The London-Paris cycle route that keeps getting you lost

Setting out - London The Cuckoo Trail Gatwick Airport Avenue Verte Avenue Verte at pedal level Through country lanes Following St Denis canal into Paris Gournay-en-Bray:Which way now? Journey's end at Notre Dame a map showing the route from London to Paris cycled by Stephen Mulvey

Setting out - London

At present you need detailed maps to work out a cycle route from London to Paris. In future the Avenue Verte should make it possible to just set off and follow the signs.

The Cuckoo Trail

The Cuckoo Trail is one of the best parts of the route on the British side of the Channel. Stu Greenway, aged 79, vice-president of the Eastbourne Rovers cycling club, says he uses it twice a week for training.

Gatwick Airport

The Avenue Verte route is not quite as green as it sounds. Surprisingly, the route passes right through Gatwick Airport on an urban section stretching from Redhill to Crawley.

Avenue Verte

The first 40km of the route travelling inland from Dieppe is a disused railway converted into a cycle route. This section is already called the Avenue Verte.

Avenue Verte at pedal level

A view of the Avenue Verte from a camera mounted behind one of the cyclist's pedals.

Through country lanes

The route between Arthies and Avernes, in the Vexin region.

Following St Denis canal into Paris

The route from the suburb of St Denis, to the north of Paris, follows canals almost to the centre of the French capital.

Gournay-en-Bray:Which way now?

The Avenue Verte divides into two at the town of Gournay en Bray , one route forming a loop to the south and west, the other heading east to the river Oise.

Journey's end at Notre Dame

The Avenue Verte offers a varied route, including river valleys and uplands and an interesting route into Paris via the Seine.

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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
Seine towpath The Seine towpath dodges miles of Paris suburbs

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.)

Download the route

Route data in KML format[176kb]

Route data in GPX format[246kb]

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
Forest Way The UK side features overgrown folliage

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.

River Epte From Gisors to Bray et Lu you follow, and occasionally cross, the winding River Epte

"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.

A selection of your comments:

The hard part is getting back. One cannot book your Eurostar ticket and book a place for your bike with the same people. You have to book your train ticket first and then give the ticket number to the bike booking people. This means that you can book and pay for the train ticket and then find that all the bike places have gone (they only take 10 per train).

Simon K, Cambridge, UK

Typical, the local council kicks off projects like this and expect to be able to run it all on a shoestring budget. If the French or Germans decide to do something it either gets done properly or not at all. If this had been done properly then it should have been carried out by a regional development agency and used, as it will be on the other side of the channel, to regenerate rural areas bringing paying tourists to areas along the route, instead it has been a mess and embarrassment from being to end, as usual.

Jamie, Berlin

I'm the person who managed the initial development of the UK sections of the route in Sussex from 1995-2002 (before they became part of a London-Paris route)! In particular I led the development of the Cuckoo Trail and it's great to see it in relatively good condition nearly 20 years later. And yes, I'm also responsible for the decision to take the route through Gatwick... But there were precious few alternatives since the SE of England is so built up. And to give it credit the route immediately north and south of the airport is actually quite pleasant. I must agree with Simon Pratt, my former colleague at Sustrans, that the British obession with avoiding tarmac is very strange. After all, what are country lanes made off but tarmac - and nobody accuses them of "urbanising the countryside"!

Mark Strong, Brighton, East Sussex

In most countries in Europe, it's acknowledged that there are three streams of transport - motor, pedal, and foot. In Britain we lump pedal power with foot power, and when their are the inevitable conflicts between a vehicle easily capable of 20+mph and a pedestrian, cyclists get the blame. Often deservedly, but the cause of the conflict is poor planning - and a desire that by using a tin of white pain to bisect a pavement the relevant authority can be said to be providing "cycle facilities". It's interesting to note that the French regard three meters of hard top as the minimum specification, where two metres of mud is British spec. We just don't think bike.

Eddie Dubourg, Edinburgh, Lothian

I think it is a brilliant idea. I love the French idea of promoting places to stay and eat along the way. The English tourist board are missing a wonderful opportunity to promote the South of England.

Ann Trunkfield, Ashfield, Surrey

I sometimes walk the section of national route 21 that runs through Gatwick, as part of my commute. It is nice and wide, good surface for cycling, quite pleasant considering the location, blocked off from the road by thick vegetation and a wide stream running alongside, until you come to the truck depot....

Fergus Horkan, Kingston, Surrey

Please, please, please bring this article to the attention of Council planning Departments throughout the UK. Perhaps it will give them some clues about how to get things right. Vive la France! for your apparent planning and implementation prowess. I think I might have to give this route a bash.

Matt Langridge, Marlow, Bucks

As a regular jogger of Beeching donated railway routes and canal towpaths I much prefer softer quieter surfaces to artificial stone for artificial modes of transport (bikes) and green trees with wild life to sweeping vistas of chimney stacks and office blocks. Routes tres vertes for me all the way. Let the wheels use roads that they were designed for and leave tracks to feet that are their vanishing resource!

David Johnson, Cheadle, England

Having just done a DIY bike journey between N. Wales and London, I really appreciate the difficulties of creating a good route like this. Despite the efforts of Sustrans, the thing is a patchwork, and very hard to put the information together. It's disgraceful how we can have a fantastic resource like the canals, yet few of these have adequate cycle paths. The money involved would be peanuts in comparison with wasteful bureaucracy, and useful socially and for tourism. Yet there's no way we'll do it.

Johnny B, London, UK

In the midst of all the council budget-cuts, I can understand why projects such as this are currently not a high priority. Having said that - surely better signage would be an inexpensive way of vastly improving our cycle network? In my experience the signage that does exist is scattered almost at random along the cycle paths, which means the intrepid cyclist must frequently stop to consult maps or gps. Perhaps these route signs could be payed-for in part by local businesses? This would allow them an opportunity to advertise their locations to passing tourists.

Chris Allen, London, UK

We've just moved to the countryside just outside Dieppe and a stones throw from the Avenue Verte. I can confirm that the bits I have seen of it are immaculate with lush beautiful scenery. (Please note: the lushness is caused by Normandy's fare share of rain.)

Malcolm Bennett, Dieppe, France

Yes we can spot the obvious negatives, but I've given up on whingeing about how bad cycling is in Britain, I just get on with it. My approach is to use paths like this and avoid roads like the plague, does my stress levels no end of good. Bad surfaces? I stick to using a rigid MTB nowadays - the roads are like going offroad mostly anyway. So however half-baked this route might be, I still would love to ride it.

JRA, Yorkshire

As for the section through Redhill (where I live) and Crawley, forget it, it is horrible. But go a couple of miles east through Turners Hill, Ardingly and Lewes to get to the Newhaven ferry and the ride is a delight.

Graham Roberts, Redhill, Surrey

Clearly you are yet to experience the fun enjoyment and wonderful sense of achievement of a well prepared and executed route brilliantly supported by a tour organiser. I can thoroughly recommend L2P with Action Medical Research (organised by Discover Adventure) which is the largest London/Paris charity ride, taking 750 riders last year over 5 different routes, culminating in a triumphant mass charge down the Champs Elysee before an emotional finish at Eiffel Tower. I've ridden all the routes over previous years and wouldnt miss the trip each year.

Peter Mann, Sutton, Surrey, England

I have just returned from three weeks cycling in France - why France? Because they do it so much better. Proper cycle routes, on proper surfaces, away from traffic, well signed and now being serviced with cafes and B&Bs because the business is there. In the UK local authorities often use cycle routes as an excuse to get bikes off the roads and onto the pavement where the cyclist has then to give way to traffic at every junction. That is not proper provision. Get on your bike and find out what real cycleways are about - in France.

Geoff Barber, Wolsingham, UK

One man's "overgrown foliage" is another countless millions of animals' home. These corridors are like green arteries shooting through the urban landscape. I say let them overgorw, for the good of our fauna.

Chris, Kent

This scheme should be seen as a prototype for an alternative future integrated personal transport network, suitable for commuting, recreation and tourism. Personally, I can't imagine a better holiday than cycling, eating and drinking my from London to Paris.

freniq, Belfast

I did the London to Paris ride in July, albeit to raise money for charity, but not as part of an organised ride. My father and I planned our own route and for much of the way we followed the route of the Avenue Verte. It transformed what I was dreading would be a gruelling, dull ride into one of the most beautiful trips I've ever taken. The stunning countryside makes you forget how tough it is and how sore your legs are. No matter how lost we got (and we did!), it only added to the enjoyment of the ride. A route I would recommend to anyone planning this trip.

Ella, London, UK

As a cyclist and a walker, I can see both sides of the "surfaces" problem. I use a standard touring bike, which has limited off-road capability, so when I'm on it, I like tarmac. But I really hate doing any distance walking on tarmac - it really does my feet in. Don't know what the solution is.

Bob, Leeds, UK

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