Last year I challenged myself to a short bicycle camping tour – West coast of England to East coast of England on my Brompton along the Coast 2 Coast cycle route. I planned to do it in three days in late September – I figured this was about as late in the year that I’d want to be sleeping out in a tent up North.
Prologue – Carlisle to St Bees (110km)
The official start of the C2C can be either at Whitehaven or Workington. Trains from London don’t go to either of these destinations directly, so I decided to take the train up to Carlisle, spend a day riding around the coast, and a night camping at St Bees before commencing the C2C proper at Whitehaven.
I had planned what I was going to take, but I had neither packed nor figured out how it was going to fit on the bike until the night before. It wasn’t until leaving the house in the early morning that I realised just how heavy the bike plus all the kit was. On my first attempt to lift the bike, nothing happened! It was like someone had glued the bike to the floor. Interesting… The cycle ride to Kings Cross was easy, being helped by no traffic at that time of the day. The bike handled a bit more ‘seriously’ than usual, but all was good.
I reached Kings Cross early, and managed to get some breakfast. When boarding the train I found I could carry the folded bike and all three bags all at once – it felt like I was in some kind of skewed World’s Strongest Man contest.
Upon arrival in Carlisle I immediately found signs to the correct Sustrans route. It was about a mile along the route that I thought I might be going in the right direction, and after several minutes consultation with the map I knew I was going in the wrong direction. Not a great start, but from this I learned that if you’re not sure you’re going in the right direction, stop straight away and check.
The cycle out of Carlisle town centre wasn’t particularly pleasant, and there was a very rough half a mile of muddy lumpy track to cycle over on the outskirts. Once I’d reached open roads, things got a lot better.
The road to Bowness-on-Solway is flat and open. There are markers on the road indicating how far the tide can come up. I would imagine this would cause a bit of a problem for cycle tourists. This part of the route swung close by where Hadrian’s Wall stands / stood but I didn’t see any evidence of it.
At the most North-Western point of the route, the road hooks around Anthorn Radio Station which was a Royal Navy military airfield in World War II. The Very Low Frequency radio telescope was sited there later on for transmitting to submarines.
At Silloth I waited for my friend David who was to do the C2C with me. He’d got on a later train, and was riding a regular-sized tourer.
We rode on to St Bees stopping at a few places en route. When we reached the campsite at around 8pm we saw the pub at the campsite was serving food until 10pm. This meant we could put the tents up and get showered first. The place for pitching tents wasn’t great – the field was grassy but very wet and the whole field was on a slope. There were 3 or 4 other tents there – the vast majority of people were in motorhomes.
We arrived at the pub at 9.45pm only to be told the kitchen closes at 9.30pm (even though the sign outside said 10pm). It took a lot of fuss to persuade them to make us a quick meal. The meal and a couple of pints were very welcome. I brought my bike into the pub with me (not wanting it to get stolen) which raised a few eyebrows and started a few conversations – a theme that continued.
Day 1 – St Bees to Braithwaite (53km)
We were up early with the sunrise, but the cold September night meant there was quite a bit of condensation on the tents. We decided to wait for the sun to dry them out before heading off. Upon arrival at Whitehaven we found the official C2C start, and then found a cafe and had brunch.
The paths out of Whitehaven are quiet and not very scenic for the first couple of miles, but then as you make your way into the lake district, the landscape becomes truly beautiful. Rolling hills, rich green vistas and clear blue lakes abound.
It was all going very well until we travelled through Lamplugh. David was riding about 10 seconds ahead at the time. We’d turned up a lane and I suddenly became aware that I was unable to pedal. The crank wouldn’t turn – something had jammed. I coasted to a halt and went to inspect the bike, suspecting the chain had jammed up against the crank. Unfortunately it wasn’t anything so simple.
One of the screws in the main folding hinge had come most of the way out and had jammed against the chain ring. Because of the close proximity of the parts involved, it was not possible to either take the screw out completely or put it back in. I tried to lever the chain ring away to provide clearance to fix the issue but it wasn’t working.
I was wondering where David had got to, when he came cycling back. He had only been 30 seconds up the road where he had pulled over to buy some homemade flapjacks from a woman who was selling them for charity by the side of the road.
David and I worked together for some time using all the tools we had at our disposal but could not make any headway on the problem. After much effort we concluded that we needed to remove the right-hand crank to stand a chance of fixing the problem, and this would involve a spanner which we did not have, as well a specialist crank-puller tool. This was very bad news and I was seriously thinking this might be the end of the trip.
I’d come prepared with a list of bike shops. I called the nearest bike shop (Keswick) and was really pleased to find out they would be open the following morning (Sunday) – perhaps they would have the tools required to be able to fix the problem.
David went back up the road to obtain a number for a taxi company from the lady selling flapjacks. She told us her husband was into bikes – perhaps he would have a tool that could help – their house was only a few minutes walk away. With nothing to lose we went to the house. Her husband had been inside the house watching cycling on the TV. This was a clue as to his cycling obsession.. when he opened his very large garage it revealed his collection of seven bikes and the best collection of cycling tools I have ever seen.
He had the spanner and crank-puller tools we needed. We removed the crank, re-set the screw, then replaced the crank. After thanking them both we bought more flapjacks (which were very good) and headed off elated that the trip hadn’t yet come to an early finish.
This issue however was still quite worrying. The concern was the same thing might happen again, and if it did we would be very unlikely as to stop in as fortuitous circumstances. We decided to head as far as Braithwaite campsite that day, and in the morning we would head to the bike shop in Keswick to see if they had the required tools so I could carry them, and should the same thing happen again I would stand a fighting chance of being able to fix it.
Not that there was time, but I missed going to the Pencil Museum which I found out about afterwards.
This also meant we were quite far behind from the original schedule and would have our work cut out to make up for the lost time in the two remaining days.
After pitching our tents at the campsite we headed for The Royal Oak where we had a nice meal.
The lessons learned from this day were:
- When things are tough, don’t rule out the kindness of strangers
- Always stop for flapjacks
Day 2 – Braithwaite to Nenthead (86km)
I didn’t sleep well at all. Even wearing a t-shirt, fleece and trousers in my sleeping bag I had been cold all night. There was frost on the tents in the morning, and again we waited until the sun shone on them and did our best to wipe away all the condensation.
The bike shop in Keswick was able to swap out the bolt on the bottom bracket for one with an allen key fitting – which meant I only had to buy a crank-puller to carry with me.
Then we cycled and cycled… Near Greystoke (of tarzan fame) was a great little cyclists cafe. This was a little house by the side of the road – the people running the cafe were out (Sunday morning ride..) but they had left tea and coffee making equipment and flapjacks etc available for purchase with an honesty box. We also stopped in Penrith for some refreshment. On the long slow slog up Hartside a car coming the other way down a steep narrow track beeped at us. By some strange coincidence it was David’s sister and her husband who lived in Merseyside but were staying with some friends in Cumbria that weekend. Neither of them knew the other was in this part of the country.
We made it to Hartside cafe shortly before they closed. Sweet tea and cake was consumed. The weather was turning quite cold, but the descent from Hartside was bearable. We hadn’t planned where we were going to stay that night, but this area of pennines was very exposed and there were no woods or grassy area or shelter from the wind – there weren’t any campsites nearby so this meant we would have to find some lodgings.
When we reached Nenthead it was getting late. We rang the bell on the village restaurant – the lady that ran it said there were 2 B&Bs in Nenthead and gave us the details. She also had room for us that evening. Rather than cycle on to the next village we made the call to check into the B&B and go to the restaurant – rather than risk not finding accomodation at the next village.
The B&B was great – the luxury of a proper bed and hot shower after three days of cycling! Run by a very friendly couple, they gave us a full account of the history of Nenthead. We had our reservation for dinner and B&B owners were also excited as they were heading out to the vegetable show – a big occasion in Nenthead.
The restaurant was quite interesting – it had three tables and was basically the ground floor of someone’s house. The woman we had met earlier did the waiting whilst her husband did all the cooking. The food and wine were of good quality, and the intimacy of the restaurant meant we chatted to the other two tables of diners too.
We headed back to the B&B where our hosts were a little disappointed that their vegetables hadn’t done very well in the competition. However, they had bought some and showed us some massive onions! We stayed up quite late talking. The weather was turning and the forecast for the next day was bad.
Day 3 – Nenthead to Tynemouth (95km)
It was raining when we woke up. The B&B owners had sympathetic eyes as they served us up a big breakfast. We packed and headed out. We were soon out of Nenthead, up on the exposed pennines, cycling into a strong headwind with cold rain driving into us. Within about 5 minutes all clothes were soaked through. It wasn’t at all pleasant, but there was nothing to do but to keep on cycling. This kind of weather at once isolates you. On previous days I enjoyed feeling part of the landscape, but this weather meant you couldn’t see far, and you couldn’t hear much besides the wind and rain.
This weather was to cause widespread flooding in Cumbria. Here’s a local report: http://www.nwemail.co.uk/news/wet-and-windy-cumbria-weather-will-be-back-forecaster-1.999484?referrerPath=news/#
After cycling for a few hours we came to a village where a pub was serving coffee and cake. I looked down at my ankles – they were about twice the width they should be. One at a time, I lifted my ankles up to my hip and loosened the elasticated top of the waterproof socks. About half a litre of rain water came out of each waterproof sock. It sounds bad, but my feet had actually been quite comfortable – I think the socks were behaving like mini wet suits – my feet had been keeping toasty in the warm water. I emptied my socks more regularly for the rest of the day, well aware of the extra weight that all the rainwater was adding.
The rest stop was good. We met some other coast 2 coasters who were in the cafe – they’d make the call the weather was too bad to continue. I had started shivering as soon as we’d stopped cycling. The hot drink felt great but I was still shivering after drinking it. I was determined to not give up. Back on the bike to warm up through cycling!
The rain and wind didn’t let up. I remember climbing one steep hill where the chain came off the bike twice, such was the condition the bike was now in. I’d brought some wet lube with me so once I’d made it up the hill I took shelter behind a wall and doused the chain with the lube.
We eventually reached the Keeper’s Lodge by Stanhope. The rain and wind were still driving down. The Keeper’s Lodge was a super C2C friendly pit stop. Upon entering they gave us both large towels to wipe ourselves down and then made us hot meat rolls and tea. In the cafe was the only other group of cyclists we saw that day. They had also decided to give up at that point and were waiting for a taxi to get them out of there. We asked the cafe owner’s for their opinion – they told us it only gets this bad maybe 6 days per year and we were unlucky. We made the decision it would be crazy to come this far and not keep on going.
It turned out it was also crazy to keep on going. More cycling into a rainy headwind on exposed paths. If we had had a puncture it would have been difficult to repair it such was the cold and exposure. Luckily we didn’t.
And then a few miles from the cafe things got a lot better. The path started descending, and carried on descending for the next 34km. It’s the best downhill I’ve ever experienced.. not the fastest but really nice! And as we got back down towards sea level the wind lessened and the conditions, whilst still miserable, were a lot more bearable.
The path levelled out, and there were some sections on and off public roads as we wound our way towards Tynemouth.
It was on this part of the journey that we experienced the first puncture. David’s front tyre had gone. He repaired it swiftly, but the pump he had with him was not up to the job of getting it back to a usable pressure. The pump on my bike was the standard Brompton pump and made for the Schrader type valve. David’s bike had Presta valves. Then on closer inspection (desperation often brings on ingenuity) I took apart the Brompton pump and it turns out the pump head components can be reversed so that it fits a Presta valve. Undocumented and not required but we we so glad Brompton/Zefal had made the effort tp design the pump like this. He had a second puncture another 10 miles on and again was able to make a swift repair.
It was getting dark as we made our way through Newcastle, and then as we cycled on to Tynemouth in the rain the C2C signposts were hard to spot. We just kept on pedalling, and eventually made it to the official finish. It felt fantastic.
We’d spotted a fish and chip shop near the finish and thought that this was probably in order to get some energy back. I think we were quite a site in the chip shop. We were both drenched through.
We asked for a number of a cab company to get us back to Newcastle train station. I had already by this point missed my allocated train but we might just make the one David was booked onto. They gave me the number of the cab company. I took my phone out of the dry bag, but the water pouring off of me went straight into the phone and caused it to stop working in front of my eyes. The chip shop rang the cab company for us. A really friendly guy with a 7 seater turned up. He had no objections to us chucking the wet mucky bikes and ourselves eating chips into his taxi – amazing! We made the station with 10 minutes to spare. As soon as I boarded the train I changed into dry clothes and collapsed.
In just four days I’d worn out the brake pads on the bike, which had been in good condition at the start. Without the support of David, the guy with the bike tools and the others along the way I wouldn’t have made it. I’d made lots of preparations, but it was the inevitable things that can’t be planned that made the tour the adventure that it turned out to be. More of this kind of thing please.
In preparation I cycled 10 miles a day commuting and had tried out a few 3 hour Sunday bike rides. I’d ridden the Brompton Marathon, a 26 mile sportive in the Cotswolds, and that had felt pretty comfortable. I think the regular commuting on the bike was hugely beneficial in preventing getting a sore tour bum!
- Brompton M6L with standard gearing, Brooks leather saddle and retro-fit rack
- Standard Brompton front and rear lights + Lightskin rear light mounted in seat post
- Brompton pump
- Two spare innertubes, puncture repair kit
- Chain tool, multi tool, small adjustable spanner
- Garmin forerunner 405 watch – cable-tied to the handlebars – I kept forgetting to stop and start this at the right times. Also, battery life isn’t good. Also, goes a bit haywire in the rain. Garmin bike products / forerunner 610 are better buys.
- Anker battery pack – enables you to charge up your phone, garmin watch etc has built in torch as added bonus. Really good design.
- Assortment of Powerbar Powergels – for topping up the sugar levels
- Two plastic water bottles
- Brompton T-bag (front) for all camping gear, wallet, phone, batteries, water, bike tools and gels – this is a really versatile bag and all Brompton owners should get one!
- Brompton rack sack (rear) for all clothing – my shoes kept banging into this which was only alleviated by girding the the bag with a compression strap, and pedalling with my feet fore on the pedals of where they usually are. I don’t recommend this bag to anyone!
- Alpkit 35 litre waterproof bag – Amazing value at just £13. Kept everything dry in the worst of conditions and comes with useful mounting points. Highly recommended.
- Terra Nova Laser Competition 1 tent – quick to erect and pack up, keeps the rain out, plenty enough space for me (I’m quite tall) and best of all a folded Brompton plus all my luggage fitted within the porch area. I planned that 🙂
- Alpkit titanium tent pegs – the only bad thing about the laser comp tent is the supplied pegs (which are too small to be practical) so I bought these pegs which have done a great job and are nice and light
- X-treme Light 800 sleeping bag – wasn’t warm enough. Fine for summer use. Would have loved a down sleeping bag but they’re costly.
- XPed Synmat UL 7 Medium air bed – did the job but difficult to pack away.
- Camping gaz stove – heats quickly – did a good job
- Ti-Mini solo combo titanium cooking pots – lightweight, strong and well-designed
- Disposable lighter
- Smartcafe one cup cafetière – if you’re a fan of coffee, get one!
- Porridge in zip lock bag
- Coffee in zip lock bag – Douwe Egberts cafetière blend 🙂
- Petzl Tikka XP headtorch – really really useful for camping. E.g. putting up tent and looking for stuff in the pitch dark. Has red mode for soft lighting when you’re in the tent, as well as couple of brightness levels of white light. Handy to also have as backup front/rear light for bike.
- Several bin bags – great for making a temporary floor in the otherwise muddy porch area of the tent, as well as wrapping clothes to keep dry when in other bags.
- Assortment of compression straps and zip ties
- Plasters, micropore tape, vaseline (stops chapped lips, dry skin), anti-chafe cream, aspirin, suntan lotion.
- Saloman Goretex SA 3D Ultra 2 walking shoes – strong, light, comfortable and reasonably waterproof – wore these on bike and off bike, no problem
- Sealskinz waterproof socks – 1 pair
- Wool socks – 3 pairs
- Cycling shorts – 2 pairs
- Lightweight, quick drying hiking trousers – 1 pair
- Nike compression shorts – 4 pairs
- Pants – 2 pairs
- Long sleeve technical t-shirt – 1
- Short sleeve technical t-shirt – 2
- Mountain hardware fleece – 1 – really useful!
- Altura night-vision waterproof cycling jacket – 1 – really useful!
- Cycling helmet
- Cycling gloves
- Transition glasses