Tan Hill Inn is Great Britain’s highest pub – at 528m above sea level – and is lost in the middle of the North Pennines. This pub is somewhere plenty of my friends have been, and I wanted to go and visit it myself. It was made famous back in the 1980s by the double glazing advert featuring Ted Moult (and a feather).
Dean and I were going out for a ride so he plotted out a beautiful route which would take us past the Tan Hill Inn on a 200km loop.
I started in Durham and headed south on the A167 to Newton Aycliffe, then took the country lanes to Sadberge and under the A66 to Middleton St George. At Dinsdale bridge I met up with Dean who’d cycled out from Darlington and we continued south to Deighton. In Deighton we turned west and followed tiny lanes through Danby Wiske (home of the famous White Swan pub) to Scorton where we joined the B6271 briefly, turning south into Catterick for a cup of coffee after 85km riding.
With the exception of the early morning run down the A167 and the brief flirt with the B6271, we had been on traffic free roads. While supping our hot drinks, I admitted to Dean my anxiety about the day; there was a forecast of rain and strong winds, it was nearly 11am and we had yet to start the difficult bit of the ride across the Pennines. Then when we reached the far side in Cumbria, we’d be cycling back over the Pennines again. And then, when we get back to Middleton in Teesdale I still have to get back to Durham which won’t be a flat ride. I was worried I’d bitten off more than I could chew. None of this self-doubt impressed Dean. “You’ll be fine”, he said dismissively.
Our next target was the Tan Hill Inn, and the route took the old Tank road (Hawks Well Lane) to join the A6108 and into Swaledale. This was a wide well surfaced road, but with very little traffic to bother us; so we could ride along side-by-side, chatting. At Walburn Hall we took the left turn to cut the corner off and join the B6270 underneath Scar Spring Wood. This road was quiet too and we rode along comfortably to Reeth. Neither of us were ready to stop, so we took the Arkengarth road to Langthwaite – here it felt as though the day’s climbing was starting in earnest.
The the wind was starting to pick up now, across us from the south, and there were spots of drizzle in the air. As we passed the turning to Barnard Castle, the sign to Tan Hill said ‘8 miles’. On the whole this climb wasn’t going to be too hard. I think it is easier than Bollihope or The Stang, but it is long and isolated. This bridleway sign just pointed off into nowhere.
Taking photographs wasn’t easy as the drizzle was turning to light rain and then from light rain to hailstones. The hailstones pinged off my cap and off my arms – little flicks of ice mixed with rain. The hailstones turned to heavier rain… it drenched my cycling cap and the water rolled around the brim and dripped onto my nose, mixing with the sweat running off my forehead. Even though it was windy and there had been hailstones I felt very warm; wrapped up in sensible clothing and pushing out a lot of body heat from the exertion. My face was a mixture of grin and grimace; and I was saying quiet prayers of thanks for the experience. Moving forward, no matter how slowly, we climbed towards the peak. The wind grew stronger as we headed up into the clouds.
A couple of skinny ultra-fit cyclists passed going downhill; a man and a woman flying along on a long descent. Dean and I continued to climb. At 528m we crested a steep section with a narrow peak and the descent into Cumbria opened up before us, with the Tan Hill pub right there, hidden from our climb by the last rise. The flags were rippling in strong wind… we leaned our bikes against the wall and headed inside to escape the cold wind and rain.
I treated myself to a bowl of hearty soup and we looked out the window as the clouds rolled in and the weather worsened. The rain was battering against the windows and visibility had dropped so low we could barely see beyond the car park.
I felt this would have been a good achievement in itself: to have ridden to the Tan Hill Inn through some tough weather. It would have been nice to settle down for a few beers and maybe camp out for the night, heading home in the morning.
But no, we were not stopping. We’d covered 125km and there were another 90km ahead back to Durham. After 30 minutes we wrapped ourselves up in wet weather gear and walked back out into the rain, got on our soaking bicycles and started the descent into Cumbria. The road doesn’t go all downhill though, and we negotiated isolated moorland lanes through several valleys. Each new valley brought a narrow gravel-strewn descent, over a hump back bridge and then a climb back out. One or two motorists slowed down and gave us a friendly wave as we smiled at them. I do feel it is important to try and look happy when climbing a hillside because inside I am having a wonderful time, but outside I can look quite knackered!
We dropped down to Brough and under the A66 again, before turning east and facing the climb of Swindale. The wind was now to our backs and we could feel the benefit as riding uphill became easier than it ought. Behind us the clouds were rolling speedily across the Cumbrian countryside bringing rain and clear skies in quick succession.
Over the top of this climb we returned to Teesdale and the brilliant B6276 which Dean pointed out has genuine value. It is a road which actually goes somwhere, a useful road which crosses the Pennines and yet doesn’t have much motorised traffic because the A66 is a much faster road for traffic.
We were being blown along with increasing speed now, even the uphill sections could be ridden in the big chainring. I was looking for straight-lines through some of the dips, where the road dives down, crosses and stream and rises again – finding a fast line that allowed me to keep a high speed. Despite this we had to be cautious on cattle grids and where oil was split on the road. This ‘downhill’ ride seemed to go on forever – but in a good way. There is the curious juxtaposition of ‘being in the moment’ and enjoying a long fun downhill ride, when compared with the feeling that we arrived at Middleton-in-Teesdale in no time at all. We stopped for a quick coffee at our favourite cafe, “The Conduit“: a CTC friendly place.
Only another 30km to go for me now, so we left Middleton-in-Teesdale and set off back along the B6282 and up Folly Bank. The weather continued to treat us to heavy rain interspersed with lighter moments, and all the time pushing us on with a beautiful tailwind.
Over the top of Folly Bank and we had lovely early evening views of the Tees valley, but it was getting dark as we approached Woodland. The downhill kept on giving: we rolled and rolled and rolled – speeding along at 35-45kph, our lights picking out the road ahead. At Witton Park we dropped steeply to cross the river Wear on a road bridge which has been built through the arches of a railway viaduct. Over bridges, under bridges – then we climbed the last big hill of North Bitchburn and joined the A690 for the run back to Durham from Willington.
We stopped for a pint in the Duke of Wellington at Nevilles Cross and said our farewells – Dean still had to ride the A167 back to Darlington and we just waited until 6:30pm when the worst of the rush hour traffic had died down. I headed back home to see Carol and enjoy some even more hearty soup; 212km covered in 9 hours riding and 12 hours total.
What a fantastic day out! I had been worried earlier in the day, I was worried about the climbs and about the weather – but both had combined to make this a much easier ride than I had expected. I think if it had been a warm, sunny day with no wind – I think it would have been a lot harder! Thanks to Dean for his company and for a beautiful (mainly traffic free) route. And thanks to God for the wonderful world in which we live and the endurance to enjoy it.
[Edit: I asked Carol to proof read this, and she said, “Yeah, despite your cheery tone, the photographs give it away; this was a miserable ride!”… No seriously honey, the weather was tough – but this was a brilliant ride!]