This year’s return to Norfolk saw 14 riders booking into the Park Hotel, Diss and 4 at the nearby caravan park. There were 4 octogenarians, a couple of 60-somethings and the rest in between somewhere. They rode 12 solos and three tandems, one of which was a “Pentacycle” (5 wheels!). We enjoyed the usual superb support, eating and bike parking provided by the venue, which also cut us a deal on our rooms and some 2-for-1 dinners.
So, it was just a matter of deciding where to go. Broadly speaking, there were 2 groups of 6 and 9 bikes with the smaller group going a little further each day than the larger. But these groups completed some rides together and if not, usually met up at some point. The rides began on arrival day with Dave’s short afternoon ride to Bressingham Gardens tearooms – a sort of “taster ride” taking and hour each way around the quiet lanes. The next day, the whole group of 18 followed Brian and Jan’s tandem on a ride out to Stowmarket, visiting the same tea-stop at Cotton for elevenses and afternoon tea. I made that a quite impressive 53-miles.
We had good weather up to this point although the breezes were definitely chilly, despite the bright sunshine. Norfolk farmers would seem to be heading for a good harvest this year, with all of the crops well ahead of schedule for late April, lining our route for mile after mile. The rape crops were particularly noticeable, sending huge carpets of yellow over the horizon (not to mention tons of inhaled pollen).
Day three began wet, but after a short delay we set off and the rain stopped almost as we left. The 2 groups met for elevenses at the quaintly named “Blo’ Norton”. (Corruption of the word Below, perhaps?). To get there we had taken the “river route” along the Suffolk side of the River Waveney eventually tracing it back to its source. At this spot, the Little Ouse also begins, flowing in the opposite direction towards its destination at The Wash. In the damp, bright morning spring air the valley route looked just plain beautiful, like a rolling constable painting. The groups parted and five of us embarked on the longer ride to Thetford, eventually running out of open farmland and into thick forest along gently rolling straight roads with little or no cars and just the odd tractor. To me, the short lunch stop in Thetford was a bit of a letdown. The town has changed significantly since my Suffolk childhood and is now in the aftermath of large scale London resettlement, followed by large-scale industrial failure (the closure of the Thermos factory). It looks a sad shadow of its former self. Back on the road we went north before heading east through more pretty Norfolk villages. At East Harling, we paused to visit the church, where a lady Church Warden gave us an impromptu tour. These old buildings and their contents are always a source of fascination for me and this one didn’t disappoint. It has medieval painted oak screens, tombs and effigies of the 16th century landed gentry and beautiful stained glass, all of which have survived the Devolution, Civil War, Puritanism, bombing etc. Marvellous!
Next day we were all together for the short ride to Eye, where the “long” group opted to ride on whilst the majority took tea. This resulted in their discovering the Bank Arts centre, of which, I’ll say more later. It was getting more drizzly as we went and our eventual elevenses at Debenham was in a tiny bric-a-brac shop reminiscent of the one run by “Miranda” in the TV series of the same name. It was decided to abandon the original plan (Framlingham) in favour of chasing after the other group, who, led by Ken and Maureen were heading to Laxfield for lunch at The Low House. This ancient and very charming pub is well worth a visit with its oak panelled screens, and beer cellar (no bar!). We got there chilled and wetted, just as the others were finishing but enjoyed the mushroom and garlic soup and a welcomed warm-up before leaving. We caught the others once more on the Eye route and had afternoon tea at “The Bank” art studio, culture centre and teashop. This former Midland Bank branch has been superbly transformed and we found it contained working artists, home made cakes and a gallery in the old vault downstairs. We were well served and enjoyed some beautiful exhibits.
Sunday was the final riding day and the morning sunshine had us all keenly off and away. The small group plumped for a ride along the Waveney Valley towards Beccles whilst the shorter run was to Harleston for elevenses, again led by Brian and Jan. The conditions were pretty well ideal for cycling and we made good progress on the small lanes and traffic-free roads to elevenses at the Flixton Buck. This is a unique pub, one of whose former landlords was Alan Breeze (you need a long memory for this) – who was a regular on the Billy Cotton Band Show in the early 1960’s. It also is the site of a very large, free aircraft museum. The old planes are a mix of military and civil aircraft parked on a large field with hangars at the rear housing many more aircraft, helicopters, engines, bombs, and most importantly, the “NAFFI” café. We supped tea at £1-a-mug and ate home made cakes served by some very fetching ladies wearing 1940’s period dress. I dallied a long time there, momentarily forgetting the ride but don’t regret that and I have vowed to return to this Aladdin’s Cave of aeronautical nerdiness and wonder. Back on the road we passed by Bungay and skirted Beccles before looping back to the south of the Waveney, stopping for further snacks at Fressingfield and afternoon tea once more at The Bank. The by now familiar and scenic run through Yaxley and Mellis completed the ride.
In the final reckoning, the “short” group had covered about 170 miles and the “long” one about 230. The beautiful farm lanes, traffic-free roads, big landscapes, villages, pubs, cafes, museums, windmills and churches made this tour fly past in a wave of enjoyment. Roll on the next.