A21: The London Road Which Goes All The Way To The Coast

Last Updated 05 June 2024

A21: The London Road Which Goes All The Way To The Coast
It all starts just south of here. Photo: Matt Brown

Slap bang in the centre of Lewisham is a rather special point.

It sits to the east of the Ravensbourne River, a couple of hundred metres south of Lewisham station, just beyond the shopping centre car park. Vehicles roar past, a symphony directed by an army of traffic light conductors, drivers oblivious to the magic of the moment. This is the way to the seaside.

The A21 road begins here, where Molesworth Street meets the A20, and if you follow it for long enough (60ish miles, or about two hours driving time, give or take for traffic and pitstops) you'll find yourself in Hastings. Pack the snacks and buckle up for a virtual road trip from London to the coast, via the A21, highlighting a few of the sites you'll see along the way...

Giant cats and gyratory systems

We've barely travelled two miles when the first major landmark comes into view: the Catford cat. The giant fibreglass kitty keeping watch over the Catford Centre can be glimpsed ahead to your right as you approach the one-way system. It definitely comes under the top three most terrifying roundabouts/gyratory systems we've driven in London, but follow signs for the A21 towards Bromley, and you'll be golden. Speaking of which, there's a Drive Thru Maccy D's in the middle of the one-way system, so if anyone's forgotten road trip snacks (there's always one...), now's the time to stock up. Easy on the supersized drinks though, we've got a long car journey ahead.

No introduction needed. Image: London Less Travelled via creative commons

Once you're about a mile and a half free from the tentacles of the one-way system, peep right for the most lovely chain DIY store we've ever driven past. Homebase Catford appears like a mirage beyond a rather charming duck pond, with an island in the middle. The building itself looks interesting too, all glass and domey looking (not the technical architectural terms, you understand). As we said, never been inside, so it could be the land of all things mystical — selling tins of striped paint — or it could just be a regular DIY store.

Just the other side of the junction is Peter Pan's Park, a small green space named after the original Peter Pan's Pool pleasure park, which was on the same site in the 1920s.

Golden gate, golden arches

Finished those McNuggets yet? Pootle a few minutes further and you'll come across another McDonald's Drive Thru. We didn't intend to keep a running tally of fast food chains on this journey, but here we are. And for a bit of history with your McFries, this one used to be the Garden Gate pub — look closely at the freestanding sign, which combines a garden gate with the golden arches.

It's at this point that Bromley Road becomes Bromley Hill, though it's a rather gentle incline — Bromley Slope might have been a more appropriate moniker. It's just along here that we cross from the Borough of Lewisham into the Borough of Bromley. You've just passed Bromley Hill Cemetery, final resting place of Sir Edward Campbell, a former MP for Bromley, and Soho gang leader 'Italian Albert' Dimes.

Stick with the A21 as Bromley Hill gives way to London Road and then Kentish Way, giving us a clue as to where we're headed. Whizz (or crawl, depending on traffic levels) around the outskirts of Bromley town centre, passing underneath a footbridge connecting a car park to The Glades shopping centre.

Masons Hill (London-bound A21). Photo: Robin Webster via creative commons

The A21 then becomes Masons Hill — literally one of the flattest stretches of road we've ever seen — and the towering redbrick spire of Hope Church St Luke's dominates the skyline. Ogle this beautiful building... then rub your eyes in disbelief as you find yourself in a Groundhog Day-style loop, passing the same building a couple of blocks later — except this redbrick, be-spired building is the Bromley Common Methodist Church.

Freemasons, red buses... and another McDonald's

Speaking of Bromley Common, this is a large green expanse on your right, largely hidden by hedges and trees. Though you won't see it from the road, it may interest you to know that the Provincial Grand Lodge of West Kent, the rather grand base of the West Kent Freemasons, is tucked away in there somewhere. Don't let the name fool you though, we're still very much in London — still a few miles from the Kent border, as evidenced by the presence of the Bromley Bus Garage, a Stagecoach-run depot which usually has plenty of London red buses tucked away to sleep for the night.

And next to the bus garage... another McDonald's, and yes, this one also has a Drive Thru, and yes, it's another former pub, this time the Sawyer's Arms. On the opposite side of the road, the former Plough pub is now a Majestic Wine Warehouse.

Onwards, as we pass signs for Locksbottom. No sniggering — at least it's not nearby Pratt's Bottom. We find ourselves in Farnborough, though not the Farnborough known for its airport. That said, there is an airport a couple of miles away, but it's Biggin Hill Airport. Confused yet?

Little Chefs, the Railway Children and a concrete Solar System

Do our eyes deceive us, or is that a Little Chef up ahead? Of course, it's not a Little Chef anymore, but there's something so distinctive about these buildings, their signs, and even the car parks that they're still instantly recognisable — triggering memories of that smell they all had of fried eggs and toast mixed with something sweet. A quick Google confirms that yes, this did indeed used to be a Little Chef (and it's not the only one we'll encounter on our journey). Blame the ubiquity of that trio of golden arch restaurants and its burger and fried chicken counterparts for the fact that you can no longer fill up on an Olympic Breakfast here.

Definitely used to be an oast house. Image: Stacey Harris via creative commons

Pootling on a little way, we pass the Royal Oak pub. Can't vouch for the quality of food, drinks or service as we've never been inside, but it's notable as part of its building is an oast house — a sure sign that we're headed for Kent.

Before we cross that border though, look out for the patch of chalky cliff to your left. At this point, the A21 crosses the railway as it makes its approach to Knockholt station, the site which inspired The Railway Children. You won't see the station from up here on the tarmac, but rest assured that a young Jenny Agutter is almost certainly down there somewhere. Probably.

Two game-changing things happen simultaneously now. We cross from London into Kent, and the A21 becomes subsumed by the M25  for a stretch of dual carriageway before joining the motorway at junction 4. It's a fairly green stretch of motorway but as with most motorways, there's not a lot to see, so we'll whizz along it quickly.

Shortly after you pass under the rainbow-shaped bridge, know that the Otford Solar System is down somewhere to your left. You won't be able to see it, but there may well be some outer space explorers down there watching the M25 traffic roar past in the distance.

A concrete pillar with 'Saturn' written on it
The Otford Solar System: not quite as impressive as the real thing. Image: Londonist

Castles, oast houses and the Pot Company

The M25 and A21 go their separate ways again and we're safely back in dual carriageway territory as we skirt around the town of Sevenoaks. By this point, we've left London firmly behind, and Kent reveals itself in all its splendour as the A21 takes a sharp left bend (eyes on the road, drivers) giving way to spectacular views. It's a pleasant if unexciting few miles until the A21 takes the form of a large viaduct over Haydsen Lake and Country Park below, with flood defences visible. Take our word for it: it's an impressive structure from beneath.

We then pass the junction for the town of Tonbridge, and the telecommunications masts of Castle Hill — a rather useful landmark for navigating on local walks — before we reach the Pembury bypass stretch of road. Be very grateful that the junction is now a flyover rather than the chaotic roundabout it was a few years ago, and nod to the town of Tunbridge Wells as you pass that junction.

Brace yourself for a bit of traffic around the notorious Blue Boys Roundabout — so called for the former pub, now a Burger King (what, no McDonalds?) and then continue on past some lovely cottages.

The Old Swan Farm Shop is one of several farm shops and garden centres we'll pass between here and the coast, including Ringden Farm and Planters near Hurst Green, Cedar Farm Shop near Ticehurst, and Browns Farm Shop near Robertsbridge. All are perfectly serviceable locations for a leg-stretching, refreshment-buying pitstop. Particularly worth looking out for, though, is Eggs To Apples as you approach Hurst Green: look closely and you'll get a glimpse of the red telephone box in the garden.

But we've rather skipped ahead of ourselves there. Oast houses are scattered throughout the countryside as you approach Lamberhurst, and you may well see signs for 'The Pot Company'. They specialise in plant pots, nothing more.

A beautiful old house with redbrick tiling
Lamberhurst village is worth a detour. Image: grassrootsgroundswell via creative commons

Soon you'll see a green sign for Forstal Farm Roundabout, shortly after which there's a less common brown roundabout sign, dedicated to the area's tourist attractions including Scotney Castle and Bewl Water. The Lamberhust Bypass stretch of the A21 after the roundabout is relatively new, having opened in 2005. Before this, the A21 route used to go through Lamberhurst village via a steep road not suitable for heavy traffic. That said, Lamberhurst is a stunner of a village with a lovely church tower and some picturesque cottages, so feel free to take a diversion down there and rejoin the A21 at the next roundabout.

However if you do that, you'll miss another of those brown roundabout signs (we're in pure tourist/day tripper country here) with Bayham Abbey and Vineyard added to the options. But more interestingly, you'll miss the green wildlife bridge which goes over the A21 shortly before the roundabout. It's the way into Scotney Castle, and was the UK's first wildlife overbridge, built when the dual carriageway was constructed to ensure animals could still move around safely. Sadly, you can't see the castle itself from the road. What you can see, just down the road, is the second former Little Chef of our journey, this one repurposed as a used car dealership, and less recognisable as formerly being part of the roadside chain.

Those were the days. Image: Stacey Harris via creative commons

Coffees, cafes and chapels

Energy levels flagging? Drop by Bean Smitten coffee roasters a couple of miles south of Lamberhurst, which opens for takeaway coffees and bags of beans (weekdays only). It's located on a campsite — we're definitely not in London anymore — though you can't see that from the road, but a couple of minutes further on, it's not uncommon to see a whole field of tents at T&J Campsite during the summer months.

We're getting very close to crossing over the border from Kent to Sussex now, but look out for brown signs for both the High Weald County Tour and the Heart of Kent Country Tour, two self-drive routes showing off the best of the county.

The first point of interest in Sussex is a pub in Flimwell — another Royal Oak, though unlike its Bromley counterpart we passed earlier, this isn't in an oast house. Brace yourself for a bit of traffic around here — the crossroads junction is notorious for congestion.

After passing a number of the aforementioned farm shops, we pass A21 Aroma, site of the much-missed A21 Diner, a legendary institution of this route which was lost to the Covid lockdowns. RIP old friend. Road trips just don't hit the same without you.

The picturesque village of Hurst Green has a couple of sights to see — or not see, as is the case with its church. Eyes right as you enter the village to see this wooden porch-like structure which could easily be mistaken for a bus stop. It's actually the entrance to Holy Trinity Church, itself tucked away behind a row of cottages and not at all visible from the road. Almost immediately afterwards, on the left, a ghost sign comes into view — an old advertising sign on the side of a house. The tower a few blocks up is not a church, but an old courthouse.

We wend our way on through the country, skirting around Robertsbridge, getting a hint that we're nearing the seaside as we pass the Route 1066 Cafe, a bikers' pitstop blending Americana with local history (though as of February 2024 it's up for sale, so may not be there for future road trips). Its name of course is a nod to the Battle of Hastings (as well as the USA's Route 66).

Carry on for a couple of miles, bearing left when the road splits at Johns Cross, until a ghostly spire appears before you. It's The White Chapel, a former church building which has been deconsecrated, whitewashed, and turned into, somewhat unexpectedly, a fireplace showroom. Not the most interesting pitstop unless you're in the market for a new electric fire, but it's a legendary landmark of the route.

The White Chapel. Image: N Chadwick via creative commons

Hastings ho!

What ho, another Royal Oak pub, the third on our route, putting them on equal footing with McDonald's. This one's managed by local brewery Shepherd Neame, in a building dating back to the 15th century.

At this point in the trip, peel your eyes away from your immediate surroundings and look up. You may see light aircraft coming in to land at Spilsted Farm Airfield, open to anyone who wishes to 'try a new airfield'. Bear it in mind next time you're taking the Cessna out for a spin, eh?

Back down on solid ground, you'll pass the brilliantly named Crazy Lane (absolutely no context given) before hitting the outskirts of Hastings. You can practically smell the sea air by now (keep your eyes peeled for that elusive first glimpse) and things suddenly get a lot livelier, with a retail park on the left and car dealers on the right, mini roundabouts and traffic lights and multiple lanes... good grief, driving hasn't been this stressful since we left Catford.

You'll know you're nearly at our final destination when you pass Hastings Museum and Art Gallery on your left. It's located in the magnificent John's Place, a caronial building complete with battlements and towering chimneys.

Hastings! Image: Ben Guerin via Unsplash

From here it's a quick ride down the hill and past a row of colourful houses to enter a short one-way circuit consisting mainly of terraced houses which brings our road trip down the A21 to an end. On completion of the loop, we're back facing London again, ready to do the return trip.

But seeing as though you've come this far, why not park up in the multi-storey and take some time to explore Hastings? We've got a guide to the town, packed full of things to see and do. And you can't go to the seaside without having fish and chips and/or an ice cream, and dipping your toes in the sea. Them's the rules.

Yes, we know that you could get to Hastings from London by train — a direct train would get you there from London Bridge in around an hour and 40 minutes, and that would be the more environmentally-friendly option, which is very much encouraged. But sometimes, it's just nice to take the scenic route, isn't it? Plus, there isn't a McDonald's (or a Royal Oak pub) on the train.