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. (See ← Blog from 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, and Yorkshire's only, island. 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

See Blog from 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. (See Blog from 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

See Blog from 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. (See ← Blog from 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

← Blog from Day 1

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

NE1: York to Thornton-le-Dale

The fifth of my Yorkshire Compass Rides was a two-day trip up to the northeastern extreme at Robin Hood's Bay. Day 1 was a hot, cloudless summer day, and involved a nettle making a phone call, an anti-fracking camp, and the best coffee shop in Yorkshire. (See Blog from Day 2 →)

I'm doing this trip on my hardtail mountain bike, as it will involve some forest roads on the North York Moors on Day 2, and I need to keep my fillings. Having the MTB enabled me to leave York by a new route involving the farm track called Bad Bargain Lane, which local estate agents must be agitating to rename. A few back roads, and more tracks like this one at Sand Hutton (pic), got me eventually up from the flat Vale of York and into the hills northeast.

Some villages round here have repurposed their phone boxes as libraries.

In the village of Crambe, however, they've evidently turned it into a greenhouse, trying to cultivate the world's tallest nettle (pic).

Urtica dioica thrives in acidic conditions, such as those rich in ammonia. So no wonder this one's doing well...

I went through two old-fashioned gated level crossings: a manually operated one at Howsham, and a little further on at Kirkham, this fine example (pic). The job looks easy, but perhaps it takes years of practice to get this good.

Kirkham itself has a lovely old bridge over the Derwent (pic)...

...and a ruined old priory. The gatehouse (pic), built around 1290, is apparently English Gothic, which I thought was a festival in Whitby.

But I'm glad to see that even in the 13th century they were keen on welcoming cyclists, to judge by the triple-wheel insignia at the top. A forerunner of the CTC shield, perhaps.

I stopped in Malton, something of a foodie town these days, for a coffee at the best coffee shop in Yorkshire, Leoni's. I'm biased because it's run by my cousin Simon, but as he was UK Barista Champion in 2002, 2003 and 2005, he clearly knows his stuff. I've never been UK champion of anything, though I did win a tea towel in a cheese cracker competition in 1972. Anyway, the Colombian coffee was excellent (from Medellin, it was, and rather better than the coffees I had when I actually visited Medellin).

Heading up north of Malton I went past this protest camp at Kirby Misperton. The doughty campers – some of whom have given up their jobs to come here – are trying to stop fracking. They were having a meeting, which I gatecrashed, and as a cyclist I enjoyed chatting to a few of them. Some people have an image of them as scruffy, useless layabouts who should get a proper job, which isn't fair at all. Cyclists, I mean.

I made my way over some more bumpy farm tracks to Pickering, a handsome market town (pic) with one of Britain's best heritage railways, the North York Moors Railway, and an extraordinarily high concentration of pubs. Though I guess the collective noun for pubs wouldn't be 'concentration'. Probably 'blur'.

Finally I got to Thornton-le-Dale, a pretty village at the foot of the Moors (pic) with a stream that runs picturesquely through the town. A delightful spot to sit and while away the evening. Unless you have to rush to the toilet, lock your bike and dash to catch the last bus back home to York.

Miles from York to Thornton-le-Dale: 38

Blog from Day 2 →

Saturday, May 6, 2017

SW2: Grange Moor to Saddleworth

Day 2 of the fourth of my Yorkshire Compass Rides was a morning of misty hills, the setting of a comedy that wouldn't die, the magnificently bleak Saddleworth Moor, some awesome reservoir views, and a border that wouldn't die either. (See ← Blog from Day 1)

From Grange Moor I headed on back lanes (pic) past the village of Lepton. This must be one of the few places in the world named after an elementary particle in subatomic physics. They should twin it with Boson Island in Canada. Shortly afterwards I cycled right underneath the Emley Moor mast. At least I think I did. It was so cloudy up there I couldn't see it.

I'd had a very early start, and arrived in Holmfirth (pic), with its picturesque cottages stacked over steep cobbled lanes, about 9am.

Holmfirth Folk Festival was on this weekend, though the folk dancing was not due to start until later that morning. So I had a lucky escape.
I had a cup of tea at Sid's Cafe (pic), whose decor reminds you of a long-running farce located here that involves men behaving disgracefully. I'm referring to the Tour de France, which visited in 2014.

Oh, OK, Holmfirth is also famous as the setting for Last of the Summer Wine, the BBC series which somehow lasted from 1973 to 2010. You can see many locations that featured repeatedly in every episode, and which had stayed unchanged for well over a hundred years.

Actually, both of those apply to the jokes too.

A long climb out of Holmfirth took me on to Saddleworth Moor (pic), a place with some very dark associations. Once at the top – nearly 500m up, and it feels like it – it was a thrilling ride with a brisk tailwind past peat bogs and scowling road cyclists labouring the other way into the wind. They were a miserable lot, and few returned my cheery wave as I freewheeled past them. I wonder why.

The ride down the other side of the moor was a great bending descent through picturesque reservoir country (pic) to the valley bottom: Saddleworth. I crossed the remarkable transpennine Huddersfield Narrow Canal, restored in 2001.

And here's where the question of borders gets as bogged down as walkers on the top of that peaty moor. Nowadays, Lancashire officially starts at the highest point on Saddleworth Moor (at the picture above with the 'Welcome to Saddleworth' sign, in fact, despite what it then says).

But the historic, pre-1974, boundary is about 10km further west. It's somewhere on this road (pic), just before the bend right; we're looking westwards, and still in historic Yorkshire but firmly in modern-day Lancashire. Oldham, in fact, if you can call it modern-day.

I was wary about asking directions here, as I thought the request 'Can you tell me the best way to Oldham?' might be misunderstood.

But many people living here still identify with Yorkshire. As indeed did the friendly chap I chatted to at County End, where a sign marking the true boundary was put up in 2010 (pic). He still regards Saddleworth as Yorkshire, and cites as proof the fact that his golf club (like many other sports clubs, music groups and so on) participates in the Yorkshire leagues. In fact, many people maintain that the 'historic' border was never rescinded except for technical administrative purposes.

Curiously, there's a 50m gap between the historic border signs for Lancashire and Yorkshire. Is this some sort of DMZ? Are the inhabitants of the strip stateless? Clearly borders matter, though the way they resolved things at Towton was a bit extreme.

Anyway, it had been a fine ride. I made my way back to Greenfield station and got the train home, stopping off at Stalybridge station bar for a celebration pint. In Lancashire.

Miles today: 28
Total miles York to Saddleworth: 65

← Blog from Day 1

Friday, May 5, 2017

SW1: York to Grange Moor

The fourth of my Yorkshire Compass Rides was a two-day trip out to the southwestern extreme in what is now Oldham. Day 1 involved Yorkshire's old brewing capital, the site of England's bloodiest battle, the tallest freestanding structure in the UK, and a psycho cat. (See Blog from Day 2 →)

I headed out south on a sunny afternoon on the cycle path that runs alongside the A64 to Tadcaster, home to three big chemical factories: John Smith's, Sam Smith's, and Coors. The first house in the town (pic) was decked out in celebration of the Tour de Yorkshire, which passed through last week. Thanks to the big tailwind, I was probably going as fast as the TdY riders had been.

Being a Scrabble player, I've never been able to look at it without noting that TADCASTER is an anagram of CASTRATED. One day I'll create a Wikipedia Category page of 'Places that form amusing anagrams', with entries such as NEWARK and BRUGGE.

I cycled past the village of Towton, south of Tadcaster, renowned as the venue of one of the key battles in the Wars of the Roses, in 1461 (pic). (Confusingly, York itself was a Lancastrian stronghold.)

The Lancastrians were routed, and the Yorkist Edward VI took over from the Lancastrian Henry VI. Yorkshire, as you know, always claims the biggest and best of everything. The 28,000 casualties makes it (probably) the deadliest ever fought on English soil, no doubt a great source of pride to many Yorkshire people.

In Wakefield I dropped in on the excellent Hepworth Museum. I was particularly impressed with this piece (pic), by an artist called Renova Tions. Wittily entitled 'No entry - Exhibition in preparation', it features a lifting platform in an otherwise empty gallery.

At once static and yet hinting at the dynamic, it blurs the boundaries between art and engineering, and asks fundamental questions of the viewer about continuity and renewal. The empty cradle of the apparatus invites us to mentally supply our own 'cargo', 'elevating' the mundane and/or quotidian to the 'exalted' podium of sporting or/and election 'victory' – are we 'lifting', or 'being lifted'?

In the next gallery were some old bits of wood that I expect were waiting to be recycled before the next exhibition came in (pic). I thought that was a bit disrespectful to Barbara Hepworth, who apparently was a famous sculptor. They could have put some of her statues there instead.

I passed Emley Moor in the evening sun, admiring Arqiva Tower (pic) – or, as everyone calls it, the Emley Moor mast. At 330m it's Britain's tallest free-standing structure, 20m taller than the Shard. Thanks to being on top of a moor – whose altitude I was keenly aware of, having cycled up the long climb of the A642 from Wakefield – the mast's top is 594m above sea level. (That's higher than the top of Toronto's CN Tower. Take that, Canada!)

In March 1969 though, the Emley Moor mast was only a few metres high, because it fell over in a storm. TV was severely disrupted for a few days and millions of people had no signal at all.

Nine months later, according to ONS data, there was no baby boom. This was Britain in the 1960s after all.

My bed for the evening, in the village of Grange Moor, was kindly provided by Tess and Jamie through the fabulous cycle-tourist-accomm-swopping site It was great to enjoy their hospitality and chat about bike touring over a glass of wine. One of their cats went a bit psycho: it caught a mouse, which escaped, and wasn't allowed to chase it. If they ever make a cat version of Trainspotting, this one would be Begbie.

Miles today: 40

Blog from Day 2 →

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Hebden Bridge: Hip operations

Hippy life in Yorkshire? I can promise you, having grown up through them, that the Swinging Sixties barely even wobbled in Hull, never mind swung. All that love, peace and alternative living may have gone on in the decadent south but it never made it north of Sheffield. So it's a pleasant surprise to come to Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire's Hippy Capital.

The market town (pic) has a population of under 5,000 but, like the blister caused by my cheap bike shoes, feels bigger than it is. And taller: stacked up on the Calder valley's steep hillsides are double-decker houses with the top stories facing the hill and comprising one dwelling, and the bottom stories facing the valley and comprising another.

It's an alternative sort of place, tolerant and gay-friendly: the Lesbian Capital of England, it's often called. It's certainly got an alternative-lifestyle feel, as a glance at a typical coffee shop noticeboard shows (pic). If you're after Reiki, Holistic Massage, Existential Therapy or Energy Medicine, you're spoilt for choice. And while you make your mind up, the cafe offers 19 sorts of cake and 15 types of herbal tea.

The town started off as Heptonstall, a broodily characterful village (pic) a short cycle away.

If you're coming downhill into Hebden Bridge, anyway. Because, like any road that doesn't actually run along the valley floor parallel with the railway or canal, it's very very steep.

And cobbled, like many lanes around here. Forget Paris-Roubaix: you can test the security of your fillings by cycling down Heptonstall main street.

Until the 1800s, there was no road along the valley floor. But as the industrial revolution revolved, the canal (pic) and railway came through the valley, Hebden Bridge grew around the river crossing, and textile mills thrived. It became known as Trouser Town; perhaps in a way – though the mills are long closed and converted to chic apartments – it still is.

There's a strong community feel, as the town's local website demonstrates. It has a fair few meeja types who live here in those chichi lofts, commute to Manchester or Leeds by the slow but frequent trains, and enjoy organic gluten-free artisan local bread in Hebden Bridge's chic cafes and bistros.

But, also, many people don't have Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 jobs. Or any clear job at all. (Perhaps the people who live on the colourful narrowboats moored all along the canal.) So I feel I have a lot in common with them.

For all those people, there are plenty of events to fill the afternoons in bookshops or art studios or community-owned facilities such as the Fox and Goose pub (pic).

Scruffy in appearance, it's actually friendly and well-organised, with fine local real ale always close at hand. So I feel I have a lot in common with it, too.