With the upcoming National Road Championships heading to the little big county of Norfolk, I thought it was about time to show off the county’s varied ‘must see’ sights and attractions by bike, covering spots along the route and those a bit further afield.
With fields as far as the eye can see and a sky that spans the horizon with no interruption, it’s easy enough to get lost in it all
Norfolk has long been my home and a solid place to put in the winter base miles. Often unforgiving and with little remorse in the hard winters it truly comes into its own during the spring and the summer. Home to fictional characters like Alan Partridge and historical ones such as Lord Nelson, Norfolk offers what many seek in a get-away spot and being a little off the beaten track you’re sure to be one of the select few to enjoy its scenery. If you’re up at a reasonable hour and take the numerous back roads the most traffic you’re likely to encounter is the odd tractor. On many occasions it lives up to its stereotypes, but in its own great characterful way.
The myths of Norfolk being flat are far from truth. Much of the road race takes in the coast road, on and off of which you’ll be able to find many a climb that can be rather testing after long day in saddle. The roads themselves are by no means smooth, so you’ll be sure to be expending much of your power rolling along the lanes. This itself provides a unique challenge, if you’re up for it. A more relaxed ride is also easily achievable. The roads can be as testing or as casual as you wish to make it.
With fields as far as the eye can see and a sky that spans the horizon with no interruption, it’s easy enough to get lost in it all. So here are by top 10 tips for things to do and see around the county by bike and to have a surefire adventurous day out.
1. Holkham Hall & Estate
Appearing in the midway part of the national road championships road race route, the Estate itself is home to the birthplace of modern farming. It also boasts an impressive driveway spanning the best part of 4 km. Appearing from the back entrance heading up towards its obelisk you can find the most stunning view of the hall itself. Originally designed to be a home for numerous artworks and real example off renaissance architecture, its sure to leave a lasting impression and will have you enquiring into the history of its grounds. The hall entrance is accessible through a large gate which has its own smaller gate door and onto to a ‘Permissive Path’. The cafe is just to the back of the hall itself within an old courtyard, here you can also visit the gift shop and pick up a book on the godfather, don dada all round genius of modern farming Thomas William Coke.
On from Holkham and just down the road is the old fishing town of Wells-next-the-Sea, a favourite stop for the cycling community of Norfolk. Still with much of its original features intact, including old railway tracks, a defining landmark is the old granary and its over-hanging gantry. The shipping port is still in action and fresh fish, crab and lobster are abundant. Personal recommendations of cafe spots include Grey Seal Coffee, which has a beautiful window seat looking out onto the harbour. Venture further down along the harbour side and you will find yourself at Wells beach itself. Why not take your new-fangled gravel-sand-fat-cross-mountain-bike-whatever-you have-with-two-wheels and have some fun on the dunes.
3. WW2 airfields
The route itself covers and cuts round various old WW2 airfields. Rich in history stretching from the 1940s into the Cold War and beyond, they offer a look into the mysteriousness of military life. Fine examples include West Raynham airfield which at one point had anti missiles pointing towards Russia in case of the outbreak of nuclear Wwar and RAF Sculthorpe which, although out of active operation, is still frequented by various aircraft during Wednesday evening operations. Hercules and Ospreys can be found flying low across north and west Norfolk giving you your own personal air show. Another famed spot is Lagham Dome, used for the training of anti aircraft operators, sticking out like
Remnants of these airfields are found in and on the roads themselves, often appearing out of nowhere, where concrete strips crisscross the fields and tarmac. One more little fact for the road: the still MoD owned RAF Sculthorpe is home to one of the only heated runways in Britain, long enough to take an emergency landing of a spacecraft. I went ‘full Partridge’ with that fact!
The city itself is known to be a hidden gem for any who visit. With a wide variety of independent shops and cafes, winding medieval streets and a strong cycling community, you’ll find whatever you’re after here. Cycling clubs are a plenty. Whether you would like a fast group to go out with or you just fancy a leisurely ride and stop at the pub, groups are there to cater for all your needs. Speaking of stopping at the pub, The Fat Cat ride does just that, out and back on Sunday on whatever bike you ride, heading into the Fat Cat pub for a pint. And if you’re somewhat of a sommelier and like a wine, enjoy a cheeseboard to go with it, all for the grand total of £3.
Norwich is without a specific cycling cafe but has plenty that
Trails out of Norwich are easily accessible, although it does not boast an extensive cycle network. A popular trail is that along Marriots Way, which runs on an old railway line from the heart of the city some 20 miles outwards into north Norfolk.
5. Sandringham Estate
This Royal estate is known worldwide and plays host to this year’s TT course. Expect to find smooth roads fit for King or Queen and beautiful scenery to boot. It expands far into west Norfolk and is frequented by tourists and Royal fans alike. You may even have the chance of spotting the Queen herself or at least her vast entourage in blacked out Range Rovers. Just up from the estate is the historic town of Kings Lynn where vast squares of medieval architecture can be found. Many including myself have a likened it the streets of Gent. With a vast and rich trading history between Flanders and this Norfolk town, it is no wonder it bares such a resemblance. A scene of the now infamous film Revolution, starring Al Pacino, was filmed outside the old customs house, right on those streets.
From Sandringham you can pick up a range of national cycle routes that will take you towards the coast and inland, on and off road. This is quite a tucked away spot. Plenty of local pubs and high-end restaurants can be discovered in and around the area itself. You’ll be quite surprised as you venture inward towards the likes of Burnham Market, dubbed as Chelsea-on-Sea. Hopefully you won’t find yourself on the bonnet of a Tesla while cutting through.
6. Reedham Ferry
Away from the west of county, snaking your way towards the Broads, you may find yourself in somewhat of a predicament as to how you cross the River Yare. In this case you can use the ever popular Reedham Ferry, the last and only vehicle ferry operating in Norfolk. This is somewhat of a cyclist’s pilgrimage. No trip to Norfolk is complete without it. The price of the ferry is a mere £1 for pedestrians and cycles. Don’t forget to take a picture for the ‘gram – I mean, were you even there if you didn’t?
While you’re out that way you can take yourself to The Woodfordes Brewery and Pub and have yourself a world famous pint of Wherry. Nothing tastes sweeter than a pint of an amber ale after an arduous day out.
7. St Michael the Archangel’s Church, Booton
Booton was once the childhood home of Stephen Fry, and with its eccentric church makes you’d think it had rather positive effect on a young Fry. The church was built in the late 19th century and has several quirky features including glass pains dedicated to the women that toured with the church’s benefactor Rev Whitwell Elwin, who was a descendent of the Native American princess Pocahontas no less. If that little story doesn’t spark your intrigue, then the church’s exterior certainly will. With two dominating spires and an entrance inspired by Glastonbury Abbey, it certainly stands out from the usual Church of England run-of-the-mill one spire job. The road race route passes by and I’m sure many a rider will pray for the gods to be on their side that day.
8. Castle Acre / Pedders Way
Further west and carrying on the religious theme are the ruins of both Norman Castle and Abbey at Castle Acre. Tucked to the side of the main road in between Swaffham and Fakenham, the castle at least was built by William de Warenne who is reported to be the 14th richest man in all of history. Easily accessible from here is Pedders Way, a shared off road cycle route that spans much of west Norfolk. It was initially a Roman Road built in AD61 and then an infamous smuggling route. The area itself is one not commonly frequented by cyclists but it is popular with ramblers and those on a religious pilgrimage. This side of Norfolk is truly the home of old money, and is also the beginning of The Brecks.
Further down the road and leading on from The Brecks i Thetford Forest, a hotspot for mountain bikers. It plays host to numerous events a year including national series rounds and 24hr events. If you’re looking for a challenge, and something with varied terrain then this is the spot.
9. Borwell Cycles
Norfolk is home to many an independent bike shop. Some have been running for decades, and some for only few years. One of the Norwich staples and must visits is Borwell Cycles on Spencer Street. Set back in the rows of Victorian terraces, this humble shop will provide you with all your needs, and likes a project. Whether its hand built wheels or installing your new eTAP they can do it! The shop is a favourite of Norfolk’s own Mike Burrows, the renowned engineer and inventor of Chris Boardman’s famed monocoque Lotus bike. You may just catch a glimpse of him around town on his cargo bike. A history of his work is available in book form through Borwell Cycles.
10. The North Norfolk Wheelers Club 10
The North Norfolk Wheelers Club 10 summarises much of what cycle racing in England is really all about. As the days become lighter in the evenings, the famed Pretty Corner 10 appears, just up the road from the seaside town of Sheringham. Held on various dates during the warmer months of the racing calendar, this course is a testing one, downhill at first with a roundabout turn at the bottom, then uphill again. No less a satisfying TT there ever was, especially on summer nights with the sun going down and the warm heat on your back. Through the fields of oil seed rape and catching the costal air, you’ll find yourself in somewhat of dreamlike state by the time you’ve finished. Either because of that or the sheer battering you’ve just given yourself. A recommended evening out for any who visit.