“Four Priests go on Tour”
(you’re gonna need to stick with the story a bit before the title of this first part makes sense)
Just shy of a year after my 2nd TCR attempt ended I find myself in a VW Kombi loaded with bikes heading up towards Norfolk. On board are Chris Eccles from my cycle club, and two of his friends: ‘Baggers’ (Peter Bagwell), and Mark Waters. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t really planned or expected to do any bike touring this year. The passion for any type of extended bike ride deserted me for quite a while. For around a couple of months after TCR I was nursing too many broken bits. And for a longer period after that, the mojo just wasn’t there. But as the weeks rolled by a steady sequence of pleasant mid-week club social rides got me back into the spirit. So when Chris ventured the idea of a short summer trip to ride the Rebellion Way (one of the newer Cycle UK gravel routes) it was an immediate ‘yes’ from me. A flat, non-technical route, split up into 4 or 5 easy days sounded ideal. Of course, no sooner had dates been penned into my diary than another thought occurred to me: Norfolk isn’t that far from home, and my cousin Bron lives on the way back. Why not ride home at the end of the tour and visit her along the way? Only those who know me well, or who have followed this blog for a while will understand my logic in deciding to tack a completely unnecessary 450km ride home onto the back of a 350km tour. That’s just how I roll. But I’m getting ahead of myself, that’s for Part 2 of the blog entry.
1 July 2023 – Travel Day, and Thetford to Swaffham
I wasn’t convinced we’d actually get all 4 bikes and 4 people in Chris’s kombi given there was only room for 3 of them on the bike rack. But somehow it worked out. Mark and his wife were there waiting in the layby just off the M25 with his bike already part disassembled. With wheels removed, we squeezed it in the body of the van with just enough room still for 2 of the guys on the back seat for the short final leg of the drive. Although it nearly ended up much longer. The tail end of the queue which the “delay” signs had been warning us of for some time came into view with near perfect timing and we managed to exit the M11 before getting stuck in it. From there we wended our way on back roads through a succession of quaint villages for the last part of the journey – very nearly killing a deer in the process which managed to complete its kamikaze move across the front of the van before I’d even had time to think about braking.
0km – Thetford – 13:01
As Chris drove off to find a safe looking parking spot, Baggers, Mark and I completed the final fettling of our rigs on a grassy knoll under the shade of a large tree right alongside the Rebel Way route (being lazy from this point forward I will be shortening the name – officially, it is still the Rebellion Way). Chris had planned the beginning of the ride to perfection. Surprisingly, for such a wet summer, the weather wasn’t that bad either. It had pissed down for most of the journey from Sidmouth to meeting Mark, but it had been largely sunny and even quite warm since. There were still occasional bands of dark clouds edging across the sky, but overall it looked like we’d be in for a decent start to the ride. The plan was very much a short leg loosener, to arrive in time for a couple of beers and dinner at our overnight stop in Swaffham. At this point I should mention that there is a full and very interesting guidebook published by Cycle UK and available as a free download online (https://www.cyclinguk.org/rebellion-way). And this fact I am going to use as an excuse for this journal entry containing only personal reflections on our ride and no actual details of the history or route itself. There is literally no truth in the rumour that none of us really remembered or bothered to seek out more than a fraction of the sights and highlights that are so well described in the guidebook. None at all.
Rolling up the short, fairly gentle ramp out of Thetford I have to say we looked the part. Chris and I were both on gravel bikes with decently chunky tyres, whilst Mark and Baggers were on e-MTBs. Every rig had that one essential bikepacking staple though: a rear saddle pack sticking out the back like some short vestigial tail. Baggers with the addition of two unmistakeable orange stripes, having borrowed my spare Voile straps to add a bit of extra security to his luggage. Also ensuring that none of us were showing any embarrassing signs of “rookies waggle”. There was some discussion about how well the batteries on the e-bikes would cope with the longer, 100km+, days of the tour but that wasn’t going to be any trouble for today.
I hung back with Mark for the first few kilometres on tar as we left the town behind us. On thicker tyres and loaded down my pedalling felt a bit laboured – although possibly the humid conditions played a part there too. In what now sounds like something between an odd farming style and a misquote of Forest Gump, on that first stretch of road we passed “Pigs & Carrots” – adjacent fields, one full of pigs and the next with enormous piles of rotting carrots. It’s hard to say now which smelt worse, or whether there was any connection between them. Soon after, we took a left turn and headed into the woods of Thetford Chase proper. The riding became instantly more pleasant, or maybe my legs were just ridden in. Either way, I remember rolling easily through long avenues of trees as we headed into the depths of the forest.
It wasn’t long before the real terrain for the tour started – 2km further along our route went straight across a main road and onto proper forest tracks. The opening section wasn’t especially good riding – a wide logging, trail dotted across its entire width with deep potholes and ruts. Luckily before long it narrowed into a smoother track which alternated between sand, damp and packed from the rains, and hardpack rocky gravel. All of these sections were completely surrounded by sweet smelling forest, thick, green and disappearing off into darkness on each side. At least a couple of points we remarked whether we’d made a mistake in our starting point by enjoying the very best parts of the ride on the first day. As it turned out, whilst that wasn’t completely true, it wasn’t completely untrue either. These early trails through the trees were truly sublime. Although on one stretch I was overheard muttering that thick loose gravel was my second least favourite surface to ride a touring bike on. Shortly to be followed by further utterances from me that thick, deep sand as my first least favourite surface to pilot a heavy rig through. But none of those sections were long or bad enough to detract from the enjoyment.
We did at least notice one guidebook highlight during the afternoon – although only because it was impossible to miss it. Ahead of us across a busy main road was an enormous WWI Churchill Tank sat on a correspondingly massive concrete plinth. A part of the Desert Rats Memorial. Pedalling easily through traffic free forest trails, time and distance were lost to me for a while so I can’t pinpoint exactly where we came across a lovely looking coffee shack in a small clearing in the woods. As inviting as it was though, mid-afternoon seemed more like a time for beers rather than coffee so we rolled passed. And, as if the forest had heard our words, not long after emerging from the trees we came upon the village of Oxburgh, and the impossible-to-pass Bedingfeld Arms (that’s not a typo, much like ‘team’ there is no ‘I’ in Bedingfeld). Tucked under the canopy of oaks, the beer garden was just too perfect to miss. And the pints did not disappoint either – lager always seems more of a thirst quencher on a ride, but in this case the local brew was a properly crafted slightly hoppy draught which definitely qualified itself as a “real beer”. It was hard to drag ourselves away without a 2nd pint, but the hotel was a short hop up the road by now. Although at least one of the guys took photos of it, none of us figured out the significance of the statue at the edge of the garden.
The pub stop marked the end of forest trails – from here it was just pleasant, fairly quiet country lanes to our destination. Looking at the map, I think it was along this stretch where we crossed the River Gadder on a small bridge and were greeted with oddly enthusiastic waves from a couple of ladies who were wild swimming – although now I think about it, rather worringly that old saying comes back to me “not waving but drowning”. They seemed too cheerful to be in peril though. Maybe they were some strange East Anglian forest sirens trying to lure us to our own doom.
I forget now whether the idea of “a curry” had been suggested on our initial approach into the town of Swaffham, or when we actually passed the first of several possible Indian restaurants. Either way. it became a topic of debate as we navigated our way to the hotel (in true boy scout fashion, I had modified my GPS track to end at the front door of the hotel which was a couple of blocks off the main route).
45.8km – Swaffham – 16:22
My worries about bike storage evaporated as soon as the receptionist at The George Hotel unlocked the function room for us to store our bikes in, handily with power sockets for the guys to charge the e-bikes. The hotel itself worked fine in other respects too – reasonable sized, clean rooms, and an OK shower albeit it took a while for the water to heat up fully. We’d lingered just a little too long on the trail to catch the Tour de France stage live so we watched it on replay as we surveyed the options for food. I’m not sure if it was an act of Ukrainian solidarity by the guys, but I couldn’t raise enough interest in Rasputin’s (Russian food). So we ended up walking to Indian Summer to book a table for dinner before strolling back into town for a preparatory beer at The Red Lion in the market square. The curry ended up very good – and plentiful too, which was good news with a longer day ahead tomorrow. We did nearly manage to walk past the hotel bar on the way back, but one of us had the foolish idea of one glass of red wine before bed. Which, despite our best efforts of willpower, became two bottles of very drinkable Malbec.
2 July 2023 – Swaffham to Wells-Next-The-Sea
The hotel breakfast the next morning was functional – decently cooked and plentiful, with second pots of coffee. But it was served with something just a little less than enthusiasm by our heavily tattooed waitress. Our atmosphere around the table was jovial, with the joys of a full day of nothing to do but ride our bikes ahead. Which probably exaggerated the seemingly downbeat mood of our server. Fed and watered we headed back to our rooms to pack the last of our gear and traipse outside to load up the bikes once more.
It was sunny and warm as we pottered around on the patio making last minute tweaks to the rigs. The first “loss” of the morning had been averted when I found my watch charging cable lurking in the bottom of my extender battery bag. Having forgotten to charge it last night it’d need some juice at the first coffee stop for Live Track to be able to run all day. Not that it really mattered for this ride, with the pleasure of having company rather than being out alone. But it’s still nice for Yoli and friends back home to be able to see how we’re getting on. Eventually, precautionary sun cream applied, we rolled once around the car park looking for an exit at the far end, and then back to the main gate having failed to find one. It was still as funny as it had been last night – Kev’s Tackle – the shop whose name we had joked about after the curry. Although with fewer pints on board, now also somewhat sad, since it appeared closed and run down. Another high street victim to austerity measures, covid, or maybe just change in shopping behaviour? A sizeable chunk of the gear the four of us were carrying had probably been ordered online, so it’s not like we were less guilty than the rest of the population in this regard. Times have moved on and high streets have yet to be re-imagined and re-purposed to offer the same level of community value they once served through retail.
We hopped across the busy junction in front of the hotel and out along the A1065, turning left just before the curry house. Either Chris or I mentioned the supermarkets further along to the guys, but no one was short of provisions. The side street was in theory closed to cars, but it was navigable to us and at the end we were back on the route proper. A short stretch of main road, followed by a right onto a more minor lane. A couple of other riders were stood on the triangle of grass and gravel at the junction, but they weren’t in need of assistance – just pulled over to adjust their gear. Meters beyond we sailed past our turn, none of us noticing until a few hundred metres down the lane. An early lesson that with offroad sections we needed to check our GPS more carefully. Not every turn was a clearly marked road. Some were just as this one, unlikely looking rough farm tracks. The detour did bring up the amusing sight of a guy on what can best be described as an adult version of a kid’s balance bike. He wheeled the big, pedal-less green machine past us as we turned around, his feet skipping along the tarmac in a weird half jogging motion to propel himself forward. Even compared to the “stepper bikes” that have been used to tackle PBP (which I mentioned to the chaps) this seemed a somewhat bizarre, not entirely evolutionary stage along the bicycle family tree. A sort of cycling “Platypus” – a machine with no apparent reason to exist.
The farm track was rough in places – hard packed mud and gravel, with lumpy rocks, some of them large enough to need avoiding. It wasn’t overly sketchy though, even to the occasional sudden swerve to find a better line. Somewhere just before the end we stopped for a farm tractor and trailer to complete its turn into an adjacent field. And just beyond, after a short downhill stretch we were back on tar again for a while. A chunk of the morning’s riding was like this, making it a bit hard to piece together the exact sequence of tracks vs tar. Fairly early on in the morning, we crossed the first of what would be many fords (using the bridge, despite egging the e-Bike guys to try the water) and wound into Castle Acre. The route made it impossible even for philistines such as us to ignore the 12th century castle ruins by diverting us directly past them. We did actually stop and look at the information board, but with a decent block of riding still ahead none of us really felt motivated to climb up the grassy mounds and inspect the crumbling remains of the main keep in more detail. It’s definitely a crossing point for Rebel Way riders though – we saw a number of others either paused there or passing through the pretty old village.
Back out on tar roads again, the morning was beginning to warm up properly. The Rebel Way is known for its lack of climbing, but that doesn’t make it totally flat. Most of the time though, the lanes rolled with pleasant, manageable gradients, occasionally interspersed with short steeper ramps. Amusingly, my Wahoo noted these as climbs and counted each one down as we crested over it. Yesterday’s short leg had 3. I forget how many was on this second day, but it was maybe around 9 or 10. It became a feature of our riding that I would either remark on how many were left, or one of the guys would ask (you can see from our route log how insignificant these were in actual elevation). Another feature of the tour was instigated by Chris along the ramp away from Castle Acre. Nearly killing a deer in the van yesterday seemed to act as a trigger for how much other animal carnage we began to notice – some of it not even always actually animal. We passed fields of potatoes to accompany yesterday’s stinky carrots. All of which inspired Chris to venture the idea of a “Tour de Roadkill” as a future adventure. The concept being we had to survive solely on what we found along the road (or could scrump from the fields). So far today’s stewpot had in it: squirrel; rabbit; pigeon and other birds; potatoes; and rancid carrots. Yumm.
Up ahead, at the end of a long gradual rise was a left turn taking us off Pedlars Way – the arrow straight Roman road we had briefly been following on the incline. A pair of loaded bikes passed us coming the other way, probably the fifth or sixth such group of the morning so far, presumably all also riding the Rebel Way, at least in part. Beyond the turn was one last ramp before a delightful long downhill run to a point where we almost merged with the nearby main road, just shading the edge of it before veering left again back onto quiet lanes. A few kilometres beyond this point we failed to learn our lesson of earlier and missed our turn again. Another gravel track which we (or in this case I) had overlooked whilst enjoying the flowing tarmac. This track started us on the winding route through low flatlands and sandy commons in towards Kings Lynn. What had looked on the map like a series of lakes turned out to be old gravel workings, which our trail headed alongside through the woods. It was delightful, smooth forest trails, dappled sunlight breaking through the canopy casting a green light across the trail and pools of water beside the trail. The remains of an old railway followed alongside us, presumably once serving the gravel pits and now occasionally forming part of our path. Somewhere around this section was a particularly tricky section of wide and very sandy heathland trail. At several points our gravel tyres, lacking the float of a true mountain bike tyre, just bogged down and we wobbled sideways to a stop. I don’t recall any of us actually pitching off our bikes, but it was marginal at times. We passed another couple of very heavily loaded touring machines that were battling even more than us. After several stretches of dismount, push, remount we reached rideable track again and made it to the end of the heathland section and back out of the forest onto farmland again.
By this stage we were pretty much in sight of Kings Lynn, but our progress was halted briefly when Baggers luckily spotted my forlorn plakkie (flip flop) sitting on the trail. The mix of bumpy gravel and sand had found a weakness in my mounting system. This time, as I attached it back, I passed the bag straps through its Y webbing so that even if it worked loose, it couldn’t actually fall off.
From where we’d stopped, the flinty track twisted and rose slightly up ahead until reaching another impressive pile of ruins (Church of St James). It was one of the last prominent countryside features before we reached Kings Lynn – from here fast flowing downhill gravel gave way to tar and a short sharp rise which ended at a crossing with one of the city’s main arterial roads. Directly across was a narrow section of path with brambles which crowded either side and scratched into my legs. It was just a few hundred flesh ripping metres though before we were dumped out onto a housing estate and the cycleways of the city itself. The first of the paths ran alongside overgrown streams and channels, later turning into parkland, just before which Chris remarked he’d spotted on his GPS we were crossing the route we’d be taking later on the outward journey. This was a detour into the city quay and hopefully a coffee stop. By this time, we’d largely given up any pretence of following the guidebook and were just making up random shit about the more obvious historic sites – an impressive building at the edge of one park (which was in fact Red Mount Chapel) became the location for a peasants uprising against the local monarchy, or some other random event which never actually happened but served to amuse us nevertheless.
40km – Kings Lynn – 11:45
It has to be said, the quayside itself was attractive enough, but ultimately disappointing in terms of a proper coffee stop. There were a couple of larger bar/restaurant chain type places but nothing we spotted in the way of a small/local coffee shop. Around the corner, in the cathedral square we spied something a little more hopeful and chained our bikes up against the church walls opposite. The cafe was decent enough, the cakes and pies were tasty, and the coffee wasn’t at all bad. But with two servers who seemed to be practising whatever the opposite of teamwork is, the service was more than a tad slow. Combined with taking longer to this point than expected due to the sandy and rocky trails, what was meant to be a mid-morning snack was more like an early lunch when we got rolling again. Except foolishly, I’d only had cake unlike the guys who’d eaten some proper food. Despite chucking a snack bar down my neck, it was a lack of fuelling I’d regret later on.
It seemed to take a long time to get out of Kings Lynn again. Once we’d retraced our route through the parks, across the railway tracks, and back to the sports fields where we came in there was still a long stretch of housing and industrial estates and green urban spaces to navigate before we reached open countryside again. Almost as soon as we did, we encountered the quaint village of Castle Rising. On our GPS screens we could see an odd near perfect circle, which turned out to be an unusual one-way lap around the village, engineered by the route planners to ensure we didn’t missing the remnants of another ruined castle. Sadly, once again we didn’t do justice to their efforts to educate us on the local history. It’s high rambling walls were pretty enough, but we couldn’t really see much inside and the day was getting away from us. Plus, we all felt the need to push on rather than sightsee. Although the “pushing on” immediately became a minor routing error down a hill that ended by a churchyard gate which was clearly foot rather than cycle path. We contemplated hauling our bikes over the fence and just walking across as it was clear the actual route was only a hundred metres or so the other side but, as Chris pointed out, there was no guarantee the gate the other end would be so easy to hoist our rigs over. So we slogged back up the short hill and back around half of the village lap for the second time.
We were barely moving again before we swung left and up a short rise to the entrance of what was clearly Sandringham Hall – another of the route highlights. The estate roads were busy with cars, but mostly they gave us room. With the sun now out fully, it was delightful riding along the tree lined avenues. Truthfully, we barely saw the hall itself. We crossed a large open patch with car parks and cafes, and a long clear green drive ending with an obelisk at one end. It was tempting to stop again but it was busy, and Chris had his sights set on fish and chips in Hunstanton for some proper food. We did glimpse the hall on a couple of stretches as we made our way across and out of the estate, back onto a series of quiet rolling country lanes. A little too rolling for me as it happened. The lack of proper fuelling at the last stop caught up with me and I found myself lagging at the back as the lanes rose and fell. At times one or both of Baggers and Mark dropped back to keep me company. This was the longest day of the tour, and both seemed pretty happy with how their eBike batteries were holding up to the distance. It’s a shame my own battery wasn’t keeping up so well.
My sense of geography totally let me down when I remarked that it seemed like we needed to turn east in order to reach Hunstanton. I’d totally missed that it was actually more north-west of us, and we were making good headway towards it. A short way across a main road, and through a small village we were deposited into a small campsite, right on the edge of The Wash itself (the broad estuary of several rivers, including the Ouse which Kings Lynn sits at the mouth of). Chris lingered near a likely looking fish and chip cafe by the campsite which had free tables outside, but the consensus was we’d head into the town itself. It was an oversight we’d rue somewhat, as it proved further than we realised. A section of gravel track ran between the caravan park and the low sand dune which separated us from the sea. And where this ended, we were deposited into what can best be described as “seaside funland” – wall to wall amusement arcades with bright flashing lights, the sound of slot machine bells ringing, and funfair music and MCs calling out a steady beat of “fast rides, fast rides”. It wasn’t quite all canned music though – on the town green was a small parade of old US army vehicles, including a DUKW amongst others, and a small stage with a live band and singer banging out a series of old WWII songs. We were far enough away that the brisk wind blew away the worst of the wrong notes so that it didn’t sound utterly terrible.
76km – Hunstanton – 15:05
A quick lap of the cafes on the edges of the green revealed no open tables but did offer “Britain’s Favourite Fish & Chips” takeaway (or some such, possibly self proclaimed accolade). There was only a short line, and plenty of place to sit on the green opposite. So we took their word for it. And actually, as the cardboard take away trays arrived loaded with steaming hot fries and battered fish (scampi in my case), it seemed as though maybe it had actually been a real award of some kind. The food looked (and tasted) great – sat on one of the benches facing the sea and funfairs. The wind was now properly gusty, leaving only one hand free to eat whilst the other held everything down. As we chomped our way through we untangled the geography in front of us. The distant coastline we could see was “the other side” of the wash. None of it was open sea, just one giant circular bay that we were looking across to where that other bastion of British Seaside-ness lay: Skegness. Not somewhere we’d be visiting on this tour though. From here, we would cut across to Wells-next-the-Sea, on the north facing edge of the coastal salt marshes.
The road out of town started with a slight hill and then wound through housing estates – judging by the properties this was the smarter end of town. Finally, the road turned to gravel and ended in a car park, beyond which lay a long stretch of beach which was clearly a prime kite surfing spot judging by the number of fluttering canopies dancing across the waves. But our coastal section ended here, and we swung inland briefly and back onto country lanes. Stoked up with food and Fanta, my legs were back in the game and the riding was effortless again. The exact sequence of lanes and details of them now escapes me but it wasn’t long, maybe half an hour, before we swung left and thru the gates of Holkham Hall.
An enormous dead straight drive dipped gradually down and then back up again to yet another obelisk in the distance (apparently a ‘must have’ feature of stately homes in these parts). It was such an impressive site I stopped to take a photo – which became a video at the guy’s insistence. Another rider swung onto the drive from somewhere on the right as they made their own way towards the distant spike. I’d pretty much caught them up again by the time I reached the top of the drive, but they’d already pulled over to wait for me on the other side. I was tempted to ride across the grass but there was a car behind me so I stuck to the tarmac circle. By the time I pulled off the road Chris had assumed his club captain role and was giving the cyclist who had joined the drive a lesson in adjusting her helmet. He was totally right, she had it tipped way too far back on her head, and she did seem appreciative of his input – but perhaps with a hint of “why is this random guy chatting to me” about her demeanour. I’m tempted to say her accent was Scottish, but I might have totally misremembered that. She did mention that she wasn’t an experienced rider and had been going in circles looking for the hall. It would have been stating the obvious to say she’d found it, since it was stood large in front of us – probably the real reason the guys had pulled over and stopped. With the lake in front, and the soft glow of the late afternoon light it was a magnificent sight.
The sweeping curve of the drive down to the hall was lovely, but the building itself didn’t improve as we got closer. I’m no architectural aficionado but, whilst the structure was imposing enough, the surface detail seemed to be some 60s pebbledash effect. Like I say, I am not one to judge here, but to my eye though it wasn’t quite as impressive as the distant views suggested. The grounds, however, were incredible. A cricket pitch which didn’t seem to have seen any recent matches sat to our left just off the drive – a small herd of deer were kindly saving the groundsman from needing to cut the grass. And beyond a larger herd of deer grazed on the grasslands that stretched up to the woods on the far ridge of a hill. Our path led through the estate, between cottages clustered around another gate, and across the road at the end of the estate. The tree lined stretch of drive beyond seemed to serve as one of the car parks for the hall, with barely an open space between the vehicles parked either side. At the end was an ice cream van – which we initially attempted to ride past, but stopping just beyond Chris lured us back with the offer that he was buying. Although technically, since we were logging all our spends on Splitwise, we’d probably all be buying at the end. Either way, the Flake 99s were worth the stop. As we stood eating them a realisation occured to me which I shared with the guys. The distant buildings, although they seemed too much inland, looked exactly as I remembered Wells from my Aspargus and Strawberries Audax 400 back in May 2014. The guys initially doubted this, due to the apparent wrong direction, but checking the maps it was definitely the town where we’d be stopping for the night.
The sandy track swung further out towards the sea, through a sparse woodland of new growth saplings. Eventually though it started to turn back towards the town – passing beside a static caravan park and a large car park beyond. The service road turned ninety degrees right and headed straight back to the buildings we’d been looking at, now just a few hundred metres ahead. The possibly Scottish lady cyclist passed us coming back from the town, presumably having taken the road from the exit of the estate and was now heading back towards the caravan park (which it occurred to me she had possibly mentioned). Greetings exchanged we rode into the town and, after some debate on routing, wound around on the main road before turning back into the top of town to find our hotel.
110.5km – Wells-next-the-sea – 17:00
The Globe Hotel was busy, the tables out front overlooking the large green were all full although the small courtyard which we pulled into was quieter. After a bit of a queue, we got ourselves checked in. Choosing to ignore the suggestion of chaining our bikes to the pizza oven overnight, we snuck them all into Baggers’ and Mark’s room. The bikes were all still fairly clean, and their room was one of the ground floor courtyard units, and so large it swallowed them effortlessly. So it didn’t seem an issue – plus the guy’s eBikes really needed a charge anyway. They’d made it 107km but were now pretty much on their last few miles of charge.
Chris and I shared an upstairs room at the front of the hotel. It was by far the poshest hotel of the tour, and it didn’t disappoint. Plush room, decent powerful shower with fancy toiletries, and a pod coffee machine under the TV. Once again, we’d missed the end of the Tour stage for the day, so we caught it on highlights on one of our phones before heading down to the bar for beers and dinner.
Our arrival at the bar was timed to perfection – a large table tucked into one of the front window bays opened up and we immediately grabbed it to drink our beers while we waited for our allotted time in the restaurant. Which actually, never came, because we enjoyed the table location so much that we simply stayed there until the staff were able to serve us food where we sat. I’m pretty sure the guys made the obvious choice of fish, given our location. For some reason, the homemade, locally sourced beef burger caught my attention. Which, when it arrived, was truly enormous. Much to the amusement of the guys, and completely predictably, I didn’t get close to finishing it. As tasty as it was, it was simply way too big. Ignoring Chris’s protests, a second bottle of red wine got ordered by one of us less responsible folks.
I forget now the exact scenario or sequence of events – but in some order, we’d commented on a lady whose dog looked particularly unhappy, sat by the door. And then somewhat later, whilst a couple of us were away from the table, someone (possibly that same dog lady) came over to Chris to share something even more amusing. One of the diners who had been sat outside had commented how nice it was to see four priests enjoying a meal together inside the hotel. And thus, the legend that became the “Four Priests’ Cycle Tour” began: Frier Eccles & Brother Baggers; plus Mark and I, who’s priestly names varied a bit each time we visited the topic.
Before leaving the bar, one other strangely apt thing caught my eye – a picture with a quote from Lord of The Rings:
Not all those who wander are lost.
Although for some reason, every time my mind recalls this quote it re-arranges the wording and in so doing subtly alters its meaning.
All those who wander are not lost.
Oddly, and for reasons that are hard to explain, I prefer my poorly remembered version.
3 July 2023 – Wells-Next-The-Sea to Wroxham
The Globe breakfast was every bit as good as the rest of the establishment – properly cooked breakfast and a counter of pastries, cereals & juices that were fresh and appetisingly laid out in little baskets, pots and glasses. The route ahead was similar in length to yesterday, but much spikier on the elevation graph. A succession of short sharp ridges until rolling down to the sea at Sheringham. Chris had originally suggested this as a coffee stop, but at close over 60km and most of the tougher terrain, we’d revised this to a lunch stop and thanks to the power of the Internet had found a decent looking cafe earlier in Holt for a mid-morning stop.
Venturing out again involved negotiating the morning rubbish collection truck, which was parked at the entrance to the courtyard, and then a lap around the green as we found our bearings and made it back to the main route. The last two days had been dry but there was a forecast of rain coming in, and there were the early signs of some dark clouds as we rolled through the first few lanes. A short stretch of gravel farm track gave way to tarmac lane, and yet more castle remains we opted not to visit. Although to be fair, Warham Camp Fort was along a not exactly cycle friendly access path.
Not long into the morning we rolled through the town of Little Walsingham. Chris and I were up front, and both did a double take as we passed not one, but two shops whose windows were stocked full of porcelain statues of the Virgin Mary.
“Did we both really just see that?” I asked Frier Eccles.
It seemed as improbable as last night’s “Four Priests” comments, until we reached the end of the town and saw a sign which explained everything:
Catholic National Shrine & Basilica of Our Lady, Walsingham
I guess in hindsight it’s obvious (or had we read the guidebook) that any town with its own Abbey is fairly likely to have religious connections. But for our journey we enjoyed the unexpected discovery which resolved the random events since last evening. Sure enough, just along the road as a light rain was trying to fall, we came upon the shrine itself. At this point we should probably feel ashamed but I’m going to stick my neck out and discourage anyone from reading the guidebook too carefully – it would have totally spoiled the element of surprise, not to mention humour, if we knew any of this were coming.
Getting out of the valley in which the shrine was built involved, if memory serves, may have involved a section of green lane and/or a stretch of gravel farm track. Plus at least one or two of the fourteen (I’m guessing here) climbs the Wahoo kept informing me were ahead today. Just before one of these climbs were came across another of the many fords of the route. As with the previous ones, we took the footbridge, but on this occasion we backed our bikes up to get our tyres wet and snap a photo as if we had ridden through. In the process I picked up so much gravel in my wheels that I had to stop a short way up the climb to check the swooshing sound was just this shaking off and not tubeless sealant escaping through a puncture.
The short sharp rise that followed the ford topped out with a left turn into a business estate of converted barns, before dropping downhill again on its service road – which was rather oddly split into two parallel but completely separate tracks. At the bottom it looped left and sharp right to join a main road leading up another short but stiff rise. Although at the top of this one was in fact the town of Holt, and our planned stop for coffee. The hill had slowed me down so much that Chris was some way ahead rolling through the start of the town. I wasn’t sure he’d remember the name of the cross street we needed, but he turned left bang on cue as we reached Cross Street and pulled over in front of the tiny cafe. Contrary to expectations there were in fact a few seats inside, but with the skies now clear again we chose the little counter and stools along the front of the window outside.
42.4km – Holt – 11:30
The tray of fresh local cakes was more than a little raided – testament to how popular the spot was despite its diminutive size. Chris and I decided to share half each of one of the brownies and one of what I think was a pear and strawberry pastry (or something like that). It was a good call as the brownie was super sweet, and half was plenty. The coffee, on the other hand was beyond “just right” – so much so, that it instantly became voted the best coffee of the tour so far (an accolade that wasn’t in fact bettered on any later stop). Victory for Internet reviews and I want to say we had second cups, but I can’t recall now whether we did.
Twisting around the centre of town involved passing a couple of the other possible coffee shops we’d noted, before rolling out of town. The stretch to Sheringham was somewhat unremarkable, except that it included a sight we did actually bother to visit. Baconsthorpe Castle was both imposing, and closed – leaving us to stand in front and admire it briefly whilst grabbing a few memory photos. The wind was pretty strong by now and the weather had an unpredictable look to it, adding some urgency to our run down to visit the coast for one final time on this ride.
58km – Sherinham – 12:50
I don’t recall a lot else of the ride to Sheringham, apart from it rolling up and down a fair bit before we started a long fast descent which started in woodland but gradually opened to lowland marsh and the obvious sight of the sea beyond. There was quite a long suburban stretch on the way to the seafront itself. A busy main road junction split the group up as we each made our way across, with varying degrees of bravado battling the traffic. We rode over and alongside a railway line just beyond before swinging onto a short, busy road to the shore itself. It was a little early for lunch, but we knew there wasn’t much else on the road later and certainly nothing with this view. So we pulled across to the last pub along this stretch which had plenty of free tables outside. Given the dark clouds it seemed like an optimistic choice, but the rain held off as we downed shandies (well I did, I think the guys had orange juice) and tucked into baguettes and chips. I wasn’t planning on running out of fuel today. Lunch and obligatory photos done, we headed back around a particularly snaking part of the route out of the town. One piece of which seemed to involve a completely needless climb and descent around a loop of housing estate. Chris commented later that he had read other reviews remarking on the apparent futility of this loop. Maybe there was another castle we missed here.
The short section out of Sheringham was followed by a stretch to rival the brilliant forest riding of the first day. Hopping across the main road, we wound our way up a gravelly lane – metalled underneath at some time past, but now covered with sand, stones, and earth from the farm fields either side. At the top was a T junction with another small lane – the right fork of which had a handwritten sign slung from a tree emphatically stating it was not the Rebel Way route. On closer inspection, it was clear that the narrow gap in the hedge directly opposite was our path – perhaps also indicated with another handwritten sign, my memory is vague on that. My memory is not vague though on the brilliant section of woodland single track which lay beyond. A brown earthy smelling path, twisting deep into the wood, around stumps, and climbing the sharp bank away from the coast. At one point it was too steep and I lost traction, forcing me to dismount and push the last few metres to the top. But my lack of technical skill in no way diminished from the joy of this stretch. As Chris put it, when I caught back up with the guys a few corners beyond, “the only thing which would have made it better would have been to do it downhill”.
The uphill part wasn’t the end of this lovely riding – the snaking woodland trails continued for another couple of kilometres along the flat top of the ridge before the trail merged with a a caravan camp entrance that ejected us out onto another narrow country lane. The tarmac lane was short though – just leading us down to a staggered junction with the A418. We had to turn left and follow the main road a few meters before we turn across it onto the lane onto before we could cross to the lane the other side. Another short, but delightful strip of downhill tar through thick woodlands followed by a left turn at a National Trust sign into Felbrigg Hall estate. We did look at the tearoom briefly as we went past, but it was too soon after lunch to stop.
So much of riding on roads is about timing and, for the B road we swung onto at the other entrance to the National Trust estate, ours sucked. It was less than a kilometre long, but the traffic was horrible – a constant stream of trucks and cars that gave no room whatsoever, squeezing past with oncoming vehicles and blind disregard to safety or road rules. Fortunately, literally the next right turn was ours and we immediately left tarmac and cars behind and were back onto a gravel road which soon became farmland track. The lanes beyond were pleasantly quiet – although even studying Google Maps now, I don’t remember a lot about them except perhaps commenting to the guys as we passed through the village of Aldborough that I remembered camping around here with my family as teenager. It was 1977 and I guess what stuck in my mind was the mesmerizing sight of the Silver Jubilee fires spreading across the countryside in the evening light as the sequence of beacons were lit.
84.5km – Itteringham – 15:06
More immediately memorable was the little tea-room in Itteringham that we passed initially but then turned back for having realised that cake stops had been sparse just lately and we were running out of distance for an afternoon stop. There were only a few tables outside but a couple were leaving, so we grabbed their small and somewhat wobbly table and cleared it – taking the pots inside with us as we went to place our orders. The tea-room was a part of the village store and the girl inside was serving both of them solo. So we ordered, paid and then waited a few minutes until she appeared carrying a tray loaded with coffee, a pot of tea (in my case) and those all important delicious cakes. It was tempting to linger but the riding wasn’t done and the weather had an uncertain look to it.
It wasn’t hard to put the gathering clouds out of mind as we rolled on – the day wasn’t done with providing delightful off road sections for us to enjoy. The first of these came soon after the cake stop, thanks to another National Trust estate at Blickling Hall. The route dove right off the lane and rose steeply upwards through woods at the start of the estate and out across pastures above. Amusingly, the Google Earth picture of the entrance has exactly the same weather we saw it under – small blue scraps between a patchwork of white and dark grey clouds.
We timed our next wrong turn to shameful perfection. In the town of Aylsham, one of us (probably me) turned off to the right in front of a bunch of other Rebel Way riders who were stood outside a chemist. We U turned metres beyond in front of what looked like a backstreet biker pub and had to ride past the cyclists again. I’m sure we commented to them something along the lines of checking our GPS more carefully. It’s probably a trick of my memory or imagination, but I’m sure now that they seemed distracted or troubled, presumably by the chemist’s lack of cream for their awkward fungal infection – or at least something similarly embarrassing to offset our (my) navigational incompetence.
The next section of offroad riding didn’t even need us to leave the town. Just a few metres beyond our wrong turn we crossed a car park and found ourselves alongside railway tracks, complete with a steam engine shunting coaches around the station. We were joining the path that follows the Bure Valley Railway – which Chris informed us would take us the rest of the way to our overnight stop in Wroxham. It’s funny how different trails appeal to different personalities. For me, the easy pedalling along a railway across rolling fields was some of the most pleasant 15km of the whole ride. But through Chris’ eyes it was a dull slog lacking features, speed or adventure. Although he did manage to create some interest at one point when he misjudged the steepness of the ramp up onto a bridge and stalled out just before the top, requiring a hasty unclip to avoid toppling over. But that aside it was just fast, flowing trail aside from the odd tree roots or branches to be avoided and occasional riders passing the other way. Delightful for me, and coma inducing for Chris.
106.5km – Wroxham – 17:00
Not only did the rail path lead to our destination for the day it also carried us into the heart of the Norfolk Broads. Winding through the station car park at the far end and into the little town of Wroxham we were immediately surrounded by water, boats and bridges. Our arrival at the Kings Head could not have been more perfectly timed. No sooner had one of the staff opened up the conservatory for us to store our bikes than the heavens opened in torrential fashion. Moments later we’d have been soaked but, as it was, we stood in the dry unloading our bikes whilst the riverside tables outside emptied as customers scurried for shelter. Looking out of the windows through the sheets of rain I realised I recognized this place – the bridge and the pub was another point where our route crossed that 400km Audax from May 2014.
The pub may not have had the luxury of the night before but it more than met our needs – the rooms were decent and the food and drink hit the spot. Once again, I have a recollection that the red wine score may have reached two bottles, but I think by this time it was just taken as par for the tour.
4 July 2023 – Wroxham to Scole
Breakfast was a pleasant if unremarkable affair – the usual array of cooked and continental and a couple of cups of passable coffee. It was a good job we took a short walk along the river frontage of the pub to take some photos after fettling our bikes because, despite the riding being alongside the broads for a large part of the morning, it’s surprising how little of it we actually saw from the road. The best views we had from our bikes were of the moorings as we crossed the bridge beside the pub and headed through the nearby boatyard car parks. The rest were just occasional glimpses of water or the tops of boats between the trees which lined the lanes, or out over the fields which separated us from the Broads proper.
Along one of the lanes we passed Woodforde’s brewery – origin of the excellent lager we’d drunk two days ago on our run through Thetford Forest. At this kind of duration on rides like TCR I’d have crossed a country border or two by now and had to order beer in more than one language But, by virtue of the circular route and relaxed distances, on our third day of riding we were still in the same county and could find the “local” beer we’d enjoyed on day one. Being early though, we didn’t stop. We even managed to resist the inviting looking Maltsters pub at Ranworth where our route did skim through a very picturesque, and correspondingly popular part of the waterway network. We’d possibly have stopped if we’d noticed this was the last part we’d see as our route swung west from here, away from the and in towards Norwich. Although not before diverting us along some more traffic free gravel sections, one of which was vocally disputed to us by an irate house owner and two garbage truck staff. Both of them insisted we had no right to be there, and that Cycling UK had promised they would change the route. It was all a little moot really since by the time they were shouting at us across the road we’d already ridden the few hundred meter prized section of their supposedly private road (which no doubt they conveniently forget is private when they want the local council to pay to repair it for them). We discussed the frequency of these land grabs as we rode on the lanes that followed – there’s a hotly debated section of the West Kernow Way which the landowner has erected impressive ramparts just to stop riders using. Apparently, Chris shared with us, if the owners can block or obscure the route long enough they can claim it’s no longer in use and get it unlisted as a right of way. A constant threat it seems to the rights of ramblers, horse and bike riders in England (Scotland has different and generally more open ‘right to roam’ laws).
We started pulling through the outskirts of Norwich not long after this altercation – winding through a mix of house estates and parkland cycle paths before descending one last snaking path to a crossing with one of the main roads of the city itself. Just beyond was a new area of offices with an impressive arcing cycle and foot bridge (the Jarrold Bridge) over one the river. The riding was the typical short, jagged, switchbacks of urban routes, and taking us past the imposing cathedral which needless to say was stopped at for obligatory photos. Crossing the city we looped over the river twice more, the first bridge taking across the plaza of Norwich station – in theory the official start of the Rebel Way. The second crossing came in the middle of an area of recent redevelopment, with a new cinema and a range of chain bars and coffee shops, all of which we ignored. Just beyond a little local cafe provided both our morning coffee and a rather unfortunate drama.
30.4km – Norwich – 11:10
Whilst a couple of us were propping up bikes a loud thud followed by a cry for help rang out from the other side of the cafe’s small, cordoned-off, area of tables. For some reason I thought it was Baggers who had fallen, but it soon became apparent the poor victim was a local passer-by who had stumbled in a dangerous and unmarked pothole. The damage was considerable worse than a simple fall, leaving a large pool of blood by the pothole and a long period of time before the faller’s head stopped bleeding. Along with the cafe owners, and other customers we did what we could – my part being to provide a pack of wipes to help with the clean-up, whilst others vacated chairs and called emergency services. Rather luckily a pair of paramedics were attending to a tramp who needed food at the shop next door and so were on the scene much quicker than might have been expected.
By the time we rolled on the coffee and cake part of the stop had become mere background – decent, but not really enjoyed as much as would usually have been the case. Leaving Norwich was a lot less enjoyable than arriving. The route planners had probably done their best, but the roads were unpleasantly busy and several of the drivers were utter pigs, almost seeming to deliberately cut as close to us as possible. One was so bad that Chris and I spent the next couple of miles checking parking spaces and driveways in the hope we could explain politely to them what utter dicks they were. But to no avail sadly. Along the way we also contemplated stopping to try and get a table at the Wildebeest, which we’d seen reviewed as offering the finest dining in the area. Not all of the guys seemed up for fancy and expensive food though and, in truth the chances of them having a table for a bunch of smelly bikepackers did seem remote. We checked the car park though, just in case it was the famed chef who was the fuckhead driver. It wasn’t.
We somehow didn’t manage to find a food stop that appealed after this point. Baggers did attempt to lure us into a pub or two but for reasons that are lost now, we resisted. On a backstreet parallel to the main street of Long Stratton, Chris checked out what appeared to be a cafe but was some other kind of food preparation warehouse. The lack of fuel hit me once again as we headed away from the road and across fields. I should first explain here why I hate riding across fields (apart from the fact that it’s boring, shit and hard) Sometime in 2008, when I got into cycling with my brother-in-law Hent, we took part in Die Burger MTB race just outside Stellenbosch. Perhaps because I was heavily hung over, but mostly because the early part of the race was across a rough, open field I just wasn’t loving it. In some sequence shortly after I barfed and bailed on the race completely. I hated riding those rough grass fields then, and I don’t enjoy it much more now. So, I hope I’ve captured the mental condition with which I started this section. By the time we reached the end of it I was in a properly foul (and now knackered) state of mind. It took a gel, an energy bar, and a few kilometres before my mood improved – although with very little left of the day’s riding.
I do recall a couple of other final things. The first was a couple with an upturned tandem in front of the ruins of St Mary’s church just outside Tivershall St Mary. It seemed redundant to check whether they needed help, seeing that the chap was already fixing the mechanical, but was also experienced enough to be wearing protective gloves in the process. So, having asked largely out of politeness, we went on to share a completely fictional and wildly improbable legend of the derelict church. To be fair we did, when questioned, confess to riding the route largely in ignorance and compensating for it by making up our own alternate histories of the sites along the way. The other aspect I remember was that soon after we headed along a farmland track which, it turned out, was the last offroad section of the day – and of the tour itself in my case. At the exit back onto tar we exchanged words with a parked motorist who clearly knew about the Rebel Way and was interested how we had found it. I’m pretty sure one of us (probably me) shared the reflection that we were glad we hadn’t used the official start in Norwich. The riding since then hadn’t been terrible, but it wasn’t a patch on the earlier stretches we’d ridden.
70.9km – Scole – 14:10
And, with a last few lanes and turns, we reached the Scole Inn, where the riding part of the Four Priests’ Tour came to an end. Once again, a perfectly timed arrival. We’d barely dismounted and ordered beers at the bar before the skies opened again, this time with a heavy and persistent looking downpour. The hotel itself was a grand old building, that had presumably been a coach house, and was now in the late stages of renovation. The lone girl serving at the bar could not have been more helpful. Despite juggling a few other customers and an upcoming evening function, she organised us food and drinks, got us checked in and managed to get an extra room for me. With an early start the next day, I needed a solid night’s sleep and didn’t want to needlessly wake Chris up at the crack of dawn. I declined the offer of bike storage in favour of keeping the bike handy in my room for the early departure. I was a little surprised this was accepted, but I was very careful lugging the bike up the two floors of the enormous oak staircase that wound around the edges of the entrance hall and the charming, character filled room in the eaves.
We had dinner later in the same bar – narrowly avoiding the local Round Table function by loitering in the hallway until ageing throng filling the bar area had emptied out to go and dine. The last meal of the tour was a decent affair I think – we may even have strayed to the higher end of the wine list for a red to properly celebrate the end of a great tour.
Trudging back up the stairs to my room I remember looking at the rain still falling outside thinking
“I hope this ends before my journey home tomorrow“.