Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Way of the Roses cycle ride

Why would four guys in their mid to late fifties want to cross England on bicycles? Here’s ten reasons. 1) We’re mates and hanging out with your mates is a pleasure. 2) We all like zipping around on bikes. 4) We’re all reasonably fit but this pushes us. 5) We like the conversation. 6) We like the wisecracks and running gags. 7) We like eating out. 8) We like beer and wine. 9) We like new places. 10) It’s downright different.
This trip was hot on the wheels of the Tour de France and we had three days of very different riding. Day 1 was sea-level from Morecombe with a gentle ascent into the Lancashire hills and a few tough climbs to Settle. Day 2 was a series of sometimes vicious and often challenging climbs up and over the ridges of the Pennines to Ripon.  Day 3 was a long flat ride through corn fields into York. Altogether three very different days through different landscapes and three fine cities – Lancaster, Ripon and York. The peleton stuck together with a few break outs from Ken ‘Man of the Mountains’ Robertson.
Morecombe’s pleasing if you’re looking out to sea but ugly if you look back over your shoulder. It’s a ribbon of run-down arcades, fast-food shops, B&Bs and grubby hotels (one exception is the brand new Midland Hotel). The last remnants of British seaside holidaymakers (pensioners and the very poor) are thinly spread along the bleak seafront and bored teenagers sit on benches facing the grey sea. We cycled here from Lancaster, as it’s the start of the Way of the Roses, but after a quick picture at the starting pole, and alongside a statue of Eric Morecombe, we cycled back to Lancaster. Strangely, Eric Morecombe wasn’t from Morecombe.
Stayed at the Waggon & Horses on the riverfront in the north of the city, which is on the cycle route. The proprietor showed us to our rooms with the following warning, “don’t close this door before you open this one, as you can get trapped and have to sleep in the gap for the night. It’s only happened once but it’s not pretty”.
The first leg was up the Lune valley through small lanes with only the occasional passing tractor. This cycle route is all about landscapesand it delivers. First pit stop was Hornby Tearooms for tea and cake at Hornby Teashop (highly recommended).
Stopped for lunch (ploughman’s and beer) at the Croft Café in Clapham,  then went off piste to the Ingleborough Cave, where we were taken in by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic caver. Discovered in the 19th century, when water poured out of its mouth, Victorian cavers went in with nothing more than a candle and found a dammed lake, which they broke, allowing them to explore further. It’s well worth a visit, especially when he explains the way climate change can be tracked through identifying the ice age periods in the stalagmites/stalactites. It was great to climb inside one of the limestone mountains we had spent all day climbing. It was also nice to get into a cool cave where the water is at a constant 9 degrees year round. It’s a nice walk through the trees to the cave entrance. The rest of the cycle to Settle was up into the Yorkshire Dales with one fairly severe climb.
Had a pint in The Black Horse in Giggleworth and came across something rather odd. Mein host was one of those hail and hearty rugby types who wander about speaking to the punters but doing very little work. Ronnie came back from the Gents to say, “You’ve got to visit the toilets – I’ll say no more”. I did and facing me above the urinal was a downright racist poster about internet brides and on the wall behind me some porn (albeit in tasteful sepia). Mein host is clearly an ‘old school’, idiotic boor.
We ate in our own hotel and the food was surprisingly good. A pint and a few games of pool were enough for the rest of the evening, with occasional glances at the opening ceremony for the Olympics. Looked great but why are we always harking back to the past? I should add that The Hart Hotel in Gigglesworth has seen better days and its plumbing seemed to have a life of its own, as it gurgled and flowed all night.
The first hill out of Settle is a killer. We all had to dismount as the gradient steepened. We were then up in high, unenclosed moorland. The only walker we encountered was a young lad in a torn tracksuit who was either homeless or had been out on a complete bender. In fact the whole day was one of heavy climbs and rapid descents, up hill and down dale. Pit stop at café for tea and cake in Cracoe then into Grassington (pleasant verging on the twee), where we stocked up for a picnic – actually eaten a few miles out of town in a pub! Then a monstrous haul up to Green hoe and a perilous descent into Patley Bridge. It didn’t stop there, as there’s another up and over before the descent into Ripon.
Ripon’s a pleasant town, untouched by industry, with the smallest Cathedral in England but we headed out to our Thorpe Lodge B&B out of town to the South. It was an 18th century farmhouse in 12 acres owned by a terribly posh couple, who were amazed that we had arrived in bikes, “they’ve arrived on bicycles darling”. We had a flat to ourselves and ordered a taxi into town, to eat at Restaurant 27 – good Italian fare, but the place emptied at around 10pm and we were the only guests by 10.30pm. Breakfast was another full English, with two giant poodles rambling around our table looking for titbits. This is what they call English eccentricity but it’s really a failure to see that you’re running a business. They wanted paid in cash (clearly avoiding tax) so we had to go back into town to find a bank. Welcome to 19th century rural Yorkshire.
We visited the Cathedral, which has a Saxon crypt, rebranded by the canny monks as a replica of Christ’s tomb, kept empty but once a place of pilgrimage. It’s a rather squat building and the pulpitum blocks the view of the choir that would have given it more depth of view. It was Sunday morning and the usual elderly CoE crowd was waiting for the service to begin.
The next stage is through small villages and farmland. I like this type of cycling, just moseying along with fields on either side and nothing but birdsong in the ears. Now despite the large, full English breakfast, we soon regained our hunger and stopped at The Angler pub in Lower Ousburn, where the words ‘Good Food’ were beckoning. Having dismounted and tied up our bikes, we entered only to be faced with two handwritten signs saying ‘Sorry, no food’. Not serving food is one thing but saying you do and not serving food is another.
At Upper Ouseburn we stumbled upon a real gastropub The Crown Inn (Yorkshire Pub of the year no less). The beer was good and the food better, some real fine dining. Gorged on two pints and three huge courses, followed by coffee and truffle chocolates, we were a bit leaden for the last push into York. But the route was largely flat through corn fields and a cycle path through parkland into York.
Tied the bikes up to the rail at the front of the Cathedral and entered, only to find that this great house of God closed at 5pm sharp. And they wonder why Church attendance is plummeting? It’s big, the largest of England’s medieval cathedrals but a bit clean and formulaic for me, with none of the architectural oddities of earlier Cathedrals. We climbed the walls and on the descent a complete stranger (a Scot) cracked a good quip, “do you need to wear a helmet on these walls!” (we were still wearing out cycling helmets).
This was a challenging ride, which I wouldn’t attempt if you’re not a regular cyclist. But the landscapes were wonderful, the people friendly and food good, albeit it with eccentric service. Not a single fall off, scrape or puncture.