Skegness (Wainfleet) to Wells Next The Sea
We stand and watch a woman at Grantham station.She’s giving her fat, black Labrador a drink of water from a Dog’s Bottle.There’s a big case by her side, on castors.Big enough for another dog. The Labrador running free mouths and carries his bottle once empty, and thinks for a moment about tossing it into the rail lines. He refrains.If there is a dog in the case, it’s sitting very quietly.Good dogs.
Two badger-shaped station operatives in red livery shuffle along to engage with Labrador Lady.Animated, then, as though someone threw a switch at Red Badger Control, they shuffle forward mid sentence to variously blow whistles and wave at things. Labrador Lady pats her dog, and boards the train.A fellow passenger, a well-built man, offers to lump her other cased dog on board, an oblivious accomplice.
We are hungry cyclists. We are ravenous old pals. We are eating The Wash this week in ever smaller bites.Today is our first chow-down, a greedy mouthful: Wainfleet, just west of Skegness, to somewhere east of Kings Lynn, where beds are being sheeted and pillows plumped even now, ready for our weary heads. Those beds are eighty or so miles away. We do not know how far we will roll.The Pal has made no reconnaissance.We are riding blindly, voraciously in.
The Pal is cycling the coast of Britain bit by bit.I’m his sidekick, his stand-in, when prettier companions are busy, or when the coast-bits are less pretty.Even at seventy years, I wont have cycled all the coast of Britain:I don’t care about completing an achievement; I have better things to do; i’m not a list-ticker, nor a pencil-lead licker.
A coastal trip round The Wash isn’t really that at all.We will see our first sea at elevenses on Day Two, over our first scone of the day.And it will be a glimpse in the distance.Only at Wells will shells and shingle jangle our bottom brackets.
Tickets were sought to take us all the way into Skegness today, so that we might revisit where we left off last time. But we’ve cranked from Skeggy to Wainfleet, and we’ve seen the morning drinkers, the heroin dealers, the rock shop cashiers once before at close quarters. And at dawn.These salty memories are precious; we worry tacitly that a return might tarnish them.
The Pal, in the train up, gave a running Palopaedia commentary with salient points about each station we puffed through (literally pre-Beeching clickety-clack pace on this line).So transfixed was I that I only jotted down one: Rauceby had a mental institute, now defunct. Apt.
The nearer we clack to coast the more we regress. As we escape off the edge of the land and away from normal, we laugh and talk and spear off and away from real for a time.The land still passes slowly; a lullaby.
I ride through Friskney to Anton’s Gowt and on into Boston by eleven.The Pal drags behind, lets me go, my freewheel and my momentum greasier than his. On a busy fen bridge targeted by thirty eight tonne tractor units, we map-check (this will happen A Lot) and decide to cut a letter N shape into the landscape, and favour this over the L shape of the main road. Our drawn-out N takes us into the interior and avoids the head-wind, for a time.Whatever the letter we make, we will land with the final serif at a scone.
On either side is the inside of the bottom of your fridge. We’re ahead of Easter and fields are being readied for onion sets, the stored-in-hangars scent of which can be had at every turn. Great tonnes of sets inside, in great wooden crates. Over that way plasticked hectares shroud something green, young and no doubt edible in time.What traffic there is, and it is scant in both directions on these C roads, amounts to: shiny farmers in shiny Hiluxes; scuffed farmhands in scuffed Pajeros; tractorists wielding mobile lettuce lifting lorries at full tilt, regardless of oncoming pedallists.
The people are elsewhere, retired and trussed up with their daily paper, their morning telly.The people are in from elsewhere, from round the back, from those grubby statics behind that spud shed. A dozen men, lined out to the horizon, haul on a vast net, pull that over the silty brown, to ward off some pest from some cash crop.Pigeons from broccoli.Among the nascent purple sprouts of the posh stuff, sky blue Portaloos list over every half a mile on their pallet.A piss-poor place, an Armageddon country scene of nothing, seen by two grown schoolboys, with nowhere to report to, where no-one who was there will report back to agree, and where, dear reader, you will not give one foreign fig about Death of Countryside.
For an hour we roll twelve miles.We shore ourselves up at the caff in Holbeach.Hot chocolated, marsh mellowed, and, inevitably sconed we push through teatime kiddies along High Street, they pulling mud bike wheelies and getting it wrong, they a congregation soon to pray at the Coop door by kicking street furniture and learning how to gob into a bin from distance. We, wheelers, watchers.
Before this rest, we burned a man riding a rigid mountain bike, towing a trailer,He was asking for it, being slightly ahead from a joining-point where two roads meet, and pressing on a little too hard for our liking. A cocksure greeting as a parting word troubled our competitive spirits.We reeled him in eventually with our grammar school peloton, burned him, left him standing, soon needed the shade of the caff and the restorative choc. His legs, somewhere, throbbed. Our four legs screamed for scones. Ridiculous, childish fun.
A woman passes across the street with a vast opaque bag filled by two vaster pink balloons. The Pal and I debate the age of the celebrant.Someone is fifty today? Or is that a two?Caffed old bags wander farting into the street from their fatty teas, their ages equally opaque.“It’s getting cold” as they totter the eight yards to their powder blue Prius, shoved into the Norfolk kerb.
At some other, forgotten village or transit point, on the sunny side of the road, a man bathes in only shorts outside his gymnasium.Boy does he look pleased with himself and his musculature. Other villagers pass, giving him unkind glances “Who does he think he is with his chest out in March?”
In the shadows not half a mile east, an elderly bundle of rags sways at the kerb edge like Houdini tightroping Niagara, blearily fixated on the cigarette dowp in the gutter. The old bundle holds a bundle-of-something - discarded shopping bags all rolled up, or a top coat maybe - and doesnt look up as we wheel on.This is Britain, in shade. Other villagers pass, but nobody looks, or tuts, or disapproves.
This is eighty-one miles of Britain. Along the edge of some more affluent village new-build, we see retired folk, gardening.A man stands over a woman, who crouches before him on a sett driveway.Cycling pace allows us to view this suburban, dismal diorama well enough to understand who is who, what is what.This is husband and wife, returned from the DIY superstore, in spring clean mode. Their annual pilgrimage to Decency has begun. She-who-must-be-his-wife, genuflecting, is brushing silver sand into the gaps between the blocks.He oversees, drags the bag for her.Somewhere, at the back of the garage, the god that is their power washer drips under a limp Saint George’s flag.
Here we straddle the boundary.Lincolnshire now.Norfolk now. Lincolnshire again. All the back doors are open in the unseasonably warm sun of early spring.This is Britain through the back door, by bike.
Lunch is not fancy, not local, but global.Our hearts want farm shop fodder and paper napery, but this place only offers The Coca Cola Corporation and Mars to our rescue at a shop.We prop the pushrods and watch three men, three brothers, paint their fence with new brown stain.All three paint the fence while a woman looks on from the front door.One man and wife and his two brothers, we think.A good day for getting paint on a fence. Family time.
A boy in an overall is bent elsewhere on the road, bent over a shallow post and rail fence skirting a car dealership in nowhere.He has a brush and a bucket of stain, and is applying the finishing touches.He is hoping to get an early finish, a flyer.
Earlier still, in the shadow of a pear tree, a father and son slap on a moss-colour concoction to limp larch lap.The two lurk under the shrubbery as we pass through some hamlet with chained-up dogs and chain link fencing.
Two other men wrestle with concrete fence posts.An upright and a panel between them, words are exchanged in the time it takes our wheels to turn a dozen yards.In time, someone some spring day with a fair wind and a brush, will give this new fence a coat of something to brighten it up, to give it a few years more. Cyclists will push past in the dust.
There are no hedges in North Norfolk.There are no trees.No people work the land.There is sea but unseen, so no sea to speak of.The sea was here once, above our heads, but ditch and pump and gowt pushed it back.This is seabed sightseeing.
Beyond Wisbeach, a fenced yard. Another fenced yard.A non-place by the A47, here is a static caravan graveyard cut into the corner of a field. And here a giant rusting hull for sale.It is a bone-yard.Everywhere overspray and weedlessness.
What do we learn along our route today?We already knew we can do the miles, even on these old legs.We already knew we can ripple along at a nice pace without talking much, and without much entertainment.We have already gathered that we wont meet many other people today, out on this limb.
One cyclist appears.He is a black speck now.He has a tail wind, and is making up the mile between us at a pace we cannot match.We are bowed, but travelling light.The shape he makes suggests he has been on the road a while, or intends to be there for a time.Four panniers, a bar bag.He is fully laden.He approaches, perhaps from a ferry, from afar. Two corners, much headwind, and our gap narrows.He cranks closer.We crank, one ahead, one behind, in tight formation.His hands slip to the brake hoods to draw to a halt as our paths cross.He has word from ahead.He wants friends.He hasn’t seen another cyclist since Lowestoft.We ride on, giving two imperceptible nods, eyes front, jabbing our beaks into the breeze.
Norte Dame is ablaze as we zone in on Kings Lynn, but we are all oblivious.
Kings Lynn is always there, a white tower.We don’t know but suspect a power station.We cross and recross fens and dikes that all look alike.The white tower shifts left and right in our field of view.Steadily it reels us in.We are fish, hooked.And at once, in cooling evening air, we are under and alongside, bowling along tarmac by a wide navigation to the docks; we flounder to the town’s south side, flop in front of our hotel fodder to a lonely Mowtown soundtrack.
The rotund travelling salesperson’s snore; the woken neighbour in the corridor banging on the snorer’s door; the cheeseboard; the thought there might be IT training in the conference room in the morning: a recipe for insomnia.
As if fired from a toast-fuelled gun we escape into our second day bound for Wells, via Holkham.Five minutes’ pedalling east and the land is changed: pony paddocks; hedgerows; wattle hurdle fenced country retreats with electric gates.
Were a fence to need paint in this parish, it’s owner would not be holding the brush.
Trapped further east between these green folds rolling to the sea and the Sandringham estate, sausage and mash territory.Sand land, all to the north of our trackway is pig country.Weaners abound, filling the ozone with a porky dust.Sand land all to the south of our trackway as far as we can see, potatoes, rowed up with GPS precision.We dream we can smell onion gravy.
Climbing into Sandringham here is not a shrub out of place: depressingly anodyne.The woodman inside me howls at how little life is left even in the wood. But then I’m a republican.I would say that wouldn’t I. All the feet gained are lost in the drop past the giant sawmill, all Union flags ablaze.This is Britain.Here a queen resides. We take double care with each passing Range Rover, for fear one’s consort might mistake us for quarry.Police skirt the villages in four by fours.
At Burnham Market.A cyclist on tour visits: a chemist, for headache tablets, thinking idly about but rejecting sunscreen for his lobster neb; a post office, to send postcards and buy cooling Twister lollies.A cyclist on tour does not: engage with the motorised tourists, or even catch their eye (we are a superior breed, a Health and Efficiency front cover pair); stop anywhere long - we are cycling, with special shoes, and walking or even standing is not de rigeur.
At Burnham Market we opine on bikes with a kind, well-heeled woman on a folder, who rides her old Dad’s Colnago round the roads,, she tells us.Later, out on the road, we burn slowly and respectfully past her on a downhill, with cheery good wishes.She will turn down some farm drive soon, back to her life.Bikes aren’t all alike, but riders out in the free share an understanding, a comraderie.We swapped tribal words - randonneur, 650b -we knew and felt better about ourselves.
The old queen wasn’t around at the last country pile, and nor did Tom Coke, eighth Earl of Leicester, welcome us at Holkham Hall with open arms.The national cycle route for these parts runs straight through his front lawn, poor chap.All 25,000 acres of it. Clouds of evergreen oaks.The obligatory lime avenue.A needle a la Cleopatra.Oh, and the biggest Palladian mansion from the eighteenth century you’ve ever seen.On a lake.All through a menacing, coronetted gate with intercom and polite signage.
Feeling sorry for T. Coke Esquire’s obvious pecuniary plight we join hoi polloi in the stable courtyard, to trough with a merry band of windbags , barking dogs and Henriettas.A decent oaty nosebag and a bucket of tea.
We wonder how Old Coke pronounces his name, and plump for cook, as in cook.But we don’t know.We are old now, and used to know everything about anything we were asked, so long as it was our field.Now, we know next to nothing.I crave a Pears Cyclopaedia, and determine to put it on my birthday list.
Trotting off with a whip to our withers and a fairish wind, we are sea-bound at last.Our all-road tyres make fast work of the dune path, where Corsican pines shelter us from a blowy onshore.And we are in Wells Next Sea, eating ice cream, dripping with monkey juice (strawberry sauce - if only NASA could have had this recipe; tiles would have never lifted from a space shuttle at re-entry) - scouring the harbour for all we are worth, drinking in the holidayers wandering and the rock shop moochers mooching and the crab boats docking.We bemoan the size of the modern chocolate flake, but caw like crows at the creaminess of the Norfolk whipped ice cream.
I confuse where we are with Sheringham, and believe there to be a steam railway here.We poke and prod up every alley, and talk to locals.Oh, yes, out on the Cromer Road.On the Cromer Road we don’t find the North Norfolk Railway.We find a tiny line plying up and down to Walsingham, all plywood and Hammerite and volunteer hours. There, ahead, the last “train” of the day is just leaving.And the girl with the key to the scones and the urn is packing her chairs away. Her facial expression suggests she may never return. Still, she proffers a leaflet.
We canter to on Little Walsingham, to pray for good beer, food, sleep at the Black Lion.We meet no other cars.We do meet Teddy Murks, and behind at some way off, Mrs Murks.Teddy is in full Raleigh Banana racing attire, right down to the five panel cycle cap, peak up naturally.Teddy has found a gear and he’s sticking with it all the way to the coast.Old Ma Murks acts as sweeper and soigneur.The basket of her Elswick Hopper is rammed with tea things, and no doubt a red lantern for when day becomes night.
The Pal arrives somewhat behind, pleased with himself that he rode The Route As Intended, and not the route as seemed obvious.Apparently one of us missed a ford, and Great Walsingham.Pity.
Beer is had out front.Steeds are hosed and watered with others’ mounts in the cycle stables out back.Where we are choppers, slowly ingesting the view over thick chain oil, two specialised fellow guests feather in on a gust, all dry bags and cinched straps and sawn-off toothbrush handles and lithium powdered chains.Their carbon machines - matte paint and drab black componentry -reflect no sun but seem to soak in and cool down the air about them, and absorb any residual personality their owners ever possessed.
We see these two later, and at breakfast. Remarkably, given the one bag slung under one saddle, they are both in full denim, with sun hats and sandals.Must’ve posted on some gear for the night via DPD.No way they folded all that into a large baguette.All we know: they are Norwich bound, like us; they had chain troubles half way here (perhaps meaning they would’ve made it for lunch had not the Fates intervened). We sit askew from the pair at our morning table.Between and above us, sawn lengthways, a tandem, welded to the wall as quaint art.So bound together, so divided.Not all in the tribe speak a common language.
Norwich is a mystery.Do they still make the mustard there? Why make mustard in Norwich? Is mustard seed grown in Norfolk or does it come from India in a container ship? Is the river navigable to the factory? What do they call the river? My breakfast sausage would’ve benefitted from mustard.I daydream about meeting Delia Smith on a yellow bike.How the mind expands on the open bridleway.How I need a Pears Cyclopaedia.
In Fakenham, I had to joke about scones.Makin’. Bakin’. I had to. We didn’t speak for a while. In a whisper we did Houghton Saint Giles, East Barsham, Pudding Norton, Great Ryburgh and Themelthorpe.Pudding Norton wasn’t pun proof, but I kept shtum.Twenty miles of England.Nothing to report.It goes by.It exists.We flit through it.
Reepham’s old station doles out sandwiches.She’s not buttered any bread in advance of the crowd, brought out by the sun and the school holiday.Cheese sits ungrated. She’s flustered, and we wait and wait.There’s that sad moment when your tea mug is almost half empty and you’re food still isn’t there, and you don’t know what to do.Do I hang out for the sandwich coming now, or wait with the tea going cold?Or do I drink the tea and buy more tea when the sarnie comes?Did I want two teas with one sandwich, and will there be cake? Somewhere, fleet of foot and still in the saddle, our breakfast companions rip the top off a gel apiece with their burnished incisors and press on.
Again we dance and shuffle through wood and glade and open field.Old rail lines jut and end and begin again, and cross, and disappear.Felled Scots pines have gone, but the warm air rises tothe bank and draws up the scent of crushed branchwood, where some forwarder has crawled.Here we are always over the view, as our railway line bridleway banks and raises.This is marsh land, drained, and now we fly along, a wrong-way migration to the train, to the end of the line.
In this green belt we see so little beyond six yards left or right.A gap appears at a bridge, and there is the river, the Wensum.Only at the map days later do I see we skimmed past Morton on the Hill.And Drayton.
Only at the desk days later did I know we found the cathedral through the Erpingham Gate, and left those quiet quarters through the Ethelbert Gate, over the shiniest cobbles I have ever seen.
From the Middle Ages to the present day.
To the station, to a cancelled train, to delay, to overpriced beer, to reflection.
We part ways at York station, the Pal and I.We turn down our tracks to our lives, to our black dogs with their wagging tails.Somewhere, a man licks a pencil lead and sticks more dots to a map.