Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Road trip - Norfolk and Suffolk

Most years Tom and I have managed to get away for a bit of a road trip on the motorbikes. In the days before children/grandchildren, it was a week in France; this year we managed a couple of days in Norfolk and Suffolk.
Still, it's good to get away and spend some time with your children. Tom is working very hard as a freelance cameraman and he got offers of work both days we were away, which is frustrating for him. Freelancers never want to turn work down.
I've not ridden the bike very much this year - just a few trips to and from Baldock (I've only made one U3A Biker Group ride) so I was not at all saddle fit and at the end of a 250-mile ride I was ready for a couple of beers to ease the pain.
We couldn't decide whether to go to Yorkshire, Derbyshire or head east to the coast. In the end, we chose east and set a target of visiting Cromer, Southwold and overnighting at Tom's in Baldock. The following day, we'd head back into Suffolk and visit "Constable Country."
Schools are back, but it was surprising how busy the roads were in Norfolk. I did the usual run out to King's Lynn, then cut across country, around the back of Sandringham to Burnham Market and the coast road at Holkham. I could have taken a more direct route to Cromer, but this was a nicer ride, although traffic was choc-a-bloc in Stiffkey, where the road narrows through the village and it was the same in Cley. Cromer was absolutely crazy - we couldn't find any dedicated motorcycle parking and the town looked full. We did a couple of laps of the town centre, considered putting the bikes in a cycle park, decided against it and rode on looking for inspiration.
In North Walsham, inspiration came in the shape of a sign to the Norfolk Motorcycle Museum, which led us past a burger van, up a road at the side of a timber merchants and into a scruffy little yard where there was a fairly large warehouse and a covered verandah with three greasy blokes sitting on old leather settees eating sandwiches. Like fat old Labrador dogs, they were clearly very happy with their lives - not working too hard, doing a job they love and plenty of time to chat to their mates.
It cost a fiver to get in, but the owner gave us £2 discount because there was two of us. The museum was basically packed with old bikes, some pristine, some looking as if they'd just been found in a barn. Most of them were collected by the owner's dad and they were parked around the side and in the middle and to squeeze more in, some staging had been built, so it was two-tier bikes all the way round.
There was a real mixture of stuff - an American Henderson, a Vincent, lots of 1950s two-strokes (Francis Barnetts, Jameses and Cottons) - also some mopeds and some more modern Japanese stuff. There was probably a hundred bikes in there and probably half a million quids' worth. No attempt was made to explain or contextualise; they know their market - it's old blokes wandering round saying to their sons: "I had one of those."
I think I'll suggest an outing there to the U3A Biker Group, they're looking for some rides to slot in and this would be right up their street (in fact we'd struggle to get them out).
After the bike museum, I suggested we pop to Happisburgh to have some lunch. I thought we might be quite close and it turned out we were only a few miles away. Happisburgh is famous for coastal erosion and shipwrecks. I've often wanted to visit, but never got round to it. The village has a magnificent church with a huge square tower that stands out for miles. You can go to the top on weekends and Wednesdays, but sadly this was Tuesday.

The soft clay cliffs are easily eroded and a whole mediaeval village has disappeared into the sea (it's now several hundred metres from the beach), an aerial photo on the information board by the car park shows a row of houses in the field next to the lighthouse and now they are all gone. Some efforts have been made to stop the erosion, but it's a powerful natural process and very hard to prevent. Sooner or later, the sea will always win.
Memorial plaque to the lost souls of HMS
Invincible (nut not Admiral Totty).
The erosion has created a number of sandbanks offshore and these have been the ruin of many ships. It's a long list of disasters - 200 coal ships sunk in one night on the way back to Newcastle from London and over a thousand men killed, ship after ship has miscalculated the position of the sandbanks or been driven onto them in storms. The most famous disaster was the loss of HMS Invincible in 1801. She was driven onto the sandbank in a storm and 400 men lost their lives. Bodies were washed up all along the coast and were piled into carts and buried in a mass grave at Happisburgh Church. A memorial plaque was placed there quite recently by crew members of the last HMS Invincible (an aircraft carrier).
The ship was carrying Admiral Thomas Totty and captained by John Rennie. When it was driven onto the bank, a small fishing boat came alongside to try to help and Admiral Totty (in the best Costa Concordia tradition) nipped into the boat and promised to organise help. Some men got off in the ship's boats and were driven out to sea, although some were picked up by colliers; however 400 died including Capt Rennie.
If you want to know more about the various maritime disasters, there's a good website: Happisburgh (pronounced Hayesbro) is well worth a visit; the beach is beautiful and gets wider every year.
We had lunch in the Hill House pub and a nosy around the church, which is a fine building. There was a bizarre sign on the noticeboard outside the church and in the porch welcoming Pokemon gamers. An example of the church trying too hard to be down with the kids?
We then headed for Southwold via Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. Southwold treats motorcycles with the same disdain as Cromer; I'm sure there are some motorcycle parking slots somewhere, but they are not signposted. We parked in the main street in a 30-mins free slot, just enough time for a coffee, except there were no coffee shops nearby! We ended up in the pub, often not the best bet for a decent cup of tea. The barman looked very grumpy when I asked for tea and coffee and disappeared for about five minutes. I thought he'd gone to put the kettle on, but he arrived back looking even grumpier with about 50 cups (obviously emptying the dishwasher is not his favourite job). The pub had one of those fancy coffee machines at the end of the bar and tea was made by dropping a tea-bag into a cup, pressing the button for hot water, placing a milk carton and two bags of sugar in the saucer and plonking it on the bar in front of you. The Japanese tea ceremony it wasn't! If you enjoy your tea, avoid the Red Lion in Southwold.
I hadn't been massively impressed on my last visit to Southwold and this was doing nothing to improve my view of the town. It seems full of old people with small dogs, jewellers, estate agents and restaurants. Well, we weren't going to be there for long because our 30 minutes parking was already overdue. I said we should visit the old port area before we left. This is reached by bumpy road (called York Road for some unknown reason) across a salt marsh taking you to the banks of the River Blyth. A cinder and gravel road leads along the quayside to a car park at the end of the quay where the river flows into the sea.
This is actually much more interesting than the town. There are boat builders and repair shops, chandlers, fish shops (or rather huts selling fish) and some restaurants/cafes. There's plenty of parking at the end and you can walk out to where the river meets the sea and get a good view of sandy beaches either side of the river mouth. To the south is the RSPB Minsmere nature reserve and also Sizewell nuclear power station.
The river bank and quay are covered with signs; not "Pokemon welcome" signs, but dire warnings about that will happen to you if you climb onto the rocks or down to the river. The signs say it is dangerous to climb on the "revetment", which assumes everyone knows what a revetment is and not just scholars of geography or military fortifications.
It was a long ride back to Baldock, but we were anticipating a run through lovely Suffolk villages. We had that all right, but the traffic was quite heavy and we were stuck behind a coach along narrow, twisty roads for about eight miles. We finally got past it, only to then miss a turning, take a detour to get back on the road and end up back behind the bus.
Once we hit the A14 (which was flowing smoothly) we stuck to it and eschewed the scenic route. The miles flew by at a steady 80-90mph, a bit fast for my taste, but Tom was leading and I was keeping a sharp lookout for police patrol cars. So I got a little nervous when I saw some lights approaching fast in my mirrors. I pulled over to let it pass and this three-wheel contraption blasted past, its three wheels doing close to three figures. The chap was wearing a leather jacket and had a purple Mohican haircut, but no crash helmet. He clearly has complete disregard for his own safety. He had sunglasses on (of course), but a bee on the forehead at 100mph is going to leave a mark.
We got onto the A505 at Cambridge and headed to Baldock via Royston. Tom knows a good back road, but we took the wrong route and ended up a long hill on a narrow road to god-knows-where. We turned round and headed back to the A505, but not before taking in a vista of the rolling hills. Royston is the end of the Chilterns and the whole area (including Baldock) is quite attractive (if you like rolling hills).
I was glad to be off the bike and have a stretch. We ate in the Red Lion and I had a sudden taste for cider topped off by a glass of Mount Gay rum back at Tom's. I was helping him dispose of the evidence before Lucy returns from Ecuador. Max is going to see him this week and will no doubt destroy the rest.
On Wednesday, the plan was to head back to Suffolk and visit the Vale of Dedham - Constable Country. We took the A120 past Stansted, Braintree and Colchester, where we picked up the A12 to Flatford Mill, where a good half dozen of Constable's most famous paintings are set. Flatford Mill was once owned by John Constable's father, but it is now owned by the National Trust and it's kept very well. There's a good car park and a short walk down to the mill and the River Stour. The mills, the bridge and other buildings featured in Constable's paintings are virtually unchanged and it's free to wander round.
The Stour had been canalised along this stretch and, in Constable's day (pre-railway) it was an important transport route so barges would be up and down all day long. The river now is clear and teeming with fish and ducks. It was a big temptation for the many dogs out for the day and most of them had a damp look.
We had a nice wander around, followed bya tea and scone in the cafe sitting outside by the river.
I don't know if Constable is a great painter, but his work certainly hit a sweet spot of nostalgia for a disappearing countryside as the industrial revolution drew people from villages into cities. The Hay Wain poster or Boots framed repro graced the wall of many a suburban home. It's interesting to be able to stand and see the exact scene (minus the wagon).
So this is where the Hay Wain was painted and it's almost unchanged.
Coming back, we'd intended to head up Dedham Vale towards Sudbury, then head to Haverhill, where we'd peel off and take the roads to Baldock and Peterborough separately. The roads and signs conspired against us and, although we got to see Dedham (and many other attractive villages) we were not heading in the right direction and ended up back in Colchester. Tom was able to plot a route to Haverhill and from there, we rode to Cambridge, parting at Duxford where I took the M11 for Peterborough.
It wasn't long before the road was blocked, but I was able to peel off at St Ives and come back via the Riptons. Missed turnings were still the order of the day and I went past the turn for Raveley. I knew it as soon as I had gone by, but decided to carry on to Wistow (never been there before and I thought I might be able to navigate a cross-Fen route back towards Whittlesey. Wistow is one of the more remote Fen villages and finishes at a dead end, unless you want to carry on to Warboys (which i didn't). I did find a road that cut across towards the Raveleys and Woodwalton and it was the narrowest, bumpiest road I've been on.

Back on the road to Upwood, Ramsey Heights and Ramsey St Mary, I was soon back in Whittlesey and home. After a second full day in the saddle, I was definitely in need of a stretch or a massage. I'm not getting enough time on the motorcycle to keep my neck muscles and wrists strong enough. The days when we'd do a 400-mile blast through France are no more.
Flatford Mill - much painted and now much photographed

This was the view of Flatford Lock (another Constable painting) except
the trees now hide the lock, which has also been rebuilt at the other side
of the river (apart from that, it's just the same)

Coffee and cake for Tom by the Stour at Flatford Mill