ALL THE WAY UP: A C2C EXPERIENCE, PART TWO
Day 3 – Alston to Stanhope, 24 miles
Today’s shorter mileage doesn’t mean much, since, in terms of hills, this is one of the hardest days, reaching the ride’s highest points. Alston is still pretty high above sea level – some 1,000 feet or so, high up in the North Pennines.
There’s a chance to do some optional tougher stuff today, or follow a namby-pamby route. In the end, most of us opt for the latter.
After yet another gut-busting breakfast, we’re on the road a little after nine, up the steep, cobbled street and past the distinctive market cross.
“I hereby give notice,” declares the delightful Geoffrey, one of the oldest and strongest of our number, a gentleman to his bike-gloved fingertips, “That I shall be pushing up the cobbles.”
He’s not alone. Then it’s ups and downs all the way as we leave Alston on quiet country lanes, with some short but gruelling ascents to Garrigill. Francis, a new recruit to Team Saddle Skedaddle, is riding with me this morning, cheering me on as I manage a hill by pedal power alone.
The descent into Nenthead (a former lead mining village) and the morning coffee stop is a hairy one, and Francis has to allay my fears before I descend. Extreme care is required on every inch.
After the caffeine jolt, the only way is, again, up, to lunch just before the village of Allenheads. First we have to scale Black Hill, at 609 metres, the ride’s highest point, and cross Killhope top.
After lunch, we pedal through Allenheads, the sort of place where they still leave milk bottles on the doorstep. This afternoon, we cross the border into County Durham and are out on a moor, having to swerve sheep and the odd grouse – this is former mining land turned shooting territory.
From Rookhope, you can reach Stanhope by road or off-road across Stanhope Common. We avoid the latter option, and, miraculously, an optional climb into the bargain.
Just outside Stanhope, I collapse outside the Grey Bull pub.
“If you’re going to lie in the grass,” begs Dave. “Please don’t do it near the road.”
I’m so tired that lying in the traffic sounds quite appealing. I ask about the hill which I vaguely understand goes on for a couple of miles and is all that separates us from the night’s accommodation on Stanhope Moor.
“It’s as bad as it gets,” says Francis, looking me straight in the eye. “Twenty five per cent gradient.”
What?! How have I not got the memo about this? But Francis’s assessment was entirely honest. It’s another perpendicular monster, leading initially through a residential street, then crossing moorland. Overtaken by a young woman walking with a small child, I carry on at the pace of a hungover snail.
By now, I’m surrounded by gorgeous scenery, offering the perfect chance to draw breath. Gritting my teeth, I carry on. Luckily, it’s not much further to Parkhead Station, my favourite accommodation of the trip.
A former stationmaster’s house, it was bought by Lorraine and Terry Turnbull, who have turned it into a haven for cyclists. Stunning views, a hot bath, even a gluten-free steak pie. What more could a weary biker demand?
“Smashed it!” I say punching the air as Les arrives, grinning at my words, while I sit in the front room enjoying a restorative brew.
Day 4 Stanhope to Tynemouth 37 Miles
There are worse ways to be woken at 5am than by sunlight streaming in through your bedroom window. I pull back the curtain, wishing I was greeted by that view over the moorland every day.
Today it’s literally downhill all the way, apart from the odd slope where a railway embankment used to be. We pedal off from Parkhead station across the moor in a blaze of sunshine, safe in the knowledge that the killer hills are done.
There’s still nearly 40 miles to be covered, mind, and we take in nicely varied terrain, following the traffic-free Waskerley Way and passing a monument to the steel industry that once boomed in the north east. We go through Derwent Country Park, as well as some wooded areas, and cycle alongside major roads. There’s a pit stop in Consett then coffee at Rowlands Gill on the northern banks of the Derwent, and before we know it, we’re barrelling along the Tyne, water jumping with light like a thousand paparazzi bulbs. Then we’re in the urban centre of Gateshead and pedalling over the Millennium Bridge in the shadow of the Baltic Arts Centre to The Cycle Hub, Saddle Skedaddle’s HQ and temple to all things bike-related.
In shimmering heat, we practically float the last few miles through what was once a thriving ship building area, past Wallsend until, finally, we’re shooting along the sea front at Tynemouth. In a final cruelty, there’s one last slope to ascend, before journey’s end, and the obligatory wheel dipping (no drenching this time) and photos.
On the train home, there’s time to reflect the last few cobweb-blasting days. All the hard work has been worth it. The coast to coast thing offers a real focus, a reason to keep going until you next see sea.
It wouldn’t be a ride for complete novices, while Bradley Wiggins types would possibly find it a bit tame. Equally, group cycling isn’t for everyone, and Saddle Skedaddle would no doubt tell you themselves that their trips aren’t always the cheapest. I would have benefited from more training (er, I would have benefited from any proper training…). But, truly, it’s been totally brilliant, and, if I can do it, anyone can. You might just have to get off and push.