ALL THE WAY UP: A C2C EXPERIENCE;
Part One, From Whitehaven to Alston
Juliet England attempts the 130+-mile bike ride from Whitehaven to Tynemouth – the classic coast-to-coast route. She hasn’t been on a bike in years. What could possibly go wrong? Here's the first part of her journey.
Day 1 – Whitehaven-Threlkeld – 36 miles
At Whitehaven, the start of the odyssey to Tynemouth, the sea slops at the bottom of a greasy concrete slope, and we’re warned that the ‘wheel-dipping’ isn’t really necessary, but I insist on going down to the edge, where I slither in up to my ankles. I have to be hauled to safety, a not inconsiderable operation, and it makes for a soggy pedal-off. We’re soon off through the town, where there has been a harbour of sorts since the sixteenth century, and where England’s first undersea coal mines were developed in the late eighteenth century.
This is the big one. The C2C, the Sea to Sea. We’ll tack our way from west to east, the sun and wind at our backs, from the Irish Sea to the North one, across the nation’s backbone, mainly following National Cycle Routes 71 and 72.
There are 14 of us, who have come from across the UK for this particular challenge, and indeed in one case from Australia. We’re an eclectic bunch – a charity worker, business owner, midwife, financial PR specialist, and, ahem, one self-unemployed layabout.
We’ve already got to know each other a little, having met the previous day in Newcastle before being bused a couple of hours south west to Threlkeld, there to spend the first night at the Horse and Farrier hostelry in this impossibly cute Cumbrian village, in the shadow of Blencathra. It’s mesmerisingly pretty, the only disappointment that my pleas for us to go ‘out clubbing’ (a ceilidh’s on at the local hall) go ignored.
Threlkeld’s an hour’s drive east of Whitehaven, so we’re driven there first, having fuelled up on the first of four full-English heart attacks.
Then there’s the bike fitting and induction from the Saddle Skedaddle guiding team of Les, Jayne, Francis and Dave. They’re passionate, borderline-obsessive bikeheads to a man (and woman) – the essential deal being that they’ll do everything bar actually turning the pedals for you. Even then, if you asked nicely enough …
The route out of Whitehaven is fairly forgiving – we’re soon out of town following the Cumbrian Cycle Network on one of the trip’s longest off-road sections, a disused mineral rail line. It’s great being back in the saddle, although my lack of recent experience means I find it uneven going. One of our number pedals alongside me, talking about cadences and revolutions but my brain is just flickering – I’m too busy reacquainting myself with cycling and gears and generally propelling myself forward.
After a few miles we come to the small settlement of Kirkland for the first of many coffee and lunch stops where the van parks up and lays on all manner of treats, including jelly babies. (Ah, well, just one. Bag.)
There are rolling country lanes to be pedalled up and freewheeled down until lunch just past Loweswater, by which time we’ve covered some 17 miles. The rain has come on and a few of us sit huddled in fear of it in the van and wonder bleakly whether it’s set in for the afternoon. Even daysacks are carried in the van, so I fish out my waterproof trousers and wriggle into them.
But we can’t hide for ever. We set off again, soon facing the first real challenge – Whinlatter Pass. I christen it the Whine-latter Pass, having a good old moan as I huff and puff my way to the top – and, by the way, are those passing mountain bikers actually sneering? It’s the first of many occasions when, to stay upright, and for the basic sanity of the group and whichever guide is patiently pedalling alongside me, I get off and push. I know, I know. We could discuss all day whether this constitutes cheating. Let’s not - although I would argue robustly that it most certainly does not. And it works for my spin classes. Every time.
At the top, following a breather at the Visitor Centre, there’s a swift descent through Braithwaite and Portinscale on the River Derwent before hitting Keswick, the main metropolis for this northern bit of the Lakes, bustling with Saturday afternoon shoppers.
There’s time for a piece of orange and almond cake and a bolstering cuppa before hitting the road again. Another railway line, following the River Greta, eventually takes us up to the Castlerigg Stone Circle, a lovely Bronze Age settlement – it certainly felt as if I’d been pedalling for several historical periods by the time I got there, but it’s worth wandering round this gorgeous spot.
Then it’s downhill all the way to Threlkeld, for night two at the Horse and Farrier, where we compare first-day tales, and I am too scared to order a diet Coke, such is my terror of being thought a southern ponce.
Day 2 – Threlkeld – Alston, 38 miles
We enjoy a relatively gentle start to the day (and I must stress that it’s all relative on the C2C) along peaceful country roads as far as Greystoke, where the trusty van is set up by the green and ancient market cross, surrounded by stone cottages and houses, to greet and revive us with fresh coffee.
I am the last to pitch up, indeed this seems to have already become the norm – occasionally my arrival is even greeted with a hearty cheer.
Anyway, yes, this is indeed Greystoke as in Lord Greystoke of Tarzan. We’re still in the Lake District and the village dates mainly from the seventeenth century. The castle, maybe a quarter mile outside, is certainly impressive. It was originally built in 1129 to protect against Scottish border raiders. (Who knows, it may yet be required for that purpose again.)
By now, we’re only a few miles east of Penrith, the red sandstone market town that was once Cumbria’s capital. We don’t hang around, tackling the steep climb out of town almost immediately. A man and his young son, out for a Sunday morning stroll, are scaling the hill more quickly than I am. Nope. Not humiliating. In the slightest.
I’m pedalling with Jayne the guide, and the climb is rewarded with a stupendous view over Penrith.
Jayne does an excellent job of ensuring I’m safe, even if I do have to stop her from giving me a backie. I don’t drive, in what is surely the most significant contribution to road safety since Goodyear Tyres, so my highway navigational sills can sometimes be erratic.
By lunchtime on the green at Langwathby, we’ve done some 19 miles. Chillingly, the guidebook warns that this is the last place to “kick back before the serious stuff kicks in.” Right. So what we’ve done before hasn’t been serious?
Unfortunately, it’s no word of a lie. How to convey the full horror of the Hartside ascent? It’s a monster of a mountain, an insult of an incline, a hellish hill. For the last 24 hours, it has been whispered of in our group with fear and awe.
At the bottom, Les, the head guide, says this climb has made grown cyclists weep. Some have had to push their bikes up all the way; others have had to be conveyed to the summit in the van.
I stop and observe the challenge. The path winds up gradually, evening off in places. The scale of the task certainly demands respect. I get off at some points and push, for lengthy periods. Then I get back on, grinding upwards, my breathing sounding like Darth Vader’s. The café at the top is a hopeless mirage, reappearing briefly at intervals before disappearing from view in the folds of the hill. Does it even exist?
“Sloooooow and steady,” offers Les in his Tyneside tones.
When I think I genuinely can go on no more, a tarmac road starts, from where it gets (relatively¸ mind) easier. Cars, trucks and motorbikes nip past. Suddenly, somehow, I’ve done it, and I’m propping the bike up outside England’s highest café (1903m) before stumbling in, beetroot-faced. My legs buckle beneath me as I fall into a chair, hyperventilating. Someone pushes a mug of tea in front of me. I am so disorientated with exhaustion that I don’t even ask about the cakes. That’s how serious it is.
It’s about 15 minutes downhill on the fast road into Alston, our billet for the evening. I’m fairly popping with triumph, almost wanting to burst into song, although not quite. There are my fellow bikers to consider, after all.
At dinner that evening, the cyclist who made it to the top of Hartside first is keen to tell me of that fact. He avoids a slap by the narrowest of margins.