a biking adventure through Norfolk history

As King Prasutago of the Iceni was dying in AD 60, he renounced an agreement with the reigning Roman emperor, Nero, to cede his land in eastern Anglia. Instead, he passed the joint ownership to his relatives. Nero’s man on earth exempted himself from this turnaround and ordered that the territory be annexed and his family humiliated.

Prasutagus’s widow, a certain Boudicca, was furious. “In her gaze more ferocious than her, and her voice was harsh”, wrote the historian Cassio Dione. Mounting his chariot, he led a revolt to the south and his army brought down about 70,000 Romans. His attack was so devastating that Nero almost threw in the towel. Unfortunately, the legions were sent from Cambria (Wales) and the boys of Boudicca were defeated.

Now, nearly two millennia later, here I am in Norfolk, at the site of Venta Icenorum, a “model city” of Roman construction created to appease the remaining Iceni. This is my first stop on a group ride on Cycling UK’s new Norfolk route, The Rebellion Way, launched earlier this month. Thanks to the European Regional Development Fund’s Experience project (with funding secured before Brexit), this and five other regions in England and France have been developed to promote sustainable off-season tourism. A downloadable guide and route are available on the Cycling UK website for £ 14.

The 232-mile, multi-day Rebellion Way circuit offers the pastoral charm and scenic skies of one of England’s least hilly counties. It is designed to be driven in four to six days. The name of the route reveals a story of resistance that makes pedaling suggestive. In addition to passing through Norwich, King’s Lynn and Sandringham, it leads to Castle Acre, Little Walsingham and Holkham through forests and an endless coastline, and even dives into the Norfolk Broads.

I am exploring the route with Cycling UK and Stef Amato, owner of Pannier, an adventure cycling operator. We started early in the day at Norwich train station, heading south on quiet lanes and bridleways to the chocolate box-like market town of Diss (likely to be the route Boudicca took to burn London).

The scene is a defiantly early autumn Norfolk: hedgerowed flat arable land and old cottages of cracked flint and pink plaster, accentuating the modest curves of the terrain. Soon we will count the ancient churches, some strangely abandoned.

While the ride isn’t difficult, the best bikes for this terrain fall into the “gravel” category: reinforced road bikes with drop bars and knobby tires. I’m on a hybrid e-bike, part mountain, part tourer, lazily taking advantage of the battery assistance. If you don’t own one, Visit Norfolk has information on bike rental locations in the county.

“The idea was to create a path that you can do whether you’re eight or 80,” says Guy Kesteven, the curator of the path. “There’s nothing very technical about it.”

Although designed to be driven independently, for those who prefer more help, Rough Ride Guide will arrange four-day self-guided tours (to include a support vehicle and two refreshments per day, plus evening meals and accommodation upon request) starting from 2023.

Our overnight stop is a glamping near Diss called Green Rabbit, which is open from June to October, but there are many other options for the winter cyclist. Over dinner, Cycling UK’s Sophie Gordon tells me another important story associated with this journey: the Kett Rebellion of 1549. Robert Kett was prompted to attempt sedition by the hardships inflicted on peasant workers (due to the closure of the common land ) and amassed a force of 16,000 to lay siege to Norwich.

Visiting Kett’s Heights, where they have gathered, is an optional detour to start or finish the journey. I am told that this sylvan slope offers the most beautiful views of the city, particularly its two cathedrals, Catholic and Protestant.

The effects of archaic land ownership laws are still felt by some today: 92% of England remains off limits. Of the public access routes, only 22% are open to cyclists. Many trails – verboten on two wheels – received their spurious status from persuasive landowners and docile councils in the 1960s. To ride them is to transgress. Part of Cycling UK’s mandate is to change these labels and increase cyclists’ access to the campaign, and the Norfolk course is the sixth long-distance course to be launched by Cycling UK.

“There are echoes of history in the Rebellion Way,” says Gordon. “We are continuing to fight for access!”

Knowing exactly where you should and shouldn’t drive in England is a complex affair; part of the appeal of these routes, then, is the guarantee of a trip that does not violate civil decrees.

The next morning we leave early. The tour is more varied: threshing floors and barns give way to open meadows and wide skies. In a short time we cycle through Thetford Forest, the smell of pine resin and petrichor is pleasant in the air.

We stop for a picnic lunch among the majestic cedars of the Lynford Arboretum, before continuing on to the Duration Brewery. Miranda Hudson and her husband Derek Bates, master brewer, brew beers and beers in a Grade II listed building. It’s a Cycling UK accredited spot, which among other things means there are showers. My tasting flight includes fresh, wild, and sour beers, along with a royal butcher’s favorite drop in nearby Sandringham (also en route; great for cream teas).

The last lazy miles of the day are towards the Arcadian castle of Acre. I splash around in a ford and stop to admire the ruins of its millennial priory. Two black Labradors come to say hello before being chased away by an extra four elderly gentleman. It’s a place to lie on the grass while reading John Clare’s poems.

Fighters roar overhead from nearby RAF Marham as we arrive at our lodgings on the edge of the village at The Pig Shed Motel. I eat steak at the adjacent George & Dragon and go early knowing there will be more races tomorrow.

The last stretch in King’s Lynn is more of the same green and pleasant nonchalance. Unfortunately, my short journey doesn’t go all the way to the north coast, past Holkham Hall and the quirky pilgrimage site Walsingham (“England’s Nazareth”), which Kesteven says is the most dramatic stretch of the circuit.

Norfolk is often described as “timeless”. To me, it felt more like we were stepping back – to a time when the golden hour skies made men cry (and before the village shops or cafes were invented, pack a picnic). Adrenaline-seeking riders should avoid the Rebellion Way, but it’s catnip for the adventurer. And for me too, knocking at 40, as a civilian reintroduction to distance cycling. A sweet sequel off the road and into history.

The trip was provided by Cycling UK with support from Pannier. Further information and route maps are available at cyclinguk.org/rebellion-way

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