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Pennines: Big Ride

Jonathan Manning
2 Oct 2015

Cyclist heads for the highest roads in England, and discovers a dramatic ride through the Pennine hills.

Hexham doesn’t want cyclists to leave. It’s not so much its historic architecture, nor the twinkling Tyne that exert a restraining pull. Instead it’s good old-fashioned gravity. The town sits in a basin of hills, meaning that whichever way you leave gives you an abrupt start to a ride.

I’m pedalling along the southern exit out of town, the B6306 that’s also known as Gallows Bank, a name with an appropriate sense of impending doom. My cold muscles try to find a rhythm to cope with the climb, but as I pass the Kingdom Hall Of Jehovah’s Witnesses, barely a kilometre into the ride, the thought flickers that I might stop, knock on the door and ask for salvation.

Deciding that it’s way too soon to be calling for divine intervention, I focus on following the wheel of my riding companion and Hexham local, Philip Kennell. He’s wearing merino arm and legwarmers, unable to believe the day has dawned as perfectly as this. The flawless sky and minimal breeze have prompted me to set off in short-sleeve jersey and bibshorts, buoyed by the knowledge that locals wear less than this for a night out in nearby Newcastle… in February.

‘How are you doing?’ asks Philip, in what becomes a regular refrain as my complexion runs the range of reds on the Dulux pain palette, from Blossom White to Volcanic Red, calibrated by the incline we’re tackling.

‘Magnificent,’ I reply, and I mean it. Sometimes life deals you a royal flush and the only thing to do is thank the croupier. This has all the makings of an unbeatable day.

As we clear the outskirts of Hexham I expect the road to flatten, but the climb goes on, and on, and on, an Ariston of an ascent (for those old enough to remember the catchy adverts). Bar the occasional plateau, the road continues to gain altitude for the better part of 25km as we ride through a mosaic of moorland. Come August a tsunami of purple will wash over the heather, but in early summer colour is in short supply, grey stone walls holding back peaty soil and drab undergrowth. The only relief comes from the bright green roadside verge and the blue waters of Derwent Reservoir, sparkling like the window display at Tiffany’s. But I’m not complaining – these are the Pennines after all. 

Spine tingling

The Ford Transit once laid claim to being the backbone of Britain, but the geographical spine has always been the Pennines. Rising in Derbyshire, this rugged ridge of moor and mountain heads north to Scotland, separating Sheffield from Manchester and Leeds from Liverpool, cleaving the Yorkshire Dales in half and slicing Cumbria from Northumberland.

Rugged, frequently inhospitable and surprisingly remote given the cities in their foothills, the Pennines are a watershed for the top half of England. Raindrops that fall to the west of this lumbering ridge flow to the Irish Sea; precipitation to the east ends in the North Sea. The Pennine Way, which rolls from the Peak District to the Scottish Borders, is the daddy of all long-distance paths, but the days when a three-week trek along its topography featured on every student bucket list have long gone. Today it’s Kilimanjaro rather than Keighley, the Himalayas not Halifax that lure backpackers.

All of which leaves the Pennines in the unenviable situation of being familiar in name yet difficult to pinpoint on a map. There’s no standout pointy peak to give the range a shorthand identity, like Mount Snowdon does for Snowdonia. Instead there is simply 400km of hills, as gnarled as the knuckles of a prizefighter’s fist, covered in heather, rough grass and bog. It’s a landscape of rare, wild allure, home to three national parks, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and 20 Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

In short, the Pennines are the perfect counterpoint to cluttered, congested daily life, and today they’re wearing their Sunday best as Philip and I dive down a 20% switchback into Blanchland, on the border between County Durham and Northumberland.

It’s a Hollywood-pretty conservation village, constructed of stone pilfered from the remains of a 12th-century abbey. Buildings include an old schoolhouse, now converted into the White Monk Tearooms, which Philip has been talking up as a popular cycling stop. We’re only 15km into our ride, and I’d never normally take a break so early, but I’m still disappointed to see the ‘closed’ sign hanging. I could do with a shot of caffeine to contend with what lies ahead, a relentless 7km climb up Bale Hill. This type of unbroken ascent feels rare for the UK, especially on such velvet-smooth tarmac.

‘It was all relaid recently for the Tour of the Reservoir race,’ Philip says. To our west, chimneys of disused lead mines pepper the fells, and as I stand out of the saddle, I imagine I’m nearly as desperate for lungfuls of air as the 19th century miners who once choked in the poisonous lead fumes. These days hard graft has given way to fast grouse, the moorland now a playground for game shooters.

Eventually the Ordnance Survey map’s contour lines turn in our favour, and it’s a blistering 6km dive into the market town of Stanhope. We swoop round bends with gleeful abandon, crouched low over the bars as the road tumbles in a double-digit gradient. This same road in reverse is a famous local hill climb.

With a diplomat’s tact, Philip says there’s nothing much to detain us in Stanhope. We’re now in Weardale, a valley sandwiched between the Tyne Valley and Teesdale, our route resembling a ride over the ridges of a giant corrugated sheet. First we pedal west, and after the head-clearing silence of the high moorland, the noise and speed of traffic on the road to St John’s Chapel comes as a rude awakening. Forced into single file, we take turns to lead, motivated by the prospect of a coffee stop. 

A local place for local people

‘Where are you sitting?’ asks Cameron, owner of the Chatterbox Cafe.

‘On the patio,’ I reply. ‘You mean outside – we haven’t got a “patio”,’ he says. ‘You’ll be calling this a bistro next! Where are you from?’

Clearly not from round these parts. My survival instincts kick in and I change my order from skinny latte to mug of coffee. As we wait for scones to finish baking, Cameron comes out with a fresh jug of filter coffee for free refills, clearly keen to welcome cyclists. The cafe itself is the timing/refuel stop of a new, ‘any time’ sportive ride called the Chapel Challenge (aka the Chatterbox Chain Snapper) that takes in the highest roads in England, claimed hereabouts as the ‘Roof of England’, and there’s a leaderboard inside for those who complete the ordeal.

Re-caffeinated, it’s time to see what the fuss is about as we steer our front wheels skywards up Chapel Fell. At the foot of the climb, a sign warns cyclists of the dangers of being caught here in bad weather. It’s seriously exposed, the snow poles along the gutter a telltale sign that the tarmac is prone to vanishing below a blanket of the white stuff.

Today, however, conditions are as hot and breathless as Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’. Not that this makes the battle with gravity any easier. Viewed in its entirety, Chapel Fell rises 300m over 4km for an average gradient of 7.5%, which doesn’t sound too scary, but as with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, it’s the horror sections that stick in the memory.

As we finally reach the summit my ears pop and Philip turns to me, grinning.

‘You know that bit that seemed to flatten out?’ he asks. ‘That was actually 9%. It just seemed flat because the other bit was 16-20%.’

I understand now why it merits the nickname Vomit Hill, although frankly any one of a number of inclines we encounter on this ride have the capacity to help riders re-examine their breakfast. Posing by the ‘Thank you for visiting Weardale’ sign I’m sorely tempted to Tippex a ‘Y’ in the middle – Wearydale seems more fitting.

A thrilling descent with wide, lazy bends plunges into Teesdale before we turn our backs to the sun and head north. This turns out to be my favourite stretch of the entire ride, cresting the dinosaur-backed hills as we pedal towards Garrigill. We’re now in the South Tyne Valley, where Yad Moss ski station, complete with button lift, gives clues to the climate and contours. To the left, farms snuggle close to the river, idyllic on a bluebird day like today, but terribly isolated in a blizzard. Philip used to live nearby and recalls how when it snowed he would park his car by the main road and rely on a quad bike for the final miles to and from his house.

We push on past farmhouses with flaking whitewash and bruised 4x4s – I suspect that knowing the colour or age of your off-roader would mark you out as a newcomer. ‘Move to the country’ crowds have yet to discover this part of the Pennines.

A sharp turn in Garrigill takes us past a warning sign for cyclists on the classic coast-to-coast route, and as the asphalt pitches upwards again I pity any rider tackling this on a touring bike burdened by tent, sleeping bag and camping gubbins – it’s tough enough on a race-weight road bike. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so long in the little ring, and I greet the discovery of a lower gear on the climb out of Nanthead with the delight of finding a tenner in an old pair of jeans.

‘How are you feeling?’ asks Philip again, which makes me wonder what shade of red I’ve now reached. Ready for lunch is the answer, as I hit the drops for a fast left-hander on the charge into Allenheads. The Forge Studios does us proud with baguette, carrot cake and what Philip refers to as the ‘£5 plunger of coffee’, named in tribute to one of his cycling club who can’t pronounce ‘cafetière’.

Holding out for Hadrian

From here the landscape starts to change, the brown smudge of moorland replaced by the green of broadleaf trees and grazing pasture.
The route I had originally planned headed straight back to Hexham, but with the reckless abandon of a gambler convinced his luck will hold, I decide to go all-in and extend the ride with the hope of seeing Hadrian’s Wall.

Initially it seems as though the bet has paid off, especially with the chance to accelerate fearlessly down a sublime, needle straight descent that’s perfect for a scaredy-cat downhiller like me.

But as we pass Haltwhistle and pick up the Military Road that runs parallel to Hadrian’s Wall, it becomes clear that we won’t get close enough to the Roman fortification for a good view. What’s more, while the Tour of Britain will ride this road when it’s closed to traffic, we have to contend with fast-moving cars and vans, the drivers distracted by the desire to get a good look at the wall.

I decide to push my luck no further, and at the first opportunity we turn off to begin a leisurely roll down to Hexham. Braking to a halt, my Garmin shows the ride to be 145km with 2,600m of ascent and a top speed of 88.5kmh, but all I see are ace, king, queen, jack and 10. Today the Pennines certainly dealt us a winning hand.

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