Monday, September 30, 2013

A Short Week in Long Melford

In early 2009 we were cycling on the South Island of New Zealand when we ran into Lin and Bernard cycling a similar route, but in reverse, on a tandem.  We chatted for quite a while comparing notes, trading advice, exchanging email addresses, and taking the photo on the right.  Sure enough, in the next three weeks we managed to get together with them four more times in four different locations.  They live in the Manchester area and have taken tandem trips around UK and occasionally on the continent on their own tandem, and urged us to come across the pond some time with our tandem.

We stayed in touch with an email or two per year, in case our paths should cross again.  Earlier this year when we decided to add a loop in East Anglia, we asked them if they were interested in doing any riding with us there.  We got back both an enthusiastic "Yes" and a suggestion that we rent what the Brits refer to as a "self-catering cottage" for a week.  Soon after, we had a reservation for a two-bedroom house in the small town of Long Melford, in a corner of Suffolk close to Norfolk and Essex counties.  It was a wonderful experience.

Long Melford was a good base, a reasonably typical town with its shops on High Street (the British equivalent of Main Sreet for us Americans) and footpaths along the edge of town.  One even had a new style of stile we hadn't seen before.

The area all around Long Melford was the richest part of England from the 1300s to the 1600s, thanks to the wool trade.  As prosperity then moved to the Midlands with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, East Anglia became something of a backwater, but one with towns left full of beautiful Tudor homes and shop buildings built during those glory days.  It's hard for us to say just when the tide turned, but East Anglia is once again wealthy, this time from tourism plus an influx of those who want to enjoy its rural charm and quaint villages full-time, as residents.  Thanks to careful zoning, it has succeeded in maintaining both.

As it turns out, it was also an area Lin and Bernard had rarely visited, and they were as eager to explore it as we were.  Since they and their tandem arrived by car, we had the option of driving to places we could explore on foot, as well as do loop rides by tandem from Long Melford.  We split our six days together into 3 of each.

One of our first destinations by bike was nearby Lavenham.  It is widely praised in guidebooks as the best of the old Wool Towns, yet there was not the least sign of tourist kitsch, no T-shirt and souvenir shops, no ice cream parlors.  No, just ancient and amazing buildings, many looking like classic Tudors, others in unexpected colors, many in outrageous angles.


Bernard had brought along a full set of Ordnance Survey maps, similar to American USGS topo maps but even better at designating low-traffic roads ideal for cycling.  Since they are topographic maps, they also helped us avoid the worst hills and anticipate the others.  On our three days of riding we explored the upper Stour valley made famous by the paintings of John Constable,

explored small towns like Clare with its 14th century Ancient House in the town (the plaster decoration, called "pargetting," was done in 1473), ruins of 13th century Castle Clare looming above the town, and a now-abandoned Victorian train station on the edge of town,

rested at the old Clare Priory torn down by Henry VIII in 1538 but reopened in 1953 by Augustinian monks,

managed to find a pair of fords (and to walk around both, since riding them is dangerous if they're slippery, as they often are),

and to stop from time to time just to admire a beautiful home, a handsome horse or a clever mailbox.

We stopped to poke into a remote country church in the small village of Edwardstone and were stunned to see a sign telling us that John Winthrop was born nearby, was baptised here, and was a parishioner until he left to become the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.  Louise's Cutter family ancestors joined Winthrop in Boston in 1640 and later moved only a dozen miles further out to Weston MA, where Louise was born.  With added interest, we explored the church, and found a trio of poignant memorials:  one each for the large number of men from this small place who seved in WW I (the "Great War") and WW II (the names of those who died in war are embossed in gold), and an ancient brass engraving to a couple who died twelve days apart and left a remarkable dozen children behind.  One of them, Benjamin jr., in fact, joined Winthrop on the trip to Boston.

By car we visited the Thomas Gainsborough home, now a museum devoted to his art.  The town had a statue of him, but no photos were allowed inside the museum.  He became wealthy as his generation's best portrait painter, but he preferred landscapes, the first British artist to do so.  Indeed, he exerted a strong influence on John Constable, who grew up 50 years later only 30 miles away.
But we mainly drove in order to reach starting points for interesting hikes, of which we had several.

Besides the usual delights of a late summer hike in the East Anglian countryside, there were a few out of the ordinary sights, such as a pile of used horseshoes behind a former farrier's shop, and a bunker built during WW II when there was concern the Germans might land on the coast 25 miles from here and advance up this peaceful valley.

Perhaps the most striking landmark we hiked to was the Chappel Viaduct, where Bernard posed for an intriguing portrait.  We hiked up to the north end of the viaduct where there is a station that doubles as a railroad museum and as an active stop on the line that brought us back to Lin and Bernard's car.

The week went by in a whiz.  As Lin and Bernard headed off  by car to the UK Tandem Rally on the opposite side of England, we retraced with our own tandem some routes from earlier in the week plus a few new ones as we made our way back to Harwich.  We had our second (and final) flat tire of the summer, and an amusing road obstruction.   The road crew somehow found a way to move aside and let us pass.

From Harwich we reboarded the Stena ferry to Holland.  We'll take you back to Amsterdam and to two of Europe's finest museums in our next blog entry.  Thanks for joining us, Lin and Bernard on our week in East Anglia.