Winter Solstice: Edinburgh to London

Words by Rich Rothwell pictures by Josh Ibbett 

“Rich, do you fancy riding from Edinburgh to London during the shortest days of the year? It’ll be great”.

This proposition took me aback, even with my conditioned and acquired northern UK tastes.“Erm, yeah why not. I can clear my diary that week”, I replied. I must confess; the proposition did not particularly fill me with inspiration or motivation. It was guaranteed to be cold and wet. Often at the same time.

It’s become a bit of a tradition; Josh comes up north during the winter solstice (which has around 8 hours of light on a good day) and we do something long. Last year’s attempt at a 200 mile road loop had to be aborted due to incredibly cold and potentially treacherous conditions. Josh’s enthusiasm for a five day bikepacking tour disarmed me into agreeing. I’m very glad I did.

Day One: Edinburgh (and Morpeth) to Innerleithen

Morpeth to Innerleithen: 130k / 1,714m climbing (81miles / 5,626ft)
Edinburgh to Innerleithen : 56k / 869m climbing (35miles / 2,851ft)

Josh caught the train to start the trip on the return leg of the official London – Edinburgh – London audax route, one that we would generally follow with occasional deviations. He had a nice easy 30 mile meander down to the small town of Innerleithen where we would rendezvous. Being the purist (or stubbornly self-sufficient) I decided to ride from my home in Northumberland, below the Scottish Border, to meet Josh. It was only 85 miles I thought… Leaving home late, I hit the half way high point – Carter Bar – on the Scottish Border in fading light with minus 6 on the Garmin… I had definitely underestimated the challenge of a loaded bike, extreme cold, and a block headwind. I eventually fell into the pub way too late. We laughed about it.

Day Two: Innerleithen to Brampton

108k / 1,046m climbing (67miles / 3,431ft)

We awoke to a freezing cold, clear and crisp morning, and after a fortifying full Scottish Breakfast, (difference between Scottish and English breakfast is the sausages are square in Scotland) we headed off up and into a sequence of three beautiful steady climbs on incredibly quiet roads. The temperature was well below freezing but it was dry and the roads were ice free.

After some stunning wild and open fells and valleys, we dropped in to Eskdalemuir for an early lunch and a visit to the totally surprising Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist temple. Deserted, and with a coating of ice and snow glistening on the lily pond in a windless winter sun, the Zen felt strong here. Pushing on, the theme of idyllic postcard ice and snow vistas through quiet valleys continued through to Langholm, at which point we had to deviate off the back roads due to untreated surfaces and sheet ice. We approached the northern market town of Brampton as early evening rain started to fall quite heavily. Brampton sits just below the Scottish Border and at the foot of the Pennine hills, so can be a watershed point for weather. We were happy to roll wearily into our secluded self-catered apartment for an early night.

Day Three: Brampton to Northallerton

137k / 1,571m climbing (85miles / 5,154ft)

This was, in many respects, the Queen Stage, as it headed over the high passes of the Northern Pennines. The Pennines is the hill range that stretches from the county of Northumberland, down to Derbyshire, (often referred to as the Spine of England) and they are as wild and exposed as they are ruggedly beautiful. It was still incredibly cold, and we anticipated temperatures of around minus 8 on the high ground. Some may have said this was foolhardy on road bikes, but as a local with a very good knowledge of these roads, I knew that the main spine road through Alston and over to Barnard Castle would be clear and gritted. What we hadn’t accounted for was leaving Brampton! The late rain from the previous evening had washed the road treatment off and it was a skating rink! After waddling like ducks on the sheet ice of our plotted route, we diverted onto a main road that was only marginally better. Josh needed convincing of my ‘local knowledge’ as we gingerly climbed high into the Pennines, threading out way through ice and snow ridges on the tarmac. The higher we got, the clearer the roads got but heck it got cold! Full winter kit, hoods, and trousers were hurriedly put on and cinched tight!

Descending out of a misty white out, and into freezing drizzle, we felt relieved to drop into Greggs Bakers; a staple stopping point for calorie deficient and frozen UK riders.The thaw then started in earnest; over the space of 24 hours, we were to experience a 20 degree temperature swing. As we headed towards our room for the night, the roads were awash with slush and meltwater. A shower, a pint of beer, and a warm bed made everything better.

This was turning into a fantastic adventure, and I was starting to see my own backyard through another lens. That of a tourist; a persona that felt alien yet intriguing. I was enjoying the lunch stops, the country pubs, and the novelty of a UK based winter holiday.

Day four: Northallerton to Barton on Humber

137k / 1,746m climbing (85miles / 5,728ft)

Whilst day 3 had been the Queen Stage, day 4 packed plenty of punch without the high ground. We began by skirting the west side of the North Yorkshire Moors: a beautiful range of rolling yet deceptively challenging moorland hills which look out over the North Sea. Our route started with short sharp kicks, followed by fast and steep descents, one after the other. The elevation gain soon added up and our legs stung from the on / off nature of the road.

The tarmac mellowed somewhat as we entered the hidden valleys of the Yorkshire Wolds (Wolds being an old English name for moorland or hills; these ones being located in East and North Yorkshire). It was a stunning road that snaked through valley floors before reaching Malton; another old market town where we stopped for lunch in possibly the coldest café in the world. At least it felt a lot warmer when we headed out again. Two big climbs followed but once descending, we knew the day’s work was done and we rolled towards the Humber Estuary; a large and wide tidal river that we would cross on the spectacular Humber Bridge. Further to our east and the North Sea coast, lay Kingston upon Hull, a historic port city, famous amongst other things for being the birthplace of William Wilberforce, a prominent figure in the abolition of the slave trade. Sadly, we crossed the huge bridge in the dark and in gale force winds. Our destination was Barton upon Humber, not far from the bridge. Our hotel was nestled amongst warehouses and cobbled roads. The air had a salty flavour. It had a real ancient harbour feel and for a brief moment, I fantasised about life as a pirate. Or a smuggler. Needless to say, the fish and chips were impeccable, as was the breakfast.

Day five: Barton upon Humber to Huntingdon

185k / 768m climbing (75miles / 2,519ft)

This would involve a slight deviation from the audax route, as we were staying at Josh’s in Huntingdon that night, 70 miles north of central London. This would make the final day relatively short and provide a much needed washing machine! The longest day of the trip still lay ahead, though it was definitely the flattest! After some rolling roads, we started the crossing of The Fens; a marshy lowland area that was drained centuries ago, irrigated, and reshaped over the centuries. An unintended consequence was that the area sank, sometimes to points below sea level. Dykes and further irrigation channels have been built, giving the area an otherworldly atmosphere.

The Fens are incredibly, stunningly, flat. It’s hard to describe just how flat this area is. It’s billiard table flat. If you stood on a chair, you could see for miles. Otherwise, you are simply surrounded by the horizon. It’s slightly disorientating and in a strange way, spectacular. I surprised myself by really enjoying the novelty of this surreal landscape. I had been dreading this 60 mile traverse, (being a hill lover) but the legs felt good, the sun was out and we laughed and chatted, perhaps relieved that the freezing northern conditions had not scuppered our trip. We were going to London!

Day six: Huntingdon to London

120k / 976m climbing (75miles / 3,202ft)

A short day that facilitated early trains home for us both. We needed it, as the miles had definitely built up in our legs, and a rest day was becoming appealing. Despite our proximity to London, the roads remained remarkably quiet as we rolled through the county of Hertfordshire. It was damp, and light rain fell, but remarkably warm for December. Or was this simply being a Northerner in the South? It always surprises me how much the temperature changes over the length of our small island. Some surprisingly steep climbs and drops took us closer towards the city and it wasn’t long before we were deep in the suburbs. After passing through an area of trendy bars, cafes, and shops, I briefly thought living in the Big Smoke might be quite good after all. We then climbed Hampstead Heath, through millionaires row; mansion after mansion, all with three or four expensive sports cars parked outside, and ironically this sight, quelled my momentary desire to live in the city. I bet they don’t do much bikepacking….

After passing Hyde Park and in a slightly surreal moment, we were standing outside Buckingham Palace with the thousands of other selfie taking tourists. On to the Houses of Parliament and the Thames for another ‘well we should really’ photo. It’s a dramatic cityscape but I’d take the deserted Pennines any day of the week. Continuing south, we visited our friends at Albion. Once we sat down in the warm office, with a cup of tea and a cake, the tiredness started to kick in. It was not a massive distance over 6 days, but with loaded bikes, on cold wet roads, often with a headwind, we agreed that the distances were just about right for a mid-winter trip. Josh and I mumbled our tired goodbyes, went our separate ways and I headed to Kings Cross train station for the journey back north.

It had been a fantastic trip. I visited parts of the country I had never experienced before. Scotland and the northern hills are fairly obvious as cycling locations, though I knew that already. However, if you didn’t live in east Yorkshire, (for example) you probably wouldn’t ride there! Getting a constant varied view from the saddle of the country lanes, the towns and cities, the agriculture, and the industry of England and Scotland helped me to plug some gaps in my picture of the UK. Bikepacking has helped me understand my own country just that little bit more.

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