wall ride and camp spot seemed the best choice and I managed to get a little group of people together to come along. With a bivvy trip you don’t really want too many people so kept it to just four of us, Michalea, Rhys, Janine and myself. I’m between jobs and have taken a week off so this seemed like the perfect way of celebrating that week off and the solstice as well as having a lovely (hopefully) sleep out somewhere new. We agreed that we’d cycle up in the afternoon, eat en-route and then have a beer on the beach before going to bed.
So we met in Rapha Soho at 2pm and I was late. I’d not planned my morning very well and ended up rushing to find all those little bits you seem to need for a little trip like this. They soon add up, especially if you’re doing it for pleasure and not roughing it during some bike race for instance. Get the route on the Garmin, charge things, warm hat, head torch, coffee stuff, filter papers, grind coffee etc, lighter? All of these little things I was hurriedly putting into a series of bags on the bike.
A bit more faffing in the cafe and then we managed to get going, out into the busy Friday traffic. It was super warm and although I was a little anxious from my faffing / packing disaster we were out and on the road to freedom / beach camping.
Of course what I hadn’t really looked at was the route out of London which takes you along the Lee Bridge road. I really hate this road and is one of the reasons I don’t really come this way much. It’s so busy with cars, goes on forever and then has this terrible surface. Ahh well we were on it and heading out of town. I’d left without a full charge in the Garmin or the power pack and stopped at a garage to plug it in to the dynamo charger and top it up. Whilst the lights were working for some reason the USB bit wasn’t. Battery anxiety high and a bit hot and bothered. Fortunately Rhys was able to top my power pack up from his set up but it still annoyed me mine wasn’t working and that I’d probably have to throw more money at the problem when home to get it working again.
Onwards up out of town and finally that right hand turn comes where you peel off the main road and head into the lanes. I think I’d ridden this lane a few times going to Cambridge and maybe the Great Escape Audax. It feels good to be off it and ticking along in the countryside.
It’s been a while since I’ve had the road bike loaded up with the bags and it feels super weird out of the saddle. I’ve balanced it up front and back but the narrower bars compared to the MTB I’ve been riding recently feel a bit odd at first.
Lanes turn less familiar and it’s a beautifully warm afternoon. There’s not that many cars around and the majority pass us with loads of room. We’re even able to sit in a little group of four in two up formation for quite a lot of it. I realise that I’ve just taken this route and not really looked at it. I’ve kind of taken it on trust that it’s going to be good and not going down farm tracks or on A roads. The people I’ve stolen it from always seem to have good routes and I kind of relax slightly as the route rewards us with absolutely beautiful scenery and lanes. Clearly the sun helps but it’s one of the nicest routes I’ve done.
There’s very little around us apart from the occasional cluster of houses and farms. The further we head out the more sparse it gets.
This feeling of remoteness is great until I realise how quickly I’m getting through my water and that the energy bar I bought tastes disgusting and I don’t want to eat it. I start wondering if the next village will actually have a shop that’s open where we can top up a bit. Again I didn’t really look at the route properly to check these things. Ahh well we cannot be far from something.
Eventually we get to Maldon (yes the salt) and ask someone where’s good for food who encourages us to go to the end of the town and peel left at the Chinese. We do this and end up at a brilliant pub on the quayside. I dump my bike and pretty much run in to order food, completely forgetting any sense of manners towards the others and whether they would like to go first. A few moments later a huge haddock and chips arrives to go with my pint of Guinness and scampi fries I’ve bought as a starter.
The temperature has started to drop a bit and being tired too doesn’t help. We start to wonder if we’ve brought enough layers having been fooled by the very warm day temperature. We set off again and get back on route and quickly warm up. I’m a bit disappointed we’re going to be there when it’s dark and not see the sunset before Janine quite rightly points out that it’s an east facing beach and we wouldn’t really see anything.
We’ve warmed up a bit and everyone’s mood seems to have lifted having eaten something. We seem to be ticking along at a nice pace and the area is becomes more sparsely populated. There’s hardly anyone here! The sun goes down behind us and we end up with one last garage stop to grab a few beers for the beach and then press on.
Whilst the first two thirds of the ride seemed to drag a bit this last bit has been a dream. A good feed and knowing that we’re almost there has made me a great deal better. I’d also been a bit apprehensive about doing the ride and I’m not sure why. Each time you sleep out it requires a little bit of a jolt to knock yourself over this ‘I shouldn’t be doing this’ or ‘this is stupid’ feeling to get out there. For me it doesn’t always come naturally and it takes a little bit of self confidence to convince yourself it’s actually a good idea.
There’s a pub 6km before we get to our destination which we are definitely having a pint in. Janine has checked and it’s open until midnight. We get there about 10.30 and I stroll in in lycra top to toe and my clippy cloppy cycling shoes and sure enough every single person in the room turns around to stare! Fortunately they’re all friendly and want to chat, where have we come from, going to?
You could have got a train from London mate
They’re all great fun and we end up having a chat with quite a few. Whilst I’m ordering at the bar a very drunk women it trying to fiddle with my camera slung over my shoulder to take a pic. She’s fumbling so badly I just offer to take her picture.
This reminds me of the 2014 Dunwich Dynamo with Andy where he ended up selling his Vicious Velo cap to some very pissed locals as well as joining them for a few drinks. We take our drinks outside and continue more conversations with some of the locals who are smoking. One of which is a nuclear engineer who works at the local plant, like Homer Simpson I say. We have a long and interesting conversation about the world of nuclear power and any little anecdotes we’re able to offer about Sellafield and so on. He’s off to Kent soon to work at Dungeness on the decommissioning there. Also noting that he’s moving from one marshland to another.
Sure enough we’ve got cold again sitting down and we jump on our bikes and sprint the last few kms to warm up. We’ve told the locals our plans which I can’t help bringing my London mindset to which says… don’t tell them, they’ll steal your bikes. But they’re super interested, tell us a bit more about the Chapel and that we can sleep in there but shouldn’t, as it’s haunted. They also tell us about the dogging site on the way which I mishear as dogs and almost blurt out “ooo I love dogs” but I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t clear on how much they’re winding us up with the whole dogging thing. There’s a lovely orange glow on the horizon from the remnants of the sunset as we continue to the end of the nature reserve.
The tarmac road stops and we continue down a little gravel road to a gate in front of the chapel. Sure enough we pass a car with lights on in the interior and I wonder what we’re going to see as we pass. It’s not quite dogging but it is a couple having a bit of a kiss and a cuddle. Maybe their friends are late.
We get to the Chapel and it’s pitch black. It’s much further inland that I had realised and can’t quite work out a path over the marsh to get to the beach. One option is to camp in front of the chapel but it’s not the romantic idea I had of sleeping on the beach as I’d done before at Minsmere near Dunwich. Again next to a nuclear power station.
We consulted some satellite maps to work out whats what and then fought our way through an overgrown path to get onto a little concrete causeway. As this ended and turned into natural dunes I found a little corner shaped plot which looked perfect. It took a few moments to convince the others and a quick check of the tide times was made to make sure we weren’t getting wet in the morning.
Rhys had brought the full kitchen sink type packing for the trip including a bigger tarp (could have left mine at home) as well as a carbon pole. We set up a little A frame affair with two bikes pegging out the rear with another two bikes at the front and a pole which was skilfully pegged into the sand by Rhys.
Fortunately it was really well sheltered and we were all really warm. We managed to blow up all the mats and squeeze four of us under the tarp before handing out some beers and whiskey, a bit more chat and then nodding off to sleep. As with most camping out trips I usually wake every few hours to shuffle about a bit and get comfy. I also awoke at around 3.30am to see the light creeping over the horizon and a little later to see that burning ball of fire pop up over the horizon fully.
It was lovely to just drift in and out of sleep until about 7am before getting the stove on for coffee and porridge as well as some chats. I’d hoped to go for a swim in the morning but the beach is pretty shallow so I resolve to just have a little paddle and cool my feet. It’s got really quite hot already and there’s little shelter from the sun. At some point we all just start packing up and then the camp is gone. Rubbish in a bag and there’s not evidence of us being there (apart from a plethora of social media posts as there was four bars of 4G on the beach). It was so wonderfully peaceful and quiet as you might expect. The only sound being the lapping of the waves and the local bird population.
We’d seen a few people in the morning before we got up, one runner who said hello and then another woman walking nine dogs. Five of the smaller ones came running towards us barking before running back off to join the rest of them.
Trying to get the sand out of everything was a complete pain, it had got everywhere. Making sure that none of it went in your chamois or shorts was also a must. I’d inadvertently put my chainset in it so sacrificed a toothbrush to clean that up a but before setting off also but was more concerned about my undercarriage.
At the other end of the concrete causeway on our way back to the Chapel I saw a mobility scooter and then a man swimming in the sea. I thought to myself how lovely it was that someone who might not be fully able in his day to day life was able to get out to here amongst the wildlife and have a swim. My thoughts were rudely interrupted when I saw him begin to emerge from the sea and without any swimming trunks on. Fortunately he clocked us just as I was about to get the big reveal and he sank back into the water looking shocked that anyone else was out here.
We had a quick poke around in the chapel before heading back on our way to Burnham-on-Crouch for a brilliant second breakfast. Lots of cyclists around and some stopping on their local loop and also popular with motorbike riders. This bike below looked of particular interest. No idea about motorbikes but looked lovely.
After that we rode down to the quay and called the mobile number for the ferry. 20 minutes later a blue rib arrived to transport us to the other side of the river. He managed to get all four of us in with the bikes and we had a great chat with him about the boat and the local area. Apparently lots of cyclists use the service as the start or end of their local loop exploring the dengie nature reserve.
Whilst waiting we just sat on the quay mucking about taking pics and enjoying the fresh air.
A short and relatively pleasant ride to Southend and then a train back to London. A final coffee and chat at Rapha Spitalfields before getting back home for a much needed bath. I’ll definitely be back for some more exploring around this area of Essex. I’m completely in love with he landscape and remoteness of it all, all within a quick train ride from London. Looking forward to another bivvy trip soon.
Edit: Interestingly this video popped up in my Twitter feed which shows the whole area in wonderful context. Some great drone footage in there.