On the last weekend of June I cycled from London to North Yorkshire with a friend. Nothing to do with le Tour – we thought we’d beat the crowds and (a) go to the wrong part of Yorkshire and (b) do it the week before the tour anyway.
We’re not road racers: this is road touring. I have a 1990s Condor steel frame bike, Graham a Specialised Allez. They are good bikes. And there’s something deeply fulfilling about travelling from home to a different part of the country under one’s own steam, seeing the landscapes, the villages and local accents subtly evolve from south to middle to north.
The weather was on the turn…
It didn’t start well. Even before we set off in fact: all week the forecast was for heavy rain on the first day – I mean flood warnings, rain band stalling over the East Midlands exactly where we were headed. And then cold, showery and, worst of all, headwinds, for the next two days. All this after weeks of sun.
The plan was to meet by the river Lea in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire at 7am. I was out the door at just before 6, estimating an hour to get there – a familiar route through the suburbs to the river then along the towpath for a few miles (a bit of off-road keeps things interesting, even with 23mm road tyres at 100psi). But I somehow managed to get lost – I almost never get lost! I did a ridiculous loop around Waltham Abbey then couldn’t find the stupid river again – and finally landed in Broxbourne at 7.30. Then I couldn’t get through to Graham because my phone stopped working. Eventually it came to life again but it was almost 8 before we met up.
Anyway, we rode up to Ware and stopped for a coffee and a late breakfast. Quite a large breakfast. One of the joys of long-distance bike touring is the guilt-free consumption of industrial quantities of sugary food – Danish pastries, sweets, chocolate etc. Not just guilt-free but positively virtuous in the interests of maintaining stamina. And given that bed for the night was somewhere north of Spalding, Lincolnshire, 120 miles from my front door (and about 135 from Graham’s), it felt appropriate to be stuffing my face at regular intervals. A supply of energy bars (Clif bars in this case – highly recommended) certainly helped.
A rare stretch of quiet road in the Fens
Raring to go and make up for lost time – no sign of rain yet, either - we headed north over the low hills to Bedfordshire, then across open country with big views, scarlet poppies adding a splash of colour. Then the sun came out! A total cock-up of a weather forecast, happily.
It proved a high point. It was down into the Fens for the rest of the day - perfectly lovely if you are on a quiet road but that proved impossible. There was no way through other than the B1040 – dead straight, and busy with speeding cars, not my idea of fun. Rest stops became more frequent – I was suffering a bit by this stage as my left knee was beginning to ache, and despite my best efforts to scoff as many Clif bars as humanly possible, energy was draining away. A quiet and subtly beautiful stretch by the river Welland in the afternoon sunlight raised spirits, but then the final stretch was pretty tough. It was a great feeling to arrive at the Ship Inn at Surfleet Seas End on the Welland, miles from anywhere down the end of a long winding lane.
Lincolnshire is huge
– the Texas of England. It feels really empty, too, by our crowded standards. Road signs point down country lanes to obscure villages 15 miles away. Gigantic fields cover great swathes of countryside, like northern France. But again, there aren't enough lanes.
This is an easy day, only 60 miles up to North Somercotes near the northeast coast. We’ve booked to stay in a yurt in someone’s garden. These things are designed to withstand freezing winter temperatures on the Mongolian steppes, which is good because it’s unpleasantly cold today.
Straight away the headwind kicks in, made all the worse by the flat grey overcast, the uninterruptedly horizontal terrain and lack of trees. I’m feeling weary as early as Boston – about 10 miles in. From there it’s more dead straight roads, fast traffic and cabbage fields for another dozen miles – which feels like about forty. Knee pain, cold wind – I’m not happy. And I’m slowing Graham down, so there’s some guilt in there too. In these situations I get into a kind of negative meditative state, and one thing that always pops in there is what would it be like if it were opposite – lovely tail wind, ravishing scenery, quiet undulating lanes. It never fails to make it worse…
But then in the distance there are hills. I'm tired but anything to relieve the monotony is welcome. I’ve been looking forward to this stretch, the Lincolnshire Wolds, because it’s supposed to be scenic and ultra-quiet and the lanes will be traffic-free compared to this Fenland highway.
The Cross Keys Inn at Salmonby
So it proved – a real spirit lifter, accompanied by a sudden brightening of the skies. It’s the first winding road for about 50 miles. We find a perfect country pub, the Cross Keys Inn, and sit in the garden in the sun. After this enjoyable stop we tackle the first meaningful ascent of the trip, a hill called Woody’s Top with views across to Yorkshire and, in the other direction, the coast. Then it's a gentle meander via Louth to the yurt for the night - which was great, by the way.
A yurt for the night
Up at 6am for the 125-mile final leg to Whitby. It’s 10 degrees and raining and that sodding headwind is stronger than ever. At least there’s nothing on the road, winding through rather bleak and empty countryside to Grimsby and then a large curve west to the Humber Bridge. By the time we get there I have a lot more knee issues and am seriously considering bailing out. It’s another 80+ miles to Whitby and although it’s still quite early, that feels too far – my right leg is having to do 90% of the work, and it’s not good!
So I decide to get the train from Hull up to Scarborough, missing out a 50-mile stretch of the route. Graham - who is a better cyclist than me even without knee-knack - could have continued and done it, but being a splendid chap (and also it’s not much fun in this wind), he trains it too.
Total exhaustion at a disused station on the Cinder Track
This leaves just 25 miles up to Whitby on the so-called Cinder Track, a stretch of cycle path that follows the route of a disused railway. Good for keeping the gradients in check, then. It’s pretty nice, but it keeps raining – fortunately the route is sheltered from rain and the stronger-than-ever wind.
The Cinder Track at Robin Hood's Bay. Freezing cold and wet.
One final climb, long but gentle, from Robin Hood’s Bay – which must look stunning in nice weather – and we’re freewheeling down into Whitby. Covered in mud, wet and really cold. It’s only been a 70-mile day but I’m totally wiped out. It turns out our B&B is right next to the end of the cinder track – neither of us realised until we saw it.
So, not the best trip. I was worried I’d really damaged a tendon in my knee, but three weeks later it’s a lot better – I think if I’d been more cavalier I would have regretted it.
Whitby on the morning after we arrived.
Ruminating on the trip as we sat in a Whitby pub trying not to fall asleep, setting a tough mileage target is part of the fun of this kind of thing but you have to know when to call it a day. And at least I can say I cycled from London to Yorkshire.
To make things much worse, though, the journey home was a nightmare – they wouldn’t let us bring our bikes on the train, as covered in my previous blog. Next time, France possibly, I’ll plan it better!