A few friends embarked on a winter adventure: cycling into the Pennines for an overnight stop at the World Famous Tan Hill Inn. We were expecting icy roads, isolation, wilderness… we hoped for a warm welcome, good food and real ale… we needed the following day to be all downhill with a tailwind. We not only got what we expected, we also got what we hoped for, and much more.
There were roughly a dozen people interested in the ride when it was first suggested by Dean on ‘yet another cycling forum‘, but as the event drew nearer the reality of taking Friday off work was scuppering the plans of many. I was fortunate to be using my holiday allowance (so there was no escape). Despite the freezing rain, at 06:45, I wheeled the bike out of the garage onto my drive. I slid sideways across the tarmac due to black ice – rejoicing that I’d replaced my normal road tyres with something fat and spiky: my winter ice tyres have four rows of metal spikes which grip in icy conditions just like riding on a dry road in summer. It was going to be easier and safer riding my bike than walking!
In the pre-dawn I caught the train from Brough to York… with a connection to Northallerton. As I sat among the morning’s commuters, I was reading Morning Prayer: Daily Office. I do enjoy the serendipity of Holy Scripture speaking into life’s experiences, and I laughed as I read the Canticle ‘A Song of the Wilderness’. Today’s adventure was going to take me into the wilderness over some tough hills and it was as if the Psalmist was singing a prayer for me: ‘strengthen the weary hands, make firm the feeble knees’.
As I cycled away from the station in Northallerton, the sun was shining and there was a north wind shouldering me into the gutter of the road. I wrestled with it through the little villages of Scruton and Great Fencote. I was looking for the new service road alongside the A1(M); this new route is a blessing on cyclists as it makes straight the way from Leeming to Catterick.
It was while crossing the A1(M) at Catterick that the rain started again, blustering and whipping across me from the north, mixed with sleet and snow. Once past Tunstall the road was exposed and I just had to put up with the foul weather. My master plan was to reach Grinton for lunch and stop by the fire to warm up and dry out a bit. The road climbs over Hauxwell Moor and is known locally as the ‘Tank Road’. I’m not completely convinced it is the tank road because I’m sure there are loads of roads nearby which tanks can use.
Once beyond Wathgill I dropped down into Swaledale and joined the B6270 which heads through Upper Swaledale to Kirkby Stephen. The peculiar thing about Swaledale is that cycling up it feels easier than cycling down it. The reason for this, I’m fairly sure, is that the road has is a series of steep climbs with gentle descents; making the whole experience of cycling uphill much more pleasant. The hills could wait though – it was lunchtime and I’d reached the Bridge Inn in Grinton.
The Bridge Inn had just opened; so I removed my sodden coat, gloves and hat and set them near the log fire to dry out a bit. After a moment of hesitation, I removed my boots and stuffed them with some of the newspaper for lighting the fire… this wasn’t strictly necessary because my socks were nice and dry anyway. This was a perfect place to rest, so for an hour I warmed up and dried out while making the most of a pint of Ringwood’s XXXX Porter, enjoyed with Gammon, Egg and Chips.
The rain clouds had passed when I set off again, warm and well-fed. If this was a Tolkien-esque adventure, then I was perhaps on the edge of the wildlands beyond Bree, having experienced the hospitality of the Prancing Pony. Upper Swaledale is not a tame place, anything can happen and it is wise to support Swaledale Mountain Rescue. I wondered whether I should have stopped at Muker or Thwaite to tell someone I was cycling up to Tan Hill – just in case.
Hawes and Wensleydale are to the south, beyond the climb of Buttertubs Pass. I ignored this turning and continued west and north, heading towards Keld. There is a small bridge just beyond Keld which marks the divergence of the routes to Kirkby Stephen and Tan Hill. I took Stonesdale Lane, and the multiple hairpin bends to climb Silver Hill. The road was gritted, for which I was extremely grateful. I now only had one narrow piece of tarmac to follow all the way to Tan Hill Inn.
The road became increasingly icy and frost covered. Around me was Stonesdale Moor, and the snow from earlier in the week was still visible among the grasses. The winter spike tyres were coming into their own and giving me a huge confidence boost, as I crunched through the frost and sheet ice slowly gaining altitude.
Eventually I reached Mould Gill, where a sharp turn in the road is accompanied by a 20% climb. I might have been able to crawl my way up here at another time, but my thighs were cold. The snow was a few centimetres deep so I gave up before I fell off. I looked around and absorbed just how isolated this part of the United Kingdom can be. It is easy to believe a person could be lost up here – that an inexperienced tourist like me could actually die up here. The sheep started to crowd around me, wondering if I was going to offer food. By the time I’d put my camera away I had to push my bike through the flock. Quietly… half to myself and half to the inquisitive sheep, I whispered, “Baa-ram-ewe. Baa-ram-ewe. To your breed, your fleece, your clan be true. Sheep be true. Baa-ram-ewe.“
There was something else on my mind as I negotiated this wilderness: the Bible readings for the coming Sunday. I was thinking through the context of wilderness in the sense of the prophet Isaiah; the one crying out in the wilderness. I found it helpful to consider the different wildernesses we find ourselves in. I wondered about the person of faith in a strongly secular workplace, or the feeling of dissociation in a crowded shopping centre over Christmas – not quite embracing the commercial but unable to shake it off completely. I wondered what ‘one crying out’ might look like in those wildernesses. My sermons often take time to develop in dialog with a lived week of experience, but I don’t always have the free-time to literally go into wilderness spaces like this.
Ahead… across the snowfields… the Tan Hill Inn perched on the horizon. A last homely house – or perhaps the only homely house. Hospitality awaited.
Dean had already arrived. Another friend had abandoned somewhere in the wilds and been rescued. Greg was still at work and not planning to join us until later. The sun was setting and the temperature dropping.
Dean and I shared stories of our adventures on this frosty pre-Christmas evening, wondering if Greg would abandon the idea of cycling here in the dark. There were one or two other customers drifting away before the roads became too icy to drive along. The coal fire was roaring at one end of the bar, there was a splendid choice of real ales available and the owners, Louise and Mike, invited us to join them for an evening meal. It was deeply dark outside when the door finally opened and Greg walked in – to a cheer!
There are three roads approaching Tan Hill Inn… and it seemed that the three of us had each come by a different route. I’d approached from Swaledale. Dean had ridden up the Pennine Way and the Sleightholme Moor Road. Greg, in the dark, had ridden further along the A66 and arrived at the Inn from the west, around South Stainmore. There was now a bleak midwinter feel to the world: frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. The soundtrack to the evening continued with a pint of beer being drawn, merry laughter, and the crackle of a coal fire… we draw a veil over the rest of the night.
Bright-eyed and bushy tailed we awoke and cheerfully gathered for breakfast. Well, I did. One full English breakfast later and we gathered outside for the return journey to Darlington. Our plan was to stay together and follow Dean’s off-road route back to Bowes – then the A67 to Barnard Castle, followed by Whorlton Bridge and country lanes back to town.
The clouds were coming in as we set off and soon enveloped us so that we couldn’t really see much of the surrounding moorland. Stainmore Forest was somewhere north of us, and Bog Moss was just the other side of the Pennine Way. My spiked tyres were giving me confidence on the descent of the Long Causeway, Dean had Fat-Bike tyres… but Greg had ridden out on somewhat narrower rubber with a slight tread. We had a distinct diversity to our choices of bike and tyre.
When the clouds broke though, the views were stunning. We joined the W2W route and started the off-road section along the Sleightholme Moor Road. The snow and ice crunching underneath our tyres. Apart from that eerie sound the rest of the world seemed quiet.
We stopped briefly to photograph Greg fixing a puncture, and we walked when the road became a river of sheet ice, on a steep descent that even my spiked tyres couldn’t grip. Mainly we cycled along in silence: soaking in the scenery. Then the ice was disappearing and eventually we joined civilisation on gritted roads.
It was a shame that more of those who wanted to come along had been forced to drop out, but the fact that Greg had made it 40 miles from Darlington to Tan Hill in the dark was amazing. I loved cycling along Swaledale again and discovering the climb over Stonesdale Moor for the first time. Above all – I experienced a bit of English Wilderness in winter and had a very memorable adventure. Huge thanks to Dean for setting it up – and to Mike, Louise and the team at Tan Hill for making us so welcome.