Car-free road trip: Of Bikes, Books and Beaches

The flames that Semelovsky ignited to provide a distraction had consumed him, and Baranovitch was laying in a pool of blood, having been shot by a Russian guard. Both had given their lives so that Mitchell Gant, fuelled by equal parts fear and ego, could perform the task that his infiltration of the Bilyarsk compound had led to. And now, as he pulled back on the yoke and the Mig 31 leapt into the sky, London and the CIA could entertain the notion of a job well done.

It was only the strong upriver breeze, and its efforts to turn my pages, that prevented Firefox taking a complete hold over me as I relaxed on the beach of Graham’s Wharf. Even the kitesurfer’s luridly hued canopy failed to distract me from my book, and this meant that my location had served me well. It had taken an hour for my wife and I to get here, and it had proven a journey well worth making.

Graham’s Wharf is an artefact from a distant time. Its jetties, the existence of which are now only hinted at by a few dozen rotting timbers, were once pivotal in the movement of agricultural produce to and fro of the local farms, which were served by the many sailing barges that plied the River Stour until the mid 20th century. Around then, road transport had taken over, and the days of barging would rapidly dwindle. Today, it seemed fitting that we had eschewed road transport to get there, too.

The Stour is tidal east of the weir at Cattawade, and forms an estuary about a mile across at its widest point. A haven for wildlife in all its forms, and wildly popular watersports destination, it’s also, very fortunately, right on our doorstep. The Stour is where my wife and I bob around merrily in our inflatable kayak; where we swim from time to time, and where I occasionally cadge the odd sailing trip. The other side, though, the North bank, where Craig Thomas’s famous Cold War espionage thriller had gripped my attention so tenaciously, takes a fair bit of effort to get to.

We live on the South bank, and you can access pretty much any section of that side of the river by road and a brief walk. The North bank is different. The water is split from the road by hectares of undulating farmland, with only narrow farm tracks, footpaths, and bridleways to take you the several miles before you reach the first proper road. With our bikes, though, we can explore these reaches of the river, and actually experience beaches that we’ve admired so many times from our own, comfy, familiar shore, but have set foot on so infrequently.

It’s absolutely delicious when you gain new experiences so close to home. Although the route around took an hour to cycle on rough tracks and steep hills, we were only about a mile from home as the crow flies. The beach wasn’t entirely deserted, but this being a rarely-considered corner of Suffolk, we were happy to share it with those enlightened enough to visit. I arrived with a view to devour a few chapters of my book, and, with Gant now flying a low-signature route through the Urals, my wife and I could begin our journeys home.

Both of us had sore bottoms. This is what happens when your buttocks grow soft from many months of abstention from cycling. Indeed, the last trip we made by bike was in the dying months of 2019 to attend a friend’s barbecue. Since then, the bikes had lived among the spiders and bird food in the garden shed. With England’s Covid-19 lockdown now easing, our liberty to explore was once again enabled, and, what with Kayaking yesterday and cycling today, we were having quite a lifestyle-y weekend of it in the late May sunshine.

Image of bicycle on Stour river front

I soon discovered that riding a bike on sand is quite a lot like being drunk in charge. Probably. You make wobbly forward progress, but the bicycle is very reluctant to go in quite the direction in which you seek to travel. It’s rare that you experience understeer while pedalling, but even the comparatively wide MTB tyres on my old Specialized Hardrock were determined to plough straight on when any steering angle was applied. And this was on the firmest, dampest sand we could find. The rear wheel was finding traction, but there was as much sideways purchase as there was forward propulsion.

So we walked the bikes. For the first time in the day, our metal steeds became hindrances, rather than passports to freedom. There was no easy path on the beach, either; along this stretch, that part of the beach below the tide-line is strewn with substantial, black pebbles over which the bike clatters noisily and uncomfortably, while the sand above the tide-line is dry, fluffy and deep, and far too lightly packed to sustain the weight of a passing bike. This section was a slog, then, albeit a startlingly attractive one.

There’s the issue of folly to address, too. Should you wish, you can leave the beach and instead take the coastal footpath. At occasional intervals, ramps have been eroded into the cliff allowing access, and it was a bit of a lapse of judgment that saw me leading my wife directly past one of these, because ‘there’ll be another in a minute; let’s enjoy the beach a little longer’. Well, that was stretching things a bit. The beach itself was more than enjoyable, but lugging 25kg of recalcitrant mechanical horse was starting to get a bit tedious.

On top of that, the beach we were navigating was rapidly starting to disappear. Time had stood still in that seemingly endless period of bliss in which I learnt so much about the (fictional) inner workings of the KGB, and had intimately witnessed a Vietnam veteran’s struggle to leave behind the ghosts that haunt his military past. The tide hadn’t, though, and I was starting to get a bit concerned about whether we’d end up wading the last few hundred yards before dry land became accessible.

In fact, I was roundly berated here by my wife, for the fact that my quiet semi-panic over the disappearing beach had driven me to walk faster, ploughing up the sand ever more impressively and causing Nicola to fall behind. I took her protests on board and slackened my pace. About now I found myself naturally slowing anyway, because the shore was quite densely wooded here and I had to stoop uncomfortably to clear the overhanging trees. I made a mental note of this section, in fact, because it afforded very pleasant shelter from the sun and the wind, and commanded a pretty spectacular view of Wrabness beach on the opposite bank.

Here, too, was a timely opportunity to join the coast path, which meant no more bloody sand. Instead, punishingly uneven ground, with standing up on the pedals being very much being the order of the day. The path here is rarely more than 18ins wide and lined with nettles, so decent balance is very much a necessity. Troublingly, my instability has been commented upon in the past, and the prospect of me emerging at the other end of the path unscathed was a dicey one. As luck would have it, though, I evidently found a happy equilibrium between wobbles to the left and right and remained un-nettled when the path widened up.

From here, the terrain was more familiar, forming as it does a loop which has been adopted as an official walking route, maintained by local authorities and recently the subject of quite a lot of investment, spurred on by the fact that several hundred massively expensive new houses are being built on former industrial land nearby. Once we had dismissed the ascent away from the river and paused for a final gawp at the view towards the old maltings at our own village, Mistley, the exploring was over. All that remained was the formality of half an hour’s tarmac-surfaced pedalling home.

And then all was pain; a violent interface between knee and metal wire, my chest striking the handlebar stem and my left bar-end tearing the skin off my hip. The pain was immediately met with a sense of anger and resentment; anger at there being an obstruction in my path, and resentment in the fact that I was stupid enough to ride my bike into it. Yes, I had been looking behind me to ensure that my wife was safely following, and paid no attention whatsoever to the metal fence whose concrete anchor I had ploughed into. Still. I asked for a vivid experience, and that’s exactly what my bike ride had served me. I put my agony aside and trundled home to finish my book.

Image of bicycle on Stour river front

[All images copyright Gianni Hirsch/Hooniverse 2020. After I got home and finished my book, I went for a bit of a drive.]

About RoadworkUK

RoadworkUK is the online persona of Gianni Hirsch, a tall, awkward gentleman with a home office full of gently decomposing paper and a garage full of worthless scrap metal. He lives in the village of Moistly, which is a safe distance from London and is surrounded by enough water and scenery to be interesting. In another life, he has designed, sold, worked on and written about cars in exchange for small quantities of money.

9 Comments

  1. The two answers for sand are a fat bike with 4″ tires or get off and walk, which is a common thing in cyclocross racing. I’m glad you had a good ride, fortunately Oregon wasn’t shut down as hard as some places so we have been riding weekly.

    1. +1 on this. Have you ever seen anyone riding a fat tire bike without a silly grin on their face? I rest my case. 😀

  2. Surely one of them is a typo, but my familiarity with British place names cautions me to not hazard a guess.

    Do you live in Mistley (so in the text) or Moistly (so in your blurb)?

    I could look it up on Google, but there’s a good chance both are place names, or even surnames.

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