East Anglia has some big advantages for cycling – it can be quite speedy given that it’s undulating, it’s relatively dry (compared with, say, Wales) and there are an awful lot of quiet lanes with just the occasional tractor or pensioner on them. There are no cols (the average road in Bradford is a tougher climb than anything I’ve found in East Anglia) and there is a pleasant, if mildly radioactive, coast suitable for a quick swim after a hot day on the bike. It’s also not bad for breweries and in fact I visited two brewery shops (St Peter’s, Adnams), and could have done a third (Elgoods in Wisbech) if it hadn’t been for groundless fears of missing the train home. The saints are, I think, from the rood screen in Castle Acre church, and if you look carefully you can see a spattering of shot across the second saint from the right – one of the things Cromwell did for us. Norfolk and Suffolk are remarkable for their wonderful church woodwork – rood screens being a notable feature of many. One gets the feeling that in spite of religious extremists of the time trying to rip them out, the locals were attached to their saints and tried to keep them going. The resistance of ordinary (religious, in this case) practice to ideological zealots… It’s a virtue.
So doing a circle from Peterborough seemed a good idea.
First day from Peterboro’ to Castle Acre took a long route going via the bike path along the Nene heading east, then around Manea (memorable name) and the Welney Wetland Trust alongside the 100 foot wash (good tea stop), which I’ve seen wonderfully flooded, a sheet of light under a bright winter sun, though just damp today. Ended up sitting in the sun at the West Acre pub – The Stag – justly recommended by the CAMRA guide (three beers were available, I drank a pint from a brewery about 10 miles away).
Then we headed to Sheringham on the bank holiday, a great ride though extremely slow due to continually bumping into bookshops (Castle Acre and Tittleshall were the serious ones) and village fetes. At the end of the day we were a bit heavier than when we started. The ride went through Mileham, Tittleshall, Wood Dalling, and then finally approaching Sheringham via East Beckham (were you go down the ‘village only’ road which ends up taking you through National Trust woods on the south side of Sheringham). It was still warm so I went for a swim – a pleasant cool sea, nigh on flat, reasonably clear, with a notable east to west drift even on a calm day.
Sheringham to Blaxhall was just about our longest day and, due to a desire to avoid Norwich and visit St Peter’s Brewery in South Elmhall, ended up at about 90 miles. But hot and sunny weather is ideal for cycling. The difficulty of cycling around the Broads is that there are not many bridges so some busy roads are likely to be needed. Had lunch sitting on a bench in Acle, where we were assured that the ferry at Reedham was running. This ferry is a picturesque and quiet way of avoiding much busier roads. We did a bit of a circle to find St Peter’s Brewery but what a worthwhile effort that was! It’s a gorgeous location and the beers are wonderful – they do a series of dark beers, all of which we stowed in our panniers for an end of journey celebration when we reached Blaxhall. We ploughed on southwards, shopping in Saxmundham (were I failed to notice the Waitrose and slummed it in the Tesco, darn!) before rolling into the Youth Hostel at Blaxhall as it was getting dusky (7.30pm-ish). A wonderful long bike ride but sleep inducing, especially after a St Peter’s Black IPA.
The next three days were mostly cycling in circles, though large enough to be interesting. The first day it was pouring so, in light rain, we visited the post-industrial wasteland that is the National Trust at Orford Ness. Overcast with light rain brings out the best from post-industrial bleakness, and after all these years in Bradford I’m an expert on post-industrial bleakness believe me. It was a weapon testing area with a gorgeous shingle beach covered in sea samphire, sea kale (I think, it looked cabbagey) and various rare plants. A slate grey sea deepened quickly offshore with a strong current and light rain pittering down. But Over The Horizon radar, atomic bomb component testing plus Sea Samphire is sufficient, without a swim. The next day we wanted to get a view of Felixstowe. An unusual desire, but it meant we could cycle as far south as the peninsula allows, visiting Shingle Street (lots of Shingle) and Bawdsey. There’s a ferry across to Felixstowe, and then one to Harwich, so cyclists catching ferries from Harwich onwards can just go via Bawdsey and cross the estuary, rather than a bike ride through the scenic delights of Ipswich. We then went inland and had a free look around Helmingham Hall gardens, which were open for free due to filming of the Antiques Roadshow there. Wonderful rosemary, wildflower spaces, vegetables over an pergola. The final day of cycling in circles was a trip up the coast, visiting Blythburgh (a beautiful and enormous wool church), Southwold (Admans Brewery visitor centre, but no space on the brewery tours sadly), getting the ferry across to Walberswick (a muscley rower with a large rowing boat, and took bikes so excellent, and a great way of earning a living) so we avoided the horrible A road to Southwold that we’d experienced on the way there, then down to Aldeburgh, very Benjamin Britten. The A12 was crossed but avoided, it’s a menacing roar of fast moving, lorry heavy, traffic. When did roads become an assault on the landscapes they pass through? Adnams brew some interesting beers, although they are not big in Yorkshire. The one we liked most was a variety of belgian style triple. I don’t think you see that much even in the Admans pubs.
Then from Blaxhall to Castle Acre’s wonderful youth hostel, where huge fennel plants were starting to flower and purple sage sprawls over banks. Another fairly big day, perhaps about 70 miles, though very rural and quiet. We got rained on once or twice – notably at Eye where we sheltered under a chunk of medieval masonry by the church. I think I sheltered there a few years ago since it’s a route I like. We got a bit lost around Attleborough and ended up on some enormous bypass thing, glimpsing a rose growers show garden – open still but it was about 5pm and we still had a good 30+ miles to go (and, at West Acre, The Stag’s basic but acceptable beer garden is very tempting at the end of a long ride). We saw the ditch that is the Devil’s Dyke, no doubt keeping separate the Angles and Mercians and then finally hurtled along, trying to reach the beer garden in sunlight, to West Acre. Just managed it, had a pint of real ale then pottered slowly along the valley to Castle Acre
Finally back to Peterborough, though we found that early on we passed through Setchey, well known for Beers of Europe, an on line off-licence of huge proportions. Makes you realise just how many breweries there are, how many small but wonderful breweries that you never hear about. We crossed the main road into King’s Lynn, which had seized up with cars, but we were heading off along quiet lanes. Although East Anglia is very rural, the traffic on A roads seemed usually severe and often nose to tail. Quiet rural fenland cycling, crossing various drainage relief rivers and on into Wisbech, where Polish seemed more common than English in the town centre. We’d got a train to catch so it was with deep sadness that we passed by Elgood’s Brewery at a fair speed. There’s a lovely flat road alongside the west side of River Nene that’s quiet and great for bikes. Lots of wandering on straight roads alongside waterfilled ditches followed. A fairly empty landscape, burnt looking fields, harvest having occurred, lines of trees in a flat landscape under a lowering sky, rain in the far distance. And then back on the River Nene cycle path into Peterborough.