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Head east for historic flavour

Matt Salusbury explains why the east of England is an excellent place to study for anyone interested in cycling, seafood or exploring the region’s Roman roots


This year the Tour de France came through Cambridge, which probably has the highest proportion of people owning bicycles of any city in the UK. Cambridge, and indeed the whole of the east of England from north Essex all the way up to Lincolnshire, is relatively flat. This geography gives the east of England, including the counties of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, some of the UK’s best cycling.

Even the novice cyclist can easily get out of town on a hire bike (Cambridgeshire in particular is good at signposted cycle lanes) and explore the area’s quiet country lanes. Within an easy ride are numerous nature reserves, historic market towns and magically beautiful villages. Almost every one of the east’s villages has a medieval church – usually unlocked and open to the public every day – while many will have a historic pub that dates back to the bygone days of the stagecoach routes.

In a lot of the region there are even ‘demand responsive transport’ minibus services such as south-east Suffolk’s Wilford Link and deepest rural Cambridgeshire’s Dengie Dart Bus – you can book them in advance and they will pick you up and drive you – and your bike – back to civilization. There are also plenty of horseriding stables around that can do ponytrekking for the inexperienced rider.

In Cambridge the best way to admire the historic university’s ancient colleges is meandering along the shallow River Cam by punt – a flat boat you gently propel by pushing a pole against the river bottom. And even though east Hertfordshire and Essex are still within London’s commuter belt, the banks of the River Lea and its tributaries that pass through it very soon take you into the heart of the countryside, either by canal boat (there are tours leaving from Broxbourne or Ware) or on foot or by bike along the towpath.

While Bedford has been called ‘little Italy’, most of the people encountered in the east of England will be monolingual native English speakers, and the slower pace of life and thinner population mean you’re likely to find a more friendly welcome than you would in some of the UK’s bigger cities. Cambridge, though, is somewhat more cosmopolitan, and Colchester in Essex is currently the UK’s fastest growing town.

Then there are the historic cathedral towns of Ely, the ‘Fine City’ of Norwich (its Elm Hill is an almost intact medieval street), Chelmsford and Bury St Edmunds (not forgetting Bedford, which has the largest UK Sikh temple outside London), while the spires of various university college buildings, some dating back to the 14th century, dominate the Cambridge skyline.

Norman castles still stand at Orford, Norwich (now a museum) and Colchester, which has Britain’s largest castle keep and is built on the remains of a Roman temple. The Castle Museum has many relics from the days when Colchester – Britain’s oldest town – was the Roman capital of the province of Britannia. Watling Street, the ancient Roman road, still runs through Colchester, while another Roman road, Ermine Street, still conveys traffic through Hertfordshire.

The author George Orwell (a local boy who took his pen name from an east of England river) described Britain as ‘Airstrip One’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and he may have been inspired by the large number of US military airfields in the east of England in World War Two. As well as the castles there are more recent traces of the east of England’s defences against continental invasion – including a Cold War nuclear bunker now open to the public in Kelvedon, Essex, and the Cold War Museum in a former US Air Force command bunker, and you can take a tour of the world’s first radar installation from the 1940s at Bawdsey Manor (the last two near Woodbridge in Suffolk).

The Norfolk Broads waterways start just outside Norwich and there are Victorian seaside resorts including Cromer (near Norwich), Felixstowe in Suffolk, Frinton in Essex and the estuarial fishing village of Wivenhoe near Colchester, with boat trips to nearby Mersea Island. While the waters of the North Sea are very cold – many swimmers put on wetsuits before going in – these resorts are rarely busy, and you may have the beach to yourself. There’s seafood on the east of England’s menu too – Orford in Suffolk is know for its ‘oysterage restaurant’, while Colchester has an Oyster Festival.

Matt Salusbury is EL Gazette news and features and is currently resident in Dunwich, Suffolk in the east of England. Keep in touch via www.twitter.com/mysteryanimals