TOUR BAR NONE: FEELING THE HEAT
The performance measure for 2015: to visit, by bicycle, every pub in England with no serving counter, general distractions had put the schedule back and Stephen Dyster paid the price.
Single-minded dedication is a key factor in building and maintaining high-level performance. Go chasing love, doing the gardening or spending time with your collection of Victorian buttons and you pay the price. I’d only been gardening, but now, strapping the Nelson Longflap to the Brooks’ saddle, the morning was nearly done and the mercury had already climbed to 29C, with a glaring sun pushing it ever higher.
Of course, the objective of the day was a pub, but it would be wrong to bee-line given the opportunity for a run round north Suffolk.
“Waveney Valley Town”
So stated the Bungay town sign as the road climbed up what passes for a hill in these parts. The claims made by signs like these are often spurious, so, at least this one was accurate. The first fifteen miles of my route would be to on the flat, more or less close to the river. However, older Bungay town signs bear a much more resonant motto; “Bungay, A Fine Old Town” which takes on an even better tone when spoken with a Suffolk burr. Bungay is charming; from its ruined castle to its hodge-podge of architectural styles all relaxed and amiable, it has unique character. “Fine Old Town” sums it up, and fine old base for a cycle around.
A few road-bikes rested against the wall of a café and I couldn’t help but think that on a scorching day, these cyclists had the right idea. For me, it was a case of cutting the one-way system that saves the little town from the traffic by nipping through the unusually named Cork Bricks and heading off to Earsham.
Much of the way to Hoxne – marked as Route 30, uses the predecessor of the current Waveney Valley Superhighway, otherwise known as the A143. Going was great into a cooling headwind that hindered a little and made one forget the force of the sun …. at the peril of sunburn. There was even some useful infrastructure linking sections of the old road or helping to avoid the main drag. Actually, it is not a busy road, but can carry fast traffic, so this is ideal cycling for newbies and the inexperienced.
Lines of poplar trees cut the meadows against a sky of the purest blue. This is the border of Norfolk and Suffolk; indeed from immediately after the last house in Bungay until crossing the bridge between Brockdish and Syleham one is in Norfolk. Syleham spreads itself out. A short detour brought me to the church, hidden away down a track. There was barely a sound and nothing stirred; an unspectacular spot full of temptation to put the feet up and slack away the middle of the day.
Well, emerging, after a delightful run along the Waveney, on the small green in the heart of Hoxne one might feel compelled to purchase an ice-cream and a bag of sweets from the village shop and consume them in the shade of the shelter or the trees, or even pay a visit to the pub. These days there are no invaders about to disturb the general peace and quiet. Most of the houses are much older than they first appear to be, but none go back as far as the gruesome events of the year 870.
So, I rode across the brook, leant my bicycle against the hedge by a stile and walked the short distance to the monument to Saint Edmund the Martyr, King of East Anglia, who was peppered with arrows, by Vikings, on this very spot. The tree to which he was tied, we are told, collapsed under its own weight in 1843 and the monument was erected on the spot. It is said that a fragment of arrow-head was found embedded in the tree. The tale is that he was spotted hiding in the reeds of the nearby brook, given away by a glint of golden spur.
Pleased to say that, despite the powerful sun, my bike was not gleaming. Dust from the commute and the sandy lanes dulled the old-frame. It is not a thing of beauty, but it just rides so well.
Moving on from such misty-eyed tosh, the cycling became what many would regard as typically Suffolk; country lanes, through swathes of swaying corn reflecting a golden sun; stands of trees around isolated church towers; largely flat and with contradictory road-signs. A slight going astray was inevitable, though not too much of a hardship.
Much of Suffolk is not like that. Seriously, it isn’t. After passing the prominent white windmill at Saxtead Green and running into the jewel of a little town that is Framlingham, one finds that there are hills. Not big, but sufficient to provide more frequent changes of scene as well a change of gear.
Framlingham market was on, so I ignored the castle and the Church open-day in favour of “artisan” cheesecake and bread – dessert and barbecue to be held later (and, despite the heat, the cheesecakes made it back to camp largely intact; a tribute, I’d say, to my elegantly serene pedal stroke). I also bought a “tub” (i.e. one dollop) of sorbet to refresh the palate before riding on. This did not last anywhere near as long as you’d expect £2.50 worth of sorbet to. Should have gone into one of the cafes!
Wot, no cyclists?
Leaving town on the B1120, it was not long before normal country lane service was resumed to cross the upper River Alde between Cransford and Bruisyard; “Headwaters of the Alde” would be too dramatic, but the countryside begins to roll laconically. As it turned out, this section of the route was part of NCR1 and the Suffolk Coastal Route. On reflection, were I asked to recommend a first multi-day tour, it would be hard to better the Suffolk.
The road maintenance department had been tarring the roads and scattering the top dressing all around, which is always a pest to the cyclist bent on cruising along the lanes in quest for a cuppa at the Weaver’s Café in Peasenhall or such-like. More scars for the venerable frame …. third strip, respray and coat on the way.
Though bisected by a main road, Peasenhall manages to maintain an air of calm; a brook runs by the road, cottages set back behind it, and houses and shops line the other. The jewel is the café, standing on a green with some hidden timber-framed buildings close by. Suffolk owed much of its medieval wealth to the cloth trade and a tour of its wool villages would make gentle ride around characterful and genuinely beautiful places; Lavenham. Long Melford, Kersey, Laxfield …. really very good cycling territory.
The remarkable thing was that, for the very first time when I have been there, and possibly the very first time all told, there were no cyclists at this popular watering-hole. The bad news for the proprietor meant that there was good news for me; at this late hour, there was still a reasonable selection of cakes for me to pick from.
Back on the road, or rather the very minor-minor road that doubled-me-back towards Laxfield – my main objective – a tractor pulled over for me and the driver waved happily. One can understand why the fast-riders don’t like these little lanes; micro-beaches and bars of washed out gravel hidden by field-banks and sudden twists in the road advise caution. For me they were ideal as I pondered on what to write … far-off holidays near here in childhood, helping with the harvest, leading the horses pulling the grain cart …. fortunately, the twin shire horses knew where to go and how to behave.
Laxfield has a medieval guildhall with a museum; the church was obscured by scaffolding and the yard was full of Anglo-Saxon re-enactors packing away their gear after a day of Anlo-Saxoning and loading it into their hatch-backs. The two pubs have interesting histories; The Royal Oak has a mural of Charles II having a chat with a Chelsea Pensioner over a pint. Apparently, the pub was a regular holiday-haunt for Chelsea Pensioners as a former landlord had strong associations with The Royal Hospital Chelsea, having been a licensee in that neck of the capital.
One suspects that Charles II would have much preferred to drink at the Royal Oak than the King’s Head, however, dictated to by my objectives, a quick turn past the former soon saw the overheated bike and rider outside the King’s Head or Low House, hanging-baskets defiantly colourful to spite the heat. What a refuge from the heat was to be had standing in the shade of the barrel room, what an oasis of calm (even by the standards of mid-Suffolk) was the front room, artificially created by a high-backed settle delineating a hidden booth. Snug in winter, too, one imagines everyone seated round the blazing fire. This is a very rare survival.
There were a group of bikers in the garden and a variety of others enjoying the sun. Rather contrarily, I sought the shade and spread my map out on the table.
Triumph of faith
The trouble with even a single cooling shandy is that once finished one must return to the heat. Despite the breeze, it was a wave of hot air that put me in mind of getting of the plane in southern Spain. The question was, having had a second refreshing shandy, must I head straight back or could I wander around a bit more? No, getting back to camp was only fair …. Who knows when they’d want dessert.
Happily, I decided to follow the signs. Often one can assume that one keeps on the road unless the signs say differently. My fault for not checking the map, but in Suffolk the principle does not apply. Having planned to miss out Walpole Chapel, I found myself half a mile from it in Walpole village, just outside another tempting inn that clearly, at first glance, had merit for a cyclist with a taste for discovering social history.
The old chapel stands on the slope of a surprisingly well-defined valley – there’s even a Valley Farm on the map so it must be a significant elevation. Walpole Old Chapel could be just another sixteenth-century Suffolk farmhouse of the type one can become blasé about during a tour of the county – timber-framed, Tudor or Stuart with a little bit of late medieval bunged in. That is until one notices that it stands amidst headstones. It is one of the earliest examples in England of a domestic building converted to religious use. The execution of Charles I in 1649 took the lid off the theological cauldron that was the Church of England. In many places – especially in the east of England - Independent congregations began to meet. The restoration of the monarchy brought persecution, though this eventually tailed-off. Walpole Old Chapel was converted during this turbulent period. It is in the care of the Historic Chapels Trust. Special arrangements with Get Cycling (whilst on one of their cycling holidays) had meant I’d been inside before. It is a delicate building, a testament to the strength of faith and independently-minded folk who were prepared to risk all to follow their faith.
Triumph of duty
Time was now pressing heavily on my slightly guilty conscience. So, a quick up and down run to Chediston and onward to find a sign saying that I was entering the village of Rumburgh. The village is actually away to the west, centred on a different lane, and Aldous’ Corner – where I in fact was – did a fair imitation of a village centre round a staggered crossroads. Always worth checking the map on a hot day or at the top of a hill, I find.
Between Rumburgh and Bungay, as one gathers pace along the easy lane, passing those old farmhouses, navigation can become confusing if one is not careful. The Saints come marching quickly along hereabouts. To the east of the A144 are two Ilketshalls; St. Lawrence and St. Andrew (though a glance at the maps showed two additional isolated churches, one of which could have been St. John’s, but both were presumably Ilketshalls). To the west of the main road an Ilketshall enclave can be found at St. Maragret’s of that ilk. Clear enough? Well, the enclave is bordered to west and south by South Elmhams; St. James, St. Nicholas, St. Cross, All Saints, St. Michael, St. Peter and, just when things were getting simple, St. Margaret. The signs often bear the name only of the Saints, though St. Margaret Ilket is sometimes used for the sake of clarity. However, unless well versed in this area of Suffolk, you may be struggling to distinguish between your Ilkets and your Elmhams by this stage. Those of a mischievous nature will note with some sadness that North Elmham is a long way off (the link may be something to do with Saxon bishops) in mid-Norfolk and, even there, is unable to muster a single additional Saint.
Navigation through this Holy Land was simple, as I didn’t want to go to any of the villages in particular. The road to Bungay did but one little twist around St. Margaret … let’s just check the map …. Ilketshall …. before running easily into the slumbering heat of early evening in Bungay. In the off-license, the sales assistant complained of the cold from the chiller cabinet when I pointed out what a temperate place she had to work in.
Cold beer purchased and back down the one-way system to the campsite. Smoke was rising from the assembled barbecues; I worked my way through four litres of water and relaxed with a chilly Czech pilsner. Objective three on the list, achieved.
The entire route is on OS 1: 50 000 sheet 156
Distance: 70 miles
Ascent: barely worth counting.
http://www.walpoleoldchapel.co.uk/index.htm for the Old Chapel
http://outneymeadow.co.uk/ for camping in Bungay, that Fine Old Town
http://framlinghammarket.co.uk/ for tasty cheesecakes and much more
http://laxfieldkingshead.co.uk/ for the King’s Head or Low House
The only railway line near this route is the Ipswich to Lowestoft line. The nearest station to Bungay is at Beccles and the other useful stops near the route are at Brampton, Halesworth, Darsham and Saxmundham.
PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 2016