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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 17

I start my wander around Hawes with fish and chips; my second portion of the tour; and complete it with an ice cream. The long climb has broken down and burnt off the massive calorie intake that was breakfast. The first real beneficiary of this adventure is my appetite. Greg Lemond once said that the one who wins the tours is the one who can eat the most pancakes. Cycling certainly burns the calories, and even if it wasn’t batter puddings that powered many of the more recent champions, all pedallers consume enormous quantities of food. Big English breakfasts and fried fish and chips are not ideal but I’m here for more than the fitness and the mileage. I’m here to see, to feel to touch to smell and, most definitely, to taste.

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Hawes is busy and bustling. It’s a handsome little town. It never made quite the impact on me as some of the other places I worked but it wasn’t for lack of local beauty. It may have been for lack of a buddy, a friend.

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I’d walked to Hardrow Force and I’d walked over Buttertubs while in the valley. I’d got myself to Dent where my predecessor as relief warden now had a hostel of his own.He showed me Ribblehead Viaduct and Britain’s highest railway station and bought me beer in his local pub. I hadn’t quite found a way to get an inside view of the area back in the early eighties. In 2011 I was content to be very much on the outside looking in. I finished my ice cream and got back on my bike.

Half a dozen miles of fast main road with ups and downs and swerve bends was enough for me. As well as my dislike of cycling on major routes, this one had the additional disadvantage of being one of those roads beloved by bikers. Bikers used to be young men with something to prove and prove it they would on a powerful motorbike. These days, bikers are dull middle aged men who have failed to prove very much and have reverted to riding motorbikes too fast to try to compensate for the complete paucity of their lives. Actually I know a few really nice people who ride motorbikes and enjoy the open road. My rant is based on a particular fellow who deserves all the opprobrium that can be pointed in his direction. A dishonest and an unpleasant man who gives a bad name to more than bikers. I turn right onto an altogether quieter route that promised to bring me to Kirkby Stephen by teatime. I was in for a real treat.

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I was already high up in the valley but for several miles I continued to climb into glorious moorland. It’s massive in scale and hypnotically beautiful in all seasons. In July it was coming into it’s prime. The map I was following was designed for people touring by car and paid scant regard to contour lines. I expected to be climbing for it’s full route. It was with great pleasure that I realised I was crossing the great divide between North Yorkshire and Cumbria and suddenly, the rivers changed direction and I was in the uppermost parts of the Eden Valley.

If I’d followed the stages of a river in reverse while climbing out of Wharfedale, I now had the chance to see how a river basin turns into a river. The Eden is almost perfect for this. It’s not very long, as rivers go, but it has every possible feature give or take surviving ox bow lakes. It also runs parallel to a quiet road and there are plenty of picnic spots. Parallel to the road is the Settle to Carlisle Railway and, it being summer, my ride was enlivened by the occasional passing of a steam train pulling carriages.

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I wasn’t expecting downhill at all and suddenly I’ve got miles and miles of it. I freewheel and breathe in the northern air. For the first time on the journey, I don’t feel tired. The moorland soon passes into good pasture land with meadows and fields of hay. I stop and make a meal of an apple and brew a mug of tea and watch grey wagtails play among the shallows and the rocks.

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I pass hamlets and low farms and the ruin of a castle that suggested that the place had a livelier history than present. It’s a road I’d like to go back and cycle again. It contains half the geology of England, the story of a river and the history of livestock farming and that’s just what you see at 16 miles an hour freewheeling of a bike. Almost as good as this is that at the end of it all is a tidy little town with a big heart. Welcome to Kirkby Stephen.

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