Six go Sea to Sea

Introduction

The C2C (or Sea to Sea, or Coast to Coast) cycle route crosses Northern England from the Irish Sea coast to the North Sea coast, and forms part of the National Cycle Network. The official route has two alternative starts, Workington or Whitehaven, and finishes at either Sunderland or Tynemouth. We had decided to do the route from Whitehaven to Sunderland, then continue up the coast to Tynemouth and finally inland to Newcastle. This amounted to about 155 miles, which was achieved over a long weekend (Friday to Sunday) in July 2004.

The Participants

Paul A (chief instigator and organiser: henceforth referred to as "Veggie"), Paul L, Brent, Greystone, Ian and myself (John) cycled the whole route. A seventh member, Jim, was unable to get away on Friday, so he joined the route at Langwathby and eventually met up with the rest of us on Day 2. We are all railway signalling engineers based in York, and all regular cyclists.

Day 1: Whitehaven to Penrith (52 miles)

The whole morning was taken up with getting ourselves and our bikes to the start of the ride at Whitehaven. Because of the limited cycle accommodation on the trains (officially 2 maximum on the local trains), we devised a pincer movement for the assault on Whitehaven: Brent, Veggie and Paul took the northern route via Newcastle and Carlisle, while the others approached from the south via Barrow. I stayed at my mother's in Lancaster on the Thursday night, so I had the advantage of a later start and a cooked breakfast (thanks, Mum). The northern group arrived first, closely followed by me, and as we had an hour to wait for Greystone and Ian, and it had started to rain, we decided to find a café for lunch. While in there, Veggie spotted a charity shop across the road and just had to pay a visit, even though there was no intention of buying anything.

The rain had ceased by the time we left the café, and we made our way the short distance to the harbour. The weather prospects were not good: for the next three days the forecast was for showers, which could be heavy and thundery. Ian and Greystone arrived on time, and after the necessary photographs and dipping of wheels in the water, our ride got under way just after 1 o'clock.

Ian dips his wheels  C2C sign, Whitehaven Harbour

The route begins in a gentle way, following the course of an old railway as far as Rowrah. The surface is good, and the gradient just perceptibly uphill. Near Cleator Moor, we passed within a few yards of the Parkside Inn, where Veggie, Paul and I had stayed during one stage of the coast-to-coast walk the previous year. After Rowrah, we followed minor roads along an undulating route which took us through the villages of Kirkland and Lamplugh, with the Lake District hills looming ever closer. Brent and Ian tended to lead the pack, and set quite a brisk pace. We skirted Loweswater and along Lorton Vale, and then began the steep climb up to the Whinlatter Pass. This was the only serious climb on day 1, to a height of almost 340m (1115ft), but it sorted out the men from the boys. Ian stormed up the hill as if it wasn't there, while Paul found that his gears weren't low enough and had to walk up the steepest sections. The route leaves the main road just before the summit and follows a forest track, which climbs higher before dropping down to rejoin the road. Some took the option of staying on the road, but we all regrouped at the junction of the forest track. Greystone had taken a tumble on the track while negotiating one of the barriers, and grazed his hands but was otherwise OK.

Whitehaven to Rowrah railway path

We all stayed on the road for the fast downhill stretch to Braithwaite, rather than follow the forest track via Thornthwaite. From Braithwaite, Brent and Ian were, as usual, in front, and Veggie and I had lost sight of them. On arrival in Keswick, we stopped at the start of the main shopping street wondering which way they had gone, and they appeared behind us. They had taken the correct route via Ullock, whereas we had missed the turning in Braithwaite and followed the A66. Once we were all together again, Veggie led the way to the Lakeland Pedlar, a bike shop and wholefood café, where refreshments were eagerly consumed while sitting outside.

Lakeland Pedlar

The rain started again just before we left the café, and continued until we reached Threlkeld. We took the railway path to Threlkeld, rather than the difficult alternative via the Old Coach Road, but nevertheless Veggie had a fall when he skidded on one of the wooden boarded sections. From Threlkeld the C2C uses minor roads to keep off the A66, and it was on the gated road towards Mungrisdale that the first of many punctures occurred, when Ian ran over a nail. After fitting a new inner tube, we continued via Berrier, where at 342m we reached the same height as the Whinlatter Pass, but here the climb was more gradual. An easy descent took us through Greystoke, Blencow and Newton Reigny (where it started raining again), followed by an off-road section through the grounds of the Cumbria College, then under the M6 and the railway to the outskirts of Penrith. Ian and I reached here first, and we waited for the others as we only knew the name of the guest house, not its address. After 10 minutes or so standing in the rain, there was still no sign of the others, so we pressed on to the centre of Penrith, followed a "guesthouses" sign pointing to the left, and spotted the Albany Guest House just a short distance up the road.

Ian and I checked in, and about 20 minutes later the others arrived - Greystone had suffered a puncture on the track leading into Penrith. After getting showered and changed, we went out to the pub which was visible from our window, the Royal Hotel. They had some good beers (I had a pint of Dent Aviator), but they weren't doing food, so we moved on to the Lowther Arms, where I had a very fishy meal with whitebait as starter, followed by tuna steaks. After eating here we went on to the Miners' Arms, chosen by Brent who had a list of pubs taken from the Good Beer Guide. After that it was straight to bed.

Day 2: Penrith to Castleside (60 miles)

This was going to be the tough one. A long distance with several steep climbs, but plenty of time available.

It was raining steadily as we ate breakfast and discussed tactics. There is an alternative route beyond Hartside which follows the main roads through Alston and avoids the steep hill out of Garrigill, and Paul, Veggie and I decided we would probably go for this easier option. Jim phoned from Langwathby station to say he had arrived, and we left Penrith just after nine, with an uphill stretch out of the town just to get us warmed up. There were many other cyclists on the road, most of whom were probably also doing the C2C. We arrived at Langwathby station 20 minutes later, but where was Jim? We asked in the café to see if anyone had seen a tall guy with a bike, and yes he had been here but left half an hour ago. Jim was the only one in the group who didn't have a mobile phone, so we could only assume he'd set off ahead of us and we might catch up with him at the Hartside café.

Hartside cafe

It rained on and off as we continued through Little Salkeld and Renwick and then up the long hard slog towards Hartside. The main ridge of the Pennines lay ahead of us, with its top in the clouds, and it was just a case of settling into a sustainable pace and just keeping going until the top. Looking back just before entering the clouds, it was much brighter over the Lake District, so there was a chance that the rain might clear up. The gradient eases on joining the A686 about a mile before the top, and the following wind helped, but it was a great relief when the Hartside Café appeared through the mist. Five of us turned in here (Paul was lagging behind again) for some respite from the rain, and some well-earned refreshment. The place was heaving with wet and bedraggled cyclists, and a fair number of motorcyclists. At 580m (1904ft) it claims to be England's highest café, but it is not the highest point on the C2C - that was still to come.

While at Hartside, we received a call from Jim - he was still waiting at Langwathby. He set off straight away when he found that we were more than an hour ahead of him, while we debated whether to wait here or move on further along the route. As the weather was brightening up, we decided we would move on until a suitable lunch stop, probably in Allenheads, and wait there. But Paul had not arrived yet, and surely he hadn't been so far behind? I called him on his mobile and he answered straight away - he was in a café in Alston, having carried straight on at Hartside. We told him our plans and hoped to catch up with him at Allenheads.

We set off on our different ways, with Ian, Brent and Greystone taking the Garrigill route while Veggie and I stayed on the main road into Alston. This was a superb fast downhill run for about 6 miles, and with a following wind we could freewheel most of the way at 25-30mph. The only downside was that we knew we had to regain all that height, and more. The climbing restarted with the steep, cobbled main street in Alston, but the gradient was easier once we were out of the town. We followed the valley up to Nenthead, where we rejoined the main C2C route. There was no sign of the other group, but we pressed on and tackled the next serious hill, up to the Cumbria/Northumberland border at Black Hill, and the highest point of the whole ride at 609m (1998ft). A brief but heavy shower fell while we were taking photographs here. Another descent followed, then another climb up to the Northumberland/Durham border, where I got a call from Greystone saying that they were stopping for lunch in Nenthead. We carried on, with 3 miles of downhill to Allenheads, and we found Paul waiting for us at the Hemmel café. It was raining again, so we took our time over lunch.

Black Hill

Another stiff climb faced us so Veggie and I gave Paul a head start of about 10 minutes. This hill took us up to the watershed between the Tyne and the Wear, and from there we had an exhilarating, long descent to Rookhope. The sun came out on this section, allowing us to fully appreciate the wild, remote Pennine scenery, with the remains of the lead-mining industry scattered along the valley. In Rookhope we took the road option rather than the old railway incline, but we missed a turning and had a detour via Eastgate before reaching Stanhope via the A689. This added about a mile to our distance, but cut out an uphill section. In Stanhope we rode up and down the main street looking for Paul, without success, then Veggie paid a brief visit to a charity shop before we had another café stop. We had news that Jim had met up with the others and they were on their way, so we hung on until they arrived, which was just as a heavy downpour started. We crowded into a bus shelter while exchanging stories. On hearing that Veggie and I had taken the easier route through Alston, Jim's response was "Oh, so you haven't done it all, then!". No, and neither have you, Jim.

Paul called to say that he had reached Castleside, and the rain seemed to be slackening off, so we embarked on the very steep exit from Stanhope. The rain came on heavier again and the wind was lashing it at us from the left as we struggled up the hill, but we knew that once we were at the top it would be downhill all the rest of the way to the coast. High up on the moors the rain stopped, and we took the right turn on to the former railway track, now known as the Waskerley Way, which would take us gradually down to our destination. We ignored the temptations of yet another café, at Parkhead station, and carried on. Jim and I reached the end of this section first, and we paused to check the map, then waited a little longer, wondering what had happened to the others. It was 6 o'clock, and the sign said 27 miles to Sunderland, and the thought occurred to me that going all the way to the coast that evening would not have been out of the question. I cycled back a short distance to see if I could see Greystone, who had not been far behind us, then phoned him and learnt that he was repairing a puncture. A rumble of thunder and blackening skies prompted Jim and me to make a dash for our accommodation rather than go back and help (the others would catch up with him anyway), but the rain caught up with us, and this time it was torrential. We arrived at the Castleside Inn dripping wet, where we were welcomed by Paul, who was dry and had bagged the single room.

Waskerley Way railway path

The others soon arrived - Ian had also suffered a puncture on the old railway section. We got showered and changed, and arranged our wet stuff around the radiators - yes, July, and the central heating was on!

We had planned to ride into Consett (only a mile away) for an evening meal, but the prospect of getting wet again meant that we stayed in the pub at Castleside. There was no cask beer available, but they did good value meals including a "2 for £5.95" offer. Greystone had two meals for himself.

Day 3: Castleside to Sunderland, then Tynemouth and Newcastle (47 miles)

We had an 8.30 breakfast, which had been specially negotiated ("we normally start breakfast at about ten on Sundays"). Departure was at 9.30, and we reckoned we would be celebrating with a pint in Newcastle by about half past one.

Apart from a hill up from the pub at the very start, the going was easy, mostly following the route of old railways. Not far from the start, we passed Terris Novalis, an imposing stainless steel sculpture. Just beyond Beamish, the view opens up and you can see the Angel of the North at Gateshead, and the Penshaw Monument near Washington. We were delayed here due to Greystone achieving his hat-trick of punctures, then we got as far as Washington before Ian broke a valve while trying to pump more air into his back tyre (made difficult by having a standard length valve and a deep-rimmed wheel). Just as Ian had finished changing the inner tube, it started raining heavily, so we retreated to the café at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Centre until the shower had passed.

Veggie at Terris Novalis, near Consett

From here it was only a few miles to the coast, but we had another delay when there was a loud bang as we passed under a bridge. Veggie had run over a broken bottle, which had completely slashed his back tyre. It seemed as though he would have to walk his bike the remaining 2 miles to the coast, but we thought it was worth asking a passer-by if there was a Halfords which might be open. Luckily there was a branch not far away, and Ian, Brent and Greystone went there and returned with a new tyre and inner tube.

Veggie's tyre

It was fixed and we were on our way again within 40 minutes, past the Stadium of Light and the National Glass Centre (is that why there's broken glass everywhere?) and reached Sunderland Harbour just as it started raining again. Photos were taken before diving into the café at Roker Amusements for shelter and lunch (pie and chips were very popular).

The six who did it all, at Sunderland

We then headed up the coast to South Shields, and Jim got a puncture on this section. The ferry took us and our bikes over the Tyne to North Shields, then it was just a mile to the other C2C end-point at Tynemouth, which, with its castle on the cliff overlooking a small beach, was more attractive than Sunderland. However, it started raining yet again, so we turned back and made for Newcastle. This is mainly an off-road route, and like those in Sunderland it was liberally sprinkled with broken bottles. Just when I was thinking that I'd escaped without any punctures, I got one about 4 miles from the end (broken glass, no surprise there). It had stopped raining, but my bike was filthy and most of the muck transferred to me as I replaced the inner tube.

The seven of us finally rolled into Newcastle Central station at half past five. After all the frustrations of the day, we just wanted to get home, so we got our bikes reserved on the first available trains to York, and headed back south.

Final Puncture Standings

Greystone

3

Ian

3

Jim

2

Veggie

1

John

1

Paul

0

Brent

0

It had been a great ride, despite the weather, although I did feel that the final day was a bit of an anti-climax after the wonderful scenery and good roads through the Lake District and the Pennines. We enjoyed it so much that we have done similar rides in the following years:

2005

Coast & Castles

2006

London - York

2007

Glasgow - Inverness

2008

Holyhead - York

2009

Walney to Wear

2011

5 Countries

2012

North Sea Coast

2013 Yorkshire Wolds

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