Category Archives: Cycling

Ride across England

For a while I had a vague plan to cycle across the width of the country, from the Solway Firth in the west back to Newcastle. I’d been put off previously by concerns about getting to Carlisle with my bike on the train and a lack of routes that avoided main roads between Carlisle and Brampton.

On a quiet evening I decided to put the plan in to action and got the maps out again for a session going between maps and Street View which confirmed that there were quiet, if slightly indirect, roads everywhere I wanted to go. I eventually decided on a route following NCN72 in places and going more directly east elsewhere.

All that was left was waiting for a dry Saturday with a westerly wind. A chat with a friend who wanted to go for a ‘long ride’ led to a firm commitment to meet up for the 6:30am train west one morning in August.

In the couple of days between planning and going I found myself suffering a mild bout of train anxiety. I had been out as far as Haltwhistle on the train with my bike a couple of times before and on both occasions the trains were the much-derided Pacers. At the time they had very clear signs on the train and platform saying there was only space for two bikes per train. When I turned up with a friend shortly followed by two more people with bikes everyone spent a few tense minutes pretending not to have seen the signs. Both times the train staff, after a bit of a moan, were very understanding and let us all on anyway but I didn’t want to find the day there wasn’t room was the day with a 5am start.

My concern didn’t diminish when we arrived at the platform to find three Pacers in the process of being separated from each other. Fortunately, our train turned out to be a different, more modern variety that had room for 6 bikes. Unsurprisingly given the time, we were the only two getting on with bikes at Newcastle anyway so we hung the bikes on the hangers at the front and settled down for a sedated run along the Tyne valley and on to Carlisle.

By the time we got to our initial destination we had met another cyclist who joined the train in Northumberland and was planning a similar but shorter version of the ride we were about to start. As he set off on the ride back east we set off to negotiate a few sets of traffic lights, duck down a cobbled side street to avoid an unappealing roundabout and find the road west out of town.

It wasn’t long before we were on to quiet roads and riding straight in to the hoped for westerly wind. The first 25km of the ride took us due west and were, on the whole, flat and the wind wasn’t too strong so we made good progress.

The first landmark was the masts for the VLF transmitter at Anthorn (used for sending messages to submarines). Being right on the coast it was motivating to get the first glimpse of the towers as it signalled the most westerly point of the ride but, being very tall, they appeared to stay in the distance for quite some time.

It was a relief to get to the old airfield that houses the transmitter and follow the road north around the headland towards Bowness-on-Solway and the point we would start heading towards home rather than away from it. Leaving the wind behind led to the speed increasing until we had to slow to weave our way through a heard of cows. The cows were all very docile and more interested in the grass than us so we made it through intact.

After a brief photo stop we headed through Bowness and, with the wind at our backs headed back towards Carlisle. Now on the Hadrian’s Way path and cycle route we started to pass walkers and a few groups of cyclists heading out to the coast as well as a small convoy full of bikes and people heading out to start a ride at the coast.

The Solway Firth
The Solway Firth – the most westerly point of the day

For most of the previous week the forecast had been for a dry day but the day before we set off this changed to a ‘heavy shower’ day. The forecast proved its accuracy as we approached the by-pass to the west of Carlisle as the first raindrops started to fall. The transition from light to torrential rain was brisk and we blasted, heads down, along the by-pass (on a great segregated cycle path), over the river Eden and into the northern part of the town. I had to stop a few times as the rain was stinging my eyes (despite wearing glasses) and I was riding almost blind at points.

Luckily the rain eased off so I could see again as we got to the first set of traffic since leaving Carlisle the first time. A quick scoot down a back street and across a main road saw us riding through the delightfully peaceful Rickerby Park and out of Carlisle for the second time that morning. After a brief snack stop and a quick reflection that, at almost 60km, we had already done what would normally be a good Saturday ride but still had another 100km or more to go we carried on through the drizzle.

Trying not to think too hard about the remaining distance (and wet feet, gloves and shorts) we headed to the point of the first route decision of the day – 7km straight along the A689 to Brampton or twice that on the backroads. One look at the clouds of spray surrounding cars hurtling off the roundabout made that decisions for us so we stuck to the cycle path alongside the road for a short distance before turning off to go through Low Crosby and the quieter roads.

Approaching Brampton saw the end of flat terrain with a few gentle hills and the re-emergence of the sun which helped us warm up and dry off after the earlier soaking. Brampton was also the closest place of any significance to the halfway mark and was a good place to stop and buy some more drinks and snacks.

After Brampton the route started to rise over a series of steeper inclines as it made its way up to the course of Hadrian’s Wall. Although we had been following the route of the wall up to Carlisle there hadn’t been any visible remains so far. This changed at Birdoswald where there was some impressive remains of walls and a fort and a milecastle in a field just off the road.

We made fast progress past the fort, where we joined the B6318 through Gilsland, where entering Northumberland felt like another step closer to home, and then on to Greenhead. Better known from Greenhead eastwards as the Military Road (and dating from 1746 rather than Roam times) this would be the road we would be following for the next 50km.

The start of the Military Road also brought the first serious climb of the day – Grenwhelt Bank. With gradients in excess of 14% it provides a decent challenge and is made more enjoyable by a separate paved cycle path alongside the road, which is very narrow at that point.

I had time at the top of the climb to take in expansive views of Northumberland while I waited for my friend to get to the top. This gave me just enough warning to put my rain jacket back on as I watched a wall of rain move towards me than proceed to soak me for the second time that day.

Rain Arriving
Watching a wall of rain wash over me.

When we got going again the rain was so heavy I was having trouble seeing again so we stopped under some trees for a while until things calmed down. Once the rain turn from torrential to steady we set off in again to head to the recently opened National Park centre at Once Brewed.

The Sill, as the visitors centre is known (presumably named after the Whin Sill), had only been open a few weeks and was very busy. We stocked up on drinks at the kiosk, had a few squares of flapjack and then headed out on to the almost dry road once again.

Sycamore Gap
One of the more well know views on the route

I hadn’t ridden along the Military Road before as I’d thought it would be a bit too busy and there is a quieter road that run to the south for quite a lot of it. There was a little too much traffic going too fast for my liking with the usual dangerous drivers passing too close. The road itself made for an enjoyable ride despite the traffic. Being almost straight any hills could be seen from a long way off but they always looked much harder than they turned out to be. Never too steep, the inclines seemed to flatten out just as you wanted them too and the westerly wind didn’t do any harm either.

Once the road gets near Walwick there’s a long section of decent and things got very fast as we flashed through the village and onwards past Chesters Fort to Chollerford. The drawback of all the fast decent is ending upon the banks of the North Tyne faced with a 5.4km climb to gain all the height we had just lost again.

The first couple of kilometres fluctuate between steep and ridiculous but after that it eases off. Twenty minutes of climbing later we reached the highest point of the day, theoretically making it all downhill from there onwards.

We made the most of the downhill and tail wind after that, only slowing for the odd undulation. After crossing between the reservoirs of the Whittle Dene Watercourse (which supplies the drinking water for Newcastle) and topping Harlow Hill we turned south, more out of boredom and the novelty of turning a corner after 50km of almost straight road than anything else.

Shortly afterwards we were passing through Heddon-on-the-Wall and the last visible signs of the wall we would see. There followed another brisk decent through the outer west of Newcastle, down to the banks of the Tyne at Scotswood.

Tiredness was kicking in now so we opted to forgo the traffic lights and streams of cars on the city roads and switched to NCN72 again which took us through the business park and along Newcastle Quayside.

We (very) briefly toyed with the notion of carrying on to Tynemouth to ‘officially’ do a coast-to-coast ride but, after a quick check of the GPS, we decided to stop at a pub and reward ourselves for riding over 100 miles to that point. The final distance was 161.6km and importantly (for no real reason other than self-satisfaction) 100.4 miles.

Burgers, chips, cakes and beer were all consumed which gave us just enough energy to ride up Stepney Bank and home to our respective houses to reflect on a long but satisfying day on the bike.

Total distance: 161584 m
Max elevation: 268 m
Min elevation: 1 m
Total climbing: 1872 m
Total descent: -1894 m
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Cycling up Britain’s Highest Road*

On the 30th July 2017 I set out to ride the Great Dun Fell Sportive – Ride to the Radar, run by Sport in Action.

The main feature of the event is the final climb of Great Dun Fell. At 848m above sea level Great Dunn Fell is the second highest summit in the Pennines and, more importantly, the summit is the highest point you can cycle to on a paved road in Britain.

This seemed like a good summer challenge which led to me picking up my friend at 6am for the journey to Appleby-in-Westmorland.

I’ve cycled up most of the other high roads in the North Pennines so was feeling reasonably confident but, knowing the highest of those tops out 200m below Great Dunn Fell, was still wary about conserving some energy for the finish. The 92km ride to the foot of the climb also weighed on my mind. Big hills are one thing, big hills after a few hours of smaller hills is another thing altogether.

After getting everything ready and signing in we were ready to depart at 8:30am when we set of in a bunch of about 20. I’d never been to the Eden valley area before and enjoyed riding through a new area.

The first leg of the ride headed south east for a while towards Soulby. The route was easy going without ever being flat and provided imposing views of the hills in the Yorkshire Dales, shrouded in worryingly dark clouds.

After turning Soulby the route turned west and started to rise over a series of hills that, on any other ride, would probably be the harder part of the day. The climbs were quite short and challenging enough to be a reminder not to overdo it before the end.

The weather forecast had been threatening heavy showers all week but, apart from a brief shower as we crested 300m for the second time, we managed to stay dry and warm. As we dropped down towards the edge of the Lake District the route took us over the M6 motorway for the first time and the quiet was briefly shattered by the streams of traffic before quickly returning as we rolled in to Shap.

There were more spectacular views as the route went north along lanes from Shap. To the west were glimpses of Haweswater reservoir and the hills hiding Ullswater from view. Over to the east the North Pennines lay draped in clouds in the background while the Kendal Calling music festival brought a hive of activity to a hillside closer by.

After passing through Askham the clouds in the distance had moved on revealing the distinctive, but tiny, outline of the radar station atop the finish. It was motivating to see the finish for the first time but a little daunting too. It would have been visible for a while had it not been covered in cloud, looked very high and still a long way off.

Soon after this we reached Yanwath where the route turned east, crossed back over the M6 headed for Cliburn and the food stop. Having covered 67km by this point the piles of biscuits, cakes and flapjacks in the village hall were a welcome site.

After a brief rest, it was back on the bikes and time to head towards the big hill. A short ride past Whinfell Forrest took us north and across the river Eden back on to tiny, deserted lanes. At this point the finish summit was ever present, first on our right then, as the route wound it’s way round a loop north then south, off to our left. A couple of short sharp hairpin climbs acted as timely reminders that it wasn’t all wasn’t going as the fells loomed overhead, still with no obvious route up.

Cross Fell (left), Little Dunn Fell and Great Dunn Fell seen from near Temple Sowerby

Not long after this we got to the turn for the final climb and found a friendly steward reminding riders to stop before crossing the timing line for the climb if they wanted a rest first. I heeded this advice and had my last flapjack before crossing the line and hearing the beep that signalled the start of 7.4km of road that rises 625m.

The climbing started straight away with a manageable slope along a narrow lane before getting to a bend in the road a big increase in gradient up to 14%. From this point on there was very little respite. The slope decreased slightly for a while before ramping back up over 12% at the next corner where is carried on at over 10%. The views were spectacular but it was getting difficult to keep the pedals turning.

Around 4.5km in there was a very welcome couple of hundred metres that was almost, but not quite, flat which provided a change for my heart rate to drop back down to high from worryingly high and my legs to stop hurting briefly.

The relief was short however as the road quickly ramped up to 14% again. With 2km still to go it was becoming as tough mental challenge to keep moving as it was physical and I stopped at the end of a track to an old quarry to consume my last energy gel in the hope that it would get me to the finish.

After another 1km of punishing, painful gradient the road turned again and the slope slacked off slightly just in time for the gale force wind to hit me from the side. After the climb so far the hill, still at over 5%, felt almost flat so I started to make a bit more progress while leaning at an angle in to the wind.

After a final, thankfully short, 14% ramp I coasted across a cattle grid and bumped over the timing to line to officially finish the climb in a time of 48m 57s. Shattered, I tried to dismount my bike when a combination of wind, tired legs and cleats conspired to make this simple task comically embarrassing so I coasted around the corner of the radar building to find a cluster of others hiding from the wind and my riding companion ready to hold my bike while I got off it without falling over.

A friendly marshal soon came over with a bowl of jelly babies which I immediately started eating as my mind and body started to believe the agony was over and there wasn’t another ridiculous ramp coming up.

After a few minutes and a few more minutes trying to put jacket on in wind that made standing difficult is was finally time to head down the mountain and back to Appleby where drinks and sandwiches were laid on by the organisers.

I completed the ride to the bottom of the climb in 4:04:17 (thanks to Griff pulling me along the windy bits) and the climb in 48:57 for a total time for the full 100km route with 2000m total accent of 4:53:14

*Technically most of it is a bridalway and cars are not allowed to the top  but, as it’s all paved (with a good surface too) a road seems a good description.

Total distance: 100013 m
Max elevation: 840 m
Min elevation: 98 m
Total climbing: 2022 m
Total descent: -1327 m
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Curlew Cup 2017

Every June there the Cyclone Festival of Cycling takes place in Newcastle consisting of family rides of Friday, a sportive on Saturday and women’s and men’s pro races on Sunday.

I’ve taken part in the sportive for the last few years and have always intended to head out to Stamdfordham to watch the pros without ever managing to get there. This year the weather was perfect and I wasn’t too tired after my Saturday effort so there was no excuse for missing the races.

The Curlew Cup, part of the Women’s National Road Series, was the first race of the day with roll out at 9am which meant a 7:45am start for the hour ride out to watch.  I got there in plenty of time to see the riders gathering in the centre of Stamfordham, ready for the start.

Curlew Cup 2017 Startline
The start line for the Curlew Cup in Stamfordham, 2017

Once the riders set off for the neutralised start I, and almost everyone else who had been watching, headed west to the climbs of the Ryals. The roads are usually very quiet around Ryal but today saw a long convoy of riders supports and families heading along the narrow lanes, held up behind me and another rider as we’d got away first thanks to not having to get to a car first. It was all very friendly and the convoy re-arranged itself around people on bikes as passing places allowed.

Even though it was still early it was very hot and I was glad to have smothered myself in sun cream before leaving the house. I whiled away the next 45 minutes or so chatting to other people who had turned up to watch at the steepest point of the climbs. One person had cycled from Rothbury that morning and there was someone from Bingfield, the next village along. As the time the race should be due got closer more people who had already watched it pass the norther point on the circuit arrived after cutting through the back roads.

It was possible to see the race convoy in the distance just after it passed through Hallington so there was plenty of warning of the riders arriving. The race was altogether with strong showing from Drops, WNT, OnForm and Story Racing making light work of the steepest part of the climb and leading the bunch up.

I toyed with the idea on riding up to the northern part of the circuit to see the race twice on the next lap but didn’t feel that I’d be fast enough so stayed where I was. On the second lap there was a three woman breakaway (afterwards identified as Annasley Park of Drops, Melissa Lowther of Breeze and Beth Crumpton of Story Racing).

Second climb of the Ryals
Annasley Park, Melissa Lowther and Beth Crumpton climbing the Ryals for the second time.

Once the race passed I rode back up the second Ryal (the easier one) passed lots of spectators at the official QoM line and went back to Stamfordham to catch the finish.

Back in Stamforham I met some friends who had also come out to watch the races so we found a shady spot to wait for the riders to arrive. An unsurprisingly fast finish saw Julie Erskine from onForm take the win followed by Hannah Payton from Drops and Georgina Panchaud from Bianchi. Katie Archibald won both the QoM and Points.

Curlew Cup Podium
Georgina Panchaud (3rd), Julie Erskine (1st) and Hannah Payton (2nd) on the podium.

I had intended to go home after the women’s race but decided to stick around to ‘help the local economy’ and stop for beer and ice cream with my friends. If I hadn’t have stopped I’d have missed the main drama of the day – a lorry almost driving in to the start/finish gantry shortly after the start of the men’s race. Luckily a motorist coming the other way was blocking the road and beeped at the lorry driver who stopped just in time.

Lorry/Gantry Drama
Lorry/finish gantry drama

I eventually headed home, back along the route of the last section of the previous day’s sportive beating a few of my segment times from the previous day in the process. I guess that’s the difference between having ridden 90km and having sat around for most of the day!

Total distance: 68574 m
Max elevation: 215 m
Min elevation: 1 m
Total climbing: 676 m
Total descent: -669 m
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Killhope Cross and Chapel Fell

Total distance: 97036 m
Max elevation: 643 m
Min elevation: 174 m
Total climbing: 3197 m
Total descent: -3173 m
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Cycling past historic sites

On a visit to Northamptonshire in November 2014 a of morning cycling took me past a number of sites including a civil war battle field, cold war missile launch pads, through Victorian railway tunnels, and the reputed inspiration for a Jane Austin novel.

The first site of note I passed was a disused airfield at Harrington. Originally build by the US Army during World War 2 it later became a launch site for Thor nuclear missiles during the late 1950s. Not a lot remains but the foundations of the launch pads can still be seen and the course of the runway is just about discernible.

After leaving Harrington my route left roads and joined up with the Brampton Valley Way. This is a disused railway between Northampton and Market Harborough. The main reason for this was to go through the Kelmarsh and Oxendon tunnels.

Kelmarsh Tunnel  Portal
Kelmarsh Tunnel Portal

Both tunnels are several hundred meters long and entirely unlit other than light coming through an air shaft part of the way along. Although you can always see both ends its strange to experience such total darkness. My city bike lights were unable to pick out the sides or roof and, combined with a very uneven floor, made walking (I gave up riding after about 10m) surprisingly hard (and regularly surprising, particularly where it was wet).

After the tunnels I continued along the old railway to Market Harborough. Compared to the old railway routes around Newcastle this was surprising quiet and very rough, a fact that took its toll on my bike although I didn’t realise until later.

After a quick scoot around the edge of Market Harborough it was back on the rural roads towards Clipston. A small village, Clipston is situated in the middle of the area in which the Battle of Naseby was fought.

On 14th June 1645 the New Model Army fought and defeated the army of King Charles I in a decisive battle of the Civil War.

There’s not a lot to see now but there are two viewing points, Rupert’s View and, on the other side of Clipston Fairfax’s View. These refer to the views of the Royalist and Parliamentary forces respectively. If you ignore the A14 it’s just a decent view of some fields now but there are some information boards explaining what happened.

After a brief stop to try and find the bolt that had dropped off my bike and a bit of emergency maintenance (thanks railway bumps) I went on to the village of Naseby. It was a cold morning and my attention was caught by a sign advertising a WI soup morning. It wasn’t clear if it was soup for members of the WI or the WI making soup for cold passers-by but I decided to apply rule 5 and carry on.

Leaving Naseby behind and, after a small detour relating to not reading the map, I went through the grounds at Cottesbrooke Park, the last historical location on the route.

Thought by some to have been the inspiration behind Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park the estate, more importantly, also has almost perfectly flat, perfectly surfaced roads which were very welcome.

Leaving Cottesbrook behind, and forgetting the earlier segment along the railway led to bits dropping off my bike, I joined the Brampton Valley way again heading past Brixworth and then up a track to Pitsford Water.

Tiny compared to reservoirs likes of Kielder or Rutland, Pitsford none the less provides some good views, peace and quiet, and a handy track in the direction of my destination of Overstone, a few kilometres away.

Pitsford Water
Pitsford Water

Once back it was a case of scraping off the mud, warming up and reflecting on how one short journey can encompass quite a lot of history if you look out for it.

Northamptonshire - Quite muddy
Northamptonshire – Quite muddy
Total distance: 70508 m
Max elevation: 214 m
Min elevation: 59 m
Total climbing: 1551 m
Total descent: -1554 m
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