Friday 16 September 2011

Tour of Britain - Stage 7 Guide

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
East Anglia forms the easternmost part of the British Isles, some parts of the long coastline lying almost as far from London as they do from Amsterdam. In fact, the Dutch riders might feel rather at home here because there are cultural links going back over many centuries with Dutch engineers making the short journey across the North Sea to guide and assist in the East Anglian's efforts to drain the marshy land and put it to good productive use, then frequently settling here. Houses built in the traditionally Dutch style with Flemmish gables are a common sight throughout the region.

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)
Today, the race starts off in the city of Bury St. Edmunds. It's been a city for less than a century and retains the feel of a bustling market town, still essentially rural in nature despite the modern shops and population of some 35,000 people. It grew up around the abbey, once one of the richest in Britain and a place of pilgrimage as the site of a shrine containing the remains of the martyr king Edmund who was captured by a Danish Great Heathen Army who first beat him with clubs, then tied him to a tree and whipped him in an effort to force him to denounce Christ. When that failed, they began to fire arrows at him until, says Abbo of Fleury, "until he was all covered with their missiles as with bristles of a hedgehog, just as Sebastian was." Yet he would not submit, refusing to renounce his faith even as he died.

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.
Bury St. Edmunds was also the birthplace of James Moore in 1849. Don't know who he was? Well, he had quite a claim to fame - in 1868 he won the world's very first organised bicycle race, held in St. Cloud in the suburbs of Paris and a year later won the very first edition of the famous Paris-Rouen race, completing the 123km parcours in 10'45" and receiving a prize of 1000 gold francs after judges had made sure nobody had broken the race's cardinal rules that forbade all riders "to be pulled by a dog or use sails." Good thing too.

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)
Hadleigh, at 26.6km, is in many ways very similar to Lavenham; having become wealthy due to its wool and textile industry prior to the Industrial Revolution when the great mills of the North took over and priced the East Anglians right out of the market. The village has many examples of pargeting, a decorative technique in which raised patterns are formed in the exterior plasterwork of buildings. While not unknown elsewhere, the practice is traditionally associated with East Anglia.

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)
One of the stage's undoubted highlights is Helmingham Hall, a beautiful moated manor house built in the late 15th/early 16th Centuries and owned by the Tollemache family ever since. The race is in fact routed through part of the Hall's famous 400 acre park, where deer may be seen grazing among the mixed woodland.

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
More villages pass, with the feed station coming at the sign for Bunwell 103.8km from the start of the race. Soon, the peloton reach Wymondham, birthplace of the famous Robert Kett who, in the mid-16th Century, organised and led a small band of mostly-unarmed peasants that successfully besieged the City of Norwich in protest at the enclosure of the common land upon which the poor had enjoyed important rights such as that to gather fuel and graze livestock since time immemorial; preventing free access to the land and granting full ownership to a private individual (ie, a rich one). Kett and his little army took control of the city, and against all odds retained it for six full weeks until they were savagely crushed by the King's forces. Of course, rather than being hailed as a hero of the workers, Kett was hanged from the castle walls as an example to others to accept their grinding, cruel lot and not get ideas above their station.

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)
Sandringham Estate covers 20,000 acres and is privately owned by the British Royal Family having been bought by Queen Victoria in 1862. The current House dates from same year, an earlier building having been demolished to make way for a new home for the future Edward VII and his bride Alexandra. Alexandra seems to have disliked it at first, but gradually the modern comforts designed to form an integral part of the building - such as the large bay windows, flushing toilets, gas lighting and shower - persuaded her that it was a desirable place to live; and in time she came to love it. The present Queen lists it as her favourite holiday home and she traditionally spends Christmas here with her family, as did several of her predecessors. Despite this, the rather unusual house combining a somewhat disorganised combination of various styles and influences is generally considered an example of an unsuccessful attempt at a Victorian country house by historians and architects.

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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