We slept well. Our B&B was luxurious with a very comfortable bed that I wished I could have spent longer in but I couldn’t, we had 220 miles ahead of us. While Gael awakened I peered under Riley Blue’s bonnet, checked fluid levels (oil and coolant were both spot on) and wiggled leads. The windscreen needed a clean so it was out with the glass cleaner and kitchen roll. Bugs on the front of the car I left where they were, they’re trophies of a good drive.
We’d been in the habit of carrying an overnight bag on board rather than totally unpacking the car so within a couple of minutes everything was stowed away. Sarah stuck her head out of the window to bid us ‘goodbye’, Gael turned to ‘Day Two’ in the road book, I clipped the clothes peg (wooden of course) on the choke and Riley Blue shook itself into life. I gave the throttle a few blips, slipped into first gear and we were away.
We wriggled our way through the villages of Maugersbury, Bledington and Churchill, crossed the A44 near Enstone to head east on the B4030. We had a near-miss (or should that be a near-hit?) with an artic hauling animal feed at a 90-right on a single track road but otherwise the first few miles of the day were uneventful and it wasn’t raining!
We passed the former airfield at Upper Heyford and headed through Middleton Stoney, smiling at each other, there’s a village called Stoney Middleton not far from our home in Derbyshire. Then we arrived at the outskirts of Bicester, turned right and then left on to the A41 to make an immediate right turn into Tesco for what we anticipated would be our final fuel stop. As we moved to the filter lane to turn right an Audi zig-zagged at speed past us in attempt to beat the traffic lights. He was our first d*ckh**d of the trip.
Though we’d only been on the road a short while we decided to take a break and grab a bite to eat as thanks to Covid our ‘B&B’ was just ‘B’. It was 9:50 a.m. and we weren’t in a rush so with Riley Blue’s tank refilled (26 litres at 116.9 p.p.l) we picked an isolated space and parked. At times like this we play a rather childish game, we park away from any other vehicles to see what will be the first one to park near us. Often it’s a small van, usually white, seldom sign written – and it is today too!
Bacon & egg butties scoffed we headed towards the centre of Bicester. Although our route was easterly, to keep to B roads we needed first to head north to Fringford, then south-east to cross the A4421. Fringford immediately jumped to first place in our ‘best village of the trip’ category. It had a tree in a grass triangle, a finger post pointing to ‘Fringford Only’, two village greens, an ivy -covered pub and it is Candleford Green in the ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ books. We decided we could happily live in Fringford.
As we turned to cross the A4421 we bumped over a patchwork of tarmac into Stratton Audley Park and along its tree lined avenue. Elegant horses munched the grass in paddocks either side as we passed between stable blocks and farm buildings. The mountains of Wales and hills of the Cotswolds were behind us, today’s landscape would be flatter and though we had further to travel, we figured we’d be able to keep up a good pace. The road surface however had other ideas with longitudinal cracks, some up to an inch wide, and I was again grateful for the sump guard. Then we passed the likely reason, a trailer the size of a warehouse laden with straw bales. A lone cyclist picked his way through the cracks, potholes and patches, weaving across to the centre line but, sharing his problem we slowed, giving him a wide berth.
‘Left before two house’ advised the road book. Fortunately the two houses had not gone the way of the previous day’s phone box and we turned past the Calvert Jubilee nature reserve, its future under threat from HS2. A road sign warned of uneven surface for three miles – what had we just driven on? Just as helpful, another sign read ‘Road Closed Ahead’. Fortunately it was a side road off our route.
Abruptly the road surface changed colour and was smoother; had we changed counties? No, we were already in Buckinghamshire, strange. We passed through villages with timber framed thatched cottages and signs alerting us to ‘ducks’. Botolph Claydon had a splendid brick village hall and clock tower and the vernacular architecture used red brick rather than the Cotswold stone of the villages earlier in the day.
With almost 50 miles covered we were well into our stride. Riley Blue was purring along, Gael’s directions are spot on and me, I was happy – driving the byways of Britain is something I never tire of.
Winslow came and went and we swung left on the B4032 towards Leighton Buzzard, not that we would pass through the town as we aimed between it and Bletchley, crossing Watling Street (today the A5) at Little Brickhill. Before that we enjoyed the best stretch of road of the whole trip, the B4032 between Mursley and Stewkley. A tipper lorry ahead of us turned off, we had a clear road ahead and the surface was perfect as we built up speed and flowed over the crests and dips. All too soon we had to slow for Stewkley but for a few brief minutes we had experienced motoring nirvana.
That soon ended with a detour to bypass long term road works on Ivy lane near the Three Locks Golf Club. We made a right, left, left and right again to drive four miles round three sides of a rectangle just to move forward half a mile.
That was soon forgotten as we drove through Woburn, along Park Street and over a cattle grid into (no surprise) Woburn Park where a sign requested to kill our speed, not the deer. We obliged, willingly. The park reminded us off our local stately pile, Chatsworth. No deer killed or even seen, we were through the park and away. Woburn, of course, is in Bedfordshire; we have reached eastern England and the sun was still shining!
The miles soon passed. The roads were so-so and the scenery pleasant enough but unremarkable as we crossed over the M1, then the A6, taking a more northerly direction at Pegsdon to avoid Hitchin and Letchworth Garden City. We passed through Shefford and wish we hadn’t. It was home to some of the nastiest, most vicious speed bumps we have ever encountered and there are lots of them. As we approached the first one we heard a SUV driving the other way ‘graunch’ on it. If a high-riding SUV could hit it, we were guaranteed too and we did, and the next. We slowed to a halt before each one, it made little difference. It would be the first and last time we visit Shefford.
As we crested the bridge over the A1 at Edworth, East Anglia stretched into the distance. The landscape was now various shades of arable from pale gold stubble through green to the dark brown of newly ploughed fields. A cyclist led us across the A505 and we were soon driving between huge fields, not a sheep or a cow in sight, just plenty of grain; the name Wheat Hill Farm gave a clue which. We arrived at Sandon which has a huge village green, immediately placing it on our ‘best village’ scoreboard. The green had an old red telephone box and letter box at its centre – bonus points! Soon afterwards we noticed the verges were well worn particularly on the outside of bends. We’ve recognised this as a sign of large agricultural vehicles so proceeded cautiously especially as there’s a centre line of gravel and stones along the road which has narrowed considerably. A van started to reverse out of a driveway to our right but a polite toot of Riley Blue’s horn saw its brake lights come on, just as well as an oncoming car squeezed past, scarcely slowing down.
We missed a turn though neither of us was bothered. It meant we crossed the A10 a couple of miles further south than intended, dodged round road works in Buntingford and picked up the B1368 a mile to the south of our intended junction. It cost us 18 minutes, we still weren’t bothered.
We saw a sign for Audley End, a house we have visited and I have flown over in a Tiger Moth from Duxford. Tiger Moths, I can report, have more rattles and are draughtier than a 57 year old Riley!
Into and through Saffron Walden we went. It’s a medieval market town remarkable for one reason that I doubt few have noticed and it was only whilst route planning that it suddenly popped into my head. The town has a population approaching 17,000 and describes itself as ‘quintessentially English’. It’s close to Stanstead airport, the M11 is just to the west and its railway station, along with many others, closed in 1964 but what else is it also lacking that we benefited from? Answer at the end.
What Saffron Walden did have is a Tesco. I hadn’t noticed it when planning our route as we wouldn’t be searching for petrol at that point in our journey but it was early afternoon; sustenance was needed and out of habit I topped up Riley Blue. As I was doing so a man walked across and asked its year. “It’s twin carbs, isn’t it?” We fall into ‘car chat’ and I mentioned where we were going and where we’d been including LeJoG last year. He had done it on a Norton Dominator; I bet he ached after he got off! He took a few photos, showed me other classics he’d spotted and snapped and we waved farewell – what a nice chap.
Our route took us north east. The place name Steeple Bumpstead, like Biggleswade and Baldock, had always made me smile so we headed over that way then dodged Haverhill, aiming to cross the A14 west of Bury St Edmunds. The garage in Steeple Bumpstead had a pre-war car on its forecourt, a blue, artillery-wheeled roadster, but we were past before I could grab a good look; was it for sale? The B1057 turned left, we drove ahead, on to The Endway and into the Essex countryside, dodging pot holes and crumbling road edges. By the way, the parish church in Steeple Bumpstead doesn’t have a steeple.
Over the A14 at Westley we went, intending to take the B1106 ‘North Circular’ round Bury St Edmunds to turn left through Timworth. Developers and the local council have had other ideas, from a junction in fields with a gnarled old tree and grassy triangle there is now a tightly packed development of boxy housing, indistinguishable from those we passed in Bicester and identical to many other towns. An all-important road sign no longer read ‘Honington and Gt. Livermore’ but ‘Village Routes Only’ and we missed it. For half an hour we were snarled up in homeward bound commuter traffic with temporary traffic lights at Fornham St Martin delaying us further. It was frustrating but after some to-ing and fro-ing we found our way to Great Livermore and resumed our intended route.
We were well into the heartland of East Anglia, driving along single track lanes with verges just too tall to see over so progress was slow and several times we reversed to allow oncoming vehicles to pass. The villages through which we passed were less ‘twee’, the area looked like it had its rolled up its sleeves, jumped into its GPS guided mega-machinery and was farming on an industrial scale which, of course, it was; huge fields stretched to the horizon.
The sun was starting to set and the shadows were lengthening as we passed Banham Zoo. Norfolk’s rural B roads were, in the main, not too bad. They were often straight, broad, largely free from the ravages of frost and were well signed with telephone poles and wires indicating the severity of turns ahead. We were able to make good time as a result. We enjoyed one of our longest direction-free stretches of the whole trip: 17.5 miles on the B1135 to cross the A140 near Upper Tasburgh. A road closure at Hapton meant a few miles detour through Flordon to pick up the B1527 further on, Gael’s map reading was spot on.
We were able to slip past Bungay but not Beccles where our route found us visiting ‘speed bump central’ once again, this time through a housing estate but it was the only way and soon we turned on to the B1127 for a short distance then through Mutford where my Dad’s mother grew up. There was an imposing church with a round tower on the village edge but I had no address so a drive around the village would have been pointless.
We were nearing Lowestoft and there was a bit of a problem. We were south of the town and needed to cross Lowestoft’s Inner Harbour to reach our destination to the north. Thanks to the lack of bridges over the River Waveney and Oulton Broad we had a single option, to take the A12 and A47. There was no other choice. The traffic was busy as we drove past Morrisons, Screwfix, Aldi and Travis Perkins to avoid a stretch of A12, crossing it onto the B1532 towards the town centre. More speed bumps then a few busy junctions, one last roundabout and we were on Gas Works Road that led to Ness Point, the most easterly place in England. We could smell the sea and as we turned right past a gas holder we saw it dead ahead – we had arrived!
I swung Riley Blue around and killed the engine, we could go no further. Gael got out and wandered over to where the actual farthest east point was, beyond the reach of cars; I grabbed my camera and followed.
What a let down. There was a ‘Euroscope’ set into the sea defences, a sort of compass pointing to far off places in each direction, Britain’s largest wind turbine (it is called ‘Gulliver’, is 25 metres tall and generates enough electricity to power 1,500 houses for a year when it is turning, which today it wasn’t) a graffiti covered concrete tower and that was about it. The Euroscope doesn’t include the most westerly point that we have just driven all the way from but distances from Land’s End, John O’Groats and Cardiff were shown. According to the on-line Suffolk magazine a million pounds were due to have been spent by spring 2020 to transform the site into a landmark visitor destination rivalling Land’s End and John O’Groats. If the work had been completed, it was hard to spot; no wonder Ness Point was 27th of the 32 things to do in Lowestoft.
The sun was setting and I looked around for something to photograph to signify the completion of our drive; there was a blue cycle way sign and a battered sea wall sign. I took a photo of Riley Blue against the setting sun, with the gas holder and a digger in the background and another in front of the concrete tower; they were the most appropriate backdrops I can find.
We’d driven 236.12 miles against our 220 target but that’s OK. Our average speed had been a lowly 23.8 mph. That too was OK, ‘speed’ is not what our jaunts in Riley Blue are about.
Right now a hot meal and a celebratory G&T (me) and Sauvignon Blanc (Gael) were what we needed. Within half an hour they’re exactly what we were enjoying at the Foxburrow Beefeater where Sonia, our waitress, was charming. After a day on the road Gael’s mixed grill and my surf & turf went down a treat and we slept soundly.
The next morning we headed for home. The talk in Riley Blue was of where we’ve been and the big question was: where next? As yet it remains unanswered.
Oh yes, Saffron Walden: what did it lack that benefited us? A roads, there are no A roads into or through the town. How about that?