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Why ours is a county of cyclists

With its quiet stretches of countryside and labyrinth of forgotten-village lanes, Essex is a region best explored on two wheels. Here, we hit Harlow for a leisurely spin – and select three more scenic cycle routes for intrepid trailblazers

Essex cycling

Thirty minutes east of Harlow, in west Essex, I stop, thirsty and disorientated. It’s been a while since I hopped on my trusty Dawes Duchess and I’m somewhat distracted by the sea of starlings diving nonchalantly above my head for dancing midges. The sun hangs heavy above the horizon and a bead of sweat is working its way diligently down my nose. I think it’s fair to say I’m no seasoned cyclist.

Yet, with more and more of us taking to our bikes to explore the Essex countryside this year, thanks largely to lockdown and scuppered sojourns abroad, cycling has (dare I say it) become something of a thing for trendy county dwellers up for an adventure – many of whom seem to be out on the roads today, happily zooming past me en route to their pre-planned picnic spot while I haphazardly take a stab at pinning down ‘current location’ and readjusting my shorts.

No matter. Whether I know where I’m going or not, Harlow is home to some of the most scenic and unexplored cycle tracks in the country and its 30-mile network of car-free routes are proving a joy to lose myself in on this sunny Sunday afternoon. 

Essex cycling
On ya’ bike: Nicola cruises through the countryside

Once a town comprising entirely of bike-friendly lanes, Harlow’s industrial framework – built in the wake of WWII – was constructed with conservation firmly in mind so that, even now, the myriad trees, hedgerows, and wildflower meadows that flourish create a green-fingered fringe for novice cyclists like me to follow. 

If you’re less of a drifter though, local cycling group Hub + Spoke will happily wind through the undulating tracks with you on their weekly guided meet-ups, which include grouping at the Harlow Museum on Muskham Road every Saturday from 10.15am. A not-for-profit with huge heart, volunteer ride leaders also offer their services on a one-to-one basis and particularly love a long peddle down to the Olympic Park. Fancy. 

But you really don’t have to travel too far to feel as though you’re in the grips of the wild. Linking up with the River Stort, River Lea, National Cycle Route 1, plus the quiet honeysuckle-steeped lanes of west Essex and east Herts, it’s hardly surprising that Harlow has become one of the top destinations for hobby cyclists this summer. 

Essex cycling

Back in the saddle, I set off on a quiet track along Southern Way, the sun beating down on my back pleasantly while I whistle past Potter Street, one of the town’s original villages. I make my way across Harlow Common, taking in the hovering kestrel and grazing horses until I reach All Saints Church in High Laver for a much-needed breather. It’s a 10-mile stretch when you consider I’ve got to loop back, but the cerulean sky, now streaked with cotton-candy clouds, and gentle, thigh-friendly gradients all help to make it an easyish ride for someone who boasts a front basket. 

Looking up now at the 12th tower, its flint walls reflecting the late-afternoon light, I wonder why I haven’t done this before; explored the hamlets and towns that I’ve passed through so many times from the confines of a metal VW-badged tin. I’d be the first to admit I’m no pro cyclist and a weekend jaunt through pretty county pastures hardly makes me the next Victoria Pendleton. But roving two-wheel rural explorer? I’m that Essex girl through and through. 

BEST OF THE REST: 3 scenic cycling routes for powerhouse peddlers

Essex cycling routes
Ride your way to waterside Wivenhoe

The Wivenhoe Trail

Located just south of Colchester on the River Colne, the Wivenhoe Trail is 4-miles long and perfect for cyclists nervous of busy roads because of the few car-logged lanes to encounter. Start from Colchester Castle in Castle Park and head north towards Hythe. Then wind your way through the town allotments, which settle quietly long the river banks, and follow the water’s edge until you pass through Hythe’s industrial Quay. Cross the bridge and hit the marked trail which runs all the way to Rowhedge and into Wivenhoe – its yacht-dotted channel guiding you straight into the riverside inns for a cheeky shandy before winding your way back.

The Painters’ Trail

This circular route runs from Manningtree, Essex, all the way to Sudbury, Suffolk, and serves up some of each county’s most spectacular scenery. This stretch of the Stour Valley, once home to celebrated artist John Constable, is now officially recognised as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and although the fully marked river trail stretches for nearly 70 miles in total, there are plenty of tracks that can be enjoyed on an afternoon jaunt sans Lycra.

The Blackwater Rail Trail

A linear track rich in wildlife, this 8-mile-long path from Witham to Maldon’s former railway station packs in the untamed beauty of Whetmead Local Nature Reserve and James Cooke Wood, before heading out towards the historic wooden trestle bridges and 11th-century St Peter’s Church of Wickham Bishops. Beyond those landmarks lie the glistening waters of Blackwater River and slightly haunting hangout of Langford Halt – a now disused station that makes for an Insta-worthy stopping point.

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