Our review of new cycle hire service on Ickworth Estate near Bury St Edmunds - torrential rain failed to dampen the experience
With the wind in my hair, sun on my back and only the noise of wheels on gravel and the clunking of bicycle gears, I could hand on heart say I was thoroughly enjoying being back in the saddle.
I had accepted an invitation from Ickworth to try its new cycle hire offering and had dragged my husband David and five-year-old daughter Clara along for the ride.
And so on Friday afternoon we drove out to Horringer, near Bury St Edmunds, and on to the Ickworth Estate before parking up and visiting the conveniently-located cycle hub, which opened just weeks ago.
There we met cycle hire supervisor Gunther Landrie – Queen fan and all-round good egg.
He welcomed us with a smile before sizing us up for our two-wheeled transport for the afternoon.
Clara, having learned to confidently cycle without stabilisers a week earlier, was firmly set on seeing the park from the comfort of a trailer.
Knowing this would make our afternoon a bit easier – even if one of the grown-ups did have to pull a trailer along – David and I were all for it.
Soon we were all set and Gunther gave us his number to call (in case of any problems with the bikes) and showed us the two routes on a map.
We had the choice of the three-mile blue route or six-mile green route.
"I do recommend the green," said Gunther. "It will take you just over an hour at a leisurely pace and it really is beautiful."
Green it was then – and we were off.
Despite not having been on a bike for two years (which was also for journalism purposes), it really is one of those skills you never forget.
It helped that the first section of our ride was gently downhill (Gunther had pre-warned us about a half-mile-long upwards stretch later in the route, when the blue and green routes diverge), but any wobbles were soon gone and we were enjoying the thrilling sensation freedom cycling can bring.
As we passed into the first gated section of the park's multi-use track, we soon encountered a few obstacles along the way – of the sheep variety. As we navigated our way between dozing sheep and lambs across the track, I shouted to Clara in her trailer ahead of me: "Have you spotted any lambs Clara?"
A bellow of 'yes' floated back to me.
"And what can you smell Clara?" I asked.
"Poo," came the unequivocal response.
Soon we had navigated through the flock and on to the next section of the trail.
With yellowing corn gently waving in the field alongside us as we cycled and the warm sun beating down, I couldn't help but say: "We couldn't really have had better weather for this, could we?"
Famous last words.
Within minutes ominous clouds had started to gather, with what suspiciously looked like rain falling from some in the distance.
But we couldn't worry ourselves, as soon we were facing the physical challenge of that half-mile hill Gunther had warned us about.
Again, the clunking of changing gears could be heard from both bicycles as we did our best to beat it.
"It's no good, I've got to stop," said an out-of-breath David as I cycled past, determined not to lose what little momentum I had.
And the view from the 'summit' (if you can call it that) was worth the effort. I couldn't help stopping for a victory picture as David and Clara made their way to the top behind me.
The victory (which felt hollow anyway, as I wasn't pulling a trailer along so definitely had the easier ride) was short-lived as we all felt the first drops of rain on our bare arms.
By this point we were less than 30 minutes into the ride, so we knew we would need to push on to cover as much ground as possible before the heavens opened.
Clara was soon snug and dry in her trailer (which had a handy raincover) as David and I worked our legs as fast as our lungs would allow.
It was no good, soon the rain was coming thick and fast without respite.
I regretted leaving my jacket and spectacles in the car (I had needed my prescription sunglasses when we set off), but we ploughed on regardless.
Anyway, once you're already wet a bit more rain doesn't hurt.
Along the route we passed several groups of walkers huddled under trees to escape the downpour, as we cheerily waved and carried on our way.
Although I admit by the time I spotted the church in the distance, closely followed by the roof of Ickworth House's famous Rotunda, I did breathe a little sigh of relief to be nearly back.
But, as you can see by the picture of me on a slight detour past the Rotunda (for purely photographic purposes), my by-now filthy legs and sopping clothes hadn't wiped the smile off my face.
Not one bit.
We arrived back at the cycle hub with grins plastered on our faces and full of praise for the beautiful trail route we had taken and the entire concept of cycle hire at Ickworth.
"We'll have two large lattes please," said David as he cycled past the coffee kiosk – and by the time we had given back our bikes, helmets and thanked Gunther, our caffeine boosts were ready.
Gunther seemed pleased we had enjoyed ourselves so much (even with the unfortunate British weather).
"People really have been loving it, because it is so beautiful," he said, adding that Sport England was helping to fund the initiative – which makes the hire prices extremely reasonable and accessible.
It is also a very easy activity to enjoy as you can just turn up, hire your bikes and set off on an adventure (with no need for cumbersome bike racks on your own car).
We give the experience a unanimous thumbs-up and hope to return later in the season.
For more information visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/Ickworth
- The cycle hire hub is open 10am-4pm Thursday to Sunday all year (and every day in Suffolk school holidays). Last hire of the day is 2pm.
- Bikes range from balance bikes for young children, trailers and up to bikes for adults.
- Hire is £5 for two hours, £2 per extra hour (after initial hire), £10 all day and £3 for a balance bike.
- If you have your own helmet take it along (but helmets are available at the hub).
- Cycle hire is first come, first served with no pre-booking required.
- The lattes and trillionaire's shortbread available at the coffee kiosk next to the cycle hire cabin are well worth sampling. And after a six-mile ride, you deserve it.
- A child's bike trailer doubles up as handy storage for handbags and coats.
- Entry to Ickworth is free for National Trust members, but day visitors will need an admission ticket to access the estate (giving entry to all areas open on the day).