I recently cycled from London to Paris with a few friends by following the signposted Avenue Verte route. The signposting was completed in 2012, just before the start of the London Olympics. Some of it was a joy to cycle along but other parts were dreadful and sometimes dangerous. Parts of the route were poorly signposted but, fortunately, we took the excellent Official Guide to the Avenue Verte with us; without it we would have been well and truly lost on occasions.
The best section is the first 88 miles in France, ie from Dieppe to Bray-et-Lû. The worst section is from the start of the Avenue Verte at the London Eye to the beginning of Worth Way (just east of Crawley), about 45 miles. A lot of this section is not cycle friendly. For example, London Eye to Clapham Common is on extremely busy roads. Later on, some parts are on dirt/gravel tracks and one part is on a severely rutted farm track. Had we been on mountain bikes then these parts would not have been a problem but one is unlikely to cycle from London to Paris on a mountain bike; we were on road ‘touring’ bikes.
That said, just after Coulsdon, is a very pleasant section which goes across Farthing Down and continues for several miles. Unfortunately, a few miles later, the Avenue Verte goes through the built-up areas of Redhill, Horley and Crawley. Bizarrely, it goes through Gatwick Airport. Why cycle through an airport? Did some planner of the route think cyclists would be so fed up with the Avenue Verte by this stage that they’d prefer to hop on a plane to Paris!
I feel a more cycle friendly route out of London would be to start at Tower Bridge, go along the comparatively quiet NCN Route 4 eastwards and then head south along a route based on NCN Route 21. Turn off Route 21 as it approaches the M25, go through Godstone and cycle along quiet country roads east of the built-up areas of Redhill, Horley and Crawley. Also, Gatwick Airport would be avoided!
The section from the start of Worth Way to Newhaven is better but it’s not great. Worth Way is a shared-use path following an old railway line from Crawley to East Grinstead and then there’s another such path called Forest Way to Groombridge. These tracks provide about 18 miles of traffic free cycling, apart from a mile through East Grinstead. However, the surface isn’t ideal for road bikes as it comprises chippings and cinder so requires extra care on road bikes with fairly narrow tyres. Also, these paths are often quite narrow and their sides overgrown with vegetation so it often feels like cycling through a green tunnel. Unfortunately, you can’t see the countryside so cycling along these traffic-free paths is rather tedious.
The Cuckoo Trail, another path based on an old railway line starting at Heathfield, is a better stretch as, unlike the other two, this one has a tarmac surface. It’s a gradual descent for almost 11 miles to Polegate so makes for easy cycling. The next bit isn’t so good as the Avenue Verte goes through Oggs Wood on a rough surface which is quite muddy in places.
In sharp contrast, the first 88 miles of Avenue Verte in France between Dieppe and Bray-et-Lû is superb (at Germer-de-Fly we took the shorter Western Option in preference to the longer Eastern Option). There are no busy roads, no dirt tracks and no dangerous junctions. The route is very well signposted; the small bright yellow Avenue Verte signs between Forges-les-Eaux and Gisors are easily seen and appear at every junction. There’s no chance of getting lost on this part of the route; if only the entire Avenue Verte could be signposted in this way.
This section of the Avenue Verte includes two paths along old railway lines but, unlike the British paths such as Worth Way and Forest Way, the French ones are much wider, have a tarmac surface and are properly maintained. Also, the vegetation at the edges of the paths is kept under control and you can see and enjoy the surrounding countryside as you cycle along.
That said, the route after Bray-et-Lû leaves much to be desired. It crosses Le Vexin, a regional nature park. The roads are quiet and it’s easy to devise a cycle friendly route through Le Vexin. Yet, on occasions, the Avenue Verte makes use of rough tracks. Fortunately the official guide recommends alternatives on roads in most cases.
After Le Vexin comes the large new town of Cergy-Pontoise. This is poorly signposted and easy to get lost. Eventually, the Avenue Verte approaches Paris by following the meandering Seine and then a canal with a rough path. The final few miles are very confusing and the chances are you’ll finish up cycling along some very busy roads.
The choice of route into Paris is strange as there more cycling friendly ways into Paris by going through forests just south of Poissy, through Versailles, Parc de Saint Cloud and the Bois de Bolougne, finishing at the Eiffel Tower.
I met many other cyclists on the signposted route who were similarly disappointed with some sections of it. It’s a shame that more thought wasn’t given into the signposting of the Avenue Verte but hopefully improvements will be made.