So, the C2C, a 140 mile coast to coast tour, no doubt a tour which provides you with a challenge with it’s a route through the Lake District and over the Pennines, while also a route through breathtaking scenery and picturesque towns and villages.
The C2C was the first of the Northern Coast to Coast routes to be set down as an official route on the National Cycle Network, hence the name, and is also a right of passage for many serious and not so serious cyclists. It has two start points, Whitehaven and Workington, and two end points Tynemouth and Sunderland, as well as a few options as you cycle along.
I’m doing this tour with my good friend Paul Pearson, a man who could be likened to a sniffer dog if the dog's job was to find hills and passes and cycle over them. If you can cycle over it anywhere in Europe, Paul has probably done it, he is an expert on the south of Spain and extremely knowledgeable about everywhere else.
So we decide to set off from Whitehaven and finish in Tynemouth staying away from the really rough off-road parts and sticking to road and smoother off-road tracks. We were both arriving by train so we arranged to meet in Carlisle and caught the connecting train to Whitehaven. This was my second trip on this train, and it is an interesting trip – especially as you get closer to Whitehaven and start hugging the coast – it was good to be travelling with Paul discussing our next three days and the route we were taking. Our plan was to be on the road around 1pm and get to our inn for around 6pm that evening. So we stocked up with some goodies in the Tesco beside the station and headed over for our compulsory photo in front of the famous C2C sign in the harbour, which was taken by a very kind lady who offered to take it, and off we went.
The route is really well signposted as you would expect from one of Sustrans flagship routes. After riding through the town the route is off-road for the next 10 miles or so, this part is popular with walkers and local cyclists so you can expect to see other users as you head out of Whitehaven. The off-road along the route is a mixture of hardened grit or tarmac, and is a very good surface for cycling on, and here you rise up slowly to Kirkland giving you impressive views of the fells and lakes below. You slowly descend to Loweswater, which is surrounded by beautiful hills and it is a very pretty place for a picture. Cycling along the edge of Loweswater I wasn’t sure to wear my sunglasses or not, as the sunshine was shimmering through the trees and it kept going from bright sunlight to shade and back again. Halfway down the lake the road takes you away away from Loweswater and further into the Lake District, around two miles later – just about where your bike would come to a natural stop – there is an amazing view to your right of Crummock Water and it’s surrounding peaks including Grasmoor and Whiteside.
Leaving this behind, you set off on the beginning of your first real pass of the tour, Whinlatter Pass. So we first travel through High Orton where you need to follow the yellow diversion signs, and instead of going through Scales Farm you follow the B road running beside it. However before getting to the B road there is a short sharp shock of a hill where Paul left me for dead! My excuse is that Paul had been cycling through the Balkans all summer, a lame excuse – you really know you’ve been left behind when your friend is taking pictures of you from the top as you struggle up, especially when the hill was only a couple of hundred meters in length. Thankfully it all calms down after that, and even though it was a little steep, I was able to hold onto Paul as we made our way up Whinlatter.
Around Whinlatter there are a few rough parts, the not so rough off-road section was closed for tree felling, which meant we had to stay on the road. This suited us me as it had been a quiet and lovely road through the forest to ride. At Whinlatter Visitor Centre we stopped for a late lunch, like most of the forest park visitor centres around the country, it was well kept with great facilities and a ‘Go Ape’ centre. Another good thing is that the centre is on the pass, so after our tesco lunch, it was straight down to Braithwaite – so if you’re like me and get a bit cold after eating you might need to put your jacket back on. There is a MTB advisable section, which we stayed well clear of before shooting off down the hill as fast as my brakes would let me. At the local pub at the bottom of the hill you take a sharp right which takes you away on a small local road towards Derwent Water and Keswick, providing great views of where you have come from as well as where you are going, including the very impressive Skiddaw.
Turning back onto the road to Keswick we spot another tourer coming our way, who turned out was on our train from Carlisle but started in Workington, it also turned out that the off-road sections from Workington were mainly closed so she had to stick to the mainer roads. Keswick is a typical pretty Lake District town with lots of cafes, pubs and restaurants with pedestrianised street, while also being surrounded by beautiful hills and fells making it very popular.
Coming out of Keswick we took the road to Castlerigg Stone Circle which was another short sharp shock to the system, but this time I manage to hold onto Paul until I had to stop to take a photo, always a good way to hide the fact that your starting to blow. The road is well worth it as the stone circle and its surroundings were absolutely outstanding. Actually standing there at sunrise or sunset must be absolutely spectacular, for us there was a bus load of tourists there but still beautiful, you can see how it was a mystical place for the inhabitants at the time it was built. The entrance to the site has some nice circular maps with Castlerigg Stone Circles in the centre surrounded by fells including Blencathra, Skiddaw and Castlerigg Fell. From the stone circle we descend towards Threkald following the foothills of Blencathra. The road here is very narrow and every few hundred meters there’s a gate to open and close, usually just before a little climb. The road continues like this for a couple of miles until it looks like you are doubling back on yourself and start heading back towards Troutbeck
We’re almost done for our first day as our accommodation for the night is a little off route in Penruddock. A nice inn, with comfortable if small rooms, good food and lots of it as well as nice beer (all of which were very welcome). Just before ordering food, one of the locals called us over and asked us something while pointing at a pub game game of some sort, but neither Paul or I had an idea of what he was talking about – given that I’m Irish and Paul is Scottish and neither of us have the softest of accents, and we have both worked as English language teachers in different countries, not being able to understand a word was something else. He did come up to me later and asked (I think) to speak to my wife as I spoke to her on the phone and later still started shouting at me to say potato! I was pretty sure he’d had enough potatoes to be honest. Apart from that it was a great night of food, a few beers and a couple of games of pool, I of course won by getting Paul to pot the white at the same time as he potted the black, quite a skill that one.
So after a good rest we shot off again the next morning. The first town we encounter is Greystoke, made famous by the books and films of Tarzan, a pretty village with distinctive reddish brick houses and a nice centre. Surrounded by Castle Greystoke and private gardens, legend has it all who enter develop a strange baying noise!! Sorry. The road to Penrith is easy riding and includes a detour through a local college to an off-road section to Penrith. The C2C route itself misses on the centre of Penrith but we rode in to take a look around, again it’s a pretty town with lots of eateries and local shops. We stocked up for today in M&S and braced ourselves for the climbing to come today.
The ride between Penrith and Langwathby was very pretty at this time of the year, a few steep climbs followed by a quick descent through Beacon Fell and Wood Head before we burst out onto a road surrounded by fields of wheat and/or barley. After passing through the small town of Langwathby with it’s cosy couple of cafes you hit a few steep hills. Then the road begins to undulate towards Renwick, look to your right and you can see where you will be pushing your bike up in the not to distant future. From Renwick it’s a bit of a slog all the way up to Hartside cafe, around 4-5 miles. The good thing about it is that every time you stop the view gets better and better – another good thing is that if your friend brings jelly babies for you to scoff down half way. The road to Hartside is half on a local road and half on an A road. The A road was fairly quiet when we went up and every car that went by gave us lots of room, they also seemed to go by as if we were standing still, which we basically were!
We stopped outside the cafe for lunch, there are benches facing the valley below, perfect for lunch as all cyclists seemed to take advantage of after reaching the top. There were a few different types of cyclists who climbed to Hartside, some came up – lunched – and cycled back down, some came up, ate and got into a car waiting for them then, and then us who cycled up, had something to eat and continued down the C2C route. The route continues on the A686 for around 3 miles, slowly descending, giving you amazing views of the moor surrounding you.
From Leadgate to Garrigil the road is like a roller coaster, up and down, and just too much up to allow you to sprint down and fly up without dropping down the gears (but Paul did try!). Garrigil was like a ghost town passing through, no one around because, as we found out from a couple of cyclists later, was the one day when all shops and cafes close. As we hadn’t planned to stop we kept going. Now, on the C2C map, the road out of Garrigil has no markings showing it as a steep hill, let me tell you – woo- it’s one hell of a steep hill. As we were coming in to Garrigil from Hartside, we were looking for the road coming out as you have a good view of the whole town, but we could only see one road but it looked a bit too mental to be the road we needed to take, so we assumed there was another – there wasn’t. The climb is very steep, not very long, but steep as it climbs across Alston Moor until you can see the town of Nenthead. At this point the road drops steeply into the town so check your brakes. Before you descend you can again check to see where you’re going when you leave Nenthead, this road climbs up Black Hill to the highest point off the NCN.
So down and up we go after a quick pit stop in the local shop and a chat to two other c2c-ers, the view from the top is great and not long afterwards you pass the welcome to Northumberland sign. As it’s the top of the NCN you’d think it’s all downhill, and it is all downhill for a mile or so before you climb again! It’s a great ride down to Allenheads, including a couple of cutbacks, lovely views of the road stretching out into the distance. Reaching Allenheads you follow the river into the centre of town, a town sitting in a valley in Northumberland surrounded by Cumbria and Durham, and also a ski centre in winter.
Climbing out of Allenheads you pass quickly into Durham, where after the Durham sign the road softly descends for a number of miles, allowing you to have a nice look around local scenery including the old mine building, now disused. The road continues to Rookhope and again it stays nice and downwards, and weren’t we grateful for the break – although we knew the road out of Stanhope was going to be a slog, especially as we had decided to cycle over almost all of the hills in one day.
So we were enjoying this flat and downward cycle and looking forward to it continuing to Stanhope, as the map says! But NO, maps can lie (or just not tell you the entire truth- and to be fair I find sustrans maps really useful) and up, up we go again! So again we are at the top looking down at Stanhope and looking at the road out of Stanhope. After taking in the views and a handful of jellies we’re off again, free-wheeling our way down to Stanhope.
Stanhope is another pretty village in the mountains, which has a few pubs and cafes scattered around. Just as we turn off to climb up the hill out of Stanhopethere is a lovely village pub with lots of people outside enjoying the summer sun. Looking at this group we were both probably thinking the same thing, oh I’d love a pint!
Completing the C2C in three days isn’t overly difficult, the hills are still to be climbed but it’s spread out – and the hills are what gives the C2C its beauty, and really are a joy to climb. Our mistake, if that’s what you call it it, is that we did it in actually two days (1pm Monday to 1pm Wednesday) and where the two half days were the easier parts – leaving all the major climbing for the one full day. We still enjoyed it immensely and now we started up our last climb of the day and it’s a steep one, and steeper at the start before flattening out the further you go. Half way up I wanted to say to Paul that we’ve it’s back broken, but I needed another jelly baby to say that, so I just looked at him and he nodded in agreement.
So after about 3 miles you get to the cycle path called the Waskerly Way, a beautifully maintained traffic free path, suitable for all bikes, which descends nicely for 10 miles or so all the way to Consett. However, we were staying in Shoteley Bridge, so we figured if we stayed on the road it should take us directly to our hotel, which it did. It was a lovely descent, surrounded by purple heather, with views of Consett in the distance. After a couple of bumps we arrived in Shotely Bridge and our hotel. A nice meal and a few well deserved beers let us relive the day and talk about the morning ahead. The Olympics was showing on the tv and the track cycling was on, I definitely prefer our way of cycling. Talking to the locals about our trip in the morning we hear the famous phrase again -oh it's all downhill.
Fully rested the next morning we leave the hotel, immediately going uphill to the cycle path that will take us to Newcastle and Tynemouth. To be fair, once on the path it was practically all downhill or flat. The path snakes through the forested areas of Chopwell Wood and Snipes Dene Wood along the path known as the Derwent Path, which will eventually lead us to the River Tyne, which we head west along – cross over – then start back west again to Newcastle and Tynemouth. The path at first follows beside a busy road before leaving it and working its way beside the river to the Quayside, Newcastle City Centre and its many bridges. We stopped for a coffee by the Tyne and a few photos by the Millennium Bridge (we’d just missed it operating).
We are now cycling on the route of Hadrian’s Cycleway, Coast and Castles and the C2C and it’s a path I’d ridden recently while finishing Hadrian’s Cycleway. It follows a path through the towns on the outskirts of Newcastle, past Wallsend (at the end of the famous wall!) and North Shields, where you can get a Ferry or a cruise to Northern Europe and Beyond. There is a tunnel where you could cycle through to South Shield, but it’s under renovation and isn’t expected to open until spring 2018, fingers crossed. I think the problem with the tunnel happened when they began renovations and found asbestos, a bit of a headache. However the path now flows around North Shields before the final hill up to Tynemouth and its priory, fish and chips are recommended here (by Jimi Hendrix apparently) but I’m not a battered fish man myself, too much batter not enough fish for me.
So myself and Paul headed back to the train station to meet our trains, we said goodbye, Paul going north while I was heading south. Paul was using this tour as a warm up for his next adventure in Spain, rail-cycling around the north of Spain from Santander into Asturias seeking out hills like Angliru to cycle up! I was only a little jealous.