Why Essex is England’s best county for cyclists

With staycations firmly back on the menu from 4 July, Essex should be top of the list for those who long for an outdoor adventure in some of England’s most underappreciated countryside, says Joe Minihane

Saturday 04 July 2020 13:19 BST
Harlow’s cycle paths make for an idyllic day out
Harlow’s cycle paths make for an idyllic day out (Joe Minihane)

A kestrel drops silently on the telegraph wire as I take a swig of water between deep breaths, my bike leant on a crooked public footpath sign. It eyeballs me briefly and, with a deft flap of its wings, takes off across the stubble field. It hovers, then swoops out of sight.

I’m just 30 minutes east of my hometown of Harlow, Essex, but have found myself in some of the most beautiful, underexplored and underappreciated countryside in England. I’ve come home to explore Harlow’s 30-mile network of car-free cycle tracks and the country lanes that radiate from its outskirts, and it’s even more glorious than I imagined.

The town’s bike lanes were once country lanes themselves, connecting the villages that were the basis for the New Town when it was built in the wake of the Second World War. Harlow’s chief designer, Frederick Gibberd, described this as “conservation at its best”, allowing trees, hedgerows and wildflowers to be preserved. The town, unfairly maligned in recent years, remains surprisingly green, with woodland and fields throughout.

It also has a proud cycling heritage, with an excellent collection of vintage bikes in the local museum, found in a building that once served as servants’ quarters to Marks Hall mansion, which burnt down during the war. Local cycling group Hub and Spoke run weekly guided rides from the museum, with a policy of “no rider left behind”.

I set out on a beautiful, chilly and bright morning, following a cycle track along Southern Way, ice glittering on bare branches as I pedal towards Potter Street (one of the town’s original villages). I’m planning on following a 25-mile circular route, using the cycle lanes to take me out of town. As a teenager, I knew this area well – but was never too bothered about exploring beyond my parents’ estate.

As the sun turns the last of the ice to puddles across the track, I make my way across Harlow Common. Black-headed gulls swoop over the pond; horses are tethered across its vast expanse; one-time council houses and newer developments crowd the horizon. Yet by the time I encounter the kestrel, the houses have disappeared from view, the rumble of the M11, which runs alongside the town, has gone, and the only sound is that of the jets that streak the sky as they take off and land from nearby Stansted Airport.

The cycling here isn’t overly challenging, ideal for those keener on a gentle ride than thigh-screaming pulls up long hills or stomach-churning descents. The roads wind pleasantly and, it being a weekday in February, there are virtually no cars to worry about. I pull up at All Saints Church in High Laver for a breather. Dating to the 12th century, its flint walls and verdant churchyard look resplendent in the winter sun. There are no other souls around as I push open its heavy wooden door and take a pew, stretching out my legs and enjoying the peace and quiet, all the better for the fact it is so close to busy roads and train lines. London is only 20 miles down the road, but it feels a world away.

From here, the lanes to the east become narrower, single track affairs. I catch the sound of skylarks flitting above the fields. Stopping to search them out, my mood soars as I see them. It feels barely believable at this time of year. Spring, it seems, is on its way.

Historic churches abound in Essex (Joe Minihane)

As with all good bike rides, the turn of the wheels becomes meditative. Yellowhammers and goldfinches sing me down the lanes, past freshly thatched cottages towards the village of Abbess Roding. There’s a very real sense of cycling into Arcadia. Included in Domesday, Abbess Roding is home to another stunning church, St Edmund’s. The parish records here date back almost 500 years. The history of this area is palpable in its churches and centuries-old homes. Yet it’s easily overlooked compared with nearby Norfolk and Suffolk or distant Cornwall and Yorkshire.

More recent history is in evidence as my route turns back towards Harlow. The open road passes a series of disused Nissen huts and a radar tower, which once formed RAF Matching. An airbase built during the Second World War for American planes, it quickly fell out of use and was shut in 1946 in the wake of the Allied victory. Part of the runway now forms the road; my progress is slow as I battle an increasingly stiff breeze.

I stop again by the pond at Matching Green, the cricket club’s pavilion shuttered for the winter, the view past the traditional road signs and across the village green as quintessentially English as can be.

The open road beckons in Essex (Joe Minihane)

By now my legs are tiring, but the sound of the M11 means I’m getting closer to completing my circuit. The road passes beneath the motorway at Hobbs Cross and through Churchgate Street, historic homes rubbing shoulders with the modern estates which have grown up here over the past 70 years. I’m back in Harlow, the cycle track leading me through the Old Town and on towards the beautifully landscaped Town Park. The network here forms part of National Cycle Route 1, heading on towards the River Stort and a towpath that leads all the way to the Olympic Park in Stratford.

For today though, my journey finishes at the Grade II listed Harlow rail station. This classic piece of architecture shows off just what a proud town this was in its heyday. Along with its excellent cycle lanes, Harlow is proof that the New Town concept is every bit as important now as it was when Frederick Gibberd conceived his plans in the 1940s. For adventurous cyclists and history buffs, it’s a simple journey that should be at the top of every travel wish list.

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