Dunwich Dynamo XXV

“When you have to choose between the truth and the legend…print the legend.” (Anthony H. Wilson)

One summer’s evening in 1993 a bunch of cycle messengers gazed at the full moon and, after a couple of beers, thought it a good idea to head mothlike towards it.

112 miles, a sunset and a sunrise later they found themselves on the gently shelving shingle beach of a once important but now largely submerged small town in Suffolk. That town is Dunwich.

They regaled their friends with tales of their ride; their friends embellished the tales; their friends’ friends were captivated by the tales.

The following July, on the Saturday closest to the full moon, some of those friends and friends of friends joined the couriers and cycled towards the North Sea.

The pioneers may not initially have realised just how legendary the ride would become. By now they surely do.

Londoners knew last Saturday night that something was afoot. From Kings Cross and Charing Cross, from Paddington and Kensington it seemed that everyone with pedals had one aim: the Pub on the Park in London Fields, Hackney.

On fixies and fat bikes, on recumbents and road bikes, on Bromptons and Boris Bikes, even on an Elliptigo this year they came.

The Dunwich Dynamo is anarchic. There is no sign on. There is no organiser. Thousands of people just happen to turn up at a pub on the same evening with the same idea. Some people sell A4 sheets of printed directions and use the proceeds from previous years to scatter fairy lights on the roadsides of East Anglia. Some people, recognising that not all the participants are keen to entirely emulate the pioneers by cycling back to London after sunrise, sell tickets for return coach travel.

London Fields, Hackney

There is a barbecue at the Pub on the Park. There are more bicycles than were on Buttertubs for the 2014 Grand Départ. Every cycling club within 90 miles seems to have sent a representative or a team. Penge are clearly inspired by the Italians. The seaxs of Essex are displayed by many a club. And someone tells me how he had just been reading about my club, Garstang, in the Comic.

There is a game of cricket; a couple of birthday parties and, in the warm breeze of a London summer evening, a strong smell of a smoke that isn’t tobacco.

I had arranged to meet my friend, Janet, at the start. This is proving challenging, not only because of the abundance of people, not just also because she has dressed in indigo leggings and a black top, but also because she has arrived at the wrong park and thus become perhaps the only cyclist in London to wonder where on earth everyone is.

As the ride has no organiser, it also has no start time — nor, indeed, a start location — but at 7.30 in the evening one of the park exits sees a steady stream of departing cyclists, their steeds often bedecked with fairy lights, their helmet vents stuffed with glow sticks. This is not a sportive.

Fifty minutes later Janet arrives, having added some warm-up miles from Limehouse to her journey. The stream of cyclists is not beginning to ebb. We notice something that the fluid pedalers have not: a large wide exit from the park and depart through it, thus cutting about forty minutes off our journey time.

London air on a hot still evening is foul. It catches at the back of my throat as the lengthy peloton winds slowly out of Hackney towards the Lee Valley. Children high five us. Cheery bus drivers ask us what on earth we are doing. Petrol stations sell out of Turkish Delight and Jelly Babies while greengrocers sell out of bananas.

We cycle through a park and past the River Lee, turning now onto the A104 which for the benefit of motorists has a fast, broad cycle lane. London is fast becoming a great cycling city.

The A104 will channel us out of the metropolis, past Hackney Marshes and Leyton, through Wanstead at Walthamstow and then over the North Circular where we cross a cattle grid. The sun is just setting over London, its orange glow illuminating the famous skyline.

We are in Epping Forest. As we ride through the forest our front lights pass their first test. We could navigate without them: the line of red LEDs continues ahead apparently without end.

The forest is home, it must be said, to many a pillock. Costly cars with poor pilots attempt foolish overtaking manoeuvres. As we descend into Woodford Green, lagered up louts throw projectiles at us from the roadside seating areas of pubs, reminding me of quite why I was so glad to leave Essex 26 years ago.

We barely notice the M25 and the M11 but we do notice a petrol station, potentially our last chance to top up food and drink rations for a number of miles. We get chatting to a veteran of Dun Runs whose relaxed attitude to organisation has regularly led her to making return trips from stations some distance from Dunwich. Her plan this year, she tells us, is to cycle to King’s Lynn, 77 miles northwest of the finish and see how she gets on.

Beyond the M25, outer London gives way to rural Lovejoyesque Essex. The moonlight illuminates thatch and flax. Around forty miles into the journey, we are invited by a man swinging a lantern into his family tearoom. It is nearly midnight, coffee seems an exceptionally fine idea. We are grateful also for the free water and wish the owners luck with their trade tonight. The air has now noticeably cooled — knee and arm warmers are donned.

The congestion as we left London has left us with an average speed barely more than 9 miles per hour. This is fine. The Dynamo is an adventure to be savoured.

The roads undulate through North Weald, through Fyfield, Leaden Roding and beyond — some of the climbs are so gentle we almost seem to be sucked up them while the descents can be so long and gentle that at one point I drop Janet and lose contact with her for four miles. I only notice this when I stop in Great Dunmow where a pub has brought the group to a standstill. I accept my ticking off with good grace.

Time flies as we pedal on, still following the red LEDs, navigation would only be an issue if a gap appeared in the peloton and was filled by a rural drinker cycling home, only to find a thousand cyclists at his door shortly after his arrival.

Suddenly on another glorious swooping descent, someone loses contact with the wheel ahead. His front light is fine for the city, but it casts no beam. I go in front with one of my more lumenous (sic) lamps. At speed, the difference between hedge and road is a little vague. I realise that we now recognise companions at night like buoys — the lighting configuration is all — Janet is one central lamp above two horizontally separate LEDs. I am two gently pulsing bright lamps. Far ahead are Three Glowsticks in Fan Formation and his own partner, Four Glowsticks Forming a Cross.

There is near total silence. I don’t make conversation with several people: it almost seems rude to puncture that fragile atmosphere.

Now and then a club rushes past. We will see some of these people later in the morning as they cycle back to London. Traditionalists. Or mad. Perhaps both.

At the top of a hill, a road sign thanks us for carefully driving through Essex before another welcomes us to Suffolk’s Sudbury. We had for some reason believed the trip was 120 miles in length and so celebrated the Halfway Point with excellent coffee at Torque Cycle Shop who were also offering a repair service for the unfortunate: a lost cleat, a sticking gear, a broken spoke. I wondered aloud whether anyone popped in for a new brake block and left with a new bike. The smile from behind the counter spoke volumes.

Future travellers should be aware that Torque’s barista is very fond of gold coins and objected very strongly to having sometimes to swap them for paper or plastic.

Leaving Sudbury up the biggest gradient Suffolk could offer, we were asked by some young adults returning from a wild night of Sudbury debauchery why anyone would go for a bike ride at four in the morning. We checked the time. It wouldn’t be four for a little while yet.

The first light began to appear around three o’clock. At first the sky separated from the hedgerow. Buildings appeared in a faint silhouette. Later the first tints emerged. This was magical. There was a reason for lugging my camera in my saddlebag and that reason hit us at 3.48 when we emerged from a short stretch of woodland to the glow of dawn.

Janet and the dawn over Suffolk

Daylight came ever more rapidly. The lines of red LEDs gradually faded, making navigation a little trickier. The magic changed. Suffolk appeared now as a County of cottage gardens, of heath and of flax, of derelict pubs and of ornate village signs.

As the roads grew more distinct, so our speed increased. If we kept this up, we might even manage an average speed in excess of 10 miles per hour.

Multiple routes could be found to Dunwich. We liked to believe that ours was the one true route and we left our course sheets packed away to avoid puncturing the thought.

An enterprising family had set up a Mac and Cheese stall outside their house twenty miles or so from Dunwich. This seemed a fine, if unusual, choice of breakfast. We planned criminality: should you turn up at Darsham Station one year and see a chap offering lifts back to London for your back, don’t accept the offer. The cheap bikes are going in a hedge. The good stuff goes on eBay. Anarchy may have its downsides.

I had been warned of a big descent into Dunwich. I must have missed it. We arrived. We celebrated in a quietly fatigued manner. We got our return coach journey slot.

Cyclists line up to find their return coach time.

Janet went for a swim. I chose to continue my general dislike of swimming in the North Sea and stayed on shore. Exhausted cyclists napped.

And that was it. To travel hopefully may indeed be better than to arrive but that only demonstrates how fine travel can be.

A shingle beach forms an excellent pillow for bike and body.

Back in London, I navigated over Tower Bridge and down the Embankment before heading via the Mall and Trafalgar Square to Kings Cross. I think my legs may be grateful for the gentle motion.

I look forward to returning.