Thursday, 19 June 2014

Ashby to Amsterdam - Day 2

I slept comfortably - but woke fairly early - I got up and went for a walk around the village - reminded me of Suffolk, perhaps not so remarkable as it's the adjoining County. Hemingford Gray is a rambling village, served by a small general store and a couple of pubs. I wander to and fro looking at the local architecture, peeping round corners and over fences - There's an open gardens coming up at the Manor House - very splendid it looks too and the river winding through to open parkland, dotted with half a dozen cabin cruisers and a young heron on the bank. I decide there and then that I'd like to visit again.

Hemingford Gray
Back at The Willow B&B there's all the hustle and bustle of breakfast. Along with Me and Gaz there's a French couple, middle aged, he could be a banker, speaks good english - there's a family from Essex up for a wedding - Grandma and Grandpa are eating with the baby, Mom and Dad aren't up yet. Then there's the travelling salesman, a regular, on first name terms with the staff. We start with a bowl of cereal and then straight into the full English - there's really no point in doing anything else - the full English is the true measure of a B&B in England - so simple yet so difficult to find a good one. This one was good - salty bacon, eggs from chickens we saw when we parked our bikes, sausage, mushrooms, hash brown, tomatoes, toast - the sum of the parts hit the spot, and a mug of coffee rounded off a thoroughly respectable start to the day.

The river Cam
Back to the room, into the cycling gear, pay the bill and we're gone. Gary struggled with knee pain for the first 20 miles, thankfully it eased after that. We headed into Cambridge riding alongside the river for a spell before turning through the centre - there was a giant illuminated sign warning traffic that the Tour de france is coming and that all routes will be disrupted.  We headed out into open country passing through deserted villages, no shops, pubs boarded up - the prospect of finding somewhere for lunch was a depressing one. Only mad dogs and cyclists go out in the midday sun - we needed a stop, a rest and some shade. We stopped to ask an oldish woman - she was eating an apple - she didn't know where we could find a pub or a shop, she hadn't lived in the area for over 40 years and was back today only to tend to the grave of her parents. 'How much do you want for your apple' I asked.
Tour de France sign

We consulted the map and decided that Haverhill looked sizeable enough to meet our needs - and not too far away. This was to be our first disappointment on this trip. A market town but with the market long since moved on, this shabby, tired outpost demonstrates so much that is depressing about Britain today. Cheap, tacky shops, burgers and kebabs, amusement arcades, betting shops, charity shops, lager louts effing and blinding and piles of rubbish bags. We passed along the high street deciding that the first pub looked uninviting. The next one looked okay and we rolled our bikes into the small decking-clad courtyard. The tables were all taken by groups of young people, drinking and chatting - the pub was busy, people playing pool, horse racing on the TV. I ordered a couple of drinks and then asked what food they had. Unfortunately there was no food - just beer and crisps.

Buckleys Tea Room
We didn't hang around any longer than we needed to, but we still hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. We carried on, conscious that we'd wasted time. Not long afterwards we happened upon a the village of Castle Hedingham and there Buckleys Tea Room - this looked the part - and frankly even if it didn't we would have stopped. As it was, this was perfect, built in the 1500s and oozing charm and gentility. We ordered a toasted sandwich each along with coffee and another double expresso for me. We got chatting to a couple sitting opposite, they were amazed at our adventure and told us they were up for day visiting their son. Gary told then about our experience down the road in Haverhill and what an awful place it was "Ah yes, that's where our son lives" the woman replied. "But I agree with you"

We hit the road again and on a short climb up through another village, a strange noise began emanating from somewhere on my bike - Gary heard it too - we both stopped, I messed around with the bike, flipping it over and poking around at the chain and gears - whatever it was it seemed to have disappeared - we set off again, a windy, twisting road, up and down, sweeping through lanes darkened by overhanging trees, then back out into the heat of the open fields - I reached for my sunglasses... I didn't have them. I remembered taking them off when messing with the bike - I'd put them on the Church wall. These are Oakley Jawbones - I had to go back!

Six miles or so later I rejoined Gary and we pressed on. We approached a crossroads and spotted a cyclist moving quickly in the same direction as we were heading. He was on a mountain bike , but definitely no slouch. Gary decided to take chase. With hindsight this was a mistake - in fact with any sort of sight - it was clear this chap was shifting - we were moving at 20+mph and making no headway. We stepped on the gas, gradually reeling him in, 24, 25mph and still it was taking time. By the time we caught him I was totally spent - Gary chatted about he had taken some catching - I just tried to get my breath back. Then he invited us to go on. We blasted off again, me in front, pushing, pushing as hard as I could - 25, 26, 27mph, faster on the downhills - I glanced round hoping to have opened a gap - Gary was about 20 yards back and the mountain biker right behind him. I carried on a bit longer and we approached another village with a nasty looking hill - the mountain biker pulled level - he glanced over - "This is a bit of a tester" that was all he said and he was gone - dancing up the rise at more or less the same pace as he held on the flat. We gave in. It was a steep hill.

Next stop for us was East Bergholt. The name might not mean much - but I guarantee that you'd recognise the scene at Flatford Mill, hidden away in the village, the setting for John Constable's renowned painting, The Hay Wain. We pithered around the village looking for signs - none. We asked three or four people for directions, none of them seemed capable of giving us clear guidance, it seemed that Flatford Mill was East Bergholt's best kept secret.

After drifting up, down and around for what seemed like half an hour we finally found it - down in a dip and at the end of a one-way system. We were able to ride our bikes right to it - and it was worth the detour. I'd been here before, on the day Eric Morecambe died, so a while.

The place is immediately recognisable as the scene from the painting and there were plenty of people milling round (no pun intended). We climbed back up to the village and stopped for a pint of beer before setting off on the final leg to Harwich - maybe 10-15 miles away.

Those last few miles were a drag - the effort of racing mountain bike man had taken me into the red. It was a slow slog up the main drag into Harwich - but at last we were there. Meeting up with the Blonde and her wing woman at the big Brewers Fayre on the island. We were also greeted by a policeman. He wandered over to congratulate us. He lives in Ashby de la Zouch and works as a copper in Solihull - he and his mates were riding to Bruges, raising money for the Air Ambulance - they call themselves 'The Helli-Coppers". So there we are us and about 30 policeman, al dressed in lycra, with some officers of the law stripping off in the car park - there was something comical about the scene.

After a well earned fish and chip supper it was onto the ferry for the overnight crossing to the Hook of Holland. It was huge ferry, and our cabins were sumptuous, three large portholes, two TV's a complimentary mini-bar and a really good shower. We sat in the bar for a couple of drinks but bed was calling - the gentle movement of the ship rocked me to sleep in seconds.

96.5 miles covered - 7.5 hours on the bike.

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