Fenland Fling 2021 ride report
Seasoned tourist Nick ‘Saddlesore’ navigated the Covid social distancing restrictions and led our Fenland Fling tour, Fridays style, in early June. One of the Fenland tourists, John, sends this report.
Day one: London to Cambridge
Six of us met at Alexandra Park Station on a grey morning. The rain started shortly before our 10am departure, and our own personal raincloud accompanied us all the way through the North London suburbs to Cheshunt and up the Lea valley to Broxbourne where we stopped for coffee. After fixing Patrick’s puncture we continued along minor roads to a late lunch at Puckeridge, then on in the rain through rolling countryside to Cambridge. Now the tour proper could begin.
Day two: Cambridge to Spalding
Stuff had dried out remarkably well in the hotel, even my shoes were only slightly damp! To maintain the balance of weather harmony we were greeted by blue skies and sunshine. Woohoo! We were joined at breakfast by three more tourists - Gordon, Lonica, and Ian. Ian had ridden from Northampton on his new Boardman bike, which was an e-bike ... something that became evident during the remainder of the tour as Ian deployed his special power in more or less subtle ways.
Our route took us through flatlands punctuated with old houses and wealthy churches. And before we knew it, we were in Ely. Our elevenses stop in a delightful café (discovered thanks to the local knowledge of Claire) somehow turned into lunch. As well as the cathedral and Oliver Cromwell's house there was a market in the town square which we visited on our way through. Ely is full of character. From there we were on bicycle tracks and minor roads in a flat landscape with pumping stations as evidence that the land here is human-created.
As an 1830 poet said:
These Fens have oft times been by Water drown'd
Science a remedy in Water found
The power of Steam she said shall be employ'd
And the Destroyer by Itself destroy'd
Day three: Spalding to Skegness
One of my pre-tour fears was that it might be boring riding through endless acres of cabbage fields. However in reality there was a huge variety of crops, including some colourful fields of flowers.
We spoke to a dog walker who told us the flowers here were Sweet Williams; she went on to express her surprise they had been allowed to flower as they were usually cut for market well before flowering. The field was huge and I asked if machines were used to harvest the flowers. She replied, "the flowers are cut by hand, but you can't get the labour ... <pause> ... because of Brexit". Yes!!! we thought, the reality of Brexit is becoming evident to ordinary people even in this strongly pro-Brexit area.
Wisbech seemed to be a poor, rather run down old place, but provided a convenient place to stop for lunch. There were some interesting old buildings, especially by the river. The roads from here had a Dutch feel (not so surprising as the landscape was created by Dutch engineers in the 18th century), and many roads were bikes only. Lovely! Skegness was our first independent b&b which is always a bit of a concern, but in my case the couple running the hotel were delightful, they looked after my bike as well as me and provided a great breakfast. Everything was spotlessly clean, and the price was incredibly cheap. Skegness has a fine beach (although windy) and would be a good place for a holiday with young children. I searched the Good Pub Guide and somewhat alarmingly discovered "there are no 'recommended' pubs in Skegness", and "there are no 'worth a visit' pubs in Skegness" either. An Italian restaurant near the hotel was our salvation; authentic Italian dishes, all cooked to a high standard, provided a memorable dinner. This was not at all what some of us had been expecting of Skegness!
Day four: Skegness to Lincoln
We left the flatlands of the Fens and headed towards the Lincolnshire Wolds. The roads we used were often un-metalled, but easy to cycle along. We reached Boston which, in former days was a port, and we could see evidence of the drainage activity in the area. Nevertheless it’s still an interesting town so we stopped for a coffee. Our elevenses stop was in Alford, a charming, timeless place. From there our way into Lincoln was direct, following the canalised river.
Lincoln was well worth exploring, full of history. The top of the arch shows the Lincoln Imp. The legend is that the devil's demons were out playing and the imp went to Lincoln planning to wreak havoc. He flew inside the cathedral knocking over the Dean and smashing the windows and lights. When an angel told him to stop his response was "stop me if you can". So the angel turned him into stone! The story must be true as the stone imp can still be seen in the cathedral.
Day five: Lincoln to Grantham
We were joined by Bob who had arrived from London by train. Once again we followed an off-road track out of Lincoln. After a great elevenses stop just before Newark we climbed up to Belvoir Castle - well worth the effort for the great view and and very welcome ice cream. From there it was easy riding to our destination in Grantham.
Day six: Grantham to Fenstanton
Claire rejoined us to ride some of the way back to Fenstanton. Setting off we were soon back in the countryside, riding beside fields of flax, other crops and meadows (it isn't just fields of cabbages in these parts).
I was losing count of the number of counties we had visited: excluding London boroughs we went to Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland (now reinstated as a proper county), Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire.
Some of us decided it would be fun to make a literary diversion to the chapel at Little Gidding (featuring in TS Eliot's Four Quartets). This proved to be quite an adventure following bridle tracks to the wrong church at Steeple Gidding. After much trekking through fields, we found the right church. And it was well worth it.
One of the final stanzas in Eliot's Little Gidding seems particularly apt for cycle touring where he says:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
Having spent far too long finding the church and chatting to the lady in the adjacent farmhouse, we set out to catch the rest of the group who were now many miles ahead; Ian had the good grace to apologise as he turned up the power to maximum on his e-bike, leaving me and Bob pushing at maximum and way behind. However we caught the others (who had stopped for a drink) just before our destination.
We always seemed to arrive at our night's stop around 6:30 pm, and even though this had been our longest ride it was no different. Dinner was at a lovely pub, a short ride from the Fenstanton Travelodge which was to be our lodgings for the night.
Now that we were back in Cambridgeshire the increased traffic was noticeable; in the Fens the traffic felt like we were back in the 1950s. One of the things that had been quite striking throughout the tour was how many roadside verges are left uncut nowadays, so it was something of a shock to see verges in Cambridgeshire towns that had been mown short, leaving ugly piles of dead grass.
Day seven: Fenstanton to St Albans
We continued the literary theme of the last day by visiting George Bernard Shaw's cottage, and the nearby (ruined) church. St Albans is a cosmopolitan place close to London and worth exploring - particularly its very fine cathedral.
Day eight: St Albans to London
This was a short day's ride which started well along a lovely cycle track that runs all the way from St Albans to Hitchin (although we didn't ride that far). We followed minor roads and tracks (discovering the back way into South Mimms Services) before reaching the London borough of Barnet (the site of the famous Battle of Barnet in the War of the Roses. Riding through London is relatively easy nowadays as most areas provide some cycling infrastructure separating bikes from other traffic. We considered a coffee, but everywhere seemed packed and we didn't fancy a long wait among the crowds, so it didn't take long for us to arrive to central London for lunch and the tour end.
Many thanks are due to our leader Nick who is a genius at finding interesting cycling routes in out of the way places.