Welcome to North Essex
North Essex is hilly despite most of it lying beneath the 100-metres contour. That means there are no long climbs, and not many steep ones, but there are plenty of hills. It’s what competitive cyclists call good racing country, and there used to be a very big race in this area, the Essex Grand Prix. It started and finished in Halstead, and so does this ride. You even end it by riding up what was the finishing straight. It’s the town’s main street, and it’s uphill. I counted 32 distinct climbs on this ride, some with names and some without, but that doesn’t include the undulations in between or on top of some of them. You know it after you’ve ridden 100 miles in North Essex.
The ride heads south out of Halstead, then crosses the Colne valley, heading towards the River Stour to visit Dedham Vale and Flatford Mill in East Bergholt. The Stour is the Suffolk border here, and this is where John Constable did some of his finest paintings, including one called Flatford Mill. You cross back into Essex at Bures, then head for Castle Hedingham, where the castle keep is one of the best-preserved examples of Norman building in the country. The village is chocolate-box pretty, with some cottages dating back to the 15th century. Look for Buckley’s Cafe halfway down the main street; it’s very popular with Essex cyclists, and not just because it used to be a bike shop. You’re just over halfway round the ride, so go on, have a breather; the carrot cake is excellent.
There are lots of big houses in the next section. Grave’s Hall, Cust Hall, Gainsford Hall and Boyton Hall come within the next five-mile stretch of road. Weathersfield airfield on your left has been an RAF station, and an American air base, but is now a Ministry of Defence police-training facility. After Finchingfield, where there’s a restored post windmill, you cross the River Pant, which becomes the Blackwater further downstream, and follow it upstream to Great Sampford. The route swings southwards now to Thaxted. The composer of The Planets, Gustav Holst, lived here at The Manse between 1917 and 1925. The music to his hymn ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’, taken from that suite, is called Thaxted.
The route’s southern corner is turned in Great Dunmow. It’s the start of a section of tiny hamlets whose names have End as a suffix, as in Bran End and Duck End. Then you cross the Pant valley at Great Bardfield, where a collection of artists lived from the 1930s until the early 1970s. Their styles and their mediums varied, but they shared a love of this idyllic valley and the countryside around it. This is also where you will find the Blue Egg Cafe and farm shop, a favourite stop-off on his recovery rides for the world champion and Tour de France green-jersey winner Mark Cavendish, who lives in the area.
The final leg winds towards Halstead. There’s nothing too remarkable about the Essex countryside, but it’s a great place to ride a bike. The hills are enough to provide good views without inducing exhaustion, and the lanes wind through a wide variety of fields, farms and woodland. Essex isn’t the only way, but it’s a good way. From the staggered junction at the top of town head east on the A1124 and take the first right. Turn left after crossing Bourne Brook, then left in Greenstead Green, right onto the A1124 again and left then right to Colne Engaine. Continue through Countess Cross to Mount Bures and turn right onto the B1508. Where the road turns sharp right continue straight on to Little Horkesley, where you turn left. Cross the A134 and follow signs to Dedham.
Turn left onto the B1029 and go under the A12. Turn right at the next crossroads, then right onto the B1068, left onto the A12, and use the slip road to join the B1070 into East Bergholt. Do a circuit of East Bergholt and retrace, then continue on the B1070 to Hadleigh. Turn left onto the A1071, then left onto the A134 and first right to Assington, then right to Bures. Cross the railway line and turn right then left through Great Henny, to go right onto the A131 then left onto the B1058 to Castle Hedingham.
Continue west over the A1017 and turn right onto the B1053 to Finchingfield. Follow the B1053 north-west, then turn left at Great Sampford, then left into Thaxted and follow the B184 south to Great Dunmow. Turn left onto the B1057, right in Great Bardfield to Shalford then right onto the B1053. Take the second left to Beazley End and turn left, crossing the A1017 by going left then right in Gosfield to return to Halstead.
Start and Finish. North Essex : Halstead.
Getting There. North Essex : Halstead is eight miles north-east of Braintree on the A131.
Bike Shop. North Essex : The nearest shops are in Colchester, unless someone adventurous starts up before this is published.
Cafe. North Essex : The Blue Egg in Great Bardfield is a great cafe, but there are also a couple on the High Street in Halstead.
Local Delicacy. North Essex : Wild strawberries.
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