How to bike the English Channel Coast (with help of plane and trains)

The garden of England. The cradle of geology. The buffer zone against the frog eaters. Dear Channel Coast has many names, and from the wild coast of Cornwall to rolling fields and the white cliffs of Seven Sisters, from hipster paradise Brighton to cosy villages everywhere, the best way to explore it is by bike. Biking is fast enough to get by, but slow enough to really immerse in the landscape. Good train connections makes it easy to keep up the spirit, when the distance feels long and the weather occasionally becomes very British.

Green Fields and old mines in Cornwall.

Green Fields and old mines in Cornwall.

So, I thought you might want some tips on How To Do The Channel Coast By Bike, Plane And Train.

First, you need to get there. For foreigners, that mostly mean by plane to a London airport. Bikes on planes are a hassle, and a surefire way to break something, which the airline’s Conditions of Carriage small print say is your problem. All airlines have different rules, so make sure to check and ask.

The best way to carry a bike on a plane is in a purpose-made hard case, basically a big, hard suitcase. But, then you need to carry the hard case to the airport. Not so easy by public transport with two panniers each in each of your arms, and a rucksack. Your destination airport may be able to storage it, but what if you, like us, return from another airport?

We skipped the whole hard-case thing and went for a solid wrapping instead; a party-pack of bubble wrap and a big roll of industrial grade clingfilm from Staples.

Before wrapping, we turned the handle bar so it aligned with the bike frame. Released air from the tyres – airlines demand that, because the over pressured air can create a fire in case of a spark in the baggage bulkhead. Off with the pedals – keep in mind that their threads go opposite way. A good rule-of-thumb is “fasten forward, release backward” – that turning them towards the front of the bike will fasten the threads, and backwards will release.

Then, wrap the bike in bubble-wrap. If you have a fancy bike with brake disks, wrap them extra well. The same goes for the gear system on the rear wheel. Finally add the clingfilm, round after round, to make it a big cocoon.

Also check out Mines, men and clotted cream in Cornwall

As mentioned, airlines have different rules regarding bike transport. SAS to Heathrow demands that you contact the airline ahead for reservation, then pay for the bikes at the airport. If you miss and choose a check-in kiosk without card terminal, as I did on Oslo airport Gardermoen, that means first checking in, then waiting in the looooong queue to wait for a clerk who has to phone his boss to get a price for the charge, then get baggage tags, then another queue at the special luggage desk. Because the special luggage desk isn’t able to take payment and print tags. (SAS, I have a newsflash for you: this is 2015!)

Norwegian back from Gatwick was easier: Book and pay for bikes when you buy the tickets on The Net. Norwegian’s website claimed that Gatwick demands bikes to be packed in hard boxes, but after emails and phone calls to both of them, I found that no one really had an idea where the claim comes from – and checking in on Gatwick was a dream: Find a corner to wrap bikes, check in on kiosk, fix tags, deliver to special luggage, fly.

Worth a lot of airport hassle: The white Seven Sisters Cliffs.

Worth a lot of airport hassle: The white Seven Sisters Cliffs.

Bonus tip: Two persons, six panniers, two rucksacks, can be expensive if the airline charges per package. Bring a few solid plastic bags and some tape, pack several panniers together, and voilà! – pay only for three packages.

Bonus tip two: Be at the airport at least three hours before departure. Bike wrapping takes time and Murphy’s Law applies.

From Heathrow, we took the Heathrow Express to Paddington (credit-card-unfriendly – the slower Connect train may be worth the wait), and then First Great Western westwards towards Penzance. At a price, where we appreciated that bikes went for free. In fact, all trains we took in England carried bikes for free, but train companies all have different rules for how many. Unless you pre-book, you may have to do as we did on Newton Abbott: Two ice creams and a coffee while waiting, skipping two crowded trains before we finally got ahead. Most trains have space for bikes inside the ordinary carriages, but the FGW had a special room at the end of the train. Probably purpose built to stress us getting bikes on board while the conductor eagerly waited to whistle the flute.

Can you imagine, they still use semaphor signals in Cornwall?

Can you imagine, they still use semaphor signals in Cornwall?

Narrow Postman Pat roads are almost everywhere in the English countryside, and make it easy to avoid the noisy trunk roads. Biking there feels like being inside a Miss Marple or James Herriott story. All villages with some self-respect have an inn or a Something Arms pub, where we got Cornish Cream tea with clotted cream. Which, by the way, is exactly the same as Devon Cream tea, Dorset Cream Tea, and, well, cream tea, and actually is best without clotted cream. Or Spotted Dick.

Spotted Dick. Looks and tastes better than the name.

Spotted Dick. Looks and tastes better than the name.

What to bring, bike-wise? I used panniers from Ortlieb because they are sturdy and waterproof, and racks from Tubus, because they are sturdy and simple. Make sure to test-fit bike racks before you buy the bike – there are lots of bike racks systems out there and most of them are too-smart-for-their-own-best crap. Bring lots of tools and spare parts: Tyre tubes, pump (in case of puncture, and to get the bikes out from the airport again, cantilevers to get the tyre of in case of tube puncture, umbraco keys of all the sizes your bike needs, chain couplings and possibly even an extra chain. Murphy’s Law will ensure that if something breaks, it will be the part which you do not carry a spare of, on a Sunday, far from the nearest bike shop.

Sustrans make special bike route maps, and they sell a pack that covers the whole Channel Coast. These maps are excellent for route planning, but in some places lack detail to find the right road to take from junctions. Google maps became our friend several times.

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The prevailing winds in southwest England come from northwest to southwest. Even minor headwinds can be a nuisance, slowly draining your energy surplus and sour your travel-mate relationship. Getting tailwinds was our main reason to fly to Heathrow, take train west and bike east along the coast. Our trip ended in Brighton, which is a quck train ride from Gatwick, and the reason we returned from that airport.

Now, I’d love if you share your experiences – what’s your best tips for bikes on planes and trains?

Brighton: Beaches, noisy pier and hipsters serving good coffee.

Brighton: Beaches, noisy pier and hipsters serving good coffee.

2 responses to “How to bike the English Channel Coast (with help of plane and trains)

  1. Pingback: How to fry and spice rocks, in Porthleven, Cornwall | Adventures in geology - Karsten Eig·

  2. Pingback: Ladram Bay: A Pandora in England | Adventures in geology - Karsten Eig·

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