Got three hours spare for an adventure? This is one for you. St Alban’s a whirlwind adventure. It’s a perfect two and a bit hour ride that gets you outside of London – not just physically but when you hit the tiny winding streets, small stone buildings and cathedrals just 20 miles later in the south of Hertfordshire, it feels a complete world away. The final beauty of it all? It’s all just a 20 minute journey back on the train home at the end.
A quick check tells us we have four hours of sunlight. We get plotting. St Albans is a perfect 20 miler distance. We hurried immediately to a pub around Ally Pally. Then we got cracking.
Despite the fact St Albans is a ‘cathedral city’ and is pretty proud of this fact, although it’s got much more like a large village vibe, really. It’s pretty proud of its Roman heritage and has some buff cathedrals. It isn’t a shiny landmark destination – no one’s going to exclaim ‘shit son, you made it to St Albans’, but it’s an adorable step back in time. It’s full of clanging church bells, beautiful gardens, winding roads, and small shops. As a weekend ride, it’s a casual cycle past sheep and fields that leaves you somewhere so close to the city but feeling so incredibly far away. If you’re in the middle of summer, choose a week day and head out immediately after work. Then gently race the sun to watch it set as you roll into the Cathedral gardens. Bag a beautiful Thai dinner, then hop on the train and 25 minutes late you’re home. It’s not voted as a sexy place to live outside London by the Guardian for nothing.
You hit the countryside in one amazing long downhill ride surrounded by fields and the sudden smell of countryside. The roads calm down, vintage sports cars start popping out from farm-style roads, and fields start to roll off into the distance.It’s the middle of summer when we try this ride. I’d spent a day with a camera crew asking the Rapha Condor JLT cycling team a bunch of questions about riding. We talked about the Tour de France and about the Series they were currently racing in, around Canary Wharf. This is their day off, and their excitement for the race that they’ll be riding in again the next day is infectious. After five hours interviewing the likes of Ed Clancy and Kristian House about what exactly they love about cycling, their enthusiasm for the sport gives you impatient legs. Feet that say ‘why are we just standing still? Please take us cycling’.
Fidgety and itchy-footed, it was a week before the summer solstice. A quick check tells us we have four hours of sunlight. We get plotting. When it’s near the middle of the solstice, this gives you until 9:30pm to get to your destination before the sun sets. St Albans is a perfect 20 miler distance. We hurried immediately to a pub around Ally Pally. Then we got cracking. (We were in such a rush – via the pub -that this post has iPhone photos instead of the slightly fancier DSLR photos, hence they’re a little grainy blown up.)
From the city centre, the route out is a strange one. It feels quite fragmented for a little while. It’s a bit of a short slog up the Highgate hills and heading north can feel a little dull at times, but there are some nice excursions.
On the way we made friends with some naked sheep bounding around a field, raced the sunset, and had lovely long life chats in silent lanes. All of that felt pretty blissful.
The first section of the journey takes you down suburban streets and then joins part of Doris Valley Greenery. It’s a nature reserve that sits between Mill Hill and Hampstead. It feels absolutely out of place; something between a golf course and woodland, following the Dollis Brook. Honestly, the ride out of Barnet isn’t too beautiful, so it’s nice to throw in some green where you can.
There’s a lot of talk about the way the city’s trying to do up its cycle paths, but at the moment these don’t lead directly from London to the centre of the village/town in one neat route. You can see all the paths here on SusTrans or Open Cycle Map. They’re good if you’re really gung-ho about maps. I’m not. I normally want a route that won’t find me on a particularly vicious road, but also not ploughing through hedgerows under the guise of a cycle path. The internet turned up one main rule that we followed: avoid the A1. So we headed for a route that went East of this, via the A41 (aiming to pick up the first cycle routes that line Warrengate Road). This is about as close to regurgitating the contents of SusTrans, Open Cycle and various internet chatrooms dedicated to in-depth road chat as I’ll be getting, by the way.
Once you’re outside Barnet, there’s a definite sharp point where you feel the change from city to country. Scoot quickly through a section of Barnet then say goodbye to the city, and you hit the countryside in one amazing long downhill ride surrounded by fields and the sudden smell of countryside. The roads calm down, vintage sports cars start popping out from farm-style roads, and fields start to roll off into the distance.
We stuck to country paths and rode on Route 6, which kept us close to the fields, looping under the motorway when it needed to. On the way we made friends with some naked sheep bounding around a field, raced the sunset, and had lovely long life chats in silent lanes. All of that felt pretty blissful. Finally, there’s a tunnel-like ride for the final five miles that takes you into St Albans. The bike path takes you into a tree-covered ride for the final stretch. It’s a glorified path, wide enough for two bikes, that’s covered with branches. We raced the sunset in, watching it glow and set across the fields, coming in as the light disappeared. When we rolled in, the temptation to continue speeding down the beautiful, winding streets around the Church was overwhelming and we found ourselves zooming down them, forgetting to turn. We chugged our way back up, admired the scenery, strolling around the cathedral and then dutifully went to test out the thai food.
On arrival, find the Cathedral. It’s huge, and you can cycle through a huge old castle-style wall, which makes you feel like a conquerer of roads. There’s a lush garden outside it, a giant wall, some cobbles and the beautiful building itself. Lots of countryside boxes ticked, there. We spotted a duck, beadily watching us, too.
Before you go
Here’s our route, via Archway, to Warrengate Road (al9 5aa) through to St Albans.
EatCoo at the cathedral, have dinner at Thai Rack (right next door) or the fish place (slightly pricier), then hope on the train from St Alban’s City to St Pancras in 22 minutes.
DrinkJust west on your return home to St Pancras is one of my favourite beer/cider spots: Euston Tap/Cider Tap. Hope in here for a craft beer before the final miles home.
If I had more time there? I’d go and see the ducks at a little wildlife reserve. I’d also like to cycle along a route called The Alban Way; a disused railway line designed for cycling. There’s a place along it called Hatfield House I’d pop into.