“I’ve got an idea, let’s go to Yorkshire instead!” Instead, that is, of the French Alps or even the much discussed and hitherto evasive Dolomites. Everyone agreed instantly.
Yorkshire. The Dales. The North Eastern corner of the Yorkshire dales to be accurate; the bit where Counties Durham and Cumbria meet up with their more southerly neighbour in a dramatic display of scenic outbidding in a who’s more scenic than the other contest. Very scenic and yet foreboding, for it is within this area that some of England’s and Britain’s highest paved roads reside, waiting, like trolls to grind the legs off of the eager cyclist. 20% gradients are common, 25% less so but are not hard to find if one should so desire such treats and 33%+, as one of our number found, isn’t impossible to seek out. The weather is fair to middling, as they say, even when the rest of the country bathes in glorious sunshine. It can be windy. Legendarily windy; I can’t recall a time when I’ve been out this way and there wasn’t a near gale blowing. My dad used to say “if the wind stops blowing here, everyone will fall over”. Predominantly Westerly in case you’re ever thinking of heading that way. Despite these shortcomings however, this largely uninhabited square of Britain is one of my favourite places in the world.
Day 1. Unconventionally this cycle tour starts with a walk up Gunnerside Gill for no other reason than it was a nice thing to do after travelling most of the previous day along the entirety of the M1 motorway. Gunnerside Gill, a remote Victorian lead mining settlement, is reached by a footpath which climbs high out of Swaledale offering up superb views of the valley below and the hills beyond. The scars of industry still persist some 100 years on from the halcyon days of mining, looking very much like a scene from clash of the titans – the one they filmed in lead mining Yorkshire that is. Derelict, remote, eerie and as one of our companions remarked “it’s all a bit lord of the rings isn’t it”.
Day 1 proper. Breakfast is served. It’s Sunday. There’s a mountain of muesli, toast, eggs and the EU reserve supply of bananas available courtesy of Mr Sainsbury’s excellent delivery service. An essential given the proximity of the nearest shop. Ravensworth, as Ian Botham will testify, is lovely, but lacks some vital services. An ideal place to stay for the purpose of riding a bicycle in the Dales but it does present certain logistical difficulties in organising a group holiday. Following a delightful breakfast we head out on the first ride, a 50Km “flat” ride along the Tees Valley which heads out of Yorkshire into Durham briefly and then back. Designed intentionally to get us in the mood for things to come and survey the land; there’ll be plenty of hills and miles to be ridden in the week to come. Almost immediately we’re unavoidably on an incline of 10% followed a couple of miles later by an extended slope of 10-12% to reach the A66, which we must cross at our peril and not for the last time. From here, the route becomes kinder and we soon reach the first river crossing at the village of Winston. A charming place which announces County Durham proper. The vistas are wide and the skies are huge here, even on this slightly overcast day and one feels as if there isn’t enough peripheral vision to take it all in; your eyes achingly trying to see past their natural field of vision. There’s so little traffic here too, adding to the sense of vastness. When we reach Staindrop it’s time to stop for a coffee at the Country Tea Shop. It’s nice to hear a local accent akin to my own and unbeknownst to me, it’s been there for years but I never knew of its presence until that moment of passing. It goes down on the list of good coffee stops. A short burst home over the swaying wooden bridge at Whorlton and through the wonderfully named village of Hutton Magna. Hal the dog is waiting for us and greats us as if we’ve been away for a year before retreating to his sentinel position atop the stairs.
To summarise, we’ve come on a cycling holiday to Yorkshire and so far indulged in recreational perambulation and a trip along the Tees valley in County Durham. Everyone is awaiting something big. The anticipation is growing.
Day 2. The mountain of Bananas will never be depleted. Probably a good thing given what’s in stall for the next few days. After another splendid breakfast we head out to the Dales proper. From Ravensworth to Richmond it’s an undulating affair with 16% arriving quicker than desired. From Richmond we headed West towards Leyburn and past the national park boundary post and on to Reeth, ignoring the tempting sign at Grinton Bridge for the now world famous Cote De Grinton Moor. This was made famous by TV’s Jens Voigt in the Tour De France of 2013 whence it passed this way.
Reeth is where thing start getting interesting from a geographical point of view. It looks hemmed in by big hills with no possible way out; only there is a way out and it’s mainly upwards and over one of them there big hills. Tan Hill is an obvious attraction for the cyclist. Sure it has bitingly steep sections and goes on for a long while by English standards (5Km) but it’s not the worst hill from a gradient perspective around here and on a good day makes for a great ride, special in fact. This was not a good day however as the weather closed in almost as soon as wheel rose to meet the gradient. Vicious wind (some say legendary) and driving drizzle abounded. We battle on however and wobbled around in the worsening conditions. The scenery disappears in the gloom. Past a bothy fashioned from a rusting shipping container and onward to the summit; almost there. The gradient falters and then digs deep to punish anew. The grouse shooting party give us queer looks as we fight against the elements. I can see the faint outline of Tan Hill; we’re within touching distance now and suddenly after the last bite-back of this hill we top out at 528m above sea level. That’s about 1.9 Black Downs in VCGH terms. Long time the dream of leading a club ride over this hill has been realised.
Miraculously the weather breaks and although still treacherously windy, the decent to Keld is fast and fun. At the bottom we turn left for home along the TDF route back into Reeth, and what a road that is. It ranks in my top 10 easily. The tarmac is smooth and although the terrain is undulating the gradient tilts downwards ever so slightly overall. Following in the wheels of the big names of cycling – Kwiatkowski, Bardet, Ten Dam and Lars Boom – who all kindly posted their efforts on strava to show how massively better they are at cycling than humans.
Having lived out our TDF fantasies for the day we stopped for a coffee in Reeth at the copper kettle, another café for the list, before pushing on home over the last 10 kilometres. Most of the climbing was in the bag or so we thought, but out of Reeth on the back road towards Ravensworth, in a more direct route than the outward voyage, lies, firstly, Hardstiles Bank followed by Clapgate Bank; a double header of sustained 17 percenters, the latter of which is where Richmond Cycling Club run a hill climb, to which by some coincidence we were cordially invited to attend that evening but had to decline due to technical reasons which were incomprehensible to the layperson, shall we say. We arrive home to be greeted once again by the mountain of bananas.
Day 3. Things get serious although the mountain of bananas still persists. “We’ll be back before lunch!” Did I really say that? Setting off this time from Reeth Village centre and heading straight on to the Cote de Grinton Moor. In 2013 the peloton got a bit squashed up on this climb and had to stop at the cattle grid in order to get everyone through safely. No such trouble for us – it is a fine climb which is naturally very steep in places and quite persistent at just over 3Km long. The downhill into Leyburn was crazy fast.
The westerly wind is greater today than previous days and riding into it makes for grim hour along the back road form Leyburn to Kettlewell. It’s lumpy along here and a comparatively poor surface by the previous day’s standards; a bit like surrey roads. By the time we arrive at the turning point in Kettlewell, I feel as if I’ve been at sea for a week. Battered by wind and waves. Waves of hills that is, including the fearsome Park Rash (reverse) with its hostile cattle grids and 20% gradients. Richmond cycling club – yes them again – organised a sportive at one time taking in this road but alas no more due, undoubtedly, to the horrendous difficulty of this twisted climb – it’s steeper the other way in case you were wondering. Descending it required skill and concentration enough.
At Kettlewell the tarmac becomes friendly again and given that it was laid in 2013 for The Tour, it is still in tip-top condition. It’s no wonder towns compete and bid to get the TDF to pass through. It’s an infinitely sounder plan than to rely on the local council alone to make infrastructure repairs. Thanks to this infrastructure upgrade we’re ripping along now and heading to Kidstones Pass; the wind is sort of with us for once over the hill, progress is swift and the Tour Decent (strava name) is a blast.
With just the Buttertubs Pass to negotiate, the three bears inform me that they need to eat. We do so at the White Lion in Askrigg – nice pub, good array of ales and a dart board – the bears have soup and a sandwich and I have chips and a sandwich. No one takes up my offer of a round of darts (arrows as we say) as part of a prototype and unique biathlon. Meanwhile, back on the highway, the headwind has been patiently waiting for us; it sticks with us all the way to the base of the climb and adds to the almost immediate and gratuitous 20% gradient in a way which is both unpleasant and irritating. Butertubs is phenomenal however and goes on and on and although it is actually only 4Km in length, what a 4Km. One of the crew goes off the front. I can’t match it; not even close so I sit back and let the troll grind my legs off. The troll continues persistently as I heave myself over the top. There’s a feeling of accomplishment akin to an alpine ascent. Two people sit casually awaiting my arrival.
Day 4. The banana war rages but the troops are making good progress. They will be defeated soon. Given the previous day’s events the group head for 50Km leg stretcher followed by a sandwich in the local pub. Despite advertising to the contrary, many of the hostelries enroute are closed on a Wednesday. My diary entry reads “The other three bears get edgy without food and coffee”.
Day 5. The bananas have been defeated. Only a few remain. The last of their number will soon be despatched.
Sitting on top of England and looking down into the Eden valley my eyes cannot take in the whole view. It looks unreal from this viewpoint. The whole of Westmoreland and some of Yorkshire is in front of us. The strava segment we have just climbed is called “climb to the clouds” and is 14Km long. The average gradient is a mere 1.5% but this is the UK and obviously average means nothing. It’s the 95% confidence limits you should be interested in. The outliers. As such, rollercoaster would be a more apt description. On this, the queen stage of the trip it is a fitting start to proceedings. The long drag up the 5Km Roman road into a headwind will long live on in many a fireside tale, warning children away from the hill trolls.
The descent into Brough is almost alpine although Brough itself is clearly nowhere near alpine. Consider it a flyover town or a passing place. It has nothing of merit to offer the traveller except passage to the next place. The next place being the wonderfully isolated Tan Hill inn to which we travelled from the hamlet of Barras. Not many people cycle Tan hill this way, preferring either the struggle from Keld or the more accessible route up from Reeth. This way is probably the most scenic. It passes through wooded areas of silver birch, which majestically line the route as if drawing us up to some Elven hideaway whereupon Galadriel herself awaits. Woodland gives way to high pasture which gives way to the familiar bleak, vast open moorland nearer the top. The weather closes in again and we are once more hunted by big, dark clouds. Not rain this time but hail and lots of it. The Tan Hill inn is getting closer but progress is slow and takes a depressing turn towards the weather. The climb goes on. Refuge is close at hand but not before getting a quick soaking. Inside the Tan Hill Inn is a roaring fire, gallons of tea, chips and big sandwiches. The bears are happy again, but soon it will be time to leave the cave and venture forth into the wilderness (att. David Attenborough). Other cyclists sheltering from the psychotic weather begin to peer out of the window and declare the storm over. It’s time to leave but not before the general ambience is disturbed by two Dutch backpackers who seemed very amused to be in such “a crazy place”. “I mean – who comes here?”
Leaving the bemused backpackers behind to their energetic selfies and now drier, fed and feeling perkier, we head optimistically outside and into the brightening day. “Just The Stang to go”. I say sarcastically. It’s another 40Km or so to home and the reunion with a lonesome banana, but with renewed vigour and a sense of conquest the queen stage is defeated emphatically with one last long grind over 17% gradients, a climb which I had been fearing all day. For The Stang has a special place in my memory, beautiful, remote and fearsome. Thinking about all the times I have driven up and over it on my way home to Barnard Castle and the times I have thought “would I be able to cycle it”. An ambition realised.