The Times – Saturday 25 September 2004
Pedal-powered Nicholas Roe found a quiet charm around every corner on his freewheeling cycling break.
The four young men in the pub were already drinking at quite a pace when their leader nipped to the bar and returned with four large Drambuies which he plonked before his mates with a flourish.
“There!” he exclaimed. “That’s to celebrate the fact that we’ve caught 15 fish today! Never done that before, ever!”.
And there you go. Suffolk is the kind of place where amazing things happen in a quiet way. It’s the area’s subtly attractive signature tune, and the fish boys were simply singing along.
I came across them in the King’s Head at Orford at the end of a day’s cycle ride from inland Framlingham, mostly following the lower section of the Suffolk Coastal Cycle Route, which bends off and on the shoreline as the landscape turns marshy or rivers intervene, tracing a line through the county’s most secluded spots in the process. It had been a very good journey.
At Framlingham itself, I had climbed stunning castle ramparts to stand where Bloody Mary once viewed massed supporters during her tussle with Lady Jane Grey, just before heads rolled and history turned a page. Yet it wasn’t a sense of great events that overwhelmed me but a sense of the intense beauty of the Suffolk countryside, stretching away from the castle heights in a green baize of fields and woods and haunted hedgerows, and all very promising.
So I pedalled off seawards, liberated by sunshine and a holiday deal that sent my luggage ahead by car, so I had nothing to haul except me. Brown hares hunkered down in ploughed fields, pheasants clacked in ditches. The countryside was so secluded that I soon developed the habit of just slamming on my brakes mid road, mid-corner, whenever anything interesting caught my eye. No need to worry.
Suffolk’s lanes hum with silence.
And what followed was genuinely surprising. A few miles east of Framlingham, Pound Farm slid into view. Once just another East Anglian agro-business, in 1989 it became the first major planting project undertaken by the Woodland Trust. It took a farm, and scrubbed away years of ploughing and spraying and tractoring; so now, when you push your bike through the gate, you encounter a spread of 64,000 native trees on the barley fields – plus empty walkways, silent ponds, and no one in the car park.
It was all so attractive, so unexpected, that I began to crave more emptiness, so sped on past better-known lures such as Snape Maltings, home to the annual Aldeburgh Festival, because tea-shop crowds did not appeal. Instead, I cranked my way a mile or two east of the Maltings to the seclusion of Iken Church, lying on an isolated promontory that juts into the River Alde – where daffodils sprouted from graves, no one moved, and birds nested in the thatched roof of a building that inhabits the site of St. Botolph’s monastery, built by the devout, destroyed by Vikings. And there was just me there.
Next to Orford, where I checked in at the deliciously calm Crown and Castle hotel, feeling childishly delighted to find my bag waiting when I arrived; feeling even cheerier next morning to stand at my bathroom mirror and look out through the window directly on to the striking monolith of Orford Castle, barely 100 yards away.
What followed was a loop down into history by more tranquil lanes. I was off and on the coastal cycle route, following maps clipped to my handlebars by Suffolk Cycle Breaks, which picks out all kinds of alternative quiet roads in various day-Glo colours. Feeling restive? Pick orange, and zip up this side-route for a bit. Feeling lazy? Go yellow, go direct.
I headed yellowy-orange for Shingle Street on the coast to the southeast, a place haunted by stories of a secretly thwarted German invasion attempt during the Second World War – never proved, though the legend lingers.
Coming at it from out of a sun-thinning mist, I became aware of a vast swath of wildlife-rich shingle seething for miles and fringed in part by 20 secluded houses, remnants of an old village that once supported a pub, but no longer.
A similar taste of half-forgotten landscapes was waiting farther south at Bawdsey Quay, where you can get a little ferry over to Felixstowe and where you find Bawdsey Manor, home of radar. They also used to export fossilised dung from here.
Seriously. No demand nowadays.
Finally, I pedalled upriver, via more of those haunted lanes, to the crumpled remains of Ramsholt village. There used to be more than 200 locals in this riverside valley, now barely 30 inhabit the parish. At the Ramsholt Arms I bought steak and ale pie, and a pint of Adnams, and stared out over mudflats and water and stunted remains of broken wood jutting from bankside walkways, indicating who-knows-what industrial heritage, long forgotten and never commented on much locally anyway. It’s just not that kind of area.
Nicholas Roe travelled with Suffolk Cycle Breaks (01449 721555, www.cyclebreaks.com). His journey included part of the Castles and Rivers Tour, which costs £251pp including three nights’ B&B, luggage transfer, route planning, maps, bike hire and mechanical assistance.