Wicken Fen: A Cycle Ride from Ely to Cambridge – Stuck in Draft #4

Here’s a cycle ride I took in April 2016. I think the winter and spring months are quite a nice time to do this ride. It’s not especially demanding and is easy to reach from London with direct trains from King’s Cross. Another in my series, Stuck in Draft.

Reading Rain recently, I realised that it had been a while since I last visited Wicken Fen, the National Trust owned wetland fen in rural Cambridgeshire. It’s a wonderful little paradise that shows how the fens would have looked before they were managed by man. The fenlands are very arable, so over years, a complicated system of ditches, dykes, pumps and droves has led to the marshes being drained and many crops being grown.

At Wicken Fen the National Trust has a 100 year vision to take over more of the land between Wicken and Cambridge and to preserve a unique natural habitat.

I suspect that most people drive to Wicken, but it’s pretty easy to get to via bike, which is of course how I travelled there. The closest station to the reserve is at Ely, but it’s a nice ride to continue on afterwards back to Cambridge. Ely is very easy to get to from central London, with three trains an hour leaving King’s Cross, the fastest taking a little over an hour.

The route I took, shown on the linked Strava map below, is actually not the one I’d fully recommend. My route took me along the A142 from Ely a bit too much, and although this isn’t a terrible road to cycle along, traffic does past you at speed. It’s worth noting that much of the landscape here is very exposed, so even a slight wind will be felt by you.

I’d instead recommend following the Sustrans National Cycling Route 11 which runs along the Ouse before turning SE and towards Wicken. The only thing to note about this, and other parts of the route, is that they’re not suitable for cyclist with skinny racing tyres.

My slightly duller route joined up with Route 11 at Barway, where a large grocery packing plant sits alone in the fens. An adjacent hostel suggests that many of the workers are not local. And continuing on, a sign in both English and Polish warning drivers to be on the lookout for cyclists, backs that up.

It only takes a little over half an hour to reach the reserve itself, down a short road in the village of Wicken itself. You pass a car park and several houses before reaching the visitor centre.

I would say that I’d arrived early, but the site is open from dawn to dusk, and now that we’re on British Summertime, that would have meant 6:30am – far too early for me to reach Wicken via public transport from London. Nonetheless, even a little past 9:00am, there were few about.

A helpful staff member pointed out the various routes around the reserve, and where was currently accessible. As these are wetlands, much of the land is inaccessible for large parts of the year. Sedge Fen has a Boardwalk allowing access year around, and that’s where most visitors go. Beyond that there is the longer loop that takes in a couple of the bigger hides that tower over the nearby fens. When I visited this was an out-and-back walk since the ground was still too wet towards the back of the reserve.

The National Trust also has cycle hire, a nice little café where I got a snack for lunch, and a well stocked shop. You can do short boat trips, and they even have some geocaches hidden around the reserve!

One solution for being able to get into the reserve early might be to camp, and I note that there’s a wild camp nearby that you can reserve for a group – especially good for families.

I got back on my bike and headed south, still in Trust-owned fens. The cycle route is well signed and you’re soon out in open land.

I’d brought my kite with me since I thought it might be fun to try some more kite aerial photography. There wasn’t a great deal of wind, but it was enough to get my camera up into the air. Not as fancy as my drone, but it’s much more packable in a runsack, and I’m not sure that the Trust would have been happy with me buzzing around with rotors, whereas a kite is harmless.

The cycle route is also called the Lodes Way, because it reaches the pretty village of Lode near another National Trust property, Anglesey Abbey. But also because lodes are what the manmade waterways that criss-cross the countryside in these parts are called. Lode is a pretty little village, filled with thatched cottages (alongside some more recent buildings). I’d have called in at the Abbey, but the car-park suggested that it was quite busy, so I decided to give it a miss.

From Anglesey Abbey, I should have perhaps headed south a little further to the village of Bottisham, before joining National Cycle Route 51, but I instead cycled along the B1102 through the village of Stow cum Quy before rejoining the route and riding into Cambridge. If you’re lucky you might pass the end of Cambridge Airport’s runway when something interesting lands.

The massive new CyclePoint at Cambridge Station has recently opened, with room for nearly 3,000 cycles, perhaps the closest anywhere in Britain to those enormous cycle parks you see near Dutch train stations. In due course there will also be an attached shop. But the whole area around the front of the station is still something of a work-site at the moment.

The whole trip at 36 km (22 miles) is a nice day out – especially if the weather is good.

Tour of Cambridgeshire Gran Frondo

Tour of Cambridgeshire Gran Frondo Number

“This is a race!”

That’s what the chap on the public address tannoy kept telling us as we queued up in our pens for Sunday’s start of the UK’s first ever Gran Frondo.

Technically it was a race. And those keen club riders were in a front pen which would be let off first and have Shimano neutral support vehicles helping them. Dependent on timings, they would get UCI qualification points towards something bigger further down the line. The bulk of us, however, were in a second pen which was more akin to sportives. That is, highly organised day rides with lots of assistance and in particular drink and food stops. The only person I’d be racing would be me.

In any event, even if I had wanted to “race” we were released a minute or so after the elite riders, and since there were around 6,000 of us in total, it took a couple more minutes to get past the start gate.

This was actually my first sportive. and I was riding by myself. Although the race started from Peterborough Showground at midday, it still necessitated a 6am wake-up followed by a twenty minute ride to a remote station (my line wasn’t running due to engineering), two trains, another thirty minute ride and then a pre-10am registration.

To be honest, they could have sent us our details in the post. But there were concessions open, and they obviously didn’t want 6,000 people all showing up with about 15 minutes to go. Since the route from the station to the Showground was fiddly (although nice, if you took the cycle paths), a few of us stuck together with a combination of scribbled help and Google Maps.

Once check-in had been completed, there was quite a lot of sitting around to do. There were stupidly long queues for breakfast or coffee. I’d had an early breakfast before I set out, although it would be approaching lunchtime as we set off.

Finally the race was on. And even though I wasn’t “racing”, everyone set off at a really decent pace. I found myself easily averaging over 30 kph. To put this in context, I usually ride at around 23 kph when I’m on my own. But this was a flatter course, and there were lots of people around me. That said, I actually did a very limited amount of slip-streaming over the course of the day.

The thing to note about the route was that it was flat. Very flat. I’ve ridden in Cambridgeshire a fair bit, but in the part around Cambridge itself. This route was mostly amidst the Fens. And the Fens, unsurprisingly, are pan flat. The Fens are a very remote place. You need to travel miles to reach the nearest town. The race coming through therefore represented relatively little disruption. They are a fascinating and beautiful place. I suspect that life out there is quite unlike other places. Because the area has been artificially reclaimed, the roads are straight – very straight. They’re often called droves, and we would find ourselves cycling mile after mile with barely a kink in the road.

A key thing about this event was that it was a closed road event. Fully closed road events are relatively rare in the UK, and the organisers promised that as long as people kept a reasonable pace up, they’d stay closed.

What that meant in practice was that the locals came out in force to applaud riders as they came through. Many families seemed to just set up some deckchairs by their front gate and cheer people on as they rode past. Pubs seemed to be doing good business along the route too.

The first drink and food stop was in a very curious place – the old Alconbury airfield. It was closed as an airbase in 1995, and today seems to have industrial units and is also used as a mass storage area. There were hundreds of lorry trailers parked and many brand new cars stored there. We zig-zagged through the site until we ended up on the main runway, and rode a mile down it, the heat of the day causing shimmering in the distance. We then turned around and rode up one of the taxiways.

It was around here that I first noticed what would become a steady number of accidents. While I never saw one happen myself, it was clear that they were happening for one of two reasons. Either people weren’t seeing problems on the road – unexpected speed-bumps for example – perhaps coming as they were drinking from their bottle. Or they were being clipped by passing bikes. Early on in the event I kind of understood why there was a fast-moving train of bikes coming through – perhaps a group of club riders had been further back in the pen and wanted to get a good time. But I was confused to find with 30 km left, there was still a steady stream of them. Were they taking really lengthy breaks? (I was stopping for ~ 5 mins each time).

And you could also tell if someone was rearing up with deep-rimmed wheels. They make quite a noise as they come through. Whether or not they were smart to use in the windy Fens is another question.

I didn’t have any issues myself, but the likely causes were fast chains on the right running into inexperienced riders who weren’t riding in straight enough lines. There usually seemed to be first aid on hand, but it certainly made you want to be cautious.

While as I’ve mentioned, the course was flat, the big issue out in the Fens was the wind. It was a very clear day, and the temperature was comfortable. But there was wind. It wasn’t obvious when you were riding along hedgerows. But basically there are no hedgerows to protect you. Indeed, you’re riding slightly higher than everyone else in the landscape.

As I mentioned, only occasionally did I manage to hook onto others – they were either going too fast for me or too slow. So for a lot of those exposed roads, I ended up going down on my drops to minimise air resistance as much as possible and just ploughed on doing my own thing.

Near enough everyone was on a road bike, but there was at least one tandem that I saw regularly. Usually it overtook me, before stopping at the side of the road allowing me to overtake it, then it’d happen again. I noticed that both riders had their own GPS units, I guess because the rider at the back doesn’t have the greatest view ever. There were also a lot of upright bikes. When I was still seeing them with just a few kilometres to go, I was full of admiration. As I’ve mentioned, the wind made me want to keep a low profile.

There were three stops along the course, although I didn’t know we’d be getting the third. But I did need the stops – if only to stretch my legs a little. Because it was flat, you were pedaling the whole time as opposed to working on a climb and then freewheeling down it. There was very little freewheeling.

We returned into Peterborough, and I road the last few kilometres at over 30 kph, even putting on a sprint finish (in retrospect “sprinting” at 500m to go was not sensible).

Over the line in 4:47 according to my Garmin, although my official time, which will include my three stops, will be higher than that.

There was a little confusion about where you had to go to collect your medal, but eventually I got in the right queue. Subsequently I read that some people felt roads were opened too early, and that the first food stop shut down too soon. Maybe it was as well that I headed off out fast?

On the plus side, it seemed well organised, and it was a good day out. Using the entire road is a wonderful privilege.