A Tale of Two Ferries

I thought I’d document a few of my more interesting rides from last year. So here’s one I made over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

The ride is a circular route starting and finishing at Colchester railway station. You quickly leave Colchester and head north into Dedham Vale where there are both a few hills and some stunning scenery. Climbing out of Higham, and leaving Thoringdon Street and Raydon behind, you then head towards Ipswich.

The route through Ipswich is fine, and there are the usual city-centre cycle routes to follow which aren’t terrible, but aren’t too great either. On balance the signposting is slightly better than normal. There is a section of busy road leaving Ipswich that isn’t easily avoidable, and then you cross over the A12 (never a fun road), to head towards Woodbridge.

You’re not far here from Sutton Hoo, which is well worth a visit. But this time around, I cycled on along a fairly flat road in the direction of Butley. Here I encountered plenty of other cyclists, and this part of the Suffolk coastline is well catered for cyclists. I also really began to feel a headwind, which had become a bit of a nemesis since I’d turned east in Dedham Vale.

Eventually the road drops down to Orford itself, a small village nestling above a key. I’ve visited Orford a few times before, and if you’ve never been, a trip across the water to Orford Ness is a must. As well as being a nature reserve, there’s also all the remains of the military presence, especially from WWII, when lots of monitoring took place here. A fantastic and unique place.

I stopped for some food in the village, buying snacks from the busy village store. Then I retraced my route a few miles before heading south towards Butley and Felixstowe Ferry. This was the first of my ferry crossings, where a small ferry runs across the estuary of the River Deben. They happily take bikes and there were small queues on both sides of the river to make the three minute crossing.

The area is full of yachts, and there are plenty of places to stop for a bite to eat, but I back on land, I was heading a few miles south and into Felixstowe.

I’d never visited Felixstowe before, and that was largely because I thought of the place as a major port and not as a tourist destination. Yet clearly that’s not the case. The coast here is geared up entirely to holidaymakers and daytrippers with all the amenities and attractions that you’d expect in any seaside town.

It’s true that at one end, tall cranes tower over the town, but even the sight of a container ship heading into the North Sea doesn’t dampen the place’s spirit.

I was heading to the southern end of the thin peninsula, with tourist attractions eventually giving way to industrial units and security fences. Even though I’d checked in advance, there were no signs advertising a ferry service, and the best I could see were signs for Landguard Point and Customs House. The road ended with a car-park, and a fort which housed a museum. There’s also a very smart café with views across the estuary. Discovering that I had just missed the hourly ferry, I settled into the café for some very reasonably priced drinks.

The Harwich Harbour Ferry runs between Harwich, Felixstowe and Shotley, crisscrossing the area around the docks where the Stour and the Orwell meet. This is where the container ships come ashore, with the vast cranes to unload them. The small ferry easily accommodated my bike and those of two other cyclists who were returning to Harwich having spent a few hours in Felixstowe. The landing in Felixstowe is a little more precarious than at either of the other two stops, with the need to board direct from the stoney beach rather than pull alongside a harbour. Nonetheless it was handled easily and we were soon crossing the harbour, passing yachts and heading towards Harwich where my I got off.

I was now in the home stretch. And the headwind I’d suffered earlier was now magically a tailwind. The A120 is the direct route from Harwich to Colchester, but that was a major road, with I suspect, a lot of heavy goods vehicles running along it. Fortunately National Cycle Route 51 runs a little south of the A120 and takes you through pleasant Essex villages on a parallel but much quieter track.

Only right at the end did I depart the cycle route, and wended my way through Colchester in search of the train station.

This is a nice solid day ride, with lots of opportunities to stop and do interesting things, for the most part on pretty quiet roads.

My Strava measurement below, unfortunately shows a straight line along the coast where I must have accidentally turned off my Garmin. But the route above shows the way I went.

The trip could be made a little shorter by starting and finishing at Manningtree, but you wouldn’t then head through Dedham Vale which would be a shame.

Finally a word on taking your bike on the train on Abellio Greater Anglia. While the operator (owned by Dutch railways) is said to be a good citizen in supporting bikes on trains, I found the information online to be somewhat obtuse.

At time of writing, there’s a page on taking your bikes on trains on their network. It details two types of trains:

– Intercity London to Ipswich and Norwich services
– Local services in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire

Colchester is served by both local services from London and intercity services. Reserving tickets isn’t possible less than 24 hours in advance seemingly, and since I delayed settling on my route until the weather was a bit clearer, I’d seemingly missed the chance to book a bike on a service. In any case, the return time would be uncertain because I wasn’t sure how fast I’d complete the ride.

Not that it’s clear from Abellio’s page, but there are also “local” services from London. These don’t require booking on the basis that there’s not really a specific place for cycles on these trains. I used a disabled area on the train out. But this was at 7:02 on a Saturday morning so the train was basically empty.

But if you read their page, it wouldn’t make any of this clear.

On the return, I was planning to get another “local” train back, but the first train to arrive was an intercity. I didn’t have a reservation, but I stood in the right place (at the back of the train), and the guard let me put my bike on anyway. I saved the better part of an hour getting back since this train was non-stop to London.

Whether other guards would want to check, I’m not sure, but the guard’s van on these trains is still sizeable, and there was only one other bike on the train. (Curiously, nobody collected the bike at Liverpool St, until just as I reached the ticket barriers, another passenger heard my wheels, looked around, said “Oh sh…” and ran off down the platform to collect the bike he’d completely forgotten he’d brought!)