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Birthday Tour

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I am not normally inclined to worry about dates or anniversaries and things like that. I have even drifted through a couple of my own birthdays without noticing them. But 2003 is different, for in 2003 I will be 60 -  an age at which one can start to consider oneself  ‘old’, should one want to, that is. Not that being old is a good thing. It has compensations but generally youth has a lot more going for it and is truly wasted on the young. No, what I wanted to celebrate was neither of these. What I was so happy about was having arrived at old age without ever having been middle aged, that being the most undesirable badge of all. I know this because I have never owned a Rover or a cardigan.

So there I was with something to celebrate at last, but what sort of celebration? Certainly not a cake; that would be almost middle aged in itself. No, the obvious thing now I was declaring myself old was to do the usual thing and set out to prove that I could still do what a man of half my age could do. Which for me would mean an heroic cycle ride. (That’s a bit of a cheat, as I hadn’t taken up cycling at the age of 30, so better make that ‘a man just over half my age’.)

So that would be it: a great ride, but to where? I had in my youth actually done what I considered at the time a quite heroic ride when I cycled to London and back. This would be a good one and just as great for me today because then I lived in St Albans and now I live in Norwich - that’s 40 miles and 240 respectively! I have done the trip down several times but never the full round trip. So was this it? Well, no. The problem is the road. The A11 used to be a reasonably unpleasant bit of mostly single carriageway that I regularly time trialled, and which for a tourist in a hurry was just about acceptable. But not anymore. Today it is a mostly duelled raging torrent of four-track Rambo wagons that even an old tester like me keeps well clear of.

There are lots of nice quiet and interesting other roads between Norwich and the capital, but they would add considerably to the distance, which was already somewhere between heroic and foolhardy. And more importantly for me, it would involve navigation - something that neither my brain or my bike are suited to. I look at an OS map in much the same was as I look at a Pollack, although OS maps have the advantage of being a lot cheaper than Pollacks. And recumbents like my Ratcatcher 9, which I would be riding, are little better, for even with the above-seat ’hamster’ bars (think about it), there is nowhere to fit a map. You could mount it on the bars, but then you would not be able to see where you were going. Why don’t I ride a ‘proper bike’? Because my limit on a safety is about 50 miles. Then my back gives out. So it’s Ratty or nothing. And anyway, I make the things.

So another route was needed, one involving quiet roads but no maps. This left only one option: a lap of Norfolk, or most of it anyway, heading out to Kings Lynn, right on to coast road, carry on to Great Yarmouth and home. Easy. I had done a similar ride before. staying north of the A47 to Lynn and turning short of Yarmouth to avoid the infamous Acle straight. This time I would go south, heading out on the Watton road and going through Yarmouth to return south of the River Yare.

That’s the route, then. Now a date. Not as obvious as it seems as this year my birthday coincides with Easter and so I decide it is reasonable to pick the best day weather-wise for the trip. Now if you care to think back to that time you will recall that the week running up to Easter was truly wondrous. Britain was warmer than Greece and we were dancing in the streets and stuff. So all looking good until they start talking about it all coming to an end at Easter. But they said Saturday would still be pretty good. So Saturday it was: time to lay out the shorts, mitts and clean the shades. But it was not to be. By Friday weather forecasters were talking about 10°C, cloud, possibly rain, and especially wind from the north east. Just what you want for a trip the ‘wrong way’ round the Norfolk coast. And it did have to be the wrong way, on account of where the cafes are.

It was too late to back out. Well, actually it would have been really easy to change any of it, but I am at times possessed of a degree of mental implacability that is truly remarkable. My wife even suggested half  heartedly ‘you don’t have to go’, knowing full well that I do. Not that it is a man thing, more a stupid cyclist thing.

Six o’clock Saturday morning and it is truly awful: cold, overcast, and the wind taking it out on the trees for getting in its way. I fill my Camelbak with energy stuff and shove it in the boot; you don’t wear your drinks on your back on a recumbent - not unless you want to shower with them. I can fit bottles easily, but they are not exactly in keeping with the ethos of an aero-ish recumbent. It’s a bit like pylons in a national park. And the Camelbak system does allow you to gently slurp anytime you like almost hands-free. Three flapjacks from the supermarket: much like energy bars, I figure, but cheaper and actually taste nice. My wife hands me a solitary banana, The shorts and mitts are back in the drawer and I am in full Roubaix longs and top with thermal vest and as back up a nice wind/showerproof top with a front pocket and mesh back that Anna Jenkins of the BHPC had made up (this went on at Kings Lynn - and stayed on). And the shades were now clear. I also made the rather rash decision to try out a pair of new shoes that so far I had only ridden in for 20 miles or so. I normally wear the excellent Carnac Passy’s for ‘hard touring’ but having just go this shiny new pair of Specialized ‘Sonoma’ I was keen to try them out. They are seemingly more of a leisure shoe,  are very light and have quite a stiff sole, and usefully for me a lot more toe room than normal. One problem I have on the recumbent is tingling toes; it has been suggested that this could be due to the lower pressure of blood at the foot in the recumbent mode. I suspect that it is due to the old age I am about to celebrate. It might well occur on a regular bike, but I can’t ride one for long enough to find out.

Early mornings are a good time to ride through cities: no cars, people, or noise. It’s very pleasant, and I get all the lights bar one set at green. Half an hour after setting off I am crossing the southern bypass and into the countryside proper. The  Watton road is one of those ‘useful if you are in a hurry’ roads -  not too much traffic and a pleasantly rolling but direct character. I am bowling along it at a fair pace. Only when I stop for a leak behind a tree do realise how much this rapid progress is due to an increasingly strong and horribly raw wind. Still, I am soon on my way and up to speed again, and thinking to myself that a wind this strong and this early in the day could well have blown itself out, say by the time I was turning down the coast at Hunstanton. My brain carefully avoids accessing its history file to see how often this sort of thing has happened in the past, which says a lot about the human brain and probably explains why so many people think Elvis is still alive.

By now the sun is actually shining. It’s actually shining in my eyes occasionally thanks to my handlebar mirror, so all is well and I am travelling along fairly hopefully. The first bit of non-countryside is Hingham: a very nice village, especially this morning in the sunshine, all blossom and greens. It is famous for having some sort of connection with Abe Lincoln and for a cafe of the same name that manages to make the Saturday club run feel not quite welcome. I should point out here that this is one of the few bits of information concerning stuff like this that you will get from me. It’s not that I don’t like churches and things but to me they are part of the scenery and scenery is the stuff that moves past as you ride along: nice to look at, but I see little need to be part of it or know how it got there. There is, after all, too much information in the world.

I am, however, a bit of a ‘birder’ (which is what birdwatchers call themselves), and as this ride is around Norfolk, the single best bit of real estate in Britain for seeing our feathered friends, I will mention some of the highlights. It is a bit odd that Norfolk is still such a good place for birds of all sorts as it looks for the most part like a big green factory -  as indeed it is, most farms having been replaced by agri-business production centres. But there are still a lot of bits in between that support everything from the odd pair of breeding rarities that don’t get talked about to tens of thousands of 
wintering geese that thrive on the old sugar beet toppings. Who said trying to get sugar out of turnips was pointless?

Watton is next up: a proper town, but not very exciting. I do have to make a right turn here, though, and on to a road that I am not familiar with. To this end, I have scribbled a few notes on the back of a business card, and this is now wedged between the hydraulic brake pipes on my handlebars. Sadly, not enough notes, and I take the wrong turning and miss seeing Saham Tony, which has to be seen if only because it is such a nice name and what looked like a remarkable round pond, if the OS is to be believed. But no time to go back. I am on my way to Swaffam now, which although some miles distant should soon be visible, or at least its recently acquired landmark: the largest wind turbine in Britain. So they say. I have not gone round measuring them, you understand. But big it is. It even has a viewing platform at the top.

Swaffam itself is the classic Norfolk market town and quite personal for me as the base for an awful lot of 50s and l00s over the years. Many is the time I have sat on the steps clutching my cup of tea in this market place.

On now along still strange roads and some navigating that for once works out well to Clayton. Not so much a place as a decision. Do I go straight on along more quiet lanes that will eventually lead past Sandringham where I just might get invited in for a cuppa? But this would be a bit of a cheat. This ride is about visiting the corners, which Means turning left onto the B1145, a road I have used in the past and another one of the ‘good for a cyclist trying to get somewhere’. The problem is that where it gets you is the A149 at Kings Lynn. I won’t go into town -  much too big and busy -  but head on up to Hunstanton where I plan to stop for tea and buns. I said problem, for when I have done this route in the past, the A149 has had traffic flows that suggested a direct connection with the M25. Today, though the less than cheerful weather has changed everything,  there are more gaps than cars.

By now the blue sky is long gone and I have even been rained-on briefly. And it looks as if it could again any time it wanted to. If I had anything worthwhile to offer the gods, now would have been a good time. Regrettably, I was out of offerings. So as I turn north into the teeth of the gale I am inclined to abandon any hope I might have had left. It occurs to me that even the usual wall of traffic could have done some good in sheltering me from the worst of the wind. As it is, it only seems to make gusts worse and I have to concentrate quite hard to maintain directional control.

This really is an awful and exposed bit of road, but it does not go on for long thanks to the newish Dersingham bypass, which messes up rather a lot of wilderness, but lets me get away from the nasty bits and onto the old bit through town to see a bit of west Norfolk properly. The traditional building material here is carrstone, a sort of rusty brown sandstone. Not my most favourite building material but a big improvement on Flettons. This is also the start of birding country proper. Snettishham is the place to see waders. Most of the shots of vast wader flocks wheeling about are filmed on the beach here. On to Hunstanton, Norfolk’s famous west coast resort, all very nice and Victorianish with very little ‘kiss me quick’, especially at the moment as the rather less-than-historic pier and arcade just burned down. But hurry as they are rebuilding it. I end up in the Goblin’s Pantry for beans on toast, which is doubly nice as I was eating here over 20 years ago on my first even CTC hostle trip.

Hunstanton is my second ‘corner’ and a very well defined one. You go from west to north coast on the main road, round a bend that would have had me using the brakes had it been a tailwind. But it is not, and now it is from the left. Fortunately this bit of Norfolk has a fair bit of hedge and wall and lots of birds. If Norfolk is the best place for them then the north coast is the best bit of the best place. You have no sooner turned the corner than you have ‘Holme’, very much the keen birder’s reserve, and next door Titchwell, run by the RSPB very much ‘thirds and juniors’, with lots of very good hides, a shop and tea room, all very user-friendly. Not that the birds know it is for beginners and it gets more than its share of rarities.

Next up is Brancaster and the start of the other thing that north Norfolk is famous for: holiday homes. But not your average weekenders. The sort of people who come up here to escape the rat race are the ones who are starting to think that caviar is a bit old hat and instead are throwing sturgeon steaks on the barbie. They also have to be fairly hardy: it can be bleak and windswept up here, and that’s on the good days.

Progress is not too bad at this point. I had set out to try for an average of 17mph, hoped to get 16 and was still just on 17. The coast road here rolls and twists in a very coast road sort of way and the general grimness is keeping the traffic light. But from experience, even on busy days it is a very tolerant and unhurried sort of traffic; the de-stressing bit obviously works for most of the holiday home crowd.

Holkham and its famous hall on the right now. Lord Coke of yore did a lot to improve agriculture, Hmm, current one lets you wander round the place. Trees near main gate often good for Hawfinches. But for the good stuff you need to cross the road and head out to the dunes where one of the ancestors planted corsican pines which are now well-established, and one of the nicest bits of seaside I know of. It’s also a good place for tired dicky birds on migration to rest and the site of the most frantic ‘twitch’ I have ever seen. A ‘red breasted nuthatch’ had turned up, which as it should have been in North America and does not normally migrate to anywhere made it very rare indeed. I was one of about a thousand people there on the second day looking for something not unlike a blue tit that was hanging around with blue tits in a very large wood. It took me three hours to get a glimpse of the thing. And you thought it was just cyclists who did daft things.

At the end of the pines is Wells, a very nice still slightly working port with only a little candy-floss in evidence. The whole of this north coast still has a number of ‘working’ bits but by now one suspects that artists outnumber fishermen. Warham Greens is not somewhere that you will have noticed, even if you had ridden past it. Next door to Stiffkey, famous for its dodgy vicar, Warham had a visitor this last winter in the shape of a Pallid Harrier, a bird that would normally, nest in Kazakhstan and winter in South Africa. The idea of one spending the winter months on the north Norfolk coast is about as likely as Mario Cippolini turning up to ride your club’s evening 10. But I saw it, twice. So hey, Mario, what number do you want?

Birding-wise we are building up to a bit of a climax. Blakeney is next, famous for its ‘point’, the longest shingle spit in Britain. You don’t reach it from Blakeney but from next door in Cley. This is the place the cycling world has no equivalent of. You would have to put the Manchester velodrome at the foot of White Horse Bank and the Eureka cafe at the top to come close. The village itself is some distance from the action and shaped as a sort of natural traffic calming system. Also the best deli in Norfolk is not in Norwich but here in Cley and it is just as well I am not wealthy as my regular trips to this part of the world would see me carrying away more calories than I could burn off in a week. 



It also has brilliant pottery with a silly name.











But I am away from the village and down the beach road past the famous reserve to the somewhat understated and really tastelessly painted cafe, but when you open the door it is even less welcoming inside, and for a beach cafe out of ice cream a remarkable number of times. Butthe apple pie and quiche are both brilliant, so I top up my reserves and then get my picture taken by a man with a proper camera who says he is doing a book of cyclists. My camera is a Sainsbury’s throw-away thing; the wife has a very nice Nikon all-singing and dancing, but having it in the boot would cost me a couple of mph on the climbs at least.


From Cley it is a short but quite hilly run to Sheringham and then Cromer, the two main seaside towns on the north coast. Both rather nice and oldish, with a minimum of noise and glitter. Both have famous and overworked lifeboats, and Cromer thinks a lot of its crustaceans. A couple of miles down the road is Overstrand, the site of the Poppyland stories, and a very nice clifftop cafe that is happy to see the Saturday run. By now the coast is no longer entirely north, but for me it does not stop being north until Bacton, site of the famous gas terminal where the stuff that bubbles out of the North Sea is cleaned up and sent on its way. It sits astride the main road and does seem to involve an awful lot of piping valves and things. After all, it’s only welcoming the stuff ashore as it were. I am sure the old gas works of my youth were never this complex and they made the stuff.

So having left the north coast we should now be on the east coast, but no, that does not start until Sea Palling. Where we are now is a sort of no- man’s land because we don’t have a north east coast as such, at least, no one ever talks about it. The road here is well clear of the coast and has alongside it or on the coast proper an interesting mix of holiday and permanent homes. If it is not too patronising to talk about ‘real people, this lot are about as real as you get. Nobody here will be worrying about grilling the sturgeon or eating its eggs; they would be happy with well cooked cod and chips. They do like their peace and quiet - you won’t find any candy-floss around here. One sudden flurry of birding activity occurred along here last year when a Griffon Vulture turned up in Happisburgh. That’s about as likely as Cipo turning up with Lance to ride your local as a two-up. And as it turned out it answered to the name of Foster and belonged to Banham Zoo. I should point out that the rules of birding require the bird to have arrived in this country naturally and of its own accord, although a certain amount of assisted passage, e.g. sitting on the masthead of ships is allowed, as long as no attempt was made to feed or encourage the bird during the voyage. And you thought the UCI were bad!

At last, Sea Palling, the east coast proper and the edge of the Broads. And a sort of beginning of the end of the trip. But a hard beginning. For these are the lowlands. The road no longer rolls or meanders and walls are hedges are things of the past. The North Sea is very close and you really know it. Birds around here too many to mention, but start of the show if you are lucky enough are the cranes which you could catch overhead in a thermal or looking out at you nervously from any of the roadside fields along here. From Horsey Mill, you have a good view of its modern counterparts. Having seen the biggest wind turbine, I am now looking at Norfolk’s ten smallest and one most medium. Funny how people complain about these newcomers to the landscape while happily restoring the likes of the one at Horsey. I would happily have the view out of my window include one, preferably a big one; the little ones can be a bit ‘yappy dog’ in comparison.



Winterton brings the east coast to an end, and if you are a keen walker the dunes are a very nice place and supposedly unique in Britain. Clearly the east coast has not ceased as such at this point, but we are entering another no-man’s land and not one that I often venture into for this is the land of the holiday camp, with mile after mile of chalets and caravans all the way from here to Yarmouth. I occasionally venture here at the end of the season to walk the coastal strip, as wild birds have very little taste -  a lot of them probably grew up in broken nests, I guess. Anyway, moving swiftly on the one little gem for me is California -  no, not that one; we have our one right here on the east coast. And it has a donut machine and decent cheap coffee. Just the thing for cold birders, and with the added bonus that you can tell your friends that you stopped for a snack in California. But no it is not the original. It got its name when gold was washed up following a nearby shipwreck.

Great Yarmouth is preceded by Caister, but as they are all joined up it’s sort of the same place, and the built up area is for once welcome. Although by now the wind is occasionally quite helpful. So what can I tell you about Yarmouth that will not have the locals thinking that I am just another Jeremy Clarkson? Well, not a lot really. Yarmouth is ‘the seaside’, a sort of small east coast Blackpool and slightly faded at the edges. Get away from the front and the bits of old town that are left still have character and it is still very much a working port, one of the main bases for the offshore industry. The result of this is, as you drift south down its golden mile, large areas of dereliction, waste and rubble, all of which is perfect for birdwatching. Or at least, it is if you want to see Black Redstarts, which for some reason just love bombsites.

I am not straying this far south today. I am stopping for the last time for tea and cake at one of the many seafront cafes between the two piers. And very popular I am: a customer at last. This is not a good day to be on the east coast, cycling or not, although if you had an old bike you were doing up you could soon have the frame down to bare metal just by laying it on the beach for an hour or two. This cold wind is also keeping away the most famous inhabitants of this area, the Mediterranean gulls. I have never seen a med gull in the med as such, despite several trips there, but Yarmouth has a couple of dozen for most of the year. And weather permitting, there’s no need to wade in mud or track or brave vicious thorns: you can just sit in your chair at the cafe and watch them while your drink your coffee. This is a good place to start birdwatching!

The weather being so bad, I don’t take any pics. It is not far and I can come back another day. Talking of other days, this is now the Easter monday and I am doing a first re-write, and as I do the sun is shining from a near - cloudless sky and the wind is just toying with the leaves of the sliver birch outside the windows. And yesterday was just the same. Ho hum.

And so to home. The wind is still blowing and it is still cold and bleak, but I have turned the last corner and it is a tailwind again. Oh joy! A bit southish at first over the bridges of Haddisacoe, and on to Loddon, where I pick up the low road. This being the usual return run for the club run to Bungay. So nearly there, and everything has worked well, even the shoes. I had a bit of tingling at 125-miles but the extra toe room allowed me to wriggle it away and get the blood flowing. I do manage, though, to zero up the computer with just ten miles to go, Doh! But I had checked it earlier and the grand total will be 170, give or take a mile or two. The last mile or two into Norwich is a bit messy -  lots of back doubles and short cuts. After what I’ve been through, surely there should be some sort of grand avenue to end my great journey on. But no, and not a sign of rose petals being strewn either. But the off-licence is open so I buy a litre of San Miguel to go with the olives that I have been carrying back from Cley. No danger of buying too many calories on this trip.

Finally home, only to discover the wife has gone out and don’t have a key. Boo hoo, nobody loves me. I am just starting to think about borrowing a ladder to break in when she arrives, and it is not long before the hot bath, with beer and olives, has made everything better.

PS. Now my body has recovered, I am thinking there was this other silly thing I wanted to do on a recumbent, and I sort of have an excuse for another birthday. I wonder...

Originally published by the CTC in 'Cycle' in a much edited form

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