31 October 2013

An overnighter to Dunwich

With Lucy being away for most of the weekend, I spontaneously planned a short solo camping trip to one of our favourite places on the British Isles: Dunwich. The plan was to simply cycle there from Diss, in Suffolk, wild camp, and back to Cambridge the following day to catch a train back to London.

The weather forecast for the weekend was surprisingly warm for being late October, however, a pretty nasty wind and rain storm was approaching the UK from the Southwest. Meteorlogists promised very high winds and torrential rain, but this was only to hit Suffolk by Monday night, so I should be more or less safe.

Although I did not particularly stuck to the route below, it's an idea of what I did, and certainly would be a good one if you indeed fancied a go...



A quick journey on a very old-fashioned Greater Anglia British Rail Class 90 train and I set off East towards Southwold, on the Suffolk coast. I initially followed some bits of a route published on Jack Thurston's excellent Lost Lanes book to then carry on towards the sea. It was the perfect cycling day, with temperatures in the early twenties, sunny spells, and a decent southeasterly wind, which pushed me much of the way. I took it very easy and simply enjoyed the quiet countryside of this part of the UK. Even though it is still close to the crowded Southeast, it certainly does not feel like it in terms of traffic...passing only a few cars per hour.

Southwold Pier - definitely above your average UK pier!
Southwold was a fairly pleasant coastal town, with a decent beach if it not were for the nasty view of Sizewell nuclear power plant in the background... Other than that, it has a very relaxed atmosphere, and lots of fresh fish in the fishing port. Again, a nice change from the average English coastal town.

Southwold beach, and the nuclear power plant in the background
From Southwold I first had to cross a little estuary to carry on South, towards Dunwich. You either take a tiny "ferry", which is paddled by a surely very strong man, or you take the pedestrian crossing a bit further inland. 90 p per person and 90 per bike did not seem too pricey, but I just didn't fancy carrying the heavy bike onto the tiny boat...so went for the second option and save the funds for a beer.

Surely the tiniest ferry in the UK!
Once on the other side, I followed the Suffolk coastal path, not because I planned it, but because it appeared on my GPS screen and thought of it as a nice alternative to the roads. I was glad to have thick tyres on the tourer, as recent rain had made the path very muddy and slippery. It was also narrow at places, but somehow managed to cycle through it without falling.

Yep, that's were your bacon and sausages come from!

Suffolk coastal trail - narrow and slippery
It was now approaching 5 pm, and Dunwich was only a few km ahead along the path. I started to seek out places to camp overnight, but first decided to continue on to the Dunwich car park, where there's 24 h toilet facilities where I was to stock up with water.

Dunwich Heath in the background
There were several fishing aficionados set up on the beach, and even a guy swimming. Speaking to one of them, it seems is now the time of the year to get flat fish, and most of them would be spending the night there. After I loaded up with water I considered my options, and staying on the beach seemed the most reasonable one.

The fishermen and I were the only ones on the beach when the sun set

Waiting on the sunset to pitch the tent
I figured if I could walk out along the beach for a while I could find a quiet (and flat) place in which to pitch my tent. I waited until it got dark and pitched by the fences. I would be out in the early morning, and being just me and my tiny tent, I figured I would not bother anyone.

As I had seen warnings of severe weather on all the national newspapers, I confirmed with Lucy that I would be ok for the night. It appeared I was to expect heavy rain showers and winds up to 50 km/h from the Southeast, but nothing worse than that. Being dark at 5:30 pm, I was tucked in my sleeping bag at 8 pm and asleep shortly after that.

The night storms were constant, and at 2:00 am I was abruptly woken up by a partially collapsed tent - the ground wasn't really quite solid and the gusty winds had pulled the pegs out, leaving me with a useless tent in the middle of a downpour. I got out and used the bike to pegged it down more securely, which worked brilliantly until the following morning.

How to peg the tent in soft ground and strong winds
I did not manage to get a very good nights sleep, but when the storms ceased, at about 4 am, I passed out for a couple hours. I hadn't realised that the time changed, so essentially woke up at 7 am to a walker and his dog. It turned out he was one of the maintenance guys working on the beach, but he wasn't bothered by me being there, and just said good morning and joked about the weather.

After a pretty miserable night, the skies opened and I enjoyed a nice sunrise with some porridge cooked on the stove. 

Can't beat the views!

Ready to go 
I noticed the wind was picking up again, and with that, more rainy clouds. What had been a very pleasant morning, had now turned into a horrible autumnal day, with heavy rain, wind a darkness. My GPS had also decided not to show my pre-planned route, so I was left without any idea of where to go. Luckily, I had some maps, and later on I managed to plot a new route with the GPS which seemed fairly reasonable.

The rain stopped a few km out of Dunwich, but then, the promised Southeasterly winds made an appearance. Even though the proper storm was yet not hitting Suffolk, I could certainly feel a very stiff headwind which was to accompany me for literally the entire route to Cambridge. 

The GPS took me on very quiet roads, all very flat and theoretically easy, if it not were for the gusty headwinds. The km did not seem to pass, and I struggled all the way, my speed being brought back down to 8 km/h on several occasions. It felt like a 120 km uphill, and eventually took me 10 hours to reach my destination.

Tons of fresh veg
It got dark by the time I reached Cambridge, and the station certainly was a very welcome sight. I was completely shattered, my face being wind-burnt, but it had been a good way of spending the weekend and seeing the autumnal colors. Of note also, a friendly truck driver congratulated me on my high visibility approach - he had seen me on the road and said my gear was spot-on with a high-vis vest, blinking red lights, and reflectives. Always good to be reassured! 

Back at home I was glad to see I had escaped one of the worst storms that have hit the UK. In a few hours time winds up to 160 km/h were registered in the Isle of Wight and chaos brought to the whole Southeast on Monday morning.

Sunset as I approached Cambridge

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