Explore Managing Director joined the inaugural departure of our Cycling Coast to Coast tour, where he spent a weekend cycling across northern England. The ride was part of his ongoing training for his Explore Bipolar 'High and Lows' ride. Read on to find out how Ashley found the trip.
"As the tour began the group met up at the Chase Hotel in Whitehaven, and were soon trying out the bikes and adjusting handlebars, saddles and panniers in the car park, using the Explore van as a workshop. It was a lovely group; only eight of us, but we all gelled quickly, which was lucky as it’s only a four day trip. They were from all over the UK and Northern Ireland, from Sheffield to Folkestone and Newcastle to Derry. A few were using the tour as a bit of a training ride, some for triathlons and two of us for longer end to end rides later in the year. But we all agreed the main aim is to make it, and enjoy the views along the way. Brian is our leader, an old Explore hand, and running a trip on home turf for the first time; this being the first Coast to Coast cycle that we have run, though Brian has organised many charity trips along the same route.
Day 1 of the ride - Whitehaven to Penrith (53 miles)
After the customary dipping of the rear wheels in the Irish Sea we were off. A few crunching of the gears as we got used to the bikes while heading out of town, and we were soon on the disused railway line heading east. The outskirts of the town soon gave way to the rolling green landscape of the Lake District; stone walls, newly born lambs and glorious views of the fells and tiny hamlets with tranquil Loweswater in the distance. After a frightening forecast, and despite a few heavy showers, the sun shone through mid-morning and we had a superb day. Our first real test came as we rode the long climb up to the forested pass at Whinlatter. The hybrid bike didn’t have the range of low gears I’m used to on my mountain bike, so it certainly tested the legs. After 25 miles we stopped to grab a sandwich and slice of homemade cake at the Visitor Centre, before the fast descent down to Keswick. Riding on more disused railways, back roads and some tracks through the afternoon we found time to stop off at The Mill House at Mungrisdale for a cheeky shandy, before stepping the pace up for the final stretch to our guesthouse in the centre of Penrith; a typical B&B with a very welcoming couple who made us feel instantly at home.
As it was Brian's 60th birthday we squeezed into his room for some fizz, then headed down to a great Italian place called Gianni's for pasta. Flaming sambuca and the traditional cow bell round the neck were a fitting way to celebrate our charismatic leader's big six zero.
Day 2 - Penrith to Allenheads (36 miles)
Everyone slept well! Most had a full English to start the day and to get them fuelled up for today's ride. As we stayed in Penrith instead of Greystoke last night we did an extra 7 miles to get here. The bonus is that today is a shorter 36 mile ride. So we had a pretty relaxed start, eventually heading out of town at 0950. The hill out of Penrith was a bit of a killer so early on, but we soon got into our stride, climbing then descending to the River Eden and Langwathby. After about an hour and a half as we moved into the North Pennines, the scenery changed as we started the climb to Hartside. The vegetation thinned out and the road began to zigzag its way up the side of the hill to the summit at 580m (1903ft as the summit sign says!). Whilst not the steepest hill on the ride, it's a slog up the 3-4 miles to the cafe at the top, (the highest in England) for a hot drink and another slice of cake! Then it’s a fast freewheel for 5 miles down to Alston. This is the point that the Explore Bipolar Highs & Lows ride will cross the Coast to Coast route, a lovely market town with cobbled streets which also happens to be the highest village in England. We had lunch (jacket potato… more good biking food!) in the Angel, the oldest pub in Alston, dating back to the 1670s. Only 12 miles to go to Allenheads from Alston, but it felt like hard work as we climbed to Nenthead through stark scenery, passing slag heaps and a number of disused mines. Incredible how the landscape has changed today! At the highest point we crossed into Northumberland before another long descent with a vicious cross wind. Black clouds made the remote moorland landscape feel even more desolate. One more climb then a descent into Allenheads, and our bunkhouse (the Allenheads Lodge), arriving at just after 4pm, as the heavens opened. We had a quick brew and grabbed a shower before the other people staying at the lodge arrived. They were a bunch of mates from Sunderland doing the Coast to Coast route as a charity ride. They seemed to be a little more sedate than last time we met them in Whitehaven, and two didn’t arrive until 8:30pm!
After a late siesta and a bit of blog writing, we walked a mile up the valley to The Allenheads Inn for a pint of ‘Saddle Sore’ ale and a great meal (soup and steak pie for £11). Everyone was weary and happy to have another early night – what a wild bunch!
Day 3 - Allenheads to Tynemouth (53 miles)
Lovely breakfast cooked by Teresa, the resident cook and local character. You enter her kitchen at your peril!
We've all noticed Brian's Durham accent getting broader the further east we go, a reminder that we’ve got a real local leading us on this trip. He was telling us in the pub last night how his father was a miner, and how he was thrilled to get a job above ground ‘because I can see daylight’, when the mines closed in the early seventies.
We leave by 0830 this morning, as a few of us have trains to catch from Tynemouth and Newcastle this afternoon so are keen to crack on. I stop off at the pub to get a photo of the ‘Saddle Sore’ beer pump as we pass the Allenheads Inn - the cleaner thinks I'm a bit weird!
Then it’s another early morning steep climb as we leave the village and head up through the end of the valley...a long and winding hill taking us onto open moorland once more. It's drizzling and foggy and feels quite eerie and incredibly remote. As we start to descend there is an old disused lead mine in the valley to our right with the derrick and miners accommodation blocks spread out amongst the slag heaps. The first 13 miles is tough today, as we cross valleys, and the ascent out of Stanhope/Crawleyside takes the award for steepest climb - a real killer that seems to just keep on going. The reward at the top though is a great little quirky cafe at Parkhead, the old miners' railway station. From here it's following the disused railway line across open moorland, over cattle grids and through numerous gates as we start to descend towards Consett. Our team of three in the leaders ‘peleton’ took a wrong turn, meaning the others got to the cafe for lunch first - soup and warm bread went down a treat!
Skirting the old steel town we soon joined the railway line again as it started to bucket down; hail and sleet this time! Brian made a couple of surprise appearances to get some photos as we started to pick up the pace towards Newcastle. The C2C signs taking us round docks and over bridges as we approached the city along the Tyne. The view of the bridges in the centre of the city was pretty special and the Sunday market being in full swing along the quay added to the atmosphere. It's easy to think Newcastle is the end of the ride, but there's still another 12 miles to go! With the river on our right we weaved our way through the suburbs and estates of Wallsend and North shields with the old dockyards on our right. Passing a marina, we soon reached the sea. Round the harbour wall, then one more short hill (ouch!) to our final destination, the small bay at Tynemouth...a wonderful view and such a buzz to see the sailing club down on the beach and the ruins of the Priory on the headland above and the end point of our ride. A feeling of real achievement as we excitedly dipped our front wheels in the North Sea, and realised that we'd just crossed England by pedal power!"
Find out how you too could cycle across northern England and read more about Ashley's Highs and Lows ride on the Explore Bipolar website.