Visit London Fields in Hackney on any warm summer weekend evening and it will be a full of families and friends enjoying the last of the day?s sun. Rock up at 8pm on the Saturday closest to July full moon, though, and the place will be awash with raring-to-go cyclists. Such is their number, that as Pete, John and I roll-up we can barely see the grass under all the machines.
The mix of the bikes laid on the turf is nothing but eclectic. Among them there are carbon-fibre road bikes and everyday hybrid commuters. Mountain bikes, tandems, tourers, singlespeeds, Bromptons, trikes and recumbents, and later on in the evening we?d spot a pair of unicycles.
The reason for this gathering is that London Fields is the start venue of the Dunwich Dynamo ? an annual 116-mile overnight bike adventure from the capital to the Suffolk coast. With over 700 people estimated to be at the start, it is an event that has clearly caught the cycling population?s imagination.
Unsure of the protocol, us three first-timers find some space and lay our bikes down on the grass. Sitting down, the vibe here is ultra-friendly. Some cyclists are pre-ride stretching; others are sipping on beers from the nearby Pub in the Park. Everyone seems to be mingling, catching-up and generally looking forward to a good night on the road.
The ride?s organisation is limited to providing route information, putting on a food stop and arranging transport back to London. As such you don?t sign up for the ride but simply join in and buy into whichever services that you need. As I take a wander to soak up more atmosphere, I stumble across a huddle that turns out to be a queue for a route guide. In exchange for a small voluntary donation, I am given a plastic wallet and A4 piece of paper that lists directions.
In a similarly casual fashion, the ride doesn?t so much start as just gain momentum. In various self-determined sizes, groups get up and go as and when they please. Just the three of us leave together at a pedestrian pace along the park?s cycle paths and then amble onto the rear of another group as we cut through the back routes of Hackney. Stop lights and traffic build up disjoint the roll-out, but by Lee Bridge Road ? two miles into the ride ? the worst of the urban navigation is behind us.
As we gain pace and break free into Epping Forest, the numerous groups fuse to become one super-long peloton cutting through the dusk. Positioned in the middle of it all, the view is striking. As far as I can see along the dead straight road ahead, a stream of blinking red lights flows through the forest.
After passing through the town of Epping and then the village of North Weald, we suddenly descend into the murk of the rural Essex lanes. Dark is now upon us and my LEDs that proved proficient under streetlamps need to be reinforced. Reaching under my handlebars, I flick up the switch of a Lumicycle front lamp and the tarmac lights up ahead.
For mountain bikers, riding in the dark is often a preferred option that adds an extra thrill to the trail. For the typical roadie however, cycling at night is usually a matter of inconvenience. The Dunwich Dynamo embraces it. Riding in the dark is its raison d?être.
Swooping through dips and sweeping around corners, riding through the summer night is fun and liberating. We cruise past cosy-looking cottages and village pubs and stop outside a function room near Fyfield for snacks. Inside, a wedding reception is at full swing.
Appropriately enough, the sound of Dexy?s Midnight Runners reverberates through the windows. A few worse for wear revellers step outside the hall for a breath of fresh air. They look on in bemusement as a constant stream of cycles whirr by.
Moving on deeper into both the night and countryside, we pass deer, rabbit, foxes and drunken men all getting up to their usual nocturnal mischief. In the distance a dog howls, while a little nearer we hear an owl.
Every now and then we drop through a thermoclime where, within the revolution of a wheel, the temperature noticeably plummets. As we pass under the Stansted flight path, the red and white lights of planes complement ours on the road.
The sights and sounds of riding at night prove profoundly different from those of those of the day. So too it seems are the culinary options. In Great Dunmow we pass fellow cyclists eschewing their energy drinks to queue at a kebab shop. Just outside and sat on the kerb, a lean-looking roadman has a pizza box open on his lap. ?How is it?? I ask as we freewheel past. ?Bloody marvellous,? he replies.
By the time we reach Finchingfield, the peloton has fragmented into scores of little groups spread out over perhaps 10 or 15 miles. It?s pub kicking-out time and we again take a break to sit on picnic benches and nibble on flapjacks. The village is a picture postcard place which I?ve ridden through many times in the day. After lights-out, however, the village green and duck pond are just fields of black and the pretty cottages are lost in the dark.
A symphony of squealing breaks and clunking gears suggest that the combination of a tight humpback bridge followed by a short one-in-10 climb is catching people off guard. As well as the fun to be had, a night bike ride also presents its own challenges.
You little Sudbury
Alongside the night riding element, the Dunwich Dynamo is also of certain personal appeal because it cuts right through my own backyard. Having grown-up in the Essex-Suffolk border area I know practically every nook and cranny of these roads.
Exploiting this familiarity, I take to the front of my group on some of the short descents and whip round the corners for kicks. John, who does not know the roads, glues himself to my rear wheel and takes great delight in the experience.
?Wow!? he says as he pulls alongside me. ?Are there any more descents like that??
Although dead straight, the fastest of the lot comes just before Sudbury, which is where I went to school. Trying to be clever, I turn to make a short cut that will also allow me to examine the aftermath emerging from my local and much derided nightclub. Unwittingly I lead 20 other riders off route into this labyrinth of streets with me.
Rather than referring to the guide sheet, sheepishly following the LED in front is many rider?s preferred option to navigate their way. Unfortunately this means that every time you turn off to answer nature?s call you run the risk of leading hundreds of cyclists behind you up a farm track.
In this instance I?m suffer horrible visions of catapulting scores of folk into interminable bewilderment on Sudbury?s one-way system. Humbly I come to a halt and turn around. ?Sorry,? I announce. ?You?ve all gone the wrong way.?
Three miles beyond Sudbury, we pull in at Great Waldingfield village hall. This is the feed station that comes at just over halfway, 64 miles into the ride.
?It?s absolutely heaving this year,? complains a fluorescent-clad cyclist. He?s standing at the back of a long, nattering queue that zig-zags across the car park and into the door. Inside the building there?s a group of volunteers selling pasta, flapjacks and malt loaf. The feed station is about as commercial as the Dunwich Dynamo gets.
?The catering is put-on by some old friends of Patrick Field,? explains co-organiser Barry Mason with reference to one of the founders of the event. ?They make a few bob but that?s all right ? they?re up all night catering for 700 people. They get a lot of grief at that time in the morning but ? silly old hippies that they are ? they do it because they love it.?
Under way again, although it?s only 3.30am and starting to spit rain, the sky is already hinting that dawn is on its way. Despite the onset of a downpour, I turn off my front beam within an hour.
Wide, vacant ?B? roads take us across what our route guide describes as the Suffolk Prairies. For a brief period this incorporates the most undulating part of the route when several rises quickly succeed one another. For the most part, the Dunwich Dynamo is flat.
Beyond Needham Market, the character of the ride changes as the route slips into the rustic heart of East Anglia. Dinky houses painted in Suffolk Pink sit alongside windmills and little churches on the corners of narrow lanes. As cockerels crow and birds sing, we pass fields of golden wheat, banks of wild flowers and spin through tunnels of trees.
If only the sun was rising on a warm summer day we?d perhaps be living some sort of the rural idyll. But instead of sitting on a farm gates and spitting out cherry stones, our single stop is spent huddled under a tree searching for a waterproof place for a camera.
The lack of sleep and foul weather also start to take a toll on our moods, but the rain stops with 15 miles to go and we are further pepped up when a signpost for Dunwich emerges eight miles later. We cross the A12 main road and then traverse gorse-covered heath in search of the ?Lost City?.
Although centuries ago Dunwich was an important and bustling port town, it has nearly all been battered away by the sea. What remains of it now is a smattering of houses, a church, and the Flora beach cafe which opens early especially for the ride.
It is seven o?clock when we arrive. We get served breakfast in the cafe then retreat to the beach for a rest. While other cyclists take a dip in the North Sea, I lie back on the pebbles and shut my eyes. What better way is there to finish a ride than by falling asleep on
LEGEND OF THE DYNAMO
As befits a ride of this mildly adventurous nature, the origins of the Dunwich Dynamo have something of a legend about them. Far from contrived like some other mass participation events, the ?Dun-Run? spontaneously burst into existence when a group of London couriers met up after work one balmy Friday evening in the summer of 1993.
?Instead of going to the Duke of Cumberland in Clerkenwell and sinking several pints like they normally do, they thought it was such a lovely night that they they?d go for a ride,? explains Barry Mason who now helps coordinate the event. ?They went on and on and on and suddenly bomph! There was the sea at Dunwich. They then went for a swim.?
The following year the ride was repeated with more couriers making the journey. With time, the word spread and the appeal of the ride seeped through to other walks of the cycling community.
Although the coordinators of the event now offer route guides, midway food and bus transport back to London, there is no obligation to buy into any of these. In essence, the Dunwich Dynamo remains a free event. There?s no signing-on, no fancy start and finish gantries and, most crucially, no support vehicles.
?That?s to keep it simple,? says Barry. ?It?s deliberately minimal organisation to scare off your occasional cyclist. It?s aimed at people who want a bit of an adventure.?
Hackney, Martello St, Mare St, Church Path, Lower Clapton Rd, Powerscroft Rd, Chatsworth Rd, Lea Bridge Rd, Waltham Forest, Epping Forest, Epping, North Weald, Moreton, Fyfield, Leaden Roding, Great Dunmow, Great Bardfield, Finchingfield, Wethersfield, S. Hedingham
C. Hedingham, Bulmer Tye, Sudbury, Great Waldingfield (feeding station in village hall), Monks Eleigh, Bildeston, Needham Market, Coddenham, Hemmingstone, Gosbeck, Helmingham, Framsden, Cretingham, Brandeston,Kettleburgh, Framlingham, Bruisyard, Peasenhall, Sibton Church, Darsham, Westleton, Dunwich Village, Dunwich Beach
DUNWICH DYNAMO 2007
This year?s 15th edition of the Dunwich Dynamo will take place on July 28-29. Further information can be found at www.londonschoolofcycling.co.uk. Visit www.southwarkcyclists.org.uk for some genuinely helpful FAQs and information on transport home.