Dominic Bliss wishes for hills as he traverses Peddars Way on the flat-lands of Norfolk, however a confrontation with the black shuck is not wanted. Words: Dominic Bliss Pictures: Jason Bye
I’ve prayed for many things during my years as a cyclist: a lighter bike, an extra inner tube, a break in the weather, the home straight, a slap-up meal.
But never, ever, have I prayed for hills. That’s how desperate things have become on our off-road ride across Norfolk on the Peddars Way.
It’s a 46-mile long-distance trail from Thetford, in the south of the county, all the way to Hunstanton, on the North Sea coast. And it’s pancake flat, the entire way.
At first we relish the ease of the ride and the fast pace. But after 20 miles or so, we’re starting to crave an incline. Any incline. Just five degrees would make a welcome change.
But no. Not on this trail across the flattest part of the UK. People joke about how flat East Anglia is, and so they should. This is the sort of place you can wave goodbye to your girlfriend… and you’ll still be waving goodbye to her three days later!
Our odyssey starts at the crack of dawn with an early train from London to Thetford. From there it’s a short stretch of A-road to the start of Peddars Way.
This is one of the UK’s long-distance paths, all of it legally rideable on a bike except for a few short detours. It follows the route of an old Roman road, no doubt the path our former colonial masters took when they needed to strike out into the eastern wilds of Britannia to give Boadicea and her Iceni pals a good bashing.
I’m not sure what sort of track those centurions in their sandals would have faced two thousand years ago but the modern-day Peddars Way is beautifully maintained – a mixture of gravel tracks, dirt paths, forest trails and short tarmac sections.
The lion’s share is dead straight too, with just the odd zig-zag as it carves a line south to north through farmland, woodland and the occasional village.
I’ve opted to ride on a cyclo-cross bike, a superb Giant TCX SLR1. It’s a wise choice. This off-road machine is light, strong and very, very fast – perfect for the firm, flat terrain. My friend, Phil, on the other hand is on a much heavier mountain bike, prehistorically slow by comparison.
Cyclo-cross bikes are actually ideal for some of the UK’s flatter off-road trails. For the uninitiated, here’s a quick guide: they look like road bikes, but they’re not quite. The handlebars are dropped but the frame geometry is different.
The tyres are skinny yet covered in knobbles. The wheels and forks are stronger. The cables are often routed through the frame to make it easier when shouldering the bike over obstacles. (And there are certainly plenty of those on Peddars Way.)
While we enjoy many long, uninterrupted sections our progress is often slowed by gates, stiles, footbridges, even the lovely Church Gate Tea Room in the village of Castle Acre. You can easily avoid the latter if you’re in a hurry but you’d be advised not to.
For the most part, Phil and I ride two abreast, chatting as we clock up the miles. We pass through the villages of Little Cressingham, North Pickenham, Castle Acre, and then 17 miles of arrow-straight bridleway all the way to Ringstead.
At times we find ourselves in some quite isolated areas. We skirt alongside the heath of Breckland, the deep woods of Thetford Forest (a Mecca for mountain biking but that’s another story), close to the Army’s Stanford training area (with Chinooks swooping overhead), near to Massingham Marsh, and through enormous swathes of farmland.
With only the occasional woodland to hinder our views, we are constantly drinking in the big-sky panoramas that inland Norfolk is famous for.
There’s an old legend that Peddars Way is haunted by the evil ghost of a huge dog called the Black Shuck. There have been hundreds of reported sightings over the years. Sometimes the beast is headless, other times floating on a carpet of mist.
“He will stand in your path and show his teeth,” wrote M.H. James in his 1891 book Bogie Tales of East Anglia.
“He will snarl till you are almost paralysed with fear. Then he will sit down and stare at you with his eyes aflame. The dog sometimes drags you by your clothes. Untold horrors befall the man and woman who persists in thwarting him.”
Relief, then, that we never spot the Black Shuck. In fact we spot very few beings at all, ghostly or otherwise. Other trail-users rarely appear. During our entire journey, apart from in the car park at the start of the trail, we see no other cyclists. Hikers and dog walkers occasionally crop up but only close to the villages.
Thanks to the path’s mostly excellent waymarking we don’t even need to consult a map. At only one point – near Little Cressingham – we do take a wrong turning but we quickly realise our error.
The high point of the route is without doubt Castle Acre with its twin ruins of its castle and priory. The low points are the dozens and dozens of dead or dying myxomatosis rabbits lying scattered along the trail.
Just as darkness is falling, we reach our final destination: the seaside resort of Hunstanton, right on the mouth of the Wash.
Without pushing ourselves too hard, and with lengthy lunch and tea breaks, we complete our journey in around seven hours. We haven’t suffered a drop of rain all day so there are no complaints when, just as we wheel our bikes into the back garden of our guesthouse, the heavens open.
Later, as we mount the stairs to our rooms for the night, I realise this is the only hill climbing we’ve done all day.
Dominic Bliss travelled on Abellio Greater Anglia trains which operates frequent services from London Liverpool Street to key destinations in East Anglia, abelliogreateranglia.co.uk He stayed at the Burleigh Guest House in Hunstanton, theburleigh.com.
Thanks to Giant UK for use of their TCX SLR1 cyclo-cross bike.