Due North, planning

duenorth-1501Hebden Bridge to Corbridge

Where will I go? There are journeys that you don’t have to search out – the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostella, the Pennine Way, The Silk Route, the Kyber Pass Railway. They wait and you only have to choose them.

Other journeys sneak up on you.

When I lived in Halifax in West Yorkshire, I sometimes visited my friend, the typographic designer David Plumb, in Aysgarth in North Yorkshire and over time I began to realise that the route between our homes ran almost directly north. Tracing it on a map and seeing where it extended to I formed the idea of one day cycling along its meridian, which crossed each of the watersheds between the Yorkshire Dales and touched many beautiful places.

Then I read an account by Eric Newby of a journey he made with his son, also by bicycle, due south from Berwick upon Tweed on the border of England and Scotland. At the time I didn’t make the connection but later I realised that this was my route too. I think that Newby may have followed the actual line of longitude south from Berwick but my interest was sparked by an Ordnance Survey Grid Line zero that passed through the coast at Berwick and went (not quite) south, almost exactly along the route I had chosen. It’s the red line on the map to the left. You can see how it crosses some of the empty spaces on the map, areas where small roads wind across hills and open country.

After that it was only a matter of time, I pored over the maps to identify the closest cycleable route to the grid line (magically incuding a straight Roman road south of Berwick which was almost precisely on the line) and I downloaded the whole route in Ordnance survey “Get-a-Map” squares (a long job) which is still on my study wall, 2 metres high in the smaller road map scale. The map was much longer in the more detailed scale similar to the 1:50 scale OS printed maps and I also printed that off in sheets for my journey. Normally I’d just buy the relevant OS sheets but a long thin route would be very expensive and the get-a-map format is ideal for it. The slow work of downloading and pasting into Powerpoint pages (Powerpoint is the easiest way to quickly manipulate and group images like this) was actually a kind of meditation on the route and part of my planning and learning process.

After a few months of contemplating the trip I chose to do it at Easter 2004. This was partly a question of what would fit in with my family. It was also a tribute to the unquenchable optimism of the British spirit which says that Easter is a holiday, it’s in the spring, so it must be a good time to get out in the open. This is a complete delusion. Easter in Britain is usually cold, wet and windy and the trees have not gained any leaves, giving the whole countryside a bleak tired, end of winter look, completely unlike the soft green burgeoning scene a month later.

Because I am an occasional cyclist rather than a weekly diehard I always feel uncertain about how far I can reasonably go in a day, especially when the road may be hilly. That makes it difficult to plan accommodation and I tend to opt for the flexibility and independence of camping, despite the extra weight you have to haul and the added fuss of organising and packing everything. So I marked up my map with campsite locations and stocked up on camp cuisine.

I also went out and bought my first ever pair of long lycra cycling tights since I realised that it could be both cold and wet and a pair of wet trousers flapping around my legs could get very uncomfortable.

My plan was to get a train due west from Sheffield to New Mills in the Peak District, right on my north-south gridline. My destination was Corbridge on the River Tyne, as far as I could get in the four days available. However the weather on the first day of the trip was horrible and the forecast was that it would improve later in the day, I changed my plan and set off in the mid afternoon by train to Hebden Bridge, further north, in Calderdale and the next point on my route with a railway station.

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