I’ve had various highs and lows in pubs when cycling, but never as literally as this. A magazine suggested that they might be interested in beer-related route suggestions, so I diligently decided to ride from Britain’s highest pub (the Tan Hill Inn, 1732 feet / 528m above sea level up in the Yorkshire Dales east of Kirkby Stephen) to the lowest pub (the Marsden Grotto, 0 feet / 0m above sea level down on the coast north of Sunderland). I take my research seriously.
The Tan Hill Inn’s status as the top place to drink beer in all of Britain and Ireland is official. It’s in Guinness.
The identity of the ‘lowest’ is conjecture, though. The Admiral Wells, a pub south of Peterborough, claims the title thanks to its proximity to Holme Fen, which is a couple of metres below sea level. However, the building itself looks several metres above zero on the OS maps. That’s virtually enough for a ski-slope, so I’m ruling it out.
So, I’ve decided to treat Marsden Grotto as the ‘lowest pub’. It’s obscure compared to the Tan Hill Inn, but a remarkable place well worth celebrating: a South Shields gastropub in a cave blasted out in the 1700s by a smuggler. It’s right on the beach amid startlingly rugged stacks and islets, requiring a lift to get you down from the clifftop, so you can’t really get any lower than that.
To ride between them looked like an enticing 60- to 70-mile jaunt mostly on the W2W (Walney to Wear) Sustrans route. This would take me to Sunderland from Pennine peak, via Barnard Castle, Bishop Auckland and Durham.
So that’s what I did today. It turned out very well, which is more than can be said for the beer…
Yesterday I got the train from York to Kirkby Stephen, the railhead for the northern Yorkshire Dales. The Settle-Carlisle part of the journey is famously scenic, passing Pen-y-Ghent (highest mountain in Belgium, I once joked, with unwitting accuracy) as it winds its way up valleys, through tunnels and over viaducts.
From KS it was a twelve-mile haul on country lanes up to the bleak moortop of Tan Hill. There’s no danger of missing the pub: it’s the only building for miles in any direction, apart from the odd mining ruin. In the chilly winter dusk, I was grateful to see its cosy lights appearing on the horizon.
The Inn makes regular headlines around New Year, when people get snowed in for days at a time. Well, it’s nice these days to have some good-news stories. No danger of that last night, and I had the warm, woody bunkhouse all to myself.
In the pub there was live music from a couple of guitarists and a box-percussionist. I had a pint of Tan Hill Ale by the wood fire, which was warm but slightly noxious: perhaps something hadn’t been seasoned properly. I mean the beer, not the logs.
Still, it was a very pleasant and sociable evening, and I slept like a, well, log. Tan Hill’s remoteness makes it a promising place to see the Northern Lights over a beer, though it was too cloudy for that tonight. I mean the beer, as well as the skies.
Next morning I had a relatively late start, not because of anything I drank last night, but because breakfast was at nine. I was a bit concerned that this would get me to Marsden Grotto in the dark, but in the event I was OK, mainly thanks to a huge westerly tailwind that thrust me off the moortops and down towards Barnard Castle in double-quick time.
There was thrillingly raw scenery on the way down, some of it on decent gravel tracks, some of it on good tarmac with long sightlines that allowed me to go down as fast as I want. Which these days is not very fast.
Barnard Castle is notorious among opticians, but my eyes didn’t need testing today. I stopped briefly to admire the eponymous castle, the Market Cross, and the Bowes Museum, a surprising bit of Versailles in North Yorkshire.
Lanes and some OK bridleways – plus some rather less OK ones – took me to Bishop Auckland. I wasn’t seeing it at its best on a cold, grey February morning, but not even the sunniest summer would do much to relieve the depressing sight of empty and abandoned shops that seemed to represent more than half the central premises.
Even Poundland had gone. If people don’t even have a quid to spare, things must be bad.
A few places were making a game of it – nail bars, barbers, charity shops – but the overall impression was one of despair. A cream doughnut from Coopland’s bakery and some chirpy conversation was as good as things got.
From there I rode the decent gravel railtrail that goes almost all the way to Durham. I had a quick look at the Cathedral and pushed my bike alongside the visitors and tourists along cobbled lanes that feel like a hilly version of York. After Bishop Auckland it all felt thriving and positive.
I followed the W2W route from Durham to Sunderland. I had to take my hat off to the people who designed the route, mainly to scratch my head in puzzlement. But, though there were a few arbitrary-looking meanders, ambiguous signs and muddy surfaces, it got me there without nasty roads. And, I suspect, most roads around here are pretty nasty to cycle.
I got a taste of what I’d avoided when arriving in Sunderland and immediately finding the segregated cycle path firmly blocked by several parked vehicles including one for a carpet fitter.
I felt like taking them up on their offer to carpet my entire house, but then leaving all my furniture in place on the old carpets on fitting day, just to see how they liked that.
And, to be fair to Sustrans, the W2W route does go through some pleasantly lakey places on the outskirts of town, on good car-free paths through country and town parks. I stop frequently on Sustrans routes, usually to try and work out where I’m supposed to be going, but here it was to take photos of nice waterside views with my bike providing perspective. I find bikes good at providing perspective.
Getting to Marsden Grotto from the centre of Sunderland is easy and painless. Roadside segregated cycle paths go pretty much all the way there from the iron coat hanger of Wearmouth Bridge, and the final four miles up the coast to South Shields is rather nice.
There are piers, lighthouses, seaside-culture illuminations, and at one point even a windmill, oddly positioned next to a housing estate.
To get down to the Marsden Grotto you can either go down steep cliffside steps, or take their private lift. I took their private lift, and you’re welcome to take your bike, so long of course as you’re a customer. I was a customer, and I hope not an awkward one.
There’s no cask ale, just premium exotic keg beers, such as Madrí Excepcionel. As you can guess from the name, it’s made far away. In Tadcaster. It also has a distinctive taste. One which, to me, resembled cider vinegar. Hmm.
For my next pint I tried Caffrey’s, which definitely did not taste of cider vinegar. More like malt vinegar. Ah.
But I hadn’t come here for the beer. I’d come to Marsden Grotto for the experience. It’s a remarkable pub and you should go. It’s unique for at least three reasons. And I know of no other pub that’s unique for three reasons, which is unique.
First is the access: through an entrance at the top that looks like a ticket office, down that lift shaft.
Second is the interior: it puts you in mind of the Old Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham, another cave pub I’ve visited by bike.
Third is the beach location: the patio bar is right on the sand, and at high tide the waves must lap against the wall. You look out on monumental stacks that are home to thousands of seabirds; it’s like being in the Orkneys, though there are more dog-walkers here.
The pub is low, or at least was in the past, in more ways than altitude. It’s said that one Jack the Jibber grassed on his fellow smugglers and was murdered by them in grisly fashion, involving suspension and a barrel.
His ghost is said to haunt the cavernous spaces now. Today however there was no strange moaning, except perhaps mine about the taste of the beer.
I rode back to Sunderland in the six o’clock dark and rode through almost all the city centre streets. Not because I wanted to explore, but because the signs to the railway station were rubbish and confusing.
I’d had an excellent day of riding: from the highest pub to the lowest pub, but today was almost all highs, and it ended with a splendid pint. Just not one at either of the above pubs. Cheers.