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Paul shines a light on the Dunwich Dynamo

Apart from 1984 and Animal Farm, one of the other things George Orwell wrote was an essay called ‘The Moon Under Water,’ about his imaginary perfect pub. Had the pub been in Dunwich, Suffolk, he might have called it ‘The Bell Under Water:’ because when he wrote his essay Dunwich Church, and presumably its bell, had been underwater for over a hundred years, the town having fallen victim to coastal erosion. The rest of Dunwich was in the sea too and all the inhabitants had left for somewhere drier. It still returned an MP to parliament though, and later featured in school history lessons as a ‘rotten borough,’ a seat which could be more or less bought with no need for the candidate to persuade the non-existent voters of their suitability.

Back to the pub (hurrah!). Would ‘The Bell Under Water’ still be there today? Yes, of course it would. But the bell on the sign wouldn’t be a great big ding-dong church bell, it would probably be a ‘ding-a-ling’ handlebar mounted bell. Because Dunwich is the finishing point for that iconic overnight summer cycle ride from London, the ‘Dunwich Dynamo.’

Legend has it that one moonlit summer night in 1990 or so, a bunch of energetic cycle couriers met on London Fields in Hackney and decided to ride through the night from east London to the coast and stop when the sun came up. Dawn came when they got to Dunwich. They did the same again the following year and the Dunwich Dynamo was born, ‘dynamo’ going in the name in honour of the device that powered their lights. The ride has happened nearly every year since, on the Saturday night and Sunday morning closest to the full moon in July. It’s a 112 mile ride through the dark, with no official organisation (this is no arrow marked sportive) but a lot of camaraderie, mutual support and sharing of jelly babies along the way. Traditional stopping places have developed, major ones at Sudbury and Needham Market, but smaller ones literally ‘pop-up.’ And breakfast on the beach is a tradition.

I first read about the Dynamo in a book I won in my first Ratae Club Dinner raffle and was fascinated. As a rookie cyclist it sounded too strenuous then but I put it on the list. This year, I managed to do it.

First thing to sort out was the logistics. I’m in Leicester. The ride starts in London. It ends on the Suffolk coast. Bike on train to London, ride to Dunwich, bike on train back? That might be a green way of doing it but the rail route home from Dunwich’s nearest station (Darsham) was sabotaged by Sunday replacement buses, no bikes allowed. This left a 30 mile ride from Dunwich to Stowmarket Station to go direct to Leicester as the only workable alternative. I didn’t fancy a 30 mile bimble after doing 112 through the night. Paris-Brest-Paris veterans can sneer, but I know when to stop pedalling. So I chose a less green method (I promise to offset), put the bike in the car and drove to Darsham. I caught the train to London and rode back to the starting point, intending to grab a few hours kip on the beach before driving back west.

So, I was at Darsham station at Midday on Saturday July 1st having left the car a mile or so down the road at Yoxford. I had a cycle reservation for the second leg of the journey, from Ipswich where I had to change to Stratford (East London, where the Olympic Park is), but had been assured no reservation was necessary from Darsham to Ipswich. Consequently, the dirty great sign on the platform stating that the ‘6 cycles per train’ rule would be enforced mercilessly over the Dunwich Dynamo weekend was not exactly reassuring. What if 6 dynamoers had got on at the station before? I might be doomed.

Fortunately, the envisaged hoard of cyclists did not materialise and the train journey to London, including the Ipswich change, went smoothly. Ratae member Mr Kam Kalia appeared on the platform at Ipswich but he stayed on the train until Liverpool Street so we couldn’t get lost together cycling through the Olympic Park, past the West Ham ground and through Hackney Wick and Victoria Park to get to the Dynamo start at London Fields. Another time, perhaps.

London Fields was rammed with all manner of cyclists and all manner of bicycles too. After a hot dog and abject failure to find people I had informally arranged to ride with, I set off at a quarter to seven with a couple of chaps from Yorkshire.

The route starts with a ride up Hackney’s Mare Street, or ‘murder mile’ as it was reassuringly known in the late 90s, and a long stretch on the Lea Bridge Road. Soon Epping Forest Opens up. That’s where we came across the three guys on penny farthings, their cycles looking like aluminium daddy longlegs’. Beyond the forest the scouts of Fyfield village had put very comprehensive signage up to let riders know water (free!), cake and burgers were available in half a mile. They were very prepared. The burger was terrific. The sign the scouts had put up saying Dunwich (still) 88 miles was less so. The chaps from Yorkshire forewent the burgers and pressed on on their own. I went straight past the next stop, in spite of the sign saying ‘free chips.’ I joined two or three small groups on the way, but didn’t stay long with any. I think it was about 40 miles in that I heard someone call my name behind me, and there he was again: Kam Kalia, with a few speedy Forest members. I decided to stick to my party pace, and watched his rear light get smaller and smaller in the darkening distance.

A village called Finchingfield brought enthusiastic cheers from the tables outside the pub and a steep ramp up to get you back to the countryside. More climbing followed, not steep but quite lengthy.

After Braintree it got properly dark. I joined a Polish woman who said she had started from Braintree to see what two thirds of the ride would be like. Just before the seventy mile mark I stopped at a tiny coffee stop (“Real coffee!” Said the sign under the car windscreen wiper a quarter of a mile before) which felt fantastic. It was midnight, at Monks Eleigh. Or Monks Headlight as my predictive text insisted. A few Welland Valley riders arrived just before I rode off: more about them in a bit.

More darkness followed and frustration when I realised the guys I had been following had gone the wrong way. I let them know and turned round to pick up the route again, only two miles lost. Soon I had a flashing headlight just behind me and expected someone to overtake me, but they sat on my wheel for a good 10 miles before they did. It was the Welland Valley Bunch, and I gladly did the last 25 miles or so with them, including a final stop mainly for water, and the ride into Dunwich with the sky gradually lightening.

The beach café was packed and the service exemplary. I ordered a vegetarian breakfast (I’m an omnivore, I just fancied it) and a cup of tea, heard about the Elswick Judith had been trying to sell to or buy from Pete Kott and rode the five miles back to the car. Two guys were busy fixing bikes to the roof of a car parked just behind me. It was that there Kam Kalia again! I watched him drive away, vanishing over a sunny horizon this time. Well, going round the corner at the bottom of the road really, but poetic licence and all that.

I drove halfway back to Leicester, stopped and slept for an hour or so then did the rest. Back at home I ticked the Dunwich Dynamo off the list.

The only time George Orwell referred to cycling that I am aware of was something about “old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist.” I didn’t see any of them on the Sunday morning at Dunwich.

Paul Eden 07.07.2023

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