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Ups and Downs of Cycling Alone by Martin Webster

Club cycling can be great fun and has many practical advantages. But it was as a result of seeking out new routes for club rides that I discovered the rewards and also the hazards of riding alone.

The rewards go beyond having to learn how to map read and be self reliant in the face of punctures in the back of beyond. When cycling in a group, one's immediate environment is, from the psychological point of view, one's companions. Thus the places through which one travels and the occasional chance encounters with strangers along the way do not leave the impression good or bad they merit.

Never was this better demonstrated to me than on the Friday before the 2005 Whit weekend, on what ended up being a 125 mile ride to visit an old friend of mine who lives in Garboldisharn (savoured by locals as "Garblesham") just over the Suffolk border into Norfolk. We had agreed to meet as usual at The White Horse in Thelnetham, one of Garboldisham's outlying hamlets, but at the later than usual time of 7.00 pm. I had been given a digital camera and wanted to capture for other eyes some of the places along my route which my mind's eye can "click" on in a trice and often does. I have four distinct routes to Garboldisham. The one I used on the day in question, which I have refined over ten years and which I now know well enough not to have to consult maps, is 114 miles and is perhaps the most scenic and certainly the most hilly.

Without mishaps, and inclusive of stops for refreshment, it normally takes me about 10.5 hours. But this time there was a mishap, as I will soon relate. I left Roehampton at 4.15 am and crossed London via Hammersmith, Kensington, Paddington, Camden, Holloway, Tottenharn and Walthamstow (with a lucky pic of a heron fishing at the side of a Ferry Lane rservoir). The route over Epping roundabout and on into Essex through Woodford Green, Chigwell, Lambourne End, Stapleford Abbots and along Murthering Lane to Haverstock Heath is a relentless sequence of ups and downs, but overall it's a climb until one reaches in my case, after 33 miles Kelvedon Hatch. This must be the highest point on the north eastern rim of the London Basin, which is doubtless why it is home to a gigantic telecom tower which, close up in the early morning, emanates a sinister brooding stillness. I am compelled to photograph it, then hurry on my way.

After crossing the A128 at Kelvedon Hatch the route is almost wholly country lanes. Occasionally these cross main roads, but very quickly disappear back into the undergrowth. The undulations of the Essex High Weald are more gentle than the climb out of London,but the trend is upwards towards places whose names verify this: High Roding on the B184 to Great Dunmow, and High Easter, along my more obscure route. My first stop at 7.30 am, after 38 miles, is at a proper caff just over the A414, at Norton Heath, famed for its "Big Breakfast."

This powers me through Willingale (two ancient parish churches, side by side), over the A1060 at Four Wants, and on through Clatterford End, High Easter to Stagden Cross. Here a left turn into a maze of minor, often unsignposted, lanes will take the careful map reader to Onslow Green, where right then left over the A130 and down into the valley of the Chelmer. Perhaps my best photo of the year taken here: Felsted Mill. Up the hill, right into Felsted then left through the grounds of Felsted School.

The lane is quite pretty until, after going under an old rail bridge and climbing a hill, one is confronted by a new motorway built parallel to the A120. Worse, in the vicinity of the bridge which sutures this ugly scar, the lane has been subjected to what civil engineers are pleased to call "improvements." Pedal hard and that horror is left behind as one soon turns right to Great Saling, skirts the airstrip and heads through Shalford Green, Turn left and only half a mile of the B1053 is needed before a first right into one of the most gloriously unimproved lanes England has to offer. It leads to Rotten End a name surely contrived to ward off tourists. It is in fact a lovely hamlet hidden away in a valley used by the River Pant.

Cross a little bridge and soon there's a T junction. No sign post. Either option can take one to Blackmore End. The turn right is the shorter route, but the lane is steeper and its high banks often collapse into the road, which is also the bed of an intermittent stream. (These features would make this hill a real challenge for mountain bikers, if they knew about it. Thankfully, their spoors are nowhere to be seen.) So the longer route is recommended: left, up a more gentle hill, sharp right, then left into Blackmoor End.

Turn right at Blackmoor End and right at the next cross roads and one is soon skirting Sible Headingham church, then using half a mile of the A604, before turning right on the B1058 into Castle Headingham. The Magnolia Tea Rooms is a favourite stopping off place for Essex Cycling Clubs and a special room has been set aside for them. Doubtless the more fastidious and genteel clientele have insisted on this.

There's a stiffish climb out of Castle Headingham past the castle ruin. Two miles along, turn left at Moat Farm site of a notorious murder in 1901 perpetrated by the area's first motorist (the maid's body was found in the moat) and it's back into the lanes again. Past the unusual red brick church and over the cross roads by a pond ("Beware ducks") at Gestingthorpe and on to Belchamp Walter. Here there's another cross roads and an old fashioned sign post which points to villages with names like Foxearth. Straight over these cross roads on the left is a sad site: the village school, built in Victorian times, is now a dismal local council outpost. The playground once alive with the noise of children having fun playing games learned by word of mouth down countless generations from their ancient forebears, is now deathly quiet. I photograph the site.

From Belchamp Walter one enters remote countryside. It's round a sharp bend, then sharp left towards Sudbury, down a hill, third left, over a stream, then first right up a hill to Borley. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But I managed to get myself lost hereabouts more than once and only escaped with great difficulty. Not all cyclists are so lucky. Every year I avert my eyes as I hurry by "fresh" bikes rusting in hedgerows and ditches, draped with bleached bones and skulls jaws agape with horror.

Down the hill from Borley, left for a third of a mile along the B1064, right into Liston, right by Liston church and suddenly one crosses the River Stour into Suffolk and enters Long Melfort. Time for a tea break. Out of Long Melford there's a three mile hump to surmount to get to Lavenham (more photos), from which point the countryside becomes very lumpy through Preston St. Mary, Brettenharn and Hightown Green, where there is an immaculately-tended black marble memorial to the fallen of a USAF bomber group which was stationed nearby in WW2. Just beyond there's a right turn down a byway to Poystreet Green, then up and down Sunrise Hill into Rattlesden, a gem of a village which straddles a tributary of the Gipping.

I have my third stop at The Five Bells, by the church, at about 1.00 pm. After a rest and a couple of beers it's a hard climb out of Rattlesden on the road to Woolpit. A wonderful view presents itself as one enters this charming little town. (To my dismay a few days later, I realised entering Woolpit is spoiled by a huge telegraph pole which spins out wires over the skyscape. This uglification was removed from my photo not, alas, from reality by patient deployment of the Photoshop "Clone" tool.)

To be continued...

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