Micro-tour. Day 7: and so to ‘home’.

As usual, waking in the middle of Swaledale was a treat. Being able to sit out in the sun with a coffee in that environment is a pleasure I’ll never take for granted.

Furthermore, knowing that whichever way one heads out on a bike is going to be either gently challenging and scenic, or very relaxing… and scenic.

I had no fixed plan for today other than to rise late, leave when I wanted, and loop around some nice lanes, maybe stopping for a pint, until I hit the North Yorks Moors, my home, though I’m still pretty sure there’s a certain indeterminacy as to where exactly that is within those bounds.

The beauty of such a carefree approach to such a day is that it gives me time to think. The drawback of having such a rudderless day was that it gave me time to think.

Without dwelling too much upon the emotions experienced throughout the week, it’s been a hugely positive journey. I’ve met some wonderful people, the routes have been stunning, and there was no point at which I felt overwhelmed by the terrain or distances. I had just one moment when, bereft of food, energy, and favourable road, I willed away the metres, to be precise, the road from Garrigill to Nenthead. The slow progress and cold-shiver onset of hunger knock were exacerbated further by torrents of rain water rolling down the tarmac, seemingly pushing me back down the valley.

I only came close to breaking down once, twice if you include the impromptu visit to a bike shop to annoyingly put right a previous repair and to replace a rear light, last seen, unbeknownst to me, bouncing down a little road in north Lancashire/ south Cumbria.

The mechanical type of maintenance was routine, much like being diagnosed, and fixed by a physician. These are acceptable; a natural result of wear and tear upon the machine or body. The other type are still seen as, well, a little awkward. Harder to explain, slippery to grasp, and set some people on edge as to how to react, what to say or do. Some people, that is. My little wobble happened to be in front of lovely strangers I’d sat next to in a pub. After chatting for some time, about the usual stuff, work, life, love, family, it’s like they knew all the supportive, and really touching things to say. The floodgates weren’t opened, but the pressure behind them was definitely apparent. Let’s just say they were breached.

I suppose it’s all rather analogous to the trip as a whole. One gets the machinery fettled, but often at the expense of the flesh and blood. Remedies to that are often piecemeal: a beer here and there, a nice encounter, gazing at the scenery, but the long-term maintenance gets ignored.

This became palpable as I neared ‘home’. The vista of the North Yorkshire Moors allows one to see clearly hills I lived beneath for years. To all intents, the only place I’ve ever been able to call home, given that my childhood felt so fragmented. There was an enormous pull to that place. Nevertheless, I had to crack on to my temporary abode, conscious that it’d be cold, and empty. Cranking the fire and spinning some records isn’t a bad way to spend an evening recovering, but again, it’s piecemeal.

Long-term maintenance still needed. Working on that.

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Micro-tour. Day 6: fifty shades of earth.

It’s quite remarkable how even fairly small changes in altitude can affect what grows, what thrives, and what doesn’t. This was quite apparent at the end of yesterday’s journey crossing into Northumberland and descending from the bleakness that surrounds old mining communities like Nenthead. Absent of any real kind of vegetation taller than a couple of feet in height, the eye is drawn to the telegraph poles that march inexorably across the landscape, the roadside snow markers, none of which stand perpendicular to the ground, and to the gouged out stone, scarring the earth indefinitely. There are also the remnants of mine workings from a once-flourishing industry; the sheds, huts, and machinery so embattled yet so robust the casual visitor wouldn’t know if they were used yesterday, or a half century ago.

It’s only once you drop down a few hundred feet you’re once again accompanied by signs of rural civilisation; dry-stone walls that glisten regardless of the weather, buildings of more than one colour, and flora in shades of green, rather than shades of brown.

My journey today took me back and forth across that spectrum. Hitting Northumberland, Cumbria, Durham, and North Yorkshire, I traversed the valleys of the upper Tyne, to Allendale, to the Wear, the Tees, the Eden, and eventually Swaledale, each river accompanied by lengthy and arduous hills that punctuated the softness of the valleys. Think of it as tracing a path down the vertebrae of England’s upper backbone. If I were England, I’d have liked that.

The wind was brutal, but it could have been worse, and the rain did stop for a while. At the crest of St. John’s Chapel I was blown off the road, the baggage on my bike acting like a sail. The entire climb was into the teeth of it so to say it was slow progress was an understatement. Likewise, the slog up to Grains o’ th’ Beck from Teesdale was equally pedestrian. There were no pedestrians incidentally, nor were there other cyclists, apart from a group of veterans beginning the climb from Langdon Beck. Each and every one undoubtedly thankful for the developments in bike and clothing technology. The ’80s and ’90s were a different time, requiring a different effort, not just for terrain like this, but also for the weather.

Like I say, it could have been worse.

Micro-tour. Day 5: dispensing with prettiness.

I don’t claim to have much in common with any of Britain’s literary figureheads. Fair enough, I did speak to J.G. Ballard once whilst on agency work at directory enquiries, but unless there’s some embryonic part-written novel depicting the existential plight of call centre operatives during the nation’s Thatcherite-Blairite transition from industrial decay to service sector servitude, I don’t think he’ll have taken much from our brief exchange. I do however share a little bit of weirdness with W.H. Auden.

Legend has it he had upon the wall of his New York office a 1:63 360 (1″ to 1 mile) Ordnance Survey ‘Tourist map’, those conveniently portable and evocatively shaded maps ideal for visualising a geographic area, imperfect for walking, but damn perfect for cycling. His copy depicted the north Pennines. As it happened, as a schoolkid I had the North Yorkshire Moors stuck to mine.

Auden’s was a device to ameliorate homesickness it’s claimed, as well as to no doubt inspire. Mine on the other hand impelled me to exploration. I would look at it for so long I’m pretty sure the topography of my home region was burned indelibly onto my memory, and my psyche.

I’d imagine what lay beyond that northern scarp slope of the Cleveland Hills so familiar, and so loved, by Teessiders. The map was a way to facilitate this, and in combination with a bike, well…

As one social geographer puts it:

“a topology of memories: as a sedimented, folded, undulating terrain of associations and memories” (D. Atkinson, 2007)

Leaving the northern part of the Lake District, those very fells Auden loved so dearly seem omnipresent. However the line between leaden sky and leadened earth changes with the weather. As the day shifted from bitter torrential rain to autumnal sunbeams they edged into and out of arm’s reach; at times miles away, unattainable, at times looming into touching distance. Nevertheless, the abstract, elusive outlines of Hartside, and the indiscernible summit of Cross Fell further away, cast a shadow over my day, knowing the effort to not only get access, but what comes later.

Now personally, I can totally get on board with the dourness of the North Pennines, and indeed Auden’s obsession with them, more so than the flowery beautification of Wordsworth’s Lakeland. Originating from the pebbledashed and poured concrete council estates of Teesside, and spending much time at the ‘Gare, I can appreciate that nexus of industry and nature. Similarly Auden’s Midlands upbringing exposed him to chimneys and smoke and, fascinated by the machinations of modern life, he discovered the harmonious and precarious link between lead mining and the solitude and harshness of upland life. I think that’s where his moral compass pointed toward.

“(it) starts to get interesting once hedges turn to dry-stone walls, towards wonderful desolation” (W.H. Auden, 1954)

Yet, when the dry stone walls finally disappear, and the road leaves the sweet resinous warmth of coniferous forestry, when you rise into the Atlantic windchill… that’s when it gets interesting.

Micro-tour. Day 4: let’s do a loop.

The Lakes…. bless ’em. They have a tough time. Like the attractive celebrity couple who receive the persistent attention of voyeuristic public and paparazzi alike, this National Park draws the hoards daily, from all over the globe, to leer at its double act of lakes and mountains. It feels that no part of the region is immune from touristy scrutiny, exploitation, and commodification. I blame Wordsworth.

“a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy” (William Wordsworth, 1835)

At least W.H. Auden exercised a subtlety when romanticising his favourite region (more on that tomorrow… I bet you can’t wait…)

I know, I know: I’m one of them. But I wanted my presence here to be a fleeting, appreciative, and non-intrusive one. It took some effort to feel I was achieving that.

Firstly it means getting off the beaten track. This requires going the extra mile. Literally. In order to avoid the clogged arteries that feed the area’s industry you do really clock up some circuitous mileage. As the crow flies, the distance between my overnight stays wasn’t that great, but taking in some decent climbing whilst avoiding the manically busy B roads and passes, upon whom notoriety has been bestowed by Fred Whitton-eers and others of their ilk (don’t even get me started on the sportive phenomena) required some off-piste imagination (i.e. getting lost). This was often simply a result of some creative junction guesswork or carrying on down a road just because it felt nice. But isn’t that why most of us started cycling? An escape, an improvised journey of exploration?

The results were satisfying, though bloody hard. Furthermore, I was rewarded with traffic-free roads, and chance encounters with other kindred spirits in which our two-wheeled conversations elicited the same response: uncertainty prevailing when asked, “which way have you come?”, or “have you been far?”. It seems we were all winging it together.

And we didn’t need a T-shirt or to fork out £££ to do so…

Sorry. (Not sorry)

Micro-tour. Day 3: knowing when to stop.

I’ve always been a little competitive on the bike. My last few group rides up to a couple of years ago were in the company of 20 odd year old Elite and 1st category riders, and however composed I’d appear during the ride, unwilling to let go of wheels and still engage in banter sans breathlessness, the rest of the day would require my 46 year old carcass play catch up. It takes something significant to switch off that side of my brain.

On Tuesday that ‘something’ was the realisation that I’m on holiday! My chaperones for the morning leaving Lancashire were lovely but I found myself following the wheels again. This wasn’t necessarily an effort but it detracted totally from looking at the scenery, and pausing to take photos. Eventually I said to myself, “stop”. Within moments I’d snapped a couple of wonderful scenes and discovered Lancashire’s foremost jazz café. Great music, conversation, croissants and coffee courtesy of my generous hosts.

The rest of the ride was relaxed, allowing me to appreciate scenery I’d seen only fleetingly three decades prior when I’d been booted out of a van mid-morning to do a coast to coast before the sun went down.

The Arnside and Silverdale AONB is a stunning part of the world. Gentle undulations seem to take you high above the water and salt flats in minutes. The presence of the sea is always felt, like Brittany in fact. Sandy roads and warm salty breezes characterise the rides around here. The villages, slow-moving traffic, and properties hint towards the general demographic: white, grey, affluent, and conservative, with a small ‘c’ at least. In spite of an apparent lack of heterogeneity, it is a very pretty, chocolate-box landscape.

There is also the total absence of the tourist mania that pervades the Lake District further north. To be honest, this is only really detectable once you hit any A roads that link the major honeypot destination towns; the rest of the routes that link villages and hamlets are way too circuitous and narrow for any day visitor to the region. As a result, they’re perfect for cyclists. However, unlike me towards the end of that day, venturing into Bowness (for nostalgic reasons, obv), just hit ‘STOP’ and take in this instead…

Micro-tour. Day 2: grippy.

Today, it is fair to say, made me feel like a cyclist again.

It rained, then it rained some more. It was windy, unremittingly so, and the gradients… there were many. In short, perfect source material for Basil Bunting.

Today also offered potential for photographs given the elevations and expanses I was aiming for. However, for the most part the blurred line between land and sky proved to be a nebulous, watery affair. On the one occasion clouds rolled back the imposing edifice of Inglebrough was revealed. I doubt that even today the view from that fell top would afford the views one is capable of seeing on clearer days. It receded pretty much as quickly, almost resigned to the fact its lofty nature was wasted somewhat.

I also got chance to partake in a pastime of many touring cyclists: sheltering. Under a railway viaduct, a tree, a bus shelter… all were welcomed, although chugging on several Kit Kats and some dangerously blue ‘energy drink’ as curious tourists entered the latter (then swiftly left) made me feel like some circus attraction, as pools of water leached from my feet.

Actually, I lie: I did get some wind assistance. For two short spells I headed northwards and made full use of the strong currents to guide me into my destination. As I descended from the beautiful Forest of Bowland region I had a brief chance to explore (I will return here soon, the networks of quiet rolling lanes are a cyclist’s dream), entering the Lune estuary the roads became busier and a little more frenetic. This is typical in areas where even modest centres of population meet with natural water features, as people cling to the land available to them, while sizeable expanses of uninhabitable marshes, saltflats, or floodplains sit peacefully adjacent. As a result my route began to change direction constantly, seeking out the quietest, and lumpiest roads available. Yet despite the constant battering by rain and wind I did keep thinking one thing: if this weather was unleashed from my native north east coast rather than the sub-tropical west, everything would be several degrees colder and invariably even grippier.

Micro-tour. Day 1: a little journey of rediscovery.

In my efforts to get myself fit for the Everesting attempt in October I’m now at the end of my first, albeit very brief, day. Now, at 4am, I’m wide awake, listening to my friend’s albums, some of which I’ve not heard for years.

After logistical, mechanical, and typical (for me) last minute issues, I didn’t leave home until after 4pm, but managed to get close to my destination just as darkness approached. Knowing I only had under 10 miles left I felt a pint was deserved. What did I have? C’mon. It’s the Yorkshire Dales, and the spattering of invariably inviting looking premises all offer exactly the same repertoire of sub 4% beverages with ornate pumpclips invoking some pre-industrial idyll with sheaves of barley, or livestock. If modernity is represented, then tractors feature heavily. Anyway, I digress: I had a bitter. And, as it happens, I love a good bitter… (watch this space…)

The 60 odd miles were into an unrelenting headwind, and largely uphill, so not bad preparation on a bike registering as LGV on the scale of bicycle transport, with the corresponding aerodynamic coefficient of a Luton box van. Nevertheless, they ticked by nicely.

Yet the main theme of the day emerged after hitting the North Yorkshire hinterlands of the Vale of Mowbray. The lanes that wiggle throughout these flat or gently rolling expanses are so embedded in the memory of my first thirty years of cycling that there was no recourse to maps, or to wonder how long a diversion or loop through K and V would take in order to get from A to B. Furthermore, I found myself rubbernecking for familiar landmarks, views, and properties that had registered throughout those three decades.

The crazy thing is, I only live a stone’s throw away, yet I rarely ride here, never visiting the cafés I once hung out in for hours. The last two years have provided new focal points and, as you may have guessed, I’m a little prone to nostalgia, the ache of, and for, the past. Maybe I’m just repressing; avoiding those familiar sites of past pleasures in order to make new memories. That’s a good thing surely? But, like listening to old records, it never harms to rediscover once in a while.