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Joshua Gaskell

A Bike Ride Around the North of England


Sunday, 31st July 2016: St Pancreas to Hathersage, Derbys.


I am standing in St Pancras station with my bike and my friend’s bike. My friend is inside the ticket office, queuing to collect our bicycle reservation chits. The ticket office is a perspex box, like in ITV’s The Cube, so he pulls a face at me and does a Bollywood dance.


He returns from the Cube empty-handed. Despite what he was told on the phone, East Midlands Trains only requires separate booking references, not actual tickets, for the two reservable bike spaces; and we already have those.


We take our bikes up to the platform and place them on the Sheffield train in their reserved spaces. Then an anarchist climbs aboard and leans his bike against ours in a space that, technically, doesn’t exist. Each of the train operating companies has its own anti-cyclist policy about bringing bikes on board; so every time you go somewhere you haven’t been before, you have to get your head around a new one. Then you get to the train and remember how much bigger it is than your bike, and wonder what the policy is for.


Today we’re going to the youth hostel in Hathersage, ten miles west of Sheffield, to begin an eight-day round trip through the Kingdom of the North. In our beginning will be our end, the Steel City our six o’clock.


On the train some juveniles are playing R & B out of a phone speaker. (What is the link between this music and 1960s rhythm and blues?) I give them the half-turn, then I give them the full-turn with the eye-roll. It doesn’t work. So I put in my earphones-cum-plugs and listen to the new Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool. Somewhere in Northamptonshire I see a red kite out the window.


Thinking about Radiohead’s album title, it occurs to me that the story of the hyphen is rather like that of the red kite: once so abundant as to be verminous – the Fowlers recommended walking-stick, Oxford-street, and quotation-marks – hyphens are now being hunted towards extinction by those who believe they look cluttered, fussy, and old-fashioned. With their population dwindling rapidly, and maintaining only a precarious hold online, their survival into the next century is dependant upon a serious conservation effort.


Cycling on Sheffield’s terrible roads suggests a new sense of the word potholing, and we’re glad to leave the city behind for the northern Peak District, the Dark Peak.


The hostel at Hathersage is comfy and well provisioned. On the way back from the pub, my friend bags some local game for his virtual bestiary on Pokémon Go.


Monday, 1st August: Hathersage to Slaidburn, Lancs.





From the Snake Pass: left, over the valley of the River Ashop; above, down towards Glossop



During the long climb out of Peakland along the Snake Pass, I notice that my friend’s new pannier bags bear the name ‘Red Loon’. This strikes us both as being rich in suitably picaresque connotation. At first I’m imagining a soldier from Fielding, wandering about the countryside, drunk and volatile, looking for his platoon. But through multiple scenarios of inane improv, the Red Loon develops into a murderous redneck, like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:  educationally subnormal, sexually deviant, and remarkable for his loud cry, ‘I’m the Red Loon!’


One of my friend’s pedals suffers ball bearing failure, so we stop at a bike shop in Padiham before entering a designated area of outstanding natural beauty: the Forest of Bowland. AONBs are less prominent in the public imagination than national parks, but what we see of this one is prettier, hillier, and quieter than what we saw of the Peak District.


At the hostel I see a cue to check my perception of northness: a hand-drawn map showing, a few miles west of Slaidburn, the ‘centre of Great Britain’.


Tuesday, 2nd August: Slaidburn to Kendal, Cumb.


Today we go through the Yorkshire Dales in mist and light rain. It’s relentlessly beautiful, but with a headwind it feels like we’re cycling up hill and up dale.


Tired and out of my seat, I look down and see nothing but the road. Different surfaces flash past – heavy-duty macadam, hot-rolled asphalt – but always the same fat, black slugs. I steer slightly aside to avoid them and think of what’s beneath it all: a hidden and still partly unexplored world of caverns, potholes, and passages.


I get a text from my girlfriend wishing my friend and me a ‘happy Yorkshire Day’. It turns out this celebration actually took place yesterday, but there wasn’t the phone signal in Slaidburn for me to receive the message. In any case, though, the day was marked by the official extension of the Yorkshire Dales; so when my friend and I cycle west out of Sedbergh, on the road to Kendal, we go through an extra two miles of national park beyond the River Lune.


Having dropped our stuff at the hostel, we spend an excellent evening in the Globe, listening to live Appalachian music and talking to the landlord, Peter, and some of his regulars.








At one point, he breaks off from conversation in order to check his CCTV, hoping to discover who stole a missing bottle of Sarson’s vinegar.


Wednesday, 3rd August: Kendal to Cockermouth, Cumb.


In the Lakes, a new type of weather will be coming round the mountain when it comes. They form an orderly queue and take their turn, one at a time, in quick succession. But even when it’s the turn of mist or drizzle, I find myself breathing in the air with over-heartiness, like I’m doing it sarcastically.


Rhapsody in green: looking north from Low Wray, on the western bank of Windermere


We begin the day in Westmorland, which Daniel Defoe described as ‘a country eminent only for being the wildest, most barren and frightful of any that I have passed over in England, or even in Wales’.


Or even in Wales.


The first climb of the day is up a road called the Struggle, part of the Kirkstone Pass from Windermere to Ullswater. My chain slips and my left knee knocks something on the handlebars, leaving a perfectly eye-shaped bruise.


Of course, we don’t see the Lakes through Defoe’s practical eyes but through those of Wordsworth, who wrote 'Ode: the Pass of Kirkstone':


                        Most potent when mists veil the sky,

                        Mists that distort and magnify;

                        While the course rushes, to the sweeping breeze,

                        Sigh forth their ancient melodies!


We have lunch at the Kirkstone Pass Inn before descending at high speed into Cumberland. As Alan Partridge has noted, ‘crossing a county border is always a thrilling experience’.



I take my friend to see the farm in Thornthwaite that used to belong to my grandparents; then we begin the second climb of the day, over Whinlatter Pass. My chain slips again and I get a second eye-shaped bruise next to the first. They make me think of The Great Gatsby and the eyes on the poster of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which ‘look out of no face’.


Before reaching the hostel, we go to my aunt and uncle’s house for supper. We’re soaked, so go upstairs to change in the bathroom. I warn my friend before peeling off my Lycras, so he looks in the other direction. Unfortunately, he finds himself looking at a wall of mirrors – and me.




The hostel at Cockermouth is brilliant: small, friendly; a calm and trusting atmosphere. No keycard-operated doors or other modern miseries. We’re told that one can sometimes get phone signal outside, but perhaps not today because it’s overcast.


The warden is Ray, whose handmade signs are mini-masterpieces:


                    CAUTION! SCOLD DANGER! Water from the hot tap is hot!.


                    If you feel unhappy about parking [your motorbike] on the gravel… WE HAVE A SPECIAL PLASTIC DISH TO PUT UNDER YOUR KICK                                         STAND




But we have a familiar experience: halfway through thinking, ‘this is the best hostel we’ve ever stayed at’, we find out that it’s threatened with closure. The world is moving on, apparently. If I were to attempt to diagnose this, I would say that it’s down to the association’s pivot towards families. The tweet pinned to the top of the YHA’s feed says, ‘Grab yourself a cheap family break this summer!’ I’ve got nothing against the bourgeois family, but it’s not what youth-hostelling is about. Youth-hostelling is about the unwanted embrace of a cold shower curtain. [1]


Thursday, 4th August: Cockermouth to Kielder, Northum. 


Cumbria contains an extraordinary 30.7 per cent of England’s common land. This morning we ride over Uldale Common, which we did in the opposite direction in August 2014, on the way from John o’Groats to Land’s End.


What we pass through of north Cumbria, the south of the Scottish Borders, and Northumberland National Park is very sparsely populated. (The Scottish Borders contain a fifth of a person per hectare.) Approaching people outside remote farms and houses, I find myself self-aggrandising: ‘When we ride past, lift a forefinger, and smile charmingly,’ I think, ‘it’ll probably be the highlight of their… what? Morning? Day? Week?

A field in England; looking south from the remains of a turret of Hadrian’s Wall


Edmundbyers is just inside the North Pennines AONB. The Pennines are called both the ‘backbone of England’ and the ‘lungs of England’, which makes England some kind of hypermutant insect country.


At the hostel we spend the evening drinking and talking with three Scousers who are working nearby, a couple of Swiss students, and the bearded warden. Brexit and bluebeat at one end of the table, libertarianism at the other, beer bottles all over it, and no families.


Saturday, 6th August: Edmundbyers to Fylingthorpe, N. Yorks.


I’m ginger on my pedals uphill now, constantly calibrating how much pressure the gears can take, slipping, and then recalibrating. And my legs are feeling tight. Maybe, like Karl Pilkington, ‘me nerves aren’t long enough for me body.’




It’s match day at Middlesbrough. Having crossed the Tees on the magnificent transporter bridge, we come round the Riverside Stadium through a stream of Boro-folk. National Cycle Route 1 then takes us out of town past a barbed wired church and a few unwanted mattresses. By the time we reach Redcar, like the Red Loon, I have a red neck. I make a habit of getting sunburnt in unlikely places and today it’s North Yorkshire. After leaving it a little longer – till my arms look like the claws of a boiled lobster and we’ve reached the appropriately named Saltburn-by-the-Sea – I sweetly ask my friend if I may have some of his sun cream.




We make the mistake of going right down to the sea at Robin Hood’s Bay, which means carrying the bikes up a flight of steps and along a National Trail footpath to the hostel. (Incidentally, while Robin Hood is commemorated here, his follower Little John is traditionally supposed to have been buried in the churchyard back in Hathersage.)


YHA Boggle Hole is the opposite of Cockermouth and Edmundbyers: cash-injected, keycard-operated, and pirate-themed. Grab yourself a cheap family break this summer, and don’t let the door hit your ass!


Sunday, 7th August: Fylingthorpe to York


On a ride like this, it gets to the point when you can’t tell the difference between clean and dirty underwear. And then it gets to the point when you don’t care.


It is almost as hard getting out of Boggle Hole as it was getting into it. We come across a couple of one-in-three hills, which is when cycling becomes geometry; where you find yourself pedalling up a goddam shape. Although in my case, of course, I’m now pushing: a slow-moving point on one of God’s more outlandish triangles. More than usual, it feels like we’re ascending more than descending, and I’m reminded of the teacher who used to take us mountain biking. He joked that all of our routes, which started and ended at the bike shed, were worked out by him so as to contain precisely the same amount of uphill and down.



Penton Bridge over the River Liddel, the border between England and Scotland


North of the border we meet some middle-aged Scandis – four-panniered cyclists who have been staying in a bothy – and stop for the crack. I’m reminded of Ian Sinclair writing in the London Review of Books:







The weather gives us the old good cop–bad cop routine: it’s dry until the very last section of the ride, when we’re caught in torrential rain. We’re on a single-track road in the largest Forestry Commission plantation in England, and a couple of timber lorry drivers come straight at us without slowing down, forcing us off the road.


The fat haemorrhoidal bastards.



Friday, 5th August: Kielder to Edmundbyers, Co. Durham


It has become apparent that my chain is slipping because the gears are reaching the end of their life. I’ll get the cassette and chain replaced when we’ve finished, so for now I have to push up any hill steeper than about one-in-six.


The moorland scenery through the parish of Tarset is a little relentless. If it were an adult colouring book, a review might read, ‘Not challenging enough! Too much green and grey.’ But later the sun breaks out and we come across a stretch of Hadrian’s Wall, which once defended the Kingdom of the North from the wildlings beyond.




A traveller is someone who proceeds through a country under his own initiative, with a certain internal drive to learn; to find out something more than the superficial.


— Unattributed quote from Bitter Lake, a film by Adam Curtis

Looking north-east, Whitby Abbey in the distance


The old name for the North York Moors was Blackamore, from the colour of the heather when not in bloom. For some reason this name seems to have fallen out of use. In any case, today the heather is purple and the headwind strong.


Beyond the low-rolling Howardian Hills, the last few miles into York feel very much like country miles. We cycle into the city as the minster clock strikes five.


Monday, 8th August: York to St Pancras


Cawood Bridge over the Ouse is closed, so we divert via Selby and a closed section of the A63. Normally, a major A road turns cyclists into shrinking violets at a dinner party – forever trying to get a word in and drawing back as a boorish car roars in to fill the brief silence – so it’s nice to go side by side and chat.


We have lunch in Pontefract, where the liquor section of Morrisons has its own checkouts.

Sheffield; cyclists spoil photo of Cap Guy



Back on the Euston Road, I smile and raise a forefinger to the first couple of cyclists I see. Then I remember where I am.



Sunday, 31st July–Monday, 8th August 2016: A Bike Ride Around the North of England




The Vale of York is gentle compared to much of the ride and I’m able to forget about my knackered gears. We do get shouted at though, somewhere near Barnsley: as he’s overtaking, a bloke yells, ‘get a car!’ I’m fairly sure he’s parodying the genre of ‘shouting at cyclists’, but humour is no defence when it comes to hate speech. (N.B. This is a joke.)


As promised, in our end is our beginning. And Sheffield really is our six o’clock, because that’s when our trains depart. We kill time at the Sheffield Tap and then take our bikes straight through on to platform 1B.


I give my friend a hug and tell him I’ll see him soon.

1] The hostel at Cockermouth has since closed.


Joshua Gaskell is from London but grew up in South Wales. He studied English at Oxford, graduating in 2012. He has written for the New Statesman blog, the Guardian books blog, the Observer New Review, and the British Comedy Guide. He works as a researcher for a TV production company. And he loves cycling.  





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The cooling towers of Ferrybridge Power Station, disused since March  

Out here alongside the reservoirs […] cyclists are not a tsunami of self-righteous entitlement. They are spiky individualists with schemes and projects, affection for the territory, and they are happy to engage with […] banter.

Peter:         How many lakes are there in the Lake District?
Me:             Erm… twenty?
Peter:         No, one: Bassenthwaite Lake. All the others are meres and waters.
Me:             Ah…
Peter:         Have a 

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