Paradise Lost: Routes of Essex

We set up an imaginary home in Chelmsford, and explore the nooks and crannies of Essex. No, it's not crap. And it's a great place to buy a shed

If you live in Scotland or Wales or the Yorkshire Dales, Essex doesn't have much for you. Compared to the biking paradise on your front doorstep, it's on the busy side. If, however, you live in London or its orbit, a day or two in the land of the East Saxons could make a refreshing change from your usual routes, without the time and expense of trekking to Scotland or the like.

Let's fact it. There are usable biking roads everywhere, and that includes Essex. You might need to lower your expectations, and you might need to ride around in circles a bit, oh, and getting up early always helps.

We've picked three routes. Very broadly speaking, one hugs the coast for a while, one follows the River Thames for a bit and the other is a rural, inland affair. For no particular reason, all start and finish at Chelmsford, the county town. Regard it as your home for a couple of days. Go on, enjoy yourself.

Some general do's and don'ts.

Avoid these places: Romford (and anywhere else west of the M25), Colchester, Basildon, Harlow, Southend, Brentwood and Chelmsford (except for going to and from your imaginary home). They're just too busy.

Avoid these roads: the A12, the A127 and the A120. Ditto. Especially the wretched A12. Even when it has three lanes in each direction, it's always a depressing grind.

But don't be scared of a couple of roads whose reputation does them a disservice: the A13 and the M25. Much of the London-Southend A13 has now been very successfully dual-carriageway'd, and if you're happy to filter every inch of the way the M25 is often the quickest way from place to place.

Colin's thoughts on the silver Suzook

Doubtless the SV1000S is selling by the container-load to a large cross-section of the biking public. But I can't be the only old duffer who reckons the most appealing thing about it is the way it looks like a modern regeneration of ye olde Katana, especially in the silver of TWO's test bike. Lots of angles and edges, and that 'not quite finished' thing that divided opinion of the Target Design-styled Katana. Not sure any Katana ever had welds as scabby as the SV's, though.

The twin also has some of the feel of the bigger Katanas: long, low, sturdy. Think Thunderace, or VFR. But unlike their smooth, revvy fours, the SV has a smooth, revvy, torquey V-twin, which suits it well. It also suited the mixed twisties and dual carriageways of our three routes.

That said, I found it very uncomfortable, but that's probably more to do with me than the bike. Not impressed by its range, either - 100 miles and then the light comes on. Blame the titchy tank capacity of 17 litres rather than the fuel consumption, which was 42mpg under my steady wrist.

Not a bike to fall in love with, perhaps, but you could get very attached to the way it covers ground quickly, looks good and stands out just enough from the ubiquitous fours.

Route 1

ROUTE 1

The Coast - 125 miles

A414 Chelmsford to Maldon B1026/A133/B1027 Maldon to Tolleshunt D'Arcy to Colchester to Clacton B1032/ B1033/B1035 Clacton to Holland to Walton to Thorpe-le-Soken to Maningtree to Mistley B1070/A1071/ A134 Mistley to Hadleigh to Sudbury A131/A130 Sudbury to Braintree to Chelmsford

This route starts unpromisingly but then gets better and better.

Head out of Chelmsford for eight miles to Maldon, and suddenly everything comes into focus when you find yourself tooting from Maldon to Tolleshunt D'Arcy (really) and Colchester. It's a varied, generally twisty and well surfaced 40 miles. There's lots of tall hedges on the B1026, so you need to stay sharp, but it's worth the effort.

Grit your teeth around the edge of Colchester, Britain's oldest recorded town, inhabited without interruption for 3000 years, and find the south-eastbound A133. Hook a right on the B1027, which takes you all the way to Clacton.

There's no riding to be done in Clacton, unless you want to charge up and down the front like a 16-year-old at midnight, but it has its charms. It's like a hick version of Southend and is possessed of a pier that no one's burnt down, complete with fairground rides, pub and many other opportunities to waste money.

Don't hang around for too long, though, because the roads are about to get very good again for 25 miles. You'll want to swing along the coast past Holland-on-Sea then inland on the B1032, back to the coast on the B1036 if you fancy another burst of seaside at Walton-on-the-Naze, then grin yourself silly on the B1034 and B1033 around Kirby-le-Soken, which you'll enjoy so much you'll turn round and do it all again, and then quite likely one more time. No hedges, no hills, just great bends, good surfaces and not much traffic.

Beyond Thorpe-le-Soken, the challenging and rewarding B1035 has some excellent ups and downs and 90-degree bends. It takes you to Mistley, on the River Stour, which has some towers and some swans, then Maningtree.

The next 20-odd miles from Maningtree to Hadleigh and Sudbury (just over the border in Suffolk) on the B1070, A1071 and A134 also has some fine stretches.

Your 30 miles back to Chelmsford on the A131 looks uninteresting on paper, but is actually a refreshing combination of fast sweepers (traffic permitting) and surprisingly uncluttered new stretches of dual carriageway, interspersed with Milton Keynes-quality roundabouts. Then make your own way back

to the fantastic luxury penthouse you seem to have acquired in Chelmsford. Don't forget to invite TWO to the housewarming. (We like sherry and Twiglets, if that helps.)

Route 2

ROUTE 2

The River - 101 miles

A130 Chelmsford to Canvey Island B1014/A13/B1420 Canvey Island to Fobbing A1014/A1089/A1013 Fobbing to Coryton to Tilbury to Orsett A128/B1007/A127/A128/ Orsett to Bulphan to North Ockendon B186/A129/B1007 North Ockendon to Warley to Billericay to Chelmsford

And now for something completely different. Think of it as more of an interesting tour of a uniquely peculiar part of the world, with the occasional burst of riding pleasure throw in. At its best, it's satisfying proof of the theory that with a good map and a modest sense of adventure you can find decent roads anywhere.

The A130 from the A12 just outside Chelmsford down to the A13 is 11 miles of newly improved dual carriageway with no nonsense about it. It's just a well surfaced, well signposted, flat-ish road, lacking only bends, which isn't always a bad thing. Go, frankly, as fast as you like. Safely, of course...

From the A13 stay on the A130, following the signs to Canvey Island. If you've heard of it, that's most likely for one of these reasons: (1) Pub rock legends Dr Feelgood came from there. (2) There was a disco there that was absolutely huge in the '70s, called the Gold Mine. (3) It has a whopping oil storage depot. One terrorist, or indeed one backfiring Petronas FP1, and the whole place relocates to either Wales or France, depending on the wind direction.

It's essentially a marshy bit of land in the Thames estuary, with one road in and out, and those oil tanks looming ominously - but the bizarre thing is that, despite these potentially overwhelming obstacles, Canvey tries incredibly hard to be a seaside fun spot. Hence the large number of chippies, boozers, golf ranges and gift shops. If you go in to Canvey on the A130, come out on the B1014, or vice versa. They both take you to the mythical A13, the London to Southend route worn thin over the decades by day-tripping London pleasure-seekers. Resist the temptation to turn right and follow their ghostly stagecoach tracks to Southend. Terrific place, but way too busy. Instead head west, and after a couple of minutes turn left off the A13 on to the B1420 into Fobbing. You're heading for another odd place with huge oil storage tanks: Coryton. But whereas Canvey's peculiar charm rests upon its partying-in-the-face-of-grimness homespun hedonism, Coryton's appeal is that it looks like someone's dropped a neutron bomb there. You won't see a soul. It's just metal tanks and pipes and fences and scaffolding. Go as far and as fast as you dare before the paranoia sets in. It always seems to be deserted, but there's probably loads of hidden cameras and possibly landmines.

Follow your nose out of Coryton, avoiding Corringham but skirting the edge of Stanford-le-Hope. You're on the right road if you find yourself giving a cheery nod to Honda dealer B Wybrow. Then just before you get to the A1013 (the old, single-carriageway A13), hook a left into Butts Lane, which if you have extraordinarily good eyesight you will notice is signed for Mucking (mmm, tempting). It's a short but cracking road. Turn left at the end and either turn right at the George and Dragon, or carry on down to the end of the road to Coalhouse Fort, a sturdy Victorian affair that was manned as recently as World War II.

Whichever way you've gone, you need sooner or later to start following signs to West Tilbury. There's a choice of roads here, all narrow and twisty and good, all winding their way downhill to Tilbury power station on the Thames. Hit the river and you can either turn left for the Worlds End pub and the 17th century Tilbury Fort, where Elizabeth I rallied the troops to brace them for a scrap with the Armada, or head right past the Gravesend ferry and Tilbury docks.

Head north on the fast A1089 dual carriageway and when it merges with the A13 go east for a mile or so, then left on to the A128 northbound at Orsett, but turn right immediately on to the lane that takes you to quaint Hordon-on-the-Hill. Left along the high street, down the hill and then left into the B1007. You're now heading into Langdon Hills, a leafy spot that contains the highest point in Essex. What a very, very flat county Essex is. You could continue to the top and get another ice cream at Westley Heights with the dog walkers, but it's best to turn left before you get to the top and take the road signed for Bulphan. It's an invigorating couple of miles that brings you out at the Ford design works at Dunton. Then head west for a couple of miles on the A127, left on to the A128 and right on to Bulphan Fen. This is an area much frequented by local bikers and largely left untroubled by others, not least council sign writers. My best advice is to get lost here for 20 minutes or so. It's a blast: good surface, good visibility, lots of bends. Make sure that at some point you ride the fantastic Dunnings Lane - you can kid yourself you're on a non-Mountain bit of the Isle of Man.

With any luck you'll come out on the B186 at North Ockendon. Turn right here, then right at the mini roundabout, and follow the signs for Warley, still on the B186. Then at the Horse and Groom turn right into Eagle Way, where Ford has its British HQ. There's a couple of turns you could take if you fancy some more riding round in circles, this time on Childerditch Common. At the end of Eagle Way, do a left and a right into a road which starts off being called Running Waters and ends up being called Hanging Hill Lane. At the end, turn right on to the A129 through Hutton, then after Billericay turn left into the B1007 through Stock - a five-mile high note on which to end your route.

Then it's back to your swanky pad in Chelmsford, pedestrians hurling ticker tape as they welcome your return. Wonder what the cook's rustled up for you tonight?

Route 3

ROUTE 3

The Country - 82 miles

A1016 Chelmsford to Leaden Roding B184 Leaden Roding to Great Dunmow B1057/B1054/B1053 Great Dunmow to Finchingfield to Steeple Bumpstead to Saffron Walden B1052/B1383/A120 Saffron Walden to Newport to Stansted Mountfitchet M11 Stansted Mountfitchet to Harlow A414 Harlow to Chelmsford

If you can bear to leave Chelmsford, dawdle out on the A1060 in the direction of Leaden Roding, not only for the inexhaustible comedy value of the name but also because it's actually a pretty good road.

Progress picks up on the B184 from Leaden Roding to Great Dunmow, which my guide book is reasonably confident is a Roman road. You can also, while you're at it, ponder on the fact that this area north of Chelmsford seems to have a tremendous number of shed outlets (World of Sheds, Shed World, Sheds R Us, they're all here). Go steady with the impulse buying there.

It all gets good north of Dunmow, where you'll find 20 miles of rural biking paradise on the B1057, B1054 and B1053. It also gets pretty twee, and it's quite possible you'll find it hard to resist stopping to share a loaf with the ducks and geese in Finchingfield. The village tea room, Jemima's, appears to be some sort of genteel biker's hang-out.

Trust me when I say that you now want to head towards the M11. The next 20-odd miles on the B1052 and B1383 can be modestly rewarding. The A120's no fun, but it takes you to a stretch of the M11, from junction 8 down to junction 7, which is what motorways are meant to be like: smooth, uncluttered and lined with trees and an interestingly shaped water tower. Do you ever get that pleasant feeling that a road is gently sloping downhill for its entire length, even though it's not? It's one of those.

The 15 miles of A414 from the M11 to Chelmsford is a heart-warming and/or smugness-inducing demonstration of the advantage bikes have over cars on certain types of road. It's not as straight as it looks on the map, not entirely flat, and there aren't too many 30 or 40 limits. Even at pretty busy times you can do lots of overtaking, as the low hedges will allow you to get a good view ahead - whereas if you were in your Lamborghini you'd have to just sweat it out behind the white vans. In fact, when you get back to your Chelmsford mansion, you'll probably want to put not only the Diablo but also the Roller and the Bentley up for sale.

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