I’d travelled all day on the train from Chatham to Pickering. Passed through St Pancras, Kings Cross and York. All magnificent stations. Met an American called Mike on the platform at York. He enjoyed cycling and we made easy conversation until our train arrived. We bid farewell as I went to the guards carriage to stow my bike. “No room for you. Already three bikes in here”, I’m told. I produced my ticket and cycle space reservation. “Not your train. This one’s going to Edinburgh. Your train is delayed. Next one along”. I thanked him for compensating for my inattentiveness to announcements and returned to the platform. I wondered whether Mike would notice before the train pulled out. Standing alone on the platform as it did told me that he hadn’t.
The train from York to Morton sounded like an old bus. The journey was slow and uneventful. Once at Morton I plugged in the saved GPS route from the station to the cottage in Pickering. A quick eight miles in pretty much a straight line. The ride was easy with a gentle tail wind and a steady drop in elevation most of the way. Barry met me at the cottage. Polite small talk and hand over of keys and I was on my own. I quickly changed into my cycling clothes and was out the door within fifteen minutes and off on my first ride over the North Yorkshire Moors. It was nearly 4pm and mid January.
I followed the A169 Whitby Road out of Pickering heading for Sleights. Daylight was receding quickly. The A169 is a fast road across the moors for motorised vehicles. It was not busy though and cars gave themselves lots of distance when they passed. There where a few gentle climbs to the first potential vista looking over the moors at Saltergate Point. Probably only five or six miles from Pickering. I reached there at dusk. It was at this point I properly articulated to myself that I was riding across the North Yorkshire Moors at night. In January. The light from the moon and stars was defused by an amorphous blanket of cloud cover. I was not going to see a lot.
The road took me round an unexpected downhill hair pin. I allowed the momentum to carry and whoosh me along as I clicked my gears up and down into the highest front back ratio. The road surface was smooth and my tyres were humming. Looking into the distance I could see the road winding out ahead. I placed myself in the horizon and imagined the journey I was to have in reaching their. I zoomed past an abandoned inn. The imagery and dialogue of the film American Werewolf in London popped into my head as it did. It could be the Slaughtered Lamb I thought and I the misguided trekker out on the moors alone at night…
Shaking the thought quickly from my head I scanned around and soon caught sight of lights up high in the distance. As the road wound on I could see these lights were atop what looked like a large hillock. Getting closer it was clear that this was a man made structure.It was an aviation installation at the nearby RAF Fylingdales. I later learned that the building housed radar and other communication systems. I had imagined it was a massive blast shield!
A few miles on and the undulations in the road became more pronounced. I was now assisted by a vigorous tail wind. I was speeding down into the dips and being pushed back up the other side by the prevailing conditions. I hit just under forty miles per hour going down into one dip. The gratification marred only by the knowledge that I’ll be heading back at some point. The up and downs transformed into a sweeping plunge at Blue Banks just before Sleights. Like most cyclists I enjoy a speedy downhill rampage. On this occasion though with the dark, the unfamiliarity of the road and the severe bends and drops I rode cautiously and with brakes applied. One car passed by me very fast braking with their gears as they approached a tight turn. I was expecting it to ram into the back of a slower vehicle. It did not. Very soon after this the Garmin began to chirp and chirrup telling me that I had missed my turn. Bit disappointed. Did I have to ride back up that hill! I’d not noticed any turns on the descent.
The A169 was wide and for the seventeen miles I followed it, out in the open. Traffic was fast. The surface was reasonable. Good in places. Not a great road to ride along though. Not one that I’d choose again giving myself more time. During the day time I’m sure I would find it quite monotonous.
Turned out the Garmin was a bit previous in it’s navigational bleeps. The turn was found a short distance on. The road now took me over the top of the moors to Danby and Castleton. The route suddenly took on a whole new character. Trees and hills reduced the ambient light. Arable farmland and the occasional small village had replaced the moors. Twists and turns took over from the long straight tracks of the A169; short, sharp uphill climbs from the unfurling contours of the fast asphalt. I noticed one or two curtains twitching as I rode past isolated rows of cottages. I imagined what the observer might have thought. As the observer my endeavours amused me. I enjoyed the ride. It was dark and I was the only one on the road for much of the time. I broke into song on a few occasions simply for the thrill of being able to do so with no inhibitions taken on for the benefit of onlookers. Existential musings on singularity, the context of the universe, and the paradox of the way our smallness and significance coexist.
There was one hill on route to Castleton that got me up and breathing the Graeme Obree way. I often use this technique when feeling challenged and have found that it works very well for me. I notice I do not get out of breath at all breathing this way. I also find it’s very good for keeping going when feeling fatigued. It’s a three-phase technique. It’s based on the benefit gained by clearing your lungs of “bad air” to make room for more “good” air and thus positively increase the oxygen transfer to the blood. Two normalish breaths in, short, sharp exhales after each followed by a deep breath in and a long deep exhalation. Focussing on the breathing pattern and the methodical grind of climbing lends itself as a vehicle to entering a meditative state.
The winding meander across the top of the moors came to an end at Castleton. Roadside buildings and houses started to get fewer and the verges began to take on that unmistakable ragged rural edge not seen in residential areas. One minute I felt protected from the wind by the narrow roads, hillocks and houses, roads illuminated by street lamps and houses. Smokers standing outside pubs having a drag, the local food shop casting it’s light across the dull grey pavements, metal shopping baskets staked neatly by the door. The next I’m cycling into an unremitting head wind on a desolate road heading out along a dark and bleak trail. I passed the obligatory outpost of terraced cottages on the edges of the town before the moors rose again. It was a rude introduction.
The next thirteen miles were tortuous. The road I took was on a ridge. The wind that sped me along on the way out now blew in towards me from the south-east. Howling around my ears. Snot blowing from my nose I hitched my neck buff up pulled the peak of my hat down and dug in. Grinding it out breathing the Graham Obree way. The pace was very slow. With my gaze fixed on the short distance ahead illuminated by my front torch and no artificial lights the ride became a meditation. Every now and again I saw a build up of snow and ice. The temperature on the moors varied a lot. Probably saw no more than two dozen cars the entire stretch. Passed by The Lion pub about half way. There were a good few punters cars parked. No idea how places like that stay in business stuck out in the middle of nowhere. Few do I guess. This road went on and on. I was surprised when I checked the distance. It felt a lot further than thirteen miles. It did of course end. The emptiness of the moors was gradually interspersed by residential properties and tree lined roads once more.
Turning left on the homeward leg brought about a sudden cessation to the wind whistling in my ears. The abruptness of the change was notable. A welcome respite. It did not last long but when it did pick up again it was for short and intermittent bursts as my route weaved a path through the fields and villages back to Pickering. I arrived at the cottage in Pickering just before 8pm. Rain had started to fall. I felt pleased to have the miles in. Fours hours to cover fifty two miles. 4,100 feet elevation. Average speed just 12.4 mph. Normally cover a similar distance at between 14 – 16 mph. It felt like I had worked hard. This had not been an easy ride. It was a bit odd thinking about the miles I had ridden but not actually having seen the moors. I imagine it all looks quite different in the day!