Back after a Labor Day weekend blogging hiatus! Let’s continue this adventure. 🙂
Thursday, 9 August – London to Needham Market to Stowmarket
I got some strange looks from people when I told them I was going on a bicycle tour by myself for five days. “What happens if you just don’t show up at your destination one night? Do they go out looking for you?” I had no answer to that. A tiny part of my brain started to worry a little, but it was strongly overwhelmed by the part that was doing a jig, saying, “I’m going bicycling through the English countryside! Weee!”
My fears were alleviated when I was met by Mike from Cyclebreaks at the train station in Needham Market who drove me to their headquarters which is at a farm. He was very kind and obviously professional. I asked how long he had been doing this work and he said that their company was started 25 years ago. Twenty five years! They must have figured out the kinks by now, eh? 🙂 Mike made sure I knew how to change a flat (I know all the theory behind it but have never had to do it myself) and went over the maps, showing the main routes as well as routes to cut the trip shorter if I wanted or make it longer to see more sights.
It was noon and the B&B I was staying at that night wasn’t going to be ready until 3:00. Mike offered me maps for two day routes, one ten miles and one thirty miles. I gulped at the idea of a thirty-mile leisure ride and reached for the ten mile map. And then I was off. It felt like there should be something more formal, but it was just getting on the bike and pushing the pedal for the first time.
I learned quickly that these maps are very good. Very detailed. They go so far as to mark the names of middle-of-nowhere farms that you pass so you know you’re on the right track and even mark every legal footpath. I questioned their definition of footpath; more like the grasses are waist high everywhere else and only a foot high in this one-foot-wide strip that cuts across a field.
The route started out on a paved road, then turned onto a packed dirt road that I followed to a very old church. Then it became a “footpath” (meaning I was required to push the bike – even though there were parallel tracks as though cars drove down this) and that footpath was noticeably muddy. I hate muddy shoes, and here I was pushing my bike through it. Hrm. I was starting to have second thoughts about this trip. After turning left at a sheep pen, I could legally remount my bike and thankfully the road became packed earth again, and then paved.
Mike had pointed out an optional side route called the corpseway, because it was believed to have once been an old funeral path. As soon as I turned off the paved road and saw the beautiful route with trees overhanging both sides I was excited. Went further on and the path became narrower. And narrower. And muddier. I came across a gate I had to wedge the bike through and wondered if I was on the right path. Occasional bike tracks in the mud on both sides made me a little more confident. But after the gate the path became so overgrown I had to dismount. Branches scratched my arms and I was grateful to have tough outdoorsy pants – though I wish they weren’t capris. Even though it was beautiful, the mud and scratches had me questioning the trip again.
Eventually the track came out in the town and I biked back to Cyclebreaks to drop off the map and grab a bite to eat at the farm before heading to my B&B. I jumped straight into the shower – shoes included – to scrub the mud and pollens off. After getting clean, I wandered their gardens where they grow their own melons, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, currants, lettuce, carrots, peas, onions, rhubarb, and other stuff I couldn’t identify.
I wasn’t hungry, having had a late lunch at the farm, so laid my damp clothes out on the bed in the late afternoon sunshine, studied the map to learn my route for the next day, read for a while, and crawled into the fabulous bed to call it a night.
Friday, 10 August – Stowmarket to Framlingham
I woke at 5:00 to light outside and birds twittering their good mornings. No alarm clock needed for this trip! Our hostess cooked breakfast for us while I chatted a bit with two Bristol folks staying there who were also riding bikes. I was on the road by 9:00, excited to traverse the 22 miles to Framlingham to see the castle.
I had downloaded a bunch of podcasts, expecting I’d want something to listen to during these five days of cycling. I never pulled the iPod out once. For one thing the roads are so twisty that you need to check the map every few minutes. Ride half a mile, turn, ride one mile, turn, ride a quarter mile, turn – I was glad to have a map holder on the bike handlebars. The countryside I was beautiful and I was happy to take in the views – mainly fields of farmland with the occasional pasture of sheep, goats, pigs, or cows. I even saw a few donkeys.
Fortunately, Thursday’s bike ride had been an anomaly. All of the routes I was taking were paved. Also, they were side streets with hardly any traffic. I’d see a car maybe every 20 minutes. That’s good because the roads were also only one-lane wide, so encountering two cars – or tractors – simultaneously could have been tricky. And despite sharing breakfast with fellow cyclists and learning that Suffolk is a destination for cycling, I only saw another bicycle maybe once per day.
I stopped in Debenham along the way and decided to investigate their church, which was 700 years old. Like just about every church here. Seven hundred years old! All of the little churches are unlocked so you can just pop in and look around. They each have little laminated fliers telling about the history of the church, and a small safe that you can drop some change in if you want to help with the church expenses. If traveling all the way across the country on bike, the churches – which are everywhere – would be a great place to stop for some shelter from the rain or to take a nap. I stopped at two or three churches every day for a rest and to look around. They were all so neat!
Arrived in Framlingham around noon – too early to check into the hotel, but they were happy to take my pannier and lock my bike up. I poked around the Framlingham Church – which is much larger than the little Debenham church and also contains the grave of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son. Had lunch at The Prince of India on the market square, but the chicken tikka I make is better. 🙂 As I paid for my meal, the servers asked me where I was from and why I was visiting. When I said the Olympics, they said, “You know there’s no Olympics happening in Framlingham?”
I walked up the hill to Framlingham Castle which was built in the 1100s (and you can read all the history at Wikipedia because it’s loooong). Only the original walls of the castle are still standing, along with a building inside that I think was restored. Of course, restored in the UK probably means built in the 1800s. The castle area isn’t THAT big, maybe like the area of a Super Target; I wondered how many people lived inside of it at its height. You can walk around the whole perimeter on the walls to take in the beautiful views. There was a children’s festival of some kind and the lawns were peppered with children trying archery, walking on stilts, playing games, and there was a little historical children’s drama, too.
I returned to my hotel to check in, take a shower, and take a little nap. I awoke too late to get an afternoon-tea-priced meal and found that the ice cream shop was closed. I had really been hoping for some ice cream. Instead I picked up some fruit and granola from the grocery store and returned to my room to watch some Olympics before falling asleep. My backside had been sore this morning from riding 14 miles the previous day and now I added another 22 miles – what would my 30+ mile day tomorrow feel like?
Saturday, 11 April – Framlingham to Dunwich Heath to Aldeburgh
Enjoyed breakfast in the hotel overlooking the square where they were setting up a Saturday marketplace. With a stomach full of omelet, toast, fruit, and tea, I hopped on the bike at 8:15 excited to see the sea – and thankful that my backside seemed to be getting used to riding and wasn’t complaining as much.
You could tell that on a weekend day with beautiful weather like this others were journeying to the sea as well; a number more cars than Friday. Riding on the wrong side of the road is perplexing, but thankfully the cars were good at sharing the road. Many times when I stopped to re-fold the map, a car would pull up alongside me and ask if I needed help or was lost. Such considerate folk!
Rather than going all the way to the town of Dunwich I headed south to Dunwich Heath, which gave lovely views riding alongside low bushes of brilliant purple flowers. Parked my bike and walked down to the gravel beach to take in the salty air and the crashing of the waves.
Mike had mentioned a bridleway that could be taken as a little shortcut. I stopped at the turnoff and stared down the dirt trail, wondering if I should risk that it could be like the corpseway. After some lip-chewing and calling myself a chicken I steered my bike off the asphalt and onto the dirt. Absolutely stunning. I felt like I was pulled from a scene in some epic film like Lord of the Rings. A few muddy puddles, but much wider and not at all overgrown. We had a new candidate to battle with Windsor Castle as most beautiful place on the Earth.
I was feel leisurely so decided to stop a Leiston Abbey, which was written in a fancy script on my map, meaning that it was some old and historical place. Indeed it was. Huge ruins from a 900-year-old abbey. The ruins that were still standing had a music school operating out of it! Now see, that’s a difference between America and England. If we had some site with a building even a few hundred years old we’d rope it off and sell admission tickets. In England there’s so many ruins that they put up a few informational signs, and then continue using the building. (It was so odd in London to see old buildings with cell phone stores on the ground floor.)
As I was reading the first sign, I stood next to a couple that started to talk with me (John and Frances). They said they had pulled over because they were sick of the traffic. John actually reminded me of Stephen Fry with his mannerisms. We walked around the ruins together while he asked me about my political views. Yup. He brought up my least favorite subject. Regardless, though, they were very pleasant and it was nice to get to share some conversation. At one point they asked where I would be going to study, and I had to break it to them that I’m 31 and well out of college. They went bug-eyed and I’m not sure if they believed me.
Headed down the road a bit further to Thorpeness where I stopped at an inn for some lunch. The tables were all set up randomly around a lawn and there were lots of families so it felt a bit like a picnic. I ordered a hamburger, which was more like a meat ball in a bun. Tasty, though.
The only cycling left was a ride along the shoreline to the town of Aldeburgh, which John informed me is pronounced Ald-bruh, not Al-duh-berg. The beach was crawling with people and I found my hotel was right on the beach. My room faced away from the beach, but it was wheelchair accessible so it was pretty huge. As my bag hadn’t arrived yet, I skipped the shower and went to explore the town.
First on my agenda: ice cream. It was a hot day and a chocolate gelato was the perfect compliment to my stroll. The beaches are all stones instead of sand, and I had fun selecting a few pretty ones to take home – including two that had holes worn right through the middle like beads. Seagulls everywhere. Signs said there was a 500-pound fine for dogs on the beach, and a 2500-pound fine for feeding the seagulls. Seriously.
The guide said that there was a fish and chips shop at the south end of the town that wasn’t to be missed and would have a queue. I found the shop and checked their hours so I could come back for dinner. Returned to my hotel to find my delivered bag (very odd to be schlepping a vinyl pannier and a backpacking backpack through a fancy hotel, btw) so I took my shower and set my alarm to wake me so I could get my fish and chip dinner.
The guide was right. There was a queue. A block-long one. I was glad I had thought to bring the Nook so I’d have something to read in line. A woman and her two grown sons got in line behind me. She exclaimed at the line being so long, to which her son said, “It’s always this long. We’ve stood in this queue before. Don’t you remember? Or is it one of those things like childbirth where hormones make you forget?” Twenty minutes later, he remarked, “Really, this queue isn’t that different from the one for Russian customs, and you don’t get fish and chips at the end of that. You just get a grumpy cab driver.” I couldn’t hold in my laughs for that line.
When we reached the counter there was a very loud commotion from the bar across the street. “Is that Mo Farah (running the 10K in the Olympics)?” someone near the door commented. We all had our heads turned to look out the open door, and a woman walking down the street called in, “He won.” I turned to the cashier and said, “Mo Farah won gold!” She excitedly turned to tell all the people working the fryers and there was great jubilation before everyone went back to ordering and cooking fish and chips. (Mo Farah also won gold in the 5K, so this was a huge deal for Team GB.)
I returned with my fish and chips to my hotel room to watch them interviewing Mo on BBC and wrap up another great day.