|Guildhall at Lavenham, one of the many beautiful villages|
along the Stage 7 route (© Andrew Dunn CC2.0)
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While the vast majority of cycling fans favour the mountain stages for the harsh and challenging climbs, there'll always be those who love the high-speed thrills of a plain stage - and you don't get much plainer than this one, the second longest after the 207km Stage 1 of the newly-revived Tour in 2004 with no point on the parcours reaching higher than 100m sea level. However, whereas Norfolk is indeed flat (parts are actually below sea level), Suffolk rolls. The hills are small, but there are lots of them - it's a bit like riding across a scaled-up sheet of corrugated iron: at first, the climbs are hardly even noticed but there comes a time when the combined effect begins to take its toll.
We're bringing you a much shorter Stage Guide than usual today, ignoring the finer details of a relatively unchallenging parcours and concentrating on the various sights along the route - of which there are many. The reason for this is that we need to organise ourselves in preparation for a visit to the race, when we hope to be able to get some photographs and video of the start in Bury St. Edmunds which we'll then be uploading later in the day - probably at The Nutshell, Britain's smallest pub, a short walk from the start line.
|Abbeygate on Angel Hill|
Though East Anglia is generally considered to include Essex, Cambridgeshire and parts of Lincolnshire and Hertfordshire, historically only Norfolk and Suffolk - and, following the marriage of Æðelþryð (known more commonly yet incorrectly as Etheldreda) to Tondberct, the Isle of Ely - were included, having been the two halves of the ancient Ēast Engla rīce, the Kingdom of the East Angles. Powerful during the 7th Century, the Kingdom was weakened by long, drawn-out conflict with a number of enemies including the Northumbrians and Mercians and repeated attacks by the Danes and Vikings, the Kingdom permanently lost independence in 917 and has been a part of England ever since.
|The Abbey Ruins (© Tuli CC3.0)|
The Abbey went into a period of decline during the 13th Century, chiefly as a result of its own success - the monks had become somewhat decadent and a number of them were highly questionable characters. Now owning all of West Suffolk, it taxed literally everything and anything, earning the enmity of the local people. A fire in 1465 destroyed large parts, apparently interpreted as a stiffly-worded Divine warning because following the rebuild, complete by 1506, the Abbey seems to have been a far godlier place. Just 33 years later, under Henry VIII, the Dissolution brought a permanent end; the buildings subsequently being used as a quarry by the townspeople. Today, all that's left are weathered stumps, occasionally with recognisable sections of arches and worked masonry but for the most looking more like strange natural rock formations than anything man-made. Some of the larger parts have been incorporated into the structure of later buildings, striking structures which are highly reminiscent of Gaudi's signature Naturalist/Surrealist architecture.
|James Moore, beside the Specialized|
Venge of 1868.
The race begins on Angel Hill at the Gatehouse, the sole surviving Abbey building, and makes its way past the cathedral on Crown Street as the neutral zone winds its way through the city and out to the start of the actual racing, 4km away on the A134 leading to Sicklesmere.
The stage's first climb, Cat 3 Lavenham Hill, begins after 11.7km and ends 0.5km later on the A1141 shortly before the peloton arrives at Lavenham, a village that was one of the wealthiest towns in England during the Middle Ages and as such has numerous very fine buildings dating from the period. The finest is undoubtedly the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, an excellent example of late perpendicular architecture. Inside, the church has some of the most imaginative misericords anywhere in Britain with an assortment of strange creatures combining varying degrees of human and animal parts.
|The Ancient House, Ipswich (© Andrew Dunn CC2.0)|
Ipswich forms a very large part of today's stage. Not only does a very complicated parcours require a list of complicated instructions for just a few kilometres in the roadbook, it's the site of a sprint and a climb. The sprint comes first, beginning after 44.3km on Portman Road; the climb - Cat 3 - takes place 1.8km later in Christchurch Park.
Situated on the Orwell Estuary, Ipswich was an important port from Roman times onwards, in those days forming an entry into the inland waterways which were the most convenient way to transport goods to towns and cities - including Cambridge - before the 20th Century, in addition to receiving a wide range of goods shipped across from Northern Europe. The Ancient House on Buttermarket is often hailed as the finest example of pargeting in the world, yet by the start of the 1980s the 15th Century structure had been so neglected that it was in imminent danger of collapse. A complete restoration, in which the entire building was virtually rebuilt, took place from 1984. Among the medieval buildings is a very surprising sight - the Willis Building, one of the first designed by Sir Norman Foster and a superb example of modern high-tech architecture.
|Helmington Hall (© Chris Holifiend CC2.0)|
After 81.1km, the race reaches Eye - a small town with a lot of history. The peculiar name comes from the Old English word for an island, the town having been completely surrounded by rivers and marsh during Saxon times and before the drainage projects that dramatically altered the East Anglian landscape. Eye's cstle has lain in ruins ever since it fell to attackers in the latter half of the 13th Century. A Victorian house built next to it on the Norman motte has also become a ruin.
We cross over into Norfolk after 87.7km, arriving immediately at Diss. The town is built around a lake which, though the water is only 5.5m deep, is listed as one of the deepest natural inland lakes in the British Isles due to the 16m thick layer of mud on the bottom. The second sprint begins in the town as the riders hit 89.7km.
|Kett's Oak, where Robert Kett rallied his protestors before|
marching on Norwich; just outside Wymondham
Weston Longville, at 134.2km, was home in the 18th Century to James Woodeford, a parson and curate who lived an uneventful life but left a remarkable historical record of his time. His Diary of a Country Parson, compiled over four and a half decades, recounts everyday tales of the people that lived in the village, their concerns and habits good and bad in addition to his own liking for food and ale; thus permitting us an invaluable insight into the lives of the normal folk who have always made up the greater part of the population and yet have usually been completely omitted from conventional records. Bawdeswell, 16km further ahead, has a superb example of the Dutch-influenced architecture mentioned previously in the form of Bawdeswell Hall. Built in 1683, it became home to the Gurney family who made their fortune in banking. Elizabeth Fry, the famous prison reformer, was a Gurney and her image on the current British £5 note is based on a portrait of her that hangs in the Hall.
The race passes through a series of villages, all places of little importance but all of them attractive, then passes by West Newton along the B1440. 1.6km ahead, the peloton turns left onto Wolferton Road in the Sandringham Estate, crossing the finish line at the Visitor's Centre after a 600m final sprint.
|Sandringham House (© Elwyn Thomas Roddick CC2.0)|
Today, when the Royals have at last come to understand that they enjoy the privileges that they do purely as a result of an accident of birth and not due to some Divine will, large parts of the Estate have been opened to the public beginning with the Gardens in 1908, the Museum in 1930 and finally the House itself in 1977. A visitor's guide is available here.
Predictions: It's flat, the climbs are tiny and it ends with a straight final sprint. Anyone for Cavendish?
Weather: There's a chance of rain today and, while the parcours isn't demanding, there are sections which could become hazardous in the wet. Worthy of particular respect are those bends and corners near Felixstowe in Suffolk as the port is one of the busiest in the world and thousands of trucks set out along the nearby roads every day, increasing the likelihood of diesel spills enormously. Average windspeed will be about 24kph, enough for teams to form echelons on the flat, open sections that make up much of the stage when it forms a crosswind - however, it'll be a tailwind for much of the stage and could help generate some very high speeds. Temperatures will vary between 12 and 17C.
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