An ‘S24O’ is a mini-adventure: a solo, 24 hour, overnight adventure. There must be as many ways of doing an S24O as there are people who do them. Our friend Ruth introduced the idea to us, and I’ve read that some hardy-types like to go lightweight bike-packing, using a bivvy bag to sleep wild. I can’t imagine myself doing that yet; at 45 years old I’m a newbie to S24Os.
With a forecast for beautifully sunny and dry weather, I picked a direction of travel and checked online for campsites. Runswick Bay in the North Yorkshire Moors has a campsite, three pubs, a beautiful beach and some amazing countryside to cycle through on the way. I packed up my touring bicycle with a tent, roll-mat, sleeping bag and inflatable pillow. Using a couple of panniers I put in clothes for the evening, clean cycling clothes for the next day, the obligatory toolkit and spares, a pair of Crocs to walk in and a few electrical gizmos to keep me charged and in contact with home. This added about 20kg to the bike, which is strong enough to take it – and with its super low touring gears I’d be able to winch my way up any hill North Yorkshire could give me. Note the word ‘winch’… there was no promise this was going to be easy!
The roll mat and tent poles were too long for my pannier, so I popped them in a dry-bag and strapped it to the top of the rack. If necessary I could have added luggage to the front panniers, or spread the load out, but this setup felt fine and the bike was stable enough for me.
I rode the mile to Durham Railway Station and caught a train down to Darlington because I’ve become an advocate of combining cycling and trains to make the most of the countryside. Having ridden around Durham a lot recently I just wanted to start my tour from somewhere a bit flatter, and took a slow ride from Darlington to Great Ayton. I called into Suggitts for a mug of coffee and a walnut whip and sat thinking about the ride ahead into the North Yorkshire Moors.
Part of the hope of doing this S24O was to embrace some of the freedom that I believe God has given us, each of us differently, but the freedom we each have in our own way. Sometimes I become trapped inside my imagination of the “things-that-can-go-wrong”, or the “fears-of-the-unknown”: for example, I don’t really know what life will be like when I’m Ordained and occasionally fear whispers in my ear that I’ll lose freedom. I know this whisper is a lie. In following a calling to Ordination I have stopped putting all my trust in myself and started to put more trust in God. I know that this isn’t the same as everything being rosey, but because I’m losing my fear of death I’m starting to become really free. Well, sometimes. This faith journey is a bit like those labyrinths where you walk round for hours feeling like you’ve made no progress at all before suddenly arriving in the centre where God is supposed to be, only to discover that God was with you on the journey all the way. Or something like that.
With the hills of the North Yorkshire Moors ahead, and with 20kg luggage, I think I was going to be needing some of God’s strength. This sort of touring isn’t about getting places fast, it is more about enjoying getting to new places. Hills like these really slow me down to a crawl and the benefit of this is the opportunity to notice the little purple flowers in the heather, to let sheep wander across the road in front of me without having to brake. To get off the bike and take some photographs without worrying about what time I’ve posted for the ‘strava segment’. Having thought about the route a little, and because I’m familiar with the roads around here, I had the clever plan of making the uphills steep with the downhills long and gradual. So although I was dripping with sweat in the muggy summer heat, winching my way to the top, the reward was to freewheel on long downhills without melting my brakepads.
After Danby, there was one particularly difficult climb, the one up Oakley Side, but from the top there was a stunning view of Esk Dale, Fryupdale and Glaisdale, all pierced by the lumps of ground called Danby Rigg, Glaisdale Rigg and Fairy Cross Plain. These views unfolded as I rolled easily along the mainly downhill singletrack road towards Lealholm Rigg, partly assisted by the gentle tailwind pushing me out to the coast.
There are some fairly easy routes in the North Yorkshire Moors if you know where to look, and there are some killer climbs too. My ‘short-cut’ toward Runswick Bay took me down a winding road through woodland to a cobbled Ford, and then ‘rewarded’ me with a 33% climb. Thankfully nowhere near as long as Rosedale’s infamous climb, but requiring a lot of strength to ascend. It was beautiful, and I remember thinking how beautiful it was once I’d forgotten how hard it was.
In the late afternoon sun I arrived at Runswick Bay, pitched my tent, unpacked my stuff into the tent, had a shower and changed into casual clothes for the evening.
I loved the sense of security I found in being in a campsite, and being able to put my luggage into my tent knowing that nobody would steal it. I set off to explore.
Runswick Bay is on the Cleveland Way route, and the coastal section of that route runs between Saltburn and Filey. There were three pubs all serving food until late evening and I also found a Co-Op in Staithes which opens early and closes late. By 7pm I’d eaten, had a drink and was thinking that my evening was over… but at this time in June the evenings are long and as I sat looking out over the bay, listening to the waves wash against the coastal protection, I started to realise how tense I’d been all day. It was an odd feeling. I thought I’d been taking it easy, enjoying the view, touring: being on holiday. But I was wrong, I’d mistaken ‘cycling slowly’ for ‘taking it easy’. These things are not the same. As I sat slowly unwinding I started to realise I had a lot to learn about ‘taking it easy’.
Talking of ‘things I have a lot to learn about’: camping. So I’d packed for a luxury trip but failed to actually check whether the gear I had was luxurious. The compressed foam roll-mat stopped me losing warmth to the ground, but was so hard I woke every hour with pins and needles, numb arms and legs, sore hips and shoulders and feeling grumpy. The ‘inflatable pillow’ was more like an inflatable ‘sit-mat’. It gave me no support for my neck. At least I was warm enough and had plenty of space in my tiny lightweight tent. The tent was excellent in fact! Since getting home I’ve done some *actual research* into sleep mats and pillows and realise that this information was freely available if I’d checked before I packed. I’m certainly going to be investing in a decent sleep-mat before I do this again.
At 5am I gave up sleeping and read Morning Prayer. By 6am I was washed and dressed, By 7am I was packed and on the road… thinking that if I’d ridden through the night I would be feeling better than I did after the appalling sleep I’d had. Sunrise was about 4:30am, so by the time I was on the road the air was warm and the day felt like it was going to be scorchingly hot. I was going to head home but didn’t want to ride back the way I’d come, so headed north up the North Yorkshire Moors coastline. After Staithes I left the main road and followed the tiny track up Boulby Bank, which climbed about 170m before levelling out at the transmitter mast on the top of Rockcliff Hill.
The views were jaw-dropping, so I parked up the bike and took a walk towards the cliff top to get some photographs. It was amazing to see the wind-turbines in the sea at the mouth of the River Tees looking like tiny children’s toys. The only problem with following footpaths in the country is that inevitably I ended up ambushed by stinging nettles. I headed back to the bike and downhill into Skinningrove.
Although the coastal route doesn’t have the same headline ‘maximum elevation’ of the Moors, the climbs were a lot harder, they climbed more in one go, and were often quite steep. After Boulby Bank, there was the steep drop down Skinningrove Bank, then the hard climb to Mount Pleasant. I wasn’t too bothered about being on a mainroad to Brotton because there was very little traffic, and it gave me a chance to enjoy the fast smooth descent to the seafront at Saltburn.
It was odd, but even with the harder cycling I felt much more relaxed today than I had yesterday. The aches and pains of the dreadful sleep had passed and I felt no pressure to be anywhere or do anything. The urgency of ‘I must get to the campsite, I must get something to eat, I must, must, must‘ had passed and I was now just enjoying freedom from expectation. Perhaps that is the next freedom I need to speak to God about; it is one thing being free from the fear of death, but being free from the tyranny of expectation? Is some of my anxiety of Ordination related to unknown expectations? As I looked at the crystal clear sea swooshing gently against the shore I realised I wanted to go paddling.
Now I felt like I was truly on holiday! As I dried my feet and in-between my toes I decided to follow the coastal path through Marske to Redcar and have some breakfast at the Stray Cafe on the seafront there. It was only 9am as I sat munching on a bacon roll and drinking hot black coffee as I contemplated where to go next. It seemed to me that I was exploring some of the places I’d passed but never ridden and I wondered if I could get to the end of the spit of land which is called South Gare. I asked the ladies behind the counter at the Stray, “Is the road to South Gare open?” I took some good humoured mockery for my pronunciation. (Pronouncing it ‘Gare’ like ‘Car’ was a mistake, it should be ‘Gare’ like ‘Care’.)
Further along the promenade I noticed the Redcar Penguins had been ‘yarn-bombed’, with stripey little jumpers and sleeves for their flippers. Further along the road I passed the ‘Private Road’ sign and ignored it just like the ladies of the Stray Cafe had suggested. The road led past the remains of the Redcar Blast Furnace, which supported hundreds of people in work making steel in the North East. The rusting remains are cold and empty now, sitting between the North Sea and the River Tees half expecting to be used again but with increasing awareness that it will never see fire glowing there again. Dead industry. If we are set free from the fear of death, does that make death any less daunting, any less of a loss? I doubt it, especially for those mourning the loss of jobs, the end of an era of secure employment, and an ending to productive work. There is hope though, I’ve seen it in Wilton. After ICI died, there were many small businesses that popped up on the old site, some died but some are really thriving and making a fresh start. I really hope that the Redcar Blast Furnace becomes a site of new growth and a healthy diversity of employment for those of us living along Teesside.
There was another industry here too, which seemed to be from different eras; the small green fisher-community huts nestled in the sand-dunes looked almost like a refugee camp on the outskirts of some post-apocalyptic enclave. This narrow stretch of land leads along the southern bank of the River Tees to Tees Mouth, and has only Coatham Sands protecting it from the North Sea on the other side. It felt a bit like Spurn Point on the northern bank of the Humber estuary. I rode as far as I could before the warning signs became dire, and stopped to look around at the coast. To the south were Coatham Rocks and a bit further out to sea, the ‘children’s toy’ wind-turbines I’d seen from Rockcliff Hill. After that I could make out the ‘vertical pier’ of Redcar, and in the far distance I could see Saltburn and the cliffs of Saltburn Scar.
I turned north and could see, right on the other bank of the Tees, the nuclear power station. Further up the estuary was Seal Sands and the petrochemical works which continue to provide employment to many people here. I wonder how much longer it can last, the petrochemical industry – and what will happen when it stops. It isn’t just the ‘petrol’, but the way petrochemical products are so intrinsic to our way of life. The bike I was riding, the clothes I was wearing, the bottles I was drinking from. And now, at home, the laptop I’m writing on… so much is plastic. How long will this era last. Perhaps it was the decaying remains of one industry on the south bank that made me think like this, and I remembered that I’m set free from the fear of death… but that doesn’t make death a friend.
I turned back inland and retraced my wheel-tracks back to Redcar. I am really pleased I’ve ridden to the end of South Gare; I’ve lived in the Teesside area for ages now and as we’re about to move back to the East Riding of Yorkshire it is good that I’ve been here. My return to Darlington was along extremely familiar roads, punctuated by a rather gourmet ‘Fish Finger Sandwich’ at Chadwick’s Inn in Maltby, and taking my time through Neasham to walk up the embankment and look at the River Tees behind the village’s flood defences.
It has been a very reflective two days cycling and I’ve learnt something about myself, that I am yet to free myself from expectation and that until this happens I’m going to struggle to relax. I’ve still got a lot of thinking to do about expectations and whether they are helpful or not. I learnt the hard way that I need better camping gear – and I know I’m unlikely to be found in a bivvy-bag any time soon.