Scilly mood

Don’t rush a trip around St Mary’s. There’s lots to see and some fabulous views on a gentle circuit of the largest of the Isles of Scilly.

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St Agnes.

Is Scilly silly? Well, not quite but it’s pretty unorthdox for the cyclist. No-one locks up their bike, its single ‘A’ road carries practically no traffic, there are no directional signs nor lines in the middle of the road, and you’re as likely to share the road with golf buggies as much as cars. Scilly is in a world of its own and a world away from the rest of the UK. Exploring the outlying islands on boat trips and using the evenings to explore St Mary’s, the main island, by bike is an ideal way to make the most of a short break in this archipelago 28 miles south-west of Land’s End as I found out last July. The ride is also very well suited to a first cycling adventure for a family.

The route network on St Mary’s is fairly straight-forward. The single main road (think of it more as hedged country lane) forms a five-mile loop in the island’s interior. It’s connected to many of the coastal beauty spots and points of interest via minor roads and tracks that are easily negotiated on a mountain bike or hybrid. You can find out which tracks you are permitted to cycle on by referring to the map from the cycle hire shop

Penninis lighthouse

Penninis lighthouse

Start point for the ride is Hugh Town, which is actually just a village, and the island’s only substantial settlement. This is a merry little place that seems permanently stuck in the olden days – when former prime minister, Harold Wilson, was among the holidaymakers. Particularly popular with young families and retired people, St Mary’s is simply great to mooch around and you can have most places to yourself. The only exception is the harbour in the rush-hour before 10am when hoards of holidaymakers stream down to the harbour for the main boat trip departures. After sampling the delights the off islands (as the smaller islands are known) I was keen to explore St Mary’s.

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Garrison Hill

I began my anti-clockwise circuit with the only serious but short climb of the ride that took me up to Garrison Hill. At the summit views from the former 16th century garrison (now the eight-pointed Star Castle Hotel) extend across to St Agnes, the UK’s most south-westerly settlement, and on a clear day all the way to the Bishop Rock lighthouse which is the most south-westerly point. “If you look closely you can see the Empire State Building 3,000 miles away,” the boatman had told us earlier. The sea is speckled with jagged rocky islets which could almost be mistaken for anchored ships. It comes as no surprise to find out that the Scillies are notorious for shipwrecking. The following day in the Isles of Scilly Museum I saw a collection of items from wrecks – varying from beads recovered from a 17th century Venetian trader to the more prosaic computer mice washed ashore following the grounding of a German container ship in 1997.

The shipwrecking theme continued in the next two sections of the ride. I cycled along the isthmus separating Hugh Town’s two beaches and along a peninsula to Penninis lighthouse, a small metal structure on stilts, that marks the southernmost point of St Mary’s.

Porth Hellick Bay

Porth Hellick Bay

I swept down into and then out of Old Town Bay and then nipped out to the coast again at Porth Hellick Bay, one of the finest beaches on the island. An outcrop of rock curling into the bay looked like it belonged on the wilds of Dartmoor while the whirring rotors of helicopters flying in and out of the nearby airport gave the scene an almost sinister atmosphere. Overlooking the shore – deserted when I visited – is a memorial to the splendidly named Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. His body was washed up here when his flagship, the HMS Association, was shipwrecked in 1707. Three other ships went down in the same storm with the loss of at least 1,400 lives.

Pilot gig racing

Pilot gig racing

A little further round the coast is a considerably older grave – a burial chamber dating back to the Bronze Age. Chambers and other antiquities dot the northern coast of the island and provide welcome places to rest, explore and admire the coastal views. From the burial chamber and adjacent Iron Age village at Halangay Down I could make out the long beach of St Martin’s, the wooded island of Tresco, a lighthouse like a candle on the pudding-shaped Round Island and the ragged outline of four peaks sticking out of the sea adding to the hazards in another mariner’s nightmare.

The coastguard’s tower and transmitter mast behind me indicated that I was at the highest point (49m) of a not very high island and a lovely, gentle freewheel was just around the corner. I wended my way through a boatyard in Porthloo and past an artist’s studio, one of many studios and galleries on the route.

The smell of seafood and garlic wafting from the Boat Shed restaurant on Porthmellon Beach was hard to resist but I had other evenings plans. I cruised into Hugh Town past a terrace of cottages that I imagine were once home to fishermen. After fish and chips on the beach, I nipped back to the harbour once again to join the crowds squinting into the sunset to watch the pilot gig racing. Gigs are traditional, 32ft-long Scillonian rowing boats and tonight’s race – which started from a rock off the deserted island of Samson – involved eight boats crewed by eight women.

They travelled faster and finished far much more tired than I did – but that didn’t matter to me. My meandering and pootling had matched the mood of the island. It was a day when – and Scilly is the sort of place where – you leave it to other people to do the hard work.

New Grimsby quay, Tresco

New Grimsby quay, Tresco

Cycling on Tresco

St Mary’s is the only island with proper roads but you can also cycle on Tresco. The southern half of the island has many tracks, some concreted, that are ideal for family cycling. They provide a quick route, for instance, from the renowned Abbey Garden (the most popular attraction on Scilly) to the pristine white beaches on the coast. You can’t take bikes on ferries from St Mary’s but you can hire them from Tresco Bike hire next to Tresco Stores in the village. Open Mon-Fri 8.30am-5.30pm (closed for lunch), Saturday 10am-noon and closed Sunday. Flat rate of £10 per bike per day.

Fact file

Distance: 12 miles.

Time: Half a day.

Directions: From the tourist information centre head towards and pass the Co-op. Just after The Atlantic Hotel turn right up Garrison Hill (blocked to vehicles by a phone box). Pass around Star Castle Hotel then bear right through a gate. Descend a stony track and pass through another gate which brings you out to the old garrison wall.

Return to the archway with bell above. Pass through it and immediately fork right then, at the police station, turn right as the road bears left. Turn left down Little Porth which brings you out at a small square at the back of Porthcressa beach. Pass the Porthcressa public shelter and toilets and through a width restriction onto Porthcressa Rd. At a crossroads turn left then, at a t-junction in front of the museum, turn right onto Church St. Bear right in front of St Mary’s Church and continue to follow the road towards Old Town. At a telegraph pole and opposite a house called Carntop turn right (easy to miss) towards the health centre at which turn left and proceed all the way down a track to the lighthouse. Return to the road, turn right and descend to and through Old Town. At a t-junction turn right onto Carn Friars Lane.

Take the first track on the right between two stone posts towards Salakee Farm. At the end of the track dismount and, as it bears left, walk briefly to Porth Hellick Bay. Return to the road and turn right to continue the circuit. As the road bears left turn right signed to visit Porth Hellick Down and burial chamber. Return to the road and continue. After Normandy Farm turn right and then left down a narrow hedged path signed to Carn Vean tea rooms. At the end of the path turn right down a very bumpy track to visit Pelistry Bay and Tolls Island. Return up the track, don’t turn back to the tea room but continue ahead. Bear right at a red and blue boat. At the newly renovated Green Farm bear right then, where the track bears right, turn left down a path and dismount for a short distance. Pass through a gate, re-mount and turn left up a hedged track which joins a broader track coming in from the right.

At the road turn right. Just before a round stone coastguard’s tower turn right down a stoney track with houses either side signed Bant’s Cairn burial chamber and ancient village. After visiting these sites (walking the final stretch) return to the tower and continue the circuit. Take the first right at a picnic area. After the road bears left into Porthloo turn right in front of the sign for Porthloo Boat Park following a path towards Porthloo Studios. Lift your bike up a few steps then continue ahead down a gravel track which becomes a minor road. Turn right at the next two t-junctions to return to Hugh Town.

Porth Hellick Down

Porth Hellick Down

Selected pubs and grub:

Carn Vean Café and Tea Garden, Pelistry Bay. Open 11am-5pm. 07707 118118.
Juliet’s Garden Restaurant, above Porthloo. Open 10am-5pm for teas then for dinner from 6pm every night except Tues. 01720 422228.
The Boat Shed, Porthmellon Beach, nr Hugh Town. Open daily 5-11pm. Classy seafood restaurant with decked terrace overlooking the beach. Booking in advance strongly advised. 01720 423881.
Fish and chip van on Porthcressa beach, Hugh Town. Visits 5-7.30pm every day except Sunday.
Good choice of pubs, hotels and restaurants in Hugh Town.

St Mary's cycle hire

St Mary’s cycle hire

Bike hire:
St Mary’s Bike Hire, Hugh Town. 07796 638506. Open 9am-5pm Mon to Sat. £5 for half a day, £8 for the full day and £10 for 24 hours. Tag-a-longs, child carriers and tandems available.
Book a Bike on Scilly. Delivers to anywhere on St Mary’s. http://www.bookabikeonscilly.com. 07887 841033.

Recommended accommodation:
Isle of Scilly Country Guest House, St Mary’s. http://www.scillyguesthouse.co.uk, 01720 422440. Peaceful, airy and comfortable accommodation with sitting room and kitchen in the centre of the island. Doubles up as a Bavarian kaffeehaus by day. (The owner is from Munich!)

Getting there: Direct flights from Bristol, Southampton, Exeter, Land’s End, Newquay and Penzance with connections from other airports nationwide. Helicopter and ferry from Penzance.

Weblink: simplyscilly.co.uk

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View from Halangay Down.

The other east coast line

Cycle along beaches and an old railway line, over commons and through heathland on this intricate route on the Suffolk coast.

Aldeburgh

Aldeburgh

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.

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Thorpeness

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.

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And they’re off – over the Aldringham Walk heathland

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.

House in the Clouds, Thorpeness

House in the Clouds, Thorpeness

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.

Windmill in Aldeburgh

Windmill in Aldeburgh

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.

The beach near Thorpeness

The beach near Thorpeness

Fact file

Distance: 13 miles.

Time: 3 hours.

Eating:

Aldeburgh

Aldeburgh

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.

Directions:

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.

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Mmmm. Where’s a signpost when you need one?

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.

Aldeburgh

Aldeburgh

Family affair

A ride of two distinct halves with plenty of interesting spots to stop and two off-road stretches.

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Quick breather on the road to Corfe at Nine Barrow Down

The logistics were always going to be complicated. Fifteen members of my extended family and I were due to gather at three holiday cottages for a week in Dorset to celebrate my mum’s 80th birthday and most of us wanted a bike ride. To add to the challenge, we required a variety of ladies’ and gents’ bikes, two with child seats, and we wanted to start from where we were staying – at Studland – which was some distance from the nearest bike hire centre. The final criterion was for a route that would enable the birthday girl and other non-cyclists to link up by car with the cyclists at one or two family-friendly points of interest along the way.

Detailed scrutinisation of maps (never a hardship for me) and some Googling followed. I identified a route that took in Corfe Castle, a picturesque pool and RSPB reserve and found a bike hire centre that would deliver any configuration and number of bikes to one of our cottages. Bingo!

After several anxious confirmatory phone calls and emails, the bikes duly arrived in a trailer at 10am on the day of the big ride. The weather forecast was promising too which was just as well as there was about the same chance of rescheduling our trip as there was of changing D-Day. After matching up the right bikes with the child seats, adjusting saddle heights and the obligatory cheery team photocall we were off – but not for long. At the bottom of our lane we faced the first of several sharp inclines that were to characterise the morning ride.

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Departure from Studland

We took the first turn left and then swooped down to Ulwell. The outgoing route essentially follows the minor road that runs along a ridge formed by Nine Barrow Down and later Brenscombe Hill. We had great views across the steam railway line all the way towards Swanage where it terminates. The views came at the inevitable price, though. We were up and down like a yo-yo which, while tiring, wasn’t too much of a problem for me but proved particularly challenging to my brothers who were both weighed down by a three-year-old sitting behind them. Progress was slow and we were delayed further by a puncture. It was, therefore, something of a relief to finally see the gaunt ruins of Corfe Castle come into view. The final descent into the village – which plugs the gap between two ridges – was a joy.

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Brother John and nephew Aidan arrive in Corfe

Corfe looks just like a castle should. Proud and prominent on top of a mound, it dominates its surroundings. The village, which has the same name, is as quintessentially British and old fashioned. A steam railway completes the scene and, from the viewpoint of the castle, makes the place look almost like a model village.

Unfortunately, the only option to continue north from Corfe is an A-road but the incline was very gentle so we had no complaints and it wasn’t long before we headed off-road. A bridleway took us initially past a campsite and then into the edge of a wood where the surface deteriorated. What was an adventure and provided variety of terrain for those without passengers was a trial for those with them especially as it had been fairly wet the preceding days. Sometimes we had to get off and push our bikes through the mud. I would certainly recommend a mountain bike for those following in our tracks as the bridleway seems more like a footpath in parts.

Our determination was rewarded by our destination, the Blue Pool. This is a lake which formed in a pit created by clay mining in the early 19th century. The iridiscent blue results from fine particles of clay suspended in the water. Surrounded by pines and with a playground and café, the Pool provided the perfect lunch stop – and rendezvous point where we met up with the motoring party who had set off after us and had completed the nature trail around the pool while awaiting our delayed arrival. We also had a look around a small museum that tells the story of clay mining in the area.

The Blue Pool

The Blue Pool

The second part of the ride could barely have contrasted more with the first. After a short stretch of the main road we headed out in between the gorse bushes into the wonderfully flat open heathland that typifies northern Purbeck. Ah, that was better! It seemed such a pity that those with the small children had decided to head straight back after the Blue Pool. Most visitors to Purbeck gravitate towards Swanage and the south coast which meant we had the road to Arne largely to ourselves. We’d left the motoring party to linger longer at the Blue Pool but made such surprisingly quick progress that we were waiting for them rather than the other way round. At Arne we parked the bikes so that we could all walk together to the viewpoint at Shipstall Point within the RSPB reserve. (We could’ve cycled as the track is a bridleway). To the east the view extends across Poole harbour to Bournemouth. In the foreground are the intriguing Long and Round Islands which, covered in trees and with just a jetty between them, look like they belong in Scandinavia or the pages of Swallows and Amazons. To the north-west the sea worms its way into the saltmarsh.

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Heavy going on the heath for nephew Freddie

At this point the motorists set off home and the cyclists – now consisting of just my brother, nephew and I – began the final and largely off-road leg of our journey. The route on the map looked complicated and just the sort that might add several unwanted extra ‘lost’ miles. To our delight and surprise, though, it was very well waymarked and my map remained folded in my pannier. The track dives in and out of the forest and – much as we loved their company, of course – we were glad to be free of the children as they would’ve slowed progress especially on the sandy bits. A family ride had turned into a lads’ ride and we were rather enjoying it.

The route did have one last sting in the tail. We finally emerged on the minor road leading back to Studland – but didn’t reach journey’s end quite as swiftly as we were expecting. The last few miles were hard work up one of those inclines that never seems to end – and feels all the longer and steeper when tackled late in the day. Each now cycling solo at his own pace, we finally burst back into the holiday cottage at 10-minute intervals from 6pm. We had plenty of notes to compare as all of us squeezed around the dining room table that evening to wolf down bangers and mash. It had been a birthday to remember.

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Nothing wrong with pushing when you have nippers on board

Fact file

Distance: 25 miles.

Time: Full day.

Directions:

Leave Studland to the west on the B3351. Take the first turn left (a fork) signed to Ulwell. Turn right into the village (signed to the Village Inn), follow the road as it bears left and then fork right. A t-junction turn right (unsigned) then follow this road along the side of the ridge all the way to Corfe Castle. At the junction with the A351 turn right and around the castle. Continue ahead at the roundabout then turn left off the main road to and through Norden Farm. Pass through the campsite to enter the wood in the far right corner. Continue in the same direction as before through the wood initially on its southern edge. Emerging at a road, turn right and then take the first track on the right to the Blue Pool. Leave the Pool following the exit signs for cars which brings you to the A351. Turn right and then, at the Halfway Inn, left onto a minor road across the heathland. At a t-junction turn right (unsigned) to continue to Arne. (The bridleway to Shipstall Point starts opposite St Nicholas Church). Retrace your route to the first junction at which bear left. After about 1½ miles look out on your left for a fingerpost with the first in a series of blue waymarkers for the cycle route. They take you off-road along a bridleway to Studland (also Route 2 of the National Cycle Network) initially over an old stone bridge and then in and out of forests. Eventually, you emerge at the ferry road. Turn right to return to Studland.

Map: here

Eating:

The Bankes Arms, Studland, BH19 3AU. Tel 01929 450225. Highly recommended.The Village Inn, Ulwell, BH19 3DG. Tel 01929 427644.
Good choice of pubs and cafés in Corfe Castle.
The Blue Pool Tea Room, Norden, BH20 5AR. Tel 01929 551408. Closed in the winter.
The Halfway Inn, Norden, BH20 5DU. Tel 01929 480402.

Recommended family accommodation:

Sea Cottage, Studland.

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Freddie goes into the trees

On manoeuvres

What you see isn’t always what you get in Rendlesham Forest.

Freddie on the trail 2

Deep in the trees

With a little imagination this bike ride can almost take you to another world. It is set within Rendlesham Forest, near Woodbridge, the scene of what many think is the most significant UFO incident to occur in the UK.

For two nights over Christmas 1980 airmen from the local US airbase claimed to have had close encounters of a most spooky kind. They were initially drawn to a strange glow from lights in the trees outside the East Gate. As they got closer to a clearing they reported seeing a conical object, the size of a car, floating on beams of light just 12 inches off the ground. It appeared to be metallic with black markings on the side. They tried to approach the object – but it suddenly rose in a flash of light and disappeared. The following night they returned to witness a pillar of yellowish mist which seemed to transform itself into a huge eye with a dark centre and a craft with pulsating lights which morphed into a giant pyramid shape. After a chase the craft shot skywards never to be seen again.

The author and nephew Freddie Issitt take a break

The author and nephew Freddie Issitt take a break

Even on a gentle summer’s day in the company of my nine-year-old nephew, Freddie, the Forest had an eerie, other wordly air about it. The trees deaden any sound. Our wheels on the soft carpet of the forest tracks made barely a noise. All we could hear was crickets – until the roar of engines came into earshot. What could it be? As we cycled further beside the runway the noise got louder. Then, momentarily, through the fence we spotted motorbikes roaring up and down at a race gathering. For Freddie, eager to see the action, noise was more appealing than peace.

From the cycle track the runway appears otherwise to be disused, waist-high weeds growing through gaps in the surface. In the distance, though, we could see a control tower and a hanger with large military letters above the entrance spelling out ‘667 SOMS’. Around another corner we spotted a strange wall through the fence. It’s actually an old bullet catcher from a 25-metre firing range used by the Americans when they were in residence.

Bullet catcher wall at Woodbridge Airfield

Bullet catcher wall at Woodbridge Airfield

We only came across one other group of cyclists on our little adventure. It passed us as we were eating our sandwiches much to Freddie’s chagrin. “Do you think if we set off now we’ll catch up with them?” he asked, determined not to be beaten to the finish. Sandwiches gobbled up and a quick sprint later we were back in pole position.

We cycled the longer of two off-road waymarked routes which measures 10 miles. A shorter, six mile route is also available and can be halved by following the white waymarkers. A further option is for some of your group to walk around the UFO Trail (see Points of Interest, below) while the cyclists explore the tracks.

Points of interest

Lights at Woodbridge Airfield

Lights at Woodbridge Airfield

Woodbridge Airfield
While its role has diminished in recent times the Airfield is still in use – by the Army Air Corps for low-level helicopter training. A new barracks for 700 soldiers from the engineer regiment was constructed only last year.

The airfield was originally built during the Second World War primarily for emergency landings which explains why its runway is five times the normal width and 1¾ miles long with additional overshoots at each end. About a third of the 4,200 emergency landings at Woodbridge were caused by bad weather. In fogbound conditions, the sides of the runway were turned into walls of flame. Petrol was pumped along a system of pipes and its vapours were lit from a series of burner. The heat produced lifted the fog – but at the cost of 100,000 gallons of fuel per hour.

The US Air Force took over the airfield in 1952 and stayed for 40 years throughout the Cold War. An Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron was based at Woodbridge from 1969 using Hercules aircraft to rescue air crew in the North Atlantic as well as working with the US special forces behind enemy lines and providing rescue cover for space missions.

Rendlesham Forest UFO Trail
If you still have the energy after the bike ride, you could visit some of the locations where strange things were seen by the US airmen in 1980 by following this new three-mile circular walk through the Forest. The UFOs didn’t leave any trail of their own so a vivid imagination is necessary but its pleasant walk with an unusual theme. A map and leaflet is available for a small charge from the car park.

Fir conesBirds and mushrooms
Lying in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Forest is also a Site of Special Scientic Interest for two key bird species, the nightjar and the woodlark. If you ride the route in early autumn also look out for some weird and wonderful mushrooms. Planted in 1922, two-thirds of the Forest was felled by the Great Storm of 1987.

Play area
Located next to the car park, the large adventure play area includes a tube ride and obstacle course. You will also come across a giant wooden bird sculpture among the trees.

Eating

In the summer refreshments are available next to the car park and there are picnic tables too. There are lots of good pubs nearby for a pre- or post-ride meal.

The Froize Inn at Chillesford (01394 450282), north-east of the Forest on the B1084, does a good carvery (with plenty of alternatives such as curry) and has a large garden.

The Butley Orford Oysterage at Orford (01394 450277) specialises in sausages, fish and other products smoked at its own smokehouse at nearby Butley Creek. If the restaurant is fully booked (which is often is) you can buy food to take away from the little shop next door. Orford is a lovely village to explore. The castle is a keep only so ideal for a short visit if that’s all you have time for after the ride.

The Plough and Sail at Snape Maltings (01728 688413) serves child-size portions of adult meals as well as sensational desserts. Don’t miss the strawberry meringues! Afterwards you can explore the Maltings, a collection of granaries and malthouses nestling beside the River Alde which house craft, antique and home shops. There’s also a fun footpath through the waist-high reeds.

Fact file

The route around Rendlesham Forest is well waymarked

The route around Rendlesham Forest is well waymarked

Suitability: all ages. The shortest cycle trail is a mere three miles and there are no hills.
Bike: Any.
Bike hire: Available from a hut in the car park during spring and summer excluding Mondays. It’s best to book in advance as sometimes the trailer with the bikes does not come to the site in poor weather. Tel: 07706 479965.
Refreshments: Hot drinks, ice creams, biscuits and other simple fare available from cycle hire hut.
Terrain: Forest tracks – soft enough to cushion falls from novice cyclists.
When to do it: All year round. The trees provides great shelter from any wind.
Where to park: Car park (charge) signed off the B1084 from Woodbridge to Orford.
Map: No need to buy one. The map in the leaflet available from the cabin in car park is perfectly adequate and the route is well waymarked anyway.
More information: Rendlesham Forest Centre, 01394 450164.

Freddie on the trail 4

A tale of two churches

Loose yourself in the stockbroker belt of Hertfordshire.

Ayot St Lawrence

Ayot St Lawrence

Stevenage is just 20 minutes by train from London but it’s also not much further – albeit by bike – from Ayot St Lawrence, a village packed with history and intrigue.

Don’t go straight there, though, as there are other spots worth exploring. The first of them, Preston, is a complete contrast to its northern namesake. On my visit all I could hear was the crack of gunfire from someone out shooting, the buzz of a chainsaw and the clip-clop of horse’s hooves. The stockbroker belt does not get much more desirable – or accessible – than this.

Preston

Preston

Freewheel down the wooded St Albans Highway (which is anything but highway-like) to St Pauls Walden. The Queen Mother was born at a house close to the village. It is not ordinarily open to the public but you can still nip into her local, The Strathmore Arms, named after the family of her father, the Earl of Strathmore.

Preston

Preston

A good spot to rest outside is the green in Kimpton which is hidden away behind the main street next to the church. In common with Whitwell, the village has several pretty half-timbered cottages in a style more associated with the eastern counties.

A narrow lane brings you to Ayot St Lawrence. It’s easy to see how the village inspired its most famous former resident, George Bernard Shaw. Shaw’s Corner, as his house is named, is closed for winter until March 20 but there is plenty to enjoy that is always open, not least a pair of folly churches.

A former Lord of the Manor built the Grecian-style church with colonnaded wings as an eyecatcher viewable from his house. He also set about demolishing the original church before being halted by the local bishop. It remains in ruins. Two of the village’s other notable properties are Ayot House, once Britain’s only silk farm which produced silk for royal vestments, and the Manor House, where Henry VIII supposedly wooed Catherine Parr.

Ayot St Lawrence church

Ayot St Lawrence church

On the final leg of the journey look out for the Node Dairy at Drivers End. At the time of its construction in 1927 it was reputed to have had the largest thatched roof in the world. A thatched tower looks like something out of a fairy tale but is actually a silo.

If you follow this route anti-clockwise you can fill any spare time before your train home exploring Knebworth House and Country Park which opens from the spring. It’s only three miles to the station from here. Old Knebworth with its row of almshouses next to The Lytton Arms provides another perfect place to pause.
ends

Ayot St Lawrence

Ayot St Lawrence

Fact file

Start and finish: Stevenage station.

Distance: 24 miles.

Time: Allow 2½ hours excluding stops.

Codicote

Codicote

Brief directions: Stevenage – Todd’s Green – Titmore Green – Little Almshoe – Preston – St Paul’s Walden – Whitwell – Kimpton – Ayot St Lawrence – Codicote – Driver’s End – Old Knebworth – Stevenage. To avoid traffic when entering the town follow the signs for cycle route 12 which you pick up on the left just after passing under the railway and lead you back to the station.

Conditions: Country lanes and with only two significant hills.

Eating: The Brocket Arms, Ayot St Lawrence (tel 01428 820250; http://www.brocketarms.com). Ivy-clad 14th century inn with garden. Other pubs in Preston, Whitwell, Kimpton and Codicote.