It is often said by those who travel, that you see more, or at least pay attention to more things in the first few days in a new place. Soon, things merge together and blur as you become familiar with the new surroundings. At the moment we are looking at England with the gushing excitement of tourists.
I had forgotten that England is the largest market for open top cars in the world. Yes, England, home to postponed football matches and cricket washouts. Home to Wimbledon rain delays and Bank Holiday localised flooding alerts. It is completely irrational to buy a drop-top, but we do it anyway. You put on your down jacket and away you go. Until it rains, and then you drive fast enough that it goes over the top and hope the lights are on green.
We had been giving every possible weather forecast a great deal of attention. We could not find a single positive one for our departure day. If anything, it had started to rain earlier than any of them had predicted. It is just 10’c ( 52’f ), so you can add, it is cold to the ‘it is wet’.
The longer forecast shows this band of horrid weather to be slow moving for a weather front. It is going in exactly our direction and at exactly our speed. Facebook is full of photos of our Scottish friends displaying pale flesh to unfamiliar blue sky on sun kissed beaches. We talk a great deal about the weather here and you can see why, we can find a lot to moan about. It is not that much of it is actually going to kill you. It is the inconvenience, the mud, the grey sky that gets you down, the ruined wedding and the smell of damp dogs.
We have downloaded a route from our friends on the WWW. ‘ Google bike map, beta version ‘. What could possibly go wrong? We get a little puzzled at a suggested ‘ turn left after 0.2 miles ‘. This is taking us onto a canal towpath and no one has heard of the place Google thinks we will be going to if we follow it. 15 minutes of asking every local who passes and eventually someone recognises the place. We are on our way again.
It is the right way, which is good. But then our way along the towpath is barred by less than friendly ‘ KEEP OUT CONSTRUCTION WORK ‘. We have done less than 10 miles in the hour we have been on the road and now we are lost. We have a map, of course we have a map, but it does not start until about another 20 miles as we were not planning on getting lost quite so soon. We pass the turnoff to Rudyard Lake, after which Rudyard Kipling is named. It is a rare moment of clarity in a day of not quite ever knowing where we are.
It starts to rain, and then it really starts to rain. We improvise our way to a town called Leek. Already we are amongst Limestone built houses and farm buildings and the fired red brick of the Potteries has been left behind. Left onto the B5053 and we enter the Peak District National Park. We pass a way marker, a tribute in stone to the glory of the names of English villages. You just can not make these up. If you think coming up with a name for your pet or first born is hard, imagine having to think of a new name for a new town. To see just how hard this is you only need to look at the index in any map of the USA. There is only 30 names, it is that hard and most are the same as where the first person was born back in England. These are glorious names, poetic names with high scoring scrabble point complexity.
What this part of England does rather too well is leg breaking short hills of savage intensity. There is no glamour, no col, no pass and not much that could be called a breathtaking vista for your efforts. The final one of the day is through the grounds of Chatsworth House – home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who may even have heard a passing touring cyclists swearing and cursing the fact that just such a short distance as 40 miles have included 3,500 ft of ascent. We have had better days.
Our host for the evening is my school pal Mark and his wife Jackie. We arrive in time for the traditional food of England – Curry. It is wonderful to see my pal from childhood, the person who I now share my longest history with. He is a cyclist as well and understands when we wake to winds blowing to storm force, sending squalls of rain across a grey landscape lost in low cloud, that we will be staying another day. It does brighten later, but the damage to our moral has been done. We pass the day walking around Beeley, one of the many beautiful villages around this part of England.
The morning begins with a grunting murderous climb of almost 800 ft right from the door. Not a single pedal stroke is followed by anything that could be felt as a glide. It is all uphill and with the taste of breakfast at every turn. Today, there is the payback of a view for all this toil. It is glorious. It may just be rolling and agricultural, but it is spectacular none the less. Whole hillsides are wearing almost Papal Purple, as heather Grouse Moors are in full flower. It could not look more exotic. We drop down into Chesterfield, famed for it’s poorly constructed church spire. It developed a lean quite some time after it was completed. Wiki has this-
“The spire was added to the 14th century tower in about 1362. It is both twisted and leaning, twisting 45 degrees and leaning 9 feet 6 inches (2.90 m) from its true centre. The leaning characteristic was initially suspected to be the result of the absence of skilled craftsmen (the Black Death had been gone only twelve years prior to the spire’s completion), insufficient cross-bracing, and the use of unseasoned timber.”
We are attempting to link together canal towpath and railway lines that have been ‘ rail to trailed ‘. Again we are using Google, but this time we have made loads of notes and are actually on the map ( It includes southern Scotland so not as much help in fine navigation! ). We are heading in the right direction along a minor road towards Dinnington.
The Robin Hood county of Nottinghamshire, and our third county of the trip so far. By lunch we have climbed over 1,500 ft, but the rolling hills are now easing off, we are starting to enter the flat lands of the Fen Country. If you come from Holland, you will feel right at home here. Lapwings tumble across the road ahead. Few birds show less aptitude for flight than these, but they migrate across Europe every Spring and Autumn. It is great to see them.
The roads we are riding on are now arrow straight and the gps shows blue lines as dykes reach across the landscape to drain these low lying fields. We pass near the village of Haxey and enter the county of Yorkshire before returning to Nottinghamshire once more. This has been a hard day of stops and starts and cinder track biking and it is starting to show. My legs are gone. We have picked up a headwind for the last couple of hours and now my sense of humour is lost and temper short.
It is 7.30 before we get to the campground and we have done just 67 miles to Barton Upon Strather. None has been easy, and we have no energy left to cook. It is cold rations and early to bed in our new tent. It is good to be back camping, to be able to look up at the star flecked sky and feel the air move and the world turn. I enjoy it all for 10 minutes tops and am gone.
We have a bridge to cross. In 1981 it was the worlds longest single span bridge and today still looks impressive even at a smudgy distance. If you want to see if you suffer from vertigo, a bike ride across this would be a way to find out. As we look down, millions of gallons of water ride by. It is a vast moving wall of liquid the colour of builders tea colour after the storms. We turn left and head up the opposite bank of the Humber Estuary as sun breaks from behind the clouds.
Once again, the landscape of England is putting on a good show for us. Villages, and it is the villages that make it special, are picture postcard perfect. The Parish Church of St Helen of Beaufield is jaw droppingly beautiful and it knows it.
Swallows are taking a rest, perching on power lines, taking in the view and possibly contemplating the thousands of miles they will have to travel in a few weeks time. We head North and possible even slower than the slowest of Swallows. Again we are in to a headwind. The afternoon passes in a blur of quaint pubs and beautiful villages. England is looking prosperous, well this bit is. We stop before getting to involved in the roads around York. That can wait for the morning.
It starts windy, but today the weather is blowing in from the side. It is hard to tell some times as there are so many left and right turns. There are signs for York and we can link quiet roads together to get to the outskirts. Soon we have to surrender to the A roads and chaos of car choked Britain. We are in York and finding it hard to find enough space to even push our bikes. It is tourism on an industrial scale.
Most come for the Minster, one of the worlds most celebrated cathedrals in the world. All of inner York is stunning, and all of it has someone standing exactly where you want to stand. We may have hit it on a bad day, but York is hard work. We head onwards, towards the backbone of England, The Pennines.
Once again I am finding our ride through England to be an education. I have never biked here, in fact I have hardly ever been this side of my small country. I am amazed at how beautiful it is and rather pleased at how flat this bit of it is. I am rather proud of my country at the moment. When I watched the Olympics I was proud, particularly after China threw so much money at their hosting. It is beautiful, small, but very beautiful and it is bringing a grin to my face.
We ride on through lanes, narrow enough to allow one car at a time and to be underused enough to have grass growing up the middle. We camp at the side of Lenton Locks, a canal basin built in 1767 to take the agricultural products of the fertile Vale York to the sea at the Humber. The River Ouse flows by our tent and it is joined by rain hitting the fly sheet as we have another wet night.
The morning is cool and damp and not the easiest to give up the warmth of the sleeping bag for. Soon enough we are out on the road and pulling off the arm warmers and base layers. We spend the day biking through just about the most stunning cycle touring landscape imaginable and often following the route of this year’s Tour de France. We stop for a tea at the impossible to make up village of – Brafferton Carthorpe, and very nice it was too. Roads meander through a landscape of centuries, through tradition, back-breaking hard work and the best and worst of wars and prosperity.
Conker Trees line the roads with leaves turning the brown of toasted teacakes and hedges higher than two men block a strong Westerly wind. We ride into the town of Bedale and like it right away. We have done a stupidly small distance, but there are hard climbs ahead. We deserve a half day off, and take a room. Time to walk around the town and drink tea. I am back home in England, riding North towards my home. It is a good feeling, a familiar feeling with little in the way of stress or uncertainty and I can even understand most of what they are saying, even here in Yorkshire. We enter the town passed a gate painted the maillot jaune of the TdF. I have returned to a country that is now brilliant at cycling and rubbish at football.