Gravel cycling: sand and heaths on the East Anglian Way
It’s flat like a pancake and, in places, it's also soft like one. For someone looking for a stunning-yet-challenging ride, the East Anglian Way needs to be on your bucket list.
The rugged beauty of the area is impressive and, I bet, if you know a lot about birds and wildlife (or power plants), this route would be even better suited for you. The sand forces you to slow down but sometimes, that's what we all should do and just accept that a walk with the bike is as fun as riding when done in good company.
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I had spent a few days getting acclimatising to the heatwave in England before my visit to Colchester, where Richard Evans, the founder of Fuel Your Adventures, and a skilled frame builder, resides. This was to be the start of our little adventure; a brief sneak peek into what East Anglian Way has to offer.
I had never met Richard before but I had been in touch with him about the East Anglian Way route he had plotted around, as the name suggests, East Anglia. It's an untouched territory for me, which only made the trip more exciting.
Ahead of me were a whole lot of firsts - the first time meeting most of my riding companions, the first time riding in East Anglia, and the first time I was about to ride a custom-built steel bike - with shifters that could swipe down 11 gears on one go.
Because not only had Richard planned this route and got our group together to ride it, but he had also built me and Grant bikes to ride. The beautiful, custom steel bike that was waiting for me in Colchester was quite an impressive start for the adventure.
Some might say this was a little risky start for a long-distance cycle, as I had never tested this bike before and was about to ride 140km. But at least it had gears (that I didn't know how to use), unlike Richard and Grant's bikes. And, unsurprisingly, on the short test spin around Richard's home street, all of my worries vanished as not only did I love the look of the bike, but it was also a perfect fit.
The following morning we blasted to Richard’s workshop, where we were joined by Grant and Steve from London - both on their own steel bikes.
In total, the circular East Anglian Way route covers 500km of East Anglia, tracing the coast and then looping around some of the towns. It can be started anywhere along the route and it’s not meant to be a race, nor is it a signposted route. And lastly, it is not always the easiest to ride, either, as I came to realise.
After a quick catch-up, some mandatory coffee and a last check over our gear, we were ready to roll. As the mastermind of the route, Richard took the front and lead us onto the endless sandy paths of East Anglia.
Our plan was to cram about 140km of the East Anglian Way into one big day of riding. This was to include two ferries, and some lovely tracks in between. We were joined by a fellow rider, Duncan, about 20km into our ride and together our group of five whizzed along River Colne, through fields, small paths and lanes into Harwich.
Because the route was so flat, it was easy to settle into a nice rhythm of pedalling, paced by the dangle of the enamel mug hanging on my handlebar bag. This area is also an ideal territory for those riding single-speed bikes as Richard and Grant proved on their steeds.
It was also a great time for me to get acquainted with my Gevenalle shifting, which, I admit, is very logical but when your hands have muscle memory of other shifting systems, at times I very much felt like I had no experience of a geared bike, at all.
Perhaps we took chilling a little too literally, as we missed our ferry from Harwich to Felixstowe by minutes and, as a result, were forced to have an hour-and-a-half-long break. This wasn’t exactly an issue as we just decided to have an early lunch at the pier. If you miss your ferry, too, I would recommend checking out some other places in Harwich for food, as well, because the portion sizes at the pier cafe are not that generous.
On the topic of ferries - this route is best suited for the summer, as some of the smaller ferries along the route don't operate over the winter. If you go during the winter, you just need to add a little bit of distance to get around those water crossings on road.
The Harwich ferry, which we took after plenty of lunching, ice cream and resting our legs, runs until the end of October. It dropped us off after a short sail past the massive cargo containers and soon we hopped on our bikes again to make our way to the second ferry crossing over river Deben to Bawdsey.
With the second ferry crossing, we entered the Suffolk Coast and Heath area which, in its rugged landscape, was perhaps my favourite section of the route. It was packed with heaps of beauty, the terrain wasn't too technical, and riding along the North Sea past the historical Martello Towers was both serene, but also invigorating as the faint sea breeze refreshed the muggy air a little.
At around 80km we had another pitstop for food at the beautiful town of Orford. Their famous Pump Street Bakery was closed, so we opted for a pub break instead. In the shadows of the scaffolded Orford Castle, built by Henry II, we refuelled for the remaining half of the journey.
What the East Anglian Way lacks in elevation, it makes up for in sand. It is hardly a surprise that riding right along the coast is bound to be pretty gritty, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the extent of the coast-side heaths and their sandiness that will leave most bikes squeaking.
Almost none of the surfaces we encountered had the kind of sand that compresses into a tarmac-like surface creating gravel highways. On the contrary, they were the kind of beach sand that makes cycling about five times as hard - or impossible.
But with enough walking, talking and taking breaks we all managed to take in perhaps the most surprising sight on the route, the Sizewell B nuclear power station. With the waves gently coming in on the right side of us, on the left, inside that massive dome the water was being steamed up to be energy - it was some unique spot for a breather.
But there really was no having break from the sand. I love cycling for the sense of freedom and seeing new places and that is why technical surfaces such as sand and sticky mud are my least favourite - they prevent me from checking the views around me, with the demand for a constant, straining amount of concentration. Or otherwise, one will have a very close look at the prickly vegetation...
Our Schwalbe tyres (I rode 45mm G-One Ultrabites) were as good as tyres get for the job but still, the sandy sections really took it out of us all. The closer to Southwold we got, the less chat there was as we were all battling through the gritty roads that required all of the focus.
Pigs in Blankets
Our day had, in a typical bikepacking manner, not gone exactly as planned so we arrived in Southwold a lot later than anticipated. Rolling into our campsite called Pigs in Blankets, we all were slightly relieved - for the lack of sand ahead of us.
Eager to get a hot meal, we proceeded to set up our Cyclon Tents (a pro tip for bikepacking: check that you know how to set up your tent before embarking on a trip) and after what was a little bit of faffing, we had successfully pitched out our homes for the night. After a quick shower, it was time to ride back into town for some dinner.
Southwold is a small town with a population of about 1,000 so not many places were open by the time our hungry group rolled in. This meant we opted for a supermarket dinner, which was fulfilling although a greasy, warm chippie might have been my first choice. But the cold Spanish tortilla, pasta salad and crisp from Co-Op were not much of a letdown, either.
The group name that Richard and his like-minded companions have come up with, Fuel Your Adventures, was in my mind a lot during our mini adventure. I felt that after what was less than 48 hours, I had both satisfied and fuelled my hunger for adventures. Whether big or small, as long as the adventure includes some nice people - and, perhaps, a little less sand next time - bikes are the best way to explore and share experiences.
East Anglia as an area delivered a lot more than I expected. I underestimated the difficulty of the surfaces but also the beauty of the area. Even after having been scorched by heatwaves, the nature around the coast was beautiful and the whole area has a historical vibe to it. The full East Anglian Way really immerses you in all of that, passing Cathedrals, ruins, forts and just in general, towns that have been historically very important.
It was a shame that we did not have more time to explore the full route, as the next morning we made our way on quiet country lanes to Beccles, a town which easily has the best bikepacking breakfast spot. With our bellies full, we pedalled to the train and back to Colchester. This wee adventure was over but it was evident that it wasn't the last.
Based on the part that I got to cover, I would say that East Anglia can be easily overlooked as a riding destination but it shouldn't. The full 500km route would take days to complete, but because it passes so many towns, and the area has a sufficient rail network, you can really make the route your own; ride parts of it as we did, and come back a month later to discover another section. It has plenty of refuelling spots and, apart from the sand, it is a very beginner-friendly bikepacking route.
If you wish to get the complete East Anglian way route, I suggest contacting Fuel Your Adventures, as Richard has been running a rally on the route, and you might want to take part in that.
Bikes of the EAW: Richard's single speed of love
The extraordinary colourway and Reynolds 853 DZB tube tubing make Richard's single speed bike stand out. And it certainly makes Richard laugh as he passes the lightweight geared-bike-riders!
Wheels: Custom Built Single Speed Gravel Wheelset with Hope Pro 4 SS/Trials Rear Hub & Hope Pro 4 Front Hub (https://dcrwheels.co.uk/)
Tyres: Schwalbe G-One R Rear 700x45c, Schwalbe G-One Bite 700x45C Front
Crank: Middleburn RO2 X-TYPE 38T
Bottom Bracket: Hope
Top Cap: Limited edition by Bently Components (Money raised went to prostate cancer charities)
Headset: Vintage Hope in Gold
Handlebar: PNW Coast 520mm
Handlebar Tape: Brooks
Stem: Deda Superleggero Custom Painted
Brakes/Levers: TRP Hylex Levers/ Hope RX4 Calipers
Seatpost: Titanium (Unknown Brand)
Saddle: Brooks C13 (145mm)
Bottle Cages: Unknown Titanium of some description.
Front Rack & Basket: Custom Rack in Gold Cerakote & Wald 137 Basket
Bags: Lovingly made by Richard's wife Claire
The 3D printed bell/bar end plug is nice little extra, which allows you to add a Spur Cycles bell.
Grant's bike: tracklocross is a thing!
Grant’s bike is a tracklocross (basically cyclo-cross on track bikes), with slightly more aggressive geometry. The frame and forks are built from Columbus tubing and paired with their Futura Cross fork. This allows clearance for up to a 700x45c tyre.
Wheels: Custom Built Single Speed Gravel Wheelset with Hope Pro 4 SS/Trials Rear Hub & Hope Pro 4 Front Hub
Tyres: Schwalbe G-One Ultrabite 700x45c Front, Schwalbe G-One Bite 700x45C Rear
Crank: Middleburn RO2 X-TYPE 38T
Bottom Bracket: Shimano
Headset: Ride Works
Handlebar: Ultimate USE Carbon Nail with 20mm Rise
Handlebar Grips: ESI
Stem: Ultimate USE Race 100mm
Brakes/Levers: Sram Guide R
Seatpost: Ultimate USE Carbon Duro 27.2mm
Saddle: Brooks C17
Bottle Cages: Sim Works John Cage
Bags: Handmade Bags from Richard’s Wife Claire
Support: Front Bag Support Tight Bicycle Company
Built in only four days by Richard, this wee beauty features a Columbus Zona, HSS and Max tubing. The Gevenalle shifters and custom carbon wheels really elevate this bike to another level - and it is, I heard, the smallest bike Richard has built!
Wheels: Custom Built DCR Carbon Gravel Wheelset (https://dcrwheels.co.uk/)
Tyres: Schwalbe G-One Ultrabite 700x45c
Crank: Middleburn RO2 X-TYPE
Bottom Bracket: Shimano
Front Deraileur: Shimano Ultegra R8000
Rear Derailleur: Shimano Ultegra R8000
Headset: Ride Works
Handlebar: Genetic Driser 4
Stem: Genetic AQ
Brakes/Levers: TRP Hylex
Seatpost: Genetic STV
Saddle: Brooks C17s (Shame they don’t make these anymore.)
Steve's bike - Fairlight Faran
We're waiting for Steve to get one of Richard's (R.G Evans & Co) bikes so this time, we're featuring his rather stunning Fairlight build, which managed to keep up with us very well on the East Anglian Way adventure.
Frame: Fairlight Faran 2.0
Hope RS4 Hubs, stainless BB30 and jockey wheels
Wheels: DT Swiss GR531 rims
Tyres: Schwalbe G One Speed
Drivetrain: White Industries G30 cranks
Wolf Tooth Camo spider & chainring
SRAM Apex 11s & HS2 rotors
Chris King headset
Thomson stem & post
Handlebars: Salsa Cowchippers
Shimano XT pedals
Portland Design Works fenders
King Manything fork cages
Nitto M18 rack
Restrap frame bag & fork bags
Wizard Works Mini Shazam bar bag
[Photos by Steve Tse, Richard Evans, Grant Wildman]
I heard about this route earlier in the year, kept meaning to check it out as its basically on my doorstep. But if you went the flat way to Harwich clearly missed out going via Mistley as thats a very hilly part for Essex,and Id have chosen the Alma Inn for a break with food if I missed the Harwich ferry. Old Felixstowe to Bawdsey, its a not inconsiderable 24miles ish extra to make up if its not running, for the long way round, but the route then didnt take the Butley to Orford ferry in as well ? as thats quite an extra detour around if not.
Pump Street Bakery is good for instagram influencers, but I think its better to head for Snape Maltings cafe which you must have passed by as its the only bridge over the Alde, the downside is your route back to the coast is along the A1094 which isnt fun to ride, or just dig in and push northwards on to the Minsmere RSPB reserve whose cafe is legendary, and a far better stop than Sizewell B to look at, though its less off road than the route looks from the video.
Southwold Id have recommended the Lord Nelson or Sole Bay Inn for food, though your camp site was north of the town, whilst there is a camp site south of it by the harbour, which brings the Harbour Inn in to play plus Walberswick for all the mixing with celebrities from London spotting.
as for the sand, well yes its killed many a groupset of mine, there are fwiw really sandy roads you can take, and some not so sandy roads that are more like compact gravel routes just without the gravel part, its replace by sand and flints instead, so definitely always stick with good gravel tyres