14 April 2009

Cycling above and below the Thames at Dartford Crossing

I cycled the Dartford Crossing yesterday. Sort of.

It consists of a tunnel (for northbound traffic) and the Queen Elizabeth II bridge (southbound). In all but name it's the bit where the M25 vaults over, or dodges under, the Thames Estuary, linking Thurrock in Essex with Dartford in Kent.

Neither the tunnel nor the bridge were built for bikes. However, thanks to paragraph 27 of the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Act 1988, cyclists have to be transported free of charge.

(A reliable source tells me this was inserted by our bicycling baronet chums in the Lords, after the evil anti-cycling House of Commons tried to push it through without pedalling provision.)

In practice this means you cycle to a control-point car park at either end, and stand around until a chap in a tie and high-vis jacket pops out and asks you if you want a lift across. A lurid, op-art Land Rover suggestive of a Zandra Rhodes migraine turns up; your bike goes on a rack on the back and you're whisked across.

The facility works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each Land Rover can take up to three people at a time. They have a big bike trailer for cycling groups, though they need a phone call in advance to set it up.

On both my north and south trips I had a friendly and chatty lady driver whose knowledge of the relative merits of Bluewater and Lakeside shopping centres, on opposite sides of the estuary, was detailed and comprehensive. Up on the Thurrock side I had a couple of pints in a rather shabby Essex pub populated by Fast Show characters where everything was either sticky, broken, or nailed down.

The southbound journey, across the bridge, is impressive. You're pretty high up (180 feet, my likeable cabbie informed me in between observations on the new John Lewis food court in Bluewater) and get a commanding view of the refineries, ships and marshy sweeps. Splendid, in a Netherlands sort of way.

But being in a vehicle, you can't stop, and it all flits superficially by, a glimpsed estuarial zoetrope. If only they'd built a bike lane... like they did with the Humber Bridge, which is much better because you can therefore dawdle and stop and enjoy the panoramas of mud, sand and chimneys.

Neither bike access point is easy to find by bike. Signage is sporadic and the route not obvious. Your final mile or two will be spent in narrow strips of tarmac alongside what are effectively motorways. The most convenient way to do the crossing from London is to cycle out on National Cycle Route 1, which runs virtually all along the south bank of the Thames from the centre to Dartford. (Reckon on 20 miles/30 km taking about four hours.) There are regular trains back from Dartford to London Bridge/ Waterloo/ Charing Cross (40 minutes).

And doing it all by bike has a great advantage: there is no chance of you following the siren calls to Bluewater or Lakeside and being suckered into buying a sofa.


  1. The Forth Road Bridge also has a cycle lane. We cycled over it last year and it was great fun! The cycle lane is wide, well surfaced and well away from the traffic. We did have to carry our bikes down a flight of steps at one end, though. It feels worryingly wobbly and very high up, but I felt considerably safer than than the person in the very small canoe we could see paddling down the river.

  2. We've also cycled the Forth Bridge but didn't have to use any steps, so it must depend on how you approach it. The Severn Bridge (the older Northern one) is also great to cycle across - in fact with a choice of lanes either side you can make a round trip of it. And in the same part of the world, another not to be missed crossing is the Clifton Suspension bridge

  3. Not to mention the Golden Gate - one of my fave rides in the world. But did you go to Essex just to drink in a sleazy boozer?

  4. As Caroline said, the Severn Bridge (the older, more elegant, one) is great, too, and it's a graceful white colour. A group of us crossed it last year.

    The Dartford Bridge is quite steep, if I remember correctly, so the descent on a bike, if it were possible, would be rather exciting.

  5. @Sue... the Forth and the (old) Severn Bridge are very similar to the Humber Bridge both in design and as a cycling experience, but to me the Humber edges it for length and sweep. (Or maybe sooty.)

    There's a few photos of the Humber, and the old Severn Bridge, at http://www.bike99.com/37.html

    @Caroline... The Severn Bridge also gives you the odd experience of 'cycling on a motorway' - on the downriver side, you can take a photo of yourself underneath a big blue motorway sign, which is fun. You can also cycle into 'motorway' services at Aust which is a curious experience.

    @Tim... I told you not to mention the Golden Gate! Yes, it's one of the world's great cycle things, almost as good as the Humber Bridge, though it's unlikely that mountain biking would have been invented in Lincolnshire. I did it on a hire bike in 1999 - we cycled around Sonoma or wherever it is and got the ferry back at sunset to San Fran.

    @Nigel... Yes, a great shame they didn't future-proof the bridge with a cycle lane. Because they didn't, and tried to fob us off with a car service, I feel quite justified in using it, even if...

    ...@Tim... all I did over the water was indeed to spend an hour having two poor quality pints in a decrepit boozer. It was full of a gobby, drunk Essex girl. Maybe next time I'll try Bluewater...

  6. "Reckon on 20 miles/30 km taking about four hours" ? Why ? That seems extraordinarily slow.

  7. David, he's right - it's not a Dutch cycle route.narrow with lots of 90-degree bends. Of course you can risk the roads of Sarf London but that ain't much fun.
    Rob - full of her? was she broken, sticky and nailed down then?
    Photos of Severn, GG and Humber bridges (well, one of t'Umber) on cyclestreets.net.

  8. @David... Four hours seemed a bit hurried to me!

    It's not an A to B route, it's an A to B to C to D to E to F to G to H to I to J to K to L to M to N to O route. Because from Waterloo to Dartford there are 15 crossings, so if you stop to admire each one for 5 minutes and take a snap, that's well over an hour just gone in photography.

    Some of the crossings take time: Woolwich Ferry, for instance, will occupy quarter of an hour. Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels must be walked, so that's another ten minutes each. There's an overhead of time in the Dartford Crossings too, as you'll be waiting 10-15 minutes for your personal taxi service to turn up.

    There's plenty to see and enjoy en route - you're going through one of the best cityscapes in the world - so no reason to dash. You're unlikely to do more than 10mph until you leave Woolwich, when you're on open straightish paths.

    And there is no shortage of pubs and cafes. So I'd say four hours really is rushing it. Maybe six is more like it. Or eight. Or until your mum calls you in for tea.

    @Tim... Yes, it was full of her. I choose my words carefully, you know.

    1. Yes I did it yesterday, choosing a spell of unemployment to visit my Essex parents from my South London residence by bike. Not only is it windy (as in clockwork - but breezy windy too, come to that) and with very variable road surfaces (i was on s skinny tyred tourer which was only just up for that sort of thing), apart from treating myself to a trip on Boris's bubbles i went straight down eventually arriving in Gravesend at about 2 after a 9.30 start. Lots of wrong turns en route - not particularly well signed at a lot of crucial points (and i got completely lost trying to get through dartford)

  9. Oddly, today I wanted to get from the Amtrak station in Rensselaer (New York) across the river to Albany - there is no way across except for the freeway bridge. I did eventually find a cycle/ped track, which worked, but I was remembering the joys of the Severn and Humber crossings!

  10. Funny that, the Humber bridge, Forth Road AND Tay bridges are also on Sustrans Route 1. The Humber has a huge rise taking you way high for a massive free ride down the other side, the Forth Road bridge has superb views of the Forth Bridge and North and South Queensferry and the approach to the Tay is absolutely stunning then you have to ride on an elevated way between the two streams of traffic, then take a lift all the way down to the base, talk about an afterthought.

    All that and Route 1 crosses the Thames at the Greenwhich tunnel and peters out in Hackney, unless it has been finished to Colchester by now.

    Cheers for the info on the Dartford crossing!

  11. I'd like to add this link to CycleStreets routing.

    It seems from the description that there are just two control points and that cyclists are picked up from one and dropped at the other. Is that right?

    Are the control points at these indicated positions? ...



  12. This is the CycleStreets route that serves those points...


  13. I made the trip from north to south yesterday which was good fun. The approach on the Essex side is quite hard to find, and the final km or so is along a narrow bike path littered with glass and other debris. Once at the waiting area, I phoned across (using the free phone at the waiting point) and had to wait about 40 minutes for the transport shuttle to arrive as the free service doesn't operate between 2pm and 3pm (see below).

    In the meantime, another cyclist arrived to be taken across. When the shuttle arrived, we had to load our bikes onto a rack mounted at the back of the car and were driven across the bridge by a friendly lady. She said that she carries around 20-30 cyclist a day which I found rather impressive. The other guy in the car did this journey as part of his daily commute. On the other side, bikes were quickly offloaded and I was soon cycling again towards Dartford.

    Now, here are the current operating times of the free service for cyclists as indicated by a small sign at the waiting area (correct as of 29/09/2014):

    3am - 9am: on demand service
    9am - 10.30am: no service
    10.30am - 2pm: on demand service
    2pm - 3pm: no service
    3pm - 9pm: on demand service
    9pm - 10.30pm: no service
    10.30pm - 2am: on demand service
    2am - 3am: no service

  14. I wonder why cyclists are not allowed to use the crossing during the four "no service" periods.