Four county extravaganza - Tour displacement therapy - CycleBlaze

Four county extravaganza

Beds, Herts, Essex and Cambs oh my

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The fine weather looked to continue into the weekend, so I thought I'd stretch my legs for a longer ride. The inevitable phenomenon that I'd observed where I'd need to cover progressively longer distances for a satisfying ride was definitely kicking in. No more did my legs ache for days after 15km hacks down to Biggleswade and back. Perhaps over-optimistically I sketched out a 100km+ loop.

I wanted to avoid anywhere that would attract too many people, but the winds were mild, so I could pretty much pick my direction. I'd enjoyed the hilly and relatively tucked-away land of north Hertfordshire, south of Royston, on quite a few rides when we lived in the area. If I could make my way there via Ashwell, on the border, then I could continue west, avoiding the small town of Royston itself, perhaps as far as Essex. From there, re-entering Cambridgeshire would be straightforward, as there are well-established cycleways all the way to the bike-obsessed city. Of course I wanted to avoid the population centres so would then pick west, on a similar route followed with Caroline, back into Bedfordshire. It would be a four-county extravanganza!

The initial part of the route was heavily familiar to me, following the excellent quiet roads around the back of Sutton and down into the vale to Ashwell, just over the border in Herts. Sutton is a lovely village, just a little fancier than Potton, albeit with few shops and services. 

Horses in Potton
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Past the disused quarry
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The manor at Sutton was granted to John of Gaunt - the 14th century military leader, his name being the Anglicised version of Jan of Ghent in the low countries (it seems we were as bad at languages then as now). John O' Gaunt now gives his name to the golf course and the superb pub in the village. Having bigger fishes to fry - John of Gaunt founded the house of Lancaster that would view for power in England for the next hundred years - the estate was granted to a local nobleman Roger Bergoyne, using an unusual "burlesque" rhyming conveyance:

I, John of Gaunt
Do give and do grant,
To Roger Bergoyne,
And the heirs of his loins,
Both Sutton and Potton,
Until the world's rotten

All Saints church in Sutton. This is the oldest of the churches in Potton, Sutton and Dunton and was constructed sometime in the 12th century, making it something over 800 years old.
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You can clearly see the older, rougher stones where repairs have been carried out. Churches this old are generally Frankenstein's monsters to some degree, with bits being added on over the centuries. Generally the naves are the oldest part, with impressive towers added later as engineering skill and funds improved - in this case the tower is more "recent", being 15th century.
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Very fancy manor house in Sutton. Traditionally these would have been homes of the upper class (i.e. landed nobility) - this belonged, at one time, to John of Gaunt (who also gives his names to the golf course and the very good pub in the village). In England the class system was remarkably non-fluid: the upper class was inherited by birth, and could not be attained through wealth. The inverse applied too: nobles retained their name even when impoverished, and indeed it was very much frowned upon for them to earn money by trade or industry. Even today, you cannot become upper class except by marriage - even a billionaire would only be considered upper-middle class.
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The ford over the Potton brook in Sutton. I ride through this in all seasons - like the cars going through, I have to check my disc brakes afterwards!
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To the side is the amazing packhorse bridge, for both pedestrians and horses. It dates from the 14th or 15th century.
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Another traditional thatched animal on a roof: this time, it's a pig
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Leaving Sutton, I pulled up the small hills that mark the rolling edge of the Greensand and Bedfordshire, and continued south along tiny roads generally forgotten by motorists and so generally empty. Coming over the top in the hamlet of Eyeworth, I spun down into the broad vale that marks the beginning of Hertfordshire. The roads were empty of cars, but full of cyclists - I was passed by a couple of friendly lycra-clad types, and actually managed to pass a casual pootler myself.

Tumbledown barns
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It was in fact so comparatively busy with two-wheeled traffic that I was quite glad to be able to turn off onto the rougher tracks that I'd plotted out as a scenic route around the back of Ashwell (though it's not a large place, Ashwell is roughly the size of Potton and I wanted to avoid its tightly and twisty medieval streets if I could). I'd never taken this shortcut before, and despite a rather bumpy patch that almost dislodged me from the saddle, have made a note to add it to my regular routes.

Taking the dirt track west around the back of Ashwell
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Yeah, it's really nice
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After the surface improved again (it was rough going for a bit)
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I don't know if they changed the name because they wanted to remove the implication that it was a "lover's lane". Not sure this helps, to be honest.
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I snuck through the corner of Ashwell, and also immediate picked up the next track, up the slope towards the iron-age hill fort. My plan was to stick to dirt tracks all through this hilly corner of Hertforshire, right the way to the A505 Royston highway and beyond. I'd had my eye on this remarkably dense network of rights-of-way for a while now, and wanted to see how viable the route was.

The excavation of the extension out the hillside reveals how the geology has changed to solid chalk. It's so different from the sand we have just ten miles north in Bedfordshire, or the thick and sticky Cambridgeshire clay.
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Climbing up a steep little track
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Sign to the Hill Fort, with the spire of Ashwell church in the background
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Looking back down into the vale
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The iron age hill fort, Arbury Banks, is pretty ancient. Constructed by Celtic peoples some time in the 8th-5th century BCE, this is around 2,500 years old. Unfortunately it has never been fully excavated - the last time was in the 1850s - and so there is precious little to see behind the fence which encircles it. You can get a sense of what a great site for a defensive fortification this would have been, though. Some people believe this is the site of the battle of Watling Street, where Roman forces engaged and destroyed the army of the warrior queen of the Britons, Boudicca.
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I made my way around the deserted hill fort, and found myself descending the verdant hillsides on glorious, chalky surfaced and empty tracks. The views over the surrounding rolling country were great.

Chalky track along the top of the hill
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To be fair, that is actually quite a polite notice
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Looking north back into Bedfordshire
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The chalky fields were almost blindingly white in the intense sun
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Descending to the strangely named Cat Ditch, I made my way bay to the road, where I could climb the hill up to the village of Bygrave which marks the end of this rural patch of Hertfordshire and the beginning of the prosperous and growing satellite towns in the orbit of London: Baldock, Letchworth, Hitchin and Stevenage (my nominal workplace). Here I would turn to the east, to continue to track across underpopulated and hilly north Hertfordshire.

To do this I needed to cross the dual-carriageway A505, the main road linking Royston and Cambridge with these towns. This can be a major pain, but I'd discovered that a byway actually passed under the road just beyond Bygrave. Despite the proximity of the towns, Bygrave still has a very rural feel to it, emphasised by all the farm machinery about the place.

One of many things that Bygrave has in common with Antioch
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I've got a brand-new combine harvester, and I'll give you the key...
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I'm not sure what this is, but I wouldn't like to fall into it when it's operating
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Oops! Someone couldn't be bothered to pick up the dropped sack of potatoes
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St. Margaret's of Antioch turned out to be a rather dull looking building, so instead I got a photo of this grand house next door
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It was at this point that unfortunately [or fortunately, if you're sick of pictures of fields] I realised that not bothering to charge my camera for a month had drained the battery. So I don't have any more photographs of what proved to be an epic, and very beautiful, ride. I'll describe the rest of the ride and supplement it with a few borrowed photos of the places I went.

The tiny lane out the back of Bygrave took me past a patient equestrian and down towards the A505, still roaring with traffic even on this locked-down holiday. I was thankful to ride straight underneath it - I have had a hairy 10 minutes trying to cross each carriageway in turn when crossing it further up - and to pick up the tiny road, somewhat dubiously marked "private", past the giant BioGen waste-to-energy fermentor.

The BioGen waste fermentor, which converts food waste into methane (stored in the big dome) and thence to electricity. It's in the middle of nowhere, which is probably a good thing, as on a still day it can smell quite a bit.
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I had no trouble continuing on these obscure tracks, and picked up the right-of-way signs shortly after passing a farm. What followed was miles of top-notch cycling, climbing over the rolling hills towards the village of Wallington.

After Wallington I took the back roads through the very quiet villages of this part of Hertfordshire to Sandon. After a brief tussle with my camera, which kept trying to extend the lens and then die - I was concerned the exposed lens would get damaged rattling around in my bar bag - I managed to get the battery out as everything was shut down and pack it away for good.  Sandon is a dispersed village, with very large grand houses around a huge village green. It was very quiet indeed, with big rainbow murals and signs of support for the NHS and key workers chalked on the roads.

After Sandon I picked up a long off-road trail following the Icknield way. This is an ancient (pre-Roman) route running along the chalk escarpment of the down between Norfolk and Dorset - it is thought to be the oldest road in Britain of which the route can still be traced today, and is named after the Icenii tribe, of which the previously-mentioned Boudicca was queen.

After passing more equestrians I  spotted a secluded bluebell wood, Hawkins wood, which looked like a good isolated spot for a bite of lunch. 

I did actually manage to find a photo of Hawkin's wood looking very similar to when I visited - thanks HertsWildlifeTrust.org.uk
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I sat on a tree stump and ate my sandwich, and amused myself by eavesdropping on the (surprisingly frequent - under normal conditions I'd expect this obscure place to be deserted) passersby also cycling the lane. One teenage son was telling his mother in ingeniously descriptive detail the aftermath of an explosion of a bottle of milk accidentally left to ferment in the sun: "Mum, mum, the cap, we eventually found that right across the room!". Everyone loves an exploding foodstuff story.

Despite the beauty of the place, I thought it best not to linger too long, and continued on the track to come out near Chapel green. Here I could make my way up the back-roads to meet the A10, the Hertford-Royston road and also part of Roman Ermine Street.

Crossing the A10 near the unusual highway diner. Photo from Geograph. When I was there, there was just a solitary motorbiker outside.
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After crossing into the little village of Reed, I picked up a really great bridleway through extensive hilly lands up on the heath above Royston. As I've remarked somewhere else in this journal, this is very near where we cross the zero-degree longitude of the Greenwich meridian, and the heathland I was crossing is actually the highest ground, if you were to keep following the meridian north, until you get to the North Pole. In practice it's only about 150m above sea level - but that's higher than any of Cambridge or the fens (and of course the North and Arctic sea) until you get to Siberia. 

The tracks were really well signed and maintained, with lots of little information boards - massive kudos to the landowner for making this effort. As I entered a patch of woodland, I was amazed to see a herd of deer crossing galloping across the field away from me. And not only were they fine large animals, two or three out of the dozen were albino, white animals. This can't be the same ones I've seen around Bedfordshire - there must be several groups of these strange, ghostly creatures around. No camera though! 

I'd originally plotted a route that would descend to Royston and from there home via Cambridgeshire from here: but given my twin concerns of avoiding centres of population and really thoroughly tiring myself out, my extended route continued east towards Essex. Essex is a strange county: in popular imagination it's inextricable associated with the suburbia and towns east of London, and, rather unfairly, with a bit of a cultural void. In the general mind it is low lying, abuts the Thames estuary, and has an unfortunate "Estuary" English accent attached. But Essex has a big hinterland, stretching almost all the way to Cambridge, through hilly and verdant countryside to places like Saffron Walden. Not many outsiders are really aware of this side of Essex. 

I passed into Essex after another long off-road section around the village of Nuthampsted - and then turned to the north on the small roads up towards Chrishall. The wind was behind me now, and I made great progress. From Chrishall I could cut off-road again through Elmdon to Strethall. 

At Stethall I joined a glorious back-road that would take me all the way down the hills to the valley of the Cam, losing 120m worth of height from the hills of Essex and entering Cambridgeshire at the village of Ickleton. I was overtaken repeatedly by road cyclists flying along this established cycling route - I got up some speed myself, but didn't much break 40kph.

Another geograph picture of the descent from the hills of Essex into the Cam valley near Ickleton
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Crossing over the quiet M11 motorway and popping out in Ickleton, I suddenly found myself surrounded by daytripping cyclists out on the signed route south of Cambridge. I'd planned to follow this through the small villages, but after seeing how many there were (and dealing with the really, really ultra-polite traffic on Ickleton high-street) I plumped for taking some obscure tracks over the fields. 

Ickleton is a large village of typical quaintness for the area, but has a very prosperous and gentrified vibe due to the proximity of Cambridge. You're much more likely to be able to buy organic vegetables here than get your car fixed. Pictured is the 15th century Normal Hall, from wikipedia.
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In this way I avoided Hinxton, a characteristically cosy village which incongruously is the site of the huge European Laboratory of Molecular Biology (EMBL) at Hinxton hall. I've done quite a bit of work at this enormous site, which is almost a university in itself. Despite its high-tech lure (and generally describing itself as being "in Cambridge") it's a good ten miles out of the city and retains the rural standard of public transport, having no train or good bus service.

Instead I found myself around the back of the giant Hexcel composites factory near Duxford. Apparently a "world leading manufacturer of carbon fibre and other composites", this really is a huge site, quite hidden away from the surrounding villages. Within a few short miles I'd truly passed from a very rural corner of Essex to the high-tech boom town orbit of Cambridge.

The huge composites factory at Duxford. Photo thanks to "The Manufacturer"
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From here I crossed my old friend the A505 again, this time in greatly reduced form and heading east into Suffolk, and continued something of a slog up the busier roads towards the Shelfords through the prosperous flat lands of South Cambridgeshire. I was repeatedly overtaken by roadies in lycra, though some of them actually waved or said hello. I finished my second litre of water - it really was hot - waiting for the level crossing on the Cambridge mainline outside Little Shelford - the land here is so flat that most of the rail crossings are at grade, leading to some hellaciously congested level crossings as trains tend to pass every 5-10 minutes at peak times.

I was pretty grateful to get to Harston, via Hauxton, and to pick up the lovely off-road route to the third "H" village, Haslingfield. This is the reverse of my original Cambridge loop, and is very familiar to me. In Haslingfield I would continue to reverse this, pushing up to Harlton before crossing the Cambridge-Sandy road and continuing to Little Eversden.

Yes, the same Little Eversden as I'd visited the day before. I was going to trace much the same route back, but instead of continuing through Bourn, I was going to explore an intriguing byway I had spotted the day before, leading to a place hilariously and evocatively named on the map as Oliver Cromwell's Hole.

And you know what? Oliver Cromwell's hole turned out to be a delight. I was taken aback as to how aesthetically pleasing Oliver Cromwell's hole turned out to be. 

Childish double-entendres aside, I really have no idea why it's called Oliver Cromwell's Hole!
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This turned out to be a great route to cut back to the west. I could cross the Ermine Street and immediately dive back into the dirt byways. The surface got rather worse for this stretch, and I also made a navigation error that got me told I was going the wrong way by a farmer's wife walking her dog (sorry!). But soon I could pick up more familiar routes heading down past Palmer's wood, into a great triangle of unpopulated land networked with bridleways.

I emerged back at East Hatley, then took a route I'd never tried before directly back towards Cockayne Hatley. Crossing into Bedfordshire the views were superb, and I passed a couple of walkers who greeted me with great enthusiasm about the quality of the day and the route.

Rather drained, I pedaled up past the water tower, and was soon cruising (slowly) back into Potton. I had drunk all 3 litres of water I'd carried, and was pretty exhausted after 100+ km and four counties.

Today's ride: 104 km (65 miles)
Total: 725 km (450 miles)

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Scott AndersonEpic ride! What a shame your battery died mid-epic, and before the deer encounter. How are those chalky paths to bike on when they get wet? Seems like they would cake up and make a mess.

And presumably in Harston, Haslingfield and Hauxton, hurricanes hardly ever happen either?
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2 months ago
Jon AylingTo Scott AndersonThanks Scott! Yep, I'm always terribly lax with charging devices - as a consequence, I tend to go for things that don't need to be charged for weeks, then forget to charge them for even longer periods, and am then terribly surprised when they drop out unexpectedly. The chalk is surprisingly ok - it's very permeable and well-draining, though it can get slippery. The real killer is the Cambridgeshire clay - there have been times when I've managed to get so much stuck on the tyres it's locked up the wheels, and I've had to spend a muddy few minutes digging it out with a stick - and that's without mudguards!

Happen to be few hurricanes in Harston and Hauxton, but Histon and Hinxton have heavy hail haphazardly.
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2 months ago