We cyclists have often been grateful to the diggers of Europe’s canals. ‘All dug by hand,’ people keep telling us, but I bet they used spades as well. They’ve left us some wonderful places to ride the bikes. We just pedalled along the River Cam out of Cambridge, which claims to be England’s best cycling town, with cycle lanes on most roads, plenty of bike parking racks and best of all, patient drivers who probably ride bikes too.The Cam is a natural waterway of course, but it’s been tamed with a system of locks and embankments to stop it spreading out over the fens and flooding people’s holiday homes. In the town, it is famous for punting, but we could quickly see that on a sunny weekend we wouldn’t have it to ourselves. On the banks we ran the gauntlet of students thrusting placards at anybody toting a camera or consulting a tourist map. ‘Finking of goin’ puntin’ while you’re here?’ (Nobody wants a toffy accent these days. Notice that Princes William and Harry speak more like rock stars than like royals of old.) We weren’t finking of puntin’, and if we had been, we would soon have been put off by the antics of the crowds of very merry young punters bumping each other into the water.
Instead we rented bikes and pedalled out of town. It was an easy option. Three gears were plenty. The towpath was well-maintained, simple to follow (”Just keep the river on your right”"), well serviced with refreshment stops, and flat.
The waterway itself provided entertainment, in the form of narrowboats and locks, to take our minds off any discomfort in legs, lungs or rear ends. Back when barges were serious means of transport, the towpath may well have meant discomfort for those doing the towing. I remember a photo in a museum in Friesland showing a ‘skutje’ barge family at work. Mamma and the kids, ropes across their shoulders, walked the muddy towpath in the rain while Pappa did the steering from the captain’s cabin.
Those days are long gone. Now the ‘narrowboat’ barges have been converted into pleasure craft. Pubs have names like The Bridge,The Green Dragon and The Penny Ferry. Lock masters chat with skippers, and ride along with them for a while to open the next lock. Retired couples, usually with a dog perched on the deck beside them, lounge in the sun with the coffee cups. Their boat names tell the story; Croozy, The Fox, Fourth Time Lucky.
When we’ve had enough, we stop at the pub. “Waterbeach Chef and Brewer” sounds perfect. It’s a pub which seems to be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s packed with lunchtime diners and drinkers. The strollers of the mothers’ and babies’ club are choking the aisles.
The food is hearty, honest, heavy British fare. The decor is all heavy wooden beams, under which heavy honest British trenchermen tuck into heavy shepherd’s pies. We tell ourselves heavy British lasagne is just what we need, then pedal gently back to Cambridge. Recommended!
TRIP NOTES: Bike rental from Station Cycles costs GBP10 for 24 hours