North East England: Cathedrals 200

There’s nothing quite like setting off for a bike ride just before 5am, into the cold dark hours before dawn – but I’d only made it 5 minutes down the road when the drizzle turned to hailstones. I surrendered to the need for a raincoat and stopped on Framwellgate Moor.
I do like cycling in the pre-dawn quietness, I think its the combination of empty roads and knowing that by the time others wake up I’ll have been cycling for miles. This morning I had an ‘easy’ 200km DIY Audax planned, I was heading up to Newcastle before turning round to enjoy a whole day of cycling south, with a tailwind down to York. The shortest cycling route from Newcastle to York is only 130km, so I had a little planning to do in order to raise the distance to the randonneur’s 200km minimum.

Wrapped up warmly, I enjoyed the 22km ride up the A167 with no cars around; through Chester-le-Street and past the Angel of the North. Gateshead was deserted and traffic lights were mainly in my favour as I drew closer to the River Tyne. My first target was St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle, and this meant crossing the High Level Bridge.On the narrow enclosed footpath/cyclepath I met a couple who were drunk and, of the pair of them, the bloke had set is mind on getting into a fight with me. I got off my bike, and aware that it was extremely unlikely I could say anything – he wasn’t thinking rationally – I decided, without a hint of sarcasm or a hint of being patronising, to apologise for upsetting him. Then I prayed for him and his friend. He struggled to comprehend what I’d said, but the prayer seemed to have an effect on the woman, who then decided to guide the bloke away. They let me pass. A bit further on there was a young man who wanted to walk across the bridge and was afraid of going anywhere near this couple. I don’t blame him. With hindsight I should have avoided them.

Newcastle has two Cathedrals, the Roman Catholic St Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of England (Anglican) St Nicholas Cathedral. St Nicholas Cathedral is the church building where Bishop Christine Hardman has her ‘official seat’. For those readers who are interested, a church building becomes a ‘Cathedral’ when it contains the Bishop’s ‘cathedra’ – from a similar sounding Greek word, which basically means ‘chair’.

I stopped only for a quick photograph in the half-light of dawn. Turning round, I headed straight back over the High Level bridge but this time using the road. I was aware that the drunken couple were still there, but now they seemed deep in conversation. I continued to pray for them as the day went on because my mind came back to them frequently: I was out cycling and having a brilliant time, they were dealing with the impacts of being drunk. I hope they got home safely and didn’t end up in a fight or hurt anyone.

My second target for the day was Durham Cathedral – where Bishop Paul Butler’s ‘cathedra’ is housed. The rain and hailstones had stopped and I had a very gentle tailwind now, which reduced the return time to Durham and I was back quite quickly. There was a long day ahead of me, and because I’d been drenched with rain and hailstones, I wondered if I could pop home and clean down the bike, spray the chain with lubricant and change a couple of items of clothing. If I called back home I wouldn’t want to wake up my family, but as I rolled onto the drive, I had a text from Carol asking how it was going – ‘fine’ I replied, ‘fancy a cup of tea?’

My pit-stop was brief, long enough to make Carol a cup of tea and head back out onto the road. I freewheeled under the Railway Viaduct on the short section downhill to the city centre, then climbed the steep cobbled road up to the Cathedral. The sun was starting to shine and the day promised to be really nice!

As I rode away, I continued past the Cathedral along the cobbles of North Bailey, the road just inside the old castle walls. This took me past the front of St John’s College then down over the River Wear via Prebends Bridge and out of Durham past the University buildings.

I cycled along in glorious sunshine, the roads glistened with the night’s rain, but there was no frost or ice to worry about. The wind was to my back as I tackled the last of the hills for the day, through Coxhoe and south on the Roman Road now called the A177. Ahead lay flat roads and a tailwind all the way to York! Yay!

Looking behind me though, the sky was black with rain clouds, there were hints of rainbows at the edges, and there was a chill in the air blowing towards me. I set my mind on staying ahead of the rain and cycled hard to keep warm.

I rode through Sedgefield and re-joined the A177 south towards Stockton-on-Tees. This is usually a dual carriageway with plenty of room for motorists to overtake without having to slow down for me, however the outside lane was cordoned off for roadworks and for a 3km section I was holding up car drivers. I rode as hard as I could, keeping about 40-45kph and my head down, and I was relieved when the roadworks were over and we could get back to business as usual – me cycling comfortably and motorists making their own way unimpeded by me!

I rode through the centre of Stockton and along the dual carriageway into Ingleby Barwick – just as the rain and cold finally caught me. I made it to the supermarket and the heavens opened, so I decided that this would be a good time for a coffee. Standing shivering in the doorway to the supermarket I drank my expensive coffee and nibbled on some slices of Soreen loaf. When the rain had cleared I nipped down to St Francis of Assisi Church for my next control stop. I worshipped here until we moved to Durham. I like the fact that there is cycle parking at church – Ingleby Barwick is a great place to ride with families.

I have a lot of friends and good memories from Ingleby Barwick – this was where my enthusiasm for cycling blossomed. The Tees Valley is beautiful and cycling on these roads is fairly easy thanks to the gently rolling hills and not much motorised traffic.

I left Ingleby Barwick heading south still, over the A19 and through very familiar lanes to Hutton Rudby and East Rounton. The hedges along the road were teeming with small birds, the most noticeable had bright flashes of yellow on their backs and I think they were Greenfinches. There were other birds too, providing a soundtrack of chirping songs to my ride.

There was an awful lot of spilt diesel on the roads near Easton Rounton and I was cycling cautiously to avoid slipping off my bike. The rainbow sheen of light reflected off the diesel made it easy to see – and the amount of this pollution was obvious. I was glad to get away from the pollution on further quiet country lanes between East Rounton and Northallerton. Rain clouds were breaking up and the sun was spearing down in shafts onto the Cleveland hills. I could see what looked like persistent rain falling on the North Yorkshire Moors and I was pleased not to be cycling down through Bilsdale today.

In Northallerton I needed to refill my water bottles and stopped at a petrol station. It really isn’t very glamorous to eat Soreen loaf and drink water stood on the stinky petrol station forecourt… I started to shiver and decided to push on as quickly as possible.

My next target was going to be Leeming Bar, and I followed the main road from Northallerton. It was busy with fast moving traffic, but the sun was keeping me company and I started to warm up slightly as I worked hard to ride at a brisk pace – but the rain wasn’t far behind and the heavens opened once more on the outskirts of Leeming, so I dashed for the coffee shop at the services to find some shelter.

A couple of young lads on BMXs were discussing whether they could ride down a steep set of stairs between the coffee shop and motel. I remember being that young and being dared (or daring my friends) to ride in ludicrously steep and difficult places. Before they had a chance to commit themselves, the hotel receptionist came out and told them “Don’t be stupid! I don’t want to be picking up the pieces when you fall off – go on! clear off!”

The rain passed and it looked like I’d be safe from a soaking for a while: the surrounding skies were blue. I sent Carol an update on my progress and set off again, but on an amazing section of road: Leeming Bar to Boroughbridge.

The service road is the A6055 and runs parallel to the A1M for non-motorway traffic, which essentially means horses, cyclists and moped riders. However, because this is also the diversion route if the motorway is closed, it is a very nice piece of smooth flat tarmac too. The tailwind, the flat road, the sunshine – it all came together and I was rolling along at 35kph for about 15km. It took roughly 25 minutes to cycle from Leeming Bar to the A61 turning for Ripon and at times the service road is higher than the A1M, so I was able to look down on the motorway traffic as I sped along in glorious sunshine, riding my bicycle – brilliant!

I loved every minute of speeding along powered by cake and a tailwind, and the sun was beating down on me so I felt warm too. There is a little zig-zap to cross the A1M near Rainton and as I turned I discovered just how strong my tailwind had been – suddenly it was a lot harder to cycle – and a brief splatter of rain hit me too. My pace dropped right down and I was feeling cold once more. On reaching Boroughbridge I just looped around the bridge and headed straight back out again, north – I was aiming for a longish stop in Ripon after visiting my third Cathedral for the day.

I met Bishop Nick Baines outside Ripon Cathedral – he was waiting to meet some people from BBC Radio4 for an interview. I rather clumsily asked him if he had a seat in Ripon Cathedral – already knowing the answer. I didn’t know that he has three seats though – one in Ripon Cathedral, one in Bradford Cathedral and the third in Wakefield Cathedral. It was nice to meet him and I owned up immediately to being a #TraineeVicar. He shared with me the mission activities he’s involved in around the huge Diocese he is responsible for. I don’t think he would have the luxury of using a bicycle to get around, I think he has to stick to travelling by car unfortunately. A car full of Radio4 people arrived and dithered around looking for somewhere to park outside the Cathedral. The driver settled for using the age-old trick of reversing the wrong way down a one-way street – because everyone knows that’s okay – not! Bishop Nick said ‘cheerio’, and went to help them. I rode into the centre of Ripon to find something to eat.

I failed to find anything to eat or drink in Ripon – not because of a lack of places – but because on this Saturday lunchtime the City was heaving with tourists and Radio4 presenters. I gave up trying to find anywhere to lock up my bike and rode out of town hoping to find a nice pub on the way east. I’d ridden for 170km so far today and my little garmin satnav thingy was saying I only had 40km to the finish in York.

I rode on – no water in my bottle, no more Soreen loaf left – hoping I’d find somewhere to rest and get refreshments fairly soon. Cycling back over the A1M to Kirby Hill, I turned left to follow country lanes and look for a way to cross the plethora of local rivers. Thanks to thinking ahead and planning properly, I knew exactly where I was going. Just west of the City of York, the River Ure and the River Swale join forces and shortly become the River Ouse, which passes through York itself. Bridges can define the routes into York: I could either cross the River Ure at Boroughbridge and the River Ouse at Aldwark Bridge, or – as I was actually doing – cross the River Swale at Thornton Bridge.

I was unaware that the flooding earlier in the year had wiped out Thornton Bridge! Thankfully it is being repaired and is currently open to cyclists and pedestrians.

Now all that remained was a 30km southerly blast into York, but I was tired, I was out of food and drink and my legs were aching. I’d averaged just over 26kph and was feeling the effort in my legs. Although “no hills” sounds easy, it does tend to mean that I push on really hard. Hills can be a blessing, because I take it easy on the climb and whoosh downhill – but on flat roads I just keep pedalling and working hard.

Because of the flat countryside, I sensed the open air and broad sky around me. Glancing up, I saw a Buzzard coasting along above my head. It was only about 10m over me, and I found myself hypnotised by the grace with which it soared effortlessly through the air. Fortunately the road was empty because I was weaving around looking up instead of looking where I was going.

The sun was continuing to smile on me and I realised that my skin was drying out – I could feel my lips were dry. These last few miles were exhausting – I joined the A19 for the final run into the City of York and in no time at all was stood in front of York Minster, or to give it the full title: Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York, my fourth Cathedral of the day and the building containing the seat of Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. The Archbishop has been subject to meeting smelly cyclists before, when Martin, Claire and I had cycled from Durham to York and back to fundraise for the Cranmer Hall teaching facilities.

The Archbishop of York is currently on a Pilgrimage of Prayer, Witness and Blessing, walking around the Diocese of York. I was in York alone and just rested my bike against the doors of the Minster to take a photo and finish my ride. 211km, cycling for 8hrs and taking just under 10hrs including my stops for shelter.

Starting early in the morning, 5am, has the knock-on effect of finishing early, especially when pushed along on a brisk tailwind. It was 3pm when I arrived at York Tap for some much needed rehydration in the form of Oatmeal Stout.

If anyone is interested in following in the tyre tracks and visiting these Cathedrals, I’d be happy to share the route with you. I found this a wonderful way to explore the North East of England and deliberately calling in to churches kept my mind focussed on prayer. The couple I’d met in Newcastle first thing in the morning had remained on my heart and I know that Newcastle Cathedral has a ministry and mission to pray for and support those who enjoy the hedonistic nightlife of the city.


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