Tag Archives: Suffolk

London to Dunwich by bike in the dark

Hypnotised by a long line of red lights and a sudden feeling of being totally alone in the darkness were surreal sensations I experienced as I took on the challenge of the Dunwich Dynamo last weekend.start

I’d read a few personal accounts of this 120-mile blast through the Essex and Suffolk countryside but nothing really prepares you for the ride that starts in the fading light of East London.

A sea of cyclists greeted you as you arrive in London Fields – a mix of serious lycra together with quite a few souls in regular clothes who look as if they were popping down the shops for a pint of milk rather than an overnight ride to the coast. The park was also still busy with people out enjoying the warm weather with the thermometer still hovering around 25C. Though the event has been running for 24 years a couple of bemused onlookers asked me “what the hell is going on”.

“This is NOT a race”, screams the first line of a sheet of A4 directions handed to me by one of the organisers. And without any fanfare, at 8pm, legions got on their bikes by the Pub on the Park. My intentions of grabbing a big bowl of pasta before the start were soon forgotten as I joined the throng making its way through the narrow confines of Martello Street bike path.

The procession through Hackney was not everyone’s idea of fun though the sheer number of cycles was enough to stave off even the most impatient motorists.

eppingEast London quickly turned into suburban Essex and the scrum of cyclists had already turned into a single file. The sun was already set by the time we reached the Wake Arms roundabout though I assured my two cycling buddies that there would be plenty of options for pasta and coffee in Epping – noble intentions that ended up as pork pies and cans of Coke from Londis…

I’d never cycled beyond Epping – unknown roads even harder to navigate in the darkness. Familiar names started to flash past: Moreton, Fyfield, Leaden Roding and the 32-mile point Great Dunmow. Pockets of villagers screamed encouragement at cyclists including a four-person handbuilt contraption, tandems and one brave cyclist who’d brought his child along in a trailer.

nags head moretonWe stopped for a pint in Great Bardfield at 43 miles; locals joining in the party atmosphere as cyclists either stopped or pedalled on. Although just gone midnight conversations seemed to hover over the fast pace of the tour, probably helped by the fine weather and almost constant light westerly breeze. Finchingfield, Wethersfield, Sible and Castle Hedingham then passed in quick succession before we reached the halfway point at Sudbury about 1am where huge queues had formed for coffee and a barbeque put on by the local fire crews.

Though the temperature never fell below 16C over the entire event tiredness was now starting to set in but before we got too ensconced in our chairs we decided to push on.

sudburyIt was this part of the event where groups of cyclists started to spread out though, because most were cycling at roughly the same speed, you started to notice the same people: the guy in the Heinz baked beans top, the group cycling for Alzheimers, the guy with the kiddie trailer (again) comes into view, the child still awake and appearing to be transfixed by a tablet. I exchanged pleasantries with a guy in a top with the dragon of Wales emblazoned on the back – inane conversations though most seem happy to just get their heads down and eat up a few more miles.

martin sizewell
Sizewell B is getting closer

It was around Bildeston that the roads suddenly seemed to turn really dark. Pedalling on I focus on the line of red lights in the distance – almost hynotised by the rhythm of the whole thing – but then suddenly realised that I was cycling downhill at roughly the same speed as I would in daylight. I turned my head to find that my two cycling buddies were nowhere to be seen, and neither were any other riders. An overwhelming feeling of being alone suddenly dawned on me and I eased back on the pedals though it was a good 10 minutes before my companions catch up – one asked just what exactly was in the muesli bars that I had been munching away on for six hours.

At 3am the delirium started to set in: the University Challenge theme tune was going on a loop in my head – a couple of cyclists that have brought along loud speakers failed to distract me. Our charge to the coast was eventually interrupted by a puncture, my cycling buddy exclaiming in the darkness: “This wheel doesn’t feel right!”.

moretonBy 4am the sky had long begun to lighten and the fading batteries of many riders’ headlamps was no longer such a pressing issue. I think it was around Sibton Lake that pop-up cafes started to emerge at the side of the road. Alas, the long queues prevented us from stopping, so terrified were we that if we stopped for too long our bodies would cease up. No matter. Many other cyclists by now were beginning to stop and rest on verges; a few oblivious that the sun was beginning to rise as quick as they were falling into a slumber.

framlinghamDunwichThe last 10 miles from Framlingham, once the sun had risen, seemed to be the hardest. I’m not sure if it was my brain being unable to cope with the additional distraction of having to deal with looking at beautiful countryside. And a couple more inclines seemed to be the last straw for a few cyclists who got off and walked.

The pine scrub of Minsmere spread out after passing through Darsham before our ultimate destination Dunwich, the Lost City, ended our odyssey. After 10-and-a-half hours we’d done it.

I’ve managed to raise over £1,000 for Sarcoma, the soft tissue and bone cancer charity





Meteorology of the Dunwich Dynamo

On a Saturday closest to full moon in July thousands of cyclists congregate in London Fields and ride 200km through the night to Dunwich on the coast of Suffolk.

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Weather stats for London during the Dunwich Dynamo

Modestly described by the organisers as a “gentle bike ride to the beach, through soft country on good roads” the hours of darkness present a huge challenge for participants.

Michael Barry, the retired Canadian professional road racing cyclist, rated the challenge 5/10, harder than the 280 mile London to Paris ride which he ranked only 2/10.

Taking place in summer you would expect long hours of moonlight to be a welcome assist for these brave souls who peddle hours through the night to reach their goal. A look at the synoptic charts and statistics of each ride, however, reveals weather that is often a long way from being summery.

Looking in detail there appears to be very little chance of the ride coinciding with a heatwave. In 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2014 riders left the capital during days where the mercury reached above 80F (26.7C) – though this represents only 17% of starts. Temperatures around 70F (21.1C) are much more common.

Over 40% of the rides have seen over 1mm of rain on the opening day, this falls to 17% on the second day – a dry end to the marathon challenge is perhaps to be expected.

Patrick Field, of the London School of Cycling, said that 2007, the wettest start day to a Dynamo, was “gloriously wet”.

Perhaps what this blog also reveals is that UK weather at full moon, even in high summer, is notoriously unpredictable. Luke Howard , the father of meteorology, tried for 50 years to
prove a link between the weather and phases of the moon, but died still mystified at the ripe old age of 91.

Low pressure centred along the south coast brought a ‘gloriously wet’ Dynamo in 2007.

A movie of all synoptic charts highlights just how unsettled this time of year can be found here.

* The author is planning to take part in this year’s event to raise money for Cancer Research.

** Full stats for the weather in London during the Dunwich Dynamo back to 1992 can be found here: https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=A148835276FAFDEE!2561&authkey=!AEMmoeUZRVSq7uU&ithint=file%2cxlsx

How the cloud man inspired Constable

It has been a superb year for cloud formations and cloudscapes. Spectacular towering cumulo-nimbus and deep-red sunsets have been more frequent than average in 2014. I can’t remember a week when I haven’t aimed the camera skywards to record the latest phenomena.

Distant rain cloud looking east on Wanstead Flats
Distant rain cloud looking east on Wanstead Flats

The skies at the end of the 18th century were even more spectacular, thanks to a period of heightened volcanic activity, and captured the imagination of a boy whose work in later life would inspire one of Britain’s great landscape painters: John Constable.

Before the 19th century meteorologists thought of clouds as unique and transient and therefore unclassifiable. This changed when Luke Howard, who once lived in Plaistow, presented his Essay on the Modification of Clouds to the Askesian Society in the winter 1802/03.

The impact of the lecture was immense, and catapulted the subject of cloud formation as a serious scientific study. The cloud types: cumulus, Latin for ‘heap’; stratus, Latin for ‘layer’, and cirrus, Latin for ‘curl of hair’ are words still used today.

Although by trade Howard was a chemist, his pharmaceutical chemical factory located nearby on the banks of the River Lea, his passion was meteorology. His pioneering observations recorded in three volumes of The Climate of London provide a fascinating insight into this area’s weather all those years ago.

Following his presentation on Clouds Howard’s standing among the science community became more and more elevated. He presented seven Lectures in Meteorology in 1817. Within a year Constable, who was four years younger than Howard, made a decision to start painting six-foot landscapes which marked a significant turning point in his career. The son of a landowner Constable had a keen understanding of the weather from his time spent as an apprentice windmiller in his native Suffolk.

Historians of art and science have argued that Constable probably attended Howard’s fashionable lectures which were complemented by a number of watercolour illustrations for his classification method.

Although it could be argued that artists such as Gainsborough painted clouds decades previously it was Constable, his search for truth in painting nature leading him to Howard’s work on clouds, who took the art to another level.

Sunset on Wanstead Flats
Sunset on Wanstead Flats

The artist adapted Howard’s scientific observations of these transient phenomena with an artist’s eye. A popular method of the period was the use of the rapid oil sketch out in the field. Constable then used these sketches to help him bring to life the drama and emotional content of a scene for his larger set-piece paintings.

Constable completed and submitted to the Royal Academy The Hay Wain, arguably his best-known masterpiece, in 1821 – the same year that Howard was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Many more paintings and sketches followed of landscapes around Suffolk, Hampstead Heath and Salisbury and the achievements of both men in their chosen fields continued. Howard in business and his beloved meteorology, publishing a third volume of The Climate of London in 1833 – among the first studies that recognised the urban heat island effect. His Seven Lectures were published in 1837, becoming the first textbook of meteorology. Constable died the same year but did not receive the recognition he deserved until after his death.

Constable is the focus of a new exhibition at the V&A museum that begins on Saturday, September 20.

The site where Luke Howard's Chesterton House stood in Balaam Street, Plaistow is now the West Ham ambulance depot. The property that boasted a rooftop observatory where he made many observations, has long gone though the boundary still remains.
The site where Luke Howard’s Chesterton House stood in Balaam Street, Plaistow, is now the West Ham ambulance depot. The property, which boasted a rooftop observatory where he made many observations, has long gone though the boundary still remains. It is not known if Howard and Constable ever met though the painter often visited and wrote to his sister, Martha Whalley, in East Ham, which is 2 miles west of Howard’s Plaistow residence
A selection of sketches Luke Howard used to illustrate his Clouds lecture
A selection of sketches Luke Howard used to illustrate his Clouds lecture