Saturday, July 29, 2017

Hessay: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

We all know Yorkshire is the centre of the world, but where's the centre of Yorkshire? In other words, if the historic county was made of plywood instead of rocks, where would you be able to balance it on the point of a pencil stronger than the one in my WH Smith Pocket Diary?

There have been various claims. The village of Barkston Ash, between Selby and Leeds, has an ash tree said to mark the ceremonial centre of the county. If you spit at it, legend has it, you will die a year and a day later. The same used to apply to the locals in the pub near my house, though with less of a wait. (It closed and is now a Heron Foods, thank goodness.)

Other claims have been made by the village of Moor Monkton, northwest of York, whose church was sometimes said to be the centre; while an Ordnance Survey press release a decade ago marked the village of Cattal, outside Harrogate, as the middle point.

More recent work by the OS, however, has decided on the village of Hessay, just west of York, as the geographic origin of all things Yorkshire. My friends Si and Sue were staying for the weekend, so a visit there to find the central point seemed a good excuse for a bike ride.

We set out on the Sustrans route up the Ouse. Beningborough Hall is a popular stop for Sunday cyclists (pic). For just £2 you can get an excellent bacon butty, so long as you can find someone to lend you another £4. It's not a place for a cheap date.

The only crossing point of the Ouse between York and Boroughbridge is Aldwark Toll Bridge (pic). The delightfully clanky old wooden thing was built in 1772, which seems the last time it was serviced. Cars cost 40p but bikes are free. It saves a 25-mile round trip and was once hit by an iceberg, so goodness knows how easy it is for them to insure it now.

We dropped in to the pleasant village green of Nun Monkton, so called because it used to have some nuns and, er, a ton of monks.

It boasts the tallest maypole in the UK (pic), at 88 feet high, and its extent skywards has caused concern to local RAF pilots.

In a place where bridges get clobbered by glaciers, anything could happen.

We'd hoped to get a pint in the 'pub at the centre of Yorkshire', the Victoria at Cattal. Unfortunately it didn't open this Saturday lunchtime, so there was no chance to test anyone's balance at the supposed ultimate balancing point.

Down the road in Tockwith we did catch a pint, though, and spotted this small monument (pic) commemorating seven airmen who died when a Stirling Bomber crashed here in 1945. Hopefully they weren't avoiding a giant maypole.

More monuments further up the road at Marston Moor (pic), where Oliver Cromwell's pro-Hessay troops routed Prince Rupert's pro-Cattal forces in 1644 in a civil war battle over the location of Yorkshire's centre.

So we headed on to Hessay, the village at the centre of all things. The exact centroid is, as far as my research shows, on private farmland behind 8 Shilbutts Lane (pic).

Sadly, Hessay has no pub, cafe, shop or even post office to cash in on its geographic fame. Nowhere to spend money, not even on a stamp. Anyway, with the actual spot being underneath a cowpat in an inaccessible field, we decided to appoint instead this exact place (pic) as the Centre of Yorkshire, and therefore the Centre of the Earth. Yes indeed: the world revolves around this point.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

W3: Slaidburn to Dunsop Bridge

Day 3 of the seventh of my Yorkshire Compass Rides involved the westernmost limit of historic Yorkshire, Little Copenhagen, a surprising notice about cats, and the very centre point of Great Britain. (Back to ← Day 2)

Reeking of kerosene, and fearful of any encounters with cigarette smokers, I set off the few miles from Slaidburn youth hostel to Dunsop Bridge (pic). The hilltops here, looking west, are the westernmost in historic Yorkshire.

Dunsop Bridge – another village that used to be in Yorks and is now Lancs – is the settlement nearest the point determined by the Ordnance Survery as the centre of Great Britain. The nearest you get to a monument or marker is this phone box (pic), which is inscribed as Britain's most central phone box (which it is) and 100,000th in the UK (which is probably isn't, now that most of the rural ones have been turned into libraries or greenhouses).

The actual central point is four miles north of Dunsop Bridge, along the Dunsop Valley (pic). There's a flat tarmac bridleway, not open to non-residential traffic, that makes a real gem of a family-friendly trail through some good scenery. You could be in Wales or Scotland, especially when you try to get a mobile signal.

The nearest you can get by bike to the centre is Brennand Farm (pic), just visible at the top of the picture here. To get to the actual origin, Whitendale Hanging Stones – the location at which Great Britain could be balanced on the point of a pencil, if you had one that hadn't been chewed by a nephew – you have to walk a mile or so along a footpath behind the farm, and it was starting to rain, so I didn't. Instead I went back to Dunsop Bridge to the Puddleduck Cafe, Britain's most central, which conveniently had good bike parking, free use of a track pump, and most important coffee and cake.

I still had the find the westernmost cyclable point, and headed out from Dunsop Bridge. Evidently it's a perilous place for inattentive cats (pic). Perhaps they're too busy chasing red squirrels.

It's fine scenery round here, as the road heads through the Trough of Bowland (pic), still in modern Lancashire but historic Yorkshire. Many of the rivers round here have provided drinking water for Preston since the late 1800s. Given how much it has rained in the last two days, I don't think they'll be going thirsty.

A track leads west from off this road to the very westernmost point in historic Yorkshire, a watershed up in the hills by Hawthornthwaite Fell. On the map it's amazingly far left, only eight miles from the Irish Sea. You can cycle some of it, on tarmac up to the water works, but beyond (pic) is a bumpy walkers-only track that goes to Longden Castle – despite the name, a shabby little hut for grouse shooters. It's possible to cycle on tarmac in historic Yorkshire and be further west (up by Sedbergh, at Beck Foot near Lowgill). But as part of my Compass Rides, my line westwards out of York finished here.

I paused briefly to admire Miranda, a statue of the guardian nymph of the waters here (pic) which is the reason why this part of Yorkshire isn't called 'Little Copenhagen'.

Then it was down to Clitheroe for the train home, and the completion of another delightful Compass Ride. I had soaked up lots of atmosphere, though perhaps a bit too literally.

Miles today: 25
Miles York to Dunsop Bridge: 89

Back to ← Day 2

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

W2: Harrogate to Slaidburn

Day 2 of the seventh of my Yorkshire Compass Rides involved some worm-themed naive art, a pervasive smell of kerosene, and rain. Lots. (Back to ← Day 1 • On to Day 3 →)

The weather forecast could be summed up in one four-letter word, though 'rain' is probably a politer one. I set off early to make the most of the dry morning, heading up the lovely railtrail to the charming village of Ripley with its castle (pic). Tea would have been nice, but it was too early for the teashops to be open, thus saving me about ten quid.

It was still way pre-opening-time when got to Pateley Bridge, proud home of Britain's oldest sweatshop. Oh, sorry, 'sweetshop' (pic). I breakfasted in a bus shelter, psyching myself up for the 300m climb up Greenhow Hill into a stiff headwind and the increasingly heavy drizzle. All the cows were sat firmly down. Being a bovine meteorologist today was an entirely sedentary occupation.

Lacking waterproof socks, I recycled the breakfast plastic bags as such. I can report that the Sainsbury's bag failed and let in water after two hours, but the Co-op bag lasted five before inundating.

It was so wet, even Dr Who had given up travel for the day (pic).

Miserable weather, then, but still an enjoyable ride in its own curious way, through hill-country villages, farms and market towns, along quiet narrow back roads (pic).

At a cafe in Cracoe I met several cycle-tourists doing the Way of Roses (west to east, the opposite way to me) and we swopped lively traveller's tales over the sound of dripping clothes.

In one village I was charmed by the homespun worm-related artworks that adorned most of the houses (pic).

Why the nematode theme? Something to do with the name of the village, perhaps – Wigglesworth...?

Eventually I got to my target for the evening: Slaidburn (pic). It feels a typical Lancashire village – except it was in Yorkshire until 1974, which is the whole point of the trip. Yes, even this far west, we're still in the historic county. The beer wasn't great though: that's definitely gone all Lancashire.

With its ruggedly handsome pub and handy youth hostel (pic), it was an ideally placed stopover. I've remembered it ever since. Mainly because the hostel drying room stank of kerosene, as have all my clothes ever since they spent the night there.

Miles today: 50
Miles since York: 85

Back to ← Day 1 • On to Day 3 →

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

W1: York to Harrogate

The seventh of my Yorkshire Compass Rides was a three-day trip to the westernmost reaches of historic Yorkshire in the Forest of Bowland. Day 1 involved some railway curios, Britain's most surprising gorge, and the Greatest Living Yorkshireman. (On to Day 2 →)

I headed out of York on the cycle track alongside the A64 to Tadcaster, which I passed through on a previous Compass Ride. The town sits on the Wharfe, whose waters have supplied the breweries based here. It was full of fish today, which may explain the taste of their beer. I crossed the river on that splendid railway viaduct (pic), upstream from the main bridge. For once we can't blame the evil Doktor Beeching: the viaduct was built in the 1840s, at the height of Railway Mania, but the intended line was never built (though the crossing later serviced a local mill).

In the town of Boston Spa there are many handsome traditional buildings. I stopped to admire one (pic), and learned from its blue plaque that it was the home of the Greatest Living Yorkshireman, Lord Boycott of Fitzwilliam. And, indeed, there was Sir Geoffrey himself, rummaging in the boot of his car in the driveway, just like a normal person. I resisted the temptation to engage in banter as I might have got a 'That's a schoo pid place to park a bicycle'.

I carried on up the railtrail from Thorp Arch to Wetherby (pic). This line was a Beeching casualty – Britain's first line to be axed, apparently, showing again how Yorkshire leads the way.

My eyes still dazzled with celebrity stardust, I spent the next hour thinking I'd spotted yet more Famous Yorkshire People. Running on that railtrail, triathlete Jonny Brownlee (it wasn't, sadly); buying cider in Boston Spa Costcutter, Jessica Ennis-Hill (it wasn't, sadly); and talking loudly in Wetherby, actor Brian Blessed (it wasn't, fortunately).

I passed the nature spot of Plumpton Rocks. They're a sort of poor man's Brimham Rocks. That's mainly because you'll be £3.50 poorer after being rushed the admission price, whereas Brimham is free. Soon after I was cycling alongside the splendid bottom of perhaps Britain's most surprising gorge: the Nidd at Knaresborough (pic), whose dramatic rocky walls seem to appear out of nowhere, like cyclists who are invisible until they go through a red signal. The town looked continental-lovely in the sunshine, and was busy with visitors.

No cream tea for me, though: I had a barbecue appointment in Harrogate with some in-laws, and a garden cricket appointment with some nephews. They were suitably impressed by my photos of Sir Geoffrey's house.

On to Day 2 →

Miles today: 35

Monday, June 12, 2017

SE2: Ferriby to Spurn Point

Day 2 of the sixth Compass Ride was a blustery bright summer day, and involved two lots of Alternative Wright Brothers, a crossing over to the Eastern Hemisphere, Britain's newest island, and an inexplicably stranded satnav-fail lorry. (Back to ← Day 1)

The Wright Brothers? Forget those minor mechanics from Kitty Hawk. For real achievement you want Ferriby's own Wrights, Ted and Will. In 1937 down at the foreshore, by the dog-brown waters of the Humber, they discovered the Ferriby Boats. These, it turned out, were major archaeological and historical finds: Stone Age vessels – as old as Stonehenge – that once ferried people, beasts and food across the estuary. A monument (pic) marks out the footprint of the first boat found.

That's Lincolnshire over there. As a child I would often come down here, looking with awe across to South Ferriby and the cement factory. Why was the boat found on the north bank? My own theory is that it was used once, and that when they'd seen what was on the other side, they came back for good.

From Ferriby it was 20-odd miles of almost unbroken offroad, ideal for my trekking bike. I coasted happily along the waterside path (pic) up to the Humber Bridge. The bike was far lighter than yesterday, as I'd left luggage at mum's. I was far heavier than yesterday, as I'd had dinner and breakfast at mum's.

I threaded through Hull's shiny new marina and redeveloped docks, most impressively past The Deep (pic) and its sharklike profile. It's one of the UK's biggest aquariums, and definitely the best, with everything from vast multistorey glass oceans full of vivid tropical fish and scary sharks, to smaller tanks with dull monochrome North Sea fishes.

When I was little, we only had fishing for sticklebacks in Welton pond. Today I saw a six-year-old here, staring at one of the small, computer-monitor-sized glass tank fronts, trying in vain that two-finger-expand gesture you use to zoom in on touchscreens.

Out of Hull I followed the 10-mile Winestead Rail Trail, surfaced for the first four or so, and then a succession of just-about-OK cinder and farm track. Near Keyingham I exchanged cheery hellos with these horse riders (pic), thinking how lovely it all was.

I thought it was less lovely when I spent the next three miles dodging the hoof craters they'd made in the soft muddy surface. Still, in this unremittingly flat landscape, the horses had at least created some vertical interest of their own. Clearly they'd had a good breakfast.

Patrington is the least untownlike of the villages in this part of Holderness. The flat, remote tranquillity intrigued Hull's gloomy poet-librarian Philip Larkin. 'Here silence stands like heat', Larkin wrote; perhaps he'd waited for a bus here too. Anyway, the railtrail having run out, I was now back on the road, stopping briefly to cross the meridian marker (pic) and leave the West behind. No chance of a decent phone signal or organic quinoa out here in the developing world, then.

I was surprised to see this monument at Welwick (pic). It commemorates four members of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, most notably John and Christopher Wright, two brothers who lived in the farm next door. Well, there you have it: Ferriby's Wright Brothers make intriguing discoveries that advance human knowledge and are celebrated with a few planks, while Holderness's Wright Brothers are murderous terrorists who get a life-size cutout as if posing for a 70s album cover. Though, politics as they are these days, you can understand how John and Chris felt. Thinking about it, Guy Fawkes himself came from York, and he's positively celebrated too, by a pub in his name.

A local feature out here is the towers built on some of the houses (pic). It's so flat round here you can probably see all the way back to Hull and across to Grimsby, which does make you wonder if it was worth the effort.

And so, at last, to Spurn, the sprawling tendril of sand that stretches three miles out and a few yards wide from here into the waters where Humber and North Sea jostle against each other. It's one of England's most remarkable places to cycle. This is the entrance to the Reserve; you can just see the lighthouse at the end of the spit in the distance (pic).

Cars are banned from Spurn, because in 2013 a storm surge washed away the road (and the telegraph poles) from a half-mile section of the peninsula (pic). I came here in 2009 with friends when this was all still intact and fully functioning, as was my sense of humour.

The silhouetted figure is standing at the easternmost point in historic Yorkshire. The next land due east of here is Borkum, a German island off the Netherlands coast. It's sandy and largely car free, like Spurn, though I suspect the bread is better.

The RNLI staff who lodge on the end have to get across to their houses and lifeboats by 4x4 across a section of beach (pic) which now occasionally washes over completely at very high tides, making Britain's newest island, and the only one entirely in Yorkshire. (Whitton Island, which emerged recently at the other end of the Humber, is partly in Lincolnshire.) Good to see Spurn taking back control, then.

You can push your bike across the beach section, and continue riding on the other side onto the transitioning island, where the road picks up again (pic, looking back). I kept stopping to admire the vast, flat views, and shake the sand out of my shoes.

For those who get stranded by the tide, there's this refuge hut. You'd be trapped here, safe and sound but with absolutely nothing to see or do. It's here to give you an idea of what living in Holderness would be like.

This is just about as far as you can go southeast in Yorkshire by bike. The road ends around here, near the end of Spurn Head, by a cluster of RNLI lodges, the lifeboat launch pier, and a couple of lighthouses. You're effectively three miles out at sea, confronted by unsettling existential questions, such as Cleethorpes. I did the only thing you can in such disturbing circumstances. I had lunch.

Back up at the entrance to Spurn, a surprise-but-no-surprise. A lorry driver from Lithuania had got stuck in the sand trying to turn back (pic), claiming he had suffered an epic satnav fail. 'NesÄ…monÄ—', as they say in Lithuania; I reckon he just cocked up.

I locked my bike up in Easington, got buses and trains back to Ferriby, and drove out the next morning to pick up the bike. It's been another delightful ride out to another county extremity, and thanks to the trekking bike's offroad opportunities, I could explore lots of places I'd not seen before. And I'll tell you what, Larkin nailed it.

Miles from Ferriby to Spurn Point: 38
Miles from York to Spurn Point: 81

Back to ← Day 1

Sunday, June 11, 2017

SE1: York to Ferriby

The sixth of my Yorkshire Compass Rides was a two-day trip down to the southeastern extreme of Spurn Head, one of Britain's strangest places. Day 1 was a hot, bright summer day, riding across the flat, quiet farmland between York and Ferriby, the village where I was born. It involved York's other scale model of the solar system and some disappearing swans. (On to Day 2 →)

My route out of York took me through the university campus. I was delighted to see that the Uni's astro soc has recently set up the city's second cyclable scale model of the solar system (pic). The first one is on the railtrail south to Selby – I biked along that one in a previous Compass Ride. The planets on this one are much bigger, on one scale, and the distances between much shorter, on another scale.

With such a flair for making informative and vivid explanations by blatantly fiddling the figures, the students behind it clearly have a great future in the media.

York to Ferriby – where my mum lives, and where I was born and grew up, though many would dispute the second bit – is a journey I've biked dozens of times before, always on a road bike. Thanks to being on my trekking bike, with front suspension and mountain bike tyres, I could have taken several offroad options this time, such as alongside Pocklington Canal (pic) or the Bubwith Railtrail.

They looked great on paper, but we don't cycle on paper. In practice they were muddy, wet, dull, and only connected one middle of nowhere to another. So it's a wonder Sustrans haven't made them feature routes yet. But for me the allure of nice flat smooth quiet country lanes was too much, and I mostly stuck to the roads, seeing more tractors than cars, and more pigs than people.

I did get some charming offroad riding, though, at the beginning of the day (York to Elvington) and end (Brantingham to Swanland). The last few miles, over the Wolds and with views down to the plain of Holderness (pic), were rather good. It was peak poppy, and some wheat fields were a blaze of red, like my arms would have been if I hadn't remembered the sun cream this time.

You know the well-photographed sign in the Scottish Highlands, saying 'Strome Ferry (no ferry)'? Well, East Yorkshire should have quite a few along the same lines. 'North Cliffe (no cliff)', perhaps. Or 'South Cave (no cave)'.

Or, most poignantly, 'Swanland (no swans)'. Until recently there were several in the pleasant ponded village (pic) that looks like it belongs in upscale-commuter-belt Surrey. But they dwindled to a pair, and when one died, the other left. The only swans now are on the sign for the Swan and Cygnet.

From there it was downhill to my mum's, with the majestic view down to the Humber Bridge (pic) and the cement works over on the Lincolnshire side (no pic). Ferriby looked lovely on this sunny Sunday afternoon, with lots of people sitting outside the Duke of Cumberland pub – cyclists, walkers, horse riders, local families.

I hopped in to the Co-op next door to buy some flowers for mum, and was delighted to see my favourite sort of bouquet: one that said 'Reduced to clear'.

Miles from York to Ferriby: 43

On to Day 2 →

Thursday, June 1, 2017

NE2: Thornton-le-Dale to Robin Hood's Bay

Day 2 of the fifth Compass Ride was another lovely hot summer day, and involved some wonderful countryside, a priceless painting, Britain's best or worst railtrail, and a concluding dip of the wheels in the North Sea. (Back to ← Day 1)

It was an early start into the blazing morning sun from Thornton-le-Dale – too early, alas, to visit the Classic Car Museum, whose displays (pic) include this remnant from Yorkshire's first unsuccessful bid to host the start of the Tour de France.

I climbed out of Thornton and started my traverse of the North York Moors on the network of farm tracks, bridleways and paths that cover this beautiful area (pic). It may have been half term, but I hardly met a soul. It was clearly a good day for the area's souls. They didn't have to meet me. Suited us both, then.

After Dalby Forest I headed on road through Langdale and up through Broxa village, then along more forest tracks (pic) overlooking Harwood Dale. Cycling along in perfect solitude I had time to contemplate meaningful questions, such as why I had left the sunblocker at home.

I had to drop in to the Falcon Inn. This was a favourite post-walk haunt of my uncle Frank, who lived down the road in Cloughton, and his painting of the pub still hangs by bar (pic). I toasted him with a diet Pepsi – it was too early in the ride for a beer – and noted that he would sometimes walk in a day the distance I was mountain biking.

From Ravenscar, the resort that never was, I took the old railway path that runs from Scarborough to Whitby. This stretch, from Stoupe Brow, is one of the most spectacular cycle trails in Britain (pic). It often has people standing open-mouthed and taking pictures, not quite believing what they're seeing. Not the views, but the quality of the track's surface. It's appalling.

Presumably the council have called it 'Cinder Track' (after the material originally used as the trackbed) to try and make a positive out of the dodgy surface (pic). They should have called it 'Uneven Potholed Rocky Unpleasant Fit Only For Full-Suspension Mountain Bikes Track'. Or, for even more comic effect, 'National Cycle Route 1'. Which, amusingly, is what it is called.

I've done the trail loads of times, and have seen people fall off and be hospitalised because of the terrible surface. Obviously I knew what to do when this happened, and sprang into action: I went straight to Ravenscar Hall and ordered some tea and cakes for everyone.

But I'm glad to say that some money is at last being spent on it. They've put up some signs saying 'Caution: Surface very rough in places' (pic).

At the trail's entrance at Whitby, there's a big sign saying 'Cinder Track. Where will it take you?'. To which the answer is, A&E, probably.

Anyway, thanks to having a decent hardtail trekking bike, I made it the five bumpy miles to Robin Hood's Bay along the track – freewheeling almost all the time, down the long slope that was a stiff challenge to the steam trains.

Robin Hood's Bay has the almost surreal look of a Cornish fishing village that's been washed in a storm into the Yorkshire coast, and is approached by a 1 in 3 hill down to the harbour (pic).

It's totally unique and like nothing else in the county.

Except Runswick Bay up the road, I suppose.

And Staithes, obviously.

Down at the harbour the beach was full of families enjoying a hot summer day. I dipped the bike's front wheel sort-of in the sea (pic): my choice as the northeasternmost point of Yorkshire, and the conclusion of this particular ride.

I continued along the railtrail to Whitby and my train home. Frustratingly, I arrived an hour and a half before it left, with nothing to do meantime except sit out things on the terrace of Wetherspoon's overlooking the harbour.

Miles from Thornton Dale to Robin Hood's Bay: 26
Miles from Thorton Dale to Whitby: 34
Miles from York to Robin Hood's Bay: 64

Back to ← Day 1