Let loose in a land of enchantment

IAN COLLINS Invited to a Saturday feast at Sibton, near Halesworth, my friend and I decided to turn the 24-mile round trip from Southwold into a 24-hour cycle ride.


Invited to a Saturday feast at Sibton, near Halesworth, my friend and I decided to turn the 24-mile round trip from Southwold into a 24-hour cycle ride. With more pauses than pedalling, and much meandering around any point of interest, it was my kind of marathon.

Packing the merest essentials into two saddlebags - wine, slippers, toothbrushes, books, a flask of green tea and the last of last year's Christmas cake - we set off on a voyage of discovery.

I felt cold and sluggish at the start, but was soon warmed by an exhausting and exhilarating journey. Now I'm planning similar adventures. A change being even better than a rest, the view from a new perspective over a 24-hour cycle can bring the same benefit as a week's holiday.

The tired old view from a car can't compete with being out in the open air and moving slowly if at all. As motorists we speed through a landscape without really entering or even noticing. All the rubbish in the verges thrown from zooming vehicles confirms that car is short for carnage.

Living one stop short of Heaven, as we do in East Anglia, any one day - and every last weekend - can mean an easy passage to paradise for most of us. If we lack friends in gorgeous places there are always those glorious initials B&B. Bliss After Blisters and readily accessible via bicycles and our network of rural trains. We have an endless choice of everyday holidays that others can only envy.

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Along Southwold's bustling harbour on Saturday afternoon, and over the bailey bridge, we followed the old railway track over heath and common where, before crossing the Walberswick to Blythburgh road, I spotted my first ever Dartford warbler.

Freewheeling through the margins of Dunwich forest, we crossed another thundering road and then plunged into a deserted farmscape around Hinton, an intricate world of lanes, spinneys, ponds and hedged fields where an artist called Harry Becker once drew the harsh lot of the agricultural labourer who thought it a happy escape to enlist in world war one.

We picnicked beside a quarry in a thicket of golden gorse bushes smelling of coconut before calling at a nearby care home.

We picked an explosion of blackthorn blossom for our old friend Mary Newcomb, among the very best painters East Anglia nurtured since John Constable. Thirty months ago, just after a party in my cottage, she suffered a devastating stroke which has left her unable to eat or speak, and largely paralysed save for one arm.

When reading of such a fate I pictured a living death, with a swift demise infinitely kinder. But with Mary I don't feel that at all - chiefly because I'm sure she doesn't either.

Fortunate to be in a nursing home where they really do care, and where old cats doze on armchairs while raucous chickens run like fat ladies in absurd petticoats through rolling gardens, she is calm and cheerful and often amused. She is in what this atheist can only call a state of grace.

This farmer's wife spent decades walking and cycling in our landscape which was to underpin her poetical painting. I believe she still draws on magical memory.

Besides the spring blossom, I took her a book of bird paintings by her mentor Eric Ennion, a former fenland doctor whose love of nature led him to manage the Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre in the 1940s. There he taught Mary to look, sketch and savour: the art of appreciation we all need for a rewarding life.

We spent an hour absorbed in this volume. Mary turned the pages, traced the outlines of the birds with her finger and pointed to telling features which I then discussed. It was a proper conversation though I did all the talking.

Pressing on, and over the wretched A12, we cycled between high banks and hedges and beneath over-arching trees - rural England as it used to be, with masses of primroses, violets, cowslips, bluebells and wild garlic - before crossing what I now view as the Sibton Alps.

And I need far more space to describe the marvellous journey home when, after a wonderful overnight discovery (home-made quince vodka), we cycled via Dunwich and the sea - buying organic eggs, carrots, chard and asparagus en route from garden stalls.

Navigating a path along tracks, bridleways and duckboards, I returned with the feeling of having visited a foreign country. And it was the land of enchantment in which we actually live.