July 2008 seems both an age away, but also like it was yesterday. It may then be true when they say our memory is sharpest when we have experienced extreme emotion or incredible trauma…
We drove up to Cumbria late. I was crammed in the back of Dan’s Estate with a bottle of whiskey in my lap and a GT Avalanche wheel pressing into my neck. It was a six hour journey that started uncomfortable, but gradually became less so as the bottle I nursed began to empty. It was close to midnight by the time I fell out of the car onto Baz’s driveway and he was stood there waiting.
Considering we had planned to cover 120 miles in 3.5 days starting the next morning, camping at the stops and so labouring with panniers and rucksacks on bikes it made perfect sense for us to get some rest, but instead we moved directly to Baz’s liquor stores and drank the small hours away. Mark and Baz joined me with the dark spirits and Dan gravitated to the bottle of gin that he failed to mix with very much, if any of the available tonic. There was a kind of frantic energy about us all. It was a chaos that hummed in the ears, denying reason and pushing us to the limit as if our subconscious wanted us to be wounded before we embarked on the adventure. Either that, or we simply did not show the challenge enough respect.
Day one - Whitehaven to Keswick (31 miles)
Morning came and at some point we had all passed out on various sofas, but we were all bleary eyed and dry of mouth. I had my traditional five John Sinclair roll ups for breakfast with two jugs of coffee and before I knew it we were in the garage loading up the bikes. My ride was to be Baz’s old GT as I did not have one of my own – a model below that which Dan would be riding which was the very same bike that had been hitting me in the face for the six hour journey. Mark’s ride was a nameless heap of steal with a saddle the size of a small country and Baz had a Specialized tourer. While Baz connected his handlebar bag and map I was busy duct-tapping a piece of wood to mine that I had brought alone specifically. This had six clean holes drilled into it where I could hold a batch of pre-rolled smokes which to me at that time was the most important accessory known to man.
While the other three loaded up panniers, I shouldered a crammed full Boblbee bag with tent and sleeping bag strapped to the outside of it. My reasoning was that my bike would be lighter. My anus was to discover the flaw of putting weight into your shoulders not long into the ride.
After much preamble and a quick photo opportunity to capture us in our glory, clad in combat shorts and normal t-shirts (aside from Baz who at least wore a cycling jersey and clip in shoes, but still opted for pocketed baggy shorts) we set off down the hill to Workington station and boarded a train to Whitehaven where we would dip our rear wheel in the sea beside the chrome sign signally the start of torture.
The beginning of the C2C when starting from Whitehaven is a long false flat of about 5 miles along a designated cycleway. After an hour we had still not cleared this section and had to stop at one of the large artistic structures to gather ourselves. At last we were beginning to realise what we had embarked upon and we had not even faced anything that you could throw the word “hill” at yet. I stood smoking and sucking desperately on my drink bladder while Mark and Dan took a seat on the structure. Baz remained in his saddle, looking at us with a growing horror and I think it was here that he decided to begin lying to us about every single aspect of what was to come.
After the cycleway we entered Fang’s Brow and the true terrain of Cumbria started to mercilessly reveal itself. We climbed slowly, with Baz balanced in his clips up ahead while Mark churned to catch up and Dan and I mainly walked anything more than a flat. The views that greeted us were immense and the weather was sweet, cooking our sweating brows with heat even beneath the canopy dappling the mountain road with spots of sun and shade. The day seemed to drag on and on and Baz kept telling us to prepare for Winlatter which, as he lied, “is the hardest climb of the entire C2C route”.
We failed to heed his warning and wasted time stopping at a pub, filled up with heavy cheese toastie and pints of real ale. This made heavy legs even heavier and the day was well into afternoon by the time we started to climb Winlatter. The heat was tremendous and not long after starting the Winlatter climb we all had to drop our bikes at the roadside and sit down. Mark had turned very pale. I watched in alarm as a pool began to spread on the floor around him as sweat poured out of his skin. We stuffed Nutragrain bars into our faces and fought the urge to bring them straight back up again. The punishment of the pass combined with the excess of the night before and utterly ill-thought out lunch stop all amounted to humble us. Dare I say, even Baz revealed signs of strain, but our campsite was on the other side of the pass and the day was slipping away. Therefore once Mark had gathered his wits a little we continued on, sometimes pedalling, but on the most part pushing.
We slipped off into the forest onto a gravelly fire road to complete the climb to the summit, marked by the Winlatter visitor centre sign and then took a sweet descent for almost two miles, again in the forest. This all worked to refresh our hearts from the hard day as it also marked the end of our toil. The glimpses of Bassenthwaite Lake far below and the welcome cooling shade of the forest track, combined with the roll into Keswick and seeing a pub beside the camp site were the elixir we all needed. However we had not passed into glory unscathed and our survival instinct began to kick in. As soon as the tents had been pitched we emptied out our bags and started to think about weight. This exercise revealed we were carrying a wash kit each – shampoo, shower gel, toothpaste, deodorants and many other duplicated items which promptly moved into a pile to be abandoned. Amongst this we also came across numerous changes of casual/clubbing clothes amongst Baz’s kit with according footwear, but more startling was the discovery of Satanic Verses – the size of two old testament bibles fused together - stowed away in Mark’s bag as “light reading after a day on the bike”. He was loathe to surrender it, so we found where his bookmark had been placed and tore the rear of the book away at this point.
The pub trip that night was brief, but I managed to get two pints down. Sleep came quickly in the tent and the dead do not rest as still as I did that night.
Day two – Keswick to Alston (45 miles) (76 cumulative)
We set out from Keswick as early as we could, but suffered a slight delay with the need to un-pitch, repack and find a place for me to get coffee to accompany my multiple morning smokes. A few miles in Baz was wise to suggest a small deviation from the route to shave off a few miles from the whole day and to make up for the morning delay. This involved using the A66 for a while. The word for this is “terrifying”. Cars were flying past us while we hurtled downhill on loaded bikes with only slightly trusted braking power. We turned back onto the route proper at a junction with a Jennings Pub called the Sportsman (it is alarming how my memory recalls pubs with such clarity), but unfortunately the time of day denied us a stop. Had we taken the alternative route – the official route – we would have trekked northwards to Mungrisdale only to then trek back down to almost the same point we had set out from, at which time the pub would likely have been open based on our standard pace, but the saving of miles and hours was worth the omission of a pint.
We were again in the safety of quiet country lanes and taking the ride more seriously after what we had experienced the day before. There was no long stop for ale and greasy food, but instead well timed calorie top ups by means of cereal bars.
We had a brief stop on the green in Greystoke and pushed on, making relatively good time compared to the previous day, but maybe because this was also – to this point – less demanding. Then a little more of a stop in Penrith ate away any time we might have saved and the heat started to rise again. We set out from Penrith with a sudden lag in our legs, churning through the miles as the sun attempted to back us into submission. Our pace fell off the boil and the day was wasting away as we passed through Langwathby and started a climb into Renwick.
We had all been told that Winlatter was out of the way and with it the worse climb we would encounter. Coming out of Renwick and onto the beginning of the Hartside climb proved the falsehood of this statement. Then horror struck as the combination of exertion and heat took its toll on Mark and Dan, taking them both to the ground. Both men turned a pale shade and hung their heads between their legs.
The sun was now creeping towards the horizon and there seemed to be no way that either of them would be climbing back onto their bikes. We considered camping where we had stopped, but this seemed impractical, but we also couldn't do nothing. After a moment of indecision Baz spotted a farmhouse with a Landrover and trailer parked outside. While he pedalled over to it I smoked a roll-up and if there was enough energy left in the group we might even have cheered when the farmer drove over with Baz following.
Mark and Dan loaded their bikes into the trailer while me and Baz dumped our luggage in as well, leaving us free of the weight to continue up Hartside. We watched the farmer drive away with half our party in it and started our climb, all the while hanging onto the knowledge that a café stood at the top and a well-earned coffee to boot.
It wasn’t long before I wished I was in the Landrover. The road surface was a course, worn tarmac that seemed to stick to my off-road tyres. Baz tried for a while to stay close, but we soon came to an understanding that this was neither productive nor safe. The road was criss-crossing the mountainside and with each bend I felt my insanity broaden, so with our own paces decided and a wide gap opening between us we not only reached the summit but also remained friends.
I rolled into the car park, devastated to see the café closed, but elated that the climb had been conquered. A guy nearby trying to sell a beautiful black and chrome Suzuki Bandit marked our achievement for us by taking a photo of us at the summit and with nothing else to do we began the roll down into Alston.
We arrived at the camp site to see the tents already erected and Mark and Dan looking a lot less broken. The camp site was a world apart from the one we had stayed in at Keswick, with a shower block underground through a series of iron, rusting tunnels which made me think of the holocaust. It also had a river running beside our pitch and I am unfortunate enough to have blood that is like Crack to biters.
After a clean-up in Auschwitz we walked slowly to the Alston Hotel and treated ourselves to an enormous meal followed by half a dozen pints. Every single drop tasty like moments of heaven and again, I slept like the dead beneath canvas, being eaten alive by bugs.
Day three – Alston to Consett (34 miles) (110 cumulative)
We woke up tired and it was a Sunday morning. This caused immense conflict in my head as I battled with the need for getting off early, but doing so meant leaving prior to the opening of any coffee shop. The best we could do was to buy a couple of cans of Restless from a shed-like garage and with this unsatisfying start, began the evil climb out of Alston on the cobbled road.
Our group began to straggle as the road seemed to do nothing but climb. The route up to Allenheads was accompanied with a vile crosswind and suddenly things felt bleak and dreary, but from the top we got to enjoy long swooping descents that set the heart on fire with delight. This seemed to take forever and felt like the payment coming in for all the climbing that had been done to date, but we were now in the Northern Pennines and we couldn't go down forever.
We rolled into a stop at a pub called the Rockhope which seemed to nestle in a split in the road. One of these routes continued on tarmac around the base of the hill and the other climbed on a rocky path. Our road would be the rocky path, but there was no way we could pass yet another pub without stopping.
The Rockhope served as the perfect rest point and the food was good too. It goes without saying that the pint slipped down nicely and we set out from the pub pushing our bikes up the path ahead. Although very steep and hard to walk on, the climb was relatively short (compared to other climbs on the C2C) and at the top we found ourselves in a dense mist on the Waskerly Way. The top was almost flat and we rode the rough surface without talking, listening to the crunch of our wheels. Baz had a bike perfect for the roads, but up here he was in trouble and dropped back while me and Dan enjoyed having the right tool for the job and blasted off ahead. Mark’s bike was also more suited to the gravel, but his enthusiasm wasn't quite with it. For miles and miles this seem to continue and finally the trail led us between two walls of rock upon which a cairn had been erected. This eerie, misty, place became another stopping point, allowing Baz to check on the hole pierced in his leg by landing on his own front ring. It was impressive to find a piece of his flesh with attached hairs still clinging to one of the teeth, but we wasted no time and once we were assured that our navigator was going to live we continued on.
The Waskerly Way seemed to lead us into oblivion. The mist helped add to the feeling of remoteness until suddenly, as if out of the mist itself, a small building appeared. It was a tea rooms called Parkhead Station and despite the seemingly remote position, was heaving with customers. We stopped too and I had coffee with a slice of cake, feeling buoyed by the flow of the previous cluster of miles and thrilled by the sensation of riding in the mist across mountain tops.
Setting out from Parkhead Station we returned to the roads and found our way gradually descending. The mist was left behind, suggesting to me that we were actually riding amongst the clouds beforehand. Now the area was starting to feel less remote and it was almost like we left our energy levels up on the Waskerly Way. By the time we rolled into the start of Consett we were all starting to flag.
Baz took the lead and began to guide us towards what would be our last camp site, but weariness fogged his brain and he took us on a fast descent past our required turning. Knowing the strain we were all under, he started berating himself and no matter how much we assured him it was okay, he would not let up on himself.
Once back on what we thought to be the right road we rolled through a housing estate and instantly had doubts, however, not for long. A small patch of land with a lone tent pitched upon it and a house nearby sat nestled amongst the council housing and the greeting we received from the owners of the small site was glorious. Not only did they show us to our patch of field, nestled beside a picnic bench, but they also took a pizza and booze order from us which was delivered not long after we had pitched our tents.
The mood lightened quickly and more so knowing the next day would be all downhill to the end of this epic journey. Baz even forgave himself for his minor navigation slip which was a good job because I knew that without him I would still be trying to find my way out of Whitehaven.
Fatigue did play a part that night and I lost my drinking party shortly after eating our pizza at the pub bench beside our pitch. I carried on solo drinking and the flies carried on eating me.
Day four – Consett to Tynemouth (30 miles) (140 cumulative)
Whereas at the end of day one we had begun to consider weight, this final day no longer applied to the same rules, simply because I refused to ditch unopened cans of beer. We decamped, loaded up and quickly found ourselves on the beautiful wooded Derwent Walk. Ever better, not more than 8 miles down the way we came off the Derwent Walk and enjoyed an early pint and a packet of crisps in the Derwent Walk Inn. I was starting to wonder if this might just be the best day ever.
The Derwent walk continued all the way to Newcastle and was a pleasure to ride, but the scenery changed suddenly from wooded, disused railway into a dockland industrial zone. We picked our way through the urban rabbit runs, along tow paths littered with broken glass and junk. This could not have been any more in contrast to the sights of the previous three days and the decline in beauty somehow also echoed the growing sense of an end to the adventure, as if we were being drawn back into the ugliness of the mundane, or as if the adventure had lived strong but was now starting to decay. Things looked a little better along the trendy bankside, crossing the blinking eye bridge, but even this being less shabby was still not the rural wilderness we had been so thoroughly immersed in before.
Dare I say, being at the end of the route and seeing the signs pointing back to Whitehaven, or offering the Rievers Route rather than the return C2C, was slightly anti-climactic. Even dipping the wheels seemed out of a need to comply rather than an excitement enticing action as the dipping of the back wheel had been all that time ago.
Regardless; four ill equipped and untrained men had conquered the coast to coast and we had done it together. This was the feeling that settled into us as we travelled back to Workington station. I had passed my bladder pack over to a young boy about to start the coast to coast with his mum and was tucking into the beers we had carried those last 30 miles. My backside felt permanently damaged and my legs, arms and scalp had been chewed to ribbons by gnats, but I didn't care. The climbing was done so I drank, drank and drank...
Then we stepped off the train (a little on the way to being drunk) and I remembered the long, steep descent from Baz's house to Workington Station almost four days ago. The climbing was not quite over after all.