Sunday 17th August 2014
led by James Brander
The Joy of Essex ride is number 25 of the Lost Lanes rides from the book of that name by Jack Thurston. It is the second that I have enjoyed with Camden Cyclists (the first being the Kent ride from Sevenoaks last August). Thurston writes about “stunningly picturesque villages, windmills and quiet lanes,” which really encouraged me to take part.
The slow train from Tottenham Hale brought George, Alec and I to the start point in the village of Elsenham. When we alighted we found James had joined the train at Harlow Town. We waited until the official start time of 11am in case anyone else arrived. Unfortunately no-one else did, so the four of us set off into the Essex countryside through the village.
Fording the Roding
Shortly after leaving Elsenham, James remembered a place where damsons were growing by the roadside. We helped ourselves to a few of these while George found some blackberries down the lane. James then took us on an interesting off-road diversion.
Low overhanging trees and bushes made us duck and dive until we reached the River Roding crossing our path. It was not much to speak of at this point but not wanting to get our bikes, or feet, wet and muddy (especially as we couldn’t see how deep it was) we clambered across a stone bridge and past tree roots. We continued on similar paths and rejoined the route. We passed the remains of an abbey at Tilty and lots of wide open fields offering wonderful vistas.
Our first sight of Thaxted was a distant view of the church and the windmill which appeared close together. As we got closer we only had fleeting glimpses above the houses, which were picturesque and colourful. A quick snack of coffee and cakes in Poppy’s Tea Rooms refreshed us ready for the next stage of the trip.
We stopped in Little Bardfield to view the church there and again in Great Bardfield for the Windmill, both worthy of the photo opportunities. Between Great Bardfield and Finchingfield we noticed some strange animals in the field beside the road. There were 3 or 4 wallabies hopping around and an ostrich just beyond.
The ride down into Finchingfield presented us with a quintessentially English view of the village green, the pond, a couple of pubs, tea rooms and another windmill. As the pubs looked very full, we decided the Finchingfield Tea Room would be sufficient for lunch. We cheekily moved the outside furniture further out into the sun and enjoyed a lovely lunch of soup and sandwiches. George asked our waitress what it was like when the Tour de France came through Finchingfield on its way to London. The waitress told us that there had been ten thousand people waiting there to see it the cyclists go by. It didn’t seem possible. We took time to visit the windmill before we set off north continuing on the planned route.
Great Sampford and Radwinter
Our second deviation from Jack Thurston’s route was towards Great Sampford to the west, which cut off quite a significant corner of the original route. We rejoined the main route at Radwinter. Here we investigated another old church with an interesting lych gate. The dedications on the outside of the gate were to God and the king but on the inside were to Queen Victoria. We continued on to Wimbish Green and Elder Street. Afternoon tea was served here soon after four at a cafe attached to a garden centre.
Priors Hall Barn
After tea we continued onto Widdington where we visited what is described as “one of the finest surviving medieval barns in the east of England”. When William the Conquerer was planning to invade he stayed at the priory of St-Valery-sur-Somme in France. After the battle he showed his gratitude by giving land in Essex to the priory (hence the name). The barn is absolutely stunning and beautifully restored. Just along the lane we encountered a magnificent, photogenic beast, a highland longhorn, who was very keen to pose for us.
We finally joined the road that runs alongside the M11 and the railway back down to Elsenham. Along here we encountered the ‘uts, mentioned in Jack Thurston’s book. Our photograph is in front of the Lee Valley Cycling Club ‘ut which we thought was fitting. We arrived back at Elsenham Station and discovered we’d just missed a train. This was an opportunity to visit the local hostelry for a very welcome beer and a review of the ride. I thought the ride was distinguished by history, architecture and characteristic Essex villages and countryside. I was tempted to entitle this piece “’Uts and ’Istory”.
The forty minutes passed quickly and we got back to the station in good time to catch the slow train back into London. On the train we heard announcements of a fast train we could catch from Bishops Stortford so we all changed trains. James was returning to Liverpool Street again but the rest of us got off at Tottenham Hale and had to face busy London traffic all the way back to Camden.
Article by Geoff Stilwell
Here’s a map of the route:
Photos by Geoff Stilwell. Full photoset on our Flickr account.