Sustainable travel

Bikepacking Norfolk’s Rebellion Way on a two-wheeled adventure

The greener version of backpacking is the latest travel trend to hit UK shores. Emily Woodhouse tries it out on a brand new trail

Friday 21 October 2022 11:15 BST
Cyclists ride down one of the quiet ways making up Norfolk’s Rebellion Way
Cyclists ride down one of the quiet ways making up Norfolk’s Rebellion Way (SASKIA MARTIN / PANNIER / CYCLIN)

In the golden savannah of England’s late summer, we cycle wheel in groove through a field of stubble. The double line dirt track leads us across the empty field, its cut hay baled high in square stacks. Overhead, cirrus clouds adorn the pale blue sky in delicate sweeps like an artist’s brush stroke. This is not the Norfolk I expected. There are no fens, beaches or wide waterways. It feels like a homecoming.

I’m here to test out the Rebellion Way – a 365km new bikepacking route across Norfolk. It’s been designed by Cycling UK especially with beginners in mind. Which is a good job really, since I’ve never been bikepacking in my life and barely cycled off-road. The full route makes a six day loop, starting and finishing in Norwich, but can easily be split in half at King’s Lynn. With only a long weekend to spare, snatching a quick break between working weeks, we’ll be cycling the clockwise half.

An hour’s train ride from London and we are packing bags onto bikes outside Norwich station, ready to go. Slightly delayed by swans on the line, our plans are already becoming fluid. But that’s how cycling holidays work; on a bike, just roll with it.

Bikepacking the Rebellion Way gives the chance to try some gentle off-roading (SASKIA MARTIN / PANNIER / CYCLIN)

We ride on quiet country lanes, lined high with hedgerow: hawthorn, blackthorn, elder, ash. Ancient oak trees stand tall above them. The landscapes we pass through blur into a Zorn palette of red bricks and terracotta tiles, ochre fields, flint-made walls and sandy tracks. Weaving through a web of back lanes and byways, we ride one minute enclosed, the next under an enormous sky. There aren’t many hills at all and any tiredness is smoothed out by the subtle boost of an e-bike. After an intense week of work, I can feel the stress falling away as I pedal.

The Rebellion Way weaves together sites of local history, but it’s subtle. You don’t feel like you’re going dot to dot, compelled to stop and admire each site of interest in turn, like an all-inclusive sightseeing bus. The cultural history forms a backdrop that you move through – splashing across a ford into full view of a Clunaic priory or casually cycling under a portcullis into the village of Castle Acre. Yet, for the curious, there are many layers to unpeel if you only step aside and notice. We pause in an abandoned church, reclaimed by oak and ivy, the empty stained glass window now forming an intricate frame for the landscape beyond. While we stand in its roofless shell, a head height cobble catches my eye: the distinctive grooves of an ancient sea creature are captured in the flint.

We pause in an abandoned church, reclaimed by oak and ivy, the empty stained glass window now forming an intricate frame for the landscape beyond

The historical core of this ride are the two eponymous rebellions. First, the Iceni rebellion against the invading Romans – we cycle along the Pye Road that Boudicca and her tribe would have marched out along on their way to sack London. Much later, in 1549, Robert Kett led a protest against land enclosure from Kett’s Heights in Norwich. And although I don’t feel particularly rebellious as I ride, there is certainly something of that flavour in Cycling UK’s work. After all, creating a mixed terrain trail for cyclists is a continuation of those same access rights campaigned for long ago.

On our second day, the cycling gets more involved. We spend most of the morning on gravel tracks, dry and dusty. The uniform pines of Thetford Forest close in and we ride along forest tracks and fire breaks, narrowing until we are pedalling down singletrack in the woods. This, I realise, is bikepacking: the novelty of riding where I’d only ever walked before. Ducking under bushes, pedalling wildly through the trees, whooping as I find the rhythm in the pitch and slope of the trail. None of it is extreme in any sense, just unfamiliar to someone who usually cycles on tarmac. There is deep mud and sand. I’m slow to start with, cautiously navigating the new slip and slide in my wheels, but my friends always wait for me.

Ruins of an old church enhance the natural landscape (Emily Woodhouse)

Other than terrain, I get the sense that bikepacking is about making do with little, but not taking that minimalism too seriously. Our bikepacking bags are deliberately tiny, forcing us to take only the essentials. We aren’t camping, so we don’t need much. The wedge-shaped compression bags stick out from under the saddle, balanced above the back wheel almost by magic. Sleek, efficient – yet my more experienced companions have Crocs or flip-flops strapped jauntily on top with bungee cord. By the end of the weekend I have a metal mug, securely but irreverently strapped to mine. For emergency coffee stops, I suppose. I take it off to drink from as we picnic in the woods.

The Rebellion Way is mapped out to pass plenty of shops, cafes and accommodation for all practical needs, so you can pick and choose your own itinerary. Ours involves pigs, rope swings and tanks. We add in a visit to a local brewery, whose startup story reminds me of the film Chocolat. Later, we add on an extra gravel loop, accidentally timing it for sunset. Dinner is in an 18th-century pub, with tables fit for a banquet and walls lined with cloth-bound books. We collapse into bed at a nearby motel which welcomes cyclists.

Riders take a detour on the Rebellion Way through Norwich (SASKIA MARTIN / PANNIER / CYCLIN)

After two days of bikepacking, I’m riding down an old lane, cut in half by an A-road and completely overgrown. My wheels bump over fractured tarmac buried deep under years of leaf mould: a final seam of nature leading us into King’s Lynn, through cascades of crab apples and blackberry bushes. Popping out into the cul-de-sac of a modern estate, we spot a bike sign and follow it into town – until finally we arrive at the estuary, pedalling along the quay in a fresh breeze. After a celebratory drink at a convenient riverside cafe, it’s just a short ride to the train station to head home.

Bikepacking tips

Cycling UK’s Sam Jones said, “Bikepacking is essentially just stripped-down cycle touring, usually conducted off-road or on mixed terrain. If you’re short of time and looking to get the benefits of time outdoors, in many ways it has the benefit over trekking. You’re still travelling slowly enough to experience the landscape you pass through, but also able to cover greater distances allowing you to reach isolated spots in a shorter time.

‘The double line dirt track leads us across the empty field, its cut hay baled high in square stacks' (SASKIA MARTIN / PANNIER / CYCLIN)

“It’s truly a great way to explore the British countryside – but like all visitors to the outdoors, Cycling UK would urge bikepackers always to be considerate of others who live, work and enjoy the countryside, and above all to follow the Leave No Trace ethos.”

Here are some tips for first time bikepackers:

  • If you don’t know about bikes, hire one from someone who does. It’s an easier way to get started than buying a whole new bike.
  • E-bikes aren’t necessary, but if anyone is worried about being at the back of the group all the time, it definitely helps. You might not even use it, but knowing you’ve got a boost if you need it can allay any fears.
  • Pack light: you really don’t need much – especially if you’re staying in accommodation and never going far from civilisation.
  • Have a go at off-road and have fun. Worst comes to worst, you can always get off and push!

Travel essentials

Getting there

The Rebellion Way starts at Norwich train station. There are direct trains from London Liverpool Street. Long-stay parking is also available near the station.

Staying there

For a full and up to date list of cycle-friendly places to stay along the Rebellion Way, see Cycling UK’s official guide:

The guide also includes a full narrative of the route, maps, suggested itineraries and downloadable gpx files.

More information

Learn more about bikepacking by visiting:

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