I've cycled in the Alps and the Pyrenees, Provence and the Auvergne, but I never thought of cycling to Paris until I heard of the Avenue Verte.
The Avenue Verte is an idea - perhaps a dream - for a traffic-free cycle path, safe enough for a child, linking London and the French capital.
So far only the outline of the route has been decided. I cycled it two weeks ago, and it's easy and surprisingly enjoyable.
If you tell someone you are doing London to Paris by bike, they're likely to start backing away before you ask for sponsorship. There are so many charity rides that the journey is now automatically associated with self-sacrificial misery - the kind of thing you put yourself through for a good cause, like running a marathon.
Avenue Verte Factsheet
- Length: Shortest option is 400km (250 miles)
- Duration: Four days to a week, depending on speed
- Channel crossing: Newhaven to Dieppe
- Return trip possible by rail
- Some sections tricky on road bike - hybrid or mountain bike would be more suitable
The private companies that have sprung up to organise many of these rides often add to the pain by steering their victims through the grim windswept plains of the Nord Pas de Calais.
Could the lush Avenue Verte reclaim London-Paris for the pleasure-seeking cyclist? I think it could.
But if it's to become pure escapism, a lot of work needs to be done. The original hope was that the route would be given a fanfare launch in 2012 - but council spending cuts mean that's unlikely on this side of the Channel at least.
For now, it remains the domain of the more committed cyclist. A shortage of signposts means anyone embarking on the journey ought to go equipped with a GPS unit or, like me, be prepared to stuff their rucksack with a wad of detailed maps. Even then I got lost.Kingfisher
The paths through the two capital cities are inspired. In London, after snaking from St Paul's to Clapham, the route follows the River Wandle (which gave Wandsworth its name). I'm still telling anyone who will listen about a split-second glimpse of a kingfisher in Morden Hall Park.
Towards Paris, you travel for a number of miles along the wooded banks of the Seine, long stretches of which look as though they have changed little since Monet and Renoir captured the green-tinged reflections of the water more than a century ago. Then, after a stretch of industrial hinterland, the route follows canal towpaths to within a stone's throw of its end-point - Notre Dame cathedral.
There are a number of similarities between the countryside on both sides of the Channel.
You leave the white cliffs of Newhaven and arrive at the white cliffs of Dieppe. The valleys of the Medway and Cuckmere rivers, which form part of the route through Sussex, are not so very different from the valleys of the French rivers, the Bethune and the Epte, which you follow for about 100km (60 miles) in France.
In France, as in England, the route rises more than once to a height of about 200m, providing long views over woods, fields, and miles of hazy undulating countryside. The Avenue Verte ("green avenue" in French) deserves its name.Monorail
The biggest blot on the landscape, on either side of the Channel, is Surrey - or more accurately, the first 20km (12 miles) south of the M25.
Oddly, the British authorities have chosen here the most built-up route possible. Does anyone actually enjoy cycling through Redhill, Horley and Crawley? I didn't.
Could anyone have imagined that a route called the Avenue Verte would pass through the middle of Gatwick Airport - under the bridge linking Gatwick railway station with the South terminal, and the monorail ferrying passengers from one terminal to the other? It does.
There is a similar moment on the route into Paris, where the path leaves the banks of the Seine to dodge the cranes and container-laden barges of the giant Gennevilliers river port. (For a few awful seconds here I thought I might be joining the slip road of an autoroute.)Continue reading the main story
But this is a much shorter section than the trek through Redhill and Crawley and it's easier to understand on the outskirts of a city.
Another shared feature is the use made of disused railways in both countries. In the UK you have the Worth Way (Crawley to East Grinstead), the Forest Way (East Grinstead to Groombridge) and the Cuckoo Trail (Heathfield to Polegate).
On the French side one former railway is already known as the Avenue Verte (Dieppe to Forges les Eaux). The French route divides into two shortly after this, and if you choose, as I did, the more southern and westerly option, you follow another former railway from Gisors to Bray et Lu.Wheelchairs
But there is a striking difference between the quality of the British and French tracks.
The French have converted the railways into broad, hard-surfaced tracks, suitable for rollerbladers and wheelchairs as well as cyclists. They have also kept control of vegetation around the path, so that for the most part the surrounding countryside can be seen and enjoyed.
On the British side the paths are so overgrown that they resemble tunnels, providing barely a glimpse of the world outside. Mile after mile, this becomes monotonous.
Only one of the British disused railways (the Cuckoo Trail) has a hard surface - and it was being well used by wheelchair users and elderly people in mobility scooters the day I travelled down it. The others have lumpy surfaces of cinder, chippings and earth, that are barely manageable on a narrow-wheeled road bicycle.
Sustrans, the charity that promotes cycle routes in the UK, advocates hard surfaces, but faces resistance from some user groups.
"People complain that it is urbanising the countryside," says Simon Pratt, the Sustrans officer handling the Avenue Verte outside London.
"It seems to be a peculiarly British concern. In France, Germany, the Netherlands hard surfaces are the norm. They cannot understand why we are different."French 'priority'
The French tracks are also broader - legislation says they must be three-metres wide. This is important, as it helps users keep out of each other's way - dogs and cyclists for example, though I suspect no amount of space would have spared me a clash with Boris, a sharp-tempered hairy terrier, who seized my trousers in his teeth on the Forest Way, and managed to run for several yards without letting go (a feat made possibly by Lycra).
The route in detail
- We have mapped Stephen Mulvey's route (with minor variations) on three mapping websites
- Choose one of the links below
At present, as French officials generously note, a greater proportion of the route on the British side is off-road, even if the quality of the French cycle tracks is superior.
This is generous for two reasons. First, French country roads are often so quiet that there is little need for cycle paths. Second, work is under way in France to build far more of these de luxe cycle paths along the route of the Avenue Verte.
They will continue to be built regardless of any looming belt-tightening, says Jean-Pierre Lucas, the man in charge in France's Seine-Maritime region, because it's a high-priority project. He expects to spend a few million euros per year over several years to extend the Dieppe-Forges les Eaux cycle track south to Gournay en Bray, and beyond.
On the British side, it's unclear even whether the route will be signposted by 2012.Electric avenue
There is an irony here, because it was East Sussex County Council that first began to push the idea of getting the Avenue Verte rolling by that date.
"It came from Paris not winning the Olympics," says Cllr Matthew Lock. "I thought the least we can do is to put a cycle track in for Parisians to get to the London Olympics. Then I started to think seriously, that's a date to be driving for."
In reality, the British local authorities have no money. The London boroughs have been told there is no external funding, and they still have to agree on the precise route. Asked whether the Avenue Verte will be signposted by 2012, a Transport for London spokesperson said: "You can draw your own conclusions."
In France, by contrast, officials are already discussing the brochure that will tempt cyclists to savour the culinary delights of the terroirs they pass through, to stay at hotels and B&Bs and visit local attractions. They are making an investment, and they want the returns.
They are also thinking strategically about the future. "Of course, before long, we will have to cater for electric bicycles too," says Jean-Pierre Lucas.
At this very moment, the recharging points are probably being carefully designed and plotted on a map titled Avenue Verte 2030.