Mileage: 16 miles
Why: Exploring the countryside around Old Warden
Food: Potato omelette and chocolate orange cheesecake
We drove our bikes to Old Warden last weekend, in order to do a loop around Shuttleworth College, Northill and Cardington (map here). At 16 miles, this seemed like a nice distance, but more importantly, set in what must surely be Bedfordshire’s prettiest countryside.
Hansl and Gretl land
We started off in Old Warden, where cottages with thatched roofs, white lattice-work on pink walls and perfectly manicured gardens seem to be lifted straight from a fairytale. The route skirted Shuttleworth, a stately home now housing a college, an aircraft collection, a Swiss garden and a bird of prey centre. We’d been before, so we passed by the entrance, but the collection is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
Instead, we took a left turn to Ickwell and Northill, home of a maypole, more fairytale cottages and the first of many gastro-like pubs (The Crown) with fabulous beer gardens. We spied a kestrel swooping above us and took a moment to admire it before starting on the slight, but long-ish uphill section towards Cardington.
As we cleared the last hill, Cardington airship hangars suddenly appeared before us, which threw our sense of geography completely. We were that close? Really? The sheds dwarf the terrain and are impossible to miss if you drive anywhere south of Bedford, and coming upon them this close made us feel like Gulliver stepping into the land of giants. At 800ft long, they are on the big side.
The sheds are fascinating old relics, the biggest shed in Britain when built in 1916, and they are now listed. Shed 1 is owned by AT Group, which is trying to revive the airship business, whilst shed 2, the restored one, has been used to film Batman, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Red Dwarf, amongst others. Paul McCartney has also done some practicing there, so we felt in good company.
Of equal interest, naturally, was Summerhill farm shop, which we stumbled upon on our way through. We didn’t buy anything, as the heat and the mode of transport seemed a bit impractical, but the array of meats, sauces, cheeses, fruit and bread were absolutely mouth-watering, to the point where I’m now planning a big BBQ purely so I can go back and indulge.
Gastropubs everywhere - this is the Hare and Hounds in Old Warden (www.hareandhoundsoldwarden.co.uk/)
But I digress. Our lovely flat route involved one 10% incline, and a fairly long one to boot, and it was at hand. The approach was long and flat, following a disused railway line, but we certainly got our work-out on the incline. This is where I have to ask – why is the wind always against us, and particularly so on hills, no matter which way we turn? If you’re doing a loop, surely the wind should at some point be in your back?
Having made a detour to Ireland, and yet another gastro pub (the excellent Black Horse), we then stopped for lunch outside the walls of Warden Abbey Vineyard, whose wines we’d just admired at the farm shop. From there, fern-covered forests enclosed the road on either side, and we also passed a mature tree plantation, which I found interesting – how big a garden must you have in order to be in need of a batch of 20-feet high trees?
Back where we began...
It was a fairly unglamorous picnic, in the end, since we didn’t find a single bench on the entire route, and so were left standing with our omelettes. We resolved to either make it a pub lunch next time, seeing as there is so much choice in that department, or else a luxury picnic back at the car. And that is indeed where we ate our chocolate orange cheesecake, though at least we had wonderful views of Shuttleworth college in the distance.