Planning on cycling in the Fens? This guide shows you some cycling routes and insights into bikepacking this beautiful part of East Anglia.
Cycling in the Fens
Although this week long cycle ride from Northampton, around the Fens region and back happened a few years ago now (2014!!), I think it is still relevant for anyone considering a cycle trip in this part of the world – and hopefully my experience can be of some help.
I've written this guide up as more of an overview / general information type article, rather than a day-by-day account or photo diary (although there are plenty of photos included). If you have any questions about the route, gear, where to stay etc. then please feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below.
The Fens – A Brief Overview
The fens are a large area of low-lying marshes and farmland in eastern England, covering parts of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. The landscape is relatively flat (hence why it's popular with cyclists!), with the highest point only around 30m above sea level.
The fens were once entirely marshland, but over the centuries they have been drained for agricultural purposes. This has resulted in a distinctive landscape of dykes (man-made drainage channels) and drains, as well as the characteristic large, flat fields.
Nowadays, the fens are a popular tourist destination, especially in the summer months. The region is home to a number of towns and villages, as well as some larger cities such as Cambridge, Peterborough and Norwich.
My Fens Bike Tour
In 2014, I spent a week cycling the Fens region of East Anglia. The trip had two purposes.
Firstly, I haven't done much bicycle touring in England, and this week provided a chance to do just that. Secondly, it was the perfect chance to test out some new gear.
Bicycle Touring Gear for Cycling the Fens in England
If you are interested in a complete review of the the bicycle touring gear I took with me, have a look at this bicycle touring gear list. Below the photo of my Thorn Nomad, is a summary of the bike touring gear weight.
Having not really cycled on a fully loaded touring bicycle since cycling in Argentina, I was quite interested in seeing how much everything might weigh.
By the way, I am not normally one for weighing gear out, but thought I would do it just this once! It was actually a bit of an eye opener…
Bike (Thorn Nomad) – 19kgs (including water)
Handlebar Bag – 0.4kgs
Front Pannier Left – 4 kgs
Front Pannier Right – 4.5kgs
Rear Pannier Left – 4.1kgs
Rear Pannier Right – 4.5kgs
Rear Rackpack – 4.1kgs
Add in another 86kgs for my own body weight (solid muscle, honestly!), and its quite some significant weight to be pedalling around. With that in mind, plus the fact I am getting on a bit, I decided to take it easy for the first day or so!
Cycling the Fens – Bicycle Touring in England
Day 1 – Cycling from Northampton to Grafham Waters
Most of the people that live in Northampton don't realise or appreciate just how many cycleways the town has. It's always better to use these and keep away from the main flow of traffic, even if it means adding a few kms onto the journey.
I managed to get through the centre of town, and out past Billing Aquadrome on cycleways alone. At that point it was time to join the roads.
I was using my new Garmin Edge Touring Touchscreen GPS Bike Computer to navigate from. I will be writing more about this GPS in the future.
Basically, I started off hating it, but have actually come around to liking it.
Anyway, trying to keep my speed deliberately down, the GPS guided me through quiet villages, all of which seemed to boast amazing looking churches. No matter what your religious persuasion or lack thereof, you can't help but appreciate the architecture.
Camping near Grafham Waters
The camp-site that I was heading for was just to the south of Grafham Waters, and I arrived mid afternoon pretty satisfied with the days ride. This meant that I wasn't a total wreck, and must still be in reasonable shape!
I had already paid for my pitch online, and so just needed to set up. This was the first outing for the tent, which is a Vango Banshee 200 and it takes less than five minutes to put up.
Vango Banshee Tent for Bike Touring
I will do a more in-depth review at some point, but briefly, it is a two man tent (allegedly), which is just about big enough for me and my gear.
Showers at the camp-site were nice and warm, and I had myself a good feed of curry and rice for dinner. Should have thought to have brought a bottle a beer along in the panniers though!
Day 2 – Cycling from Grafham Waters to Wicken
Whenever I travel abroad, I occasionally meet people from other countries who have the idea that England is quaint, with its thatched roof houses and green, peaceful countryside.
I like to quickly shatter these impressions of England, as I describe gritty council estates, roads filled with cars not really going anywhere, and town centres devoid of all businesses apart from charity shops and bookmakers.
The thing is though, today I rode through quaint England, and very nice it was too!
Cycling on Sustrans Route 51
The route I took today followed for the most part Sustrans route 51. This wasn't through any conscious decision of my own, it was just what a combination of my GPS and Google maps came it with.
The great thing about this route, is that it used all minor roads and specific cycleways, keeping me a way from heavy traffic.
Down quiet country lanes, yes, complete with those houses with thatched roofs, along narrow service roads, and through small villages I cycled.
It really was a lovely day to be out on the bike, and warm sunny weather helped as well!
Cycling from Huntingdon to Cambridge
Part of the way from Huntingdon to Cambridge I cycled along the busway cycleway. If only more towns in England could be connected together that way!
I had decided against spending any time in Cambridge, and so carried on towards Wicken, cycling the Lodes Way to get there.
Note for other bicycle tourers… There is a rather inconvenient footbridge to get over which is a bit of a pain with a fully loaded bike!
Camping in Wicken
Once in Wicken, I found the campsite and set up, the plan being to stay there two nights, so I could have a look at Wicken Fen without time constraints.
Felt hungry so wandered down to the only pub (thatched roof) and had a meal. There are no shops at all in the village, so you can imagine how cheap the meal wasn't! Wicken has got a windmill though. Quaint!
Day 3 – Day off in Wicken Fen
I used today to have a better look around Wicken Fen on the bicycle, but without panniers this time! I recycled part of the Lodes Way again, as well as had a little wander around. It also rained quite a bit during the day, which gave me a good opportunity to test out my rain-gear.
As there probably isn't much of interest to the reader here to share (unless you enjoy reading about me chillaxing!), I have put a video below. This is a 5 minute film that covers my entire week long trip of cycling the Fens region of East Anglia.
Day 4 – Cycling from Wicken Fen to Great Hockham
Time to leave Wicken and hit the road again. I wanted to fit a lot into the day, and so an earlyish start was in order.
First of all, I cycled northwards to Ely, and then headed for Grimes Graves. Grimes Graves is quite an interesting place, whose main features are hundreds of craters extending across many acres of what is now grasslands.
These craters are in fact the remains of filled in Neolithic flintmines, and one of them is open to go down into. (This features in the video above).
The entire site had quite a special atmosphere, and reminded me in many ways of that of Avebury. It seems the sense of ancient history seems to hang in the air, soaking into the surroundings.
Great Hockham Camping
Leaving Grimes Graves, I headed to Great Hockham to the camp-site. The staff there were really friendly, and I got chatting to a couple of them about various things.
One of the guys is planning a walk from John O'Groats to Lands End. I would cycle it, but never walk it! Dinner consisted of two sausages, chips, fish cake and a spring roll from the mobile fish and chip van. Got to replace those calories somehow!
Day 5 – Cycling from Great Hockham to Snettisham
This was always going to be a pretty long day, as I cycled from Great Hockham to Snettisham over on the coast. I had originally planned to cycle the entire length of the Peddars Way, but in the end, decided against it.
Instead, I let my GPS pick a route, and I once more found myself on quiet country lanes. Many through the Thetford forest area were unsealed, and it brought back happy memories of of cycling the Pan American Highway in South America.
Today, more than any other day, I realised that I still have a burning enthusiasm for bicycle touring. The camp-site was pretty busy on arrival, which was only to be expected on a bank holiday weekend. Found myself a nice cafe, and had a pint with my evening meal though!
Day 6 – Cycling from Snettisham to Wisbech
Although I am starting to rely on the GPS more and more, I really didn't want to backtrack through the hills I cycled yesterday in order to get to Kings Lynn.
No matter how hard I tried though, it just wouldn't route along a small stretch of main road. Still, I knew where I was going, and the main road only lasted for a few kilometres.
Bike Touring Navigation
Where the GPS really comes into its own however, is when cycling through big towns and cities. It really does pick the best routes through, sticking to cycleways and quieter roads, and getting through Kings Lynn and Wisbech was simple, despite there being a regional running race on through the centre of the latter at the same time!
Today I seemed to be constantly cycling into a headwind. On paper, flat, open countryside would be the best to cycle through.
In practice, if you are only cycling in one direction and the wind is blowing against you, its not the best at all! So, if you are planning on cycling through the fens region of East Anglia when bicycle touring through England, you might want to keep that in mind!
My camp-site for the night, was a place called the Secret garden, and this wins my “most awesome” award of the tour. Why?
Because it had its own micro-brewery onsite, and the excellent Mile Tree Brewery beer only cost £2.50 a bottle! A little carb-loading with the well named Adventurer beer for the next day was in order!
Day 7 – Cycling from Wisbech to Northampton
This was to be my last day on the road, but involved the longest ride yet. Cycling from Wisbech to Northampton was just over 120kms, which ended up being about 7.5 hours of actual cycling, with 9 hours out on the road.
I could have just split the ride in two, and taken an extra day, but I wanted to see if I still “had it” when it came to doing long days with a fully loaded touring bicycle. (I do by the way!).
During the journey back, my GPS successfully got me through Peterborough, and it was probably at that point I realised just how good it was.
For all its faults (battery life being one of them), the actual routing to get through cities is brilliant. Without it, no doubt I would have just followed road signs and ended up on overly busy roads in heavy traffic. With it, I seem to have avoided all that.
Women's Tour of Britain
Once near Oundle, I started seeing signs that the Women's Tour of Britain was passing through this area on the 7th of May. I didn't cycle the entire route that they would be taking, but I did do a good portion of it. Of course I was a lot slower!
This would be the very first women's Tour of Britain, and the finish of stage 1 would end in Northampton, which I went into town to see a couple of days later.
And so, I eventually ended up back home a little tired, but buzzing from the experience.
I learned a lot from cycling the Fens region of East Anglia, with the main one being that I still love cycling!
Happily, all the gear that I took with me, including the bike, performed brilliantly also. This means that really, I am all set for my next cycling tour around the world.
You might also be interested in:
- Bicycle Tour: Cameras, GPS, and Gadgets
- Best Saddles For Touring: Most Comfortable Bike Seats For Cycling
- Best Powerbank for Bike Touring – Anker Powercore 26800