I went to Barnard Castle today to test my eyesight. Well, like with our friend Dom, the first part of that is true. And jolly nice it is, too. No wonder it was the place of choice for a lockdown birthday drive in the countryside. I didn’t knowingly break any rules in my visit today, or deliberately mislead anyone in any subsequent statements. Indeed I have nothing for which to apologise. Barnard Castle probably deserves a bit of extra attention though. It’s a genuinely lovely market town in a part of the country that seems to have escaped the notice of most people.
However, to begin at the beginning, when Barnard Castle was merely a twinkle in my eye, I started my day in the company of Lex’s pre-school and charming daughter, Evie, watching some of the best modern day kids’ television I have seen, which restored some faith in the world for me. I am stuck in the era of Mr Ben, Bagpuss, Trumpton and The Clangers, so I find most modern offerings hard to stomach.
I made the usual mid-morning start to my ride and soon stopped for a cup of tea in the market place in Penrith. This is a town that feels like it plays an important role in local life. The solid buildings are made of the local red sandstone and it bustles with everyday life. I think I would enjoy trips into a town like this, with a good range of local shops, cafes and so on, without it feeling too large or intimidating. And you can’t beat a good clock tower to make you feel like you are at the very centre of things. I left my bike propped conspicuously against Penrith’s impressive civic timepiece while I had a little wander around. I do know Penrith a bit, because I have been coming to stay with relatives nearby for many years. My uncle used to run the tax office here at one time. But I was happy to watch life go on around me while I sipped my tea and ate a very good pastie from Graham’s, a purveyor of fine foods for many decades in a large, old fashioned looking shop by the clock. It is the sort of shop that every town should have, and probably once did; but sadly many don’t any more.
Today’s ride to Richmond (the one in Yorkshire) would take me half way across the country following the rough line of the main A66 trunk road. But I needed to avoid cycling on the road itself, as it is one of a very few fast East-West routes in the north of England, and therefore horribly busy with all types of traffic. So instead I had to zig-zag my way over the Pennines by whatever quieter routes I could find, which led to a less direct but much more interesting and pleasant cycling experience. It was quiet country lanes to Appleby in the Eden Valley, passing through attractive sandstone villages like Cliburn, Bolton and Colby, all the while looking across the Eden vale and the fields of cows to the wall of high hills that make up the Northern Pennines, including Cross Fell, the highest point in England outside the Lake District. I was alongside them them for miles. You can see them from far away, south west facing and catching the light for most of the day, glowing in the late evening sunshine. It is always an impressive sight, whether covered in snow, as they often are in winter, or purple heather, as they were right now.
Appleby is an attractive place, with its sloping tree-lined main street that links together the castle at the top of the hill with the parish church at the bottom of the hill, close to the bridge over the Eden and the grassy flood plains. At each end of this street is an obelisk that also functions as a sundial. There is a good assortment of inns and small shops, including one that advertises itself with a banner proclaiming Appleby to be an Honorary Quidditch Town (as mentioned in the Harry Potter books). It felt like the right sort of place to have a Quidditch team (the Appleby Arrows, in case you were wondering).
But, for me, the best thing around here could be seen only by looking above the rooftops and up into the hills. Here lies High Cup Nick, an incredible natural amphitheatre formed by high cliffs that surround a deep valley almost concealed by the surrounding Pennine hills. If it was a few miles to the west, in the Lake District, this would be a wonder visited by hoards of people all the time. But up here in the lesser known Pennines, it is usually very quiet, and to walk up into it from below is a real thrill. I think it is one of Britain’s true natural wonders; but don’t tell anyone. It is better when enjoyed in solitude. Today, I could only make it out from afar; but it was still a magnificent sight.
Despite the availability of cafes in Appleby, I decided to press on a little further, feeling confident that when I reached Brough, a village on the A66 that is signposted from many miles away, I would find sustenance. I almost regretted my decision. Brough must once have been a very important staging post – literally – on the difficult journey across the moors from Westmoreland to Yorkshire. Today, however, it is very quiet indeed. It is by-passed by a dual carriageway and its main street leads nowhere. There were a couple of pubs, a cafe, a chip shop and a “cafe-bar” and all looked like good choices on a day when any one of them might have been open. But not today, a sunny Tuesday afternoon, straight after the August Bank Holiday weekend. All the doors were closed. You could almost imagine the tumbleweed blowing across the street. Appleby this was not. Which was bad news, because from here I had a lonely ride over the hills for the next 20 miles or so. But I saw a sign saying there was a tea room at Brough Castle, a mile away under the dual carriageway in Church Brough, a pretty little off-shoot of the main village. Thank goodness it was open. It was mainly there to cater to children whose parents brought them to play on the playground equipment, scramble on the castle walls and eat the ice-cream made on the local farm. But it also served my needs and made for an unexpectedly scenic outdoor picnic spot under the ruined castle walls, which you were free to peruse (cycling shoes not recommended). So that was a relief.
Then there was no more putting off the day’s big climb, which took me high up into the heather-clad moors, past red flags indicating that the army was on active manoeuvres in this wild and open upland world, and eventually back down again into greener pastures and a brand new world in Upper Teesdale, and its small but attractive “capital” of Middleton. I like it here. It has a sense of being a little removed from the rest of the world. No dual carriageways or supermarkets here. Just small villages and empty roads, some pubs and cafes (open), a small cattle market and some very traditional looking shops, including the self-proclaimed best fish and chip shop in Britain. I stopped gratefully for my now traditional afternoon tea, complete today with scones, jam and cream.
The talk in the cafe was of the impending visit of the Tour of Britain cycling race, which was being conspicuously drawn to local attention by temporary road signs. No-one else seemed to know what that was, or why the roads would be closed and parking restricted. So I took on the role of expert (having arrived on a bike) and explained what I could. To keep things simple, we settled on a definition of “like the Tour de France, only smaller”. I went to see the riders pass through the Peak District during last year’s Tour and it was a good afternoon out. But you don’t need to worry about overcrowding. There was plenty of space along the verge for everyone, even in the more popular spots. Teesdale and the surrounding Pennine country, including its neighbour Weardale, to the north, will make a great cycling stage. The roads are wide and open and the terrain is challenging. I have cycled here before and I thoroughly recommend it. In fact it fits beautifully into my personal theory that everything to the north of the A66, from the A1 at Scotch Corner right across to the west coast, is just as nice as the more celebrated national parks to the south, but far less touristed, and therefore wonderfully empty of crowds. I’m right about this. But don’t tell anyone. In this crowded country, it is wonderful that you can still be so alone.
I took the valley road for the 10 miles or so into Barnard Castle, which I was able to see with great acuity. I think it may be my favourite British market town, which is saying something. It is certainly a strong contender. It has all the ingredients: large church with clocks, ruined castle, quaint old bridge, riverside walks, market place with ancient market hall on stilts, antique shops, restaurants, pubs, lack of ugly modern buildings… You get the picture, I’m sure, in 20-20 vision. But where else has a French Chateau down a side street? The Bowes Museum is an unexpected and spectacular local asset, with a world class art collection. Local folk were out in the street in dayglow jackets, attaching banners advertising the latest special exhibition (about colours) to the street lights with a cherry picker. It was all rather fun.
A couple of miles further on I reached the lovely village of Whorlton. A warning: do not try to cross the River Tees on the bridge here. It is closed. To all users. For a long time. A local dog-walking couple told me it might even collapse under its own weight. So that meant a long detour to get to Richmond. Luckily it was a lovely sunny evening and I didn’t really mind. The countryside was pretty enough, the villages lovely, and the roads empty. I arrived at 7.30pm into Richmond, another contender for best market town, ticking most of the same boxes; but slightly spoiled this evening by the presence of fairground rides in the market square. Never mind. I have been here before and will surely return to enjoy its full splendour, including the impressive castle keep that dominates the skyline. It had been another lovely day of cycling across some superb English countryside, every bit as impressive as – but different from – Scotland. What a beautiful country we live in. And I was now back to the south of the A66, braced for what might lie beyond. But that would be revealed tomorrow. For now, it was steak night at Wetherspoons, and I was hungry!