Monday, 22 November 2010

The Way of the Roses

I’d dreamed about cycling from Lancaster to York for years whilst living in Lancaster, to somehow join the dots of all the places I knew well in between. However, I’d never been sure a) whether I’d make it that far and b) how to go about it. Certainly cycling along the way I’d drive, along the A65 and A59 seemed pretty unappealing and all too likely to end with me ending up squished. Fast forward a few years, and I read that a new Coast to Coast cycle route, “the Way of the Roses” had been launched with the aim of linking Lancashire and Yorkshire by a route crossing the country from Morecambe to Bridlington.

Now, this seemed like a bit of synchronicity, as George and several KMC & MMMC chums had lately linked Lancashire and Yorkshire underground. Little was I to know that I’d manage to link Cumbria before them too! More prosaically, since George had just got a new job and our planned trip to Font went out of the window, I suddenly found myself with rather a lot of holiday going spare.

There was only one problem as far as I could see. I hadn’t done much cycling recently, further than a couple of commutes and a handful of mountain bike rides, and with the nights drawing in and the Lakes flooding season approaching, gaining fitness by cycling didn’t seem that appealing.

Still, I was intrigued by the idea, and found myself Googling around for places to stay and advice on the route (which, since the trail was barely a month old was hard to come by). Then I found myself buying the map and booking three days off work in the middle of October.

At this point, I got quite worried. I wasn’t bike fit. I couldn’t find my bike pump. Where was I going to stay on the first night? How was I going to get back from Bridlington? Would I freeze or drown in a puddle? It suddenly occurred to me that I must have some natural predisposition to do silly things around the Autumnal Equinox (i.e. the OMM).

So I did the natural thing, and buried my head in the sand, with the occasional lunchtime reverie looking at maps online, and more than one 5am wide-awake-eyes-wide-in-panic session. And so the days passed.
Suddenly, it was the night before I was due to set off. First on the agenda was to pick up my bike from the bike shop, where it had been deposited after George had attempted to replace the bottom bracket, only to find it was welded tightly with rust. Feeling much lighter in the pocket, I then ran around buying bits and pieces that I’d lost moving house earlier in the year. The evening was spent putting things in plastic bags, and feeling a mild sense of panic.

I had sneakily got George to drop me off at Arnside station on his way to work so that I could get the train to Morecambe but having said our fond farewells, I looked up and saw the train smoothly pulling away from the little station. Arse. It became apparent that most of our clocks were a good five minutes behind Northern Rail’s. And the next train wasn’t for an hour. So all of a sudden, I was off, cycling through the frosty air along the quiet lanes of the most southerly part of Cumbria and into Lancashire.

The start of the route at Morecambe, with the Midland Hotel in the background
A mere 10 miles later and I had reached the start, on Morecambe prom. It was a beautiful Morecambe, and the sun shone on the bay and the hills around the Duddon estuary on the other side of the bay looked close enough to touch. What a start to the day! I had envisaged taking a picture of my bike by Eric Morecambe’s statue, but embarrassingly failed to find it, and didn’t want to waste any more time, so after a few quick shots of my bike in front of the signpost marking the start/end of the route, I set off on the Way of the Roses proper.

The route wound it’s way along the Lune, along familiar paths I had cycled on many times whilst living in Lancaster. By the time I got to the Crook o’Lune, I already felt I deserved (and needed!) a stop, so bought a much needed cup of coffee and some flapjack, which I sat and ate in the sun, gloating that my colleagues would be drinking their 10 o’clock brews in the office. I then spoilt things by getting lost cycling out of the car park, and trying to convince a well meaning lady who wanted to give me directions that I really shouldn’t be heading along the cycle track. Instead I had a rather steep (and seemingly somewhat unnecessary) pull up through Halton Park to contend with.

Coming out of the tunnels at Clapham
I’d like to say the next few miles through North Lancashire and into the Forest of Bowland rolled by, but they didn’t; I had to walk up an embarrassing amount of hills, and the miles didn’t seem to be ticking down at any rate at all. However, by lunchtime I had made it to Clapham. A cheese toastie and a pot of tea seemed just the thing at the time, but I did regret them somewhat when I had to push my heavily laden bike up through the tunnels out of Clapham.

A short section of off road – and even a very brief bit of single track – to Austwick left me feeling very grateful that I was riding a hybrid-cum-shopping-bike and not a proper road bike. Then I climbed up to above Foredale Quarry and Helwith Bridge, and actually felt like I was making progress when I freewheeled down into Settle. However, the biggest hurdle was yet to come: the climb out of Settle and up High Side.

The big problem was, I’d actually done this climb the week before, on my mountain bike, with a cracking hangover at the end of a day’s biking, into a headwind. When I say ‘done’, ‘struggled to push the bike up the bleeding hill’ would be a more fitting description. This time the pushing up the hill actually seemed no worse, despite the weight of the bike, and at least I got an amazing freewheel all the way down to Airton on the other side.

The next few miles, however, passed in something approaching misery. I was pretty knackered, and it was starting to get dark. Finally, I made it to the B&B (Bridge End Farm), where I was plied with tea and cake, then had a much needed shower, followed by tea in the pub, a brief chat with the other residents (a retired couple from Arnside who were very keen cyclists and put me to shame with their tales of double coast-to-coast trips), then bed.

Near the top of Greenhow Hill, day 2
After a terrible night’s sleep (no fault of the B&B, but of my legs aching horribly in the night – how could I have forgotten to bring ibruprofen?), I set off bright and early next morning in intermittent showers. I started climbing out of the valley far too early in the day for my liking – a very steep hill out of Appletreewick took me up on to the moors, and then over Greenhow Hill. Suddenly, the Vale of York appeared before me, with the White Horse at Kilburn just visible, and I felt that I might actually do this – or at least get to York!

However, I still had a long way to go. I made my way through the chaotic streets of Pately Bridge (where the whole town seemed to be being dug up), and then struggled up to Brimham Rocks, at least safe in the knowledge that all the hills were nearly out of the way. I eventually found my way through the stunning grounds of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal (somewhat scared by the eerie and very loud cries of the rutting stags!). A shin-thwacking walk through the narrow streets of Ripon was at least improved by finally getting some lunch and a cup of tea. I then only got slightly lost trying to get out of the town.

Once out of Ripon, the rest of the ride to York passed in a state of high boredom and longing for the mince pie I had neglected to buy from Greggs. The monotony of the flatness, which I had been longing for when slogging up steep hills, was broken by Boroughbridge (especially the Devil’s Arrows, where I considered a bit of bouldering), the pay bridge at Aldwark and RAF Linton on Ouse. After a stop just outside York to fix my bike lights, I wobbled into Huntington and arrived at my parent’s, to find them surprised and relieved that I’d made it.

Of course, having effectively made it home, day 3 was always going to seem like an addendum, and I had earlier had doubts about whether I’d be able to stir myself to leave a nice warm bed to cycle away from York. However, I surprised myself by getting up and out before half past 8, and soon found myself passing through Stamford Bridge and then winding through flat fields and countless villages with duckponds and ‘beware toads’ signs to Pocklington.
From there, I turned on to a single track road, passing a luxury golf course on one side of the road and a Buddhist retreat on the other, and started the climb up to the Wolds. This however, seemed luxury compared with the previous two days – a long but scarcely noticeable climb was followed by a fast swooping descent and then a climb out of a village into a wonderful winding valley, filled with highland cattle. I kept on expecting a big climb, but except for a steep few metres right at the top, it never came. Instead, I popped out on top of the Wolds at Huggate. I squinted into the haze, trying to see the sea.

The Wolds
I charged down empty roads to cross the busy Bridlington road, and then across that into what I’d always thought of as the Wolds – vast open fields, and acres of nothing but sky. At this point the wind picked up and it started to rain. Great. Onwards, through more duck pond villages, through Driffield, the self-styled ‘Capital of the Wolds’, and onwards in briefly hot sun (a sure sign I must be approaching the sea side, I thought!). Once again, I got lost leaving Nafferton. The whole area is an odd mixture of quaint villages and rather end of the world feeling flatland hamlets, and I started to feel I might be bewitched into riding round these roads that wind around and then suddenly strike out arrow-straight across the countryside for ever more.

Somehow, I found my way to Burton Agnes, sprinted across the A614, then started the final climb of the trip, up to the Roman Road along the ridge, catching my first views of the North sea. I had looked forward to cycling along this road (not least because I thought it would offer a mixture of flat cycling with good views and a bit of history thrown in). However, the verges were full of fly-tipped rubbish, and the whole road had a distinctly odd feeling. This intensified as I neared Bridlington.

This, I realised, was a bit of a problem with the whole trip. Bridlington has a nice little old town, but as you descend to the sea, I realised it didn’t compare terribly well even with Morecambe on the looks scale. I found my way to the prom, and then down to the shore for the obligatory dipping the bike wheel in the sea (which I’d not actually had time to do in Morecambe!). I then pootled a little further along the prom until I found the end/start post of the route. I had done it. 180 miles (plus a bit extra for getting lost). For each of the three days I had cycled further than I ever had done in a day before. I had arrived at the other side of the country. However, there’s nothing like a East coast seaside town on a grey day out of season at dusk to put the dampners (often quite literally) on any form of excitement. I took pictures of my bike underneath the sign. I’d like to say that the retired couples strolling up and down the prom looked at me in awe, but they didn’t, as the had no idea what I’d done, would have thought it was just a bit peculiar anyway, and, moreover, weren’t at all interested.

The End
I pushed my bike down to a tea shack on the prom, where I tried to console myself by ordering a huge waffle, strawberry and cream confection, but the woman behind the counter dourly told me they’d shut the grills off and so I couldn’t have anything hot (it was 4pm). I eventually found a chip stall in one of the arcades where my brother and I had played on the one armed bandits and tuppeny shove machines as kids, then sat and ate my semi-cooked chips, drank my tea and then went to find a train back to York.

More photos of the route