Burnham-on-Crouch to Tower(London), via Southend-on-Sea

Day 78 Tues 31 May: I needn’t have set the alarm. The sound of driving rain on my window pane was loud enough. Mustn’t complain, (but I know I will) it’s been a while since I spent the day cycling through wind-driven downpours such as this. At least it’s not very cold, so no extra layers needed beneath the new (2nd replacement) Pack-a-Jack. Such a neat piece of kit. It packs away into its own tiny bag, weighs nothing and, like a Jack-in-the-box (that’s today’s ration of hyphens used up already) it springs into life on release. The problem is …  they’re so compact and lightweight, I keep losing them.

The routine but sincere thanks go to Dave and Jeremy at Burnham-on-Crouch (not-on-Sea, that was way back in Somerset) Inshore Lifeboat Station for turning out in this foul weather. But then again, you’re probably used to braving the elements. Tucked in the corner of the very tidy, square Burnham Yacht Harbour, this is one of only three lifeboat stations that keep their inshore lifeboats in floating boathouses. With both a B Class Atlantic and a D Class ILB, they’re pretty well prepared to handle most types of emergencies on the Rivers Crouch & Roach, both upstream and around the challenging tidal estuaries. The next thank you goes to Jon, the Burnham water taxi/ferry man who wasn’t put off by the conditions. By the time we’d loaded Fondo onto his boat, the rain had eased but the NW wind and fast ebbing tide slowed the crossing to Wallasea Island. No matter. Without Jon’s boat, it would have been another 24 mile detour into deepest Essex and back again to Southend-on-Sea. (I know what you’re thinking but don’t worry, I’ve found a spare packet of hyphens).

What a shame. My first visit to Southend-on-Sea, where I imagined the sun always shines. A chill wind, heavy clouds and well wrapped families huddling together, determined to enjoy their half-term holiday. At least the rain had stopped. Two interesting facts for those not already aware: 1. Southend’s leisure pier is the longest in The World, at 1.3miles.  2. The same pier is the home for both of the RNLI Station’s boat houses, with one at each end.

So, why does Southend have two lifeboat sheds and four rescue craft? I hear you ask. A clue to the answer is found in RNLI statistics, which confirm that this is the busiest coastal lifeboat station in all of Britain & Ireland. They have two davit launched boats (an Atlantic 85 and a D Class ILB) at the pier head. At the shore end, there is a hovercraft and another D Class.

At first, I was quite disappointed yesterday to hear, from Captain Brian Wood (LOM) that I might have to go to the far end of the pier to find a crew member or RNLI Shop volunteer to sign my chart. Then I became quite excited by the prospect of pedalling Fondo all that way out into the Thames estuary. On arrival, I was crushed to hear that bicycles were not permitted on the pier and the trains only run on the half-hour. Then, very pleased to bump into someone wearing an RNLI cap. It was David, RNLI Shop Manager, who’d be delighted to sign my chart at this, the shore end of the pier. Thank you David. With hindsight, I should have been more determined to get to the far end. Having since read some of the fascinating history of the pier and its connection with the RNLI, this is definitely near the top of the Must Return Here list.

So, here we go. After a restorative seaside ham & cheese toastie, I was ready for the run in to London. I was expecting the first 35 of the remaining 43 miles to Tower ILB Station to be difficult , but quite excited about the remaining 8 miles into the City and cycling along the Embankment.  I was wrong. The first 35 miles were not difficult. They were Hell on Wheels. One day, I will allow myself to rant in full, in an attempt to purge the experience. For now, let’s just accept that it was a major shock to the system after almost 4,000 miles of Britain’s coast roads. The density of traffic. The fumes. The noise. The dreadful road surfaces. The intermittent cycle lanes, which simply disappear after a curt END OF CYCLE ROUTE sign, at the point when you need one most. The hazardous junk littering the near-side of the road. The determination of some drivers to get as close as possible when overtaking then start cutting in before they’ve passed …  And then, everything changed. At the first glimpse of familiar London landmarks on the horizon, the route was transformed. I was suddenly speeding along an uncluttered, dedicated, blue surfaced, two-way Cycle Super Highway, with clear separation, underpasses at major junctions, clear route signs leading me straight into the City Centre.  …  bliss. And what a magical City this still is.

Tower, my first of the four relatively new Thames Lifeboat Stations to visit, is unique in that the whole station is afloat on the Thames, against the Embankment in the shadow of Waterloo Bridge, more than a mile upstream from Tower Bridge. Thanks Stuart, the full time Duty Helm, Steve, full time crew and Bob, volunteer crew, for the warm welcome and hot tea. Much more on this and the other Thames Lifeboats tomorrow. My blogability is fading fast after this long, exciting, exhausting day. There’s just enough of a spark to thank my dear sister Linda, long term resident of this fair city, for meeting me on her bicycle at Putney Bridge and leading the way along the south side river path to her home in Barnes. A big tasty meal, big glasses of wine, big hot shower, big cosy bed. What more could I ask of a big sister?  Loads. Tomorrow. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

If you’d like to support my fundraising challenge, please click  here , where every pound raised will go directly to the RNLI, the charity that saves lives at sea. And on the Thames! Thank you. Steven.

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