The Peddars Way – finding a bit of rough in Norfolk

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I expected the Peddars Way to be easy. A tame, pancake-flat route of benign cinder paths and quiet lanes. I mean, this is Norfolk afterall: Pretty villages, endless fields of arable crops, rock-and-slot-machine coastal resorts. I’m pleased to say my preconceptions were wrong.

That said, this isn’t the Highland Trail or the Pennine Bridleway. Folk seeking those kind of gritted-teeth thrills should look north. However, the gun-barrel straight Peddars – a former Roman road  – does have one or two tricks up its sleeve. These include a sense of remoteness along with unexpectedly challenging terrain and trail conditions that somehow creep up and tap you on the shoulder when the thighs start to burn.

The Way is part of the National Trail network. It is primarily a walking path and the official bike route diverts off the trail in places where the designated bridleway runs out. I’d never heard of it and the suggestion to put tyre to trail came from my girlfriend, Sophie, who has plenty of experience pedalling the flatlands.

We started at Thetford Station. I’d brought the trusty Ogre which seemed a little over gunned for what lay ahead (doesn’t it always?) while Sophie, who doesn’t suffer my Surly disposition, was on her perfectly proportioned Sonder Camino Ti. This, she insists upon reminding me, is a ‘multi-day adventure bike’ (‘It’s not a touring bike!’). Marketing semantics to one side, it was good to see it on a multi-day adventure at last albeit for what we both felt would be a very straightforward two-day bimble.

peddars-way-2We followed the signs for the Peddars Way through Thetford and promptly lost them. They are there, just keep your wits about you as their tucked away locations appear more geared for more sedate pedestrians rather than cyclists. We eventually joined the trail near Thorpe Woodlands and hit the dirt. Roundham and Hockham Heath soon passed under our wheels and we got into the groove of the journey, stopping frequently for pictures and exploratory Blackberry foraging – still a wee bit too early perhaps.

The trail is well way marked and easy to follow with little need for additional navigation. A word of caution should extend to supplies though. It is perhaps not surprising that some of the numerous signs also pointed to convenience stores and pubs off route as the trail does plot a rather lonely course through this largely well populated county. If you were to stay on the route as we did you’d go hungry. Fortunately, Sophie is a great believer in carrying plenty of snacks (more so than I, thank goodness) and we were well fuelled as we pushed on.

For a number of reasons we booked an Air B&B a few miles off the route for our overnight stop. This proved to be an excellent choice and I can highly recommend Holly House Annexe in Tittleshall. To reach it, I made rather a mess of the navigation off the route near Sporle taking us along some very restricted muddy byways and we arrived late. Our hosts couldn’t have been more accommodating though and even offered to store the bikes in their utility room. After a quick shower we enjoyed some proper pub grub at the Fox and Hounds, a short bike ride away in Weasenham St Peter. A great boozer and not a gastropub pretension in sight. Amen.

We pushed off into warm sunshine the following morning pedalling along glorious quiet lanes while chatting away. With yesterday’s navigational nonsense behind us, we soon found the trail at just after Massingham Common and were Hunstanton-bound again.

Here the trail was now so straight you could calibrate a compass by it. The surface became challenging though. Tussocky grass and mild inclines made for draining progress while deep, muddy ruts and undulations along the multi tracked bed (no doubt the product of scrambling bikes using the route) further hampered out progress. Here, Sophie started to struggle on her tyres which lacked a sufficiently aggressive tread. I had the advantage of fatter boots and the larger wheels so the Ogre just about ploughed onwards.

After the climbs came some fairly rapid descents and I sped off jumping like some BMX bandit reliving a misspent youth. Benefitting from more common sense that I, the sandy sections again caused Sophie to exercise caution as her tyres were found wanting on the loose stuff. Her hands were raw too from the trail buzz which underlined the stony progress in places – cinder paths this ‘aint.

We pressed on, the trail providing a green vein amid intensively tended fields and occasional pockets of heathland. After reaching the affluent homes of Ringstead it was simply a case of dropping into Hunstanton on the road. A note of caution here, avoid the A149 if you can as it is seemingly full of blinkered motorists craning their necks for the sea.

We had both been fantasising about fish and chips for the last hour. As we hungrily sought a suitable fryer we bumped into a Lancastrian gent who wanted to talk bikes – he was particularly taken with my muddy Ogre propped against my leg. It became clear rather quickly that is was not going to be a speedy exchange but I struggled to find a natural break in the chat in order to weed my way out. A gentle, surreptitious foot tap on my front wheel from Sophie underlined the need to make my excuses.

Eventually, our friend relented but gave us a good tip for a lunchtime fish supper – Supafry. It was perhaps too plentiful yet rather fine.

We still had a ways to go. In order to make a connecting service back to Cambridge, we needed to get to Kings Lynn. I suggested we follow NCN Route One and this proved to be a decent choice, albeit the first few miles crossing some fairly lumpy country. The inclines had a wee bit more piquancy after the hefty lunch but the miles rumbled under our wheels at good pace. We stopped at Sandringham for a quick resupply and the route soon delivered us via a series of snickets, jitties and ginnels to the railway station.

Some thoughts on the bikes

peddars-way-finalThe Ogre, heavy and ugly as ever, was a capable ride for this route. The Halo Twin Rails handled everything thrown at them reinforcing their position as my favourite all-roads tyre (thanks again to Tim at Life in the Cycle Lane for the introduction). Everything worked as it should, the Rohloff drivetrain reassuringly silent despite the chain being clogged with mud.

Sophie’s Camino was also a fine choice for this route although her tyres – Schwalbe G One’s – were found wanting in the mud and sand. Her Alpkit seat pack was a wee bit troublesome too given the Velcro straps did not fit around her seat tube, curious as the bike is supplied by the company. I think this is more a reflection of the size of her frame (tiny). There is very little clearance between the bag and rear tyre suggesting that some kind of rack or support is the only truly safe way to proceed with a bike of these proportions.

In a nutshell

Peddars Way. 46 miles, 750m of ascent. Take plenty of food – Be prepared for more challenging cycling in the northern sections – Don’t be put off wildcamping or bivvying as the potential spots are numerous – We took two days at a leisurely pace but a reasonably fit cyclist should complete this route in 6-7 hours – Bear in mind you need to pedal to or from your chosen public transport point at Hunstanton, in our case adding 18 miles.

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Peak District wildcamping bikepack

An opportunity arose at the weekend to get out. I say ‘opportunity’, but this bikepack in the Dark Peak was complicated by my current state of moving house. Bike bags had been packed, sleeping bags and bivvy bags were neatly stowed in marked cardboard boxes, camp stove fuel and water bladder were stored God-knows-where.

An hour or so crashing around in the workshop later and I cobbled together some kit for the trip. With the weather sultry in Glossopdale, I opted for a tarp – a first-time outing for this simple shelter.

I strapped the bags to my ECR and pushed off at 5pm. While the heat of day hung heavily in the air, the sun had started its descent to the horizon and the evening light gave the Derbyshire hills definition, perspective and texture. The trails were agreeably quiet too.

I picked up the Pennine Bridleway and headed due-Edale over Lantern Pike towards Mount Famine. Feeling a little reckless, I turned the handlebars towards Jacobs Ladder and ended up pushing most of the way – underlining the heft of my bike and my hopeless skills as mountain biker.

Edale was full of weekenders enjoying the evening. The village’s Spoonfest had swelled numbers, but campsites would have always been full in this balmy weather. As a consequence, some enterprising folk had negotiated their own impromptu campgrounds on farmers’ fields further down the valley. The atmosphere was heavy with the fug of barbecues.

I didn’t delay.

I was headed for the banks of Ladybower north of Bamford where I hoped to find a helpful spot to rig the tarp and watch night fall. Pushing along the reservoir track I found a nice ‘beach’ and the branches of low trees provided perfect anchorage for my tarp ridgeline. Despite being my first outing, the tarp was ready in a couple of minutes. I rolled out my bivvy and sorted the bed for the night. A brew soon followed and I watched the light fade and the traffic illuminating the Snake Road – a mere whisper on the far bank.

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Bikepacking Scotland – the Great Glen Way

Three soggy days on the West Highland Way had taken their toll. My kit was damp, I’d started to stink a bit while the lens on my trusty Olympus camera was fogged and its operation sporadic. I needed to dry out and clean up.

The camera problems – experienced last time when I cycle toured Iceland – meant I had to shift to the phone for pictures so apologies for the poor quality of the some of the resulting shots.

I bagged a luxury pitch next to the river at the Lochy Holiday Park  just north of Fort William. Such heavily groomed, holiday housing estates are generally not my overnight stop of choice on bike tours but the facilities are normally excellent, and so they proved to be here.

Lochy Holiday park campsite... it rained and rained and rained
Lochy Holiday park campsite… it rained and rained and rained

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Bikepacking the West Highland Way

I shared the train journey to Glasgow with two coast-to-coast road riders who alighted at Carlisle. Their interest – and that of the train steward – in the ECR and it’s ‘ridiculous’ tyres set a tone that would resonate for the whole trip.

Unable to find anything that palatable on the Trans Pennine Express service save for a questionable cup of coffee, I carb loaded at Glasgow station on croissants while consulting Viewranger for a suitable escape route.

I’d walked out of this fine city before using the satisfactory Kelvin and Allander walkways. These seemed fair game for the bike too although I was soon distracted by blue signs drawing me to alternative bikeways.

ECR on the slight detour from the West Highland Way after Mudgock Wood
ECR on the slight detour from the West Highland Way after Mudgock Wood

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Scotland bikepacking – with rather a lot of England thrown in too

Two weeks pedalling the Surly ECR along track, trail, byway and bike route proved a blissful escape from my common routine.

The simple pleasure of riding for maybe eight hours a day and having the time to linger and follow my nose allowed me to break from tyranny of schedule while the physical challenge served as a deliciously singular focus.

Stories to come but you’ll note from the title of this post that I didn’t spend all my time in Scotland. The weather proved to be very challenging in the west and, with little prospect of improvement, I decided to head east instead and, ultimately, pedalled all the way to my front door.

I battled along a good chunk of the West Highland Way, tackled the surprisingly tough Great Glen Way before hitting Inverness and heading to Aviemore. A mixture of NCN routes and bridle paths conveyed me home through the lovely Borders, superb Northumberland and North Yorkshire, giving access to an unfamiliar yet wonderful section of the Pennine Bridleway north of Settle.

In all, I cycled 1,300 km and climbed 13,500 metres.

In addition to rain, hail and snow in Scotland, I enjoyed at least one warm day, mostly headwinds, endured a number of minor mechanical issues and was chased by one dog. More to come…

Surly ECR on the West Highland Way
Surly ECR on the West Highland Way

Packing for bike touring – lightening the load

OldSkool? - Touring Iceland on a Surly Troll with 30kg of kit across four panniersa dn a drybag
OldSkool? – Touring Iceland on a Surly Troll with 30kg+ of kit across four panniers and a drybag

I’ve been experimenting with packing for my trip to Scotland later this month. Given I’ll be riding off road as much as weather conditions allow the traditional pannier set up has been ditched and I’ve been forced to re-evaluate my packing routine.

Adios panniers

A traditional cycle touring set up where the load is split across four panniers, bar bag and, maybe, a drybag on the rear rack offers the rider the chance to bring the kitchen sink – literally. For me, this results in luxuries such as books, a (relatively) large tent, hipflasks of whisky and bottles of ale, numerous electronic gizmos, extended camera kit, at least one full change of clothes including ‘evening wear’ for nights in the pub… you get the picture. Continue reading

This year’s adventure and a change of plan

rannoch moorI had planned to head to France for this year’s bike tour and tackle the Grande Traversée du Massif Central, a 700km mountain bike route from Clermont Ferrard to Montpellier.

I bought the guidebook and had (nearly) sorted my slightly awkward logistics flying outbound and grabbing the Bike Europe Express coach service home. Naturally, I wanted to take the Surly ECR on this trip although this bike’s massive proportions would cause problems on both modes of travel. If you’re interested, Bike Europe Express will take fat bikes – be they half or full fat – classing them as ‘unconventional solos’. However, I think it’s a good idea to call them first if you fancy taking your monster truck. Continue reading