Ever since we moved into our house, I've been curious about the sign at the bottom of the street. Down by the railway line which separates our road from the Rylands area beyond, there's a small blue sign indicating a cut through to the next street; the blue sign has a picture of a white bicycle, and the number six in a red box. But what did it mean?
Some time later, when I started a job in Nottingham and could commute by bike, I began to cycle to work, and my route had me following that sign. But as I turned off the canal towpath and headed uphill towards my office, the route carried on without me. And from the bottom of our street, the sign pointed in the opposite direction too. So what is it? And where does it go?
It turns out that national cycle route six connects two of the railway cities of England – Derby and York. It's part of a wider network which criss crosses the whole country, with the Derby-York section being a mere 194 miles. It also swings north from Nottingham up past Clumber Park, although in something of an irony, I didn't ride any of it on my trip there from Mansfield a couple of weeks ago. Being the kind of person I am, my first instinct was to try and work out whether it would be possible to ride the whole thing at some point. (I've got form in this area; when I lived in Wollaton, a long distance walking trail, the Robin Hood Way, came along my street and I started trying to walk the whole thing in sections before deciding that linear walking required more planning and public transport than I was interested in). In any case, I'm a reasonable person so I decided to explore a bit of the cycle route before making any firm plans. I sat down with a trusty OS map and decided to make Elvaston Castle my first objective – a perfect midweek mini adventure.
Elvaston Castle is a house and country park on the outskirts of Derby, and owned by the local authority. The two hundred acres of grounds were originally a monastery but after receiving Henry VIII's unwelcome attentions, it became a private estate. A manor house, part of which is still visible, was built in 1633, with 19th century alterations. However, the building is now in something of a state of disrepair and Derbyshire County Council is trying to sell off the grade II* listed building and its grounds as it can no longer afford to keep it up. Needless to say, I've only found this out since my return – before I left, I established that a) Elvaston Castle is open to the public b) it costs to park (£1!) but is otherwise free, and c) it has a cafe and loos. That was all I needed for it to be a sensible target.
The day was grey and overcast as I set my phone to track my GPS signal and finally left the house. I'd packed the map but thankfully, Nottinghamshire County Council have been generous with their signage, and I simply followed the little blue signs as I wended my way off through Chilwell, Toton and into Long Eaton. Crossing the border into Derbyshire, I started to discover things that I'd never seen, despite driving past for years. This sculpture is a carved seat, surmounted by a figure riding a penny farthing; sadly the gate's locked, so you can't actually sit on the seat.
I've often complained that the area in which I live is a bit flat for my liking – however, once you're on a bike, you suddenly become grateful for the fact that you're not climbing or descending much at all. I soon left the town behind, then the villages, and once past Breaston I was out amongst the fields on a lovely flat track. Although the weather was chilly and a bit cheerless, I breathed a sigh of relief to be amongst fields and trees.
This is the kind of signage you get once you're no longer on the main road.
After a small detour around the edge of Borrowash (alongside a canal, and on the only section of route which was a bit bumpy), I coasted down a hill and cut off the cycle route, onto the country lane which brought me to Elvaston Castle Country Park itself. I'd been taking my time en route, stopping regularly to check the map or take a picture, and by the time I arrived, I was absolutely famished. I wheeled my way across the muddy lawns and reclined on a bench to eat my picnic.
You can see the 1633 manor on the right, with the newer addition on the left, and a delightful bicycle to the front.
The park itself seemed quiet (unsurprisingly for a weekday in February) but the tea room was teeming with people and after demolishing my sandwich, I treated myself to a scone. It wasn't bad though perhaps a bit too almondy for my liking. The tea room is actually the only section of the castle which you can get into for the majority of the year, and it gives few clues as to what the rest of the building might be like.
Before long, I was heading back to retrace my steps home. Despite enjoying my quick visit, I was feeling a bit contrary – not only can you not go inside the house, but the whole estate was scattered with signs asking you not to do things – don't walk on the grass, don't play in the hedges, don't climb the trees. It seems somehow symptomatic of a disconnection which is being fostered between people and places; and maybe that's why the amount of litter in the hedgerows, on paths and in canals and parks comes as such a shock to me. If people can't be immersed in a place, perhaps they don't feel any responsibility towards it?
In any case, my trip home felt very swift – perhaps that's just compared to my return from Clumber Park in the wind – and even with a flat tyre brewing, I was back home with a sense of a few hours well spent. It's given me the confidence to consider cycling further afield, so it's back to the map.
Here's my route (roughly – I forgot to turn the GPS on to begin with):