Sunshine, warmth, the wind at our backsWhat a start it was for our four-day tour. A cycle touring club really should do some touring as a club and coasting down to Buntingford I was thinking it’s a shame we don’t do more of this together. With unpredictable weather you have to take the rough with the smooth, but more on that subject later. So, with Jan joining us at elevenses we were up to 10 keen riders for this tour with another three out for the day. Numbers were limited to 12 anyway to suit Stour Valley YHA’s new block-booking policy.
Café Town in Buntingford was new to me and good value, as were most of the cafés and pubs we used. Perhaps it’s the recession or maybe just getting far enough away from London that brings the prices down. In fact the whole holiday was great value as we booked Travelodge rooms well in advance and with two sharing per room they worked out cheaper than the youth hostel.
After lunch at Phillimore Garden Centre in Shepreth, where the three Sunday riders left us, we passed through Barrington, which boasts the longest village green in England, before testing our climbing powers on Chapel Hill. Then it was time for some tricky off-road, with a tyre’s width track to follow on the Barton-Grantchester cycle route, which brought us out by the Rupert Brook pub. The cycle route through Grantchester Meadows into Cambridge was a pleasant route into the city and not too crowded, then we picked up NCR 11 across Coe Fen behind Peterhouse College to emerge at the mill pond, where we resisted the temptation to spend the afternoon punting on the Cam.
Lingering briefly amongst the other tourists on King’s Parade, we were fascinated more by the busker playing inside a rubbish bin (could it be Charlie?) than by King’s College Gatehouse, with its bulbous cupola and pinnacles, or indeed by the gothic architecture of King’s Chapel, with the world’s largest fan-vault ceiling.
We followed NCR 11 to Jesus Lock, where the Soham Comrades brass band were performing, then through the back streets and out to Impington. Soon we were in the fens on the aptly named Grunty Fen Road and arrived at Ely Travelodge at 5 pm. We couldn’t have had a more friendly welcome (the receptionist was a cyclist) and we were positively encouraged to take our bikes into the rooms. A relaxing evening followed, with a walk into Ely, a meal at The Lamb Hotel (an old coaching inn) and a look at the cathedral and the quayside; we finished off with a drink at the Prince Albert.
A battle with the elements.Monday dawned with heavy rain and a strong head wind and, despite big breakfasts at the Little Chef, energy levels were sapping as we finally reached Downham Market for a rather late elevenses at Knights Catering, where a friendly welcome awaited us. This turned into lunch after seeing what was on the menu and on display in the bakery!
So we cut out going to Swaffham and looped around to Oxborough Hall, where I stopped outside the rear gates for a quick photo. Not content with this view, some of the more unruly members of our party decided to pedal off down the drive rather than going to the main entrance. An eagle-eyed National Trust manager spied them and leaped out of her car to lock the gates, much to the amusement of the better behaved members of our group. We all escaped eventually and made it to Brandon via bits of Thetford Forest as the weather started to improve.
Windswept trees typical of Breckland scenery lined the horizon as we approached Lakenheath and Mildenhall. Roads were busy as we hit chucking-out time for the workers and getting over the A11 roundabout to our Travelodge at Barton Mills wasn’t pleasant. However, reception was welcoming and we soon settled in with our bikes to dry them and ourselves out. It was a short walk to the Half Moon for an evening meal: busier than normal as the first England football game in Euro 2012 had just finished.
An easy dayIt was only 45 miles to Brantham according to Google, although we noticed the recorded mileage on our trips was often 10% more than predicted. With a favourable wind we soon reached Bury St Edmunds, delayed only briefly by giving Jan a lesson on fixing punctures. This time it was NCR 51 that took us in on a traffic-free route to the centre. It was a bit cold for exploring the historic abbey, so we soon found ourselves in the Street Level Café, where the ladies were overcome at the sight of our lycra clad legs while we appreciated their Newmarket sausages (as recommended by the Queen no less).
Lush fields and pleasant Suffolk scenery lined our route into Lavenham, where a visit to the ancient Guildhall was a highlight of one of the most extensive medieval Suffolk villages. We lunched at The Cock opposite the impressive church.
Another short leg brought us Kersey, with a steep climb up Church Hill, an on to tea in Hadleigh. Here I took the old railway path out of the town and over to Capel St Mary then to the YHA at Brantham.
Caroline gave us another warm welcome and four of us headed off to the village shop to load panniers with enough food for dinner and breakfast. It was fascinating to watch our experienced chefs Tracey & Neil working so expertly together in the well equipped hostel kitchen – no trace of a swear word between them. They had soon served up a superb spag-bol followed by apple crumble for everyone and facilitated a great evening in.
Last legsA bright sunny day and we were off at 8:30 on the longest and last leg of our tour. This time our route took us a bit further north than usual and Jan was planning on a train from Bures. Knowing there were few places to cross the Stour after Nayland, we passed a ‘road closed’ sign (we can usually get through on bikes) as we headed for Bures. Nothing was seen for miles, but then we rounded a corner and found the lane completely blocked by a tarmacing vehicle. There was no easy option, so we hauled our bikes up the bank and through a narrow gate into a hay meadow to get around the blockage. Unfortunately, this meadow had no gate at the other end, but point-man Neil found a way through to the next field and a gate to get us back on the lane. We were soon in Bures and dropping Jan at the station for a fond farewell.
Rather a twisty route followed through some very narrow lanes to Colne Engaine and we found a café in Halstead, then pressed on to Andrewsfield for lunch overlooking the airstrip. Just as we were enjoying the warmth outside, a pilot started his engine and the draught from the propeller blew over a bike and drove us inside the clubhouse.
Back in more familiar territory, we made good progress to Ware for tea just before the Esem cafe closed. Then along the path to Hertford and the Cole Green Way back to Welwyn GC and Hatfield. An enjoyable round trip of some 250 miles.
Jon - June 2012