YHA Stour Valley trip 7-9 June 2011I’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.
TuesdayHertford 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.
WednesdayA 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.