I’d forgotten how pretty this country is sometimes. You go to far-flung corners of the world, places famed for their spectacular scenery, and it’s too easy to become jaded with it all – just another tropical beach, one more dramatic mountain range. But there’s a prettiness to England, a kind of over-the-top, knock-your-eyes-out quaintness, which is nowhere better illustrated than in the heart of Suffolk.
It was Bank Holiday Monday, which is usually a time when the residents of the more scenic spots of the country brace themselves for an influx and decide to stay at home with the curtains drawn and the TV on rather than battle the traffic. But there’s a lot to be said for the bicycle. It gives us mobility without congestion, and once you get away from the arterial routes that span East Anglia you find yourself whirring along a network of capillaries, green dappled lanes winding over the fields, that are almost deserted.
We started in Walberswick – or at least I did. My friend Annie had already ridden there from Needham Market, a distance of around 45 miles, and when I got a phone call around 10am with a tired voice saying ‘I’m nearly there’ as trucks roared by in the background, I set off from Southwold, heading down to the harbour over the Bailey Bridge. If by any chance you haven’t been there, and if you’re listening to this you probably have, Walberswick is one of those ridiculously quaint English villages of listed cottages and million-pound holiday homes; the kind of place they do a photoshoot for airline magazines – ‘Short breaks in the English countryside’. On a Bank Holiday it soon fills up as the motorized snarl clogs a street which in mid-winter resembles a Dickensian fishing village, complete with odd characters lurching from pub to pub. And back again, since there are only two. Pubs, that is. Not odd characters.
Annie was frazzled by traffic and needed sustenance, so we had coffee and cake at the cafe before embarking on the first leg of our ride – 200m to the beach for a snooze. This is cycling as I like it; not for me the mental torture of sleeplessness and racing against the clock all night, the driving rain and dull ache in the mind of long night rides. No – I’ll take coffee, cakes and forty winks in the sunshine any day, interspersed with occasional bouts of gentle pedalling to a new place. The beach was lovely, and having bravely declined the offer of sunscreen I began to go a lurid shade of scarlet. Annie chatted away to herself happily as I dozed, and then announced loudly that she’d got sand in her shorts. That prompted a crisis of conscience on my part – I didn’t come all the way from Southwold to Walberswick just to take my bike to the beach, so we figured we’d better start riding somewhere.
I know these roads – I pedal them in my dreams sometimes, and I’ll still be riding along the lanes of Suffolk Coastal long after I’ve departed this life, and started on the next one. That’s my take on it, anyway. Out over Walberswick Heath, straight on now across farmland, and suddenly through a gap in a line of trees you can see the sea off to the left, a line of darker blue against the horizon with white-capped waves that continually change their position, appearing, growing, then suddenly vanishing. If you watch for long enough your eyes start to play tricks on you, and sometimes you think you can see the sail of a small boat which will suddenly disappear from view as it goes into a trough, appearing to founder, while you wait for it to re-emerge before gradually realising that it was never there at all. The road dips and climbs, past heathland covered in bright yellow gorse that smells of coconut in the warm sunshine. Being near the North Sea we’ve always got a cool breeze here, which makes for perfect cycling weather – it’s never too hot. From above came the singing of skylarks – such an evocative sound. A few weeks ago I was lying in a hotel room in Penang, temperature around 38°C, sweat running off me like water, and I put ‘The Lark Ascending’, by Vaughan Williams, on the iPod. Immediately I was transported back to this countryside in my mind – the vast skyscapes, those enormous, drifting clouds, the cool breeze and the sound of skylarks singing overhead in a bright blue sky.
Having reached Westleton four miles away, which is one of the last villages before Dunwich on the Dunwich Dynamo – an overnight bike ride from London to Dunwich that takes place every July – we decided we were hungry again, so paid a visit to The Crown. When I used to come here as a kid this was a small rural pub populated by farmworkers and retired gentry, accents ranging from incomprehensible rural burr (‘Oil ‘ave a point o’ bear’) to the occasional cut glass, ex-officer types who referred to ‘trisers’, ‘hice’, and said ‘ears’ when they meant ‘yes’. I used to get given a pack of cheese and onion crisps, a ginger ale, and was told to go and sit outside. Well, nowadays the cut glass accents outnumber the locals a hundred to one. The Crown, like much of East Suffolk, has undergone gentrification. Never mind – the fish and chips was excellent, and came with mushy peas, which is always good, even if some of the diners may have mistaken them for guacamole, or perhaps pesto.
So, full of food again, and with Annie’s pedals creaking like a cork turned in a wine bottle, we decided to actually do some cycling. I hadn’t been on a bike for months, and wasn’t sure how I was going to fare, but we set an easy pace, and headed inland. We freewheeled through a deserted Darsham and over the A12, heading for Sibton Green. I’m not sure about Sibton Green. I know I’ve been there, but I can never actually find it. Even now, having been there 2 days ago, I’d be hard-placed to describe it. I suspect that this is because… it’s not actually there. It’s somewhere else. This may be because during WW2, when all the village signposts were rotated 90 degrees to confuse German paratroopers, someone forgot to tell Sibton Green to put theirs back again at the end of the war. Either way, we went past, through, or vaguely near Sibton Green, of which I have no recollection at all, and then down to Peasenhall, which is a lovely village strung out along the A1120. It’s nowhere near as pretty as Walberswick, or even Sibton Green, for that matter, but it is at least a real village, not a retirement home pretending to be one. And in addition, Peasenhall is home to a housing estate named Smythe Mews, which would be reason enough to love the place. I can’t say the name without sort of screwing my face around and sneering. ‘We’ve bought a lovely house in Smythe Mews’. How super.
Mid-July, and the countryside is humming with life. Birds dive in and out of the hedgerows as you pass by and butterflies circle around your head – one landed on my wrist and as I watched, unrolled its tongue and dabbed at the droplets of sweat on my arm. The road shimmers in the heat and fields of pale gold lie still beneath a deep blue sky. Rounding one corner I saw magenta flowers as far as I could see. Round the next bend an entire hedgerow of roses, their heady scent drifting down the valley on the warm air. Entering woodland, shafts of sunlight are tinged green as they filter down through the boughs, and the treetops echo with birdsong. Through a village the road climbs, houses with windows wide open and not a soul to be seen. Sometimes in the distance you can hear the sound of a car passing, but otherwise there is just the whirr of the wheels on the tarmac and the click of the gearchange. Then, from high above the patchwork of golden fields and hedgerows comes the sound of an aeroplane. The engine note is familiar from countless films – a Spitfire. It climbs and rolls, corkscrewing into a dive before flipping over and climbing into the sun, disappearing from view.
Anyway, I can’t remember where we were by now, except going up another hill, or down one, so we kept going to Bruisyard, where I once stopped 20 Dunwich Runners heading in the wrong direction one filthy night in 2005. ‘I’m a local,’ I explained. ‘Follow me.’ They did for about 2 minutes until they got bored of my plodding pace, and zipped on past into the darkness. This time it was much nicer – sunshine, birdsong, the distant sound of a mower, and then all of it drowned out by Annie’s freewheeling bicycle, which sounds like a buzz-saw next to your ear. Small bunnies took fright and fled across the road at the approaching din. Then, thankfully, she started pedalling again and all we had was the rhythmic creak of the pedals.
So by now I suspect we were nearing Framlingham. More idyllic countryside. Tons of it. Acres of verdant patchwork fields stretching as far as you can see. It’s unreal, actually – it looks like a cartoon, or Lemon Jelly’s album cover Lost Horizons, if you know the one. One scene was straight from Tuscany – a line of poplars and a gently rising hillside. Then a bright yellow field of rapeseed, set against the blue sky. Ridiculously pretty. Then we drop down into the village and there is the unforgettable sight of an enormous castle perched high above a water meadow. It’s just lovely. Lush pasture stood next to a lake fringed with bulrushes, and on the water bobbed a flock of white birds. Upon the hillside opposite loomed the castle, turrets and battlements spread out along the high ground. Geese grazed on the meadow, working their way across the rich vegetation that seemed to almost glow green in the sunlight. We stood and watched for perhaps quarter of an hour, reluctant to tear ourselves away from the view, until I heard a church clock striking, pulling me out of the reverie.
Framlingham was full of schoolkids. There’s a large public school here, and they’d clearly been given the afternoon off, so they walked around in packs looking insecure and saying things like ‘trisers’, ‘hice’ and ‘ears’. I went into the hotel for tea. ‘It’s too late for tea’, snarled a surly bargirl. ‘No it isn’t,’ I replied. ‘I’ll go to the cafe instead.’ And the tea was lovely at the cafe, and the lady brought out two chairs for us on the pavement, and didn’t mind when we ate our own flapjacks, and told us how nice Fram was, and was so glad she’d moved there from Cornwall, where they are awful, apparently. Well, I dunno. My uncle was a Cornishman, and he was alright, from what I recall. But I didn’t tell her that.
We set off again, heading up another hill to Saxtead Green, then whizzed down to Earl Soham, outpacing the cars restricted by the 30 zone. Then it was up again, and down, and up some more, along the 1120 to Debenham. I was beginning to suffer at this point. My legs were heavy, my face was burning from the bravely refused sunscreen, and I was tired. But on we went, to places I don’t know the name of. Earl Stonham was one I recall, where they are having a scarecrow competition – one lay in a wheelbarrow holding a bottle of beer, another wore a hi-viz jacket and pointed a hairdryer down the road; very effectively, judging by the number of brake lights. Another pretty village, another hill, then over the A140. It’s a blur now, to be honest. I’d only gone 40 miles, but am way out of condition, and so just hung on to Annie’s back wheel as she plodded on. Then, suddenly we were coming into Needham Market, zipping down the High Street and then under the railway bridge, round to Chez Annie. I’d done 45 miles, Annie had done another 50 on top on that, and was looking pretty fresh for a 95 mile ride.
So we then drank a lot of tea, talked some gibberish and managed to eat the best part of a jumbo pizza each. I recall that pleasant ache of tiredness that comes from a long bike ride, where you have been alone with your thoughts all day and ended them all on a positive note at what you have achieved. It was a fantastic ride, which reintroduced me to Suffolk and reminded me how much I like living here.