Tasting the invincible summer
Last summer leaving Britain seemed difficult and imprudent. We weren’t minded to compete for accommodation in Britain’s newly popular seaside resorts. Instead we took to the road for three weeks, looping through East Anglia, getting as far as Kings Lynn before turning for home. This year we were keen to continue north, though time commitments hemmed us in.
Probably from reading The Hobbit at nine: I like my bike journeys to start from my front door. I was heading for Farokh’s farm in Buckinghamshire, wondering whether I was up to driving my fully-loaded new tour bike over the Chilterns, but excited at what its Cytronex hub motor would make possible.
The superb cycle.travel journey planner proposed a squirrelly route through Hendon’s unfamiliar back streets and out of London. But it was early on a Sunday morning and I wanted a bold start, not a map check every three street corners. I climbed out of Hampstead, through West Hampstead, onto Shooters Hill, and turned north up the A5.
The Flying Gate, fully loaded
This was the first time I had ridden my new Flying Gate touring bike loaded. It seemed immensely heavy, and the handling clumsy with small panniers on the front fork. I was particularly nervous where the A5’s asphalt had been broken up by heavy lorries.
A ten-mile slog up Watling Street took me across the North Circular and the M1 near Elstree. I was surprised to find people travelling on foot on the cycle path beside the A41. Three lumpy miles along the A road, then a wiggle into Watford’s pedestrianised High Street for a coffee and croissant at Café Bianco. Fifteen miles, just about clear of London’s gravity, and the journey a quarter done.
At the Queen’s Head
Across Rickmansworth Rd and Cassiobury Drive led me at last to country lanes to cross the M25 at Chandler’s Cross. Then it was all lanes until I discovered my map destination had silently switched to Chesham, where at the Queen’s Head I got a beer, a Thai lunch and a little recharge time for the bike battery. And a map reset. On to Cholesbury and Tring. At 35 miles I was keen to press on and ignored the chance of tea. Through Long Marston to Wingrave, which advertised cream teas in the churchyard from 3pm – but they were not to be found. And that was it: a straight shot from there through Aston Abbotts, Stewkley and Mursley to Great Horwood and tea in Farokh’s kitchen.
Nick drove up from Hove.
Leaving Bywater Meadow
Cool, with rain blowing in from the west. We waited for the storm to pass before we set out. Milton Keynes is richly endowed with good cycle paths but navigating them can be a pain for a stranger, so we rode straight north, fiddled our way across the A5 at Old Stratford to join NCR6 at Castlethorpe. Quite a fast busy road for the NCN (National Cycle Network); through Wootton to the Northampton Ring Road. Here we stopped at a Waitrose to buy fixings for our dinner and decide how to cross Northampton.
My previous visit had taken me to the city centre, where I stayed overnight. On this trip we needed to pass halfway round the city to leave NNE on NCR6. Nick favoured plugging north through the city centre, guided by sun and compass. Less sanguine about navigating heavy touring bikes through the city centre, I persuaded him to let me negotiate a path round the city using the maze of cycle paths, though it appeared it would require frequent frustrating stops to check the turns.
But it didn’t. We found ourselves on the ‘Norbital’, a well-signed circular route around the city, much of it shaded and through wood and parklands, and with controlled crossings of the major roads. At Kings Heath we left it to follow NCR6 again along the Brampton Valley Way, a converted railway line that runs to Market Harborough.
It’s traffic free. It climbs gently to the ridge at Great Oxendon, which it cuts through in a tunnel. It should have been a delight to ride, but for the most part the surface is suitable only for mountain bikes. It is a disgrace that paths like this form any part of a national cycle network. The early evening light was golden, the views rich, but staying safe on the track’s surface demanded all my attention. Tired and shaken, we turned off gratefully at Great Oxenden to stay at Country Bumpkin Yurts.
It is a disgrace that paths like this form any part of a national cycle network.
Manager Jen was surprised to get a last-minute inquiry from two cyclists – the site is set up as a romantic glamping getaway – but took us as it was otherwise empty, and we enjoyed hot showers and use of a kitchen. The couple who own the land let out their two border collies to make our acquaintance; they were accompanied by a lamb that then herded the dogs inside.
The low-traffic route into Market Harborough included a 30mph descent. Half exhilarated, half frightened, we found our way to outdoor seating in the market square for the Fifty Three bar, which offered breakfast. “What’ll you have?” I prompted Nick, who replied “English Breakfast”. At the bar I ordered one for each of us. Their arrival surprised Nick, who had wanted only a cup of tea. But the Full Englishes disappeared easily; we must have burned 3-4,000 calories each the previous day.
On my previous visit NCR6 had annoyed me so much that after riding it here from Northampton I rode to the railway station and went home. Showers and company no doubt softened me this time. (Perhaps too help from the Cytronex on the gravel track.) We rode to the railway station and turned north up NCR64 on delightfully quiet roads. At Welham we left the valley of the Welland and cut into the Leicestershire Wolds.
We had been asked why we planned to ride in the East Midlands, since it was all flat. Well, the fenlands are genuinely flat, but what we had crossed so far was rolling and beautiful – and no one wants to storm hills on a loaded touring bike.
The Leicestershire Wolds are another matter. Not high, but with wicked gradients. A dream for roadies, which would be why it boasts the Café Ventoux just outside tiny Tugby. A fun and challenging low-traffic ride on a road bike; utterly inappropriate as part of a national cycling network. I was feeling more comfortable now with the bike’s handling, and had shifted some weight from front to back, but swooping a heavy bike down a steep hill to a 90° turn is not for the faint-hearted.
In the Leicestershire Wolds
Part of my interest in the area comes from reading Peter Hamilton’s novel Mindstar Rising, some of which is set at Launde Abbey. Then there was Thomas Cromwell’s intention to retire there. Hard to say why I like the place so well; perhaps it is simply one of the Sweet Spots on the Earth, of which more later.
We read maps and nerved ourselves for the remaining hills.
At Launde Abbey
We hacked our way over more sawtooth hills and descended thankfully into Melton Mowbray on one of Leicestershire’s wonderful gated roads.
After a restorative pint at the Anne of Cleves we were up for baths and beds and found them at the Quorn Lodge Hotel, an old-fashioned country hotel, where Truda made us very welcome and locked our bikes in the gym for the night. We cleaned up, returned to the Anne of Cleeves for dinner, and turned in.
In Melton Mowbray
After breakfast we had business at Dickinson & Morris, Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe. Nick went in to scout and returned to stow a round pie carefully in his pannier. NCR64 continues NE from Melton Mowbray to revel in more of the Wolds. We peeled warily off to find our own way on minor roads through rolling country: Harby, Barnstone, and Whatton-in-the-Vale. We crossed the River Smite and the Nottingham-Grantham railway at Aslockton. A sign declared: Aslockton/Birthplace of Archbishop Cranmer/Please drive carefully. We wouldn’t want the archbishop’s birthplace damaged by careless driving? Or is his spirit still around, watching for bad drivers?
Quiet roads and a converted (and surfaced!) railway line brought us to the Newark North Gate railway station, where we rested in the shelter at the taxi stand. North Gate took us to the centre of town, past an M&S Food, where we bought dinner provisions. I ducked in after Nick to refill my bonk bag with nuts and dried fruit. To my astonishment, right by the entrance, a rack of snacks – nuts and dried fruit. But I had been rereading The Undercover Economist and its descriptions of how businesses get higher prices from those who don’t mind paying them. I pushed further into the store and found the same or similar snacks at lower prices.
In our ignorance, we had supposed Newark-on-Trent a fading industrial town. But around its market square its mediaeval heart is charming. I stopped at a second-hand bookstore to see what Sir N. Dipity might have for me, and emerged with Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines and a collection of short pieces by Laurie Lee, I Can’t Stay Long. Camped that night at Smeatons Lakes besides the River Trent, the wind bringing us whiffs from the adjacent British Sugar processing plant. We munched Dickinson’s pork pie in the early evening sunlight.
— Those supermarkets that sell ‘Melton Mowbray’ pork pies?
— They‘re lying bastards.
— That horse you gave an apple?
— It was nibbling your saddlebag. I moved your bike.
Back into town the next morning to sneak a flat white in the market square while Nick catches some more sleep. He hasn’t been sleeping well in camp and a succession of poor nights will undermine him. I spot my first loaf of Lincolnshire Plumbread. Also, outside a tattoo parlour, a bike with a rousing message on the rear wheel stay.
Back on NCR64 and quiet roads to Lincoln, 20 miles away, the last five on a former railway track that again takes us right into the heart of the city. We’re to meet Miki here but she has been delayed, so we set off for the cathedral and push our bikes up the incredibly steep High Street until we are, well, incredibly high above the otherwise flat countryside. Nick goes to visit the cathedral while I revive outside the cathedral gate with a cone of Blyton’s ice cream, then an ale at the Magna Carta.
Which is where Miki finds us. We buy tickets to inspect the half-open cathedral and I try translating epitaphs from Latin. As usual the signs for tourists are silent about what we are most curious about. Lincoln looks worth a longer visit, another time. We head out, now on NCR1, and after I manage to lose my way (NCN signposting has much room for improvement) we find our way to Market Rasen. Rain threatens and I urge the attractions of the Advocates Arms but democracy prevails. We raid Tesco for dinner and make a fine camp at Walesby Woodlands Caravan Park and get to know our neighbour, who has been living there since he retired and sold his house eight years ago. The threatened rain holds off.
Waking early I make a quick foray back to town for the coffee Miki needs and that Nick & I have been avoiding travelling with. We breakfast, strike camp, and set off for Louth. Not far away but first I make navigation errors, and we struggle to avoid returning to Market Rasen. Then thundery showers find us and we dive repeatedly for shelter under ancient trees.
The rain clears and we ford a stream.
We are following the southern half of a Lost Lanes Central loop into Louth. We stop at the Black Horse in Donington-on-Bain for lunch: pheasant wrapped in bacon. Miki finds us dessert beside the road: wild cherries.
Wild child, wild cherries
Then we reach Louth and ride straight to Bacì & Co.
Louth for the mouth
The “cycle-friendly” Pack Horse on Eastgate looks rough, noisy – and full. We leave the town centre for the Beaumont Hotel, where Liz has a couple of rooms for us. Tempted by fish and chips landed in nearby Grimsby, we nevertheless keep exploring and land ourselves a fine dinner at the Montebello restaurant on Upgate.
I’m up early for a stroll around town. I drink good coffee and abandon a stale scone at the Old Larder before taking up a local shop’s offer to replace my cracked phone screen while I wait. Chance for a haircut; Cutters has no chair for me, but Hot Towels gives me the full Turkish, and I learn how Grimsby is dying, my barber’s native Scunthorpe “too busy” (code for drug dealing?) and Louth a target for migration: Kent and Sussex folk move here and work 2-3 days a week.
My phone is fixed for a fraction of what it would cost me at home. We learn we must check out at once to make way for a wedding. We rescue our bags and meet in the market square for a quick breakfast at the Auction House. I pick up a couple of loaves of plum bread and we take B roads out of town to find minor roads along the NE edge of the Wolds till we find flat country and take a break in a pub.
Skegness – we are later taught to call it ‘Skegvegas’ – is thronged with crowds offered ice cream, waffles, doughnuts, slushies, donkey rides, burgers, hot dogs, fish and chips. As a character in Tim Powers’ Last Call describes Las Vegas: It’s pure gratification – no marbling. Miki heads east across the sand to find the North Sea and look for the Jolly Sailor, who finds Skegness “So Bracing!” A squall line arrives, the crowds melt away and we retreat to a beach shelter, where Nick brings us our dinner. In the rain, eating fish and chips in a beach shelter beside a public toilet – this is the life!
And that is enough of Skegness. We head out of town, following a route for Boston, and look for a pitch in the many caravan parks at the edge of town. Eventually we find a human who can check us in: Ed welcomes us to Birchwood Fishing and we camp beside the nursery pond under a rainbow and now clear evening skies.
We need to get Miki back to London tonight for an assignment tomorrow. We’ll head for Boston, only 27 flat miles away, and consider the options. Surely we’ll be there for lunch. But the sky is blue, the sun warm and we linger over breakfast.
Eventually we’re off after a long chat with Ed, an engineer from Liverpool. Clouds gather. We try the well-reviewed Barley Mow for lunch but they’re solid. We press on through showers and roll into Boston after 3pm. The streets do not welcome cyclists; if anything the place seems actively hostile to bikes. Or maybe that’s to anyone from anywhere else. The church tower, celebrated for its views over the fens, and nicknamed ‘The Stump’, looks likes a broken tooth.
The station booking office is closed until sometime later in the summer. Online services offer no assurance Miki can take her bike on any particular train. After some time trying to get certainty, Miki is persuaded her best bet is to get her bike on a train to Grantham and see what she can do there. The train arrives, she scrambles on and we wave her off.
Nick is confident we can make another 20 miles to Holbeach, despite headwinds. Rather than look for a meal on a Sunday I make my way to a large ASDA store beside the station to buy sandwiches. “Egg salad,” suggests Nick. A young man greets me at the door: “Sorry, we’re closed.” Thank you, Boston: we got the message. We’ll manage with our bonk bags.
Crossing fenland, it’s hard to get any sense of progress. Haven’t we seen that farm before? We reach Holbeach, pick a hotel, and ask for rooms. It’s full. On a Sunday evening! We chase suggestions round town. Everyone’s full. Maybe The Crown can put us up. I walk into the bar and speak to the manager behind the bar. “Just saw your sign outside: Beer Food Accommodation – we’ll take all of it!” Turns out they can manage the beer; so we regroup outside over two halves of Wherry. The Red Lion down the road is still serving meals and maybe, just maybe, still has rooms. A call discovers they have no rooms, but we book in for dinner and call a campsite outside town to confirm we can pitch there tonight.
The Red Lion is a modernised pub; we are immediately comfortable. Rain and headwinds; I’m in a rare mood for steak – rare. They’re out of steak, but we get a decent dinner anyway and a warm welcome from Shannon, who tells me the pub no longer does rooms. I ask the manager what it would take to reverse the policy for one room for one night. He laughs and says the rooms no longer have beds, are being converted to offices. OK, I say, how about the spare room in his home. He laughs again: he lives in a 1-bedroom flat. Shannon doesn’t have a room for us either. It really is another night under canvas. I thank them both for considering it.
Miki messages to say she got home easily.
It’s dusk when we turn up at The Lawns and Lakes Camping Site but Nigel and Tracy turn out to let us in and show us a pitch close to the newly built shower block. Washing machines and power sockets – we have everything we need.
Our third day in the flat fenlands. Today Nick has the cycle.travel journey planner open and is navigating our way to Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire. We tack our way upwind through a maze of minor roads, each flanked by deep ditches, the fields on either side stretching away full of cabbages, turnips, beets. We cross the A16 south of Spalding and are excited to find ourselves climbing at last to Crowland, once an island in the marshes.
Back at the campsite Nigel had sketched out a route for us and I remember he recommended a stop at Crowland, of which I had never heard. The site had been founded in the tenth century as a hermitage, developed into an abbey as the marshes were drained over the centuries, and wound up as the region’s largest landholder, not always to the pleasure of its tenant farmers. The abbey was dissolved in 1539 and the very considerable building raided for stone over the centuries since. A sign in the car park warned thieves about surveillance, but it looked like the best was long gone.
We found lunch – and a house-hunting biologist – at the Copper Kettle tea shop, and in the crossroads in the centre of town an Escher-like three-way bridge spanning the streams now buried beneath it.
Into Peterborough, where the many bike paths test Nick’s new phone-navigation skills. Eventually we are through the city and riding trails beside the River Nene before being spilled out onto the A605 to make the best speed we can into the lowering sun until we pull off into Elton for the back road into Fotheringhay, where we check in at the Castle Farm campsite. ‘Sub-basic’ is how Miki describes this site – a field, two Portaloos, and a tap – but it lies beside a bend the River Nene and looks gorgeous in the early evening light.
John comes to take our camping fee. We pay for a night and another two for me. Nick plans to reach Great Horwood tomorrow night but I have taken some trouble to reach the Midlands and will stay another two nights. John dashes our plan to celebrate with dinner in the village at The Falcon Inn: it closes on Mondays. We take his recommendation and ride back (unloaded!) to Elton for dinner at the Black Horse, where we dine in the last light while our batteries charge inside. It’s dusk as we roll back to Fotheringhay, past St Mary’s and All Saints under the new moon.
Nick has miles ahead today so we make coffee and ride together into Oundle, where we part.
Oundle has been decorated for the Jubilee with mad knitting.
I like Oundle and hang around a bit. A cycle tourist recommends the coffee at the Coffee Tavern. The flapjack I order for my breakfast is excellent but the coffee undrinkable and I head up the road to the Beanery where I know a good flat white can be found. Long conversation about the NCN with owner Phil Gilbert, then another on education with Alison, who is in loco parentis at a summer camp in town, then head to Waitrose for fixings for a picnic lunch. It’s already late for lunch, so I read Chatwin at The Talbot over tea and a scone before riding back to Fotheringhay, where I find new campers: Sue and her dog Reggie. When they return from a short canoe trip on the Nene I slip into the river for a cooling swim. We cook our respective dinners then share them together over Sue’s G&Ts cooled in the river before turning in.
I’m up, fuelled on coffee and porage, and on the road before Sue and Reggie are stirring. That despite a long comedy hunt for the keys to my bike lock, which I eventually find in Here They Were All The Time. Today I’m following a Lost Lanes Central route back into the Leicester Wolds to Rutland Water, also featured in Peter Hamilton’s novels. Unloaded, and helped by the Cytronex, I enjoy the hilly ride. At Harringworth I cross a tributary of the Welland and enter Rutland beside a celebrated viaduct.
The Horse & Jockey at Manton serves me a beer and – eh? – a slice of Victoria Sponge Cake and I set off on the circular route around Rutland Water. Even without a load I find the surface a deterrent. It improves near the Hambleton peninsula, then turns into smooth 3-metre-wide asphalt for 2-3 miles beside the A606, before reverting to rough gravel. My Sustrans map shows the good surface as NCR63, but what’s that about? You can’t have fragments of a national cycle route any more than you can have fragments of a motorway. Eventually I reach the huge earth dam that holds Rutland Water. The good surface resumes and persists to Normanton Church, now dedicated to the Drowned God.
You can’t have fragments of a national cycle route any more than you can have fragments of a motorway.
Eventually I reach the huge earth dam that holds Rutland Water. The good surface resumes and persists to Normanton Church, now dedicated to the Drowned God.
Leaving the Water at Edith Weston I get lunch at The Wheatsheaf, where I am interrogated about my bike by a toddler, clearly a scientist in the making. A chain of pretty villages: North and South Luffenden, Barrowden, and Wakerley, then I get disoriented in Fineshade Wood before finding the footpath into Kings Cliffe from where a swoop through Apethorpe takes me to the door of Ellie’s Vintage Tea Room in Nassington. Which will open tomorrow. Another time, then. Back to Fotheringhay.
The Falcon Inn is open and Laura happy to pull me a pint of Sunchaser and book me in for dinner. I return to camp and am touched to find a can of G&T from Sue parked by my tent. I wash – or rather, swim in the river, watched by a fisherman and return to the inn for what turns out to be a spectacular dinner.
Maddy & Zak took on the pub in December 2019, and have kept going despite the pandemic. The à la carte menu looked ambitious but, hey, I’m celebrating the end of my tour. The risk is rewarded. My dinner starts with cured, fatty grilled mackerel, a smoked mackerel paté, sharp gooseberry jam and sweet apple purée. The BBQ pork ribeye is softened with torched apricots and aromatic with pistachios, lavender from the garden outside and – a touch of cumin? My dessert is a masterpiece: a panna cotta flavoured with elderflower foraged from the road to my campsite, served with torched honeycomb, fresh local strawberries, and finely diced cucumber soaked in gin and vacuum pressed – Pimms N°1 Cup as pud. I’m awestruck, and incautiously order an espresso to finish, and that too is excellent. I waddle back to camp, sorry only that I must brush my teeth before turning in.
The plan was breakfast at the Beanery then a train home from Peterborough. But we’re done here – and why trail back through Peterborough when I have ample time to ride somewhere smaller to pick up a train? I breakfast over the Trangia stove on coffee and the last of Nick’s porage. Panniers packed for one last time and we’re rolling across the bridge over the Nene and into Warmington. The map shows a ‘fragment’ of NCR53, which leads me on to Little Gidding, where Miki and I again walked the pilgrimage in May. I suspect the Ferrar house there of being another of the Earth’s sweet spots.
In the car park I discover three vintage touring bikes: a Roberts, what looks like a 90s Dawes Galaxy, and a Raleigh knock-off of a Galaxy. The riders, wrinklies like me, are local and out visiting churches. They are excited to see a Flying Gate on the road and ask if it was made by Liz Colebrook. I explain how she has now passed the T.J. Cycles business on to Chris Yeomans, who made my frame. They leave and I spend a while on a bench soaking in the view.
At Little Gidding
I’m now off the Sustrans printed map and relying on the journey planner as I shadow the A1 to Alconbury and its huge US Air Force, sorry RAF, base and on into Huntingdon. I have good memories of getting lunch in the town with Miki, riding from Cambridge to Bedford, but decide first to check my travel at the railway station.
There I find a London train will depart in ten minutes, my ticket will cost me £27 and the bike can travel with me.
London is hot, the house is empty and Miki won’t be home to let me in for a while. Two streets over from St Pancras the Albertini restaurant has tables outside shaded by trees. My bike watches me eat linguine vongole con pesto.
After long days on the road, empty fields, poplars by the river, morning torrents of birdsong, hours between conversations – London is noisy and sudden.
I need to protect the quiet that has pooled within me: the invincible summer.