Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Biking in East Anglia

As explained also in an earlier blog entry, an American who enters the Schengen Zone may spend only 90 out of the next 180 days there.  Most of the EU is in the Schengen Zone, but luckily not the UK, so we headed there in late July to stop the Schengen clock for 19 days.
Our room on the Stena ferry was "cosy," as in "tiny as a postage stamp but comfortable if you didn't swing your arms too wide."  Plus we were going to British time, meaning we gained an hour.  We headed upstairs to enjoy a full moon and the last views of Holland to the east, then beaches and dunes stretching endlessly off to the north at the mouth of the Rhine, and finally sunset.  England was now just 6 1/2 hours beyond the end of that lengthy jetty.

When the loudspeaker in our stateroom woke us from sound sleep at 5:30 am, however, it didn't feel like we had crossed the Channel or "gained" a minute, let alone an hour.  When your optic nerve transmits "5:30" to your brain, no other part of that organ is strong enough to say it "feels" like anything other than "Hey, this is waaaay too early to function!"

But function we did, sort of, and 75 minutes later we rode off the ferry and through British customs onto our first British road.  "Dang" (or something like that), our rear view mirrors are on the wrong side!  Louise's is designed to be left-side or right-side, but not Jeff's, so we stopped to move hers and jerry-rig his to give him a view back, kind of sort of, but only if he leaned just so, and didn't expect to see back more than fifty feet.  Like the little engine that went down the track saying "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can," Jeff steered down the road saying his own mantra quietly to himself: "you're in bloody Britain, bike on the left; you're in bloody Britain, bike on the left; you're in bloody Britain, bike on the left."   We explored the harbor town of Harwich, tracked down an ATM and armed ourselves with some British pounds, then headed west toward Dedham, our first destination.

We had a mostly quiet route Jeff had found mapped out on the Internet, but there were a few stretches of a mile here, two miles there on busier roads.  Narrow busy roads, with Jeff busy reciting his verses and counting down the tenths of a mile on the bike computer, waiting 'til we came to a turn into one of those quiet roads.  Then, "oh, no!" from Louise followed by a plastic-y bouncing sound.  "Stop, the mirror fell off!" 

We pulled left to the edge of the road and looked back at a line of five cars that had been trailing us, and at our mirror in the middle of the lane.  A car straddled it.  Whew.  Another.  Whew again.  A third.  Yeah, there's hope!  Nope.  Number four nailed it with his left tires, thinking he was doing a good thing by passing us with extra room.  Number five completed the flattening.  Memo to selves: search for "bike shop" along our route on  Google Maps tonight.

Somehow we survived and were rewarded a few miles out of Dedham with our first grand view of "Constable Country."  Across the valley is East Bergholt, where John Constable grew up, and on the left (just right of the large tree) you can see the square tower of Dedham Church, which appears in a dozen or more of his paintings. After a nice coast downhill, we found ourselves in town and in front of that very church, then soon after in our 16th century lodging for three nights, Dedham Hall, built in the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth.


Having been spoiled for 6 weeks by Holland's and Belgium's fabulous bike infrastructure, we had a hard adjustment to England's narrow roads and almost total absence of bike paths or even bike lanes.  But in the next two days we began to see that England is as far ahead in walking facilities as the Low Countries are in biking.  From Dedham Hall we could walk straight down paths that were public ways even before that manor house was built, and have remained so ever since.  Here are just a few of the paths that we walked, the first of many that we discovered criss-crossing every village we visited in East Anglia.  Most had either stiles or gates to keep the cows or sheep where they belonged while letting people pass through, while others went right through fields of crops (rutabagas, we think).


One of these walks brought us to East Bergholt, where John Constable was born down the street from this ancient church, and to Flatford Mill where Constable's father ran a mill. 

The buildings and scenery all around the mill are the setting for some of Constable's most famous paintings, and an exhibit by the National Trust, which now owns several acres and most of the buildings here, helped us find and photograph where some of these were painted, such as Boatbuilding from 1814,

Scene on a Navigable River in 1817,

The White Horse in 1819,

The Hay Wain in 1821,

and View on the Stour in 1822.  The bridge is new -- wooden bridges rarely last 200 years -- and some trees have grown up to the left, but even in Constable's day the view in the painting was not what the eye would have perceived there.  The church was further to the left, out of view, and rather small as it is four miles away (we had to use the telephoto lens aimed 30 degrees to the left to find it from a nearby viewpoint), so Constable moved it, as it were, some two miles to where he preferred it were located.  He also thought that Willy Lott's roof was too long in The Hay Wain, and you might have noticed above that he shortened it up a bit.  Imagine that, all this without Photo Shop!

After two days of walking we hopped on the bike again.  Louise suggested a new way of remounting Jeff's rear view mirror which worked better, and at lunch time we found a bike shop where we were able to get Louise a new mirror.  These made us feel a bit safer, plus provided a visual reminder to us to bike on the left side of the road, since the mirrors were now on the right side looking back at cars about to pass us.

About a fourth of the way on this 43-mile day we reached National Bike Route 1, and followed it for the next two days.  This is one of a few dozen cycling routes that have been mapped out to string together low-traffic routes around the country.  Once we got the hang of it plus some good maps, these made the biking better, and route-finding much simpler, since we now had a bright blue icon to search for on direction signs at intersections.  Nonetheless, we were still on narrow roads, just ones with very light traffic on them.

A short digression:  Henry VIII named his son Edward VI as his successor, with Henry's daughters Mary and Elizabeth as next in line if Edward didn't produce an heir.  As Edward lay dying, heirless, he tried to change things about and named Lady Jane Grey, a more distant Tudor relative, as the next queen.  Mary thought otherwise, and gathered troops at Framlingham Castle, prepared to fight her way to London to claim her throne.  Parliament knew how to count soldiers, and threw its support to Mary.  Framlingham Castle is still there, but that moment in 1553 was its high point and its last moment of military significance.  From the outside or from atop its ramparts, it's an imposing sight with impressive views.


The castle had a helpful sketch showing what it might have looked like in the 1200s.  By the 1700s the church (to the right) and manor house (to the left) had been dismantled, leaving just a few tell-tale marks on the castle wall that they had once been there.  Meanwhile a self-made tycoon bought the place and provided funds for a poor house to be constructed within the castle, with provisions that youngsters living there be provided with useful trade skills.  Historians think that handsome carvings over the doors and windows of the poorhouse were recycled from the former manor house.



We spent a few wonderful hours exploring Framlingham Castle and learning how theses seemingly solid structures constantly changed with the times.  Before leaving we saw one of the newer innovations there, Boot Camp Day for kids, where a gruff sergeant shouted out encouragements like "move along, my granny can do that faster than you're doing it!"  The kids seemed to love it.

As we left some congestion around Ipswich, National Bike Route 1 did an increasingly good job of putting us on quiet back roads.  At one point it directed us down what appeared to be a cul de sac, where there was a private railway crossing just for pedestrians and bikes.  We Stopped, Looked and Listened, and by golly we Heard and Saw!  A train whooshed into view with remarkably little warning, swooped by at 50 mph and swiftly disappeared round a bend in the tracks.

In Norwich we visited the first of two great cathedrals.  We joined a tour and were astonished to discover that this enormous church was not open to the townspeople of Norwich for centuries, as it was built just for the use of the attached monastery.  The first two photos are from, and in, the large cloister attached to the south side of the cathedral, where monks once walked about, reciting their daily prayers.

 Today the church is famous not only for its size and beauty, but also for little ceiling decorations called "bosses" which range from a depiction of Jesus with a soldier holding the nails he will be crucified with to a monkish musical group, then from a thief getting caught stealing a woman's laundry to some sort of medieval monster.  There are over a hundred of these, so go check them out yourselves some day and pick out your favorites.

We had booked three nights in Wroxham in an area known as The Broads, famous for tidal rivers with broad sections in former peat bogs.  Alas, it was quite windy both days we had planned for canoeing or biking, so instead we took a train each day 30 minutes north to Sheringham, on the Norfolk coast.  Good call, as the info center provided us with a detailed map that led us both days on some great walks.


Two days earlier we had photographed this stunning flint house in Beccles.  Flint must be quite abundant in these parts, as we saw many homes throughout East Anglia made from it, but none as stunning as this one.  It was made with cut flint, in this case almost perfect hemispheres with the flat surfaces facing outward.  A similar style we encountered was with cut flint, but with irregularly cut surfaces facing outward.

That same earlier day we had also biked past the ruins of a church from Norman times that illustrated the third and most common style we saw, entire structures made of uncut round flint stones held together with a minimum of cement.


Now, on our walk through the village of Upper Sheringham, it wasn't just an entire house, but rather an entire village made of flint:  dozens and dozens of homes, shops, even the town church and a pool that served as the town reservoir until the mid-19th century, everything made of flint, with just a touch of brick at the corners.

Our two walks from Sheringham also took us down paths tucked between hedge rows, past a country manor once owned by the local gentry, and on to sweeping vistas.  A steam train chugged by, full of tourists, a windmill out their right-hand windows.  We walked a mile further to one of the steam train's railway stations and its much needed WC, which was decorated with old train posters.

Then it was down to the sea coast, quite pebbly and rocky except where the waves landed all day, pulverizing these into fine sand.  Since it was close to high tide, there wasn't much sand to be seen.

The second day we started with a cliff walk high above the beach, then headed inland past a monastery closed down by King Henry VIII in 1538, along with almost every other monastery and convent in the land as Henry tried to rein in the power of the Church -- and raise a bit of cash by selling off what he seized.  As also occurred virtually everywhere in England, the church was torn down to be sure the monks had nothing to come back to, should they have a mind to defy the king.  The ruins were certainly atmospheric, and gave us a good chance to show you the flint construction up close.

Our next stop was at Gressenhall Museum of Norfolk Life, housed in an actual Victorian workhouse, 1 of only 3 left in England.  The concept was to provide the destitute with enough to live on, but just barely, so that no one would be tempted to stay for long.  You'd think this menu would do the trick of getting folks out the door, but given their minimal skills and the ruthless capitalism of the times, some had no choice but to stay there for years, men on one side of that wall in one dormitory, women on the other in another, visits once a week on Sunday afternoon, kids in dormitory rooms of their own.  One young visitor modeled the workhouse attire for us. 

To maximize occupancy in the dormitories, they installed these trapezoidal beds.  To keep idle hands from doing the devil's business, they provided work, such as in the laundry with these washers and drying racks.  It was all quite Dickensian.

Our next two nights were at the Ostrich Inn in Castle Acre, a pub that boasts that Oliver Cromwell's grandmum used to come in for a pint and perhaps advice on how to turn young Ollie into a regicidal religious extremist.  Seems like she succeeded.  We tried a pint and it only turned us into mellower versions of ourselves.  Maybe we needed a few more.  When we went to the toilet each night, it felt like we had to go uphill in our room to get there.  No, it wasn't that fine beer, it was the sign of a good Tudor inn.  Hey, you'd sag just as much as our public house if you were as old as this place!

Castle Acre was our favorite town in East Anglia, partly for the good food and charm of the Ostrich Inn, but mainly because it had not one, nor two, but three ancient sites, along with being an attractive little town.

Right in the center of town is an old entrance to the town, known as the Bailey Gate.

Two blocks away is what's left of the castle, already in ruins in the 1300s.  A sign shows it in better days.  The moats are quite dry these days, full of wildflowers.  The third photo looks down on the lower part of the castle from a point in front of the manor house in the upper area.

The real jewel of Castle Acre, however is the Priory, the best-preserved Cluniac monastery in England.  The Cluniacs were sort of the Lexus brand of monasteries, renowned for their elegance and style.  Just check out that Reredorter!  They somehow found a letter written home to mom and dad by a young monk, who just gushed about how they didn't have a hole in the ground, his monastery had this wonderful two story building, and when you went the water just washed it all away!  They haven't yet come across any letters from the folks living downstream.  Oh, did we mention, this place once had 35 well-fed monks living here?

But we digress.  The front facade is still mostly standing, thanks to the fact that it attaches to the chief abbot's residence, which was rented out as a farmer's residence after the fall of the monastery.  Climb up to the second floor and you can see that the chief abbot had pretty nice digs. Go through the main entrance to the church and look back at the tower -- you can still see a narrow passageway on the third floor.  Wander around back and still more fanciful piles of stones are the skeletons of the chapter house, the dormitory, the refectory and so on.

We had noticed in Castle Acre that there was a nearby river, the Nar.  We saw on our map that we were going through a place called "Narford."  Sounds like Stanford, Milford, or a thousand other towns and cities in the U.S.  Ah, but we weren't in the U.S., and it wasn't until saw Narford that a little light turned on, as it were, over our heads.  Oh, THAT kind of "ford!"  Thank goodness for the little bridge.

By this time we were off the National Bike Routes, but we had learned how to interpret British maps to find quiet country roads.  We found both direct and circumstantial evidence that we were not the only non-motorized users of these roads.  Many were indeed sheltered by thick hedgerows, quite helpful when the wind got ornery.  But we also were rewarded with vistas from time to time.  We had heard before coming here that East Anglia was great for biking because it was the flattest part of England.  That may well be a true statement, but we were frequently reminded by the land itself that it is a relative comparison.  East Anglia is decidedly not flat.

En route to Ely we planned to visit one of England's stately homes now open to tourists, when we chanced upon one that is clearly still private.  Hmmm, didn't Darcy from Pride and Prejudice have a place up in Norfolk, where we now were?  There was no mailbox with a name on it to say otherwise.  In due time we got to our true destination, Oxburgh Hall in the town of Oxborough, and it was a stately home indeed.  A stately moated home, in fact, with a rather imposing entrance across that moat through the tower and into the inner courtyard.

The National Trust now owns it, having just barely saved it from being torn down to create tract housing.  The Bedingfied family still have the right to stay there in one section of this rather large place, which their ancestors moved into in 1582.

In exchange for a few pounds sterling we got to poke about the place, see the sort of stuff the British nobility tended to accumulate over the centuries, and to walk through one room that made us think that Lord Grantham and Lady Mary might walk in at any moment to try some of that pot of tea and plate of crumpets.

 The upper part of the house was interesting both for the views and for the king's and queen's rooms.  Yes, they did have a Royal stay here once, but we seem to have forgotten which one.  The king's room is the one with all the sharp, pointy things decorating it, of course.

The most remarkable feature of the house, however, is the "priest's hole."  The Bedingfields never gave up their Catholic faith when England became a Protestant country, and being a Catholic priest there see-sawed between being a deportable offense and a capital one.  Several dozen noble families around England like the Bedingfields shielded Catholic priests, but even they could not openly defy the law so they evaded it by having secret places the priest could hide in when the law came by for a spot of tea and an unannounced inspection.  This one was in the back of a closet, and is apparently one of the best priest holes to survive and be open to the public.  Thanks to their Catholic connections, the Bedingfieds also came into possession of some very fine needlework done by Queen Elizabeth's feisty Catholic challenger, Mary Queen of Scots, during Mary's long captivity.

From crypto-Catholicism we moved on to soaring Anglicanism as we visited a second great cathedral, Ely.  Its finest feature is the Octagon, a domed structure built in 1532 over the crossing, i.e. the place where the long E-W axis of the church intersects the shorter N-S arms.  But Ely had many smaller charms, like these stone carvings where monks once entered the church from their attached cloister.

It was now our twelfth day of cycling in England.  We did a mile or two on a dike path near Ely, then headed back into the rolling hills through Suffolk past a charming country house.  We reached the town of Long Melford about 4 p.m.  Waiting for us in a rented cottage were Lin and Bernard, a British tandem couple we met in 2009 in New Zealand.  We'll tell you about our week with them, exploring this corner of Suffolk on foot and on tandems, in our next blog entry.