We woke up on the Saturday morning stiff but ready for another day of walking. The day was looking quite bright as we dressed and stiffly negotiated the stairs down to the bar for breakfast. We’d done one full day of walking but were still unsure how we might get on today. We ate well – though not so much that we couldn’t move! As well as breakfast, the Robin Hood Inn had prepared a packed lunch for us both. As we continued westwards we would be in fairly open countryside and were not likely to come upon too many supermarkets.
Ready for off we gathered our bags, checked out, stamped our passports at the box on the wall of the pub, and started walking West, leaving just after 8am. By now, in late September, the sun was still low on the horizon at this hour. There were a few morning clouds but it looked like they would burn off and it promised to turn into a nice day. The path follows the line of the ditch by the side of the busy road but it was a pleasant start. We passed Wallhouses and Halton Shields and across a small part of the unexcavated fort at Halton Chester before coming to the roundabout that marked the junction of the Wall and the Roman Dere Street (which ran from York into Scotland). There was likely an impressive gate here at the time of the wall but now there is just an old pub recently converted to a coffee shop and café. There weren’t going to be many places to stop so, although we had not yet ventured overly far, we took a quick break for coffee and cake.
For the next few miles, the remains of the Vallum on the South side of the wall were particularly clear. The path then carried on through a plantation which had some uneven ground and lots of tree root trip hazards, however the trees did provide some cover from the sun which was now getting quite strong. We were about 8 miles into the day by the time we arrived at the site of the Battle of Heavenfield where we made a quick diversion to look at St Oswald’s Church (where we also made grateful use of the pews for a few minutes to rest our feet).
From here we started to drop down from the hills and came upon the first visible stretch of wall since Heddon. The path then takes a diversion along some lanes to avoid a busy stretch of wall side road with no footpath. We headed down into the North Tyne Valley and towards the first major Roman site since Wallsend. After walking to, and across, the bridge over the river, and having walked through Chollerford we were very much ready to have a break at Chesters Fort.
We paid the entrance fee and started with a good look around the excellent antiquarian museum and then found a bench to sit and eat our packed lunch. We had a look around the excavated remains of the fort, probably slightly less full heartedly than we would if we weren’t already tired. We had an ice cream, stamped our passports, and got back on the road.
From the valley the only way was up. From the top some stiles (there are a lot of stiles on the route) led us into a field and into Northumberland National Park. Upon entering the park we were soon we were starting to get to the good stuff so far as the wall is concerned. The stretch through the National Park would take us the rest of today and most of tomorrow. Within the Park we would be following some of the best preserved bits of the wall along the most beautiful and dramatic countryside.
The start of this stretch is marked by a stretch of wall at Black Carts. This is the longest section of wall so far on the route coming in this direction. The joy of finding some proper wall remains here also helps to hide that you are still slowly but steadily climbing onto the hills.
The wall remains disappear but the ditch remains very evident and before long we were turning the ‘corner’ at Limestone Corner. We were at the most northerly point on the walk and the landscape was opening up wider and wider with every passing mile.
It was also getting later though and we had to press on. It was almost 5 o’clock by the time we turned the corner with the best part of 4 or 5 miles to walk. The path follows the line of the ditch close to the road but on the grass, the path is quite uneven and the walking was slower as a result.
Despite this we were soon at the site of Brocolitia Fort, partially excavated but with no extant above ground remains. The path here crosses the road and skirts around the fort. It is pretty, but did add a few more yards onto the straight line distance remaining. You do, however, get to visit the temple of Mithras which is evacuated and open for viewing. After the fort we crossed the road back onto the ditch and some more uneven ground.
With time ticking on, and the sun beginning to set, we came to a point where the path and the road diverge. Here we jumped the fence and onto the road. Our guide book warned against doing this, but we were late and our B&B was a short way ahead alongside the road so this should be a good shortcut. It wasn’t much fun though. Although not the busiest stretch of road, being straight and open most drivers were, shall we say, playing fast and loose with the speed regulations.
However in front of us we could spy the Old Repeater Station and, at just around half past six and roughly 10 and a half hours after leaving the Robin Hood, we arrived and kicked off our walking boots. Les, the owner of the B&B was cooking and we had just enough time to shower and change and join him and two other walkers for a simple but excellent supper and a couple of beers. The other two gentlemen, not traveling together, were an American retired teacher and a Dutch airplane mechanic and Roman reenactor.
The company was excellent. We exchanged tales of where we had been and what was ahead (we were walking in different directions so could share tips). Both gents were using a service that was transporting their luggage from one B&B to the next. Why didn’t we think of that? I resolved to call the company in the morning and see if we could do the same.
Tired, but feed and refreshed, we went back to our bunk beds and fell quickly to sleep.
Friday morning and it was time to start the walking proper. We got all of our kit ready, leaving anything that we wouldn’t need for the next five days in the suitcase which we would be leaving at the hotel. We made sure our respective troublesome joints were strapped and ready for a full day of walking. Before setting off we made full use of the hotel buffet breakfast and made final adjustments to the bags. Then it was time to checkout and shortly afterwards we were standing on the quayside ready to walk.
Ahead of us today we had 15 miles. The day promised to be one of two halves. We would start with 9 or 10 miles following the Tyne valley upstream, and then the remainder would be following the wall on higher ground above the valley.
We had a glorious bright and clear morning to set off into, and the gorgeous Tyne bridges lay just in front of us. After a quick diversion to a Tesco Metro to gather lunch and snack supplies we headed upstream out of the City through Elswood. We soon got into a good, steady, stride. The path is tarmac here, though it does lead away from the riverside every now and again following some old waggon way routes and various other footpaths, but you get a real feeling for how lovely the Newcastle area is even in some of its more deprived areas. We passed the Lemington Glass Works site and a statue commemorating the 38 lives lost in the Montagu Mining Disaster of 1925.
At Newburn the path passes back down to the riverside and we took a break on a bench by the Riverside Country Park visitor centre where the cafe provided us with coffee and a biscuit as well as refilling our water bottles. I had stopped on pretty much the same bench on my cycle ride a few years earlier on a similarly warm day.
The Tyne valley along here is glorious and the going was still good, although by now we feeling a little frazzled and hadn’t gone quite as far as we had hoped by this time of the day. The path diverts away from the river to follow the old Wylam Waggonway track for a mile or so before we had to turn to the right and tackle the first hill of the walk; a long but steady climb up onto Heddon on the Wall.
After a few hours walking and having got used to flat ground the hill took it out of us a bit, but eventually we made it to the top. We took a short diversion (although it felt a lot longer at the time) to get our first glance of the wall since leaving Wallsend, and then found a small park close to a garage and shop. We got some fresh drinks and some extra food from the shop, made use of the garage toilet, and had a good refreshing lunch on a bench in the shade of the park.
Despite the time we had already taken we still had a long way to walk today. We were over half way; but not by too much. From now on up we were off the flat riverside land and, whilst we had climbed the main hill of the day, the path ahead promised some good undulations and lots of stiles to climb over.
At least we now had the feeling that we were actually following the wall. The vallum was obvious to the south in many places and there were some suspiciously well faced stones in some of the field walls. The miles ticked over slowly. We were tired now; out of snacks and low on water. A couple of diversions around some fields were known and planned for, but still felt like they were taking us out of our way when we just wanted to get to the end of the day. Passing the Great Northern Lake (a couple of reservoirs built to power some of the Victorian factories of Newcastle) indicated that we were getting close – just a mile or two to go – but despite the open countryside we couldn’t yet see our destination in front of us; it was hopefully hidden behind some trees rather than still beyond the horizon.
The light was starting to fail as we eventually came out of a footpath to the side of the road and realised that we had made it to the hamlet of East Wallhouses and our destination for the night The Robin Hood Inn was clearly visible. It was a very welcome site and is a lovely pub – if you’re up that way it’s definitely worth a visit.
We had twin rooms for the night (due to availability rather than choice). We rested up and got refreshed and slowly and gingerly on tired legs walked back down to the bar for a much needed pint or two and a lovely pie based supper before heading back up for a well earned sleep.
2019 was a different year for me. I didn’t do one of my annual cycling tours due to a variety of factors; mostly just time slipping away during the year. I had some tentative plans for a couple of possible routes but I’m going to keep hold of those ideas for the future (though, as I am writing this up almost a year on from the walk described here, Covid-19 has put paid to those plans happening in 2020 as well).
Instead, towards the end of the summer when we’d still not had any real sort of a break, Nash suggested planning a trip. I was thinking of something nice and relaxing. A week somewhere to France to chill quietly perhaps? “I thought we could walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall” came the suggestion. So I was almost right.
I won’t bore you with the details, but after a few checks of maps, B&B booking websites and guide books, we came up with a plan to complete the route over six days of walking (four full days with a “half day” at either end). So it was that on a Thursday in the middle of September we set off drove north up the A1. We parked the car up in the long stay parking at Newcastle Airport and, laden with a suitcase and a medium sized rucksack each, we walked into the terminal, straight back out the other side, and got the Metro into the City Centre. After getting lost in some underpasses we made it down to the river front and checked into our base camp: the Malmaison hotel. We would be staying overnight here tonight and we were also booked back here for a final night at the end of the trip. With some more spartan accommodation awaiting us en-route we had treated ourselves to a quality room to bookend the adventure. As such we could bring some nicer clothes for travelling and the evenings in town here and leave the suitcase with the hotel whilst we were away walking. We were too early to check in but we left the suitcase and one of our rucksacks at reception. We wouldn’t need to be carrying much for today’s warm up walk.
We headed back up the hill to Manors Metro station and got the yellow train east towards the end of the wall at the appropriately named Wallsend (aka Segedunum). As the name suggests, the station is close to the fort that guarded the end of the wall overlooking the River Tyne. The museum was quiet so we had a good chance to explore the excellent exhibitions, take a look over the site from the viewing gallery, take a wander around the site itself, and have a panini each in the café.
Having got ourselves into the Roman spirit we made ready to begin. Back at the museum entrance we bought our “passports” and collected our first stamps just as a small group entered. They had just completed the walk in the opposite direction. After congratulations and good lucks were shared, Nash and I made our way down to the southern gate of the site and onto the path ready to start the walk.
Today we had just four miles or thereabouts ahead of us, more aligned with the river than the line of the wall. It was a hot afternoon and we were going to need plenty of water, even for this short walk.
The very end of the wall is now lost under the remains of the derelict Swan Hunter ship building yard but one of the best remaining sections of wall is right outside the fort and as such forms the traditional start to of the route. From here we headed Westwards. For most of the today we would be following the start of the Hadrian’s Wall cycle route which I had ridden back in 2015.
For the first mile or two the path sits at a good height above Tyne, but the views are intermittent as you pass through wooded parks and around housing estates. The walking was nice but largely uneventful. One of the key tests for today was to see how our limbs would hold up. Nash had damaged her knee a month or two previously and she was a little concerned about how it might take to all this walking. She was testing a new knee bandage which needed a bit of regular adjustment but seemed to be helping. I had been forced off my bike 3 or 4 weeks earlier by a driver pulling out at a roundabout and as a result had a fairly badly swollen foot. It was much improved by now but still not quite right.
At the end of one stretch of park the pathway drops down to the riverside and the rest of today would be at waterfront level as we walked back towards the city centre. It’s hard to believe that you are so close to one of the major UK city centres as you follow the lovely waterside path. We were just a mile or so from the centre of the town but could barely tell as we looked across the river to the green banks on the other side. The occasional riverside industrial units gave the game away a little, but it’s still hard to imagine that you are so close to the core of one of the UK’s major cities at this point.
After only a little over an hours walking from Segedunum we turned a corner in the river and saw the sites of Newcastle honing into view in front of us. Within very short order you glimpse the Baltic Mills and the Sage on the Gateshead side of the river, and the various bridges crossing the Tyne, most notably the iconic Tyne Bridge. After a brief stop to fill up a water bottle at a bike shop we carried on and before we knew it we were back at the Malmaison.
We were both hot and had a few aches and niggles but on the whole we felt pretty good. We settled ourselves into our room and both had a long bath each before heading to the hotel restaurant – we had got a deal which included a two course meal and a glass of Prosecco along with a nice room overlooking the River. It was nice to then be able to simply get the lift back up a couple of floors to our room with its very large and very comfortable bed. Our accommodation for most of the remainder of the trip was likely to be a bit more basic.
I’ve ridden 100km a
number of times now; and even ridden 100 miles on a small handful of occasions
in the past. However I’d never extended the distance to the mystical 200km
(124.27 miles). As Spring started
turning towards the Summer of 2019 I was feeling inspired to put this
The blame/credit for
this inspiration came in two forms.
The first form was
in the super human shape of Mark Beaumont.
I had been to see him talking about his ‘Around the World in 80 Days‘ cycle
challenge and then read his book. If he
could do 80 days riding on average around 240 miles a day, then I’m sure that I
could surely manage one day of 125 miles. No?
inspiration was my old University friend Jill.
Jill has long been astounding me with her amazing long distance fell
running efforts but more recently I had looked on in awe as she rode the C2C route in one
day – a truly amazing feat with the hills involved in that ride.
inspired, I planned a route. I wanted to ride a circuit that I already knew so
that I had an idea of what was ahead of me. I wanted the route to be a circuit
rather than linear. I often like riding A to B in order to see a bit more
countryside (and yes, to keep the wind at an advantageous angle). However for
this adventure I didn’t want to do a long ride and then have to spend a few
more hours on a train getting home. I
also wanted a known route so that I could put my head down and turn the peddles
without feeling inclined to stop and take lots of pictures every mile or two.
You will notice that
there are photos in this blog post. I chose to use this as a ‘Greatest Hits’
post using photos I had taken on previous rides that I’ve (mostly) not used on
these pages before.
I settled on a trip
that I had undertaken around Kent and Sussex a year or two earlier, but with
the addition of a section of old railway line cycle path which would get me to
the required distance, without any steep hills.
All planned I set off on a good early Summer’s day in the first week of
I had taken a day
off work for the trip but I was up earlier than I would have been had I been
going to the office. I was saddled up and on my way, heading East out of
Hastings before 6am.
I followed my usual
route East, heading through Pett village rather than following NCN2 through
Fairlight; the road surface down Battery Hill is still too dangerous for the
angle of descent.
Instead I joined
NCN2 at Pett Level and followed it’s alternative (and better) route along the
coast through the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve and then up into Rye itself.
From Rye I headed
off the National Cycle Network for a few miles; following the straight line
(with defensive dog legs) of the Royal Military Canal for a few easy miles to
From here I headed
slowly up into the green low hills on the edge of the Weald, passing through
Woodchurch (it has a church; made of stone) before finding the turning onto
NCN18 just before entering the excellently named Shadoxhurst.
From here on the
route is onto the Weald proper with the near constant rises and falls one
expects from this part of the world. The hills aren’t big here but they are
punchy with lots of short sharp climbs.
Whilst these are naturally followed by a similar series of descents,
they aren’t of sufficient duration so as to allow any recovery. With very few sections of relatively flat
riding, the Weald acts like a form of very pretty but enforced high impact
training. Just to make sure that the
riding is never easy the next thirty miles also saw a gradual rise up further
onto the Weald. If it felt like every hill was that little bit higher than the
last, they were.
I was planning on
mainly sticking on Route 18 for this part of the ride, however a closed road
diverted me to High Halden and a few miles cycling on the main A28 road. Normally at the sight of a Road Closed sign I
might try ploughing on regardless in the hope that, whilst blocked for cars, I
might be able to get my bike through any obstructions. With the length of ride I already had planned
though, I didn’t fancy the risk of having to make a U-turn and follow my
breadcrumbs back. The A28 wasn’t what I
had in mind but I got a decent speed and rhythm going and knew I’d soon be back
on the quiet lanes.
As St Michaels I
re-joined route 18 towards Benenden where I took my first break at the village
stores and coffee shop. Although I had
already covered about 40 miles it was still only just about 9am so I was happy
with progress and enjoyed a coffee and pastry.
The next few miles
continued with more of the same Wealden riding until broken up upon entering
Bedgebury Pinetum. The woods here still
have the same hills as the previous 20 miles; but the change from the open hills
to deep woodland makes it feel quite different.
Back out of the other side of the woods I knew there were some more
steep climbs up to and around the hilltop town of Goudhurst and then on towards
Matfield. By the village pond here I
took another short rest. I knew that,
whilst there were still some hills before then, I would soon be at Tunbridge
Wells and the high point on the Weald for this part of the ride.
Passing that high
point between Pembury and the Royal Spa town felt like a minor triumph. I had bigger hills still to climb, but the
relentless stretch of Weald was mostly behind me now. I powered on through Tunbridge Wells and on
Here I would now add
the ‘there and back again’ extra 20 miles that I needed to make this route add
up to 200km. I had expected these few
miles to be some of the easiest of the day but somehow they were some of the toughest. Maybe that was partly mental; when you expect
the riding to be smooth anything else is unexpected and therefore feels much
tougher. Maybe it was simply that,
although the downhills on the Weald stretch didn’t really give a chance for
recovery, they did offer brief free-wheeling respite. Here on the old railway track it was
pedalling all the way. In order to make
the distance I needed to follow the railway path until its end on the edge of
East Grinstead. The final miles to that
town also include quite a steady climb.
Before then however,
at Forest Row and about 75 miles into the ride it was almost over. An unexpected turning from the old railway
path onto a short stretch of road saw me bundle over a speed bump which shocked
the bike and instantly cramped up my right thigh. I had to emergency stop, unclip and dismount
as the lactic pain shot up my leg. I was
forced into an emergency break with a lot of slow walking; thigh rubbing,
drinking water, and eating some crisis Malt Loaf! Fortunately it did the trick. I gingerly got back into the saddle and eased
myself back towards East Grinstead. The
legs were soon feeling better and I was back underway, but I knew I had to keep
After doubling back
where at the point where the old railway path becomes the main ‘Beeching Way’
road through East Grinstead I headed back to Forest Row and pulled into the
River View Café where I stopped for another coffee and a panini (and to refill
both water bottles). Properly refreshed
it was back to Groombridge and time to get back to some hills.
I was now (and
indeed had been since the double back at East Grinstead) following the route of
the Avenue Verte (London to
Paris) route which I had cycled along in my first proper cycle tour a few years
previously. That meant that I had two
big hills ahead of me. On that ride both
of those climbs had got the better of me and I had not been able to get up them
without briefly stopping (in the first case) and even having to walk a
little (on the second hill).
The first hill, the
Northern approach into Rotherfield, I had completed on a couple of subsequent
rides without a problem and once again I made my way up to the village without
needing to take a breather.
I then let the miles
(and the smaller hills) to and through Mayfield ease along knowing that I had
the toughest single climb of the day to come.
Whilst I had conquered Rotherfield hill before, I had never yet managed
to cycle up Newick Lane into Heathfield without stopping. I made sure to give myself the best chance
this time. At the foot of the hill I
pulled over and gave myself five minutes to relax, take on an energy gel and
plenty of water, and psyche myself up.
This technique had worked for me in the past; notably when climbing the
biggest hill I have still ever ridden to date – Hartside on the Coast to Coast route. Hopefully it would work again. It did.
I won’t say the riding was easy, but relaxed and mentally prepared I was
soon up the initial steep lower slopes which had always been the section that
had beaten me before. From there on I
flowed on up the rest of the hill and near the summit, on the edge of
Heathfield, I clocked up 100 miles for the day.
I celebrated by coasting down into the town centre and pulling up
outside Costa for another coffee and a bun.
With 100 miles
clocked up, and all of the big hills (bar the final push back up to my house)
behind me I could begin to feel like I was on the home straight; even though
there were still 25 or so miles in front of me.
From Heathfield the
cycle route (I had been on NCN21 since East Grinstead) joins another former
railway line on the beautiful Cuckoo Trail.
From the hill top at Heathfield the cycling South is an easy drop from
the top of the Weald to almost sea level over a distance of 10 miles; all in
beautiful wooded scenery. I have ridden this way a number of times now but the
Cuckoo Trail is never not lovely.
Leaving NCN21 after
Hailsham I headed onto Rickney Marsh.
Here I began to struggle. I still
had 15 miles to go and now I was on the flat all the way back to Hastings. There is no difficult riding here; but on
tired legs there is no break in the pedalling.
Also I was now hitting a big psychological wall. I know this part of the route blindfold – its
a regular cycle commute. With nothing
here to look at with fresh eyes I just wanted to be home. There was still an hour of riding to go.
The closer to home
it got the worse the feeling became. The
legs were empty and the head was already at home and in the bath. The worst came at Galley Hill; the low cliff
top that marks the Eastern end of Bexhill and from where I can look across and
(almost) see my house – only, and yet still, 5 miles away.
I stopped on the
cliff here for some time and made a call to my other half to pep myself up and
to take my thoughts elsewhere. 5 more
miles. That was all. And now having taken that final break I
pushed on; along Hastings prom and up the West Hill. Climb up. Almost. For the first time in over a year I was
unable to make it up the hill to my home without stopping and walking for a
short section. I just had nothing left
in my legs. I wasn’t going to beat
myself up though. I still made it. My
house is just off the top of the hill but you have to go to the top and glide
125.95 miles. 202.69 km.
I had broken the 200km barrier. I
knew now that I could do it. I also knew
that I wouldn’t feel the need to do it again for some time to come!
The back end of
November was approaching and I felt the need for what would likely be one last
long, full day’s ride of the year. I’d
taken the Wednesday off work and had a route planned to take me Northwards. I’d
heard that Eynsford was a nice place to visit and I calculated that it was a
good 100km ride away. The weather
forecast indicated that the wind was going to be relatively accommodating so I
got ready to ride.
I wanted to travel
light but still took a pannier with me as this was going to be a one way ride
and I wanted some warm clothes to change into for the train journey home. As I got
up in the morning it was clear that I was going to need them. I looked out of the bedroom window and then
rushed down and out of the back door to check that my eyes were seeing right in
the half light. They were. There had been snow overnight. It wasn’t much; only a light dusting, but it
had settled. I decided to carry on as
planned and had a good warm breakfast to set me up for the day, knowing that it
was possible that I might have to abandon or at least severely curtail the
riding. Being so close to the coast we
don’t normally get much snow. It’s
normally worse inland and I was going to be heading directly away from the
Channel and climbing up onto The Weald.
It was therefore a
pleasant surprise to find the snow vanished as soon as I climbed up onto, and
beyond, the ridge that marks the northern edge of Hastings. I was soon out of the town and turning off
the busy urban roads straight onto quiet back lanes. There was no evidence of there having been
any snow here at all. The morning wasn’t warm but I was properly layered up and
relishing the riding. I passed through
Three Oaks and Doleham and skirted around the East side of Westfield where I
re-joined the main road for the short and nasty little climb up into Brede. It
wasn’t long however before I was leaving these roads, which I knew well, and
turned off onto Pottery Lane and onto some virgin Weald lanes.
I was in my element
now with my traditional riding technique of building up a nice steady rhythm
before screeching to a halt to admire a wonderful view across the Weald.
Before too long I
was through Ewhurst Green and dropping back onto familiar roads on the approach
to Bodiam Castle, which is of course impossible to pass without popping in for
North of Bodiam and
I was still riding nicely along the quiet back lanes of the Weald. Some of these I had ridden before; some were
new to me. All were lovely.
A few miles north of
Bodiam I picked up cycle route NCN18 near to Iden Green and would follow it for
some while as it rolled up and down the rolling Weald hills pushing me slowly
North Westwards passing close to, whilst avoiding, Cranbrook, Hawkhurst and
Goudhurst. The riding was tough in
places but enjoyable.
After passing a
field of Alpacas and a small pen of pigs, the route heads into and through
Bedgebury Forest, which is a lovely little bit of riding.
West of Bedgebury I
stopped for a sausage roll and a can of pop at Matfield which would be where I
would leave route 18 and continue pushing North through Colt’s Hill and Capel
before heading in towards Tonbridge.
Tonbridge does not
have the nicest cycling infrastructure, or if it does I didn’t find it. The odd cycle path cut through some otherwise
dead ends, but there was a lot of riding to be done on the town’s busy, tight streets. I diverted towards Tonbridge Castle briefly
and then headed out of town along the main road to Hildenborough which I had
earmarked as my destination spot for lunch.
I had been aware of
Café 1809 for some time and had long been meaning to visit, but had found out
recently that its owner was closing it this week to try her hand at other
endeavours instead. This trip had
therefore felt like a chance to pay a visit and it was perfectly placed along
I parked up outside
the café using one of the many decent bike racks and made my way inside where I
ordered a jacket spud and a coffee or two which hot the spot perfectly. I had been starting to get a little tired and
cold before I got to the café. Though there might not have been any more sign
of snow, the day was far from toasty. It
wasn’t long though before I was feeling the warmth from the café and the
welcome from the staff.
refreshed I plucked up the courage to say hello to the owner and grab a selfie
with her. Café 1809 is named after the
bib number that Dame Kelly Holmes wore when she won the 400m and 800m Olympic
titles in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Needless to say Dame Kelly was lovely and
charm personified. She managed to both put me at ease whilst totally
accentuating the difference between an overweight middle aged man and a true
athlete. She also knows how to pose for
a selfie a hell of a lot better than me.
I left the café and
veered slightly Westwards following Noble Tree Road before heading back North
on Egg Pie Lane!
I soon passed more
Alpacas (I don’t think anyone in Kent keeps sheep anymore) and rolled along to
the village of Sevenoaks Weald where I got an unexpected chance for another
short rest as a builders merchant’s lorry was entirely blocking the small lane
so I got out of the saddle and stretched my legs for a few minutes.
annoying if I had to stop anywhere, then this was a good place. I had come this way as I was aiming for the
climb that lay ahead of me, so it was nice to get ready for it. I had got a bit out of practice on the hills
over the last month or two and at over 45 miles into the day was starting to
feel the miles. The climb started well
though, and I easily made it on the bridge that crosses high above the
The bridge, which is
angled quite steeply as the road climbs up the hill, is quite a landmark when
driving North from home. I’d often
wondered what was above it and now I was finding out. I was happy therefore to use the opportunity
of taking some photos back down from the bridge in order to get my breath back.
I regretted doing so
however, as after stopping I struggled to get back into a rhythm and found it
stop-start up to the top of the hill. I
made it eventually though. What’s more,
now I was here I had a few miles of largely downhill riding. First along the Southern edge of Knole Park
(with deer running around just off to my left behind the big chain link fence),
and then heading North again I had a long easy drop down towards the M25 which
I was soon passing underneath.
I still had one big
and final climb to go and I was very soon upon it. The Cotsman Ash Lane Climb turned out to be
one hill too far. I struggled up having
to walk up a part of the steepest section.
When I did feel ready to get back on and ride it was only a matter of
seconds before my left leg cramped up. I
had to jump off the bike and stretch it out.
I was soon going again but was glad to see the brow of the hill finally
appear. I did still have another five
miles before I would get into Eynsford; but it really was now all downhill from
I rolled down into
the village and headed straight for the Castle; a small Norman keep by the
Finally I then
passed back to the picturesque Ford from which the village takes its name. It might have been more picturesque if it
didn’t have a broken down van sitting in the middle of the river, but it still
looked nice. The light started to
I took that as my cue to think about heading for home. I rode the short way to the station; sneakily got changed out of my cycling gear into the spare, warm clothes I was carrying in my pannier, and awaited the train back to Hastings (via a change and a coffee at Sevenoaks).
Just a few days after my visit to Dante’s Inferno and I was looking at adding a few more miles to my September itinerary. My other half was attending a conference at Cranfield University, a few miles east of Milton Keyes, and I was going up as well to sneak into her room in the evenings, and explore a different bit of the country.
After driving up, meeting her at Bedford station, and driving us over to the University (which is located in a village in the middle of open countryside and not easily accessible without a car) I unloaded the bike from the boot of the car and got ready for a first trip.
Today would a fairly easy ride. I looped around the airfield which sits at the centre of the campus and then headed South for a mile or two into Salford, a pretty village with a lovely church with some excellent bells in a fantastic wooden frame on one end.
The church itself was shut so I was soon back on my way and didn’t get far before coming upon an old sign village dating to the 1951 Festival of Britain. I do love coming across bits and pieces that still hang around from the Festival, so this was a very welcome and unexpected treat that got me very excited!
I headed on, over the M1, and entered Milton Keynes at Wavendon in its south east corner. As I suspected might be the case, Milton Keynes turned out to be mostly a pleasant cycling experience. Its famous grid road layout with roundabout after roundabout was a great example of road planning of its time. Another characteristic of those times was the provision alongside the roads of a good layout for cyclists and walkers.
The riding was a bit stop-start at the various junctions (although most of the bigger roundabouts had good underpasses for cycling across) but before long I had ridden to Bletchley and was pulling up and parking my bike in one of the old bike sheds built for the code breakers at Bletchley Park in World War II.
The site and museum was my targeted destination for this outing and I spent a couple of fascinating hours exploring this wonderful site. I really cannot recommend a visit here strongly enough and would happily have spent longer here. I would also have liked to have been able to visit the neighbouring National Museum of Computing as well however it was not open on the day of my visit; I shall have to come back!
Bomba Code Breaking Computer
Alan Turing’s Office, Bletchley
I did need to get back to Cranfield though, so eventually I headed back to the bike shed and rode off again.
Rather than heading straight back I planned to complete a loop. I had to double back a short way but then headed North when I reached the River Ouzel and later, The Grand Union Canal. It was quite interesting to see another side of Milton Keynes available from this route. Between the River and the Canal I came across signs of some of the old settlements that pre-date the New Town such as Simpson village with a lovely selection of medieval buildings hiding here in the middle of this most modern of towns.
I continued along the Canal until getting close to the southern edge of Newport Pagnell at which point I headed Eastwards again and rode across the low rolling hills through North Crawley and back to Cranfield to complete what was a rather nice ‘warm up’ ride in advance of the next day.
The following morning my other half woke and went for breakfast and then off to her conference. As I wasn’t officially staying there I couldn’t get any food at the hotel so instead just got ready for a day’s riding. There was a Spar shop on the campus so I’d pop in there. However when I got to the shop there was nothing for me (the hot sandwiches counter was empty and the coffee machine broken). I got back to the bike and for the first few miles headed back in the opposite direction to the one I had used to return to base the previous afternoon; through North Crawley and back towards Newport Pagnell.
Today I headed into the town centre where a handy bakery in the rather attractive high street provided me my missed breakfast. I ate at a table on the pavement as the day started to warm up and was now starting to feel more relaxed and ready for the day.
I headed North West out of the town along a B road. There was a bit of traffic around but on the whole this was pleasant riding. The road was climbing up most of the way but it was nothing more than a nice warm up. I left the road at Salcey Forest which marked the summit of that set of climbs and I subsequently began the drop back down as I rode towards the southern edge of Northampton.
I had no intention of riding through the middle of this busy town, however one of my main ‘objectives’ for the day was to be found a very short distance on the main road into the town. So rather than immediately following the cycle ring road, I initially followed the main roads until there, by the right hand side of the carriageway, was the Hardingstone Eleanor Cross.
The Hardingstone cross in one of just three of the original twelve Eleanor Crosses that still survive. The crosses were placed to mark the locations at which the body of Eleanor of Castile, the wife of King Edward I, had rested on its return to Westminster Abbey following her death near Lincoln in 1290.
Despite having survived this long the cross is currently in very poor repair and at the time of my visit was fenced off. It was a huge shame to see such a beautiful and important national monument in such a sorry state of disrepair. I understand that Northampton Borough Council are now commencing works to restore the monument. I do hope that this is indeed the case and that it can be restored and have access to it improved so that it regain the status which it so deserves.
I headed back on my way, back through some underpasses under the busy main roads, and rejoined the cycle route around the town’s edge.
The route took me through Hardingstone village (pretty) and then alongside the A45 (less so but still some decent riding well segregated from the dual carriageway). The cycle route jumps between the roadside and bank of the River Nene and progress was fairly slow; but pleasant.
Eventually at the South East corner of the town I diverted onto some small country lanes and headed back out to the countryside from the village of Ecton.
Though the cycle paths around the edge of Northampton had been fine it was nice to be back onto open roads, even though they also coincided with the next set of hills. A drop and a climb around Sywell Reservoir got the legs back into action after the slow urban cycle paths. Mears Ashby is a pretty village and I took 5 minutes to rest on a bench and read some signs detailing the sad account of the crash of two American Bombers during World War II.
A few more lovely open miles led me across to Little Harrowden and then dropped down towards the railway line by the old Finedon station on my way into that village, passing an old windmill/house conversion on the way.
Riding into Finedon I noticed the church was having a summer fete so I leant by bike against a tree in the graveyard, then went in to look around the church and to partake of some tea and cake. There was unfortunately, no sign of the vicar, one Rev. Richard Coles, but its a lovely church and the villagers were friendly so I’ll forgive him.
Finedon Church Flower Festival
Finedon Church Festival
The tea and cake was great but I still needed to drop into the Co-op to get some more water (and a sneaky Calippo) before heading back off Northwards.
I followed the A6 for a few miles but it was easy going; it was not busy and the surface was nice and fast. It wasn’t long before I peeled off into Burton Latimer and rode through Barton Seagrove; which is a sentence that sounds more like it should be in the salacious memoirs of a 1950s Hollywood Starlet.
Somewhere just to the west of me was Kettering but I couldn’t see any sign of it and instead was continuing along some lovely country roads across a pretty bridge over the River Ise at Warkton, and up the hill into the picture postcard pretty Weekley.
Next up just off to the right was Boughton House – a rather amazing looking stately home in some classic landscaped parklands with herds of deer running free.
From Boughton I dropped back down to the Ise valley at Geddington; my target destination for the day. I rolled across the 13th Century bridge back over the River Ise and into the centre of the village.
Geddington is the home of another of the surviving, indeed the best surviving, of the Eleanor Crosses. Compared to Hardingstone the cross here is much better cared for and I spent a good few minutes walking around admiring the various statues and carvings on its faces.
At Geddington Cross
At Geddington Cross
I then took a wander into the churchyard where I was ‘accosted’ by the villages resident historian, Kam. I had been planning on a quick wander around the church but instead I got a very full and thorough tour around the church. I wasn’t totally convinced of all of the stories that Kam was telling me (this is the most interesting church in England apparently) but he is certainly a captivating guide and the church does have a lot of great features including some lovely old tombs and monuments.
“Pagan” figure, Geddington Church
Queen Eleanor, Geddington Church
I thanked Kam and left him as he was starting the tour again with another couple who had wandered in. I headed back to my bike. At the outset of the trip I had considered making this a round circuit back to Cranfield but I was hot and tired and the day was now a bit later than planned so instead I carried on a few miles further North into Corby, found the station, and climbed onto a train that was heading back down to Bedford.
The journey was relaxing and allowed me to get refreshed enough to make the ten and a bit mile trip back to the University. The journey back was quite straightforward and pleasant. Leaving the city was a little slow but I was soon on open roads on my way back to Cranfield. The main highlight of this little extra warm down ride was rounding off the two days in the saddle by finding another piece of Festival of Britain history in the form of The Festival pub in Upper Shelton. Happy Days.
A few weeks after coming back from my ‘Four War Tour‘ in Belgium and France and I was ready to tackle my next big day ride. I wasn’t planning on anything too adventurous and nothing that would take me far from some of regular riding routes. The aim for the day would be to explore the old coal mining area of Kent; I’d been close before on the previous trips to that part of the county, but I was less aware then of the geographical details of Kent’s coalfield locations and had skirted past some of the key sites.
I was up fairly early and on the road from home at about 8.30am. Leaving Hastings by climbing out of town on the main road at rush hour is never ideal but I’m used to it now and I don’t have to go too far before turning off onto the quiet lane to Pett village. I’ve used this route for a couple of years now as my default way out East. When I first started riding around here 5 or 6 years ago I would follow NCN Route 2 out of town and down Battery Hill through Fairlight. However the road surface on that big steep hill is now so awful I don’t feel safe on it. Although that is the higher class road and the one used by bus service to Rye, it remains dangerous whilst the quiet country lane through Pett has been recently resurfaced and is a joy to ride along; joining the main road on the flat by the Western end of the Royal Military Canal at Pett Level.
The wind was nicely behind me as I headed along the sea front; firstly behind the sea wall between Pett and Winchelsea Beach and then on the edge of the beach itself through to Rye Harbour. Up, into, and through Rye. Join the Royal Military Road next to the Canal, still with wind assistance, and then continue on the flat through to Appledore.
Sluice at the end of the Military Canal
After the flat of the canal I hung a left through the village centre and up into the low rolling hills on this North East corner of the Weald through Woodchurch (its church is made of stone). On the climb out of there I stopped to remove my base layer; the day was warm now and I wasn’t going to be needing it now. That gave enough time for a small club ride to come up past me and having stripped, redressed, and got back under way I slotted in at the rear of their group for a mile or two towards Shadoxhurst where I swung off towards Ashford.
Ashford is a town that I greatly admire for its provision of cycle paths. It’s not the prettiest town but it has an excellent network with only one minor issue; on an all too regular basis the cycle paths and foot paths swap sides. One minute you’re cycling on the left; next you turn a corner and you’re supposed to be on the right. However it wasn’t that confusion that led to me riding into a bollard. I was looking out to see if I was right in thinking that there was a shop nearby where I could get some more water. There was but I was looking around so much that I didn’t notice the great big chunk of metal in the middle of the path. It was a very slow speed impact and I think I got away without anyone noticing. It didn’t stop my riding for the day. In fact it wasn’t until another couple of weeks later when I tried to remove my front wheel to load the bike into the car that I realised that I had bent the central pin. I managed about another 1,000 miles before I finally got it fixed just last week; I just had to put a wrench into my saddle bag to make sure I could remove the wheel in case of punctures.
The mishap was at least of value though as I spotted the Tesco Metro I was looking around for and topped up on water and snacks and then headed back out of Ashford through the Northern side of the town in the direction of Wye.
The cycle route North East out of Ashford is one I’ve ridden a few times and very much enjoy. Either side of Wye some quiet and pretty back roads help the miles to tick nicely by. Wye itself is a pretty village with some good cafes. I didn’t stop at any of them today though, I still had too many miles planned left to ride.
The cycle path continues following the roads for a few miles until they run out and the cycle route continues on a dedicated track along the side of the hill roughly following the route of the train line. After rising above the tracks, a small opening in the trees indicates that you have reached the lovely viewing spot at Catha’s Seat. The seat, with built in bike rack storage (not being used by me in the picture below!) is a memorial to Catharine Keegan who was involved in the setup of this cycle route from Ashford to Keegan. I did not know Catha and have no connection to her but always like to rest here and raise a water bottle in her honour; the bench is a lovely spot on a great little cycle path.
The path now starts to drop back down to the valley and into and through Chartham where you join the riverside path next to the Great Stour. The next couple of miles must be (on a good day; and I’ve only experienced good riding here) amongst the most bucolic on the National Cycle Network as it winds next to the lovely clear waters through the water meadows.
On the approach into Canterbury I turned back and headed out along a narrow and quiet lane back alongside the railway lines. I was aware of a special treat for rail nerds along this lane but, until today, I had never investigated it. What is it? Well – just watch my lovely video!
Having played on the railway tracks long enough I headed back into Canterbury. Today, other than pausing briefly to bemoan the continuing deterioration of the state of the Castle, I rode straight through the city, heading out South Eastwards having joined cycle route number 16 which crosses the North Kent Downs in the direction of Dover. I wasn’t planning on following that route too far however.
I followed it across the open land to Patrixbourne and then on towards Aylesham. However rather than following the route which skirts around the latter village I headed in to explore it as this was one of the places that I had come to see. Aylesham was developed in the 1920s to accommodate workers coming into work at the new coal mines that were being opened in Kent around that time. It was associated with the nearby Snowdown Colliery. It was planned to grow to hold around 30,000 people but only about 1,000 houses were ever built for the colliery as the Kent seams never proved as profitable as hoped.
I rode into the village, stopping to get some supplies for lunch at the One Stop on the way, and then rode into the small park in the centre of the village. I sat on one of a number of benches that commemorated the mining community.
A part of the pit workings in the park with some notice boards tell the story of the mine and the village. Having seen me looking at the boards a gentleman came out to speak to me ask ask what I knew of the village. I told him that I was (fairly recently) aware of the Kent Coalmines and Snowdown in particular and had wanted to come and get an understanding of what remained of the pits and the village that had been left behind. He had been a miner here up until its closure in 1987 (he was still wearing an old miners T-Shirt). He didn’t want to tell me any stories of his own but wanted to make sure that I was aware of the legacy and the story of the village. He also pointed me in the direction of the miners memorial garden in the village council offices on the edge of the village. I was pleased to hear what he would tell me and could have happily sat and heard his stories for longer had he been willing to share more.
Instead he headed back to the cafe he had been sitting in and I finished my lunch and loaded the remains back into my pannier.
I was very glad to have received his advice about the memorial garden. Had I not been made aware I would have passed it by unseen. The garden is only small but contains a new memorial to the lives of 57 men and boys who died during the 80 years that the colliery was active.
Snowdown Memorial Garden
From the memorial garden I headed across the next valley and up the hill to Snowdown station and then came to the gates of the old colliery. Despite having been closed for 30 years now the majority of the above ground mine buildings (except for the pit head winding gear towers) remain intact. The mine shafts have been capped off and the compound surrounded with razor wire but you can still get an impression of the site; though not the conditions for the workers.
At over 3,000 feet at its maximum depth Snowdown was the deepest mine in Kent. It was also the hottest and most humid. Conditions were so awful that the miners often worked naked as clothes became too uncomfortable. Miners could get through 24 pints of water in an 8 hour shift and there were frequent cases of heatstroke. Snowdown was regarded by many to be the worst to work in throughout Britain and as a result of its heat and humidity gained the name amongst its workers of “Dante’s Inferno”.
After briefly considering an attempt at jumping over the fence to take a good look around (from some concrete bollards I could likely have jumped into the compound; but I wasn’t then going to easily make my way back out) I headed back on my way. I understand that there might finally be some plans to develop the land into something new; I hope that someone might look to run some tours around the site beforehand. I would love to see around inside.
From here rather than continuing towards Dover I turned East along the country lanes across the hills through Nonington and Northbourne before dropping down to the coast at Deal.
I have ridden through Deal many times, but before today I had never visited the Castle. I had made sure that I got here in plenty of time to rectify that today.
I rolled into the car park, locked the bike up and went in. The staff there were happy to look after my helmet and pannier whilst I wandered around. Deal Castle is probably the best surviving of Henry VIII’s coastal forts and as such is quite different from the classic view of what a medieval castle might look like. It was an entirely functional building with its petal layout designed to ensure that it had a complete 360 degree line of fire.
As well as never having visited the Castle I’d also never been onto the Pier in the town either. The English Heritage staff agreed to look after my kit for a bit longer and I made the short walk onto and along to the end of the pier.
The current pier is Deal’s third and was built with a concrete structure in the 1950s. Its been in decline lately and I found out afterwards that the main pier had only just re-opened before my visit. There was still much work to be done but progress looks to be getting made and I hope to revisit again soon and be able to get a coffee from the (at the time of my visit) closed cafe at the end and to be able to wander down to the lower deck (also closed).
After a walk around I made by way back to the Castle. Coming back I noticed the gap in the railing and then the car sitting in the bottom of the moat. Back into the castle the staff told me that the crash had occurred the previous Saturday just as the castle was about to close. Miraculously the driver had walked out of the car with only superficial injuries. I gathered my kit and returned to my bike for the very short ride to Deal Station where I ended my ride and waited for a train home. My legs were tired and I was feeling the effort. I certainly hadn’t been working in Dante’s Inferno though.
There was another promisingly bright and sunny day working its way across Iepers market square and around the edges of my hotel room curtains as I awoke at 6.30. I started the day sitting at the table in the chamber writing my diary for the previous day and then calmly got dressed back into the lycra for the final day and gathered my belongings together. (Although not totally hygienic my routine on these 5 day (or thereabouts) tours is to take two full sets of cycling clothing and alternate them each day. On my first tour along the Avenue Verte I tried rinsing my kit out in the overnight hotels. However despite being made of no natural materials what so ever I found that the clothing didn’t fully dry overnight. It was therefore easier on subsequent tours to merely air my kit overnight! That did mean that today, on day five I was putting on this kit for its third outing of the tour!)
As is often the case with my last days on tour, today would be a strange one. In mileage terms I had around only 55 miles to cover today and the going would be virtually flat all the way. However I was booked onto a 4pm sailing out of Dunkirk and whilst I could probably miss it and get the 6pm sailing I wanted to be done and heading home by then. I had more than enough time to get to the ferry and still have a good day of it but I have usually found the last days on tour to be a little stressful when there is a deadline to be met.
After finish writing my diary and packing my kit I was still a little early for breakfast. Whilst I didn’t want to be leaving late I didn’t want to miss a paid up feed so I took my bags down to the hotel’s loading bay where my bike was secured against some sort of water pipe and loaded the panniers onto the rack so that I would ready for the off as soon as I had eaten. I took a wander out onto the streets of the town to the Spar shop around the corner, gathered some supplies for the day and loaded them into the bags on my return. As I wandered back upstairs I found breakfast was just opening. Perfect timing. After the requisite coffee, pastries and yoghurt I was ready for the off.
I slowly wound my way around the town square one last time before heading off to the North of the town to meet up with the Ieperlee canal where I joined the tow path on its Western bank. Fortunately I had not gone much farther when I realised that I hadn’t started my GPS tracking for the day so I pulled over and rectified that mistake.
Five easy miles followed along what now is just another lovely easy to ride along canal path. Only very occasionally did I pass any sign or indication that this canalised river had served as a front line at times during the war.
Just before Zuidschote I left the canal for a few more miles on quiet country roads. They were all well marked using the excellent Belgian cycle route marking system and I followed that rather than fully studying my maps. Not long after leaving the canal I came across what is now a simple aluminium cross flanked by French and Belgian flags. An original monument here was apparently much more graphic. It was built to mark the attack on 22 April 1915 when 180,000 kilos of Chlorine gas were directed at the French and Belgian troops holding this side of the canal. The monument depicted a French soldier gasping and clutching at his throat as two of his comrades lay on the ground beside him. During the Nazi occupation in 1942 the Germans took offence at this depiction and blew it up. It was therefore replaced in 1954 with the simple aluminium ‘cross of reconciliation’ which stands there now.
Zuidschote Original Gas Attack Monument
Cross of Reconciliation
From Zuidschote I headed North again using the lovely wide cycle paths to the side of the calm, quiet country roads.
I passed through Reninge and Lo-Reninge before magically riding into Lo. Lo was something of a treat with some gorgeous buildings surrounding a cobbled square boarded to the North by a church lined with a fountain and sculptures (which I managed to take only rubbish photos of).
At the church the route turned me Westwards for just long enough to leave the town through the remains of its old wall and gatehouse before coming to the next canal which would take me back North again almost to the sea.
Lo Town Gate
However before I could join the canal I had the small matter of having to wait for a small pleasure boat to pass by before the bridge that I needed to cross to reach the tow path on the far bank was closed.
Canal, Boat and Windmill at Lo
Another lovely but uneventful five miles passed along the canal. There were lots of other groups of cyclists and runners out who were all up for cheery waves and I enjoyed seeing some classic low land canal architecture. The miles flew by.
Canal Bridge and Cycle Route Signs
Before I knew it I was rolling towards the centre of Veurne where a short side branch of the canal led me neatly onto a stretch of town centre roads before beginning the section Westbound parallel to the coast on some quiet country roads. I had now turned around into the wind so the rest of the day would be a bit slower; however I was well in front of the clock at present.
On one short magical stretch of track I had to turn to the North. I knew that I was close to the Franco-Belgian border before suddenly realising just how close I was. This track was it. If I veered from the right hand side of the track to the left I would leave Belgium and enter France. As a child I always though borders were all like the ones I had seen Steve McQueen try to jump over at the end of The Great Escape. But this is 21st century Europe and there is no border.
At the main road at the top of the track the beauty of the open European border became even clearer. In the middle of the main road the former border check post has now been transformed into a coffee and chocolate shop. Ah Europe. Why on earth would we ever want to leave you?!?!
Perhaps foolishly I decided to forgo the opportunity of coffee and chocolate and instead turned to face the West and so left Belgium for the last time on this trip. Of course that meant that I was also leaving its superb cycle network and entering the slightly less impressive French system. It is still good of course, just not up to Belgian levels. Although the main A19 road runs parallel slightly inland I was now following a busy tourist road along the French coast. I didn’t have to go far though before I swung a right and headed to the beach at Bray Dunes.
At low tide along the beach here I understand that it is possible to still see remains of some of the boats that were sunk in the beach evacuation. I didn’t have the time to fully explore and wasn’t’ sure of the exact location of any such remains so I sat on the sea wall looking out over the long stretch of beach and dunes. In late May and early June 1940 the beaches were filled with thousands of men (mostly British but also some of the French and Belgian armies were also evacuated back to Britain). They were waiting patiently here (for the most part) for their turn to board one of the famous flotilla of little ships that would carry them to the larger vessels waiting out to sea.
Now the beach at Bray is a popular seafront holiday destination much like many similar towns on the English coast opposite. Without seeing any of the remains of the boats and tanks I was left to admire the blue sky and sea and the crisp clean sand covered with families making the most of a lovely summer day. I stopped and had some food and applied sun cream as the day got warmer.
After a false start out of Bray as I attempted to take a short cut I was back on the road towards Dunkirk.
On the left next to the road in the small village of Zuydcoote I stopped to look at what would be the last war cemetery I would visit on this tour. It also turned out to be one of the most fascinating. For the larger part it houses men who died in the First World War but is split into three parts. The Western end houses a small, traditional Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery containing a little over 300 graves (including one Belgian). The cemetery was linked to the military hospitals that were housed in the area from 1917. As such the cemetery was unique of the ones that I visited in having most, if not all, of the graves containing identified men. Next to the CWGC cemetery a post armistice cemetery contains the bodies of over 1,000 French soldiers of the war. Between the CWGC graves and the main bulk of the French men were two rows of different grave stones, marking the remains of French Muslims. At the east end an annex contains a further 170 graves, also interred after the armistice, of German soldiers. It is certainly interesting to see all of these graves lined up next to each other with just one single wall surrounding them all. Particularly poignant in the German section were the graves of two soldiers. Most of the German graves have quite a distance between them; more so than is the case in the French and Commonwealth sections. However two graves were set closer together; one a standard German cross; the other a Star of David.
Zuydcoote WWI French Cemetery (with WWII cemetery to the rear)
Zuydcoote WWI CWGC Cemetery
Zuydcoote WWI French Muslims Cemetery
Two Germans Side-by-Side
A fourth section of the cemetery to the South of the First World War area houses another large group of French graves. These men all died in the Second World War. These were just some of those who gave their lives defending Dunkirk and the beaches around Bray. These were the men who bought the extra time needed to keep the advancing German Army at bay long enough for Operation Dynamo to evacuate as many troops as it did back to Britain. Without their bravery and sacrifice it is certain that a much smaller contingent of the British Expeditionary Force would have been saved. It was also interesting to note that, unlike the French graves from WWI, in this section the (not inconsiderable number of) French Muslims were buried right in and amongst their colleagues.
An old train line runs alongside the road into Dunkirk. It looks as though there might be plans to convert it to a cycle/foot path but for now I had to continue along the roads; although perversely the roads seemed to get less busy the closer I got to the town. Before long I was at the entrance to the docks area; marked by a memorial to the allies made from quayside paving stones.
From here I continued along the harbour side before eventually making it to the ‘East Mole’; the harbour arm extension which saw the bulk of the evacuation. Back in 1940 this narrow arm would have been filled with troops lined up to board the ships. The actual site was used by Christopher Nolan in the 2017 film of Dunkirk. He rebuilt the Mole extension at which most of the ships docked. His reconstruction has been removed again but the main harbour wall is still extant. Today the arm was filled with locals fishing from it but I wound my way past them to the far end. It is odd to think that this now serene and small stretch of concrete proved so vital to the war effort. The small ships are the big story of Operation Dynamo, but in reality around 200,00 of the 338,226 men who made it back across the channel boarded ships from this long but narrow limb of concrete.
The remains of the East Mole
East Mole Selfie
Dunkirk East Mole!
Dunkirk East Mole
After a breather and a chance to reflect sitting on the dock of the bay, I headed back in towards the centre of the town. A few other sites and memorials lined the docks. I didn’t have time to visit the Operation Dynamo museum. I really must allow myself more scope to make such stops on these trips but I never learn. I had to get to the ferry. Dunkirk ferry terminal is a good ten miles or so west of the town so whilst I was OK for time I didn’t have enough spare to be hanging around.
The cycle paths from the East Mole into the central harbour area had been lovely. Wide and well signposted.
Now though I had to find my way to the port and both the signs and the cycle ways soon dried up. There were some suggestions that a new cycle route is being built in this very direction. However, despite one sign proclaiming its completion date some 11 months previous, there was little sign of progress. Indeed the limited works seemed to have only served to close the few sections of cycle way that were originally in existence. I ended up joining busier and more polluted main roads as I headed through the western suburbs of the town. I probably wasn’t following these roads for too long but it was nasty, dangerous, and slow going and was threatening to put a damper on a good day and an excellent tour.
Fortunately at the edge of the town where the road got busier, I finally re-joined one of the old sections of cycle route; at least for a mile or two into the village of Loon-Plage.
There was another bit of confusion at the northern edge of the village when the cycle path signs ran out and the only directions off a roundabout suggested I had to head onto the motorway. I completed a circuit of the roundabout, headed back towards the village, found a safe spot and consulted my phone GPS mapping. It indicated that I could follow the exit marked to the industrial estate. This did indeed prove to be a much nicer road and before long I was joining the traffic queuing to check in to the ferry. The ride from Dunkirk had not been fun but it had worked out OK and here I was with almost perfect timing.
I had time to pull into the ferry terminal, finish off my picnic supplies, and get changed out of the Lycra for the final time on this trip. I wasn’t entirely finished in the saddle but to all intents and purposes my tour was now completed. I cleared customs. This went OK despite my having a conversation with the customs officials in which I joked that my panniers contained various body parts. I really must learn that these situations are not the ideal places for jokes but I got away with it. This time.
I was one of the first onto the ferry (and at the other end was the very first off). And so it was that my tour was complete. I had the welcome chance to get up onto the main deck and claim one of the prime seats at the rear of the ferry next to the restaurant. One ferry canteen chicken curry (surprisingly hot) later and I could properly relax at the end of a fantastic trip. All that remained at the other end was to navigate my way out of Dover harbour (not an easy feat as it turns out) and get the train the short ride back to Ashford where I could place the bike in the back of my waiting car and drive home.
When I came up with the idea of this tour my main focus was always to be the sites of the Somme and Ypres and to be visiting them in the year of the 100th anniversary of the end of the War. The concept of ‘Four War Tour’ was always a little contrived and building Waterloo and Agincourt into the trip potentially felt a little frivolous; whilst they were important historical battles the direct effect on those who fought was so much lesser than the slaughter of the Great War.
As I worked my way from Mons around Cambrai and towards the Somme these concerns were not vanishing. Waterloo had felt like visiting the equivalent of an English Heritage or National Trust site whereas the emotional pain of seeing row after row of graves in cemetery after cemetery was so much more raw.
In the end however I think the tour worked. Taking in Waterloo allowed me to start the tour nicely and build up for the ‘main event’. The trip from Albert to Agincourt gave me a break from the emotion that the stories of the Somme offered and that were to come again as I approached Ypres. I loved visiting the battle field and the Museum at Azincourt – it is off the main tourist route but was well worth the trip (even in the non stop rain).
In fact if any part of the trip felt to be the weak link it is that I should have allowed more time to properly take in the beaches around Bray and Dunkirk and to visit some other World War Two monuments. Were you to take this diary as any incentive to make a similar trip (I would be hugely honoured were that to be the case) then exploring such options would be my suggestion. On the whole though, although being one of my easier tours in terms of physical effort (miles and hills; if not wind, sun and rain), it was so emotionally draining at times that it more than made up for the lack of big hills climbed. This was a great tour and I’d happily recommend it to anyone.
I awoke to find a brighter, drier looking day with the sunlight pushing through the curtains hinting at the prospect of a much more pleasant day’s riding than yesterday. However, inspection of my kit showed that it was only slightly drier than when I went to bed. I would certainly be putting on some wet shoes and loading equipment into still damp panniers. I was pinning my hopes on riding in the warm in order to get things dry.
I went downstairs to the breakfast room where Richard had laid out a good spread of continental goodies. I tucked in. Richard joined me for a short while and we chatted briefly. I had made the assumption the evening before (after he had told me that he had come to running the B&B after leaving the British Army) that his problems walking were a result of action. He told me this morning that he was suffering from M.S. and that as a result they were now looking to sell up in France and move back to the U.K. to be closer to family. I was at a loss for the right words but wished him well; he struck me as the sort of person to be able to make the best of situations.
Fully loaded up on pastries I returned up the rickety stairs to the ‘Peacock’ room. I gathered all my soggy kit into my damp bags and carried them and my newspaper filled shoes down to the front door where I squelched my feet in, and gathered and loaded up the bike.
I left Heuchin continuing in the direction I had arrived. That seems like an obvious statement but it’s not always true that you find an overnight spot quite so perfectly on the planned route. The first mile or two can often involve a bit of doubling back to get underway.
For 4 or 5 miles the road climbed slowly up the valley which proved to be a nice warm up of my slightly heavy legs. My planned route had me diverting onto some quiet roads just a mile or two into the start of the day; however the “main” (single carriageway) road I was following was fairly empty. The wind was behind me and I had got a good speed going. I took the snap decision to stay on the good tarmac and keep my legs spinning. I normally regret these decisions quite quickly; but not today.
As I approached the roundabout at the summit of the hill I met a couple of cyclists in full touring setup also approaching the top but from the opposite direction. We exchanged smiles and waves knowing that we had all finished our climbing for a while. Across the roundabout I applied my brakes and pulled over. Laid out in front of me were the last few miles of France. There was a lovely long straight downhill road to make the most of but I wanted to take in the view before I sped down the hill.
The next few miles shot by. It was 10 miles that were almost entirely downhill and they ticked past quickly. There were a couple of sections where I followed side roads to cut a corner or two but I mostly stayed on the main routes through Isbergues and Saint-Venant until I reached Haverskerque where I met back up with my planned route.
I was not only off the main roads now but before long I was off the roads entirely as I joined a foresters track through the centre of the Forest Nieppe. The going was slower, especially as I found myself steering around large numbers of suicidal game birds. It was quite pleasant to be completely away from traffic for a while none the less. Slightly less pleasant was the short shower that greeted me as I entered the forest but it had finished before I left the woodland.
The next few miles were a mix of quiet country lanes with occasional forays onto busier (but not busy) main roads on the way to the pretty border town of Bailleul. It was getting close to lunch hour but the town was looking quite busy and I fancied somewhere quiet to stop.
A mile out of town I chose, as is my wont, a random corner next to a Maize field to hunker down on and have lunch (which I had clearly picked up somewhere on the way but cannot for the life of me now recall where).
Back underway I soon crossed the border into Belgium. I didn’t know exactly where the border was, but coming into the village of Dranouter I recognised from the road signs that I was no longer in France.
Spitfire piece at Dranouter
After briefly taking a wrong turn that started to take me up a steep hill I doubled back to the junction at which I had gone in the wrong direction. It was at that point I properly noted and understood the system used in Belgium to mark cycle routes. Rather than a system of numbered routes as is used in the U.K., Belgium numbers its junctions. Each junction is assigned a (seemingly) random number and then direction signs point you in the direction of the next junction numbers. Looking at my maps I realised that they were marked with these numbers and as such I could simply follow them. The system appears to work beautifully. Once I worked it out and could see the numbers I was due to head to it proved easy to follow the network. The steep hill I had started up was one approach up the Kemmelberg. One of the classics of Belgian riding its cobbled track from the village is one of the main cycling climbs of Belgium but I was done with pavé.
As I rode around the side of the Kemmelberg hill the skies darkened and the heavens suddenly opened. It was just as well I had skipped the opportunity to race downhill on the cobbles. My shoes had just about finally dried off after yesterday’s non stop rain so this wasn’t welcome. Fortunately there was still a good stretch of downhill into the village of Kemmel from my approach and straight ahead of me was a church which looked open and welcoming. On entering through the porch I soon realised that the current focus of the church was a display of the story of the Irish Army who had been based in the town. It was a fascinating display and kept me occupied for just a little longer than the downpour lasted outside.
With the skies clearing, though the roads quite wet, I headed North East out of Kemmel and soon came to the first Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery of the day at Kemmel Chateau closely followed by another at Godezonne Farm.
I wasn’t much farther on again when I came to the small Elenzwalle Brasserie Cemetery at a cross roads near Voormezele. Although all of the CWGC cemeteries have been created to a relatively standard set of designs and layouts, everyone has a different story to tell. Notable at Elenzwalle were the graves of men from the British West Indies Regiment; a stark reminder that this was indeed a World War and many men from all of its four corners came to this corner of Europe to fight and die.
The other side of Voormezele came Spoilbank and Chester Farm. I came to Spoilbank first. It contains the remains of 520 men (125 unidentified). A further 420 men (all bar 7 of them whom are known) are buried at the next cemetery at Chester Farm. Chester Farm gave another reminder that in the end we are all as one. A handful of German men are buried shoulder to shoulder with those they were fighting. Futility but togetherness at the last.
To give an idea of how close these cemeteries are located I only need to say that they sit in opposite corners of the same farmers field. There really is no escaping the past in Flanders. And nor should there be.
Spoilbank and Chester Farm were related to fighting at ‘The Bluff‘ in 1916 and it was to that battle field that I was headed next. Using my new found knowledge of the Belgian cycle route signs I decided to follow the numbers rather than the route I had planned in advance on the maps I was carrying on my handlebars. I am glad I did as this alternative route took me through what is now a very peaceful and beautiful country park and open woodland. It is hard to picture the horrors that occurred here 100 years previously. Were it not for the lines on the park marking the locations of the front lines of the fighting it might be possible to never realise the significance of the location. I was taken by how close the battle lines were; the markers were barely 50 yards apart.
Leaving the parkland I saw some more signs to ‘Hill 60’ – I had spotted a few back in Voormezele – and very soon found myself at that location. Hill 60 was the site of fighting between December 1914 and April 1915 when it was claimed by the Germans, and then again through 1917 and 1918. Fighting was severe and at very close quarters. Mines were used to detonate trenches with brutal consequences. The whole hill has been left to nature as a memorial and graveyard.
Whilst I had been struck by the proximity of the trenches at The Bluff, they had nothing on Hill 60. To say that they were less than a stone’s throw apart would be inaccurate. Most people throwing a stone here would send it well beyond the trenches opposite. In the picture below the Allied front line is clearly marked and visible. The German line can be seen marked on the boards of the next, slightly lower, platform.
Leaving Hill 60 I had almost a whole two miles before the next memorial I would stop at. A short diversion from the road went to ‘Canadian Hill 62‘ (I didn’t find Hill 61). A monument and memorial, though not a cemetery, the hill is a beautiful and peaceful site. I sat for a while on one of the many benches and ate some food whilst looking over a short few miles to get my first glimpse of the town of Iepers.
Leaving the sanctuary of Hill 62 I continued on a bumpy concrete farm track before joining the cycle path next to a main road and then heading across a motorway before coming to the monument to The 1st Battalion of the Black Watch at the appropriately named Black Watch Corner. Here on 11th November during the first battle of Ypres, the British Expeditionary Force faced some of the fiercest fighting of the war to that point in their defensive fight back to the coast. On 13 August 1914, 1,062 officers and men of the 1st Battalion Black Watch had set off for France. By the end of the fighting here on 12th November, a mere 91 days later, only 111 were left alive.
Black Watch Corner sits at the South West of Polygon Wood which was to see further fighting during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. It was into the Wood that I now headed. The wood itself is now another beautiful and peaceful place, although I did spot the remains of at least one concrete bunker hidden in amongst the trees. I rode along the west side of the wood and then turned east to follow its northern edge.
Almost at the opposite corner of the wood from Black Watch Corner I came across two very differently sized cemeteries opposite each other.
The smaller Polygon Wood Cemetery was created at the time of the fighting. It contains “only” 107 commonwealth graves (plus one German casualty) including 60 men from New Zealand. The graves are laid out in the more haphazard manner of those cemeteries that were started during the actual fighting.
Across the road opposite is the larger Buttes New British Cemetery. This cemetery was made after the armistice with graves of men brought from around the area to this single site. 2,108 men are buried here, of whom only 431 have been identified. The neighbouring memorial to the men of the 5th Australian Division built on top of the butte provides a high up view across the whole cemetery. It gives a view not usually afforded in similar cemeteries. The cemetery is solemnly beautiful. The multitude ordered lines of white headstones contrast well with the light green of the grass of the cemetery and the irregular dark greens of Polygon Wood beyond.
A short way further on and I rolled downhill into the village of Zonnebeke. The village was one of the main locations of fighting during the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele and was abandoned and destroyed during the war. Some of the battle site has been reopened as a peace park and Museum. I rode into the park and stopped to visit the smaller museum located in an old farm house. However whether it was fatigue, or expectation of what I thought might be here, I was rather underwhelmed. The park has a series of small peace gardens dedicated to the various nations who fought here but they didn’t seem that well thought through or maintained.
With still some miles and sites to cover and a deadline to meet in Iepers, I passed by the Museum. I am told it is very good and maybe one day I shall return, but for now I wanted to push on. I wasn’t far from Iepers but that lay a couple of miles back West from Zonnebeke and I still wanted to complete my pilgrimage by heading another couple of miles East. I found and followed the disused railway line; now a peaceful and lovely footpath and cycleway. Back in the war this was the ‘Road to Passchendaele’. In the mud and mayhem of the trenches and fighting, the railway line was the most reliable way to (and from) the front.
A short while later, using a combination of the old line and then the main road, and I made to the furthest point of the day and to the village with the beautiful name and its terrible associations. Unsurprisingly perhaps Passchendaele village itself was something of an anti climax. Like so many such villages in the region it was totally destroyed during the war. Whilst the village has been rebuilt and is pretty enough it does, naturally somehow lack the character that a naturally evolving settlement gains and somehow you can tell that there is something missing; something still dead in the cobbled streets.
Opposite the church on the main square a notice board shows the “church” as it was at the end of the war. It was just a pile of rubble. The only indication that this particular pile of bricks and mortar was the church being the sign erected next to it.
I took a final spin around the streets before heading back to the old railway and then on and into Iepers proper. However I still had one more place to visit on the way. It involved only a short deviation from the railway line and up a little rise. I pulled in to the busy car park and locked the bike up; but didn’t feel the need to take my panniers off and secure my kit. Maybe that was foolish but it just didn’t seem required.
A visitor centre on one corner of the site tells the story of the fighting that occurred here and some of the stories of the men buried here now. It seems all part of a scheme to slowly prepare you for what is to come. Leaving the visitor centre a pathway takes you around the North edge of the site. As you walk along looking over the low surrounding wall you slowly get to take in the size of what lies inside. At the North West corner you can get a real feel for the scale and then, halfway along the western wall, is the gateway that provides access to Tyne Cot Cemetery.
Tyne Cot, or the Tyne Cottage was so named by the Northumberland Fusiliers. The farm was a German defensive position near the railway level crossing. It was captured in 1917 and started to be used as a dressing station and subsequently began its existence as a cemetery. After the armistice the cemetery was expanded as bodies were brought beck from around Passchendaele and reburied in Tyne Cot.
In total just under 12.000 men are buried here making it the largest commonwealth cemetery from any war. Only 3,605 of the graves contain identified men. At the rear of the cemetery the wall forms a memorial for some 35,000 men who’s bodies were never found and identified.
The sheer scale of seeing so many burials and so many names should be over whelming but the site is so beautiful and so full of life from the living who were visiting and paying their respects.
As well as the size of the cemetery there are some additional differences that help to tell the tale at Tyne Cot.
Three of the concrete German block houses were built into the layout. Two of these are in the Western end of the cemetery surrounded by graves and trees.
The third of the structures was built into the base of the Great Cross at the centre of the site. A small ‘window’ gives a glimpse of the original structure.
I spent some time wandering around the cemetery. Reading the names of the known and looking at the long lines of graves of men “Known unto God”. After reading just some of the lists and lists of names of the missing. I found a quiet corner near one of the block houses to rest up for a while and to take it all in before I set off again.
Tyne Cot is so large that it is hard to really grasp. It is only with travelling around the area of the Ypres Salient that you begin to get a fraction of the true impression of the horrors that occurred here.
I returned to my bike and followed the road in to Iepers. The last few miles of the day were largely uneventful. Approaching the town centre from the direction of Passchendaele brings you through the Menin Gate. I stopped beforehand to admire the gate from the outside and to take an ‘arriving at Ypres’ selfie before riding into the town through the iconic structure.
Like the wall at the rear of Tyne Cot and at Thiepval in The Somme, the gate lists the names of those who died with no known grave. Some 54,395 names are inscribed on the Gate’s walls. The names are those who died up to and including 15 August 1917. The 35,000 names at Tyne Cot are those who died on the Ypres Salient with no known grave between that date and the end of the War. Between the Menin Gate and the wall at Tyne Cot are listed roughly as many names as the total population of Hastings where I live.
My hotel for the night was slap bang in the centre of the town and easy to find. The entrance was down a side street from the main square. I checked in, locking my bike safely in the deliveries area, and went to my room to freshen up and get changed. The room was excellent and directly overlooked the main square. For some it may be too close to the centre but I was quite looking forward to that after spending the previous three nights in quiet locations. I showered and polished off the so far uneaten remains of my lunch before heading out.
I had a bit of time to spare before the main event of the evening so I went out to explore the town and the funfair setup in the square. With a pocket full of change I put a 50 cent coin into a grab machine and immediately walked away with a little soft toy Seagull. Wipers the gull and I continued walking around taking a look at the town. Although, much as is the case with other such towns in the area (see Passchendaele above) the town was very badly damaged in the war and much of it has been rebuilt, it still manages to maintain a bit more of a sense of place than some other similar towns.
Wipers in Iepers
Wipers in Iepers
Wipers in Iepers
At about 19:15 I made my way back towards the Menin Gate. By a very strange quirk of fate I had discovered that one of my old University friends also happened to be in Ypres on the same day and so we had agreed to meet up near the Gate ready for the nightly Last Post ceremony. The ceremony, which has taken place here every night since 11 November 1929 (with the exception of the years of the Second World War), was incredibly moving. It should undoubtedly be a part of the itinerary of anyone visiting the area of Flanders and The Somme. A number of groups and individuals (some clearly of a military background; others maybe not) laid wreaths at the Gate. Bookending the ceremony the buglers of the Iepers fire brigade service played the Last Post and the Réveille as they have done for almost 90 years now. Long may they continue to do so. I hope that so long as the Gate stands (and hopefully beyond that too) this pure act of daily remembrance continues.
After the ceremony Alison and her group invited me to join them for a meal and a beer or two. It was a lovely end to a long and emotional day.
As I said goodbye to them at the end of the evening I took one more walk around the square which was now closing down for the night. The lights turned off stall by stall and the hubbub and music of the arcades was carried off in the breeze until a dark calmness was restored. I sat on a bench for a few minutes allowing everything that I had seen today to sink in before retiring to my hotel room.
At the start, and indeed at the planning, of this trip I had wondered of my own motives for visiting here. I am not aware of any family members who fought here in the Great War but I understood now that this was not the reason for my coming. I wanted to get a feel for myself, to whatever level I might be able to do so, of the events and destruction that occurred here 100 years ago. In coming here to Ypres and Passchendaele and also to The Somme I had increased my understanding of how Terrible this war was and was even more assured of how important it is to bury nationalism and secularism and any other such unjustifiable causes of conflict. We are one world. One people. A visit here was really helping to reinforce that. Coming here wasn’t about ‘celebrating Britain’ or any such rubbish. It was about placing a value on living in harmony and understanding. That may be a futile desire of mine but it would be the true legacy of these men, of all flags and nations, who perished in Flanders Fields.
I woke up at half past six and gathered up most of my belongings ready for the off, then went downstairs for an Ibis continental breakfast. It was much as expected; nothing out of the ordinary but it certainly set me up well for the day ahead. I took my time using the opportunity to write up my diary for the previous day’s ride. I had been too drained to write it the previous evening. I was fully packed and ready to go by quarter past eight after a chat with the coach tourists from Merthyr Tydfil. I was in a much more open frame of mind and enjoyed discussing our relative methods of touring the battlefields. They were heading for home this morning and though they had enjoyed their trip they looked like they were ready to leave the coach travel behind them.
From the hotel I started heading in towards Albert town centre although I never did ride into the town proper. Just across the first roundabout was a Lidl supermarket. It wasn’t quite yet open but there was a small queue forming so I gathered that it wouldn’t be long before it was. Although not ideal for small scale provisions I needed some supplies. I was in and out quickly once the doors opened at eight thirty. Loaded up with saucisson, crisps (I had to buy a six pack), cheese, bread and chocolate I was now fully prepared for the day ahead. The day was cloudy but at present the weather seemed to be set fair enough. I was braced for a shower or two but this should be a good day.
I skirted down some side streets and then around towards the River Ancre and the ‘Velodrome’ park (there was no sign of a race track or I might have taken a quick spin).
I followed the valley upstream, winding around either side of the river, slowly and gradually climbing away from Albert. I passed the sign for the evocatively named ‘Blightly Valley’ cemetery at the end of a footpath. I didn’t stop to visit but nodded as I passed. It looked like a lovely peaceful last resting place. A short way further and the road started to climb out of the valley and ahead of me I could see my first destination of the day calling to me from the top of the hill. Although still some distance away the monument to the missing of The Somme on the hill at Thiepval makes a big first impression.
I pulled into Thiepval car park just before nine thirty. After locking my bike up I loitered by the (locked) Museum doors. The nice lady inside took the subtle hint, opened up slightly early, and obligingly offered to look after my panniers whilst I looked around. Visiting the monument is free however there is small charge to enter the Museum. It is definitely worth paying as the Museum is an incredibly well designed space with displays on trench life and artefacts discovered in the area, all surrounded by an amazing drawing representing the fighting on 1st July 1916. The day was to become the deadliest day in the history of the British Army; within 12 hours over 19,000 men were killed and many more wounded. One wall in the Museum was very simply composed of photographs of a small proportion of the faces of the missing men from the Battle of the Somme.
Faces of the Missing
After spending about half an hour or so in the Museum I left to head outside and get some air and to head to the monument itself. Bearing the names of 72,337 allied soldiers who died with no known grave the Thiepval Memorial is quite some sight to behold and difficult to take in. Every wall is crammed full of names the whole way up. Just behind the memorial a small joint French and British cemetery contains the same number of graves of men of each nation to show how they died side by side. Its an incredibly beautiful location and an inspiring monument (designed by Edward Lutyens). One of the small showers I was expecting started as I was at the site but it didn’t look like much and it wasn’t enough to put me off hanging around a little while longer.
Their Name Liveth For Evermore
Thiepval French and British Cemetery
Eventually I headed back to the museum desk and collected my bags. It was still raining a bit outside so I put on my wet weather gear just in case before heading back to the bike and getting on my way.
Close by the memorial I passed the smaller Connaught and Mill Road cemeteries, and also the Ulster Tower which commemorates the men of that province who fell here throughout the Battle of the Somme.
The rain was still falling; although it was stop start the road was now wet enough that I took care as I descended back down from the ridge into the Ancre Valley and the small hamlet of Hamel before climbing back up onto the next ridge. I was just coming up to the entrance to the Beaumont-Hamel memorial and preserved battle field when suddenly a huge bolt of lightning flashed in front of me. The roar of the thunder was impressive and immediate. The downpour started at the same moment. I was suddenly directly underneath a storm cloud.
The heavens properly opened. I sped my way towards the site entrance. A nice Canadian lady (this was the site where the men of Newfoundland fought and died) cheerily told me that I couldn’t bring my bike into the site. I understood that but asked if, due to the sudden downpour, I might be able to put my bike in her hut? No that would most certainly not be allowed. I must use the bike rack in the exposed and open car park opposite. Might I then ask if she would look after my panniers to prevent them getting soaked? No. Sadly this was out of her control. French rules about terrorism, you see. Awfully sorry. No one had apparently told any of the French hosts at the various other sites I stopped at about this rule but she was quite insistent. Reluctantly I locked my bike up on the railings and trusted that a) nobody would be stupid enough to be out in this rain to steal my bags, and b) the flimsy water proof outer cover and the various carrier bags inside the panniers would provide enough protection for my clothes and equipment.
The rain and the officiousness did sadly taint my visit. I believe that the site in its entirety is quite large with lots to see. I explored only a small section but it did give me the best understanding so far of the layout of the trenches. Although left to slowly return to nature the trench lines now appear like the banks and ditches of prehistoric archaeological sites, albeit in a much more haphazard seeming layout (the front line trenches were dug in zig zagged formations to prevent a direct hit from a heavy gun damaging too big a section of trench).
Beaumont-Hamel Trenches in the Rain
Beaumont-Hamel Trenches in the Rain
I headed to the Caribou memorial which forms the centrepiece of the site and took a quick look around the remains of the trenches close by. The rain, if anything, got heavier and there was no shelter. I took in the site as best as I could and as quickly as I could. The photos here are not the best pictures I have ever taken. I was trying to prevent my camera phone getting wet although the lens was inevitably damp. This causes some of the blurred effect on the photos; however mostly that is just the rain obscuring the views.
Drenched at the Somme
Newfoundland Caribou Memorial
I gave up on plans to explore any further and headed back to the bike. At least if I was going to get soaked I might as well get on the move. Passing the entrance hut the Canadian guard lady had vanished inside and showed no signs of coming out to say goodbye to me. At least with the bags still on the bike (I was correct and nobody had stolen anything) it only took a second or two to get unlocked and moving; heading in a rough North Westerly bearing.
The rain continued although it was good to be moving now. I think the rain might have slightly eased off. However before long there was more thunder and lightning and the rain was back in full flow. Ahead of me I saw the church at Auchonvillers. I could not avoid the rain for long (I still had a whole day’s ride in front of me and a B&B to get to) but there was no point in staying out in this; and surely I wouldn’t need to shelter for too long. I climbed out of the saddle and spun as quickly as possible in order to sprint the last distance to the church. I jumped off the bike, picked it up, and almost ran headlong into the locked church door. There was to be no sanctuary for me here. I found the only vaguely sheltered corner of the outside of the church and pressed my back tightly against the fabric of the building to keep as much of me away from the worst of the rain as possible.
I’m not sure how long I stayed there; probably no more than ten minutes; but eventually the weather cleared a little. By which I mean it was now only raining heavily. I might as well carry on. I sploshed my sodden shoes (the overshoes had kept my actual shoes dry for maybe two minutes before they were themselves soaked through) back to the bike and climbed back on. The rain water was pouring in rivers along the road and I gingerly headed off.
I saw the Sucrerie cemetery across a field but didn’t turn off to visit. Nor I did I do more than stop at the outside of the Euston Road cemetery that I passed right by.
The rain was persistent but now more varied in its intensity. At some short occasions it was almost light, but for most of the next few miles it was fair to heavy. I rode through Colincamps. It was probably pretty but I didn’t really look. The next village was Sailly-au-Bois. I think this is also quite pretty. It did at least have the distinction of having an open porch to its (locked) church so I pulled in to check the state of my bags (wet but not awful; the waterproofing was trying its hardest to do its job although my paper work was starting to feel the effects) and to slightly reduce the weight of my load by starting on my Lidl picnic.
Bayencourt was little more than 3 or 4 houses and farm buildings at a cross roads. On the approach into Souastre the heavens opened again. Spotting an open fronted farm outbuilding I pulled over and leant my bike against a tractor whilst waiting for the latest burst to pass over. A boy and a cat came out from a neighbouring barn to see who or what I was. I nodded a bonjour but I don’t have conversational French for 7 year olds. I think the cat might have understood a little of my English, but he wasn’t letting on in front of the boy. We stood together awkwardly. They got bored before the rain stopped and headed back to their other barn. Here are a couple of pictures from the shed. They are terrible but I think the blur and haze gives something of an impression of the conditions. One of them also shows the cat.
Badly Focussed Kitty
Saint Amand was the next village. Like the previous settlements I’m sure its pretty but I rode on through it without really taking it in. However before I actually reached it I did come across the mausoleum of the Family Masclef which suddenly appeared around a corner just before the village, slowly being swallowed by the hedge behind it. In the rain and the gloom it was quite a sight, and not a cheery one.
Guadiempré and Couturelle came next. I know this as I’m looking back now at the record of my route on Strava. I’ve ‘revisited’ them using Google Street View but I do not recall them at all. All along this area the landscape was open and slightly rolling and undulating. Just the type of countryside I love and that France does so well. I recall being happy out in the open, even in the rain which was still varying in volume but had largely settled on ‘persistent’. I just don’t recall any specifics of the villages that I passed through. I don’t have any photos so nothing apparently jumped out at me enough to stop and photograph it (and I normally don’t need much excuse to stop to snap a picture).
The next photo that I do have is this one. It’s me just entering the village of Warluzel. I was by now at the stage of tour where I’ve probably been in my own company for too long. I amused myself that this must be the French equivalent of Somerset and that I might soon come across a bunch of old yokels singing “J’ai une nouvelle moissonneuse batteuse”.
Sadly that didn’t happen. I just found that I was starting to get hungry, that it was about lunchtime, and that there was a bus shelter that I could keep dry in and rectify the first situation.
I felt refreshed for a decent rest and some food. The rain was still falling but it had settled into a steady rhythm and was much less intense than during the morning. The miles (kilometres) continued to tick over and the villages continued to pass by with little to differentiate them. I was still enjoying the open countryside and the small hamlets that appeared on a regular basis but they didn’t have much excitement to offer. I stopped in Beaudricourt to snap this colourful French war memorial. There are better photos of similar such memorials on the pages for days 2 and 4 of this trip but I included it here as I don’t have many other photos to share with you during this part of the day.
Just through Beaudricourt I did get to take the following photo. After the previous 20 miles or thereabouts or being on the largely open and relatively flat plain, I finally had a proper descent into a valley ahead of me and with it an even better view of the immediate miles ahead.
I crossed the river La Canche close to Estrée-Wamin and began a nice gentle climb back up onto the next section of open plain and continued on through Houvin-Houvigneul, Moncheaux-les-Frévent and into Buneville where I had the brief excitement of taking a wrong turn at which I had to double back a short way before finding the correct road out of the village.
The slight undulations continued. Sains, Hautecloque, and Croisette. Excitement before entering Beauvois – a tractor shop! In Beauvois itself, a caged Mary!!
The excitement of the Mary of Beauvois was surpassed a few miles further on along the Rue de la Grotte on the edge of Humieres. For some unknown reason the locals at some time in the past took it upon themselves to build a mini replica of the shrine of Saint Bernadette at Lourdes. Benches laid out around the grotto indicate that it is still in regular use. It is a true piece of French eccentricity and I loved it. Indeed having also been to Lourdes which I found to be a horrible town primarily designed to part the poor and infirm from their weighty currency, I would much rather recommended a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Humieres.
At Eclimeux I stopped in another bus shelter in order to swap onto the next page of my maps. I could now see that the main aim of my day’s riding was only a few miles further on so tucked in to another bag of crisps to celebrate and avoid another sharper burst of rain.
Another drop down followed into the valley at Blangy-sur-Tenoise. I crossed over the river Ternoise and the railway. The state of the railway tracks suggested a disused line but some signs looked more up to date so I checked and indeed this is apparently a live and operational station. By the river I stopped to talk to some friendly looking cows and then started the climb (the biggest of the day; but by no means big) back onto the plain.
The Main Line
I missed the road I should have taken to head me into Maisoncelle but it was easy enough, despite heading the wrong day a one way road, to take the next turning instead. Here in Maisoncelle I saw the first signs to indicate that I was near to the old battlefield but I ignored them for now and pushed on to the next village, Azincourt itself.
The rain started heavier again as I rolled in so I rolled up the road and headed to the village museum. Again they were happy to look after my bags (even here in Azincourt they were apparently not overly concerned by the threat of this English terrorist). The museum is a superb curiosity and I spent a great half hour exploring its many nooks and crannies. It conveys some great information about the battle and the ‘age of chivalry’ with a fantastic mix of routine information panels, miniature figures, and soldiers with (broken) TVs in place of their heads. Go visit. You won’t be disappointed.
T.V. Headed Archer
The Age of Chivalry. Yesterday.
Agincourt in Miniature
The museum did also help me to properly get my bearings of the actual site of the battle which occurred here between the English and the French some 603 years previously. The village itself is towards the northern extent of the site and was where the French army were based prior to the battle. To find the English lines I had to head back the way I came to Maisoncelle at the southern extent of the site. In the South East corner a small monument and map give further clues to the layout of the battlefield (although no details are known for certain).
From here I continued along the road that marks the approximate eastern side of the battlefield towards Tramecourt and almost back into Azincourt again. On the road between those two villages a new memorial has been erected to mark the 600th anniversary of the battle. From here you get a better idea of the centre of the battle ground; the heaviest and most defining fighting was understood to have taken place here. I took some blurry wet photos (and yes I did take that selfie!) and then began the final few miles riding towards my overnight accomodation.
Agincourt 600 Year Memorial
Agincourt Battle Field
Yes – I did take that photo at Agincourt
My B&B for the evening was still another 7 or 8 miles further on. The going was, much like the rest of the day, easy enough but I naturally now had the fatigue creeping in; I had made it to Agincourt and explored the battle field. Now I was ready to start thinking about getting out of my sopping wet gear. At least Heuchin, where I was heading, was down in a valley so the final few miles were a nice easy drop into the village. I found the lovely Maison de Plumes at the far end of the settlement. I was rather disappointed to note that the village did not, however, appear to have the restaurant that my maps had hinted at. I knew that there was no food available at the B&B itself so had been hoping to find somewhere to eat in the village. Not to worry – I’d survive.
I rolled up and met Richard, the English owner of the establishment (along with his wife Vanessa, although I never got to meet her). Richard had been in the British Army but had now ‘retired’ (he s not much of any older than myself) to run the Maison du Plumes. Richard showed me where to lock my bike up and then took me inside the amazing old house. After the beige of the Ibis this was something quite different. The house is amazing and immaculately decorated. I almost felt a bit guilty bringing all of my wet gear and my stinking self into the lovely ‘Peacock’ room that was to be my chamber for the night; but Richard did not seem to worry. He didn’t have any drying facilities unfortunately but instead he provided me with a pile of newspaper to stuff into my soaking shoes and a tray on which to place them outside my room.
I ran a welcome hot and deep bath and whilst doing so unloaded and inspected the contents of my panniers. Everything was just slightly damp but not awful. All of my paperwork (hotel reservation info, ferry ticket, maps and euros) had got paper wet and I ended up covering every available surface with them in order to allow them to dry. I hung up as much of my clothing as I could, had a supper of the remains of my Lidl picnic (all praise the six pack of crisps) and then soaked in the tub and prepared for bed.