‘Remember the couple who cycled around Cuba?’ I say. She knows straight away it’s been a difficult week at work. I’m dreaming of escape again.
Some years ago, before the children were born, my wife and I were on a train journey and met a couple in their mid-60s who had just returned from cycling around Cuba, taking their own bikes on the plane and carting their luggage about on trailers. This was before I had done any proper cycle touring myself and it was the first time I realised that a bike holiday could be a great way to have an adventure, to get off the beaten track and discover the ‘real country’. I’ve since discovered that this holds true not just in exotic locations but closer to home as well.
But what really made an impact on us at the time was the openness to life shown by this older couple, their hunger for new experience still burning bright. They were an inspiring example of how the autumn of life might be lived, spitting in the eye of the ageing process and refusing to go gently into that good night.
And in recent years, ‘Remember the couple who cycled around Cuba’ has become a reassuring mantra for us both, a promise of good times ahead, wheeled out whenever we are feeling stuck at the bottom of the u-bend of mid-life . (As Dante put it, ‘Midway in the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the way was lost’ – there being no GPS available in 13th century Italy I guess…)
For my wife though, I’ve come to suspect that ‘the couple who cycled around Cuba’ might be more of a symbol than anything else, a metaphor for the potential freedoms of later life when the birds have flown the nest. It’s shorthand for a wide range of possible travel adventures, some of which may even involve nice hotels, spas, shopping and the like. For me, on the other hand, ‘the couple who cycled around Cuba’ is more literal – I really want to cycle around Cuba.
So I’ve been thinking it might be a good idea to start now, to try out some shorter cycle trips just the two of us, so we can build up to the ‘big one’. The idea is to try a late October ride in the Waveney Valley along the Suffolk-Norfolk border, on Monday and Tuesday of half term week. Son is now away at Uni, daughter is staying with a friend, having reached the age when a mini-break in East Anglia with mum and dad no longer holds the excitement it once did. The dog has been shunted off to my sister’s.
The route is about 50 miles, starting and finishing in the town of Diss, about a two hour drive from our home in east London (also reachable by fast train from Liverpool Street). I want to make this as pleasant and pain-free as possible so we’re going to take things pretty easily the first day with a mere 20 miles to our night stop at Bungay, which leaves 30 miles for the second day.
It’s 11 am on a fresh, sunny morning and the ride out of Diss is pleasant enough, though there are a few more lorries on some of these B roads than we might have wished for. But once we skirt past the village of Hoxne we’re onto quiet lanes alongside the River Waveney, the route dotted with distinctive white-washed cottages with bright red roofs and old watermills. We stop for lunch in The Bell at Wortwell, where I re-acquaint myself with Old Hooky, a friend I haven’t seen for some years. After lunch we’re cruising on flat roads and arrive in Bungay way earlier than expected.
Bungay is a pleasing town boasting the remains of a 12th century castle and crammed full of independent shops selling antiques, second hand books, curiosities and the like. Back in the 1700s it became briefly fashionable as a spa resort and famous for its theatre and music, even acquiring the nickname of ‘Little London’ and attracting illustrious visitors like Dick Turpin and ‘Prinny’ (later King George IV). It’s other claim to fame is the Black Shuck, a ghostly and terrible hound with flaming eyes which has long been part of East Anglian folklore. One of the most infamous sightings took place here in 1577, when the Shuck is said to have burst into the town church and killed two people. More recently, and perhaps most terrifying of all, the Black Shuck was the subject of a song by glam-metal band The Darkness.
Unfortunately the charms of Bungay are not best experienced on a Monday, as most of the town is shut. Woody Allen once said ‘If I had to live my life again, I’d do everything the same, except that I wouldn’t bother to go and see The Magus’ (he’s right, brilliant book, rubbish film). Well, if I had my time over again I probably wouldn’t bother visiting Bungay on a Monday.
We’re staying at the Castle Inn, an appealing 16th century pub which also boasts a Michelin Guide recommended restaurant, though this part is inevitably closed on Mondays. We check in at reception at the same time as an elderly lady and her husband, a sweet old man in a cardigan who endears himself to me by describing himself as an ‘ale man ‘. I ask the woman on duty – the owner it turns out – if she can recommend anywhere else to eat tonight in Bungay.
‘Well actually we also run a very good Italian restaurant, just down the High Street.’
‘Great, what time does it open?’ I ask.
‘It’s closed on a Monday I’m afraid.’
‘There is a Thai place, she says, and an Indian, and, er…well there’s always the Fleece of course…’
‘A chef who used to work for us left to do their food…but most of our guests who end up eating there say they, er, feel rather fleeced actually…’
I sense this may not be the first outing for this joke. I’m also catching a strong whiff of pub-on-pub rivalry and am determined not to be put off. There’s no way we’re not going to be eating at the Fleece tonight.
We dump our stuff in the room and head out to explore the town. Readers of this blog will know there are few things I like more on a bike trip than a bit of serious tea room action. And happily there are no less than three to choose from, even on a Monday! If we wanted to we could go on a toasted tea-cake crawl of Bungay High Street, and that might actually be the best way of spending the afternoon. But in the event we opt for the Old Bank Tearoom, where we enjoy a thick slice of very decent Victoria sponge and a pot of full-bodied rust-coloured tea made with proper leaves.
The Old Bank is a classic tea room blend of the vintage, the nostalgic and the quirky (artfully mismatched crockery, as opposed to the artlessly mismatched stuff we have at home). The standard 1920s tea room music floats along in the background. This music is all part of the gaiety and charm of the tea room experience and I rather like it in small doses, but it must drive you bonkers if you have to work here all the time. ‘I wonder what music we’ll have down at the tea-room today?’ you might ask yourself optimistically on the way to work one morning. ‘Maybe we’ll have a bit of dubstep or the latest Daft Punk album for a change…oh it’s the fucking Charleston again, right…’
There being little else to do in Bungay this afternoon apart from drink tea, we have a short wander before retiring to the Castle Inn to recover from our morning exertions, modest though they have been. Later that evening we go back into town in search of dinner. On the way out of the Castle I spend some time perusing the Michelin Guide-recommended menu on the wall. I feel compelled to see what I could have eaten tonight, had it not been a sodding Monday. My wife tries in vain to hurry me on, knowing no good can possibly come of it. But I’m in a quandary over my main course. I’m tempted by the ‘Hempnall butchers best 21 day hung sirloin steak with a rich red jus and Dauphinoise potatoes’. I’m just not sure I can manage a large steak after all that cake though.
In the end I plump for a starter of East Anglian mussels with smoked bacon lardons, leeks, cider, double cream and parsley, followed by slow cooked shoulder of lamb served on thyme mash, with pan juices and parsnip crisps, rounded off by the dark chocolate tart with chocolate orange sauce and honeycomb ice cream, washed down with a very passable Corbieres, an Armagnac and coffee. I can honestly say it’s one of the best meals I’ve never eaten on a bicycle trip.
Back in the real world of Bungay on a Monday night we find ourselves, inevitably, in the Fleece, eating scampi and chips out of an enormous basket. It may lack Michelin-endorsed finesse but it’s decent enough pub grub and there’s certainly plenty of it for the price. ‘I certainly don’t feel fleeced’, says my wife, a little too loudly. The place is not exactly rammed and a few punters at the baa turn round. She looks sheepish. ‘I think ewe ought to keep your voice down’, I say.
We’re up early next day aiming to get away by 10 o’clock, mindful of the fact that the hour went back last weekend and it’s going to be getting dusk by 5ish. Breakfast at the Castle is good and includes a local butcher’s sausage with an unusual and intense herby flavour which immediately plunges me into a reverie, conjuring up fond memories of my Great Uncle Sam. Proust had his madeleine and I have my sausage. He used to come and stay with us every year in my childhood (Great Uncle Sam that is, not Proust), bringing us yards of this wonderful stuff from his local butcher, Leaf’s of Calverton. He was a sweet, cardiganned old chap, as plump as a fat hen, with a pocket always full of toffees; a First World War veteran, farm labourer (and human scarecrow), Methodist, pencil sketcher and harmonica player (often playing hymn tunes on a country ramble to a field of enthralled cows). He ate a full English breakfast every morning, walked everywhere and lived to his mid-80s.
Later, we collect our things from the room and as I go to settle the bill on the way out I hear our fellow guest, another sweet old cardiganned fellow, complaining to the young breakfast chef. It seems he’s unhappy about the quality of his poached egg and is tearing him off a right old strip. The yolk, apparently, was not runny enough. The young chap is reddening as he tries to explain this is the first time he’s been on breakfast duty, and poached eggs are not really his forte. I’m relieved I went for the fried egg option myself, and secretly sympathise with the old fellow who is becoming less sweet and more cantankerous by the minute. It is annoying to be served a disappointing breakfast egg and it can be hard to let go and move on. I know because I’ve been there.
And all of a sudden I’m confronted with a bleak vision of myself aged 75: the scourge of callow young hospitality industry employees across the Home Counties and East of England. The Cycling Around Cuba Years, I fear, are destined to be followed by the Poached Egg Years.
Meanwhile, it’s a lovely sunny day again as we cycle south of Bungay through a group of small villages known collectively as The Saints, named after a cluster of eleven medieval churches. We pass an enticing turn-off to St Peter’s Brewery, where the very fine ale of the same name is made. Tours and tastings are advertised. It’s only 10.30 though, a bit early for a piss-up in a brewery, assuming I could manage to organise one. I only have a small saddle bag but my wife has a fine pair of voluminous panniers (I vowed this blog would never descend to the level of cheap smut, but I am weak). I suggest we might pop in and take back a few bottles, but the suggestion is not well received.
The route winds on through a network of small lanes, with hardly a vehicle in sight and a deep sense of peace and remoteness. It’s also surprisingly hilly in places considering this is East Anglia (Cuba, I assure my wife, is much flatter), and we are occasionally rewarded with good views across the valley. The horizon is dotted with wind turbines. They generate a fair amount of flak in some quarters and some people think they are not worth the hassle given the size of their energy contribution. In fact data from the National Grid shows that wind generated enough electricity to supply the needs of a quarter of UK homes in 2014, and around 10% of the country’s total electricity supply. It could be an awful lot higher if the ‘greenest government ever’ hadn’t so cynically undermined the industry in a bid to court UKIP supporters in the shires. The ghastly Eric Pickles has intervened personally to stop over 50 planned farms from going ahead, despite a string of opinion polls showing two thirds of the public are in favour. (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/28/war-on-windfarms-tories-latest-sop-to-ukip)
I really can’t understand why some critics see them as a blot on the landscape. Looking down the valley they strike me as elegant, graceful even, with their white sails flopping over in the breeze like children turning lazy cartwheels on a distant beach. A few hundred years ago I dare say there were some people round these parts saying, ‘We don’t want all these bloody windmills ruining the view, not in my backyard…how much corn can they even grind anyway? I had that Squire Pickles in the back of the stagecoach once…’
At the bottom of the valley we rejoin the Waveney at Syleham and for a stretch of around five miles we are retracing part of yesterday’s route back to the village of Hoxne. My wife is suffering from a sudden dip in energy levels (having made rather less of a pig of herself at breakfast than me), and there is a growing threat of mutiny in the ranks owing to my failure to pack any provisions. For the last 20 miles we haven’t passed a single shop or pub (unlike Cuba, I say, where there is a great café or restaurant literally round every bend). By this time it’s getting on towards 2 o’clock and luckily we arrive at the Swan in Hoxne, a lovely 15th century inn with low ceilings and oak beams, just in the nick of time for lunch, refuelling on smoked salmon sandwiches and a couple of pints of Timothy Taylor Landlord.
After lunch we set out on the last leg back to Diss, but following a different route to yesterday, looping around the pretty villages of Eye, Mellis and Thrandeston. The late October sun hangs low in the sky, throwing our shadows onto the high hedges of the lanes as we ride past, as if we are accompanied by two ghost cyclists. Maybe even the shades of our Cuban adventurer friends who, for all I know, may be pedalling the great coast to coast in the sky by now. Everything is bathed in that soft golden light that makes this time of year so beautiful. For once in my life there’s nowhere I’d rather be than where I am at this moment – here in East Anglia. Except maybe the Caribbean.
We thread our way back to the starting point and find our car, just before dusk arrives. It’s been a successful trip and, I like to feel, an important staging post on the road to Havana.
The full details of this route (‘The Waveney Weekender’) can be found in the book Lost Lanes: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England, written by Jack Thurston and published in 2013: http://thebikeshow.net/lost-lanes-shop/