Riding the new Rebellion Way: a cycling adventure through Norfolk’s history

A 232-mile cycle loop around the county offers pastoral charms, big skies and a look back at the region’s surprisingly defiant side

As King Prasutagus of the Iceni was dying in AD60, he reneged on an agreement with the incumbent Roman emperor, Nero, to hand over his land in East Anglia. Instead, he passed joint ownership to his kin. Nero’s man on the ground took exception to this volte-face and ordered that the territory be annexed and his family humiliated.

Prasutagus’s widow – a certain Boudicca – was enraged. “In the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh,” wrote historian Cassius Dio. Mounting her chariot, she led a revolt south and her army cut down about 70,000 Romans. So devastating was her attack, Nero nearly threw in the towel. Alas, legions were dispatched from Cambria (Wales) and Boudicca’s boys were defeated.

Now, nearly two millennia later, here I am in Norfolk at the site of Venta Icenorum, a Roman-built “model town” created to placate the remaining Iceni. This is my first stop on a group ride of Cycling UK’s new Norfolk route, The Rebellion Way, which was launched earlier this month. Thanks to the European Regional Development Fund’s Experience project (with funding secured prior to Brexit) this and five other regions across England and France have been developed to promote sustainable, off-season tourism. A guidebook and downloadable route is available on the Cycling UK website for £14.

Riders cycle past fields in Norfolk on the Rebellion Way on a cloudy October day.
Cycling past fields on the Rebellion Way Photograph: Saskia Martin/Pannier/Cycling UK

The Rebellion Way’s 232-mile, multi-day loop serves up the pastoral charms and panoptic skies of one of England’s least-hilly counties. It is designed to be ridden in four to six days. The route’s name reveals a history of resistance that makes for an evocative ride. As well as passing through Norwich, King’s Lynn and Sandringham, it takes in Castle Acre, Little Walsingham and Holkham via forests and an endless-feeling coastline, and even dips into the Norfolk Broads.

I’m exploring the route with Cycling UK and Stef Amato, owner of Pannier, an adventure cycling operator. We began earlier in the day at Norwich railway station, heading south on quiet lanes and bridleways towards the chocolate box-like market town of Diss (likely to be the path Boudicca took on her way to burn London).

The scene is defiantly early autumn Norfolk: flat arable land fringed by hedgerows and old cottages of knapped flint and pink plaster, which accent the land’s modest curves. We’re soon tallying up the ancient churches, some eerily derelict.

The Rebellion Way takes in Norfolk’s towns, villages and many ancient churches
The Rebellion Way takes in Norfolk’s towns, villages and many ancient churches Photograph: Saskia Martin/Pannier/Cycling UK

Though the route is not difficult, the best bikes for this terrain fall into the “gravel” category: beefed-up road bikes with drop bars and knobbly tyres. I’m on a hybrid e-bike – part mountain, part tourer – lazily making use of the battery-powered assistance. If you don’t have your own, Visit Norfolk has information on cycle hire locations in the county.

“The idea was to create a route that you can do whether you’re eight or 80,” says Guy Kesteven, the route’s curator. “There’s nothing very technical.”

While designed to be ridden independently, for those who prefer more help Rough Ride Guide will be running four-day self-guided tours (to include a support vehicle and two refreshments a day, along with evening meals and accommodation on request) starting in 2023.

Group of cyclists take their bikes over a bridge across the river near the centre of Norwich. A cathedral spire is in the distance.
The riders in Norwich Photograph: Saskia Martin/PANNIER/CYCLING UK

Our stop for the night is a glamping spot near Diss called the Green Rabbit, which is open June to October, but there are many other options for the winter rider. Over dinner, Cycling UK’s Sophie Gordon tells me of another important story associated with this route – Kett’s Rebellion of 1549. Robert Kett was driven to attempt sedition by the hardships inflicted on peasant workers (due to the enclosure of commons land) and amassed a force of 16,000 men to lay siege to Norwich.

Visiting Kett’s Heights, where they gathered, is an optional detour to start or finish the trip. I’m told this sylvan incline offers the city’s finest views, particularly over its two cathedrals, Catholic and Protestant.

The effects of archaic land ownership laws are still being felt by some today: 92% of England remains off limits. Of the public access ways, only 22% are open to cyclists. Many footpaths – verboten on two wheels – were given their spurious status by persuasive landowners and pliant councils in the 1960s. To ride them is to trespass. Part of Cycling UK’s mandate is to change these labels and increase riders’ access to the countryside – and the Norfolk route is the sixth long-distance trail that Cycling UK has launched.

“There are echoes of history in the Rebellion Way,” says Gordon. “We’re continuing to fight for access!”

Group of cyclists take a break for food and relaxation in Thetford Forest, Norfolk.
Taking a break in Thetford Forest Photograph: Saskia Martin/PANNIER/CYCLING UK

Knowing exactly where you should and should not ride in England is a complex business; part of these routes’ appeal, then, is the guarantee of a trip that won’t breach civil decrees.

The next morning we’re off early. The ride is more varied: farmyards and hay barns give way to open meadows and wide skies. Before long we’re pedalling through Thetford Forest, the smell of pine resin and petrichor pleasant in the air.

We stop for a picnic lunch among the stately cedars of Lynford Arboretum, before pressing on to Duration Brewery. Miranda Hudson and her brew-master husband Derek Bates turn out beers and ales in a Grade II-listed building. It’s a Cycling UK accredited spot, which among other things means there are showers. My tasting flight spans fresh, wild and sour beers, along with a drop favoured by the royal butcher at nearby Sandringham (also on the route; great for cream teas).

Writer Damien Gabet samples a beer at Duration Brewery in Norfolk.
Writer Damien Gabet at Duration Brewery Photograph: Saskia Martin/Pannier/Cycling UK

The last lazy miles of the day are toward arcadian Castle Acre. I splash through a ford and stop to take in the ruins of its 1,000-year-old priory. Two black labradors come to say hello before being whistled away by an elderly gent in plus fours. It’s a place to lie in the grass while reading John Clare poems.

Fighter jets roar overhead – from nearby RAF Marham – as we arrive at our lodgings on the edge of the village, at The Pig Shed Motel. I eat a steak at the adjacent George & Dragon and conk out early knowing there’s more riding tomorrow.

The final stretch into King’s Lynn is more of the same green-and-pleasant breeziness. Sadly, my abridged trip doesn’t go as far as the north coast, past Holkham Hall and eccentric pilgrimage spot Walsingham (“England’s Nazareth”), which Kesteven assures me is the loop’s most dramatic stretch.

Norfolk is often described as “timeless”. To me, it felt more as if we were travelling back – to an age when golden-hour skies made men weep (and before the invention of village shops or cafes; pack a picnic). Riders looking for adrenaline kicks should eschew the Rebellion Way, but it’s catnip for the adventurer. And also for me, knocking on 40, as a civilised reintroduction to distance cycling. A gentle segue off the road and into history.

The trip was provided by Cycling UK with support from Pannier. Further information and route maps are available at cyclinguk.org/rebellion-way

Damien Gabet

The GuardianTramp

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