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Bike Ride – Battle of the Standard & Whorlton Castle

Distance: 88 miles (141 km) | Profile: Undulating/flat with a couple of reasonably challenging climbs | Going: Road | Bike: Cyclo-cross + mudguards; 32C tyres | Date: 27-07-14

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With all of the great weather we’ve been having lately I decided to make the most of it and do a slightly longer ride than usual; so casting around for somewhere interesting to go I eventually remembered that I had unfinished business with Whorlton Castle which stands just to the east of Swainby on the northern edge of the North York Moors. I first came across it quite recently, when competing in a local fell race, appropriately named ‘The Whorlton Run’, which finishes in front of the castle itself. Rounding the final corner a quarter of a mile away I was taken completely by surprise when it hove into view and I immediately forgot my wobbly legs (well, for a bit anyway). Unfortunately it was one of the few occasions that I had forgotten to bring my trusty compact camera (the phone just wouldn’t do on this occasion) so I had to make a mental note to come back and do the business.

As an incentive to create a loop of some sort, instead of a boring old out-and-back route, I thought I’d head down Northallerton way because I’d always wanted to photograph the memorial to the Battle of the Standard, which was another bloodbath hammered out between England and the ‘auld enemy’ Scotland this time in 1138 during the anarchy of the reign of King Stephen.

So with the Met Office forecasting an increasing likelihood of showers later in the day I decided to take a fairly direct southerly route out, avoiding the busy A167 where I reasonably could hence my selection: Sunderland Bridge (5 miles), Hett village (6.5 miles), Ferryhill (9.5 miles) then taking Chilton Lane to the A689/A1 junction at Bradbury (13 miles), turn right at the services then on through Mordon (15 miles), Great Stainton (18 miles) and Sadberge (22 miles). [It’s a much unappreciated fact that unassuming little Sadberge was a major player in medieval times. It was the administrative centre of the ‘Wapentake of Sadberge’, a Viking term as it lay within what had been the most northerly reaches of the Danelaw. It was eventually gifted to Bishop Pudsey by King Richard (the Lionheart) and thus became part of the bishopric of Durham (although it retained some independence as recently as 1971)].

The clouds were gathering and the patches of blue sky getting fewer as I rolled through Middleton St George (24 miles) heading for Neasham. After a sharp descent on a rapidly dampening road I turned left in Neasham (26 miles) and straight back up a stiff but short climb, that led me past the picturesque church of St John the Baptist and across the River Tees at Low Dinsdale (27 miles). This is the only Tees crossing in the area and frustratingly turns north before looping back southwards towards Girsby down a very pleasant tree lined avenue slightly reminiscent of northern France.

Yet another shower, quickly followed by hot sunshine, turned the road into a bit of a sauna as I headed towards Girsby. All of a sudden there was a rustling in the bushes and out jumped a bloody big deer! I’m not sure who got the bigger shock but it was away as quickly as it had come, to where I know not. Soon after the deer incident I arrived at the junction with the B1264 Yarm road. In order to avoid a bit more of the A167 (or the Great North Road as it was once known) but still to keep the journey reasonably direct, I decided to go through Hornby (32 miles) then join the major road at Great Smeaton (33.5 miles). It’s been many years since I’ve been able to spend time on these fantastic lanes which offer the perfect cycling experience; even the A167 is fairly decent in this part of the country being flat to gently undulating rather than the somewhat steeper character it has around Durham.

After joining the main road it wasn’t long before I reached my first objective, the roadside monument (38 miles) marking the site of the Battle of the Standard. Standing there, almost forgotten, on the outskirts of Northallerton, no-one could accuse the authorities who installed it of harbouring notions of grandeur: as monuments go it’s pretty austere, grim even, being a plain sandstone obelisk around 8 feet high simply inscribed, at its base ‘The Battle of the Standard AD 1138’ with a shield depicting the cart-drawn standard that lends its name to the battle, half-way up the column. The adjacent interpretation board offers a map and a fairly detailed account of the events of the day. The only other thing of note on this unremarkable memorial is the inscribed graffiti indicating that for at least sixty years others, perhaps cyclists, have been intrigued by its mournful presence.

Having read the fairly weathered but reasonably well detailed interpretation board I back-tracked a little way to view the battlefield towards Standard Hill Farm, comparing it with the many other medieval battlefields that I’ve visited and particularly with that of Neville’s Cross fought over 200 years later. I left with the impression that if the dispositions were accurate, the victorious English might have been slightly disadvantaged but then,when you’ve got St Cuthbert in your corner, you’re probably not going to worry too much about the odd couple of feet height difference.

Back on my bike I continued south, still on the A167 turning left on Quaker Lane (40 miles) then heading out north-east on the Stokesley Road (A164) towards Osmotherley which overlooks the A19 from its vantage point high up on the north-western corner of the North York Moors. It took me back a few years to when I would frequently come out this way with what was then the Richmond & Darlington CC; I remembered too late how steeply undulating the road was which, combined with the sunny, hot conditions that were now prevailing, soon had me unzipping my jersey in an attempt to stem the flow of sweat fast issuing from every pore.

Once under the A19 the road starts to climb towards Osmotherley but funnily enough it didn’t seem to be as bad as I remembered it – I don’t know why because these things generally tend to work the other way around. The climb wasn’t as long as I recall and there is only one fairly short section where I had to resort to my bottom gear of 34 x 26 to be able to pedal comfortably. I did forget however, that turning north out of the picture-postcard village of Osmotherley (47 miles), the road continues to climb up to the reservoir at Cod Beck (48 miles).

On the way up I had a bit of a confrontation with some moron driving a large black BMW who couldn’t be arsed to wait for me to clear a line of parked cars, instead expecting me to ride in the gutter and to move my backside out of the way of his wing mirror. At times like these you have to remind yourself that the vast majority of drivers are absolutely fine and that most of them SHOULD be in charge of a vehicle. Beyond the reservoir I nearly cracked and stopped for an ice-cream at an overflowing Cod Beck car park but then resolutely decided to carry on to Swainby only a couple of miles distant and where my next objective lay. But as I came over the shallow ridge between the hills high above the Tees Valley I could see that it was full of dark rainclouds with rain falling in patches for miles around.

I wasn’t thinking too much about this as I began the steep, narrow descent back down off the moors. With a car right behind me, I quickly got up enough speed to jump the cattle grid and was rapidly approaching the first of the two hairpin bends which I knew featured on the descent. Right on the bend and to my horror, the road went from dry to wet; coming off the front brake in order to avoid the front wheel slipping away meant that I was carrying too much speed and when I squeezed the back brake the back wheel slid out on the wet, uneven surface and with a violent twitch I quickly found myself in a rocky gutter on the wrong side of the narrow road. At this point I admit that I might have lost my composure a bit and put my hand out towards the waiting bank side but as I’d managed to scrub off most of my speed I came to an ignominious halt in a raspberry bush – nature’s barbed wire!

I could hear the car mentioned earlier approaching the bend behind me and anxious to retain some dignity I quickly repositioned the bike on the road and set off hell-for-leather only to be immediately confronted by the next hairpin. Again travelling far too fast for the slippery conditions, I unclipped my right foot and by judicious use of the back brake made it around the corner hexagon-stylee. By now water was running down the road indicating that there must have been a torrential downpour but pumped up on adrenaline I was still charging down the hill towards Swainby. As I was gently trying to regain control I was wracking my brains, trying to remember if there were any other nasty surprises in store, but quickly, and on a straighter section now, order was restored and I was able to take the time to remove the hedgerow flora that I had been trailing down the hill behind me.

Breathing a sigh of relief I freewheeled into Swainby (50 miles) swishing through the puddles before turning right at the church to take the blind lane up to Whorlton Castle (51 miles). With steam rising off the road now I couldn’t help noticing that if it didn’t evaporate, the centre of the road was going to be slicked with diesel spilled from the tractors that obviously use it – a mental note was made to stay well to left when I descended the hill on which the castle stands.

The ‘castle’ is really only the gatehouse of which all that is extant (above ground) is 14th century although it’s interesting that the windows are not those typically found in a building whose chief purpose is defence, and look to have been added much later. It is thought to stand on the site of an earlier motte and bailey fortification and a large defensive ditch still partly surrounds it. The arms on the shields above the outer gate are those of Grey, Darcy and Meynell (left to right) indicating the family relationships at the time that the gatehouse was built. It is Grade 1 listed and privately owned but can be visited and over the last few years has been the subject of much debate as to how it can best be maintained.

After having had a look around and taken the photographs that I needed, I took the time to have something to eat and drink. I’m definitely not a contemporary thinker when it comes to eating and drinking strategies. Rightly or probably wrongly I almost always wait until the second half of the ride unless I can feel that I need to start taking something on board. I have no idea to what extent I’ve underperformed as a result but I seem to manage OK.

By the time I’d finished, the formerly oil-slicked hill was bone dry although at the bottom, under the trees, it was just as wet as it had been previously. Cycling back into Swainby I had to pick my way through a wedding that was spilling out of the church and over the road – I wonder if it’s lucky to see a cyclist at your wedding? Out of Swainby and across the A172 the roads are long and gently undulating and by the time I’d reached Crathorne (55.5 miles) the heavens had opened again. By Yarm (59.5 miles) however, the sun was out once more and through Egglescliffe (60.5 miles) I was pleasantly distracted by the roar of aero-engines and the historic but instantly identifiable profiles overhead of a pair of DC3 (C47) Dakotas each painted with the black and white stripes of the D-Day invasion forces, no doubt en-route from the Sunderland Air Show (all that was needed to complete the picture was a stream of parachute canopies trailing behind them).

By now I was close to having finished the contents of my waterbottle but despite that was feeling a bit dehydrated so the journey from Hartburn (63.5 miles), through Bishopton (67.5 miles) and onto the Darlington-Sedgefield (71 miles) road was generally passed trying to make my mind up as to whether I’d continue into Sedgefield in order to go to a shop or head for the services at Bradbury off the A1 thereby effectively taking me back the way I had come. In the end Bradbury (73.5 miles) got the nod and I made a rather dull journey into a headwind a bit more tolerable by breaking it down into sections. By the time I reached the services my backside was starting to protest a bit and I gratefully sat down on a forecourt wall to consume a cold bottle of fruit juice.

Once refuelled, I set off, retracing my route and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was feeling quite strong, managing the steep climb from Chilton Lane around the outskirts of Ferryhill pretty easily (76.5 miles). At the time of writing the Coxhoe to Thinford road has been closed and it was nice to be able to cycle up it under no pressure when turning right to Hett at 78.5 miles (I was once scarily close to a cement mixer at that junction). It doesn’t matter how many times I do it, I never enjoy the climb up to the Cock of the North (83 miles) from the Honest Lawyer (a super-busy drag on a heavy surface) but I have to confess that on this occasion it wasn’t too bad except I was struggling to stay comfortable sitting down for any length of time. Home never looked sweeter than when I rolled into the street around 5.00pm, making the whole day about 6.5 hours long – not fast by any means but quick in patches and definitely long enough for me.