The Times made the claim that the ride from Orford to Southwold is Britain’s most beautiful, and so, after a long time thinking about whether it would be worth it, we took a bank holiday trip down to Suffolk with a couple of bikes. Was it worth it?
Short answer: no.
Partly this is because I was unable to follow the route suggested by the Times (they don’t really give precise enough directions, for a start). Mine is a road bike with skinny tyres, and the route taken by the Times journalist and his friend was along bridleways and other rough paths, for which you need a hybrid at the least and probably something with chunky tyres. I won’t have one of those heavyweight things in the house. I find it hard enough to carry my own weight, thanks, let alone a suspension and unnecessarily fat rubber.
So my problem was in plotting a route suitable for me on a road bike whilst still avoiding the busy roads on a bank holiday Monday.
It wasn’t easy. I had four (count ’em) apps on my phone that offered various routing options. None of them seemed ideal. Google tried to get me to take a ferry. I didn’t want to do that. My main sat nav (Co-Pilot Live) spent too much time on main roads. Apple Maps doesn’t even offer cycling options, and Bike Hub – a dedicated cycle route app – offered all kinds of mixed up confusion.
The thing about Bike Hub is, it has a lot of open source mapping and cycling routes, and it even offers four different styles of routing, but you have to download the map tiles in advance – especially before going to signal-free Suffolk. I had downloaded some map tiles, but the app is so awkward to use (the interface telling you to select which bit of the map you want gets in the way of the bit of the map you want – and you can’t dismiss it) that I actually ran out of tiles before I’d reached my destination.
That said, Bike Hub works all right, with an irritating robotic voice (American accent – why?) giving you very precise instructions. It was all very reassuring, until we ran out of map tiles. And then we just got a fixed overview screen which stopped updating.
But I ended up confused. The area has a number of official cycling routes (Regional Routes 41 and 42, for example), but these don’t really go where you want to go. And the route used by The Times was nothing like, I don’t think. I didn’t get lost, but Bike Hub did end up routing me up a farm track and over grassy hills with a view of Sizewell, before plunging us through an RSPB reserve in woodland, complete with rough sandy paths, none of which were suitable for a road bike. By this time, too, the map tiles had run out and we were navigating by irritating robot voice alone, which (thank goodness) eventually took us onto the road into Dunwich.
We rode two shifts. Daughter #2 did the first 17 miles, from Orford to Dunwich. It was pleasant enough, with just about 500 metres spent on busy main roads, and just one fuckwit in an Audi coming at us round a bend on a single track road as if there would never be anything coming the other way. Audi drivers are too busy stroking their cocks to hold the steering wheel as well.
This part of the trip went well, apart from the last couple of miles off the tarmac. After fish and chips at Dunwich, daughter #1 took over for the last bit to Southwold. This was less fun. It was hillier, windier, and there was more traffic. Nothing too scary, apart from the obligatory Audi driver who decided he couldn’t wait to overtake us, in spite of the presence of oncoming traffic on a narrow road. Honestly, the risks some people are willing to take rather than wait, what, ten seconds? Boggles the mind.
By this time, my phone battery was flat, so I had to use my inner sense of direction to get off the busy main road and take a back road which led to the narrow lane (not suitable for motors) that takes you to a footbridge into Southwold.
Most beautiful ride? In the sense that the roads were nice and flat and it was a pleasant, sunny day, maybe. The condition of the roads in Suffolk is miles better than Buckinghamshire. But I was a long way from the bridleways and byways used by the Times, so no. And, believe me, nothing is going to be so beautiful that it’s worth the 6-hour round trip.
And there’s the rub. Cycling is fantastic, but driving for hours with your bike on top of the car in order to ride a particular bit of countryside is complete madness. So I won’t do it again. Sure, I’m taking the bike to France this summer holiday, but that’s something different. I’ll still be based in one location and riding out from there, not driving somewhere in order to ride a bit then drive back.
The fish & chips at Dunwich were great, by the way, though not necessarily the best that the area had to offer. But Dunwich coincided nicely with about lunchtime. As for Southwold, well, it was breezy and the sea was brown.
Final word: there’s a gap in the market for a really decent bike-dedicated sat nav that takes account of both hills, less travelled routes, and the differences between skinny and fat tyres. Oh, and motorists: if you’re not actually pedalling your car, you can afford to slow down and/or wait a few seconds.