Cycle along beaches and an old railway line, over commons and through heathland on this intricate route on the Suffolk coast.
Ask the locals. There’s no better way to discover those out of the ordinary and slightly secret places – be they pubs, restaurants, places to visit or ways to avoid the traffic. The same goes when seeking bike rides that are quite literally off the beaten track. This route was devised by my sister, Beck, a Suffolk resident. She had cycled sections of it in the past and in advanced preparation for the first complete riding had even spent a winter’s afternoon plodding around near a pig farm to recce rights of way.
There were still one or two minor navigational details that needed to assessed on the day, though. As Beck thrust the map in my hand at the start I suddenly realised that we were going to be shouldering joint responsibility for successfully guiding our party of six other cyclists on a mini-expedition down the Suffolk coast.
We began at Sizewell nuclear power station. Not exactly the most scenic of the landmarks that we encountered but certainly one of the best known. Turning our backs on it we soon picked up a smooth and springy track bordered by ferns across Aldringham Walks heathland. In the early summer the gorse was a blaze of yellow flowers and we spotted green hairstreak butterflies resting on the bushes. The area is rich in birdlife including nightjars, woodlarks and skylarks, Dartford warblers, stonechats and yellowhammers. Had there been horses too I’d have thought I was in the New Forest. The pill boxes in the distance reminded me, though, that we were on the fortified east coast rather than the south.
One moment we were wiggling our way down a narrow track bordered by high hedges and then out in the open crossing a common in the direction of what looks like a Norman church tower. Actually, it’s a disguised former water tower – and the perfect teaser to the curious village of Thorpeness.
I love this place and, if you haven’t been before, you should allocate plenty of time for exploring. It’s like a film set or going back in time. Thorpeness was built in the 1910s and 20s as a speculative holiday development and the ‘Home of Peter Pan’ by Scottish playwright and barrister G Stuart Ogilvie. He was a friend of Peter Pan creator J M Barrie and once lived at Sizewell Hall (which we’d passed earlier). Many of Thorpeness’s buildings are half-timbered to evoke Tudor ‘Merrie England’ – including a parade of houses which includes, on an arch, the mock Norman tower which was originally a water tower.
It superseded an earlier tower also designed by Ogilvie to serve the village and even more artistically concealed as the five-storey House in the Clouds underneath a 30,000 galloon water tank. Opposite the House – which today is one of the most famous follies in the UK – is a windmill which was transported from its original location at Aldringham (which we passed close by later) to pump water up to the tower and replace a much plainer and incongruous metal mill. A short diversion up an unadopted road to view these two odd neighbours is a must.
Thorpeness Meare – with various Peter Pan-themed landing spots – is great fun to explore by boat with children if you have time but, on this occasion, we were heading straight for the sea. As our resident expert advised, if you keep to the back of the beach the surface is fairly firm and, with the exception of one or two short stretches, you can cycle easily all the way. After a while we picked up the end of the Tarmac path which made for a speedier final approach to Aldeburgh past the giant scallop sculpture marooned in the shingle and fresh fish stalls with the day’s catch chalked up on blackboards.
There are fewer more classy spots on the East Anglia coast. Aldeburgh has the same traditional appeal as Thorpeness but is a little more chic with it – as you can tell from a walk down the high street. We’re in yachty Fat Face, Jack Wills, Crew Clothing and Joules country here with a couple of art galleries thrown in for good measure. The choice of eateries is endless and top notch. The fish and chip shop is listed in all the ‘best of’ guides in the weekend supplements and even its queue has become something of an institution. On this occasion, though, we stuck with the budget option and settled down on the beach surrounded by our bikes to feast on the fare from the good old Co-op. Just behind us was on one of my favourite buildings in Aldeburgh: a funny little house marooned in the middle of a car park. So pink and delicate, it looks like a wedding cake decoration.
Initially, we returned the way we became but then drew on our local knowledge again. We pushed our bikes along a public right of way that spans the corner of a caravan park and then linked up with a disused railway line that, until the infamous Beechings cuts of the early 1960s, took passengers from Saxmundham to Leiston. We were back to easy riding. To our right as we steamed along I could see chestnut brown horses grazing on buttercups beneath the grey pencil line marking the back of Aldeburgh beach and then a smudge of poppies. Painters must love it here.
We joined the road briefly where a railway halt once stood and then needed regular map checks and head-scratching as we departed the old line to wend our way across the sort of heathland we’d encountered earlier. Deep in a wood a pretty pink cottage appeared as if to reassure us we were still in Suffolk. Shortly afterwards we ran into the sand, quite literally. We could’ve done with that earlier on the beach rather than as the surface of a bridleway. Legs now wearying, the younger members of the party accompanied by two adults headed directly back along the road to the start while my nephew and I dutifully completed the circuit with a pleasant stretch along easily cycle-able bridleways through woodland and across fields.
Sizewell finally came back into view, its giant dome looking like a cross between a mosque and a boiled egg in an egg cup. An old boat filled with flowers has been positioned by the main entrance of the power station and the cooling towers just offshore brought to mind beached oil rigs or the ends of storm-damaged piers. As we loaded the bikes onto cars, we spotted gulls feasting on fish attracted by the warm water of the power station’s outfall, a final reflection of Suffolk’s quite contrary coast.
Distance: 13 miles.
Time: 3 hours.
Sizewell Beach Refreshment Café. Open 9am-5pm, Wed-Sun and bank holiday Mondays. 01728 831108.
Vulcan Arms, Sizewell Gap. 01728 830748.
The Dolphin Inn, Thorpeness. 01728 454994.
The Meare Shop and Tea Room, Thorpeness. 01748 452156.
The Beach House café, Thorpeness. 01728 453105.
Aldeburgh fish and chip shop, High St, Aldeburgh. 01728 454685.
Ives Ice Cream Parlour, High St, Alderburgh. 01728 452264. Recommended: choose from 32 flavours!
Munchies café, High St, Aldeburgh. 01728 454566.
Lots of other choice including upmarket restaurants in Aldeburgh.
Sizewell. Leave the car park at Sizewell Beach. Pass the Vulcan Arms then turn left signed ‘Sizewell Hall’. Continue ahead at the Hall signed ‘Waldens’. Where the Tarmac ends bear right onto an unsurfaced track signed as a byway. Take the second left signed ‘Byway’ on a fingerpost. At the end, at a t-junction, turn right onto a broad sandy track. After approx 200 yards bear left onto a grassy track signed as a byway and Suffolk Coast path. As you approach the houses in Thorpeness bear left then immediately sharp right onto a gravel road.
Thorpeness. Turn right at a small green and onto the road then left in front of Ogilvie Hall and right down Uplands Rd (unsurfaced) to view the windmill and House in the Clouds. Return along Uplands Rd then turn right down The Haven. Pass Thorpeness Meare and The Beach House café then turn left into a car park. Push your bike for a short distance along a boardwalk to reach the beach. Turn right and proceed towards Aldeburgh. Stay at the back of the beach where the surface is firmer. (Alternatively, you can stay on the road that runs parallel from Thorpeness to Aldeburgh). Eventually, you will spot the start of a Tarmac path takes you into Aldeburgh via a car park.
Aldeburgh. Go as far as you like into Aldeburgh then return along the Tarmac path to the car park. Just after you enter it turn left, across the road following signs for ‘Church Farm and Ipswich (A1094)’. After a few hundred yards look out for a sign indicating a (public) footpath through the caravan park. Pass through the width restriction and turn left, pushing your bike across the campsite. At the sign for Alde Meadow bear right, pass a phone box and the caravan park reception then left onto Deben Way. Leave the caravan park through a gap in the fence beneath a tree then turn right to join a path following the course of a disused railway line. Eventually, at a waterworks, the track becomes a road – of concrete and then Tarmac.
B1353. At a t-junction in front of a white bungalow turn left onto the B1353. About 100 yards after a ‘B&B next right’ sign turn right to leave the road and enter a small car park within heathland. Follow the right of the three tracks in front of you. At the end of the track turn right and follow the next track as it bears left (not into the trees). Pass in front of three houses. Bear right then bear left passing the golf course and pig farm. Cross over a farm track and keep ahead. Turn right at a crossroads of tracks onto Grimsey Lane. Pass Crownlands Cottage then left onto a very sandy track for 300 yards. At the end, cross over the road then follow signs (keeping in same direction) for Yoxford and Saxmundham. Take the first turn right and then right again down a broad track before Common Hall Cottages. Fork right at a fingerpost for a bridleway. At the end of it turn right and slightly uphill. At the road turn left to return to Sizewell.