Day 1: Norfolk in Hope - To Hull and Back - CycleBlaze

Day 1: Norfolk in Hope

Potton, Beds to camp near Shouldham, Norfolk

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Deleted AccountGood to c the GPS trail. Let's me see where u r actually are
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1 year ago
Jon AylingTo Deleted AccountYeah I try to include them. It also lets you see how slowly I'm going :-D
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1 year ago

Up embarrassingly slightly earlier than I normally do for work, I gathered up the remaining food and luggage* and was pleased to see it could all jam into the two panniers. A quick trip to the shop around the corner to stock up on some lunch, and then I was heading off into a beautifully bright (if blustery) day.

(*or so I thought)

All loaded up and ready to go outside the supermarket. That's tent, sleeping bag and matt, clothes, lock, electronics & valuables, stove, cookset and a couple of nights' worth of food - all in two panniers. From the Ortlieb "Tardis" model.
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Ridiculous selfie. Don't I look keen? This is very much the "before" shot.
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The first half of the day I'd borrowed the route I previously used to reach Ely in Really Ely. This had a lot of off-road sections that would get me over the developed corridor west of Cambridge without bothering the major roads. Things started well - the loaded bike felt fine and the weather was great with just little fluffy clouds scutting along.

I did notice that (i) the wind was, unusually, rather strongly coming from the North and (ii) the surface was far muddier than I'd normally expect this time of year after a few dry days. This didn't bother me inordinately (yet) though, and I quickly passed through the familiar villages of Hatley and the Gransdens.

It's a nice day for it. Those clouds are being blown along worryingly quickly, mind.
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Solid Georgian houses in the Gransdens
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Village notice board
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After seeing the muddy conditions, I deviated a little from my planned route to cut off the unsurfaced byways and stuck to the (quiet) roads. I circumnavigated the new town of Cambourne - flagrantly disregarding the strange restrictions that allow you to cycle around 90% of the small lake in its centre but not the final vital bit that gets you back on the road - and crossed the main Cambridge - St Neots road.

From here I had plotted an entirely off-road stretch on obscure routes to the edge of the fen. In good conditions this is a nice quiet way to cross the sometimes-frenetic stretch of country in the corridor west of Cambridge, and I was pleased with myself for coming up with it last year. Too pleased, it turned out, as today it was murder. A friendly older couple warned me "it gets worse" as I squelched past, and soon I was digging mud out from between the mudguards to get the wheels revolving again.

A typical stretch. This was very hard going indeed, and I'd still covered less than 30km.
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I'm not sure this really functions as either a goalpost or a bird-scarer, to be honest
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Finally I emerged at Bar Hill, another planned town on the edge of the fens, and regained tarmac. I firmly resolved to stay on-road for the next stretch, and adjusted the route on the fly to cut through the major village of Oakington and use the guided busway (a rather odd mass transit system consisting of concrete runners which channels buses with minimal steering) instead of further bush-whacking. This picked up the speed, but I still felt the wind.

Crossing the A14 main Cambridge highway on the shiny new dedicated cycle bridge. This is "officially" open now, unlike last year when I accidentally crossed it when it was under constructions. Oops.
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Nicely done village sign in Oakington, and bonus pigeon
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Colourful murals on buildings on the busway
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It's not quite a jumble sale when it's being given away for free. I particularly like the shop-dummy model.
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The next step was to cross the first stretch of the Fens to reach the "Isle" of Ely. This is so-called because in medieval times, the Fens which are very close to sea level or even below were intermittently marshy or underwater, and the ancient city of Ely effectively sat on an island of high ground. This isle was so isolated and defensible that it ended up as the last stronghold of the Anglo-Saxon rebel Hereward the Wake, who held it against the Normans in the 11th century. Only the local fen-dwellers knew the secret safe routes through the swam. Legend has it Hereward was betrayed by a monk of the cathedral that revealed the location of the causeway to the Isle (there was also a witch involved).

While there's a lot of mythology surrounding this, it's certainly true that only a few passable routes existed - the major one between Cambridge and Ely being the Aldreth Causeway - and the remains of a Normal fort exist at Belsar's "Hill".

The roads through the fens are flat, straight, narrow and fast - I would be avoiding them by using the very same off-road causeway to Aldreth. I was dreading this, as it can be muddy at the best of times, and I was now running quite late - it was past midday, and I'd yet to reach 50km. All things considering it was better than expected. I had a somewhat bleak and wind-blown lunch on the causeway and then slogged on against the wind to Ely, past enormous tailbacks of traffic at roadwork near Witchford.

Finally reaching Ely. I've cycled here many times, but it's never taken this long. It was 2:15pm now - I had four hours of daylight left and was only half way. I didn't linger.
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A trying stretch against the wind on busy minor roads got me to Littleport, the next town North, at 3pm. I calculated this was just about doable - if I could reach Norfolk by 5pm, I'd still have time to buy supplies and find a place to camp before losing the light.

Fortunately the next leg was far more agreeable. Ten Mile Bank is a tiny minor road running parallel to the river Great Ouse which collects water from the whole fen. The fens are drained now: at this point the land is actually below sea level and indeed the level of the river (which is contained behind high banks) and need to be continually pumped out to prevent it filling up again. The hellacious A10 takes most of the traffic heading north into Norfolk, and with zero settlements or junctions Ten Mile Bank is always laid-back riding through scattered farms strung out along the river.

I still had the wind to contend with - but I made good time over the dead-level land. I was slightly alarmed by a fellow wishing me "good evening!" from a passing van - but it was still before 4. I think it was a Norfolk joke.

Tiny footbridge in the Fens
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Marching away to the horizon. It's an eerie landscape, and a bit bleak on an overcast day
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Ten Mile Bank. This is a rare stretch where the road is actually above the river and hence you can see it - typically it's sunk below.
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Pumping out the fen
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This is a neat place to sit
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Ten Mile Bank is a great route into Norfolk - I wouldn't even consider riding on the main King's Lynn road (A10) - and my spirits lifted as the sun broke through and I pushed through the wind to reach Denver sluice some time after 4. Denver is a complex of locks and channels where the natural river, the Great Ouse, meets the artificial drainage canals of the New Bedford River (so called because it was dug by the Earl of Bedford in the Renaissance era). These channels drained a vast area of fen, creating some of the most fertile farmland in the country. At Denver, all the water pumped off the land is channelled into the Ouse which then flows straight in its canalized course to empty into the North Sea at Lynn.

The resulting fens are flat, open and sparsely populated, and so make for a tricky place to camp. My plan was to head to the only town of any size in the area, Downham Market, to pick up some provisions, before heading to the edge of the fenland where there would be some woodland and a little topography for easier concealed camping.

Converted windmill just outside Denver
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What weird looking cows ... no, they're llamas!
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A sight for sore eyes: finally reaching Downham Market and it was getting dusky
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It being Sunday afternoon (and Norfolk), there were no shops open in Downham itself. I had info that the petrol station on the road north, which I was headed for anyway, would be open - but alas it didn't sell beer, which was my main objective. I satisfied myself with a fizzy drink and continued on towards Runcton. To my amazement in the little village of Wimbotsham I found an open corner shop and gratefully stocked up on beer and supplies while the shopkeeper's young children ran in and out of the shop playing with the village kids.

I was really flagging now as I turned East to pull the last 10km off the fen. 100km down, very windblown, and exhausted by the muddy trails all morning, I was losing light fast and getting a bit concerned. To cap it all, running through my inventory in my head I'd realised I'd left all my washstuff - no toothbrush! - behind; and more seriously, all my cheese in the fridge. Curses!

I crossed the two main roads (A10 and A134) that converge on Lynn and continued into the charming village of Shouldham. North of here, between Shouldham and Winch, is an extensive area of woods and lakes surrounding the river Nar, riven with footpaths and bridleways. My original plan was to cross the Nar and camp in some obscure woods on that side; but when I spun into the big, open pine forest of Shouldham warren, I decided it was an ideal place to stop.

There were just a few mountain bikers zipping around in the gathering dusk. I left them behind and struck for the centre of the warren, which covers a (for Norfolk) prominent hill. Once over the brow I found a perfect little flat glade, in which I collapsed and sat a while, sipping Guinness and waiting to see if anyone was still around to disturb my camp. At one point a couple of mountain bikers rode by with their lights picking out the trail, but sitting still in the shade of the trees in dark colours I don't think they had any idea I was there.

Coming into Shouldham. I was really pleased to see trees and a not-totally-flat landscape
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Collapsing in the woods. My body was in much the same attitude.
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Perfect timing, as the sun is just going down
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I saw nobody else, so got the tent up in the last of the light and enjoyed the pre-cooked pizza I'd transported for the last day. Then I was in the tent and ready to sleep by about 8.30.

Today's ride: 109 km (68 miles)
Total: 109 km (68 miles)

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