Thorpe Bay Rotary Club have been running this annual ride around the otherwise off-limits Foulness Island for some time. For the last couple of years, they have allowed participants to raise money for their elected charity. I now work for Red Balloon of the Air, an educational charity providing academic and therapeutic programmes for children who have experienced trauma resulting in non-attendance at school. Based in Essex, I manage our provision in the county, teach online and support the face-to-face recovery of children who attend our satellite centre at The Notleys Golf Club, a popular stop-off for some of the local mid-week groups with which some readers of this blog also ride.
As I worked for 10 years at Thorpe Hall School, not far from the official start/finish point of the island ride near Great Wakering, I became used to the summertime commutes to and from work – for the most part in busy mid-week traffic. During rush hour, these are not the most pleasant of roads Essex has to offer, especially due to Rettendon Roundabouts Rage. However, I decided to resurrect that route last ridden a few years ago and ride to and from the start point. This would make a total distance, with the 23 miles around the island, of c. 75 miles which, although not a massive distance, I thought seemed a little more respectable to add to my sponsorship page.
There is a choice of Hanningfields to pick up the old A130 rise to Rettendon, and I opted for the gentle drag up to Butts Green and East Hanningfield to warm up. Setting off at 8am, I was too early for the road race mentioned below on Mel’s ride, but all the preparations were in full swing and other more competitive types were warming up more vigorously than me in anticipation of the racing to come. Once over the Turnpike and Hawk Hill roundabouts, the roads via Hullbridge, Rochford and the Wakerings are pan flat and certainly quieter and more pleasant than on weekday mornings.
The start/finish point was Cupids Country Club, where very helpful and friendly Rotary Club volunteers, including one or two friends from the school, were checking us in and generally pointing us in the right direction. I understand over 1000 cyclists took part throughout the day, but with half-hourly phased start times to avoid overcrowding. Simple refreshments were available, although the coffee was of the ‘brown-grit-in-a-styrofoam’ variety.
So what of the island itself? Most of the non-military ‘action’ takes place at the aptly-named Churchend at the far end. The road to get on and off was straight and exposed, as you might expect, with various checkpoints and rather ominous signs about the current UK terror threat level at regular intervals. The reminders of the military nature of the island were never far away in any sense. But the island is also home to some 150? residents. Some of the land (and marshes beyond) are often scattered with weapons, in tests we hope are rather smaller in scale than the more infamous shows of strength elsewhere in the world. But other areas of the island seem peacefully rural, with the village nestling among open, arable farmland. This rather well-written Southend Echo report from 2009 speaks of the paradoxical nature of island life – almost as paradoxical as the combination of the phrases ‘well-written report’ and ‘Southend Echo website’ in the same sentence!
The 4-mile circuit beyond Churchend village started with the same smooth tarmac as that which forms the spine of the island. However, after a couple of 90 degree turns and waves to children watching the spectacle from their garden gates, the terrain changed to gravel, some soft mud and puddles. Complete with strengthening headwind, this wasn’t exactly the pavé of Paris-Roubaix, but the same skills of relaxed vigilance, maintaining momentum and letting a road bike find its own natural line were necessary. One or two of those who visibly tensed up struggled a bit, and with worry etched on faces, there were a couple of spills, but nothing serious. There were several broom wagons and volunteers/first aiders dotted all around the route, so risks were managed very well and the emphasis on safe enjoyment could be maintained.
I did the recommended 3 loops of 4 miles, caught up with the school caretaker who was supporting by bringing the minibus as a very brightly-coloured support vehicle, then headed back down what for some had become the long walk to freedom. Freedom took a while coming for me too, as by now the wind had really got up and was doing its best to blow us escapees back the way we’d come. Cue 15 minutes of head-down effort, punctuated by cheery waving as I saw the happy, smiling faces still coming the other way on cheap, steel mountain bikes effortlessly pedalling towards the village. Inside, I was thinking, ‘You wait!’
No photography is allowed on the island, but here I am with my medal (a reward for the triumph against the headwind, if nothing else). As well as that recent effort, the fixed grin also masks the pain of 2 minutes previously, when, having leant my bike against the barrier and turned around, a considerable gust blew it straight back the other way, with all its steely weight transferred from top tube to midway up my left thigh. After a little recovery time, though, I put in a quick loop around North Shoebury (to make the total miles up to 75) and took it gently on the way home with a steadily increasing wind and a couple of short, sharp and squally showers for company.
I can thoroughly recommend this ride: it’s well-organised, easy cycling, for all my histrionic hyperbole, and a good opportunity to see a quirky little part of Essex that would otherwise be inaccessible. This is the ‘Relive’ video of the ride, which takes the gps mapping data from Strava: