Have you considered a leisurely tour from Cambridge to London instead of rushing through on the M11 motorway or taking the train? The planners of the 2014 Tour de France did consider it and opened our eyes to a lovely route along quiet, scenic country roads.
The third stage of the tour covered 159 km/98.79 miles of some of the prettiest countryside in the south and east of England as it traveled across rural Essex. It's one you can still enjoy as it meanders along A and B roads between Cambridge and Chelmsford, then heads west through Epping Forest and on into London from the East.
And, unlike some other scenic routes, this one is relatively flat - not quite cycling for softies but accuracy around curves is much more important than prowess at climbing hills. Whether cycling, biking or driving, you'll wind through rich farm country and small, perfect villages with names like Chignal Smealy (claim to fame: a great place to watch the RAF Flyover for the Queen's Birthday every year) and Shellow Bowells.
Here's what to expect along the way.
Cambridge and Sightseeing Along the Backs
Cambridge, home of the UK's second oldest university, was already a thriving market town 400 years before students, fleeing a violent town vs gown dispute in Oxford, settled there in 1209. Give yourself at least a day to explore the Backs, visit one of the town's ancient Medieval churches or stop into one of its free museums and art galleries. Tiny St. Bene't's Church, is the oldest building in Cambridge. It has a tower and nave dating from 1040 A.D. At one time, visitors could pay a small fee, buy a length of newsprint paper and a soft pencil and do rubbings of the early 15th century memorial brass on the tomb of Richard Billingford, Doctor of Divinity, Master of Corpus Christi. People were wearing out these ancient works of art all over the country so it's no longer allowed. But you can still hunt for the kneeling figure of Billingford to see how a 15th century cleric and academic dressed. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, familiarly known as the Round Church, one of only four round churches in England, may have been built by the Templars in 1130. It's the second oldest building in Cambridge and if you visit, you'll be following in the footsteps of such notables as Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama and Queen Victoria. The New Hall Art Collection is the largest collection of contemporary art by women in Europe. If you fancy taking a punt on a punt, a flat bottomed boat, propelled along the River Cam by a pole driven into the muddy bottom, keep in mind that it is probably harder than it looks.
From Cambridge, head south on the A1309 to the A1301 - then take a short detour on the A505 two miles west to Duxford.
Duxford and the Most Iconic Aircraft in the World
IMW Duxford, is the site of the Imperial War Museum's aviation branch. Located on a former RAF base about halfway between Cambridge and Saffron Walden,, it houses more than 200 aircraft as well as tanks, military vehicles and boats. These are some of the most iconic British, American, Canadian aircraft in the world (see a list).
There are interactive exhibitions, a Battle of Britain exhibition and the American Air Museum, a permanent exhibition included in the general IMW Duxford admission. Together these museums and exhibitions constitute the largest collection of historic military aircraft in Europe.
From Duxford, rejoin the A1301 and continue south to the B184 and Saffron Walden.
Saffron Walden and Audley End
Saffron Walden, a market town, 18 miles south of Cambridge,was known as Chipping Walden before the wool industry waned and the cultivation of saffron crocuses took off in the 16th and 17th centuries. Saffron, then widely used in dyes and medicines, made the town wealthy.
Take some time to wander around the town center where there are quite a few Medieval buildings to admire. The B184, which passes through the center, is designated for its special scenic and historic interest by Visit England.
The town was a Puritan stronghold during the English Civil War and some of the older inns are said to be haunted by Cromwellian soldiers. On the edge of the town, Audley End House and Gardens, is considered the best stately home in Essex. Maintained by English Heritage, it has recently undergone extensive refurbishment and now visitors can see the newly opened nursery, meet the staff in the Victorian servants wing, get to know the estate's horses in the stables and learn about upstairs/downstairs life in this great old house. During the summer the house is open from noon to 5pm, the stables and gardens from 10am to 6pm.
Continue on the B1053 out of town toward Finchingfield.
The Prettiest Village in England?
Finchingfield is regularly named to lists of the prettiest villages in England. The title is well deserved for this tiny place arranged around a pleasant green and a duck pond is regularly featured on posters and calendars. Aim for the center of town and the Fox Inn or one of several tea rooms. Stop in at the village antique shop and walk up to the top of the town to see the 18th century windmill.
Continue south towards Chelmsford, staying on B roads. After Chelmsford turn right on the A1060 and head west towards Epping Forest.
Epping Forest - Open Space and Tudor History
Epping Forest, at 6,000 acres, is London's largest open space. It straddles the Greater London/Essex border. In the summer of 2014, the Tour de France cut through the center of the forest on the B181. In addition to woodland and open spaces, there are four forest centers, one of which is of special historic interest. Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge is a more than 500-year-old, timber framed hunt standing, built by Henry VIII and surrounded by a medieval royal hunt forest. Inside, visitors can get an idea of Tudor life, food and dress. Admission is free.
Head south out of Epping Forest on the A104. Turn left on the A106 and follow signs to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
An Olympic Park Legacy
The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park,, site of the London 2012 Olympics, is one of the city's newest open spaces. Visitors can explore the parklands, waterways and fountains, admire a variety of public artworks, climb up the ArcelorMittal Orbit (Europe's tallest sculpture, designed by Sir Anish Kapoor) and visit the sports venues. Several of them are open to the public and in use for swimming, cycling and other sports.
You're in East London now and you'll have to depend on your GPS device to navigate west toward the city center. But if you want to follow the Tour de France route, you should aim for a majestic finish up the Mall to the Queen's front door.
A Royal Finish at the Palace.
Buckingham Palace, the home of the British monarch is instantly recognizable around the world and it's the traditional finishing line for all sorts of road events that come to London. Why not make the finish of your own tour along the Mall, the wide ceremonial route in front of the Queen's house. You might even plan to be in time for the Palace's summer opening, when visitors can take a peak inside and have a cream tea in the Queen's back garden.