A stunning day out on Wednesday: around County Durham and North Yorkshire. Dean is working hard to resurrect a classic ride as a new Audax event, based on notes found in his Father’s cycling journal. Dean’s Dad has kept a record of every ride he did, with details of cafe stops and race-times on open time-trials – and reading through it has inspired Dean to bring back a classic end of season event. We were talking about this on our ride together – imagining how continental pro-team riders would meet up with the northern UK counterparts for an autumn hard-ride and end of season booze up!
The “Hardstiles 150” was a 150 mile route around County Durham and North Yorkshire which passed through several brewery towns – the aim was to complete the 150 miles in daylight, but often enough riders would be wobbling home ‘one over the eight with “Ever-Ready” headlamps barely lighting the empty country lanes.
Totally unacceptable behaviour these days – and far too dangerous! But back in the 1940s and 1950s it was bit like a Northern “Dun Run“; totally unofficial and totally ridiculous!
Dreaming of those halcyon days of cycling, Dean’s idea was to create a 200km Audax following roughly the same route – reworked because the A1 is no longer a suitable road to cycle along, even in the dark. We went out to route check together – and what a stunning set of roads he’s found. The opportunity to do a daylight ride around some of the best countryside in County Durham and North Yorkshire is really wonderful.
We met up at a coffee shop on the outskirts of Darlington for a 9am mid-week start. Weekend rides can start earlier without the heavy traffic, but after 9am we took abandoned ‘commuter-rat-run’ lanes north to Sedgefield and Fishburn, climbing away from the River Tees and the North Yorkshire / County Durham boundary. The ripples in the countryside hide seams of coal and we passed numerous monuments to the mining heritage, including this statue in Fishburn as we were looking for a suitable information control.
Dean has forbidden me from describing the ride as flat or downhill from Fishburn to Middleton-in-Teessdale; fair enough as the first 60km seem to be entirely uphill, but uphill along a ridge and avoiding the really silly climbs around here. This is a scenic ride without scoring ‘Audax Altitude Award’ points; and scenic in this sense doesn’t mean hard, it means beautiful. To either side we were able to see huge distances; just beyond Ferryhill and Kirk Merrington we were able to see Durham Cathedral and Penshaw monument to the north, or turning east we could see the wind turbines in the North Sea at the mouth of the river Tees. The Cleveland hills formed a frame to the southern edge of of our view.
The ride takes us through the pretty and historic market square of Bishop Auckland and the gates to what was once the Bishop’s Palace but is now the home to a significant tourist attraction. The home, gallery and gardens as well as the Kyren open air show which will run in summer 2016. Kyren is a live action re-enactment of 1000 years of northeast history and is expected to be a very popular show. We rode onwards past the Saxon Church at Escombe which was built in 675AD; and despite being over 1300 years old there are still regular church services and weddings.
The road does climb after Woodland, with Langleydale below us to the south; and with views extending to the Fells in the heart of the Pennines ahead. There is plenty of scenery to keep your mind off the lactic acid in your legs, but it is worth concentrating on the cattle grids and sheep!
There is an ever-present and visible history in this part of the world, another example being the railway viaduct over Langdale Beck at Dent Gate Farm. Although the railway has been dismantled the viaduct is a testament to the quality of engineering involved, and there are more of these viaducts around due to our crinkly landscape.
There are subtle signs of how harsh the weather can be in our region: note the snow-poles on this harmless looking road. Only last week a group of us had been thrashed by horizontal hailstones in Northumberland, and today we’d been blessed with a muggy mix of warm temperatures and intermittent but heavy rain showers.
Something about riding in company combined with ‘not’ grovelling into a fierce headwind brought us unexpectedly to Folly Top Bank – past ‘Holdsworth Farm’ (no relation) which is at the end of Langleydale. Here the road joins the B6278 and offers a steep and fast descent into Teesdale, everytime I come down here I gawp at the views ahead and only occasionally remember to slow down and take a photograph. No photographs today either, lunch at Middleton-in-Teesdale beckoned!
We normally stop at the Conduit, but this mid-week lunchtime it was closed, so we tried Cafe 1618, my omelette was very good, ham and cheese, and with chips and a soft drink I felt nicely ready for the next section: Middleton-in-Teesdale to Masham. Although we left in sunshine, the weather was predicted to turn to rain. Before we reached Barnard Castle we were getting a good soaking, but because the temperature was warm I felt the rain was refreshing – and said so. Silence came the reply.
Dean’s Audax could be deceiving because we were riding the intimidating Pennines but enjoying ‘easy’ cycling. He reminded me that every road around Teesdale goes up and climbs over iconic places like Bollihope, Chapel Fell, Crossthwaite Common, Harter Fell, Lune Moor. In one direction lies Alston, another Stanhope, another Kirkby Stephen. Despite being in a cosy looking bit of rural England, we were in the heart of the Pennines and cycling round here can be extremely demanding. To the south of us we passed Lunedale and Baldersdale, home to five reservoirs! The Selset and Grassholme Reservoirs in Lunedale, the Balderhead, Blackton, and Hury Reservoirs in Balderdale.
Drizzly rain on tarmac covered in oil and diesel from the cars and trucks that congregate in Barnard Castle made our crossing of the bridge over the river Tees a bit treacherous; Dean’s rear wheel slipped sideways but we both stayed upright and picked our way up to the Market Place where we turned right onto Newgate and Westwick Road. This took us past the front of Bowes Museum and out into more rich farmland – still on absolutely quiet roads. The variety of trees and hedges created a colourful tunnel to ride through. If the calendar Audax is run in Autumn then the countryside will be like a firework display of colour.
This section of the ride includes crossing the river Tees one more time at Whorlton Bridge, the slatted road surface playing a tune to the beat of our bikes passing over the top. From here we were going to be gently climbing for a while as we find our way to Richmond. First we had to cross the A66, which is a mixed blessing. The A66 is such a good way to cross the Pennines by car, it does suck traffic away from rural roads, so our ride could be nicely quiet – unfortunately crossing it takes time and caution. To ensure no one is tempted to cycle the A66, Dean is forced to include information controls at Hutton Magna and Gayles.
The ‘Oak Tree Inn‘ is really cute and has a unique pub sign, but I wasn’t able to test the ale quality as it was closed. The downside to a mid-week ride. From the Church gate next door we could see that this was part of the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, which made sense because we were south of the river Tees yet west of the A1. York Diocese would be to the east of the A1. Opposite the pub was a telephone box which had been converted into a library – either for novelty or convenience, I don’t know. We toyed with the idea of making an Information Control the first letter of the fourth word on the 94th page of the second book on the bottom shelf of the telephone box.
Leaving Hutton Magna we were still on idyllic cycling lanes, yet ahead we could hear the rumble of traffic on the A66. The comparison is dramatic, from lanes, to A66 and back to lanes.
There are several routes to reach Richmond from here, the climb over The Stang to Arkengarthdale, followed by the Grinton Moor climb, or the climb through the firing ranges on military roads, or the easiest route, the Hardstiles climb from Gayles. In one or two spots the road is steep enough to make walking an option, but we struggled on. Dean riding fixed and me twiddling along in a super low touring gear, we passed High Moor and Gilling Wood and then the scenery opened out before us again as we rapidly approached Richmond.
The road then became increasingly steep as we dropped towards the river Swale. Richmond was full of traffic, but it didn’t feel like a problem as we followed the main road as it switched back and forth dropping down to the river by the Station cafe. I needed to top my water up so we stopped briefly.
Back out onto the road and we had the only busy section for the day, from Richmond through Catterick Garrison to a crossroads ahead on the A684. We passed through this large military presence with its ubiquitous camouflage and an impressive looking array of army vehicles everywhere.
Once through Catterick Garrison the road dropped and was good for making a nice fast ride towards Masham. We crossed the A684 and immediately there was less traffic which allowed us to ride side by side as we had for most of the day, but first we stopped to put raincoats away and enjoy more sunshine.
We passed underneath the Wensleydale Railway at Newton-le-Willows and started to climb a little until we were riding on a ridge above the river Ure. The road-signs were counting us down to Masham and the potential for a really good pint. There are a few tourist cycle routes around here for good reason; the fields and woodland are lovely to cycle through and around. Masham is one of those places that attracts tourists and is very famous. The Theakstons and Black Sheep breweries are here in the heart of the North Yorkshire Dales and their beers are delicious examples of British beer at its best.
I couldn’t possibly turn down an opportunity for a pint of Old Peculier in its birthplace. They say that Guinness tastes best in Dublin. Well, this pint of Old Peculier was just stunning. After a swig or two I allowed it to accompany a pork pie with homemade pickle for lunch. If Dean does run this Audax, I put my name in the hat as a volunteer to sit in the White Bear Inn all day stamping Brevet cards.
The temperature had dropped a bit as we set off on the last leg to Darlington, but the hills were going to warm us up. I had the anxiety associated with a suddenly noisy bike, it seems as though the bearings on my rear wheel had given up their fight against my weight! Creak, crunch, creak, crunch. We decided to just carry on and live with the noise of grinding hub bearings, I’d have to do a complete replacement when I got home. (The Aliens quote came to mind; ‘Graeme, you’ve blown the transaxle! You’re just grinding metal!)
This is a bit of the route Dean is still tweaking. We weren’t keen on the Catterick to Scorton section, and then we had a section to Appleton Wiske and back on the same road. After we got home Dean has figured an even better section than we rode, crossing the A1 north of Leeming Bar and taking the lanes from Little Fencote through Danby Wiske to Appleton Wiske. That will be much better than our experience.
We approached the A1(M) roadworks and the traffic signals seemed to take no account of cyclists, horse riders and pedestrians. Dean found himself at the end of an incomplete bridge with a muddy bank to scramble down. I just couldn’t face it and decided to cycle against the flow of traffic. It was a horrible muddle but we eventually made it to the other side in one piece.
With about 40km left to ride home we headed for Appleton Wiske and the infamous ‘Cheesecake Hill‘ both a strava segment and the site of the annual ‘cheesecake rolling’ competition. That last big hill of the day was exhausting but once we were past and on the final leg we had yet another iconic crossing of the river Tees: the bridge at Low Dinsdale.
Arriving back in Darlington wasn’t such a shock to the system either, thanks to the Dinsdale approach, we used a couple of nice little cycle paths to reach the coffee shop back at Darlington retail park.
I was totally delighted with the day out and the route Dean devised in memory of the “Hardstiles 150”; Darlington is accessible by train from London and Edinburgh, allowing anyone to come and ride with us. This route takes in the agricultural, mining and transport history of Teesdale along with stunning scenery on the easiest roads the region has to offer. Then we find the most comfortable way south to North Yorkshire and visit Masham for Old Peculier before returning to Darlington via the Vale of Mowbray within sight of the North Yorkshire Moors. We cross the rivers Tees, Swale and Ure using beautiful little bridges which have featured in many of our favourite rides. I sincerely hope this 200km Audax makes it to the calendar, and if it does, I’ll see you at the White Bear Inn, I’ll be the red-cheeked and merry fellow in the corner with the Audax sign stamping Brevet cards.