The Dunwich Dynamo

Cycled: The Dunwich Dynamo

Distance: 130 miles (from Dulwich)

Date: 13-14 July 2019

There’s an overnight bike ride that has an almost mystical status for England’s cyclists. I say ‘almost’ because while it’s far from a myth (thousands of us have ridden it, some people each and every year), the ride itself has a dreamlike quality, brought on, in part, by mass sleep deprivation.

The Dunwich Dynamo starts from London Fields Park in the London Borough of Hackney, and finishes some 120 miles later on the foreshore of Dunwich, a tiny hamlet of a place with a pebble beach and a great history as a major trading centre a mere 500-1,000 years ago (most evidence of the buildings from that era have long-since been reclaimed by the North Sea). It always takes place on the full moon weekend in July, with the ride starting gradually at around 8pm, groups of cyclists pouring out of the park and into the streets of east London, heading out into the country lanes of Essex via Epping Forest before (in my case, at around 2am in the morning) reaching the 60 mile half way point at the Suffolk border, in Sudbury.

The organisers of the ride describe it as being unsupported. In a fundamental way, it is: if something goes wrong with your bike, if you realise you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, or if you pick up an injury, that’s your problem. But in spirit, it’s far from unsupported. The occasional passing motorist with a pathological hatred of two-wheeled, person-powered transport occasionally shares an erudite commentary relating to certain parts of our bodies, or what we might like to do with them. But overall, it feels like the ride gets a lot of love and support from the communities it rides through. There were always locals in the Essex villages waiting outside their houses to cheer you on, kids in pyjamas, adults with a glass of booze in hand, clapping and whooping as their personal annual version of the Tour de France rides past their front doors. The pubs on the route do a thriving trade (mine was a lemonade, if you’re wondering). And now there are a host of ‘pop ups’ as well – people selling energy gels (ugh) or cake (now you’re talking) from the roadside.

Around midnight, things get quieter. The riders are focused, thinking of the hours left to ride, the miles still to cover. The locals have gone to bed for the night, and you’re left with the glow of the moon (it’s position shifting as you navigate the twisting country lanes), the front light from your bike revealing the road ahead, and the flicker of the red taillights of riders up ahead reassuring you that you’re either going in the right direction or that you won’t be lonely if you’re lost. An occasional bat flys past. This year there was huge fire (it turned out to be hay bales), close to Essex’s border with Suffolk, that lit up the sky.

The hours between 2am and 4pm were the hardest for me. I was wide awake mentally, but after 70 miles of riding I was tiring physically and longing for dawn. The day came gradually, the dark of the night giving way to a bruised purple then pinks of mauve, pink and grey. By the time I reached the 82 mile point at Needham Lake (a much needed toilet and food stop), morning had truly broken, and it made for a beautiful final 38 miles or so through a countryside empty of people at that early hour but full to bursting with corn, lavender, picture-postcard pretty villages… and even a peacock.

The last 10 miles were a blast, spirits high and my speed increasing as a restorative dip in the North Sea beckoned. I arrived (as I has ridden through the night) with my friend Alex, him on his beautiful vintage 80s racer, me on my Pashley Britannia, a bright red, five gear, 18kg bike with a wicker basket that I’d ridden through the night wearing a dress and sandals, just for the sheer hell of demonstrating what Alex described as ‘the art of the possible’. We got in at around 8.20am, around 12 hours after we’d left Hackney and celebrated with beer (remember, it was the end of a very long night) and a swim in the icy water that bordered on bliss.

Dunwich Dynamo is not a race, despite the predominance these days of lightweight racing bikes and team cycling jerseys. It’s not an endurance event, although a number of people find the energy to turn around and cycle back to London again. And it’s most definitely not a charity ride, although some people do raise funds while doing it. What it is, quite simply, is blast. A totally mad, bewitching experience that celebrates summer nights and the beauty of cycling. It’s the fourth time I’ve done it, and I have no intention for it to be the last. Although I may leave my Pashley at home next time!

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Dorset / Wiltshire Borders

Date: 15 & 16 June 2019

Walked: 17 miles

My walks are increasingly long-distance, solitary affairs; I meet people along the way but often head off alone, eating up the miles in a quasi-meditative state.

Not this weekend – this was all about walking adventures at a different pace, where time (well spent) was all about reconnecting with friends. Our group of seven hired a lovely cottage on the Dorset / Wiltshire border for a weekend of catching up over walks, food, drink and – unplanned bonuses – giant Jenga and an enticing trampoline in the garden. Turns out (in the case of the latter activity) that I have quite a talent for landing on my arse but springing immediately to my feet again. And then repeating the move infinitum… art imitating life, etc, etc…

We strolled out on both days from the cottage, and took ourselves off on explorations of the nearby footpaths via routes planned off-the-cuff and on our mapping apps. That meant a few very overgrown footpaths, where, on the Saturday, the wet vegetation transformed walking trousers into sodden conduits perfect for dripping water directly into what would otherwise have been dry walking boots. But it also led to turning a hedge-rowed corner to encounter the biggest field of poppies I’ve ever seen, some fine views, and overheard conversations about the proximity of Guy Richie’s house to one quintessentially English village pub we stopped at for a restorative drink.

I wouldn’t normally blog about such a lovely weekend with friends – it doesn’t really feel challenging enough to warrant a post. But the field of poppies was so spectacular, the red so vivid, that I had to share some photos. And I learnt (or perhaps remembered) that hikes don’t have to be hardcore to be worthwhile.

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The Wealdway

(Image: Camping at Hale Farm, Chiddingly)

Walk: The Wealdway

Dates: 24-27 May 2019

Distance: 80 miles

Slept: Gate House Wood Touring Park (12 miles) / Camp Manor Court Farm (37 miles) / Hales Farm (60 miles)

Planning: OS map app / RambleFest.com

(Image: the approach to Camp Hill, East Sussex)

Gravesend has some good ‘bones’; you can tell from many of the buildings in the older part of town (which also houses the grave of Pocahontas, whose young life ended here), but the first two miles or so through and out of town, on my countryside amble from the Thames Estuary to the South Coast, did not make for the most promising of starts. As soon as you’ve cleared the thundering traffic of the A2 and crossed over the UK’s sole high speed train line though, you’re into another world – and pretty much stay there until you can see Eastbourne’s pier jutting it’s way into the English Channel.

(Image: the village of Golden Green, Kent)

I had the most fantastic walk this bank holiday weekend: flashes of electric blue as dragonflies darted around my ankles alongside the River Medway, Burne-Jones stained glass glowing in the mid-afternoon sunlight in the church at Bidborough, the Coldrum Longbarrow, where our ancient ancestors were burying their dead back in 3985 BC, the chalk infused soil of the North and South Downs sandwiching the rolling landscape of the Kent and East Sussex Weald, the wood that inspired AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories (I had that damn song ‘but the most wonderful thing about Tiggers’ stuck in my head for half the day, but failed to spot one. Or Eeyore), the hillside chalk image of the Longman of Wilmington and a beautifully basic campsite, unmentioned on the OS map or any research I did for camping on the trail, right on the Wealdway at the exact time when I doubted I could walk much further on the third day…. it was a good way to spend a bank holiday.

(Image: The Longman of Wilmington, South Downs National Park)

I read a line in another blog that described the Wealdway as an exploration of the South Country. I’ve never heard that expression before, but I really like it. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the moors and dales of the north of England, the bays and the cliffs of the southwest and Wales, but in the past six months I’ve been walking much closer to home, getting out on trails that are a short train ride away. And the truth is that, despite the south east being such a populated part of the UK, there are still vast swathes of it where you can walk for hours without seeing another person (as I did this weekend), where the rolling hills in soft morning light are just as lovely as other, more famed views, and where the country pubs are equally as welcome a sight. Walking in ‘the South Country’ has much to recommend it, and the Weald really was a revelation.

(Video: the consequences of walking across fields very early in the morning! Near Gun Hill, East Sussex)

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The Essex Way, Day 3

(Image: Good Easter’s village sign)

Date: 21 April 2019

Walked: 21.6 miles

Let me put forward what may be a controversial theory: I don’t think the Essex Way is 82 miles. Or the 81 miles Essex County Council states in it’s useful online guide. By my reckoning – or at least, that of the usually reliable step counter thing on my smartphone – it’s about 74 miles. Everyday I’ve progressed quicker across the county than I thought I would because the mileage was off… in my favour. Not so today. Today it was absolutely bang on. Sod it.

(Image: approaching Bury Hall)

My biggest, most gratitude-filled shout out of today – and probably the whole trip – goes to the lovely volunteer who was opening up St Andrew’s Church in Good Easter (I know. GREAT name. And I was there on Easter Sunday!) at about 9am this morning as I lazed on the bench in the churchyard. I was hungry, had run clean out of food, and was a good two hours or so away from being able to buy any. We had a chat, he told me that the quaint looking pub I’d passed earlier in the morning in Pleshey was none other than the one that had been owned by the recently deceased Keith Flint (The Prodigy), and then he disappeared and I headed off, stomach rumbling. Except then I heard someone trying to attract my attention. It was the church volunteer. With a bag. With Hot Cross Buns in it. For me! I have rarely been so grateful in my life. Reader, they were delicious. And eaten very, very quickly.

(Image: Bury Hall’s pet cemetery…)

Other notable instances from the day’s walk included a quite moving pet graveyard at Bury Hall (just outside of Great Waltham), a close-ish encounter with a deer and a stag by Walthambury Brook (I think we drew in the stare-off. Alas, they were too far away for the camera on my phone to do them justice), and getting tangled up with a load of silken threads festooning the trees in Ongar Park Wood. Upon closer inspection, I realised the threads I’d spent 10 fairly unpleasant minutes tangling with were produced by tiny caterpillars… and that I was covered in both. There may have been a bit of swearing. Verdict? Colin the Caterpillar M&S sweeties and cake: good. The real things: not my new best friends. But a passing local assured me they were harmless and walked my penultimate mile along with me, having a good old Essex Way chat as we went. All of a sudden, the end was in sight. Epping Tube Station may not exactly rival the cathedral at Santiago in grandeur, but I was almost as pleased to see it, and really enjoyed that whole ‘sitting down’ thing as London’s public transport system whisked me home.

(Image: plaque outside Epping Tube station)

Another cracking long distance UK walking trail complete, and the first one I’ve camped each night. Job done!

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The Essex Way – Day 2

(Image: field near Little Leighs)

Date: 20 April

Walked: 21.4 miles

Today was definitely one of two halves. Or rather two halves, interspersed with two lunchtime pints!

(Image: Colne River)

I woke early in the beautiful spot I’d wild camped in, to a tent soaked in dew. My early morning ambles took me alongside the Colne river to the edge of Aldham, where one of a number of WW2 pillboxes I’d seen had a notice explaining that the river was part of the Eastern Command Line. Just as with the pillboxes that line the lower reaches of the Thames, so these are left as reminders of our country’s not so distant past.

(Image: church at Great Tey)

Walking on, I saw my first lambs, a young deer lying dead, seemingly perfect and unharmed, on the path by the church in Great Tey, and a very welcome breakfast stop in Coggeshall, a village with more than its fair share of Tudor era buildings. A field full of alpaca eventually led to the peaceful churchyard in Cressing, where I sat for an hour reading and drying out my sodden tent, enjoying the sunshine and chatting to the church warden. And a 30 minute stroll later, I was meeting my friends at the Cross Keys pub in White Notley, where I spend a very happy three hours eating, drinking two pints of larger (I fear it was one more than I should have had…) and catching up in the sunshine.

(Image: Sandy Wood, approaching Fuller Street)

Then all of a sudden it was almost 4pm, I still had nine miles to cover and despite being late afternoon it was still unseasonably warm. The countryside, which looks it’s best in early and end of day light anyway, was all a bit workaday-dull except for a heavenly-scented, bluebell filled woods, and I dreamt of finding a B&B for the night and giving camping a miss. Luckily for my wallet, no such solution offered itself and after a half pint of lemonade in the beautifully situated Square and Compasses pub, I was on my way again, looking for a good, secluded spot to wild camp for the night. I found it in a small wood about a mile from Great Waltham, where I (totally knackered) fell asleep in a woods, listening to the hum of the traffic on the busy A131 in the distance.

(Image: Little Leighs)

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The Essex Way – Day 1

(Image: Ramsey)

Date: 19 April 2019

Walked: 22.4 miles

I woke early, and was on my way at 6am. My reward? A glowing red fireball of a sunrise as I looked back towards Ramsey and it’s windmill.

(Image: Stour Estuary)

The first three hours of the day were spent walking towards and along the pretty Stour Estuary, which separates Essex and Suffolk. It was a magical place on such a beautiful morning, but for a while – walking ever closer to Grayson Perry’s extraordinary ‘A House for Essex’, I did wonder if I was in some kind of fairytale and that was the witches house… lot of time to think when you walk on your own…

(Image: A House for Essex)

After passing through a number of nature reserves and the village of Mistley (the giant concrete swan ‘fountain’ in the pond negates the general feeling of class the place otherwise had – I can’t imagine what the Witch Finder General, a former resident, would have made of it), I was quickly into the pretty old town of Manningtree. A quick trip to the shop for a picnic lunch and I was on my way to another handsome northeast Essex village – Dedham, the site of Constable’s second most famous painting. This is all very much Constable County around here.

Shortly after Dedham I stopped by the river and enjoyed a leisurely lunch, soaking up the sun of this unexpected Easter heatwave, reading and watching people go by in canoes and on paddle boards. Then it was onwards, through woods and the occasional country lane, all bursting with bluebells and full of birdsong. Mile after mile of flat fields, with the occasional old stone church or thatched cottage (and a yard where I – honest to god – saw a treadmill for horses) I started to hear children. An Easter egg hunt! In a vineyard! An a van that sold posh scotch eggs! Was I in heaven? Close – Dedham Vale Vineyard. The glass of white wine I enjoyed there made for a couple more hours of happy wandering.

(Image: horse treadmill!)

After another long break from the sun in the church yard next to the beautiful West Bergholt Hall, my day ended at an undisclosed but very peaceful (and hidden away) location near the river in the Colne Valley. Safe to say, I’m definitely getting into my wild camping.

(Image: home for the night)

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The Essex Way – Day 0

(Image: Dover Court Lighthouses)

Date: 18 April 2019

Walked: 5 miles

The excitement of starting a walking trip, with four days off, a lot of miles to cover and a very promising Easter weekend weather forecast… god, if that feeling could be bottled!

(Image: Dover Court Beach)

I hit a hitch as I was getting changed into my walking gear at work: I realised I’d picked up the wrong boots as I left home. Not the ‘very worn down yet comfortable but have holes in’ pair, and not the ‘even though they are the same boot and the same size as my old ones they are too small and destroy my toes’ ones. Nope, I managed to one from each imperfect pair. I think it was the universe tell me to finally buy that replacement pair of boots I needed. Luckily Cotswold Outdoor has a branch right between my work and Liverpool Street station. An 82 mile walk isn’t the recommended way to break in a pair of boots, but as I have no other option, let’s just see what happens.

(Image: near South Hall Creek)

On the train journey down to Harwich, staring out of the window, it struck me that the walk I’m about to do might actually be rather prettier than I’d been anticipating. The five mile walk from the lighthouse at Harwich Town (which is the walk’s official end point – yup, I’m going backwards again) seemed to confirm that suspicion. So while my campsite tonight leaves something to be desired – £15 to camp in a neglected beer garden close to the A120, where the road signs alert drivers to keep to the left (well, we are right by the port) – the after work walk to get here was an uplifting way to start the Easter bank holiday weekend. Only 77 miles left to go. Come on Essex, let’s be having ya…

(Image: The Light House at Harwich Town. My official start, most people’s finish!)

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