The Full Monti – A Tour of Tuscany and Umbri

20190920_11503420190920_11490820190926_115054                                                                                                                                                                        In the last few years, we’ve tried to put off the inevitable onslaught of autumn by going away to somewhere still warm and relatively tourist-free. Val has pointed out that we are tourists too, but I do think the fact that we are moving entirely under our own steam puts us, along with (nearly) all other cyclists, in a superior category.
Two years ago, we did a tour of Puglia and thoroughly enjoyed it. On the last day, we were due to finish in Foggia, but the schedule left us a bit short on miles so I devised a circular route that took in a couple of hill towns: Lucera and Troia. The second was quite spectacular as it rose out of the flat countryside surrounding it, but also a bit daunting because it required us to go up one of those zig-zag roads devised to try to deceive you that you’re not actually travelling uphill at all. It fools nobody.
Nevertheless this sparked the idea for a tour of a region of Italy renowned for its hill towns: Tuscany and Umbria.

20190927_142840                                                                                                                                                               Before we get to this, I will devote a bit of time to logistics, i.e. the task of getting two people and two bikes from Derbyshire to Central Italy. For some years now, we’ve been undertaking cycling trips to the rest of Europe by train. This started out with holidays in the Auvergne, easily attainable within a day from Belper using Eurostar, but once you’ve completed one of these trips successfully, you start to realise how close most of western Europe is to the East Midlands. We managed Milan inside one day two years ago and I achieved Hamburg four years ago.

This time we decided to be a bit less ambitious and aimed for an overnight stop in Nice on the way to Florence. An arrival in Nice at just after ten at night requires a 04.10 start from Belper – and an 03.30 alarm call – to cycle to Derby station for the 05.19 train to St Pancras. I hadn’t realised how cold it is at 4 o’clock in the morning in mid-September!
Travelling by train with a bike is not for the faint-hearted. We don’t realise how lucky we British cyclists are, being able to travel by rail for nothing with our bikes secured by-and-large in their own compartment (on the way back, our bikes got their own carriage!). The insistence of most European rail companies on bikes being contained in their own bags means having to carry this unwieldy piece of luggage round with you purely for use at beginning and end of the tour but otherwise it’s completely useless.
There was a recent letter in Cycling magazine complaining that Eurostar had lately put up the cost of transporting a bike to £55.00. This is only partly true. Until this year, you could book your bike on to Eurostar for £30.00 – each way. This was an expensive but a just about justifiable cost, even if not much less than the rail-fare itself, but Eurostar would carry the bike in one piece, ready-to-ride. Now a dual tariff operates: £55.00 to carry in one piece and £40.00 if dismantled and fitted in one of Eurostar’s boxes or your own bag. This is still a third increase on last year and of course completely unjustifiable, but Eurostar know that cyclists who want to cycle on their own machines on the continent have little choice but to cough up.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       20190921_095505Since we were taking bags anyway, the task of dismantling the bike at the EuroDispatch office at St P was not onerous, but the fun and games really start at the other end, Paris, because Eurostar arrives at Gare du Nord and the Nice train departs from Gare de Lyon. The ‘easiest’ way of joining the dots between the two is unfortunately to transfer the contents of one pannier into the other and then hoick the bike bag (containing empty pannier) on one shoulder with the full pannier on the other, a combined weight in the region of 30kg, and use the RER, the underground rapid transit express. This journey involves struggling out of the Gare du Nord dispatch office, across the end of all 19 platforms, negotiating escalators and turnstiles and trying to fit everything into an already packed carriage when the express arrives, only to repeat the whole process in reverse on arrival. Like I said, this is not for the faint of heart or weak of body. Val and I have to undergo a course of steroids for weeks beforehand just to contemplate the procedure.
The necessity to pack all our belongings into one pannier for this journey does concentrate the mind and is no bad thing. It forces you to make difficult decisions as to what to take and consider such existential questions as: do I really need that third pair of underpants? Every year involves a further slimming down and even on the next trip we will travel lighter. One of the places we stayed at boasted a swimming pool so I took a pair of trunks, eagerly anticipating the plunge into cool waters at the end of a sweaty day’s cycling; as it happened the swimming pool was closed so I carted my bathers halfway across Europe for no good reason. Every gramme counts when you’re having to carry it around for two weeks.
The need to carry bikes in bags continued right up to our arrival in Florence so bike bags and pannier had to be conveyed in this undignified manner from Nice station to hotel, thankfully only a few hundred yards away, and back again in the morning, with a platform transfer at Milan. An unexplained detention in Marseilles station for 90 minutes meant we didn’t arrive in Nice till 11.30 so our departure from Nice the next day at 8 0’clock meant we had less than 6 hours’ sleep. If I’d known, we could’ve kipped in the station; it would have saved a lot of hassle.
The following day’s journey was also delayed, this time by ‘unknown persons on the line’, meaning we missed our Milan connection. The fact that there were three kiosks dealing with unscheduled train changes led me to believe that this sort of thing was not an unusual occurrence.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   20190919_105123Now we’ve finally arrived at the starting point, Florence, I’ll tell you a bit about the planning of the trip. We’ve been lucky enough to go to both Florence and other parts of Tourist Tuscany before (also by train, another story) so we wanted to concentrate on those bits not likely to be clogged with thousands of sightseers, as Florence was even in mid-September. I Googled ‘Hill Towns of Tuscany’ and the same for Umbria and came up with quite a few websites listing these, not all of them agreeing. I bought two maps of the area and plotted the suggestions so I was then left with the job of joining up the dots and working out which could realistically be included in a two-week schedule. I would dearly have loved to go to Urbino, for example, but it was too far to the north-east and would have required a four day round trip; it had to go.
I found an obvious drawback to planning a tour of the hill-towns of central Italy – there tend to be a lot of hills involved. I wanted to keep the distances down to allow time to explore what we found along the way but even modest routes of around 70 km resulted in climbs of 1,500 metres or more. Day after day of this sort of ascent wasn’t really on for a two week trip so I was sent back to the drawing board and eventually came up with a schedule where no day (in theory) exceeded the magic 1000m mark, which started out from Florence, proceeded south through Chiantishire before making a clockwise circuit of hill-towns ending in Siena. In fact, I realised almost too late that I had plotted thirteen days but booked return trains allowing for only twelve! Fortunately I was able to find an intervening railway station to avoid us being stranded.
For the UK and France, both Google Maps and Ride With GPS – I suspect the latter uses the database of the former – provide specific cyclists’ routes, but not for Italy where all cyclists are equated with motorists. This probably says a lot about the Italian obsession with cars even though Italy has as much claim to be the Spiritual Home of Cycling as, say, France.
I don’t intend to take you on a blow-by-blow account of the places we visited – I can sense the sigh of relief even as I write this – but will relate some of the experiences we encountered and some of the highlights.
20190928_164327I would dearly like to write that the reputation of Italian drivers is entirely unwarranted, that they are in fact the paradigm of civility, calmness and politeness. Unfortunately there is often a reason that national stereotypes emerge and that is that there’s an element of truth to them. Nothing, certainly not a cyclist, will stop an Italian driver getting to his destination, preferably accompanied by a firm hand on the horn, and if he (inevitably it is a ‘he’) can achieve this whilst lighting a cigarette or conversing on his mobile phone, so much the better. There was such an astonishingly high rate of mobile phone usage whilst driving that I assumed the Italian law had not yet caught up with the British, but I was wrong. I checked and the law is the same; it’s just ignored wholesale by the Italians to such a shocking degree that I can only assume that no attempt is made to enforce it. This does not, I know, give any comfort to those of a nervous disposition contemplating cycling in Italy but time after time I felt the whoosh of a vehicle, often a van or a lorry, as it forced its way past me with millimetres to spare.                                                                                                                                                                           With such a degree of recklessness, collisions are inevitably commonplace – 5.6 people per 100,000 died in RTAs in Italy in 2016; the figure for the UK is 3.1, but for Liberia it’s 35! I’m not planning an African tour any time soon. In one Italian town, I pointed out to Val three consecutive parked cars with collision damage to their bodywork, and, as I spoke, a fourth car with corresponding dents and scrapes overtook us.
It didn’t take long for us to experience at first-hand Italian driving skills. We’d not yet made it out of Florence when we were waiting at a (pedestrian) light to cross a busy intersection. The lights to our right changed and a white SEAT (driven as it turned out by a young Englishman) moved forward to turn left (the equivalent of a right-hand turn in the UK of course). As he did so, a motorcyclist coming from behind him, overtaking on entirely the wrong side of the road, collided with his turning vehicle, veered towards us and keeled over, pinned to the floor by the weight of his machine. He’d suffered a nasty, deep gash to his arm but despite having to have the bike lifted off him, appeared to have sustained no serious injury. We waited till the ambulance arrived and, leaving our details with the badly-shaken English driver, moved on.
20190926_112714As an aside, on our return in Nice, I witnessed a near-miss when a pedestrian stepped on the road and narrowly survived being mowed down by a passing car. He was wearing a T-shirt with the legend: Today has Been a Great Day.
Notwithstanding the fact that we were visiting some of the most beautiful villages in Italy, there was not a corner of them that was not susceptible to motorised invasion. Cars found their way into the most obscure corners, anywhere where the width of the street was marginally greater than the width of the car. Just as we thought we’d found a bit of peace and quiet to explore at will, we were forced to flatten ourselves into some shallow doorway to avoid becoming another statistic. As we were about to ascend one village I found a discarded No Entry sign and took the decision to plant it in the middle of the road. It worked, and I hope it is still there to this day.
We were in Tuscany in September so inevitably it did not take long for us to pass through a succession of vineyards, a progression that was repeated throughout the following fortnight. These were by and large heavy with black, sometimes white, grapes ripe and ready for picking, all hanging at the same level at the base of the curtain of leaves above. I had no idea that mature grapes were so conveniently hung, whether by human design or nature, I know not. These vineyards varied enormously in size from extensive estates to smallholdings at the side of local cottages.
20190919_150813                                                                                                                                                                We saw a dozen or so workers in one field and so I stopped and made a nuisance of myself by asking some questions of an English speaker who told me that everyone was busy cutting the leaves from around the bunches so as to leave the way clear for the most efficient removal of grapes – all done by hand – starting the following day. He and his fellow workers – who were, so far as I could tell, Italians rather than the migrants that you’d expect to do this type of work in England – would spend the next two weeks clearing the whole of this hillside, the other side as well and the hillside on the other side of the road.
I should mention that our knowledge of Italian is sparse. I do have a set of Teach Yourself CDs but never actually got round to listening to them apart from a two hour journey in the car a week beforehand. This was never going to be enough, but whilst I’ve found most countries in Europe speak English often better than I do, this is not the case in Italy and many were the times that we had to make ourselves understood by reference to hand-signals; it’s surprising how far you can get this way.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Later in the tour, we were in Pitigliano in the evening and we stood and watched as lorry-load after lorry-load full of grapes climbed up the narrow roads into town, negotiated the hair-pin bend and disappeared to presumably the same co-operative unloading point ready to be turned into ambrosia. This convoy continued for hours beyond darkness. It was a   truly astonishing and wondrous sight.
Tuscany and Umbria are both synonymous with wine, but equally evident were groves of olive trees. These too were heavy with their green fruit but unlike the vines, the olives would not be picked until November and so they had not yet ripened. It was frequently the case that the backdrop to our ride was provided by both these two crops. “Grapes to the left of us, olives to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”, we sang to nobody in particular.
Near Spello, we came across an olive plant open to the visitor so we took advantage of the opportunity to see the olive oil process at first hand. This was a relatively small operation (300,000 bottles was mentioned) but although the gathering of olives is done according to the age-old tradition of collection in nets by hand, the process beyond here is entirely automated.
Our obliging guide explained that the olives are crushed and the oil processed in November and December before being stored in a vast underground tank from which it is syphoned into bottles throughout the year. We could see bottles being filled, the last of this year’s supply. I expressed surprise at so much olive oil being produced in this part of Italy – usually, I think, we get Puglian olive oil in our shops. I was told that Tuscan olive oil is kept almost exclusively for the home market –too good for the likes of us! Our guide gave of his time quite freely, literally so, and we felt a bit guilty about detaining him so I bought a bottle of Tuscan olive oil to take back. It was only as we returned to our cycles that I realised that I would have to carry the damn thing in one of my panniers for the next ten days!

20190922_093826Wherever we went, we cursed the state of the roads. These are quite appalling and no-one should complain about pot-holes in England because, by comparison, British roads are exemplary. By far the most common road sign in Umbria/Tuscany was the Bumpy Road sign, usually accompanied by ‘3 kilometres’ because it’s so much cheaper to put up a sign than actually do something about the problem. When a pot-hole appears in an Italian road, the technique seems to be to send out someone with a pot of tar and a stick and ask him to fill it in. This has been repeated over several decades so the end-result was a patchwork of ad-hoc layers of tarmac, almost always positioned at the side of the road. It gave a new meaning to Fifty Shades of Grey and was altogether an unerotic experience, just like the book (so I’m led to believe).
This problem was compounded when contouring up hills because the tarmac, probably influenced by the summer heat, showed a tendency to slide down the hill-side it was traversing, leaving cracks in the middle of the road similar to an earthquake, all of which had to be negotiated while still trying to keep upright, bouncing over dips and bumps.
Other irritations of the trip included the Italian’s literal addiction to the dreaded weed. Over 25% of Italians still smoke with no sign of any government initiative to try to wean them off. This is coupled with a less strict law on where you can smoke; as a train pulls in at a station, there is a rush to the doors so a quick few drags on a fag can be taken on the platform. The narrowness and height of the streets in the hill villages tend to create an airlessness that means the smell of ciggies is suspended indefinitely. It’s amazing how intolerant I’ve become (not just generally) of any contact with smoke in the twenty-odd years since I used to spend whole evenings inhaling second-hand carcinogenic emissions. Smoking is one of the few areas where we in the UK can hold our heads high – at the last count, our national compulsion to contract lung cancer was down to around 14%; in 2018, only Slovakia had a better lung cancer rate than us in a table of 25 developed countries which curiously didn’t include Italy.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             20190922_102039                                                                                                                                                                 On the other hand, the Italians are a lot greener than you’d imagine. Whereas in the UK, we discourage the use of supermarket plastic bags, Italy has gone in completely the opposite direction and continued to provide bags unfettered and free – but all entirely compostable and biodegradable. This includes even the bags for loose veg. The latest incarnation of Italy’s government intends to tax plastic, sugar and flights, whilst making schools dedicate an hour a week to humankind’s effect on the planet. Puts us to shame.
Our schedule allowed for visits to two or three hill towns a day, but in addition we came across another label applied these towns and villages ‘borghi piu belli d’Italia’, the most beautiful villages in Italy, which was an unexpected bonus and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say nearly every one of these had reason to tarry. The whole place is like a theme park but entirely genuine.
The best town that we visited was Anghiari. The schedule dictated that we finished at a hill town every night and whilst the overall climb stayed below four figures, it was in the nature of Tuscany that it tended to be concentrated into one or two parts of the day. We’d spent over an hour grinding out of Arezzo up to Anghiari which appeared to be built on a ridge rather than a hill as such. I was disappointed by somewhat ordinary initial impressions, but suddenly we turned off the main road and were confronted by a breath-taking escarpment dropping steeply in front of us. The main road east out of Anghiari resembled a 10 kilometre ski-slope so steep that we could neither cycle up nor down it as we found to our cost the next day when we set off in the wrong direction.
20190924_181915Up to the right of this slope was the old town, a jumbled and random warren of narrow streets crammed with stone buildings, one on top of the other. We were staying that night in an apartment in the middle of the old town and it wasn’t until the next morning that I realised that there were people living above us access to whose quarters were gained from the street above. Thomas A’ Becket lived here for a time during one of his many tiffs with Henry II.
Also memorable was Spoleto. The hill around which this city was built was set into a mountain-side. What made this place extraordinary was that for ease of exploration it boasted an underground. Three subterranean ‘lines’ had been built inside the rock of the mountain itself, lines which possibly uniquely went not horizontally but vertically. At the various stations, a lift took you upwards before arriving at vast and lengthy airport-style travellators which moved at angles to the various tourist spots. This was of enormous benefit to us as, arriving late in the afternoon and being limited to an evening’s visit, we were able to make a whirlwind tour of the principal sights which ended up at the very top of the town where a circular path around a massive fortress led to a 300 foot high, 775 foot long 14th century bridge built on top of a Roman aqueduct and spanning the whole valley.

20190926_145233There were some towns that were evidently on some sort of Approved Tourist list. Every now and again we would toil up a hill to a piazza where we would be greeted by the sight of busloads of tourists, usually American or Japanese, spilling out of coaches parked specifically for that purpose. One such town was Orvieto, the home of five 13th Century popes, which we thought was unremarkable by admittedly high Umbrian standards apart from the sumptuously ornate facade to its Cathedral, taking 100 years to build from 1300. Seven storeys in height, it boasts at its centre a beautifully intricate rose window with statues of the 12 apostles on top and 12 OT prophets at the side surrounded by mosaics glittering in the sun. Four marble pillars on the lower level depict scenes from the Genesis, and support bronze statues of the Angel of Matthew, the Winged Lion of Mark, the Eagle of John and the Winged Bull of Luke.
We saw no other cyclists carrying panniers on our trip, but did occasionally bump into other cyclists on organised trips. Whenever we did, we played a game of finding the tour company’s website and seeing how much they were charging – before smugly reflecting on the money we were saving by doing it ourselves. One company we came across was Ciclismo Classico whose customers were notable by the identical pastel green Bianchi cycles they were all riding and the route of whose 9-day coast-to-coast tour coincided with ours for a couple pf days. It was all highly ordered and regimented. On the second day, one of their number broke free and started a conversation with us until sharply called back into the fold by his leader. He was paying over $5000 for the trip, and no doubt stayed in more luxurious surroundings than us, but we reckoned the tour company didn’t want him to find out how much he could have saved. Doing it yourself is very time-consuming especially when everything is pre-planned on a day-to-day basis but, money apart, the freedom to go where you want when you want makes it worthwhile.
At one point in the trip, we reached the bottom of a very long hill and came across a lone female tourer – on a scooter! It was no ordinary scooter having fat tyres and fully-loaded panniers, being four times the size of the one I used to get about on as a kid. I was wondering how on earth she was going to get up the hill we’d just descended when Val pointed out that the scooter was electric too! Whatever next?
20190926_095911Our accommodation was the most basic available within certain minimum requirements – a bed and a shower! We still managed to find a wide variety of places to stay and looked forward every night to see what the internet had thrown our way. All accommodation, by its nature, tended to be out of the way and at the bottom of a hill, which was a bit galling when you’d spent the best part of the afternoon climbing it. One guest-house was at the bottom of a kilometre-long stony path so steep and rough that we had to push bikes laden with panniers up it the next day. Val was nevertheless delighted to find that at the end of that day, Strava had declared her Queen of the Mountains on that particular track – mainly because she is the only woman who’s ever gone this way by cycle (sadly I can only claim to be the eleventh fastest man over this section).

One thing we did learn is not to trust the Italian interpretation of Bed & Breakfast, which numerous stops were advertised as. You can certainly expect a Bed but whether you’ll get the Breakfast is a matter entirely of chance. Breakfast is also an elastic concept, judging by the croissant we were left in Florence encased in a wrapper with a Sell-By Date of December. I took one bite – it was like eating a pair of curtains.
Two of the places were ‘Agriculturismo’, essentially farmers who are looking to supplement their income by letting out rooms. Both offered unforgettable experiences. The first was at the bottom of the usual narrow stone path and comprised a timbered room in an ancient homestead on an olive farm. It was miles from anywhere and, it being Sunday, all we had with us were half a packet of biscuits. We need not have worried; the farmer’s wife prepared us a meal with starter, two types of pasta and a dessert accompanied by both wine and home-made liqueur, all for 20 euros. Yum.

The next day was also Agriculturismo, this time an isolated settlement in the middle of the countryside which seemed to be what may one day become, or maybe already was, a holiday complex closed down for the year. There was no-one in sight so I called the number and a couple of minutes later, a single figure emerged from the gloom to show us to our room, a bedroom in a hotel comprising at least eight others. I don’t know whether you’ve ever stayed as the only occupants in a building of empty rooms but it is, I can tell you, an unsettling and eerie experience, very similar to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining but without the rivers of blood and the weird twins. Nevertheless, once again, the hotelier and his daughter offered us the menu for the restaurant that normally operated every day in season and cooked whatever we chose. We ate this at the end of a long table, the only customers in the place.
20190929_142738                                                                                                                                                                    The final night was in Montepulciano, one of the jewels in the Tuscan crown, and it proved an appropriately spectacular end to the holiday. A long limestone-paved avenue wound its way slowly upwards past Renaissance churches and clock towers, staircases and alleyways, until we reached the Piazza Grande where we were attracted to a courtyard by the sound of an unseen opera singer, not something that often happens in Belper. This yard in turn gave way to a terrace and a balcony offering a panoramic view over the rooftops below and beyond, the Tuscan countryside glowing in the evening sun. It was an unforgettable end to the holiday and the memory of it will see me though the winter.

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All Abroad – A Tour of East Anglia (Part 2)

Sorry to anybody (anybody?) fretting at the non-appearance of Part 2 of our trip to East Anglia, but here it is, together with another belated account of our subsequent trip to Tuscany and Umbria.

Sorry too about the indented paragraphs and lack of gaps between some of them; WordPress doesn’t seem to want to play.

Readers with long memories and deeper patience will recall that we had by the end of Part 1 managed to make our way as far as Cromer.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Now read on:

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Day 6: Cromer to Great Yarmouth                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      We determined to work our way around the Norfolk north-east coast as closely as possible to the sea. This was difficult in practice as there is no coastal road or path as such, and frustratingly no sooner had we hit the resort of Mundesley than we were whisked back inland only to be regurgitated at Happisburgh (pronounced Hazeboro’).

20190513_133322I was interested to visit Happisburgh because it is the home of the only independently-owned lighthouse in Great Britain, built in 1790 and distinctive in its red and white striped livery. It is more recently fondly remembered for having featured in a 1990 episode of Challenge Anneka when the hyperactive presenter descended from above in her obligatory helicopter and bullied all the locals into repainting the lighthouse in 48 hours. What the programme didn’t mention was that the campaign was met with a wall of indifference such that the task required 2 weeks rather than 2 days to complete, and had to be repeated at considerable expense at a later date because the wrong sort of paint was used and it soon started peeling off.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         800,000 year old flint tools have been unearthed here, making Happisburgh the oldest occupied location in the UK, but of more pressing concern is the problem of erosion which bedevilled many of the places we were to visit along the coast from here on. Happisburgh lost over 100 metres of cliff-top to the sea between 1992 and 2004 alone, and at this rate, peeling paint will be the least of the lighthouse’s problems.
Our next port of call was another resort, that of Sea Palling, a venue featuring prominently and fondly in Val’s childhood seaside memories. In fact she recalled that her aunt still owns a mobile home here to this day. We passed one such park as we were leaving Sea Palling and at Val’s insistence, we called in. Finding no-one about, I was dispatched to make enquiries. After five fruitless minutes, I paused and reflected that here I was, making enquiries for a caravan I didn’t even know existed and, even if by some miracle I found it, whether Val’s aunt was in residence anyway. What kind of fool did Val take me for?
20190513_162446As the day drew to an end, we closed in on Horsey where we were presented with a dilemma. Should we visit Horsey Gap reputedly one of the finest places to view basking seals in the UK or visit the National Trust Windpump? In keeping with our stated mission of extracting maximum value from our NT membership, we opted for the Windpump only to find the NT had closed early for the day and gone home due to lack of interest! So we saw neither seals nor the internals of the windmill, and not even the malicious pleasure derived from observing the incompetent attempts of inexperienced sailors to dock their hired boats for the night could make up for this double disappointment.
It being the sixth night of our trip, it was time to ditch the tent and immerse ourselves in the unique and unrivalled experience of a British Seaside B&B in Great Yarmouth, the sort that money can buy all too easily. From the outside the establishment looked like the sort of house the Addams family might have refused to move into on the grounds that it looked too sinister, but this was nothing to the horrors that awaited within. We negotiated the labyrinthine network of stairs to the third floor – why do hotels delight in putting cyclists on the third floor whenever they get the opportunity? – to find a room that even a sardine would complain at being asked to occupy. You couldn’t even fit a cat inside, let alone swing it.
We were determined to immerse ourselves in the full English Seaside Experience and set out to find fish and chips to eat on the Prom. Would you believe it, on a Monday night in Great Yarmouth, there wasn’t a single takeaway fish and chip shop to be found – with one exception. I thought our Quest for the Holy Haddock was at an end until I saw the chippie was proudly boasting that ‘We Cook All Our Fish and Chips in 100% Beef Dripping’. Wikipedia defines beef dripping as ‘animal fat produced from the fatty or otherwise unusable parts of cow or pig carcasses’. Unusable? Apparently not in Great Yarmouth.
We tend to adopt early retiring hours on these trips, but our neighbours on the other side of the paper-thin wall had other ideas; we heaved a sigh of relief when the 10 o’clock BBC News came to an end only for next door to switch over and listen to the exactly the same diet of depression for another half an hour on ITV!

Day 7 – Great Yarmouth to Southwold                                                                                                     
I had actually been looking forward to Great Yarmouth, one of the classic seaside resorts, but I left it with a profound sense of depression and despair. The sea-front, which someone with a cruel sense of humour once labelled the Golden Mile, is an uninterrupted series of neon-lit, fluorescent amusement arcades and casinos with names such as ‘Leisureland and ‘Goldrush’ competing for attention with a succession of greasy fast-food outlets.
20190514_105817The tragedy is that evidence of Great Yarmouth’s more prosperous past is only too apparent. The plastic facades of the casinos have been almost literally tacked on to fine examples of Victorian and Georgian architecture behind, throw-backs to the theatres and picture palaces of yesteryear when families thronged to Great Yarmouth in their thousands. I myself remember seeing Lonnie Donegan and Helen Shapiro there as a child – now the faces of Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown and Jim Davidson adorn the front of the Britannia Pier.                                                                                                      All is not quite lost. The Royalty cinema which stands at the beginning of the Golden Mile and had closed down was about to be reborn and re-opened as the state-of the-art Arc Cinema after a multi-million pound investment. This was sadly an exception to the general rule.
Great Yarmouth did at least have its fair share of characters. There was, for example, the Incredible Tattooed Man. Nowadays the sight of a man – and it is invariably a man – covered head to-toe in tattoos is not as rare as it should be, but this one had chosen to decorate himself entirely with Sixties cartoon characters. I could only stand and wonder at the entire cast of Scooby Do (blessedly shorn of the execrable Scrappy Doo) crowding for attention on a left calf, distracting attention from the Wacky Racers (right bicep) and Popeye (squeezed between the shoulder blades). Val said I shouldn’t stare, but how could I not?
Then there was the sadder case of the man, I hesitate to call him a busker, whose entire act consisted of him standing outside the shopping centre jiggling a ratty glove puppet on the end of his arm whilst jaunty Sixties ditties rattled out of an ancient tape recorder, inevitably I’ve Got The Hippy Hippy Shake (but surprisingly not Puppet on a String). I felt sorry for him and added a pound to the three already in his hat. He told me that he’d put two of those there himself, and it was already past 11. He’d been doing this since 2009, and lamented the days when he could earn over £100.00 in the course of a day. Yet he continued to repeat this thankless task despite never seeing seventy again.
We took the opportunity to look round the Powergen exhibition housed in a couple of trailers on the front, advertising the Scrooby Sands Wind Farm whose 30 turbines were visible two miles out at sea providing enough electricity for 41,000 homes. We learned that this was only the start and future development will ensure power for a further million homes.
20190514_111010Before we left Great Yarmouth, we sought out Nelson’s Monument, not to be confused with the somewhat better-known Column, though it pre-dates its grander rival by 24 years. The monument is to the south of the town, a few streets from the sea but well worth a detour. Funded by local businessmen and reaching 44 metres high, only 8 metres shorter than the Trafalgar Square rival, this column sticks incongruously proud of the workshops and factories making up the industrial estates which now surround it, though in 1819, this area would have bustled with fisherman and their wares. Dedicated to Nelson’s four main victories at the Nile, Copenhagen, St Vincent and Trafalgar, it is topped by Britannia herself staring towards the north and Nelson’s birthplace.
Our seventh day also marked our departure from Norfolk and entry into an entirely new county: Suffolk, which meant that we almost immediately ran into Lowestoft. I had read that Lowestoft marks Britain’s most easterly point and could not turn up the opportunity of being, for a few seconds at least, Britain’s Most Easterly Person. 20190514_132314This was not as easy as it appeared. We found the official location, Ness Point, without problem, but there was a short concrete pier jutting out from the shore from which anglers were angling at a point beyond the ridiculous so I had to be content with the title of Third Most Easterly Person in Britain.                                                                                                         Lowestoft has always to my mind been synonymous with trawling but the last trawling fleet was decommissioned in 2002. Nowadays Lowestoft is most noteworthy for its gigantic Birds Eye Fish Finger factory servicing the UK’s appetite for over 1 million fingers a day (really?). Although Lowestoft was only a few miles on from Great Yarmouth, the contrast could not have been more marked. Less claustrophobic, Lowestoft seemed bright and full of life with unspoilt, sandy beaches, a promenade, harbour and handsome Victorian terraced houses and gardens.
Day 7 was perhaps our busiest day because we had still not reached our ultimate destination: Southwold, a place I’d always wanted to visit but never got round to it. Someone I used to work with went for his holidays to Southwold every year without fail and I’ve always been intrigued by a place that could hold this sort of fascination. Well, I’m not planning to go back there any time soon, but nevertheless, we were both impressed. How can you not love a seaside resort with a Sailors’ Reading Room? I never got to find out whether they allowed anybody else.                                                                                                                                                                 20190514_165332The first things that you encounter as you approach Southwold are the beach huts. These stretch into the distance, all built off the same blueprint, neat and colourful, each decorated in pastel shades and sporting names such as ‘House of the Rising Sun’, ‘Watershed’ (my favourite that) and ‘Mr Blue Sky’.
I’ve never really understood the attraction of these glorified sheds; no matter where they are found, they seem a very expensive way to get changed or boil a kettle. I appear to be in a minority judging by the number available at Southwold and the price people are willing to pay for them. In 2018, it was reported that one chalet had gone on the market for £150,000. They get more expensive the closer you get to the pier, but even the cheapest will cost you £30,000. This information I gleaned from a conversation with someone engaged in painting one of the huts. He told me that they all required annual maintenance and have to be moved off the beach onto the car park behind when winter comes.
We arrived late in the day at Southwold but did have enough time for a stroll along the splendid pier after having admired the mural of George Orwell who lived at four addresses in the town from 1921 onwards. This continued a literary theme to our trip which you will recall had already taken in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde in Sheringham.

Day 8 – Southwold to Woodbridge                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       20190515_114322We cycled to our campsite straight through Southwold itself so didn’t really have the time to explore the town proper. This omission we put right first thing the following morning. The chief tourist attraction in Southwold is Adnams Brewery whose wares we had been sampling pretty much throughout the trip. One problem with touring is that you don’t really have the time to undertake brewery tours so we had to content ourselves with a brief look inside the Reception where we learned that the institution has been going since 1872 despite the fact that one of the co-founding Adnams was subsequently eaten by a crocodile – in Africa I hasten to add(nam).
With Southwold town itself I was less impressed on account of the intrusion of so many ‘designer shops’, but this disappointment was partially tempered by a visit to St Edmund’s Church. St Edmund was king of East Anglia in the ninth century and, killed by the Vikings for refusing to give up his faith, was England’s patron saint until George bullied him out of his rightful place despite having nothing to do with England at all. Legend has it that Edmund’s head was lopped off and thrown in a forest until rescued when a lone wolf cried out ‘Hic, hic, hic’, which you won’t need me to tell you is Latin for ‘here, here, here’. The less prosaic alternative that he may just have had hiccups is usually glossed over. Apart from that, almost nothing is known about Edmund and he is therefore not the patron saint of anything, although he does of course lend his name to Bury St Edmund and features on the Wilton Diptych, a spellbinding piece of art that is worth a visit to the National Gallery by itself.
The church boasts a continuous roof 100 foot high and had all its stained glass windows smashed in the mid-1640’s by the puritan William ‘Smasher’ Dowsing appointed ‘Commissioner for the Destruction of Monuments of Idolatry and Superstition’ years before the Taliban cottoned on to the same idea. Sounds like the sort of thing that Dominic Cummings is even now dreaming of resurrecting.
20190515_121304                                                                                                                                                                     We retraced our steps to Walberswick to cross the estuary of the Blyth where fishing boats lined the waters, stranded in the mud, and diverted to Blythburgh to see the Holy Trinity church purely because of its description by Simon Jenkins as the ‘Queen of the Suffolk Coast’. The village of Blythburgh is exactly that, a small hamlet, but once upon a time this was an important wool port until the river silted up, and the church reflected this, a remarkable building, so extensive I could hardly accommodate it in one photograph, displaying a wooden roof decked with angels and pews adorned with figurines personifying the Seven Deadly Sins. It is said that the tower was struck by lightning in 1577, causing the tower to fall into the nave, killing two of the congregation which must have come as a surprise to them.
20190515_150906As our time rapidly ran out, we rode on but paused at Leiston Abbey, the sprawling ruins of a religious house of Canons Regular following the Premonstratensian Rule (I have no idea what I have just written either), before descending upon Thorpeness, a Port Merrionesque village created entirely by one person, a Scottish barrister called Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie. Its most remarkable building is the so-called House in the Clouds, a wooden house on a five-storey plinth which proved surprisingly difficult to find.
And all of this took place before lunch!
A short distance along the Suffolk coast lay Aldeburgh, another on my places-to-visit on account of its association with Benjamin Britten and the annual festival. This is strange because I have no interest in either, but have answered so many quiz questions over the years where the answer is one or the other that we could not ignore it. Despite this, my chief memory of this town is of the impressive Maggi Hambling sculpture, The Scallop, which is exactly that, a stainless steel shell sitting in the midst of the pebbly beach.
Photo 13                                                                                                                                                                The second memory is of a remote-controlled swan! We were exploring the town when, as we were passing the boating lake, I saw a swan gliding gracefully past. I took no notice despite this being a somewhat unusual sight until I became aware of an old man sitting on a bench manipulating the course of this stately creation. He explained that there were a host of similarly-minded men (of course) who regularly met to exercise their self-created menagerie in this manner. Unfortunately I had regretfully to decline his invitation to return the following Sunday.
Photo 14                                                                                                                                                              Despite lending its name to the festival, Aldeburgh is some distance away from The Snape Maltings Concert Hall where this takes place. We arrived there late in the day and out of season. The place was deserted and a bit eerie, but there were numerous sculptures by the likes of Henry Moore scattered around the extensive grounds so we availed ourselves of what amounted to a private viewing before moving on to our campsite for the night.
This was an extremely odd set-up. It was one of those sites listed by the Camping Club, of which we are not members. The warden explained that we could not camp there, but we could camp on a patch of ground adjacent to what was for all intents and purposes a village hall. The main campsite was occupied by what remained of the previous weekend’s annual get-together of Romahome owners. Romahomes were an early form (1980’s) of very English campervan originally made on the Isle of Wight as a dismountable caravan attached to a Japanese micro-truck, later a Citroen C15.
The Romahomers had negotiated only limited access to the village hall, and this excluded use of the showers. We were not subject to these restrictions and had use of an exclusive key to that half of the building which housed the showers. Arranging meals meant going backwards and forwards, between the two parts of the building rather like a Brian Rix farce because, for example, the fridge was on one side but the kettle was on the (Romahome) other. In the evening, accessing the kettle also meant avoiding being thrown by a judo trainee because judo practice obstructed the way to the kitchen.
Day 9 – Sutton Hoo                                                                                                                                
20190516_130437This campsite was a few miles down the road from Sutton Hoo, a National Trust jewel. (An awful lot of boxes were ticked on this tour). As is well known, it is the site of a 7th century Anglo-Saxon ship burial containing the treasures of Raewald, a ruler of the East Angles. As is often the case in life, the actuality was a crushing disappointment, because it turned out that the exhibition hall containing most of the treasures was shut for refurbishment. All the NT had to offer as a poor substitute was a replica of the famous helmet and a couple of cloak clasps. If there was one thing that I was most looking forward to on this trip, it was to see this much-photographed helmet at close quarters. You can imagine how cheated I felt.
However the trip was not a complete waste of time. The burial mounds where the ship was discovered still lie adjacent to the exhibition hall and we readily signed up for a tour led by one of the NT’s knowledgeable and inspiring guides. There was an added bonus in that one of the fellow visitors was from the States, engaged into research into Anglo-Saxon shields, quite a challenge when the subject of your thesis is several thousand miles away and separated by a whole ocean.
I could say a whole lot more about this place but not without several hundred more words, so you are to be thankfully spared.
Day 9 – Woodbridge to Sudbury                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          20190518_142352                                                                                                                                                                    The following day’s journey was largely westward as we took in Lavenham, ‘the best example of a mediaeval wool town in England’ and the fourteenth wealthiest town in Tudor England (not sure how they know that). It was well worth the trip, the streets being lined with half-timbered 16th century houses, much the same as they were 500 years ago when the wool trade started to fail under competition from the Far East (Colchester that is, not Vietnam).
Just as sometimes experience fails to live up to expectations, so, on other occasions, the reverse may be the case. The square in Lavenham was chocka with WWII vehicles and people who choose to spend their weekends dressed up as GIs or in dresses aping the style of the Forties, though who am I to pass judgment, having chosen to spend two weeks dressed in an assortment of bright, lycra-based vestments.
As usual we were behind schedule but just made it in time to spend half-an-hour at Melford Hall, a 16thC stately home, to visit the parish church (five stars from Simon Jenkins, though, unlike us, he got to see the inside as well as the out) and to sail though Long Melford, mentioned by Daniel Defoe and used as a backdrop for Lovejoy and Terry Jones’ Wind in the Willows. The village boasts an Eastern Counties Premier Division football team, Long Melford FC, which sounds like somewhere where Roy Race might have seen out his declining years. Maybe he’s still going, I haven’t kept up with Roy’s career since I ceased reading the Tiger (whose pages he first graced in 1954!)
Day 10 – Sudbury to Clacton                                                                                                              
We were now practically on the border of Essex but we delayed this step by heading east. We couldn’t leave Suffolk without a trip to Flatford Mill. This was without doubt one of the highlights of a pretty memorable tour, but if life is a salad, there will usually be a caterpillar lurking somewhere within it. Ride with GPS and Google once more conspired to make our journey as difficult as possible by marking the last three miles to Flatford as a cycleway when it was indisputably a muddy track running through fields separated by stiles unnegotiable by bicycles. Since the alternative route added many miles to our day, we had no choice but to lunk our bikes and panniers bodily over each one, cursing Ride with GPS as we went.
Flatford Mill was not only the subject of Constable’s Flatford Mill (duh), but also the Hay Wain, Willy Lott’s Cottage and at least three other paintings. What was remarkable was how little these landscapes had changed in the couple of centuries since these most English of artworks came into existence. It was possible to stand in front of the River Stour with the painting displayed on a panel provided by the ever-obliging NT and imagine Constable with brush in hand. We were also entertained by some Morris Dancers dressed in red and black stripes, enduring testament to the English compulsion to dress up in strange apparel, the sillier the better, at the drop of a handkerchief.

20190519_133923Photo 18

And now there was no option but to sally forth into Essex. There had been plenty to see in Suffolk and the few days we spent there hardly did it justice, but we did prefer the slower pace of Norfolk and the emptier roads. Suffolk had fewer byways to escape the mayhem of traffic and the tempo of life was decidedly quicker – although it was still virtually moribund in comparison with Essex as we were about to find out.
Although our ultimate destination was Clacton, we took a detour to the village of Wrabness. I had long been curious about the ‘conceptual holiday home’ built here and designed by everyone’s favourite transvestite potter, Grayson Perry. The property known as ‘Julie’s House’ or ‘A House for Essex’ is unique and certainly the only dwelling in existence dedicated to the ‘single mums of Dagenham, hairdressers of Colchester, and the landscape and history of Essex’. I looked it up and found that this architectural oddity was only a few miles out of our way. So that settled it.
Photo 19                                                                                                                                                                   We were awfully glad we did take the time for a number of reasons. Firstly we returned to cycling on country roads with hardly a car in sight, going at our own speed without having to worry about any other road-users. The house was not easy to find. As I understand it, it remains available for hire but is otherwise unoccupied. We located it at the end of a long lane, undeterred by signs marking the track as Private. The house, overlooking the Stour estuary, is an astonishing building, a cross between a church, a gingerbread house and something out of Alice in Wonderland, decorated with ceramic tiles containing the image of Julie, a fictional Essex girl whose life is told throughout the interior of the house which sadly we didn’t get to see.
I was amused to see on our return that someone had left a toilet in front of their house with a notice indicating ‘Free to a Good Home’. Well, we were in Essex.
In another packed day, we decided that, rather than heading straight to Clacton, we would take a circuitous route round the peninsula to view the Naze and Frinton-On-Sea. The Naze is a headland affording sweeping views of the North Sea and dominated by the 86-foot high Naze Tower built as a navigational aid to shipping. Despite being close to many houses, it held a feeling of desolation heightened by our being the only people there.                                                                                                                                                                Photo 20
From the Naze we followed the coastal path along the Frinton esplanade and past the colourful Victorian-style beach huts which lent the place a refined, almost aristocratic air. With the memory of Great Yarmouth still fresh in our minds, I was fully prepared for a repeat performance from Clacton, but the reverse was the case. I’d chosen to visit Clacton because if you had to list, say, ten seaside resorts that represented the quintessential English sea-side, Clacton would surely be on it, yet I’d never been, and probably never would unless the opportunity were seized now. The place is a lot smaller than Yarmouth and was altogether more cheerful for its compactness. It boasted a fine stretch of sandy beach, lined with beach-huts, a long pier on which stood a retro helter-skelter, roller-coaster and waltzers and, to cap it all, a selection of fish and chip takeaways that were all open. We were advised that we would find a different picture if we penetrated the interior of the town which lies next to Jaywick, the most deprived community in the country. Nevertheless from our brief survey of the resort, we could not help but go away with more optimism and positivity than when we arrived.

Day 11 – Clacton to Canvey Island                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Canvey was to be almost our final destination. It is another of those places which has acquired a semi-legendary reputation, at least in my mind. Literally an island, it presents as a jumble of marshes, oil refineries and petrochemical works (though visible only in the distance these days), mudflats, bungalows and mobile homes. It has the feeling of being an outpost on the edge of civilisation but a last bastion of it nonetheless.
But first we had to get there. This proved an horrendous journey. The dial on the trafficometer was turned up to 11 as for almost the whole day, we could barely communicate with one another over the roar of lorries and cars determined to reach their destination with no regard a couple of cyclists who might inconveniently get in their way.
Photo 22Initially I planned a route that was reliant on crossing by ferry the river Colne, one of a number of such obstacles in our way. We arrived to find no evidence of a ferry; whether it runs only in summer, we never got to find out, but it did mean an unwanted ten mile detour around the estuary.
There are only two ways in and out of Canvey Island so sooner or later we were going to hit A-road oblivion. As we approached the A1245, we were comforted by the Ride with GPS assurance that there was at least a cycle path alongside it. Wrong yet again! Practice proved a stranger to theory as we found ourselves at the side of what was for all intents and purposes a motorway with no hard shoulder.
Desperate circumstances demanded desperate measures. Val spotted a gate at the side of the dual carriageway so we hastily and bodily removed ourselves, bikes and baggage to the other side of it and followed a farm track back in the direction from which we’d come. That track led to a garden which in turn attracted the bewildered attention of the occupier. We quickly and apologetically explained our predicament and were rewarded with sympathy and an invitation to wheel our bikes through to the back garden and out through an opening in the hedge beyond whereupon, Narnia-like, a cricket pitch and park appeared before us. The remainder of our journey was conducted on minor roads until we caught up with the inevitable queue into Canvey itself.
20190520_191350                                                                                                                                                                  Canvey is separated from the Thames by a long concrete wall and before dinner we took the chance to explore it. This part of the river is desolate in the extreme as the view to the other shore some miles away is across mud and shallow flats broken by the occasional solitary boat. Canvey has attempted with some success to brighten the place up by painting the river side of the wall a cheery shade of sky-blue and decorating it with murals dedicated to Canvey’s contribution to the culture of the nation including Eddie and the Hot Rods, Wilko Johnson and Dr Feelgood, ‘the best local band in the world’; both of the latter I saw in 1974 at North-East London Polytechnic in the course of an unforgettable evening.
Day 12 – Southend and Home                                                                                                               
We never learn. Ride with GPS once again indicated a cyclepath connecting Canvey with Southend avoiding the early-morning snarl-up. There was indeed a path but it was a decidedly muddy one, fit only for a mountain bike. We nevertheless arrived well in time for the train and decided to dip one more toe in the touristic delights on offer by walking along The Longest Pier in the World, all 1.33 miles of it. It was a strange sensation walking along its wooden boards, you could quite clearly see the end in sight but, rather like walking on the spot, you never seemed to be getting any closer.
Photo 23                                                                                                                                                                We returned to shore in time to catch the train to Liverpool Street station – a snip at just over 18 quid for the trip from Southend to Belper, admittedly with the Codger’s Railcard. Arriving at the station we navigated to St Panc using the Cycle Superhighway which in the first half lived up to its name. I’d experienced the Superhighway only from a detached pedestrian’s point of view before. As a cyclist, it was rather like leaping on a conveyer belt and being carried along helter-skelter, a strange force propelling you who knows where, with nothing standing in your way – or they’d regret it if they did. And all of this taking place along one of the most iconic river-views in the world as the Embankment cantered past.
It was only when we turned off this stretch the highway became Super only in name as the separate cycleway disappeared and we were left to fend for ourselves in a lane divided by a single white line from fleets of lorries and taxis, many parked in the way. We didn’t stand a chance.
This was a trip which exceeded our expectations. The east of England may have a reputation as a bit of a featureless and quiet backwater, but if I’ve done nothing else, I hope that I’ve demonstrated that this is far from the truth and even two weeks will still leave plenty left to explore.

All Abroad – A Tour of East Anglia – Part 1

Eyebrows were raised when we announced that we were planning spend a couple of weeks sampling the delights of Norfolk and Suffolk. Comments were made on the lines of, “Isn’t that a bit flat?” and by implication, a bit boring too.

Well, there were a number of reasons for the choice. We hadn’t been to this part of England for several decades and in the case of Suffolk, not at all discounting the Harwich ferry. It sits semi-detached at the side of the weather map on telly every night, looking slightly neglected and sorry for itself. Surely it had something to offer? Unless we tried, we’d never find out.

Secondly it boasts its fair share of National Trust properties and our membership card is usually neglected and under-used; East Anglia seemed to offer the ideal opportunity to maximise its value for a change. And thirdly, the region is surprisingly accessible. An 07.59 train from Belper with a change at Nottingham deposited us, with bikes and panniers, in Ely, the start of our journey, just after 11.15. All this for the princely sum of just £6.50 in my case, thanks to the wonders of the Senior Rail Card.

Ely to Downham Market

For each day, I’d planned an itinerary and plotted a route on Ride With GPS, but before embarking, we couldn’t ignore Ely itself. Ely meant only one thing to me before our trip: the cathedral, the ‘Ship of the Fens’, so it seemed only right that we should head there straight away, particularly as the skies chose that particular moment to dump substantial buckets of water on us, a process which continued for most of the day.

The cathedral is dedicated to St Etheldreda who, on her wedding night, told her husband that she had taken a vow of virginity which must have come as a bit of a disappointment to him.

On arrival, we discovered that like most places in Ely, the cathedral is open to the visitor – but at a cost, in this case 9 quid. Unable to justify this for a fleeting visit we took it in turns to gaze upon the wonder of its vast and intricate ceiling, well worth the money we 20190508_114502didn’t pay to see it. As I swapped places with Val, I saw two ecclesiastical gentlemen just outside the entrance gazing at a lump of stone on the paving. It became rapidly obvious that this was a chunk of masonry, the size of a fist, which had fallen from the tower stretching above us. The conundrum was from whence it had come and what to do about it. The problem with a structure dating several centuries is that it is liable to surrender bits of itself to gravity at any given moment, and whilst the obvious solution was to shut the whole place down as a safety hazard, those £9.00’s are necessary to shore up what remains. I left them to grapple with this moral dilemma and met Val who told me that she’d been only feet away when the stonework landed. If it hadn’t have been raining, her tour might have ended before it began and I would have had to go on alone.

Next up was the Tourist Information Office which happily shared its accommodation with the house where Oliver Cromwell lived in the 1630’s. Unhappily this was a further £5.20 each so we forewent the opportunity of experiencing life in the 17th century, very much like Heanor in the 21st I imagine, as we did visits to the Stained Glass Museum (£4.50), The Old Gaol (£4.50) and, reluctantly given its tantalising title, the Museum of Fenland Drainage, featuring a Mirrless 5-cylinder blast injection engine (£3.00).

Our ultimate destination was Oxburgh Hall, an NT Elizabethan country house, but having wandered around the streets of Ely, we were behind schedule already, a delay exacerbated by driving rain, headwinds and the discovery that our Garmin 810 still had a USA road chip left inside it from our last trip. Thus for the next fortnight all we had to follow was an unwavering blue line but no background map against which to make sense of it. It’s a wonder we made it out of Cambridgeshire.

The low-lying fields, bordered by drainage ditches and punctured by the odd windmill, plus the abysmal weather, reminded me very much of the Netherlands. As if to complete the picture, we came across a cycling Dutchman whom we had met earlier, sheltering in the cathedral. He was on his way from ferry to ferry, Harwich to Hull, one of only two tourers that we met in the whole of our two weeks. We sent him on his way with firm instructions to avoid Scunthorpe at all costs.

By now we were feeling pretty miserable, a predicament made worse by my discovery that I’d left behind my trusty waterproof socks and could feel my shoes slowly filling up inside. Then, quite by accident, we came across the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Centre at Welney. We gratefully accepted its sanctuary and heated toilets, but were disheartened to find that, thanks to the rain, the only birds visible through the viewing window were no more exotic than a tufted duck. The list of birds allegedly spotted earlier in the day numbered around 40 and including a widgeon, a gadwall, a garganey, a Cetti’s Warbler and a turnstone. I couldn’t help wonder if they weren’t making some of these up but the warden was very excited about a bar-tailed godwit, which is apparently similar to a whimbrel. I tried to humour him but eventually gave it up as a bad job; my heart simply wasn’t in it.

When we discovered that, thanks to the absence of Garmin road maps, we were travelling in the opposite direction to Oxburgh Hall, leaving us only ten minutes before it closed, we decided to accept our fate and head for the night’s campsite. I never book a campsite in advance, finding that, by and large, no campsite will turn a cyclist away, but it is in fact becoming increasingly difficult to find actual campsites not given over exclusively to caravans and motorhomes whose owners are prepared to pay more, and with supplements for electricity. Despite the name, the Grange Park Touring Park no longer accepts tourers of any description, but fortunately the sight of two bedraggled cyclists was enough to melt the heart of even the stoniest caravan store owner and so it was that we spent the night as the only campers on a virtually deserted site for the most expensive fee of the trip, a frankly extortionate price of £22.00 plus 50p each for a shower! Irked by the pettiness of the shower charge and the provision of one toilet key between us, I did find the hand-dryers made excellent warmers for saturated shoes, and the disabled toilets, being centrally-heated, ensured our clothes were both dry and warm by the morning. Maybe we did get our money’s worth after all.

Downham Market to Burnham Market

Having failed to make it to Oxburgh Hall, we added it as the next item on the agenda , but like most NT properties, it doesn’t open till 10.30, putting pressure on an already crowded schedule. Oxburgh Hall is a 15thC moated manor house built thanks to a ‘licence to crenellate’. This turned out to be a sort of mediaeval planning consent; no-one in the 15thC was allowed to fortify their property without specific permission of the king lest they be suspected of ambitions above their status.

Chief attractions of Oxburgh Hall included tapestries woven by Mary Q of S and our very own Bess of Hardwick plus a priest-hole, a hiding place for when Henry VIII’s heavies came a-calling (in the middle above). This one was open to exploration by anyone gullible and stupid enough to try the experience. As I lowered myself into it, I couldn’t help but recall the single occasion on which I had sampled caving and vowed never to repeat the ordeal again. The bottom of the hole led to an exit above so the whole thing resembled a U-bend, though quite what that made me in this analogy I’m not quite sure. The priest-hole at the other end was the size of a portaloo which it resembled in having no windows but so far as I could see no portaloo either. In fact without access to light or Radio 4, I doubted the priest’s capacity to remain there very long. I found the undignified experience of trying to return to the land of the living more contorted and humiliating than the original journey.

We made it as far as Swaffham by lunch and proceeded northwards on the Peddars Way, said to be on the route of a Roman road leading all the way north to Hunstanton. Although billed as a cycling route, it displayed an alarming tendency to revert to its pre-Roman existence as a dirt track and was quickly abandoned.

We diverted to Castle Acre, a former Norman fortified town, boasting not only one of the largest and best preserved monastic sites in England dating back to 1090, but also one of the most extensive examples of a motte and bailey castle I’ve ever seen, quite a combination. The monastery was a Cluniac (Benedictine) priory which I was interested to note had included amongst its one-time relics the left arm of Saint Philip. Whether Saint Philip realised the priory was holding his left arm was not explained. St Philip is the patron saint of hatters; I have no idea why.

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The castle extended over many acres (hence the name presumably) and, despite being English Heritage, was free. We explored at length but found no trace of any other bits of Saint Philip. I would thoroughly recommend Castle Acre to any Norfolk tourist; you will not be disappointed.

The day had not yet run out of marvels to delight us. Again quite by chance, we stumbled across the church of St Lawrence at Harpley. St Lawrence was unusually born in Valencia and became the archdeacon of Pope Sixtus the Second (it might have been Pope Secundus the Sixth) put to death by Emperor Valerian. He is the one who, legend has it, being roasted on a gridiron over hot coals, requested to be turned over as he was ‘done on this side’. What a card he must have been, always ready with the merry quip. He is the patron saint of cooks and stand-up comics for obvious reasons.

The villages of North Norfolk are many and numerous and each of them features at least one church. To find an open church to explore in Derbyshire is a rarity but in Norfolk, nearly every one is unlocked and welcoming to the public. It is reassuring that even in these calamitous times, there is a part of England where this is still possible. There are over 650 Norfolk churches, more than any other county, nearly all built according to the same Norman model, cruciform with a square tower at one end, but each is uniquely individual, which makes them such a joy to investigate.

20190509_155707Harpley is one of the highest villages in Norfolk, which is admittedly not saying a lot, and its church is noted for its wooden ceiling studded with carvings of angels and pews adorned with carvings of creatures, actual and mythical. One half of the church was having its floor renewed, its predecessor having succumbed to centuries of rot. Sadly some of the centuries-old pews, having been ripped out, were literally irreplaceable. St Lawrence was, it seems, a particularly benighted church because we were told that it had suffered no fewer than four lead thefts from its roof in recent times.

I couldn’t help reflecting on the cost of all this and where the money was coming from to pay for it, which led to questions of whether it was worth it, given the sparseness (I’m guessing) of the congregation attending the services. Being an old romantic at heart – or maybe just old – I hope such monuments to history can survive for the essence of the English countryside must surely include the distant glimpse of its church spires and towers.

Our campsite at Market Downham was one of the best of the trip. Purpose-built quite recently, the complex has had a lot spent on it. The office served as a tourist centre with books and maps for purchase and adjoined a hostel. The showers were the most sumptuous we have encountered, being a series of rooms either side of a centrally-heated corridor, each containing its own toilet, wash basin and wet room shower.

Market Burnham to Sheringham

Having reached the north coast, we adopted an easterly direction, but our departure was (un)avoidably delayed by one of us (clue: it wasn’t me) losing the key to the bike lock. This was potentially a serious matter, since we’d left the bolt cutters behind. A frantic search of our meagre belongings failed to unearth the key so I was dispatched to the pub where we’d had a meal the previous evening in a possible quest to retrieve it. Normally I would be only too eager to visit a pub but this one was over a mile away. It was with a heavy heart that I started to trudge pubward, only thankfully to be recalled by a yell of triumph as the key turned up in the pocket of the tent rolled up and ready to go. Oh how I laughed.

Nor far from Market Burnham is Burnham Thorpe, the birthplace of Horatio Nelson, the archetypal British (English) hero. However the vicarage where he was born has long been torn down and all that remains to mark the event is a plaque. We didn’t stray but did pass through the floridly-monickered Burnham Overy Staithe where Nelson learned to row. He was only five foot five inches – Napoleon at five foot six was actually taller – and lived at one time at 7 Savile Row on the roof of which the Beatles gave their final concert, though not at the same time.

I have frequently been struck by how many famous people have been the offspring of clergy, usually Protestant for obvious but not exclusive reasons: Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, Joan Baez, Robert Baden-Powell, John Logie Baird, Ingmar Bergman, the Bronte sisters, Gordon Brown, John Buchan, Lewis Carroll, Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Alice Cooper – and that’s just the first three letters of the alphabet.

Stately Home of the Day was not in fact an NT property. It was Holkham Hall, home to this day of the Earl of Leicester. This was frankly a bit of a disappointment, the house itself rather grey and drab despite being built in Italian Renaissance style after the first Earl of Leicester came back from his holidays. However we were allowed to cycle through the sweeping estate free of charge so I won’t be too harsh. We reached one of two 24 metre high obelisks standing at either end of the grounds.

On the opposite side of the road to the Hall was our first proper Norfolk beach, Holkham Bay where Gwyneth Paltrow wandered during Shakespeare in Love before selflessly devoting her life to Gloop. I confess that I don’t actually remember that bit of the film and therefore why she was awandering.

Holkham Beach is NT but since it’s free to all, I felt a bit cheated. What’s the point of me shelling out every year if they allow everybody? It is undeniably stunning as the boardwalk path leads you through pine woods before suddenly before opening out upon acres of pure, untrammelled mud. In desperate search of something a bit more, well, sandy, I set off on my bike towards the distant tide-line and was rewarded with sweeping, unspoilt golden sands to either side. It was almost worth getting bogged down in the mud and having to clean sand out of unknown crevices of my bike for days afterwards.

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A few miles down the coast was Wells-Next-the-Sea. It being well past lunchtime (three o’clock actually), we explored the high street to find that many of the shops at Wells are owned by the same man, Arthur Howell. Although less well celebrated are Arthur Howell’s Abattoir and Arthur Howell’s Gun Shop, the Arthur Howell empire includes his Delicatessen, his Butcher’s, his Fishmongery and, best of all, Arthur Howell’s Bakery. This had an extraordinary range of cakes of the sort close to every cyclist’s heart at very reasonable prices. We kept ourselves going for three days on chocolate-coated flapjack, chocolate-coated millionaire’s shortbread and chocolate-coated oaties. I think you’ve probably worked out the secret of Arthur’s success by now.

On our way to Blakeney and Sheringham, we saw in the distance the church of Stiffkey. Time (and the fact that a hill separated us) prevented a visit but it is worth mentioning this church not because of anything noteworthy about the building, but because of a former rector, Rev Harold Davidson who had a remarkable career. Firstly he suffered the ignominy of being defrocked by the Bishop of Norwich having dedicated himself to saving fallen women a little too conscientiously, adopting a hands-on approach. As any disgraced clergyman would, he then resumed an earlier career as a showman in Blackpool where his act included freezing himself in a refrigerated chamber for which he was (unsuccessfully) prosecuted for attempted suicide. He met an untimely end when, appearing in a fairground lion’s cage, he stood on a lion’s tail and failed to survive the subsequent mauling. Let that be a lesson to us all.

Our accommodation plans envisaged two nights camping followed by a night under a roof of some sort, partly out of necessity, i.e. the need to recharge various electronic devices; between us we needed to maintain two mobile phones, two Garmin watches, a Garmin bike computer, not to mention front and rear lights. Campsites simply do not cater for these needs. Fortunately Sheringham does have one of three Youth Hostels remaining in the county, largely reminiscent of the by-gone age of youth hostels. Replete after a YHA evening meal, we wandered down to the shore to find, as often with North Norfolk towns, an apparently thriving high street largely devoid of chain shops and therefore still retaining its individuality. Much of it seemed still stuck in the sixties but somehow this was in keeping with the atmosphere of the place.

Sheringham to Norwich

Our itinerary took an idiosyncratic swerve here as we headed due south to Norwich. This was partly because neither of us had actually visited the city and it was an omission we wanted to correct, but partly because Blickling Hall, yes, you’ve guessed it a National Trust property, lay on the route.

Blickling Hall is one of the putative birthplaces of Anne Boleyn whose ghost is said to wander the place – although, according to Stanley Holloway, it is the Tower of London that she wanders ‘with her head tucked underneath her arm’. Perhaps it’s a job-share arrangement. The building itself is a magnificent Jacobean affair and all rooms are overseen by volunteers without whose unstinting efforts the NT would not survive. Each of them is allocated a room and is only too keen to impart their nuggets of wisdom. The problem is that you can end up politely listening to the same story you heard in the previous room and trying to extricate yourself without offending. Val and I spent getting on for ten minutes listening to an enthusiastic description of another property from one guide despite the fact that we had no intention of visiting it. How very British. Still I did learn from a man dressed as a butler that the word butler derives from the French for bottle, which I have to confess had never occurred to me before. Obvious now it’s pointed out.

We were hoping to enter Norwich by another bike trail, Marriott’s Way, but before we found the start of it, we visited Reepham (‘Reefam’) which, apart from featuring a network of 18th century buildings, streets and alleys, is remarkable for having three churches sharing the same churchyard, all in different parishes. The only remaining evidence of All Saints, Hackford, said to have suffered a fire in 1546, is a wall, but St Mary’s, Reepham and St Michael’s, Whitwell still stand as operational churches to this day and, having been built alongside each other, are now connected.

As we approached the church, we were assailed by the sound of a choir but not a choir singing the usual selection of hymns; this one was singing Rock around the Clock. Inside we were treated – and I think the performance merited that description – to various songs that had some fleeting religious connection: Say A Little Prayer, I’m A Believer, you get the drift. You can probably think of some more when the conversation lags after the Queen’s Speech next Christmas.

Marriott’s Way runs nearly 25 miles being named after the chief engineer of the Midland and Great Northern Railway which ran the two railway lines forming the route of the trail before their closure in 1959.

Starting at Reepham station, the path surface varied from earth through compacted gravel to tarmac, noticeably improving as Norwich approached. This was probably the most enjoyable cycling day of the tour. Earlier in the day, we had cycled along minor roads barely wide enough to accommodate a single car of which there was thankfully little evidence, through small villages and fields of wheat, barley and potatoes. East Anglia produces two-thirds of England’s sugar beet, one third of its potatoes and enough wheat for over 5 billion loaves. That’s a lot of toast.

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Incidentally if you thought from these photos that we were basking in the warmth of the springtime Norfolk sunshine, you are mistaken. There is a jarring inconsistency between the blue skies in these photos and the layers of clothing we are wearing, because when the rain stopped it was replaced by a week’s worth of bitingly cold wind, usually coming from the direction we were cycling into, making every day a three-layer day at least.

Until perhaps a mile from Norwich’s centre we were still cycling though the green of the countryside and it was almost a surprise when Marriott’s Way suddenly ended and we found ourselves disgorged into the city centre. As usual, we were so far behind schedule that there was time only to seek out the nearest campsite. Strangely enough I thought I’d found one in the centre itself, a short distance from the cathedral, but, although both Google and Ride with GPS assured me of its existence, it was nowhere to be found; in fact, the location was supposedly on a cobbled street which seemed less than likely. Fortunately there was another site only a few miles outside the centre, at Whitlingham Broad, where we were perhaps one of half a dozen campers occupying a flat site the size of several football pitches ringed by unoccupied yurts.

Norwich to Cromer

Having travelled so far south to Norwich, it seemed perverse to return to a point only a few miles east of where we’d started the previous day, but that’s the beauty of organising your own tour: you can go where you like when you like and there’s no-one to tell you otherwise.

We didn’t really do justice to Norwich; time allowed only for a cursory view of the cathedral and its mediaeval surroundings before we had to set off on a circuitous route to Cromer. Our intention was to ‘do’ the Broads, passing through Wroxham, the so-called Capital of the Broads, but first we cycled through the otherwise unremarkable village of Ranworth and made the discovery of the trip, the superlative ‘Cathedral of the Broads’, the church dedicated to St Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine.

The exterior of the church is striking enough, and maintained the extraordinarily high standard throughout Norfolk in villages often able to support grandiose churches far beyond what would be expected of a small community thanks to wealth once generated by the wool trade. However the true treasures of St Helen’s were to be found inside. The enormous tower allowed the intrepid visitor to climb its 89 steep, narrow steps to the top; the proportions of the staircase meant I had to yell up before starting your ascent because there was only room for one climber at a time. Even before the top, I had to clamber past the bells up two rickety ladders and push open a trapdoor but was rewarded with an incomparable view encompassing miles of lush Norfolk countryside spread out below like a baize table-cloth, interspersed with broads dotted with small boats and yachts.

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On my return to terra firma, I examined a mediaeval Antiphoner, a sort of book of service dating from the 15th century or earlier. Its 285 vellum sheets contained prayers and music for psalms, each superbly illustrated and decorated with ornamental Latin script (see below). The book had to be kept in a humidity-controlled box beneath bullet-proof glass covered with a cloth to prevent fading.

20190512_132648As if these were not riches enough, the screen in front of the chancel is said to be the finest painted example in England. It is divided into panels devoted to various saints, each of whose faces had been rubbed out by people touching them repeatedly over the centuries. These saints included Saint Margaret of Antioch, one of my favourites. She was persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian in the 4th Century because she refused to renounce her Christianity. Amongst the trials she underwent was to be fed to Satan in the form of a dragon who spat her out when he choked on the cross she was carrying. Despite having survived being devoured by a dragon, Margaret was eventually beheaded, but went on to achieve success as one of the saints who spoke to Joan of Arc. Her left hand is displayed on her saint’s day by the church of Saint Mary in Cairo – what is it with these appendages of saints? She is the patron saint of pregnant women.

If this was the sublime, it did not take us long to encounter the ridiculous in the form of Wroxham. The queues of traffic both in and out of the place told their own story. If Ranworth was the Cathedral of the Broads, Wroxham must be its Blackpool as evidenced by a succession of tacky shops full of tourist tat thronged with multitudinous hordes all eager for the ‘shopping experience’ on offer. Give me Satan in the form of a dragon any day.

20190512_173743We made enquiries at a campsite outside Cromer. The prospect of a night under canvas seemed unlikely as I made my way up the garden path to the rather genteel B&B at Shrublands Farm, Northrepps, but I was directed to take the road opposite, and half a mile later appeared two fields with not a single, solitary tent in them. Only the toilet block confirmed that this was to be our night’s resting place, and all for just £14.00. This was our ideal campsite where the risk of disturbance from night-time revellers and noisome children was completely absent (Sartre may have defined Hell as being other people but I think it’s actually other people’s children).

The spot that we chose was halfway up a long field leading to a wood through which the morning sun streamed. We were loath to leave the next day.

Before we crawled in for the night, we paid a visit to Cromer, out of curiosity and hunger. Compensation for the meagre choice of eateries on offer lay in the form of the pier (Pier of the Year 2015! – rather less celebrated than Kym Marsh and Daniel Radcliffe(?) who won Rear of the Year 2015) and a series of striking murals on the sea-front from which I learned that Arthur Conan Doyle came to Cromer on a golfing holiday and supposedly based Baskerville Hall on Cromer Hall. A less likely resident was Oscar Wilde who lived at the Hotel de Paris in Cromer in the early 1890’s; I like to think that somewhere in Paris there stands a Hotel de Cromer, but I somehow doubt it.

(To be continued…..)

Norfolk and Suffolk – May 2019

You probably thought with some relief that, once we’d completed Seattle to Boston in 2018, that would be the last you’d hear from me (although WordPress tells me that someone at least was still, presumably voluntarily, reading the blog as recently as last month). Well this is something by way of an experiment. 41 of you were foolish to sign up for emails alerting you as to when the next instalment was due to ‘drop’, so it follows that you should also receive an alert about our recently completed trip closer to home as well.

In May, we spent two weeks travelling round Norfolk, Suffolk and for reasons still not quite apparent, Essex as well. We were largely under canvass and the privations of camping made it difficult to maintain a blog. I did keep notes as we progressed and when we got back I had every intention of converting these into an article for the Derby cycling club magazine. The appalling weather of the past few days has given me the ideal opportunity to put these good intentions into action.

I did find that, once I’d started, it was difficult to stop so I managed to stretch the first five days of our trip into nearly 5,000 words. The subscribers to the magazine are a select bunch so it occurred to me that, if anyone was interested, they could read the first part of the article here, and if they aren’t, they can find something more useful to do with their time. If readers of the magazine want to wait till they receive the article in printed form through the post, that’s obviously perfectly fine too.

In the next couple of days, I’ll post the article and follow it up with the second and hopefully concluding part when the next batch of bad weather hits Derbyshire. This will probably not be too far in the future.

C2C Day 52: Boston – 86.7km, 366m (Cum: 5,894km, 29,573m)

We spent approximately half of our final journey into Boston riding on smooth-surfaced, busy bike paths passing through leafy corridors, even discovering a couple of large boulders just begging for an orienteering control to be hung from them:

The trail that we were following was called the Revolution Trail and it was made all too obvious which revolution they were talking about, especially when we arrived in Lexington. We had only a few minutes to pay a call to the Visitors’ Centre outside of which was the very green, Battle Green, where the first shots of the American War of Independence were fired by the British on 19th April 1775.

There was lots to see here but no time to see it in. On we went, passing through, but not pausing at, Cambridge, home to Harvard and the MIT .

We arrived only a little late outside the agreed point of rendezvous, JFK’s birthplace, a relatively modest affair for a man with his background:

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Then it was off, all 22 of us travelling the next nine miles in convoy. Despite my expectations that the whole shebang would disintegrate into a disorganised rabble, our cavalcade of cyclists remained largely cohesive. For the first part of the ride, this was because our route coincided with a massive traffic re-organisation scheme resulting in whole sections of  road being shut off to motor vehicles with police cops at every junction. It was like being in a royal procession as we rode unhindered through the traffic cones.

Even when this section ended and we found ourselves amongst the cars once again, we discovered that by assertive cycling, we could run through red lights unimpeded as motorists goggled at the geriatric vision of yellow and orange that reeled before their eyes.

Every now and again, we juddered to a stop at some Boston landmark: Fenway Park, the Red Sox’ stadium:

This quartet were all members of the Red Sox in the forties.

One of them is Dom DiMaggio, the brother of the more celebrated Joe; it may be the man on the right who played wearing glasses. There aren’t many spectacled sportsmen I can think of, ignoring snooker players: Navratilova and Billie Jean King, and Clive Lloyd.

We stopped outside the bar that inspired the TV series Cheers. I don’t think I ever saw a single episode.

The statue of Samuel Adams, revolutionary and signatory of the Declaration of Independence, seemed to have particular significance for Americans as they all queued to be photographed in front of him; the Brits politely declined.

We walked alongside Faneuil Hall, an historic covered marketplace where people literally gasped and stood open-jawed in amazement that we’d crossed the country on bicycles:

Finally we arrived at the harbour but found the gate to the water locked. An unsuspecting key-holder was propositioned and badgered into allowing us to ‘dip our wheels’ into the Atlantic, the traditional method of signifying the end of a coast to coast:

It only remained for us all to reach our hotel where the champagne was broken open and liberally quaffed:

This was followed shortly after by the official group photo and ones with individuals like ourselves.

We have completed 5,894 kilometres (3,662 miles) and climbed 29,573 metres (97,024 feet) over 52 cycling days, at an average of 113 kilometres (70.4 miles) and 568 metres (1,865 feet) per day.

The feeling now is one of relief. The significance of the achievement will not sink in for several days. Our bodies have propelled us forward for over eight weeks whilst our minds have constantly repeated that we’re crazy. Each day we have launched ourselves on a further journey into the unknown, for all of what we have seen and experienced, Niagara apart, has been a completely fresh adventure. It has been like having a blank page slowly filled each day with new exploits and memories. But the result of this is, not exhaustion, but certainly extreme tiredness, and it is only now that we can really relax.

Did I say relax? Well, not quite yet because we are not due to return to the UK until next Wednesday. When we were preparing for this trip, I knew that we would need some time to recover, but equally, that being in Boston was an opportunity that may not be repeated. Accordingly, we have booked on Friday to take the ferry to the northern tip of Cape Cod. We will cycle once again down the peninsula and across to Falmouth when we will cross to Martha’s Vineyard, looking out for the beach and other places where they filmed ‘Jaws’ (the astute amongst you will have recognised that the tagline ‘This time it’s personal’ is from Jaws 2). We will cycle to Plymouth where the Pilgrim Fathers landed, before catching the train back to Boston.

That will be it for long-distance cycling for a while – but there are rumours of another cross-country trip in 2021, to honour Bill’s ninetieth birthday and possibly the fact that he completed over 95% of this one, only forgoing the steepest climbs. We remain in awe of and salute him.

A few thank yous.

Thanks to Kate for posting the blog and photos when, more often than it should have, the internet failed us.

Thanks to Val who was usually to be found washing my socks whilst I hammered at the keyboard and for being my ever-present companion, except on hills.

Thanks to Rick, the tour leader, and Bill and Annie, the co-drivers of the support vehicle even though they will never read this, I hope.

And thanks to you for your interest, encouragement and comments; the blog would have been a lonelier place without you. I set out to write 52 days of drivel and succeeded. I apologise for the many inaccuracies arising from the inadequacy of the time needed to check my facts and for those times when inspiration deserted at the end of a day when little happened or I was too tired to record it. Together we made it through to the end.

See you all back in England.

C2C Day 51: Brattleboro, Vermont, to Nashua, New Hampshire – 116.6km, 1,162m (Cum: 5,807.40km, 29,289m)

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When we were in Brattleboro Visitors’ Centre, there was a cardboard cut-out of Kevin Bacon wearing an ‘I love Brattleboro’ sweatshirt. I meant to ask the connection between the two (although, because of the number of films he’s been in, you are supposed to be able to trace any actor to Kevin Bacon in six moves), but forgot. Well, I’ve just found out that Brattleboro has an annual Baconfest celebrating all things bacon, and in 2014, they invited Kevin but he was probably too busy advertising EE and posted a Twitter video excusing himself.

We have stayed in every type of hotel and motel from the scummy to the luxurious. Tonight’s hotel, the Radisson, falls at the ritzier end of the scale and fancies itself a bit of a castle with roof-top crenellations (which may be why it justifies not providing a fridge). Last night’s motel was at the other extreme: the Econo Lodge. The very name says, ‘we are cheap and aim for the barely adequate’. It achieved it. Still, generally the standard has been higher than on Route 66, and we had congratulated ourselves on at least avoiding staying at a motel where there had been  a murder earlier in the year, as happened last time.

Well, that may have lasted only until last night, because when the Five O’clock Club arrived in Brattleboro (much earlier than us), they found the motel swarming with police as someone had been found in one of the rooms, believed to have succumbed to an over-dose of heroin. It goes to show that, for all its veneer of opulence and respectability, there is a darker side to New England. In 2014, the New York Times ran an article with the headline, ‘Heroin Scourge Overtakes a ‘Quaint’ Vermont Town’, and that referred to our previous night’s resting-place, Bennington. On that cheery note, we’ll move on.

Today was heralded as the sting in the tail of the tour as a 71 mile day combined with 3,000 feet of climb in conditions of overwhelming mid-thirties heat. We set the alarm for 05.30, but the Five O’clock Club had set theirs even earlier so we were still one of the last to leave. There is evident benefit in this strategy as, at this time of the day, the temperatures are still in the low twenties and, this morning, there was mist over the river.

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We covered four states today, leaving Vermont and entering New Hampshire before veering into Massachusetts and swerving back again, making eleven all told, plus one Canadian province.

Almost immediately on entering New Hampshire, there was a sign for an NH liquor store. It seems the sale of alcohol is restricted in New Hampshire. Wine and beer can be bought in groceries which includes supermarkets but liquor (more than 6% alcohol) can only be bought at state-run stores. Apparently there are still 17 states which retain control over the sale of liquor, a throwback to the Prohibition era. A home brewer in New Hampshire is restricted to 100 gallons (or 200 if a couple)!

When we started out, most of the history was concerned with the early 19th Century as Lewis and Clark forged their way west, but now we’re in New England, the clock has been turned back fifty years and nothing is worth considering unless it has a 17- at the beginning. In Fitzwilliam, we came across this elm tree, accompanied by a plaque which explained that this had replaced the original, dubbed the ‘Liberty Tree’ in protest at the hated British stamp tax. “In August 1775, as a last act of violence prior to their evacuation of Boston, British soldiers cut it down  because it bore the name ‘Liberty'”.  The British behaving like hooligans abroad? That would never happen.

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Every village has its steepled church in white and its houses in the colonialist revival style:

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Although we completed today’s ride in good time, the temperature had started to rise and by early afternoon, it was in the mid-thirties and suffocating. Our hotel was some distance to the south of Nashua and the heat made sight-seeing prohibitively uncomfortable so we opted for an ice-cold coffee and an uncharacteristically early finish.

Tomorrow, we ride into Boston for the final leg. In theory, everyone will congregate at JFK’s birth-place about nine miles out, regardless of when they set out, but the Five O’clock Club are restless. If they had their way, the meeting would be earlier still, even though to arrive at the rendezvous we have to travel 42 miles from the hotel, the last part of it along a busy city bike trail. Realistically, we are going to need five hours of cycling to take account of unforeseen eventualities, meaning a 06.30 start.

Assuming all 22 manage to link up at 11.30, we then have to negotiate our way collectively past nine landmarks including Harvard, the Boston Red Sox’s ground, Paul Revere’s house and the site where the US Constitution is held. It’ll be a miracle if we arrive at our final hotel by 13.45, the agreed time for a group photo.

At Happy Hour tonight, someone had composed a song which included all of the 51 (I think) places we have stayed at and I realised that even now, I can’t even remember anything about Monticello, Clare and Simcoe. Soon it  will be a memory, but at least this blog will serve as a reminder, which is part of its purpose.

We’ll finish today with the birthday girl herself engaged in her favourite occupation, climbing a hill.

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C2C Day 50: Bennington, VT, to Brattleboro, VT – 94.60km, 1,197m (Cum: 5,690.80km, 28,127m)

Val’s friend, Angela, has emailed her to say that she’s only up to Day 19, and can we cycle a bit slower! It’s a bit late, Angela, and at this rate, it’ll be Christmas before you reach this bit anyway. It would be easier if you read faster.

The cat at the top appears in Bennington and is labelled ‘Catitude’. Which reminds me that yesterday, we passed a sandwich shop called ‘Subs-Ta-Toot’.

Sometimes, it’s only when  we’ve been through an area that we find out something we would have visited had we known sooner. We were told that the cemetery to the Old First Church at Bennington contains the grave of the poet, Robert Frost. When we were married, one of Val’s friends bought us a photograph of a forest covered in snow with the oft-quoted lines, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep. But, even so, we weren’t going to go back up the hill – it’s not as if he was Butch Cassidy.

Today delivered on the promised climb, at 1,197 metres, the most we’ve done since Glacier National Park, Montana on Day 12. Not for nothing is this the Green Mountain state. Unlike yesterday, when the climb came in spurts, we had one big hill early on between Bennington and Wilmington, and then a mini-peak around half-way, but neither of them troubled us unduly, the result of eight weeks’ hard work.

It is only right that we mark the occasion with the return of a photo of Val climbing a hill:

Before we started the first climb, we passed the Appalachian Trail, five miles out of Bennington, an anonymous crossing of the road marked only by a sign warning of walkers. The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only trail in the world at 2,190 miles and those travelling south to north are here nearing the end at Mount Katahdin in Maine. There’s a good book on walking the trail, Balancing the Blue by an Englishman, Keith Fossett if you can overlook the sometimes juvenile sense of humour and idiosyncrasies (and this is me talking). He mentions that it is the custom for local people to drive to crossing points to leave supplies for trekkers, a practice confirmed by the spaghetti house in town. The Trail takes about six months to complete whilst we’ve taken two months (nearly) to complete a crossing of eleven States so I think I’ll stick to cycling whilst I can.

Of all the states so far, I think Vermont is the one I’d like to explore further. Looking at a map of the estate, we are at the very south extremity of land that stretches 160 miles to the north – although it could be that all of New England is as good. Everywhere we have cycled today has been brilliantly green, whether it be thick forest or deep valleys:

We passed many well-appointed houses today, and were told that these are the second homes, weekend retreats, of wealthy New-Yorkers. We saw the evidence of this yesterday when as we cycled through Hoosick on leaving New York state just after mid-day. There was a huge traffic jam, like Scarborough on a Bank Holiday weekend, as cars returned to the city, slowed by the single traffic light in the centre of town.

In the museum we visited yesterday, there was a section on covered bridges in New England, of which only around 100 hundred survive despite there being at one time over a thousand. We saw two of them today:

By the time we arrived in Brattleboro, it was lunchtime and the temperature was into the thirties. Nevertheless, I googled the visitors’ centre and we cycled to the address given. This turned out to be an ordinary house and the owner of the property was as surprised as we were to find out that she’d been a victim of a Google mistake. We did find the genuine centre and were given a number of options to spend the afternoon pursuing.

The first two involved a trip of another eight miles deep into the Vermont forest. I didn’t tell Val it would be uphill but I think she suspected something was up when we turned on to Black Mountain Road. We found ourselves once again battling an uphill gravel track – it really wouldn’t have been the same if we hadn’t had the chance to curse this once again. It was worth it though as we found Scott Farm, devoted to growing more than 160 varieties of apple as well as other fruit. There was no-one about so I wandered around until I found a dry-stone waller busily engaged; he was responsible for this on the left:

Meanwhile Val found other personnel sheltering from the heat in the cooler and we bought two peaches and apples – Yellow Transparent, the second to crop of the season. We swapped tales of our favourite varieties – there’s no bore like an apple bore – and took away recommendations for Strawberry Chenango, Red Astrakhan and Dolgo crab apple.

On the way back we passed Naulakha, Rudyard Kipling’s house:

I didn’t know Kipling lived in America, but it turns out he married an American and lived on his wife’s family estate in Vermont where he wrote The Jungle Book and Just So Stories. He abandoned the house when his first child died at the age of six, returning to London.

We completed the afternoon with a tour of the ‘hotch-potch’ of Brattleboro’s Main Street buildings including this 1861 (‘Italianate Revival’) building built by a shoemaker. The plaque at the top cost $12,000 and, being made out of bronze, required multiple teams of oxen to haul it from the station:

We finish with a sighting of the Loch Ness Monster. No wonder they can never find it in Scotland:

(PS Don’t forget tomorrow is Val’s birthday).

C2C Day 49: Latham, New York, to Bennington, Vermont – 80.00km, 814m (Cum: 5,596.20km, 26,930m)

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We started today on the trail we finished on last night. Although nominally still the Erie Canal path, it had ceased to follow the canal and was obviously on the course of an old railway line, but it was at least tarmacked. We were just north of Albany, the state capital, and although it was just after eight on a Sunday morning, the trail was alive with cyclists and runners; it was good to see it so well-used.

Today was a short day, because of the scarcity of hotels along our route so we had more time to spend in places we would normally have rushed through. There were few towns along the way, but the most substantial until Bennington was Cohoes (‘Quehose’). We were the only ones who chose to tarry here, first of all riding down its main street to admire various old buildings. Cohoes is evidently undergoing a make-over, an initiative from the mayor, and all the streets looked clean, sparkly and litter–free, a sight you will be familiar with unless you live in Britain. This building was undergoing a face-lift:

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The Visitors’ Centre was shut on a Sunday but we were advised by a local – one who actually knew what his town had to offer for a change – to head north to Cohoes Falls. So we did.

Cohoes used to be known as Spindle City because of its textiles industry, processing cotton from the Deep South in its many mills, all now of course closed. We passed several of them on our way up and found that, rather than being allowed to deteriorate, they had been renovated and transformed into smart, trendy Loft Apartments:

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If only someone would do a similar service for the East Mill in Belper…

We have come to treat the word ‘falls’ with suspicion as it can mean anything from a Niagara cataract to some creek bubbling over a few stones, but Cohoes’ Falls definitely fell into the former category. We were completely unprepared for the spectacular sight that greeted us as we followed a single arrow indicating the whereabouts of the waterfall:

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This is 300 metres wide and 55 metres high (Horseshoe Falls, Niagara, is 820 metres wide but only 51 metres high). We were fortunate indeed because we were told that at this time of year, the falls are normally not much more than a trickle and you can walk along the river bed to see them. However there has been much rain in North-East US – and a tornado in Massachusetts – in recent weeks (so we have been doubly lucky because we have missed it), so the waters of the Mohawk river are swollen and the result breath-taking.

A panel told us that blueback herring leave their normal salt-water habitat to swim up the canal before spawning in the Mohawk and returning to the ocean via the Falls (or more sensibly, the fish passage). I thought it was only lemmings that threw themselves off cliffs.

Another panel in Cohoes told the story of Robert Craner, a local man captured by the Viet-Cong in 1967 and kept in solitary confinement (in a cell next to the senator John McCain with whom he communicated by tapping on the wall). He was subject to beatings and interrogation until released in 1973. He said that the moon landings took place in 1969, but he did not learn about them until four years later. He died of a heart attack in 1980.

We rode out of Cohoes and almost immediately the terrain changed. For weeks now, we have travelled along flat or slightly undulating hills, but we are entering New England and the inclines steepened, but, by way of compensation, we passed through tree-lined valleys and across the top of Tomhannock Reservoir:

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Some time during the day, we left New York State and entered Vermont, but the precise moment was confused by a shop in Hoosick, New York, claiming to be in Vermont. The shop in question was the Big Moose Deli and Country Store which pulled out every stop to attract custom:

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One way it did this was by luring gullible passers-by into taking photographs next to ludicrous subjects, not that we would ever fall for such a ploy:

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Here’s me next to Bruce and Clark (darn it, I’ve just given away their secret identity) – spot the super-hero:

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Only half a mile on was a drive-through (never a drive-thru) coffee shop serving frozen coffee and apple cider doughnuts. Irresistible on a hot day where the temperatures hit 31 degrees C (forecast to go even higher tomorrow):

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Finally we arrived in Bennington where we called in at the local Arts Centre, well worth the stop. It was showing an exhibition of around 100 cartoons from the New Yorker magazine. Everyone loves a good cartoon although what makes a funny one varies depending on one’s sense of humour, but I think that the talent of combining wit and the ability to illustrate the joke is a under-rated skill. It’s almost certainly a breach of copyright but here’s one by Erica Flake – the caption reads, ‘You’re right – they are more comfortable than briefs’.

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You have to think a moment to appreciate this by Sam Gross:

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There was an exhibition by Eric Sloane who paints New England landscapes:

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as well as by a carver of animals and birds from wood, and by artists showing Native American life. A GV rating of Five (partly because I was let in half-price as a senior over 62).

We finally visited the 300 foot high Bennington memorial commemorating the 1777 Battle of Bennington when 2,300 American revolutionaries defeated 1,400 British troops – it wasn’t fair, we were outnumbered! In actual fact, the battle took place 10 miles away in New York, but the Battle of Walloomsac doesn’t scan as well.

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The 2,400 feet (800 metres) of climb we did today will increase by a factor of 1.5 tomorrow before the crescendo of the penultimate day which will combine a ride of 71 miles with a similar amount of ascent. Having brought us to our knees, the tour will decline with a leisurely decent into Boston. Only three days to go.

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C2C Day 48: Little Falls, NY, to Latham, NY – 126.2km, 408m (Cum: 5,516.20km, 26,116m)

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The photos of us taken today show us in our new cycle jerseys which were finally delivered yesterday, only five days before the end of the tour. considering that they were  a ‘rushed job’, we are very pleased with them. They are yellow so show up on the road well and they display our route across a map of the USA. In fact the tour has been so long, the map has to stretch across both front and back. I’ll post a photo of them close up when I get the chance.

We really took to Little Falls. The ice cream that we ate yesterday was bought from a shop in an old mill that made textiles, specifically military uniforms. The presence of the mill and the river reminded me of some of the towns in West Yorkshire:

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Before we left today we had to pay a visit to Lock 17. You will recall from yesterday (surely you can’t have forgotten already?) that Little Falls was founded because boats had to be transported round the big drop in the river. Well, this was translated into the tallest lock on  the whole Erie Canal, 40 feet high. For a long time after its completion in 1912, it was the tallest in the world. And it is huge:

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Fortunately there was a single boat using it as we arrived, and you can see how small and insignificant it looked in comparison with the interior of the lock from this photo:

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Today was a long day – 78 miles – but we crammed a lot into it, mostly unplanned. The trail which seemed to have disappeared yesterday has came back strongly today, and the majority was smoothly tarmacked – one section had been freshly laid this week. Apparently it is the policy of the Governor of New York to pave the whole of the trail in this way. If I were a New York voter, he’d get my support too. We cycled along some beautiful wooded paths, sparkling and green because of the high humidity – we are promised 100% humidity tomorrow. Sweaty!

We hadn’t gone long when we saw just off the trail this house, the home of Nicholas Herkimer, a general in the War of Independence who died in the 1777 battle of Oriskany, also mentioned yesterday:

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His grave was in a cemetery behind the house as well as a monument to his achievements:

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One reason for mentioning this is that, a few miles further on,  I had a puncture only the  third in nearly 5,500 km, and was mending it when another cyclist stopped to ask if he could help. He told us that he lived in a house built by Herkimer for his sister, a smaller version of the one above. He’d been digging recently and had found an 18th Century penny. Previously he’d dug up an old tree and discovered the roots overlay several horse-shoes; he has been advised that the tree was planted on top of the grave of the family horse in all probability. We would never have found this out were it not for the puncture.

We arrived in Canajoharie (pronounced Canjoharry by the locals or simply shortened to Canjo). Here is the traffic light in the middle of a roundabout (regard my forefinger as an unsolicited bonus):

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We sought out the local museum mainly because it had a section on chewing gum, Beech-Nut having had a factory in Canjo till production moved to Florida (New York) in 2011. I do remember Beech Nut selling chewing gum in the UK, but I don’t think they do any longer; Wrigley’s sell 35% of the world’s gum. Beech Nut stated out in Canjo selling smoked ham. Anyway, I’ve always wondered exactly what went into gum, and still remember being traumatised when, as a child, I was told that swallowed gum would take seven years to digest (not true! It was fake news). Well, I continue to wonder because the museum did not open till 12 noon on a Saturday. I was so annoyed! The busiest day of the week and they couldn’t be bothered to open till the afternoon. And it was a public library too. A public service should serve the public so a GV rating of a fat zero to the Arkell Museum.

New York finds us in Amish country again. I was told that they moved up here when land got too expensive in Pennsylvania, though I hardly think it is cheap here. We encountered an Amish family selling cakes and pies by the side of the road, and naturally stopped to buy some, including a whoopie pie, two chocolate rounds with a type of butter cream between, resembling an Oreo.

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Our attention was drawn to a Martyr’s Shrine, unfortunately at the top of a hill. We nevertheless put in the effort. I was expecting a statue such as is seen by the side of the road in France but what we found was a huge building styled a colosseum, holding 6,500 seated people and up to 10,000 with standing. The National Shrine of the North American Martyrs, to give it its full title was dedicated to three Jesuit missionaries killed by Mohawks in the 1640’s. It was amazing, as were the views over the surrounding countryside:

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In a Visitors’ Centre (another canal-related one but it was free), we saw this relief map which illustrates our progress through the state. You can see how, by following the canal trail, we have cunningly avoided the Adirondacks to the north and the Catskills to the south – unfortunately we can’t avoid the Appalachians which we hit tomorrow:

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We approached but had to disregard Amsterdam including its car on a chimney (bitterly disappointing as we saw someone else’s photos, and it was very impressive) and the Kirk Douglas Park. Kirk, aged 102 in December, was born Issur Danielovitch, the son of a Belarussian rag-and-bone man, in this town (it’s interesting to read the account of his early life and its hardships on Wikipedia).

We had decided to visit Schenectady (‘Skenectady’) instead, partly because I like the name (say it to yourself several times and you’ll feel much better) and partly because it was another film location. In fact it has a number of film and literary connections. Mickey Rourke was born there, but my favourite son of Schenectady is the Spiderman villain, Dr Octopus – I’ve no idea why this city was chosen as the birthplace for a fictional character but Henry James, Kurt Vonnegut and Star Trek have all featured such inventions.

The film in question was the 1973 Redford and Streisand romantic drama, The Way We Were, the first section of which was filmed at Union College where Streisand as the anti-War Marxist Jew is attracted to the good looks and easy charm of Redford’s carefree privilege. Union College was well worth the detour. It is in effect a private university at the heart of which is this stunning Italianate memorial to its founder, Eliphalet (yes, Eliphalet) Nott. Although somehow we managed to miss the 18 acres of gardens but the surroundings were sumptuous:

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The sign of a good day is when we miss the start of Happy Hour. We were late again today. Tomorrow we leave New York just as we were getting to know it, and we have only four days of cycling left as we spend two days in the hills of Vermont.

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C2C Day 47: Canastota, NY, to Little Falls, NY – 91.90km, 313m (Cum: 5,390.00km, 2,5698m)

As well as being the location for the Boxing Hall of Fame, Canastota (Pop: 4,600) was also the location for the Biograph Company, active between 1895 and 1916, the first company devoted to film production and projection in the USA.  I am constantly surprised at the way in which small out-of-the-way places like Canastota have made a contribution influencing our lives so many years later.

We were following the Erie Canal for only a short while today. As we have worked our way east, the standard of maintenance of the canal has dropped as the original has been by-passed by a larger replacement. At times, it looks like the Cromford Canal, clogged with weed or fallen trees, or covered in green algae, a sorry sight:

What we have seen very little of is actual boats travelling along the canal, even when wide and navigable. When we were following the Canal du Midi in France to train for this trip, there was a constant flow of pleasure cruises hired out by holiday companies in the same way you can hire  a barge in the UK. The future of the Erie Canal would be better secured if only someone with similar initiative would do the same, with consequent benefit to towns and businesses along the course of the canal.

When we left the canal, we passed mile after mile of large houses, testifying to the wealth of this part of New York. These dwellings were not part of a town, just an urban sprawl. It’s a shame that the state has been allowed to be spoilt like this, in my opinion. This is a typical example of a house standing in acres of grass (hardly anyone  actually grows anything, they just mow the grass every week). You’d probably build at least twenty houses on this plot in England:

Today was both a short day of only 55 miles but also a day interrupted by rain so we took refuge in the Oneida Historical Museum in Utica (‘Ootika’) where we met the director Brian (I’m never sure whether these posts are paid; Brian was in his forties and ‘at work’ on a Friday so I assume he is). He is a regular cyclist and let slip that he’s done an Ironman two weeks ago. (Well, we’ve cycled 5000 kilometres; how long was your Ironman again?) We have rather had our fill of canal museums and this made a change, being concerned in part with what we call the War of Independence (The Revolutionary War), which like it or not, we lost. There was a battle near Utica called Oriskany in 1777 one of the bloodiest of the war; the Americans lost 50% of their troops, the British 15%, but this was not a victory as the British left most of the fighting to the Iroquois who subsequently fell out causing the loss of a valuable ally and ultimately the whole campaign. There was a cannonball on display from the French and  Indian War of 1756. Unfortunately the rest of the museum was less inspiring and failed to explain the history of Utica (based on textiles) so it only gets a GV rating of Two.

Our search for a decent bakery continues without a great deal of success. Dinner-time coincided with Utica, but the fact that we passed two bakeries that were not just closed but closed down altogether suggests that if the US is eating bread, it is not fresh from the local bakery. On our way out, we saw an Italian Bakery so we called. In Italy, you are never short of something to eat at lunchtime (although, of course, by actual lunchtime, the bakery will have closed for lunch) because you can buy sumptuous focaccia with sun-dried tomatoes and soaked in olive oil, or savoury tarts or pasties filled with spinach, eggs, onions. But not in an American bakery where ‘pastry’ means calorie-crammed sweet pastries, buns, cakes and biscotti. That’s not what we wanted so we moved on.

We saw another Italian Bakery in Frankfort and tried our luck again. We met Rick Vitti whose family has run it since 1961 when it used to be a German bakery. He looked at me blankly when I described the savoury delights on sale in Italy, but despite his grandparents being Italian immigrants, he’d never actually been to Italy, or indeed out the country. He was selling cannoli and pustry. I’d heard of cannoli, but didn’t know what they were (Sicilian tubes of fried pastry dough filled with ricotta). I’d never even heard of a pustry, and this turned out to be a small pie filled with chocolate fondant. OK, it still wasn’t savoury but it was delicious. Val asked for a cinnamon twist, but Rick advised her not to have one on display as they were made yesterday; he fetched some fresh from out the back. This explains why he’s still in business while others have closed down.

Earlier in the tour, I ordered some pie and was asked if I wanted it ‘a la mode’. I hadn’t a clue what this meant either, but I was told that it is generally accepted as meaning ‘with ice cream’.

Little Falls is a great little place. It’s the sort of town that when you’re standing in the queue for Old Sal’s Home-made Ice Cream (two scoops for less than $2), someone will introduce you to the local judge.

The hotel is opposite the town’s Historical Museum which was due to close at four so we headed there straight away and met our second cycling museum director of the day. He gave us a quick guided tour of the highlights.

Little Falls started out as a Mohawk village because the drop in the river meant that all boats and their cargo had to be carried around the ‘falls’. The settlement developed into a village when it became a fur trading post between the local Mohawk tribe and French trappers coming down from Canada. Eventually it grew into ‘the Cheese Capital of the World’. The fame of  cheese in Herkimer County meant that the USA’s first cheese exchange (if you can imagine a cheese exchange) was sited in Little Falls. It fixed the price of cheese for the whole country, thereby influencing the cheese prices in Europe, hence the title. An GV rating of Four (which takes account of a recommendation for ice cream and dinner).

Little Falls also doubles as a film location. Earlier this year, A Quiet Place was released starring Emily Blunt. This well-received sci-fi horror – 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and they’re inevitably making a sequel – was based on the ingenious premise that aliens have taken over the world, they are blind but have hyper-sensitive hearing so attack anything that makes a sound. It was filmed on Little Fall’s Main Street.