Three Roman Roads - Tour displacement therapy - CycleBlaze

Three Roman Roads

and finally the middle of Cambridge

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Another weekend, and after a week of rains the forecast looked good again, and I thought it was time for another fairly ambitious ride. When I lived in South Cambridgeshire I would make up for the slightly flatter and less interesting terrain by taking advantage of the impressively unbroken green lanes that follow two major roman roads in the area. 

The first is Ashwell Street, which is probably not the Roman name but does apply to a stretch of the (older) Icknield way adopted by the Romans, and runs from Ashwell at the tip of Hertfordshire all the way to Royston. Royston is medieval town, also associated with the Knights Templar, that was established at the crossroads of this ancient way and the other major Roman highway we've met before, Ermine Street, which runs north towards Godmanchester. The third is Worsted Street, an unofficial name but also a genuine minor Roman road, that runs from Linton in the East of Cambridgeshire down towards Cambridge itself. 

The downside is that both are now significantly further away from my necessary home hub on the East side of Bedfordshire, and both converge on Cambridge. With a long loop I could take in two of the roads, but the shortest way back would then be to come through central Cambridge. Not a problem at normal times - indeed, bike is by far the best way to get about the twisty and congested streets of the old city. But this would be the first time I'd set foot in a city proper for six weeks, and I wondered whether (i) I'd be stopped at any point and (ii) I could maintain suitable distancing. I figured that as long as I didn't stop, it could be no worse than Hitchin or Letchworth.

My first step was to again to get to Ashwell, where unsurprisingly you can pick up Ashwell Street. Since I'd done this stretch repeatedly I decided to mix things up a bit, taking the "main" road out of Potton to cover it a bit faster than usual, and then ducking down into the vale and Hertfordshire via a bridleway I'd driven past many times, but never actually used, in the hamlet of Millow.

Yep, it's going to be another nice one
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Picking up the "main" road out of Potton towards Dunton. It was totally empty, apart from a couple of cycling families. Despite it being a fairly minor road, it's very bendy and people tend to drive it at the full 60mph, so I usually avoid it in normal times.
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The curious bridleway in Millow lead past this rather grand farmhouse
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Coming down into the vale and Hertfordshire
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Nice pattern of fluffy clouds
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There was still some evidence of the rain we'd had in the week in the muddier parts of the byway that continues on to Ashwell
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I skipped over the corner of the village, passed the big (caravans only!) campsite, which was fairly thoroughly sealed up, and quickly picked up the very broad green lane which runs straight as a die out into the Cambridgeshire countryside. My initial concerns that the surface could be still be wet - it can be quite the slog if its muddy - were soon dispelled, and I found myself spinning along with a good pace. There were one or two people walking the lane, but it certainly couldn't be described as busy. 

The entrance to the Roman road in Ashwell
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Caravan camping site, very thoroughly closed up at the moment
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There was the odd puddle, but generally the surface was very good. Lovely! I'm not sure if those are insects (closer) or birds (further away) on the right.
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The green lane is much wider and straighter than you'd expect for a normal byway, which is one indication that it's been a highway for thousands rather than hundreds of years, and the surrounding agriculture has never been allowed to eat into it.
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I was tempted, but it was a bit early to stop
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Interesting wooden barns as the lane crosses the modern road near Litlington...
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...which turn out to be full of displays of fine chinaware
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I crossed the road near the village of Litlington, continued down the lane past some rather isolated farmhouses, the picked up Ashwell Street once more. I am always surprised by just how little populated this part of Cambridgeshire is - interestingly, there are actually fewer villages now than there were in medieval times, with villages such as Clopton which are now replaced with farmland. As I passed near Bassingbourn, an extended family were working to patch the surface of the byway - which seemed like an odd priority in the middle of the lockdown, but I can't say I'm not thankful for the maintenance of the surface.

Not only did the clouds look very pretty, they also gave me some respite from the sun, which was otherwise intense
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This part of Cambridgeshire still rolls, at least a bit
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Enthusiastic banner in even out the way places
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Putting my mudguards to the test
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Back onto the green lanes
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These are "restricted" byways, which means that you can in theory drive motor vehicles on them in some parts of the year. The rules are pretty complicated though and they tend to be closed by gates, so aren't as popular with the quad-bike crowd and usually are less churned up.
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I like the shadow of the clouds here and the linear ploughing. You can definitely see it getting flatter, until you get to the high ground above Royston back in Hertfordshire in the distance.
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Particularly massive dunghills along the way
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The last stretch, between Bassingbourn and Melbourn, becomes stony and a little hillier
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Emerging near Melbourn, I crossed the still-busy A10, and continued up through the village. Melbourn & Meldreth are large and prosperous villages just outside Royston and straddling the river Mel, now a rather tiny trickle but once large enough to power several water mills. We lived in Melbourn for a couple years after first moving to Cambridgeshire, and it's a very agreeable place, though the scenery isn't quite as nice as in Bedfordshire.

Coming up through Melbourn high street
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Past solid old farmhouses
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...and this very impressive row of thatched alms houses. While some details of their history is printed on an attached plaque, I managed to fail to photograph this, so I'd be guessing if I stated their age. To make up for this oversight I have do have an anecdote about the time I attended a Saxon "re-burial" in the village. Melbourn is very old, and there's evidence of a village and Christian worship dating back over a thousand years to the seventh century. Lots of archaeological work has turned up old bones (typically when new houses are being put up) and the council decided that when they'd finished with them, they should be re-buried with a special ceremony. This drew quite a crowd, and unfortunately the pressure must have gotten to the mayor, who - and this genuinely elicited a gasp - managed to drop the casket at the critical moment, spilling bones everywhere. It was a bit awkward.
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Incongruously, Melbourn also contains a pretty big Science park, a kind of light industrial estate on the grounds of an old manor. Ironically I've been doing quite a bit of work here in the last year - when I lived in the village, I didn't need to go there once!
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From Melbourn, the plan was to cut across South Cambridgeshire to reach the border of Essex, where I could pick up a good remote track to take me to Linton  and the next Roman Road. These lanes are pretty familiar to me from my time living in the area, and took me through a series of pretty and rather gentrified villages, before crossing our old friend the A505, which runs East here into Essex and climbing up beyond the big aerodrome at Duxford, which is now a major aviation museum.

The very narrow back lane to Fowlmere. This on paper is the perfect cycleway, but is marred by the annoying propensity for cars to use it as a rat-run between the villages (the A10 is less than a kilometre away, so I've never really figured out why they do this). Actually they're very courteous, but it's too narrow for them even to pass a bike, and it gets so awkward when they have to follow you for a mile or more that you tend to have to pull over and let them by.
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Believe it or not it's actually somewhat traditional to paint your thatched cottage this colour
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Centre of Fowlmere
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Coming down to cross the straight and fast A505 near a place called Flint Cross. I tend to avoid cycling this road, so here is a good place to cross it without too much bother.
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Glimpses of the aerodrome at Duxford in the distance
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This is a much better back road - though I did see a couple of cars, which stands in contrast to Bedfordshire, where this sort of back road would have been entirely deserted.
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Interestingly, there were lots of idle planes belonging to airlines at the aerodrome. With the virus situation it would make sense for a lot of them to be grounded, but I did wonder if they were being used for some kind of special purpose in the interim.
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The big hangars at Duxford. This is all a museum of aviation now, with lots of airshows of vintage aircraft and the like. If you don't want to pay for a ticket, you can get quite a good view from here.
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Beyond this I'd cross the main London-Cambridge road, the M11, and pass into the chain of very prosperous villages south of Cambridge and surrounding the biotechnology cluster at the EMBL in Hinxton that I'd navigated in the other direction in my four county run from Hertfordshire. I had a better idea of which routes would be busier, this time, and planned to stick close to the Hexcel composites factory before slipping down (what are technically footpaths) to Ickleton, and then to the Essex border at Great Chesterford. This time my camera was working, so I could actually capture some pictures.

I'd seen a surprising number of people walking the lanes, and as I approached the motorway a particularly jolly chap indicated that I should "take a right!" onto it for the quickest route - it's good to see lockdown hasn't diminished the general sense of humour!

Crossing the remarkably empty M11 near Duxford. It looks like I could have actually ridden on it today, but decided against it.
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The huge composites factory, rather incongruously positioned between the very quaint little villages of Duxford and Hinxton
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Some very thorough ploughing in this field
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I slipped down some tiny paths between the villages in order to avoid the crowded official cycleway
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Tiny chapel near Ickleton
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There wouldn't be a sign if there hadn't been a problem...
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The very old, and still rather impressive, 11th-12th century church of St Mary Magdalene in Ickleton.
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Ickleton in general is an ancient place: on the right is Norman hall, which is 15th century, and there are apparently remains of a Roman villa near the church.
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Another county, another type of village sign: these tall, metal signs with elaborate symbols are very typical of Cambridgeshire
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Huge old manor house near the centre of the village - this near to Cambridge, a place like this would certainly set you back a couple of million quid
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It wasn't far to the border with Essex. The emblem on the sign is the distinctive curved Saxon sword, which is associated with the county.
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Crossing under the minor Cambridge-Stansted rail line
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I passed quickly through the small town of Great Chesterford just over the border in Essex, to pick up the off-road route that would take me into East Cambridgeshire and Linton.

It's remarkable how over such a relatively short distance the stone used in the local walls and architecture changes. There's lots of flint around these parts.
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Nice top-heavy old house in Great Chesterford
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A very flinty school
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The pubs have repurposed their signs for community announcements
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This is a very curious house - I'm still trying to work out what it used to be...
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From here I could cross the B road and pick up Cow Lane. I'd used this as a way to East Cambridgeshire on a few occasions - it's very pretty and pleasingly hilly. What I'd forgotten was very steep and challenging the surface could be. As I left the few walkers behind, the trail became steeper, narrowing and looser...

At first it's a tarmaced farm road leading up into the hills
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Pretty idyllic riding
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Then it becomes a very pleasant green lane
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...which narrows to a small track, but still rideable
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But after a while, diminishes to this very steep and stony way, which is actually a stream in winter. This did necessitate some pushing.
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I was relieved to emerge out into the open countryside on top of the ridge.
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Up on the ridge I was getting pretty peckish, so figured it was a nice place to stop for lunch. I sat on a woodpile and spotted quite a few people rambling about, definitely an unusual number for what is quite an obscure track.

After a 20 minute or so break I got going again - the first step was the steep, but fortunately better surfaced, descent down to the big grain storage facility at Linton. I would bypass the small town itself (apologies Alan Partridge fans, but it doesn't even have a travel tavern) and work my  way around the back, avoiding the A1307 to get to Hildersham where I could pick up the Roman road to Cambridge.

A slightly unstable place to lean the bike and sit for lunch
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The sometimes steep and stony descent back into the valley. At this point we cross back into Cambridgeshire, which extends even further east to Newmarket.
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Through the big grain storage facility near Linton - this part of East Anglia is a major grain-producing region, being relatively flat and some of the most fertile land in England. Note the special care they take about the bridleway.
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Past the giant silos, including crow-in-flight action shot.
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Doing this route before I'd always detour to go through the town itself, but it's a bit of a pain, so I was pleased I'd found this obscure back-route. It also includes a ford which, yes, I did ride through.
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Emerging onto the back road to Hildersham, another isolated house flying an NHS flag.
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From here it's easy to pick up the Roman road, sometimes (inaccurately) called Wool or Worsted Street - those names are certainly later than Roman, and it is not a proper "Street" (major Roman highway) which would have been paved levelled to high specification. It is an excellent cycleway, however, taking us almost dead straight north-west over the Gog Magog hills, the only ones in the area, to the outskirts of Cambridge.

A short stretch of Bridleway takes us across the fields to join the Roman road
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The countryside was really glowing green in the afternoon light
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Onto the Roman Road, which is not quite as dead straight and wide as Ashwell Street, and makes for fine riding
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Information board on the Roman Road. I've never done the stretch beyond Linton, as it's always been considerably further to get there and back.
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Fortunately, it's easy to cross the complex junction of the main Norwich road, the A11, over a dedicated bridge
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For most of the way the trail was empty and idyllic
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It got progressively busier as it climbs the gentle Gog Magog hills, and neared Cambridge. The hills' strange name come from a mythical giant (in turn derived from old testament tribes) that was supposed to be an ancient inhabitant of Albion (or Britain) and whose body forms the hills. A 1990 book claims that the classical city of Troy stood on the Gog Magog hills: according to Wikipedia, with classic understatement, "this is not taken seriously by scholars".
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In the last kilometre, the trail become very busy indeed, and I had to spend most of my time avoiding families on the trail and trying to keep a decent distance. The entrance was choked with parked cars, and I was glad to squeeze through and continue in the open.

It was a quick downhill, and then I'd be into the flat environs of Cambridge itself. Originally I planned to cut through the south, but I figured I'd ride up through into the old medieval town.

Emerging from the Roman road and looking down to Cambridge to the west. The huge hospital and biomedical complex to the South of the town around Addenbrookes is visible on the left.
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Bikes locked everywhere? Check. Elaborate traffic restrictions? Check. We must be coming into Cambridge.
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Big boulevards and excellent cycle infrastructure. Not all of Cambridge is medieval colleges: it's in fact the fastest growing city in the UK, and much of the extremely prosperous outskirts look like this.
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Past Academy house, another one of my intermittent workplaces
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Typically, Cambridge at this time of year would be packed with undergraduate and post-graduate students, not to mention hordes of tourists, shoppers, buskers, visitors; and the streets would have whole shoals of cyclists weaving around double-decker buses, as well as the odd unfortunate car that had managed to find its way into the centre. After the relatively peopled paths I'd seen today, I was not at all prepared for what were, for me, rather eerie scenes of an almost shut-down city.

This may look wholly unremarkable, but to me it is astonishing. I have *never* seen this road with no traffic in. One time, it took me over an hour to drive from here to the outskirts of Cambridge, less than two miles away.
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Good clocktower
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Coming into the centre of Cambridge. I know there are a few people around, but by Cambridge standards this is *empty*.
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Great St. Mary's church. Where are all the tourists?
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The market was, to my surprise, still operating, albeit much quieter than usual
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The front of Great St. Mary's
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King's college chapel
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If you go to King's, you really do believe the light shines out of it in this way
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More Kings
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The emptiest photo of King's parade that you'll ever see
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Given how empty it was, I didn't feel I'd be getting too close to people even down the tiny alleys like Senate House Passage
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I like the light on this tree. For once in Cambridge, I felt like a proper tourist gawping and taking photos of everything
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Crossing over the Cam at the Backs is a ridiculously pretty view, and normally you can't ride the bike over here as there are too many tourists on the bridge photographing the river full of punts. None of them here today.
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From here I could pick up my usual pedestrian/cycle route into the city, which cuts off large parts of the complex one-way system and cuts right through to the west of the city. Cambridge has great cycleways, and this one would lead onto bridleways that would take me deep into the countryside almost to the new town of Cambourne, where I would be in spitting distance of the Gransdens and Bedfordshire.

This huge building is part of the main university library
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Lots of posters for cultural events. Cambridge is a lovely place really: I got a bit tired of living in these kinds of cities, what with the constant ebb and flow of tourists and students, and the very expensive and somewhat substandard housing. But I sometimes miss how youthful and cosmopolitan they are.
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There are proposals to turn this route out to the west into a dedicated busway, which is being vigorously resisted in the way only the English middle class can. If one was being uncharitable, one might imagine that their protests have more to do with not wanting buses going down their street than the safety of cyclists.
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It was good to be back in the countryside though
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Crossing back over the M11
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Church in Coton
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These bridleways are surprisingly heavily used, considering their somewhat dubious surface. I passed a whole family obviously out for the day as we both puzzled over the route.
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Soon it started to feel properly rural again
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Relatively flat Cambridgeshire with nice, wide open, sky
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The crops are starting to come up with vengeance
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This was such a perfect spot I just had to stop and have a rest, and a chocolate biscuit
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Emerging near Bourne, I picked up the same route that I had taken with Caroline on our Cambridgeshire loop - since it had proven so good. I passed the farm which had been blaring out "All By Myself" the last time - fortunately, or ominously, it was quiet as the crypt this time. I emerged into Great Gransden, and picked up the familiar route back over the fields and around the woods to Hatley.

Very tall chimney pots
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Church in Caxton
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A very warm and yellow landscape in the late afternoon light
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Coming down into Great Gransden.
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I particularly like the exasperated sign about consecrated ground
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St. Bartholemew's church in Great Gransden. The tower is 14th century.
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The Gransdens really are lovely villages. They've got a nice pub too (not open).
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Crossing the comical grass airfield outside Gransden
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Through the wooden corridor back to the Hatley road
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The light was getting low as I entered the Hatley estate
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Coming out near Cockayne Hatley and looking south down into the vale and Hertfordshire. The spire in the distance...
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...is Ashwell, where we started.
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Run, little pheasant!
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For some reason, Cockayne Hatley has a "gothic" style Bedfordshire sign.
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The last descent back down to Potton. After 105km I was feeling rather more fatigued and dehydrated compared to the last time, so didn't try to top 50kph this time.
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This route took me past the Potton church of St. Mary's, which unusually is right on the outskirts of the town. This structure is 13th century, but there has been a church on the site since the 11th century (take that, Cockayne Hatley with your 1209 sign!)
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Today's ride: 107 km (66 miles)
Total: 1,105 km (686 miles)

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Mike AylingThanks for sharing another great ride with us, Jon.

Mike
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Jon AylingThanks Mike!
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1 month ago