Cycling the C2C in northern England – Day One

On the 5th and 6th September, 2011 my brother Ken, my son Andrew and I cycled the Coast-to-Coast across northern England, starting at Whitehaven on the west coast and anding at Tynemouth on the east coast.

The Coast-to-Coast cycle route, more commonly known as the C2C, across the north of England and passing through the magnificent Lake District, is not a single specific route, but is rather the generic name given to a collection of routes that follow the same general direction, but which diverge considerably, and also vary as to the type of road surface. As we were on road bikes we chose to stay on paved roads, although avoiding the main (and hence busy) roads as much as possible. Andy, who lives in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, has cycled the C2C before, and he worked out a rough route for us to follow.

We started in Whitehaven, a small town and port on the coast of Cumbria which was a coal mining town in the 18th and 19th centuries. In recent times it is perhaps better known as the site of one of the worst mass killings in English historywhen the taxi driver Derrick Bird killed 12 people and injured 11 others in the area before turning his gun on himself. Of course it is also well known as a starting point for the C2C cycle route.

Monday 5th September dawned with overcast skies, intermittent drizzle and the west wind off the sea was quite cold. We set out at around 7:00 am for the short ride from where we stayed overnight in Whitehaven to the edge of the Irish Sea and went through the ritual of dipping the back wheels of our bikes into the sea. The C2C route is quite well signposted out of Whitehaven, but we stll managed to take a wrong turn and wasted a few minutes riding up a steep hill, which we had to ride down again in order to pick up the correct route, which lead us to the Whitehaven to Ennerdale Cycle Path. This 16 km surfaced cycle path roughly follows the route of the old railway line built in the 1850’s to transport coal from the nearby mines, but which was closed when the mines became uneconomical and closed down.

After covering no more that 6 km, cycling easily and in high spirits in spite of the light drizzle, Ken got a puncture. A piece of glass had cut his tyre and although we replaced the inner tube without any hassle, we were not confident that the problem was solved. A kilometre ot two later this concern was confirmed when the tyre went flat again. Andy, as the strongest rider, was dispatched to buy another tyre while Ken and I sheltered from the rain and cold under a convenient overpass. Several groups of cyclists, most well wrapped against the weather, passed us as we waited and most stopped to see if we needed help. Although Andy located a cycle shop very quickly, he had trouble finding us again and it was almost eleven o’clock before the tyre was replaced and we were able to cycle on. Not a very auspicuous start!

The cycle path took us to within sight of Lake Ennerdale, the most westerly of the lakes that collectively make up the “Lake District”. Ennerdale is a deep glacial lake about four kilometres long and it presented a splendid sight in the seep green of the surrounding area. Our route took us through many small villages such as Low Lorton and High Lorton, which together have a population of less than 260 persons.

The first real climb on our route was the Whinlatter Pass which winds its way from the small village of Brathwaite, through the Thornthwaite Forest, ending at a height of 318 metres. The start of the pass is just 72 metres above sea level and thus the climb is 246 metres at an average gradient of 4.1%. A fairly tough hill, but we rewarded ourselves for the effort by stopping for a cup of tea at the restaurant at the Whinlatter Forest Visitor Centre at the top of the pass.

About 40 km into the ride we passed through Keswick, a market town with a population of around 5,000. The riding on our chosen route was mainly on narrow, undulating country roads with very few flat stretches. The uphills are not very testing, but collectively they take their toll on the legs. I found the downhills more of a challenge, as the roads are very narrow and visibility very restricted by the twists and turns through the tall vegetation, so caution easily overcame the temptation to take full advantage of the gradient.

We reached Penrith, one of the larger market towns on our route, after about 80 km. Penrith lies outside the Lake District National Park, which meant that we had now officially left the Lake District, although we were still in Cumbria.

From Penrith it was just 32 km to our planned overnight stop in Alston, but between these two market towns lies the formidable Hartside Pass. The Hartside Pass was constructed in 1824 by none other than the famous road builder John MacAdam, who was living at Penrith at the time, and was therefore a genuine “macadamized” road. He built the road with a gradual gradient to make life easier for the horses that used the pass at that time, and this consideration is much appreciated by modern day cyclists. Hartside climbs to a height of 590 metres above sea level and presents a wonderful ride with its twists and turns and hairpin bends. Luckily for us the very strong wind was in our favour on this climb.

At the top of the Hartside Pass is a wonderful viewpoint from which, on a clear day, it is possible to see southern Scotland. We found it bitterly cold in the strong wind, however, and did not stay here long after we had regrouped.

With just a few kilometres left to Alston, and it all being downhill, we took full advantage of the gradient and the following wind and sped down to our overnight stop at Alston House, with thoughts of cold beers and hot showers buzzing in our heads.

The distance covered by Ken and I today was 117 km, while Andy, by virtue of his mission to find a cycle shop, covered 154 km. I must add that it felt a lot longer!


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