Aysgarth to Stanhope
On Monday the day started with fair weather. Since Aysgarth Falls is right in the valley bottom, where the river Ure forces its way through a series of rocky cataracts, the journey inevitably started with a steep uphill, after which the road wandered across Wensleydale, through the village of Redmire, then up the steep valley side on to Greets Moss. Over the top of the watershed it came down Harkerside Moor into Swaledale and the town of Reeth.
As I approached Reeth the weather turned wet again and I arrived in the village soaked, realising that my old waterproof was no longer doing its job. Luckily there was a choice of cafes and I parked myself in a window seat in one of them, draping my wet clothing around in ways that might induce a little dryness. A variety of hardy walkers came and went and some cyclists on racing bikes dressed in full dayglo lycra steamed up the steep hill into the village.
The cafe had a sad story told in a newspaper clipping displayed on the wall. The owners had moved to Reeth not long before with their young son. As small children do, he had soon got to know everybody in the village, playing on the green outside their home. Then out of the blue he had been struck down with meningitis and very quickly died. The tragedy affected the whole village and, reading about it I realised that the cheerful woman who had served me was also the mother who would never forget her little boy.
Reeth is at the point where little Arkengarthdale comes down from the north to meet Swaledale, and its river Arkle flows into the Swale and on to join the other Yorkshire rivers flowing southeast to the Humber estuary. Arkle will be well known to many people as the name of a famous racehorse and North Yorkshire has a long history of training racehorses. My route followed the Arkle for a few miles then crossed over to its east bank to start the steep climb up the next watershed over into Teesdale and out of Yorkshire.
When the road dropped down again I came into a different landscape with broad river valleys, the Tees, the Wear and the Tyne, flowing successively eastward directly to the North Sea. Out of the shelter of the narrower valleys of the Yorkshire Dales the ride on country lanes across Teesdale felt like harder work but eventually I approached Barnard Castle, signalled by the imposing French palace of the Bowes Museum, an important art gallery for such a semi-rural location although little known outside the region. The Tees winds under the fortifications of Barnard Castle, the only access, over a narrow bridge under the high walls, demonstrating the town’s strategic location. Up the hill on the market street the town centre is genteel and comfortable, the cafe that I found for lunch turning out to be a little too genteel for a cycling foodie with an appetite.
After lunch I re-crossed the river and turned northwest, following the Tees for a while then northwards climbing up the valley side to Egglestone and on up the small valley of the Egglestone Burn. Unlike the relatively short distances between the Yorkshire valleys the watershed between the Rivers Tees and Wear crosses a wide and exposed tract of hills and the climb up from Egglestone was long with some sections where I found myself heading into very strong winds. This was hard work, I stopped for a while at the top of the first big climb to have a snack and a drink in a relatively sheltered spot, then the road swept down the first downhill over Bollihope Common.
At the bottom of the downhill I was beginning to feel very tired and stopped for a break by a bleak quarry. When you have climbed several hundred feet, then dropped back down most of that height it is pretty dispiriting to realise that you will have to climb up all over again, this time over Catterick Moss. The next uphill was directly into the wind, through some dreary landscape and it was hard not to feel that my tired legs might fail me, the fact that there was no town that could be reached without climbing out of the basin of Bollihope reinforcing my slight desperation.
Eventually the slow climb ended and as I dropped down towards the town of Stanhope in Weardale the sky was at least half blue and the sun shone on the valley. There was a campsite marked on my map and I felt that maybe this time I could actually camp for the night and justify lugging all my gear over the many hills since Hebden Bridge. I was too late for the tourist information office in Stanhope so I followed the lane along the south side of the river towards the campsite. Along the way I stopped to ask a very friendly young man out for an evening stroll who said that yes there was a campsite but he didn’t know if it might be open at that time of year.
He knew the owner of the site, a local farmer, and gave me her phone number but there was no reply so I had to push on and see for myself. As a small bonus my friend said he had just driven over the hill from Barnard Castle and seen me cycling that way. He was obviously impressed (he was a hefty build himself, probably strong but not cut out for long-distance cycling) and it always gives you a lift to realise how many people respect what you are doing by travelling entirely under your own steam.
Further on I passed a luxurious-looking country hotel then the road turned downhill back to the valley bottom. At the top of the hill I paused and reflected. If the campsite somewhere ahead was not in business I would have to climb back up that same hill and my heart sank. My legs were just too weary to confront even the smallest climb and I turned back to see what the hotel had to offer.
Horsley Hall was empty, a large weekend party having just left and one other overnight guest expected later that evening. My room was luxurious enough for an old-fashioned princess fearing even the smallest dried pea and I sank into a hot bath to ease my aching legs.
Downstairs, the dining room was a baronial hall with stained glass, a big soft sofa in front of a huge fireplace and log fire. My first glass of beer was heavenly and my dinner was elegantly served, the kitchen slightly limited when confronted with unexpected diners after a busy weekend but the meal was very acceptable. I read for a while by the fire and fell into bed.