It's an on-road cycle version of the Pennine Way footpath and the two routes cross and recross. We took 9 days for the trip, including the travel days, so it was about 7½ days of cycling with an average of about 5o miles and 4,000 feet per day. We were carrying all our own luggage (about 10kg in my case) and this distance felt like a good balance. We were cycling for about 7 hours a day with enough time for leisurely stops and still arriving in good time. We stayed in hostels, with the bonus of a good nearby pub in most cases. I would strongly recommend this route: every day has some highlights as you cross some of the best parts of England visiting a range of high moorland and a series of pretty villages and towns.
The Sustrans route seems to be chosen to avoid the main roads as far as possible and on the few occasions where we joined a main road (either by accident or design) it was a nasty shock which I think fully justifies this approach. But as the price of avoiding main roads the route contains several sections of unsurfaced off-road paths. Most of these sections can be ridden (albeit rather slowly) but a few short sections did require us to get off and push (not to mention a few very steep hills that also required us to get off and walk). We were very lucky with the weather with sun and light winds on most days. There were just two days of light drizzle and two nights of overnight rain. This meant that most of these off-road sections were relatively dry and I think many of these sections would be a lot more difficult in wet weather. But any cursing about the need to push your bike is rapidly dispelled as the routes unfold and you understand the Sustrans logic of keeping you away from traffic and taking you deep into the beautiful English countryside.
Day 0: Derby to Hartington
Our train arrives at Derby earlier than expected: a late train change means that we can travel direct to Derby without having to change at East Midlands. After a bit of consulting the natives, we find the Sustrans route and wriggle out of Derby via a series of zig-zags, not helped by several mispointed signs. We assume this is the work of local teenagers, but fortunately their usual trick appears to be simply swap the directions (180 degrees) making it fairly easy to stay on route. As we emerge into the countryside for the first time, passing cyclists recommend a nearby Buddist café: "just carry on down the drive, it's wonderful". It's a bit early to be stopping, but we must maintain the CTC traditions so we take their advice stop for tea and cakes.
As promised, it was a delightful find with large pots of tea and home-made cakes. After suitable meditation, it's back on the bikes for a gentle ride on to Ashbourne where we encounter our first proper hill as we climb out of town to join the Tissington trail. Somehow we manage to miss the main tunnel entrance at the start of the trail and instead join at the first car park. We make rather slow progress along the trail, as it's a sunny Sunday and there are lots of day users. But as we get further away from Ashbourne the trail starts to get quieter and we can pick up speed. So much that we nearly overshoot the turning for our first stop at Hartington YHA. We divert down the road into Hartington, where we are faced with a short but very steep climb up to the hostel. It's been a good first day: we're finally on our way!
Day 1: Hartington to Crowden
We rejoin the Tissington trail and follow it to the end, exiting a short distance before Buxton where we pass a pub with an unusual name.
We drop into Buxton and buy lunch before exiting with a short section on the main road. But soon after leaving Buxton, we turn off onto a minor road and encounter our first big hill and first rough section. The minor road suddenly degrades into a very rough off-road section that is impossible to cycle.
Muttered curses at the Sustrans route planners are later withdrawn as the surface improves and it turns into a pleasant route that avoids the main roads. We then descend into Whalley Bridge and New Mills, exiting New Mills via an even bigger hill. This time it is an innocent looking residential street that has something like a 1:10 slope that seems to go on-and-on forever. More curses: anyway how do they manage to build houses on such a steep hill? I am also starting to understand why relatively few people cycle to the shops here: it is very hard work compared to flat Cambridge. We finally stop for tea at a small shop/café to let our legs recover from the shock of all these hills. The route now bypasses the centre of Glossop and wriggles through a series back streets before emerging onto a smoother off-road route that weaves around a series of reservoirs to reach Crowden.
We stay on the Sustrans route and this means we have to overshoot Crowden and then descend a couple of miles on the busy main road to reach the YHA. But it's a peaceful location for the YHA and the nearby campsite shop provides a welcome cup of coffee until the hostel opens.
Day 2: Crowden to Hebdon Bridge
We start with a short ride back up that busy road to rejoin the off-road paths. There are some difficult off road sections in the first hour, and we divert to an unplanned short on road section to avoid a very steep off-road section near the new road tunnels.
It's a nasty shock to the system to be on the main road with lots of heavy traffic. But eventually we can rejoin the proper route for a short off-road track before the route crosses over the main road and joins a minor road for the easier but long climb to over the top of the ridge via Winscar reservoir. It's then an easy descent into Holmfirth where we buy lunch and manage to take another wrong turning thanks to a badly placed sign. After an interesting diversion, we wind up with another short section on a main road due to a road closure. Just after we rejoin the Sustrans route we miss another turn and have a few more miles of not-too-busy main road before we rejoin the Sustrans route again at the bottom of a steep valley in Slaithwaite. We now have yet another very steep hill to climb out of Slaithwaite. But then we get some easier riding over the top before we drop down to a reservoir nestled beside the M62. Muttered groans from the team as we fear another big climb to reach the nearby bridge that crosses far above the motorway, but these fears are happily averted when we discover an unexpected troglodyte cycle tunnel under the motorway.
The path to and from the tunnel has some tricky sections meaning a bit more walking but it is still a good way to cross the motorway. Then it's back onto quiet minor roads with yet more hills as we pass through Sowerby Bridge before joining an off-road path along the valley into Hebden Bridge where we finally emerged into a lovely canal side park.
We're well overdue for our next cake stop so we stop for tea at the first park café . A visit to the nearby tourist information now leads to a change of plans: the lady tells us there is another steep hill in store if we follow our plan and head out of town to our booked stop at Mankinholes YHA. She then casually suggests that we try the local independent hostel. It was very tempting to avoid yet another big hill so we gave in to temptation and booked into the local hostel: our excuse was that Mankinholes was not able to offer breakfast, though frankly any excuse would have done. The local hostel is in the centre of town but it's approached by a very steep residential road so once again we have to get off and push! But it was a good decision: it's a comfortable overnight stop, with the added treat of a good Italian meal in the local restaurant.
Day 3: Hebden Bridge to Ingleton
Any thought that the worst hills were behind us was rapidly dispelled by a massive climb out of Hebdon Bridge via a steep cobble footpath (almost too steep to even push the bikes this time) before emerging onto the steep tarmac of Hebdenstall for a very hard and slow start to the day. Hebdenstall village is a touristy village where the surface goes back to large lumpy cobbles so we are back to pushing again.
We emerge after nearly 1 hour of effort on top of the moors where we get our first taste of bad weather with some light drizzle. The map gives a choice of route here: a longer and flatter route via Burnley, or a shorter and hiller route via Widdop reservoir. Our decision to take the shorter hillier route is recommended by local lady as a "very pretty route": she's right and it is not that hilly compared to our earlier struggles. We then wriggle through Colne (just missing Nelson, the home of Carradice). We seem to be coping well with another set of Sustrans zig-zag routes but eventually we get slightly off-route due to a missing sign. After a quick recovery using the compass we drop down to Foulridge to join the Leeds Liverpool canal towpath. First we take a well-earned stop at the first canal-side café for coffee and cake. Then it's off on the delights of a flat tow path where we start to make better progress.
All too soon, we have to leave the canal and rejoin a minor road. We stop in Gargrave for a quick lunch and brace ourselves for the hilly afternoon section. But the afternoon starts well with a short diversion to a superb farm café (due to another timely recommendation by passing cyclists) and after a large pot of tea and cakes we continue with a series of hard afternoon climbs to reach Settle and then Ingleton.
Day 4: Ingleton to Dufton
Another sunny day greets us as we set out on our best morning route so far as we climb out of Ingleton across the fells to Dent. There's some tough climbing but a breathtakingly beautiful valley with virtually no cars. Rupert is almost tempted to go back and do it all over again...
A steep descent into Dentdale overheats the rims, so we stop at a small café in Dent for coffee and cakes to let riders and rims cool down.
Then on into Sedbergh where we buy lunch, but it takes longer than expected due to mother ahead of us in the sandwich shop queue who seemed to be buying enough for 100. Soon enough we climb out of Sedbergh along a set of minor roads that is surprisingly hilly, but cleverly weaves alongside the M6, passing under and over before finally striking off NE across the moors to Appleby. Despite the nearby motorway, this is still a beautiful section, helped by a warm sunny day, and quiet roads.
The final stage to Appleby is another delight with wide vistas of moorland, but a completely different feel to the earlier moors. We eventually arrive in Appleby for more coffee and cake.
We still have a few more miles to go, so it's back on the bikes to follow the route a few more miles to Dufton YHA. We follow the official Sustrans route which is a bit annoying here as their back road route makes this last section nearer to 8 miles instead of the 4 mile direct route which is a big difference for tired legs.
Day 5: Dufton to Once Brewed
Another superb bleak moorland ride this morning. First a gentle undulating route on minor roads over to Melmerby. But then a long hard climb up to Hartside, with the final section (1 mile or so) along the main road. We stop at the café at the top of Hartside, along with a lot of other cyclists who seem to regard Hartside as an easy training ride. A welcome cup of coffee and a snack while we enjoy the views before we descend – again on the main road. After a fast descent, the route turns off onto more gentle back roads to Alston. The final section includes a long section along a disused railway cycletrack. We have some route problems here due to several Sustrans route changes: we have two maps which show different routes here and both differ from the current signed route. We emerge into a private garden which is on the old railway line, but after a friendly chat the owner lets us carry on through his garden and take what seems like the ideal route over the nearby viaduct.
It seems this is the source of the Sustrans route changes and it is clear that they have not been able to reach an agreement with the private owner, which is a shame as the viaduct is a highlight of the route.
The route now continues along the old railway until we reach the outskirts of Haltwhistle. It's time for another stop for tea and cake at the first café - where we are regaled with tales of Sustrans broken promise: the café was deliberately located here and assured there would be 1000s of riders doing this route: in fact there are just a few 100s. Another tiring end to the day as we haul ourselves out of Haltwhistle up to the next YHA at Once Brewed close to ‘adrians Wall. Obviously, this being the posh north they've added an "H"; but I suppose this is what Adrian did before he retired!
Day 6: Once Brewed to Rothbury
A similar start to yesterday with a short sharp climb up to Hadrians wall followed gentle undulating moorland.
But this is soon followed by a tricky off-road section through Kielder/Wark Forest. The path is just slowly drying out after heavy overnight rain, and the loose gravel squirms under our tyres making for tricky descents on the dips as we try to avoid boulders and puddles. Slow progress over this section makes for a long morning before we reach our first café stop at Bellingham where we can finally refuel. Rupert and Tony buy pork pies from the local butcher leading to accusations of treachery later in the day when Tony's pie disappears, and Rupert has already eaten his pie. The dark cloud was only resolved when Tony unpacked back at home and discovered a flattened pie in the bottom of his pannier. The hills are getting easier now, or our legs are getting stronger, and it's just a short last stage before we divert to Rothbury missing a short part of the official route. It is just starting to drizzle as we reach the hostel and we are safely inside when the heavier rain starts.
Day 7: Rothbury to Berwick
We again cut the corner of the Sustrans route to rejoin the route NW of Rothbury. Rupert's day is rather spoiled by a first and only encounter of extreme road rage: the driver reverses nearly half a mile back up the road to stop us and voice his opinion that 60mph is a completely safe speed on this narrow lane. It feels like a long morning route because we missed out on a cooked breakfast this morning (all because the Rothbury café did not open until 9am and we wanted an earlier start). And we don't pass any cafés until we reach Wooler where we find a choice of busy cafés and we can at last catch up on our missing breakfast. En route, we decide to bypass a rather muddy off-road section (we take a quick look and decided it was uncyclable after the heavy overnight rain). But the sun is now coming out making it a good last day. More Sustrans route changes lead to a choice of routes, and we decide to follow the shorter older route out of Wooler which follows a B-road before turning back onto the minor roads. We stop for lunch at picture postcard Etal, with a castle, tea shop and lots of day trippers.
Soon after Etal there is another Sustrans route change, this time a bit annoying: it follows a lovely riverside route but it has a loose gravelly surface with some steep hills that again make short sections uncyclable. The route takes a very indirect route now as we're into the closing stages: the road signs show only 6 miles to Berwick but the Sustrans signs announce 13 miles to go. But it's a welcome loop on the cycle route which takes us across the spectacular chain bridge into Scotland.
After a short ride in this foreign land we loop back and enter Berwick from t'north. We made it! On time, no injuries, two puncture and just a little bit of light rain. A wonderful end to a most enjoyable trip as witnessed by the happy smiles. Rupert Goodings
Photos by Bill Perry