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A day out in the Northern Dales

 Doug Bertelsen    

by Doug Bertelsen

The challenge was on as Dave informed me of his new website, “Cycling in the North Pennines”. I asked him about the “North Pennine Challenge” ride. “Dave, how hard is it?”, “I don’t know” he said “I’ve not done it!”.  (He didn’t need to do it to know how hard it was). So knowing I liked a challenge, we had to give it ago.
We kept an eye on the weather for the following week as the wind in the North Pennines can be very strong. I’d been on the top of Chapel Fell, Harthope Moor a couple of weeks earlier and the wind was that strong, I couldn’t open my car door!
The 7th of October was looking good and I was feeling fit for the challenge as I’d had a lot of hard hilly rides during the summer months. We drove up to Stanhope, via Teesdale. The weather was perfect and the views over Teesdale were superb, so good we stopped to take photos.
The usual start for this circular route is from the Durham Dales centre at Stanhope but today we used West Blackdene as our starting point. Not a good idea as the steepest climb of the day was the first!
We cycled 3 miles east on the A689 to Westgate and in the middle of the village turned left up Peat Hill or Skutterhill Bank. Right from the bottom this was a killer hill, long and difficult and at times 1 in 4 (25%) and maybe 1in 3 (33%) on the bends and made all the more difficult because we had had little time to warm our muscles through. As we reached the top we could see our next challenge, Middlehope Bank. The site of this from the top of the Peat Hill was awe inspiring and enough to demoralise any keen cyclist. We rested our lungs for a couple of minutes at Skarsike Head and it was at this point I made the decision to take this ride hill by hill. I knew there were about eight more difficult climbs ahead that day and just climbing any two of these could be classed as a good day’s cycling, after all, there were plenty of escape routes if one of us was to “crack”.
We had a well deserved pleasant descent from Skarsike head to the bottom of the climb of Middlehope Bank. Rising 150metres in just a quarter of a mile tells you how steep this hill is, down to bottom gear as we weaved our way up over another 1in 4. At the top I took time out to take some photos, the views were stunning, the sun was out and the good weather was holding.
We had another nice ride down Well Bank negotiating a couple of hairpins and then through the hamlet of Newhouse, back onto the A689 and east to St John’s Chapel.
From St John’s Chapel we turned right up over Chapel Fell and Langdon Common. The climb of Harthope (better known as “Heart Stop“) is fearsome, rising from 300 metres at St John’s Chapel to 630 metres in 2.5 miles.
My first experience of this had been back in April 1999 and on that occasion, although there had been very little wind, I had to get off the bike, beaten by this monster and not realising I was only 30 metres from the top! The April mist had obscured it. I knew then if I was going to beat this climb I would have to wait till the end of my summer season when I would be fitter and stronger but I never returned for over ten years. In August 2009 I set about “conquering” this climb. On this occasion I cycled from Darlington through Hamsterley to Wolsingham as I turned left in St John’s Chapel a strong southerly wind got up and I had a right old battle to get to the top. By the time I got home I was well knackered out.
So with all this in mind, I’m sure you can understand my apprehension concerning this climb. We were in luck, no head on wind, just a strong breeze from the west as we cycled south to the summit. As I approached the top I could feel my heart thumping in my chest as my lungs screamed for more air. I remember saying to myself, if I’m going to peg out this will be the time. Having beaten this climb, I started to feel more confident about completing the rest of the “Hell of the North”.
After one more climb, we descended into Teesdale and onto the B6277 just above Langdon Beck. We now had a 10 mile energy sapping drag over Yad Moss, against the wind to the furthest westerly point of the ride and at the sign for Garrigill we turned right up Nunnery Hill towards Nenthead. It was a relief to turn out of the wind but we faced the fourth difficult climb of the day knowing we had another five to go. As we climbed the hill we passed a number of “Coast to Coasters”. They had quite a challenge at this time of the year.
At Nenthead we stopped for a well earned rest at the café at the old Nenthead Mine.
Where we were served with good grub by friendly staff.
Refreshed we set about the climb to Killhope Cross, at 627 metres equal to the height of Harthope. It’s a long never ending drag but at least we didn’t have the wind against us. At the top it’s all to easy to think it’s all down hill from here but we knew different, there were still another four hard hills to beat.
We left Cumbria at Killhope and cycled into Durham. The weather was still holding and we had a great descent down Weardale passing the famous Killhope Wheel Museum. At West Blackdene we turned north up Carway Bank. This short, sharp bank was a 1 in 5 precursor to Well Bank. We had cycled down this bank from Middlehope Bank earlier on in the day so we knew what to expect, a difficult long climb with sections of 1 in 5. At this point I thought to myself, if I can get up here and survive I was in with a good chance of completing the days ride. I felt good on this climb and I had the feeling that my body had given up complaining of the pain and was just getting on with it.
We descended down Middlehope Bank and climbed up to Scarsike Head and to quote Dave, “a leg breaker”, passing the junction at Peat Hill, I didn’t want to think about the pain I’d suffered on that first hill of the day.
A descent over Lintzgarth Common and a right turn to pass Lintzgarth Arch brought us into the lovely village of Rookhope. From here we turned left passing St John’s Church and I was tempted to say a prayer of thanks but it wasn’t all over yet! We ascended the last climb of the day, a two mile undulating climb over Brandon Walls to Hill Top at 420 metres. We then had the best descent of the day into Stanhope along this quiet country lane a wonderful alternative to the busy A689.
At Stanhope we were tempted into the Dales Centre by the thought of a well earned cuppa and a big chunk of chocolate cake. As we devoured our treat, Dave reminded me that we still had a 10 mile ride up Weardale back to West Blackdene, so the day was far from over. Normally those ten miles wouldn’t have been too difficult but after all those climbs I felt I was hanging on to the back of Dave’s Bike all the way home.
As we cycled back, I said to Dave, “you are well into your sixties, I’m sixty next year and we’ve completed this “Hell of the North”. I think you will have to dream up something more difficult for the under forties!”
My bike computer tells me we did 56 miles in 4 hours 50 mins, Maximum speed 43mph. 2020 metres of accent.
Will I do this ride again? Probably. Mad? Yes!!!!!

 Hi Dave,
 I read the article on you and your website in last week's Weardale
 Gazette, and have just got round to taking a look at the routes - and
 they're *exactly* what I'm looking for!
 I'm relatively new to cycling - well, I had a great 6-speed Falcon in my
 youth that I used to enjoy - but a mate of mine has just passed on his
 similarly-aged road bike, made by Armstrong's of Durham, with 14 gears
 all off of down-tube mounted levers, old-style, and I'm really enjoying
 getting out and about on it. I'm actually pretty fit these days, doing a
 lot of fell-running, so I'm finding the cycling much easier than I used
 to. Having said that, I live in Wolsingham, and if I set off in any
 direction except up the dale, it's pretty hard work to start with.
 I've managed to get up to what will seem to you like a pretty modest 30
 miles at a go so far - i.e. Wolsingham to Wearhead and back. But I've
 been doing these in a "time-trial" fashion, as fast as I can go, getting
 faster each time, more or less. What I need now is actually to relax a
 bit, take some food with me, stop off at cafes, and enjoy some longer
 rides. Which brings me to your site ... just the job, mate! Properly
 documented routes, on my doorstep, and I'll know in advance how much
 grief I'm letting myself in for ...
 So thanks very much for getting these online.
 Shaun Roberts, Wolsingham Feb 23rd 2010


Hi Dave,
I read your excellent  article in the Weardale Gazette and looked at the website, thanks for both of them,  you really like your hill climbing.  I have cycled most of the routes you describe and can appreciate the pain, though I have never attempted anything like the 'North Pennine Challenge' in one day.  Keep up the good work, its great to see a cycling piece in the local paper.
Regards   David Pugh    March 16th 2010



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