Thursday, 29 January 2015


The first day that I took the Viscount over to Scarborough was the day of the second stage of the Tour, and I remember - and this is a first for me - feeling genuinely excited, because the new job and having the whole of the Yorkshire Coast to ride were so closely linked. I kept catching myself thinking, "I hope I get this job, so that I can smoke round these beautiful lanes on my bike…" . The feeling was particularly strong where the motorway crossed the route of the Tour. Looking down at the aftermath of the great race triggered a pretty powerful urge to pull over on the hard shoulder, get the Viscount out of the back of the car and chase the Tour down. When I arrived in Scarborough, I was so keen to get on the bike and explore that I ended up doing a sort of running triathlete's stumble*, like Bambi on rollerskates, as I tried to saddle up, and ride away all at the same time.

Up on the saddle, with the evening breeze rushing past, it was immediately obvious that this was going to be a different experience than I was used to. Ever since my cycling dark ages came to an end, I’ve been setting off on bike rides in Manchester, which is to say, on an absolutely level surface. Gravity treats you more or less with ambivalence when you’re on the flat. The bike accelerates exactly as fast as you can push it. You have to ride for quite a while before you find out whether your ride is going to be characterised by going faster and further than you expected, or shorter and slower.
In Scarborough, on the other hand, there are very few roads that don’t have a fairly decisive gradient on them. This one pointed nicely downhill towards the sea, so each pedal push downwards was matched by a cheeky little shove back up as gravity did its stuff. " Go on," gravity was saying, "give it some beans! This downhill could last for ever, and when it does point uphill, you’ll probably be going so fast you’ll coast right to the top." A very silly, wind blown smile was plastered across my face, as the Viscount quickly approached Fred "Woo Hoo Hoo Hoo"speed *. "I wonder whether the North Bay will look as amazing as I remember it?" I thought, and in about ten seconds I was there, noting that yes, it did, and hoping that I did not do something which defined me as unemployable at my interview the following day.

Once I’d settled in, I started to get ambitious. Not just on my own behalf, but on behalf of all the people in the country who love cycling, but have never made it over here to the coast.

Taking the Viscount round the twists and turns of Forge Valley - entirely on my own in spite of it being a beautiful, early autumn evening - I thought to myself, "This place is amazing! It should be as popular with cyclists as Majorca. I should be getting overtaken right now by some remorseless professional chaingang, scything past on their plastic bikes."

Majorca is great of course. Me, Mrs L and Kate went there in 2012. I hadn't been since the '80's, so I had no idea that it had become a sun kissed bike riding paradise and its status as such played no part in my selection of it as a holiday destination. No, really! But there they were: thousands of bikes, of all shapes and sizes, zipping up and down the big wide bike lane, next to the road leading from Port de Pollenca to Alcudia.

In the hotel where we stayed there was a pretty spectacular Max Hurzeler bike hire station, whose meticulous Austrian manager rode this beautiful titanium Colnago:

Bit of close up?

The Colnago was, as you can see, spotless. And so was everything else. I borrowed an aluminium Cube touring bike (in the Continental rather than the British sense of the word) and it looked like it had been delivered from the factory immediately before I climbed aboard.

South of Port de Pollensa were salt marshes. North were the fierce looking mountains of the Serra de Tramuntana. I rode them both, and particularly enjoyed winding the Cube all the way to the top of the mountains, round twisting hairpin bends, until I could see the whole Bay of Pollenca beneath me.

It was a brilliant week, and the island thoroughly deserves its reputation as one of the great cycling destinations. But Scarborough – and the countryside around it – is probably equally deserving of such a reputation.

Let’s start with traffic. There’s a certain satisfaction to be derived from avoiding death or serious injury on a busy city street, but cycling is undeniably more pleasurable if you don’t have to worry about cars, trucks and buses all of the time. This bit of the world just doesn’t have that many motor vehicles in it. If I’m out on my bike and I particularly want to see some cars, then there are probably three or four roads where they will definitely put in an appearance. But if you’d rather just enjoy the scenery, you can do that too. The natural state of a motor vehicle in this part of the world is a mossy Land Rover, sitting in a farmyard, with one wheel missing.

And what scenery it is. I can’t promise you mountains, but there's a British speciality instead; high, wild, heather clad moorland. Round here, the moors are riven by steep sided valleys with woods on the slopes, so sudden that there is a corner where the top of the valley side meets the moorland above. Steep slopes means climbs of course, and there are plenty of vicious, short ramps which will leave you bathed in sweat and anxiously Googling the symptoms of a heart attack when you reach the top.

If all that sounds a bit tiring, there’s the Vale of Pickering: a wide, shallow valley perfect for clocking up fast road miles. The Vale is littered with lovely villages, each one stocked with the kind of pubs which I imagine will start to look more or less irresistible half way through a ride on a warm summer evening. Then to the south there are the Yorkshire Wolds. These are a new kind of terrain for me; a slightly eerie, empty chalk upland with villages nestling in the hollows and twisting roads. And last of all, there’s the sea. OK, so you can’t ride in it, but there is something magical about having it as a companion while you’re on your bike. North of Scarborough, National Cycle Network Route 1 uses the trackbed of the old Scarborough – Whitby railway line to take you up the coast. Unlike the road – which runs a mile or two inland, and only gives you brief glimpses of the sea – the railway line never strays far from the cliff top, letting you look down into secret bays, or southwards to Scarborough Castle and the towering cliffs at Bempton.

NCN Route 1 has one of the greatest "ta-da!" views in the land. From Scarborough there is a more or less constant climb from 50 or 60 feet in elevation to a much more chunky 615 feet at Ravenscar. You’re no sooner aware that you’ve finished climbing than the sea appears, far below and with a horizon half way to Denmark. Then the whole, wonderful sweep of Robin Hoods Bay opens up in front of you.

There are some great businesses here already, helping people get the most out of riding this bit of the world. Pete and Anne Blood's Let's Bike Scarborough will drop off a spotless and capable Specialized mountain bike - one of these in fact

- outside wherever you're staying. And when you've finished ripping round the countryside on it, they will come and pick it up, clean it to within an inch of its life and loan it to someone else the next day. If you're not absolutely sure about how to avoid broken bones on the "...berms, large rocks, medium steps, drop offs, cambers (and) water crossings..." of the red route through Dalby Forest, Pete will guide you through it.

This is a business very much in the same mould as that spotless Max Hurzeler rental station I was getting excited about a little further up the page. When I excitedly blurted out "I love that you don't have rubbish bikes like other hire places do!", Pete calmly explained his belief that North Yorkshire had some of the best riding in the country, and that it shouldn't be spoiled by riding it on poorly maintained, worn out machinery.  Bike About Filey offer a similar service - plus repairs if your own bike breaks - if you're riding a little further south.

Scarborough's Lord and Lady Mayoress Andrew and Sue Backhouse fell for cycling in such a big way last year that they put together a gruelling 200 mile tour round the Borough of Scarborough involving - naturally - 14,000ft of climbing. This year, the original punishing tour has spawned two slightly more manageable sportives (one centred on Whitby, one on Scarborough) as well as a repeat of the 200 mile monster.

Scarborough doesn't need to reinvent the wheel. All it needs to do is polish the current offer and tell everyone about it. The accommodation is there already, although it needs to be tuned to match visitor expectations. There is a really good tourism organisation working to promote the Yorkshire coast, which would, I'm sure, do a great job of telling riders how much Scarborough has to offer. There are already some superb places to ride, and with some effort and investment, there could be many more.  This has been done before. A couple of years ago, Eden Borough Council funded a similar effort to market its patch as a cycling destination, and to improve its existing offer. Routes were compiled. A Sportive was organised. A list of cycle friendly accommodation was put together. The funding only lasted for a year and a half, but there's a good chance a lasting legacy will come out of it.

And I think Scarborough can do better. Scarborough's existence is a triumph over geography. Built at the end of a road which goes nowhere else but the North Sea, the town is used to getting people to make a leap of faith just to get them here. And the trick is to realise that if you're telling bike riders about the Yorkshire Coast, you're not even asking them to make a leap of faith. You can stumble on a great ride here by just saddling up and setting off. 

*Courtesy of Bike Snob NYC

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The move - Part 2

"We could try further out." said Mrs L, after we'd realised that every house we could afford in York was miniature. Or suffered from some other massive disadvantage (toilet in a shed, one bedroom three foot wide but fifteen foot long - that kind of thing).

I booted up a map on Rightmove. "The problem" I opined "is that York is surrounded by this flat, featureless, twenty mile wide Donut of Crapness in every direction. All of these places would rot my soul. What about properly further out? What about Malton?"

"Tories." said Mrs L. "And too horsey."

"You like horses."

"But I don't want to look like one. I'm worried there might be something in the water."


Some time passed.

"You know, the train from the 'borough's not bad. 45 minutes."

We'd talked about moving to Scarborough before. In fact, we'd talked about it at all levels of seriousness, from actually doing maths to see whether we could afford it, to drunken new-years'-eve wishful thinking, for years. Mrs L grew up there. We both love the legendary North Yorkshire seaside town. If you're unfamilar with it, you might be wondering, "Why?" I'll do my best to explain.

An idiot once rhetorically asked on on internet forum why you would visit Scarborough if you didn't want to visit Cash Convertors or Wetherspoons. Well, you might like surfing, or mountain biking, or sailing. Or Regency architecture. Or Alan Ayckbourn. Or knights and castles. Or fiercely independent businesses. Or the most amazing countryside. Or literally having the muck and tiredness sand blasted off your face by the wind coming off the North Sea.

Scarborough is, in short, amazing. It is not one of those seaside towns which is born out of a resigned reaction to geography ("Oh look, the land stops here and a muddy, freezing sea starts. We'd better build a pier and stuff."). Scarborough is the creation of glaciers and crashing seas, of chilly Romans and Vikings, of castellans and hard as nails fishermen, of Regency dandies and Victorian architects who breathed in the fresh, somehow more filling seaside air and just went slightly crackers.

Travelling over to Scarborough by rail or road is a steadily building assault on your senses. Leaving York behind, you'll drive through that Donut of Crapness I was going on about to Mrs L earlier. There are dealerships selling slightly faded ex-RAC vans. And the Original Factory Shop, with its sign advertising "Coach Parties Welcome!" to a car park so empty as to be sinster. And a curry restaurant, named after notoriously grumpy founding father of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Then - quite suddenly - the slope of the Howardian Hills rises up in front of you. The  hills are named after the Howard family, who wisely chose them as the location of their slightly over the top country pile. If your're lucky enough to be on the train, you'll be winding your way through Kirkham Gorge, past the ruins of Kirkham Priory. The River Derwent runs beside the railway, having blasted out a twisting path through the hills in the last ice age. Beyond is the Vale of Pickering, a wide, shallow valley with the Yorkshire Wolds rising up on your right and the southern slopes of the North Yorkshire Moors two or three miles away to the left. Suddenly, all the buildings have red pantile roofs and are beautiful. The valley runs all the way to the coast, although it is blocked at its seaward end by a jumble of low hills - essentially rubble dropped by passing glaciers. In the last ice age, the Vale was a huge lake, and the scarps of the Moors and Wolds were its shores.

If you're driving, then you might at this point turn left, and cross the valley floor to Snainton, one of a string of lovely villages sited where the lands starts to rise towards the North Yorkshire Moors. You might not realise it, but you're getting really close to Scarborough now. After Ayton, the road starts to climb the hills, giving you a view rights across the Vale of Pickering to the Wolds.

You really need to be doing this particular bit at sunset. And if possible, in a vehicle with seats set higher than normal.

As you climb the hill towards Jacobs Mount, you might look over to your right. And if the setting sun if just at the right angle, it will be lighting up the hundred metre tall face of Bempton Cliffs, ten or more miles away to the south, turning the mucky white chalk to a glowing rose colour.

Bempton is where the chalk hills of the Wolds dramatically terminate, showing a towering, vertical face to the North Sea. The cliffs march south all the way to Flamborough Head, a huge step in the horizon, bulging past the vertical.

Then, in four or five seconds or less, you'll be over the top of the hill, and Scarborough will be before you - two bays, divided by the castle on its diamond shaped hill. There might be a few street lights shining, and a gathering blue darkness in the hills and woods to you left. And all along the horizon, the sea.

We've been coming to Scarborough regularly for years. But as soon as we started to think seriously about moving here, the tone of the visits changed. Mrs L started to eye up towering Victorian houses in a slightly possessive way. We experienced the magic of driving into Scarborough on a Sunday evening, listening to the rhythmic "Wush...wush...wush..." noise of us passing stationary traffic, queuing the other way, bearing its occupants away from the coast and back to a working week with no prospect of sticking your toes in the sea at all.

"Of course, there's not a hope in hell that I'll be able to get a job over there." I said gloomily, before setting out on my swiftest and most productive job hunt ever.

I started writing this blog so I didn't have to tell Mrs L in quite the exhaustive level of detail I naturally favour about how awesome each of my bike rides has been.

So of course you might guess that I was excited about trying the bike out around Scarborough.

Which is why I bundled the Viscount in the back of the car when I came over for my job interviews, along with my suit and shiny shoes, and jumped straight on it when I got to Scarborough. And I've been doing a bit of exploring, and coming up with a few ideas...