26 June 2011

26 Jun 2011: Sylvia Clifford Ride (aka Herts Hilly 100km)

We couldn't have chosen a better day for a Herts Hilly 100km ride and six of us met at 9.15 at the Bull in Wheathampstead. Today this place was very popular as the Ramblers have an annual walk starting from here.

Bill enjoyed his breakfast
The day started quite cloudy, but very warm and humid and we were glad to be cycling rather than walking today.  This year it was decided that we would do the circuit in an anti-clockwise direction.  Most people do it clockwise so we were expecting to see the others coming towards us as we went around.  I explained to the guys that lunch at Puckeridge, where we had stopped last year doing it clockwise, was too near for our route and we all agreed that Weston would be a good stop today.  With destinations sorted out and without further ado, we all set off on our version of the Sylvia Clifford memorial ride 2011.

As we made our way up towards Codicote via Ayot St Lawrence, the clouds departed and never returned.  Soon the Hertfordshire countryside was basking in glorious sunshine, and equally quickly, the South Herts CTC was roasting in the mid-summer sun. The lanes were great and the ride became a hunt for the shade, as we came into Hertford.  First stop, the ever-wonderful Rose Cafe (those who have an eagle eye will notice that this stop is not on the official route (and nor were any of the others ).  Some had wondered at the closeness of the stop, but it actually turned out to be just right.  Bill loved his grub and there were appreciative murmurs from everyone in the group.

Soon we were off to Weston and the hilly part of the ride began with Bengeo Hill.  We carefully missed Chapmore End (a mistake on my part) and rolled on towards Thundridge. The countryside was stunning; there were lavenders, blues, greens and bright red fields everywhere.  It really did seem that, no matter where you looked, the view would be stunning.  We made our way towards Puckeridge via Cold Christmas and Standon.  Soon there were comments like "here we go again" as we approached each hill on this roller coaster section.

After Puckeridge, the hills began to take their toll on the group and it was evident that maybe this wasn't such a great idea in this heat.  However, we were doing well, as we sweated our way through Great Munden, Woodend and Cromer.  Lunch soon became a topic of conversation as we made our weary way towards Weston.  We happened upon the Rising Sun at Halls Green, and before we knew it, we were having lunch.

Bill took advantage of this timely stop to have a kip and re-charge his batteries. This was a great stop as the ladies were very good to us and stocked us up on water (with ice cubes), so our spirits were lifted as we headed for our next stop at Emily's in Whitwell.  What happened before lunch happened after lunch and the ride, although very pleasant, became a little gruelling and was beginning to wear upon our spirits.  I wanted to stick with the route, but everyone needed a rest, so we missed out Ley Green and headed for Whitwell.


We reached the tea stop along with several thousand other cyclists and rather than wait in a queue at the cafe, we decided to visit the local pub instead: The Maidens Head. This was a good idea.  There was a lovely garden, the drinks were very affordable (70p for orange squash) and this was the most relaxing break of the day.  It took a lot of persuasion to get going again.

For here, we made our way back to Wheathampstead via Lilley Bottom, Winch Hill, Darley Hall, Chiltern Green, Peters Green and Gustard Wood.

I really enjoyed the ride, but from the tea stop onwards it became clear that we were a tired bunch as a result of the challenge and I have never been so pleased to roll into Wheathampstead.  A great ride with some great people.


19 June 2011

19 Jun 2011: Hertford to Hatfield Forest

What a relief that this Sunday looked like being a dry day, exactly as predicted four months ago when this picnic ride was planned for Bike Week.  The River Lea path wended through countryside that was green again after recent rains, as eight of us headed along to Ware.  We opted for the top lane from Ware to Babbs Green and John commented that not a single car had passed us on that stretch - perhaps they were all dusting down their bikes, or more likely having a lie-in.  Either way, it made for an idyllic ride with the wind pushing us along and we soon reached Sawbridgeworth.

The Shed in Sawbridgeworth

The Shed Coffee House provided some rather too comfortable sofas to relax in and it was a struggle for some to leave.  Our numbers swelled to ten as Carol & Steve caught up with us here and, being slightly ahead of schedule, I decided to put an extra loop in and took the group into some lanes some had never explored, as the Hertford start put us further East than usual.

Lack of traffic in these quiet, narrow lanes does seem to lead some drivers to expect a clear run.  I'm not sure if it was lack of thought or sheer devilment, but two cars decided to overtake us just as we were avoiding some very large pools of water and they soaked some of us near the back of the group.  It didn't get them anywhere as the lane became too narrow to pass the whole group, and they only succeeded in getting a very prolonged earful about their pathetic and inconsiderate driving habits.

After this excitement, it was good to reach Hatfield Forest where we grabbed a table by the lake for our picnic. 

Hatfield Forest
Flitch Way

The Shell House in Hatfield Forest is a fascinating folly built by Jacob Houblon in 1754.  It was built for picnics and summer parties for friends and family, overlooking their new lake in the heart of the forest.

Jacob’s daughter Laetitia decorated the interior and exterior with exotic and colourful shells, (mostly from the West Indies as they were used as ballast in the holds of slave ships) split flints, blue glass, coral and sands. The designer of the building is unknown, but it was of Italian influence.

Not exactly up to Ascot Races picnic hamper standards (forgot the Duchy Originals), but it made a change from the usual pub lunch, with the added excitement of wondering when that big black cloud would reach us.  It did give us a couple of brief showers as we slithered along a mile of the Flitch Way and found our route across to the new part of National Cycle Route 16.
NCR 16
Around Stansted Airport

This extends the Flitch Way as far as Birchanger and avoids the M11/A120 gyratory system by tunnelling under two slip roads.  From here we could follow more quiet lanes across to Little Hadham and our tea stop in the superb gardens of Hopley's Plant Centre, where some beautifully crafted African sculptures can be seen amongst the herbaceous borders.

The pond at Hopley's
Part of the large garden

Here we split up into smaller groups for the home run, while Carol & Steve headed off to explore the possibilities of cycling through Youngsbury Park near Wadesmill.


12 June 2011

12 Jun 2011: Hatfield to Shefford

Rain (didn’t) stop play, or how our group spent a whole day cycling in the rain.

The forecast was for light rain starting about 11am with a light southerly breeze. So just a little prematurely at about 9.15 at the start in Hatfield it started a light drizzle. Heedless of this ill omen and completely undaunted, nine of us set off for Ley Green, an out of the way hamlet near Kings Walden. The lure of this location was a new café which allegedly had opened in the post office there. I say allegedly as it seemed an unlikely place for a post office let alone a café. But café there was, bright and clean, recently created by expanding the post office. So we had a very pleasant elevenses after dripping our wet selves all over the formerly clean floor.
Rona with her CTC volunteer of the year medal
The Post Office cafe in Ley Green

At this juncture three of the party suddenly remembered they had pressing arrangements at home and (sensibly) declined to go further. Their place was taken by Richard who had just arrived and seemed strangely keen to continue cycling in the rain.

So we set off for Shefford in, by now, a steady drizzle. Shefford in Bedfordshire is due north of where we were so we skirted to the west of Hitchin and going via Pirton and Shillington, all nice rural places, we arrived at Shefford.
Richard arriving in Shefford

Still raining leaving Shefford

Luckily Shefford is blessed with a number of pubs, as the designated hostelry “ The Brewery Tap” seemed aptly named as it only sold beer and no food. So we moved to the White Hart which did excellent food.

Having fed, it was on with our damp clothes and head off again south in steady rain for Whitwell. Referring to the erroneous weather forecast again, this was now no light southerly breeze, rather a full on headwind to the point where in places we had to pedal to go downhill. So by the time we reached Emily’s cafe in Whitwell we were both tired and wet. Here it was gratifying to find we weren’t the only daft cyclists out and about as there was a contingent of veteran cyclists (that’s the bikes not the riders).
Traction engine clanking through Shefford
Veteran cyclists in Emily's cafe, Whitwell

After a pleasant cuppa we left in, by now, even heavier rain. For those of us who returned to the start it was about 57 miles in total but for some, who cycled to or from the start it was considerably more. 

It was not the ideal weather for National Gardens Open Day, nor Open Farm Sunday, but despite all the moaning about the weather we kept going regardless and it wasn’t too bad a day all things considered.

Peter 12/06/2011

7 June 2011

Club tour 2011 to Suffolk

YHA Stour Valley trip 7-9 June 2011

I’m not sure now where the idea came from, but a 3-day tour, riding to Suffolk and spending a day there before riding back again, proved to be a popular offer.

Stuart had visited the Stour Valley YHA with Cambridge CTC and the Southend Forty plus CC had also been there, so I looked into using this bunkhouse as a base for a midweek trip in June.  Some cyclists have been put off using Youth Hostels, claiming they are now poor value and dominated by families and couples arriving by car rather than by outdoor enthusiasts arriving under their own steam - why not use a Travelodge - it’s often cheaper.  This may partly be true of the larger hostels, but there are now some 17 YHA bunkhouses spread across England and Wales.  These are what simple hostels used to be like, but without the compulsory ‘chores’.

Having fixed the destination, it was now time to plan some routes.  How do I get 10 cyclists the 85 miles from places like St Albans to the Suffolk coast in a day?  How much energy would they have left for a ‘rest’ day before cycling home?  So out with the maps, a lot of googling and a look at the websites of some cycle clubs in the area.

Hertford looked like the best jumping off point as we could fuel up at here before starting and it cut the distance to less than 80 miles. I drew a straight line on a map and plotted all the refreshment halts I could find, then picked places giving a reasonable route out and back without gaps between them being too far.
Pin Mill
View photo album


Hertford to Brantham (73.5 miles) via Hatfield Forest (20.5 miles), Andrewsfield (34.5 miles) and Earls Colne (50 miles).

Nine of us (Judy, Richard, Neil, Peter, Tracey, Simon, Phil, Brian, Jon) met at the Six Templars for breakfast at 8:15.  Luckily, for us, Brian was driving to Brantham as he was still building his fitness after breaking an arm skiing two months ago.  Therefore, he kindly agreed to act as sag wagon driver for our overnight luggage.  We got away shortly after 9 am and Tracey led us through the back streets to Ware, where we picked up John and Paul.

In any group this large, people want to travel at different speeds, so my cunning plan was to split the group into two, as this reduces waiting at refreshment halts and cuts down the queue for the showers on arrival.  It also lets cars overtake more easily.  So, Neil led the first group, with John’s GPS providing directions, and I followed with the second group.  John led us all on a peculiar route through his hometown, via some housing estates I’ve never visited, and probably never will again.  We seemed to be keeping together to Much Hadham, while people were making their minds up which group was right for them.  However, after crossing the ford, we saw the leading group take a left turn, before doing a quick U turn and appearing again behind us.  They overtook on the steep hill and disappeared ahead, only to reappear coming towards us in Hatfield Forest.  The cunning plan hadn’t worked too well, as we all arrived at the café together.  It seems the GPS was trying to lead them across a field, rather than via the entrance to the park.  Admittedly, it was a much shorter route, but one that meant lifting bikes over a stile.  What I hadn’t appreciated was that the GPS could only handle up to 50 of the 150 waypoints and it was making the rest up as it went along.

The café in Hatfield Forest was incredibly efficient, as it was used to handling vast numbers at weekends and we had it to ourselves.  We had plenty of time to admire the shell house by the lake.  Already feeling the effects of cycling with panniers, my second group had now swelled in numbers as we followed the lanes into Great Dunmow and through Stebbing to Andrewsfield airstrip.  Again, this was virtually deserted being midweek and we were soon served a good lunch while sunning ourselves.

The next leg was into quite unfamiliar territory as we were well outside our normal Sunday ride range.  The lanes were almost deserted as we ventured further into Essex skirting North of Braintree and we soon reached our last fuelling stop at Colne Valley Golf Club.  I had seen this impressive place listed by the Forty Plus NE Essex section and, sure enough, there were a few of them there having tea.  Amongst them was an 87 year old who looked very tanned and fit. 

Now the final leg of the journey to Brantham was the longest of the day and I was keen to press on by a direct lanes route, which unfortunately meant missing some picturesque villages in the Stour valley like Dedham.  I tried to avoid too much main road at the end, by cutting along a track by Lawford Hall, but we were thwarted by a locked gate so we put up with the A137 for a couple of miles to reach the Coop in Brantham, where we stocked up for breakfast with only a mile to go to the hostel.

Caroline, who runs the hostel, greeted the first group and we were sorry she had to repeat all the dos and don’ts to the second group a little later.  The hostel was clean and tidy with a well-equipped kitchen and a well-kept garden too - testimony to the care and attention of the owner.  Best of all it was only a short walk to the Bull for a relaxing evening meal.


A leisurely 50 mile tour of southern Suffolk, taking in the world famous beauty spots of Pin Mill, Kersey ford and Flatford Mill.

We decided on a leisurely start for a short (50 mile) circuit and decided to keep as one group.  The lanes were quiet, the sun was out and the breeze kept us cool (why do we bother to go abroad?).  We crossed the Shotley peninsular where the barley looked ready for harvest, although the root crops looked desperate for some water (a drought has just been officially announced here after the driest spring on record).  The Royal Hospital School in Holbrook looked impressive in the sunshine.  It moved here to the Stour estuary from Greenwich in 1933 and retains its unique seafaring heritage, with all pupils having the opportunity to learn how to sail.  We then crossed over the peninsular to Pin Mill on the Orwell estuary, where the tide was out and some huge sailing barges were stranded along the foreshore.  After a quick loop around Alton Water, site of an annual mass swim, we stopped at the Harvest Moon café in Capel St Mary.  We then headed North to Hintlesham and reached the Rose & Crown in Elmsett, where the very jolly barman did his best to exceed our expectations - order a bacon roll and you get two - order chips and you get cheesy chips.  Not exactly healthy eating and we had to extend our stay before were capable of moving again.  Another scenic detour was called for, so we visited Kersey.  Long before Shakespeare’s time this village was prosperous and famed for its Kersey cloth.  It doesn’t seem to have changed much since then, with its 14th century half-timbered Bell Inn, River House by the ford with its impressive Elizabethan door and St Mary’s Church looking down over the wide main street.  Not content with that, we passed through the historic market town of Hadleigh then followed the River Brett and the Stour to Flatford, where we had to sample the teashop after admiring the site of Constable’s Haywain painting at Flatford Mill.  Here Paul had the pleasure of fixing the first puncture after a brief shower of rain - not so pretty a sight.  It was only a few miles back now and plenty of time to get to the local for an evening meal and a walk down to the Stour to admire a Shelduck (or was it an Avocet?).

Brantham to Hertford (70.5 miles) via Coggeshall (25 miles), Littley Green (39.5 miles) and Old Harlow (59 miles).

We’d had a favourable wind on Tuesday and were now glad, although blowing from a similar direction, that it had died down a bit.  I had plotted what I reckon is the shortest reasonable cycling route back to Hertford, at just over 70 miles.  Fortified by a big breakfast, we followed a lovely route along the Stour valley crossing it between Thorington Street and Boxted, then crossed the Colne at Fordstreet and made a beeline for Coggeshall.  Crossing the busy A120 was tricky, but the route brought us straight into this medieval wool town sited on Roman Stane Street.  There are numerous amazing old buildings, including Paycocke’s, a sixteenth century timber-framed house built by a prosperous wool merchant as a wedding present for his son.  After a welcome break at the garden centre, we carried on through Cressing, White Notley and Great Leighs.  All the time the clouds were building and forming a dramatic sky scene, such that just before reaching our lunch stop at Littley Green the skies opened.  

The Compasses is famous for its Essex huffers - very large baps stuffed with almost anything.  The publican reckons the name is derived from halfers i.e. half a loaf that farm workers took for lunch in the fields.  A group of the Southend Forty Plus were already indulging when we arrived.  After our filling lunch, we were reluctant to leave this wonderful old pub, not least because it was still raining heavily for a short while.  Then the sky cleared and we had a good run through Leaden Roding and the Matchings to Old Harlow, where Café Blue came in very handy.  We then followed the cycle tracks through Harlow, where Judy’s trike suffered its inevitable puncture, before reaching Roydon were the group decided to split up.  The clouds were gathering again, but further north so at least we got home in the dry.

Overall, the trip was most enjoyable and we could do with a few more of these bunkhouses within 70-80 miles, although I wouldn’t mind going there again next year.

Jon 09/06/2011

5 June 2011

05 Jun 2011: Sandy to St Ives

Our first Sunday in June was to be a car/train assisted ride, offering a chance to venture further afield into unfamiliar countryside and visit new venues. The start was at Sandy railway station in Bedfordshire (handy for the A1 and anyone wanting to travel by train from Hatfield). However, a group of us met up at Hatfield around 8.00 am to work out some car sharing. Soon we were packed into a smaller number of cars and were away up the A1 to Sandy, where Craig, Steve and Carol met us.

After blazing hot weather on Saturday, the day was cloudy, with rain forecast for 4.30. There was a very powerful northerly wind - so which way was our first leg? - North. Doubling through suburban Sandy we started along the cycle path, following the track of the old 'Varsity Line', heading in the Bedford direction.  We turned off through the picturesque village of Great Barford, with its ancient bridge over the Ouse, then north along a traffic free back road, passing through Colmworth and turning right to Staughton Moor and Great Staughton. Approaching West Perry, we saw a blue expanse in the distance that turned out to be a field of flax flowers rather than Grafham Water, but soon after we reached our first refreshment stop at the Harbour View cafe. 

Passing fields of flax
The Harbour at Grafham Water

The cafe was perfectly good and is popular with cyclists and bikers. The wind by this time really was a killer and our progress had been slow. Our way was now east and the wind seemed to be funnelled into the valley below the reservoir dam making progress painful for a time. But soon we were in Buckden, with its palace (once the home of Catherine of Aragon) and on to Offord Cluny and then north again to Godmanchester. Here we took a small lane heading past the sewage works, eventually turning right onto a perfect, well surfaced cycle path across fields by the river. Very pleasant. This brought us into the delightful, ancient riverside villages of Hemingford Abbots and Hemingford Grey - full of thatched cottages and a pleasure to ride through.

Cycle path to the Hemingfords
Taking a curious horse for a walk
Thatch dog (or pig?)
Hemingford Abbots

Then turning left through the water meadows we crossed the medieval bridge over the Ouse and so into St Ives. The ancient market town is bristling with pubs and the one we picked (The Robin Hood) was offering bargain meals - much appreciated by the poverty stricken cyclists.

Bridge at St Ives
The Ouse at St Ives

After lunch, I was less familiar with the route, so frequent map checks were needed. We returned southwards through Fenstanton, Elsworth and Papworth Everard. Here a new bypass, not on my map, caused a navigational wobble, but soon we were through the village of Yelling. I looked out for the Women’s Institute notice at the village hall; could have made a nice picture, but failed to spot it. Another quiet, traffic free road took us south over open rolling country to Waresley and its garden centre, where we had a welcome tea stop. I think the wind had helped us back, at least we were no longer complaining.

It was now only about 10 miles back to our cars at Sandy, with just one pause as Steve stopped to rescue a rabbit that was sitting in the middle of the road, stunned after a brush with a car. Just as we set off for home in the cars, the rain turned up on time as forecast, and we had the first substantial precipitation for a couple of months. A really good day's cycling in countryside and villages with a different character and feel to our more familiar home patch.

Statue of Oliver Crowell in St Ives
5 June 2011