‘It’s the young ones I feel sorry for. There’s nothing for them.’- Jan, Middlesbrough.
The north east has been awash with treats and rare treasures. Pocked inside this rolling terrain are towns and vistas that’ll charm and disarm, that inspire one to pause and take a moment to breathe it in and absorb. I’ve come across people gifted with a cheery frankness and friendly conversation and dwellings and villages layered in stripes of historical struggle and counter-struggle. It’s been one of the best secret discoveries of the trip so far. The bad reputation some of these towns live with seems like a convenient subterfuge to avoid annoying Londoners buying second homes and poking about with nosy questions.
There’s no denying the hidden stories of low pay, unemployment and poverty though. These issues affect all ages, it’s true, but the impact is certainly bearing down on younger people, as I’ve already encountered on this trip. As I’ve been travelling mostly during the day, and through seaside towns, I’ve mostly met retired people during these last few days. Our conversations about community and society have been illuminating. But I worry that pensioners can’t necessarily understand just how difficult and dispiriting things are for the young, particularly given the large number of benefits and free services they receive. There’s a great difference between being on jobseekers’ allowance aged 17 and the state pension aged 67.
Younger people need to socialise, form new relationships and exercise their identity, and have a greater need (and not simply a ‘want’) to travel around, see their friends, go to bars and parties, dress in fashionable clothes, and use communication devices to participate in social networks. This means needing some kind of disposable income. This may seem a little obvious, but I think that retired people, those who are after all more likely to vote, and often more likely to vote for the Conservatives, tend to take a view that these young people are scroungers, wasting their money and not being economical.
Smoking! Having kids! Spending it all on beer and mobile phones!
It’s a delusory view because it doesn’t take into account the benefits of full employment, well-paid entry level work, and growing up in households where parents could provide some pocket money to teens that was a feature of life in the 1950s and 60s. These are often rare in today’s communities in towns like I pass through. (For instance, child benefit payments stop after the age of 16 if the child leaves full-time education or training: something more likely to affect poorer communities with less tertiary forms of educational support and less social aspiration.) There’s a generational misunderstanding happening, which blights the empathy of older people as much as it does the young.
How can it be bridged? Communities are fragmenting and pubs and social centres are disappearing.
I awake in Filey, refreshed by a good night’s kip and a shower after some days of wild living. One effect of travelling is its intense sensory stimulation, often resulting in a peculiarly intense and vivid kind of dreaming afterwards that I’ve never experienced before. I dream about the fishermen here, and about one story Ian, the friendly and very kind host I’ve been staying with, told me the previous night. He knows a fishermen who has nearly drowned on a number of occasions. Each time, he feels that he has died and gone to heaven, and could describe these visions in some detail. The effect is very disorientating: he could not remember passing out, but he would find himself in a wonderful and blissful afterlife. Voices said it was not time, but after passing what felt like an eternity there, he would awake in a hospital, or another time, in his own bed. My dream takes this form, of a kind of visit to heaven. William Blake is the closest I can summon up to describing it:
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.’
I realise when I awake with a gasp that death can overtake one so easily.
Ian generously offers to take me to breakfast via a lovely morning stroll through the older parts of the town. We wander by cliffs with stirring panoramas of the bay below, and we pass by old fishing boats and a beach being ruined by silt. We find a little café near the top of the cliff, and over breakfast Ian tells me more about the fishing that once happened here, of the intriguing stories of the town’s residents, and the unique features of the landscape. There were once Roman signal stations nearby, and on the other side of the rock jutting out to the north is a small pond with the glorious title of the ‘Emperor’s pool’, named so because Constantine of York took a dip here. We wander through an old and surprisingly large parish church, with tombstones that tell long and sad stories. Charles Dickens once visited here and wrote about one, of two loves, early death and suicide.
We wander back, and I realise that in this somewhat underpeopled place most people are retired. I wonder to myself why the pleasures of relaxation and the opportunities for self-discovery and development are things that we must work fifty years for, and hope to enjoy when our bodies are more depleted. Why can’t we have a society with less work in all, rather than intensive work and then intensive idleness?
I leave Ian with warm wishes, and feel glad to have met another friend on the road. I head out north, taking a main road up to the queen of seaside resorts: Scarborough.
Ah! Another moving and fascinating town that tells old stories! I ride up the hill and down, passing first bland suburban houses, brewery chain pubs and into an ugly town centre. There are some interesting old buildings here, like the pretty station and the theatre opposite, but for the most it’s clear that this is a town on hard times, baned by the wider decline of the British Seaside Resort. Poundshops galore, cash for clothes, closed down takeaways. Coaches of elderly people waiting for an exhausted guide to take them somewhere.
I pass through this part, knowing that the good stuff lies ahead. And yes! I ride first up a steep hill to the castle, overlooking both the north and south bays. Just by here is the gravestone of Anne Bronte, who died of TB aged only 29, in a rich life that produced poetry and novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Fall clanged through Victorian society, presenting a subtle challenge to stuffy Victorian patriarchy in its depiction of women of the time. As a governess to the Robinsons, Anne often visited Scarborough on holidays during the 1840s at a time when it was a more prestigious and well-heeled spa resort. It’s so strange to consider the contradictions today. She’s buried just by a street that was once ‘Paradise’. Between two walls I gaze out at the greyed and decayed signs of a Victorian seaside resort, the old spa building, and the Rotunda museum with its dusty and desiccated stuffed creatures.
I look up at the ruins of a castle, destroyed by first world war German shells, now a somewhat expensive heritage attraction. I head down again towards the south bay, past peeling old hotels on hard times and retired dog-walkers sat gazing at the majesty of the bay along little benches dedicated to the memories of a million dead souls. The place has a very rich but faded charm, and its tatty streets waft with a wistful melancholy for a better past. I see a grand hotel, pretty Italian gardens, and indeed the town still has some galleries and theatres. I pass the Clifton Hotel on Queen’s Parade, where between 1917 and 18 Wilfred Owen convalesced and wrote some of the most haunting visions of the 20th century:
‘Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.’
By this hotel that has clearly better times, I feel saddened and disturbed by the image of Owen sat out on one of the nearby benches alone and for hours, his mind funked by the strange hells of war with which he sought to exorcise with words.
I travel on, past the pretty Peasholm Park and its shuttered up crazy golf, and a number of pretty Chinese features. I’ve been here once before as an unhappy teenager, taken by my mum and siblings for a couple of days. I locate a bench and see a ghost of myself brewing over some vain and insoluble conflict of the soul and recall the intense seriousness that one lives life in those mid-teen years.
I leave Scarborough and follow a cycle trail up to Whitby. I’m loathe to break my own rules but it’s the only route that will take me up to Robin Hood’s Bay, and along what I’m told is some spectacular coast. It’s along an old rail route so the track is a little bumpy, built on cinders rather than crushed stone, but thankfully flat. I pass along some very pretty countryside scenes, with lazy robins and desperate butterflies, happy sparrows and other songbirds flitting across hedgerows and, beyond, sheep idly chewing grass and gazing up at a whizzing mix of metal and man. I pass through little woods to my left and beautiful sea coastline to my right. Meandering thoughts get interrupted by one dale where all hell has broken loose, as a murder of crows wages war against a smaller group of birds. The natural world is never totally peaceful.
After a time I reach Ravenscar, a town that never was. Some speculators bought up the land in this empty spot and etched some roads and plots into the landscape. It was planned as the next Big Seaside Resort, but few bought plots and the isolated nature of the place condemned it further. Trains would have to take several attempts to make it up to the steep hill, and once in 1947 the town became so snowed in that locals starved and somehow, eventually, managed to survive on frozen turnips. Today it is a preserved National Trust ruin.
I start to follow a winding road down, near to the Peak Alum works. This place used to take the piss. Between the mid-1600s and mid-19th century, the works here mixed local rock with piss taken from London to produce alum, a substance that allows dye to stick to materials. It’s pretty funny imagining the plush clothes of the Georgian and Victorian upper classes dyed with the dirty drainage of poor cockneys.
I take a very bumpy cobbled path down a very steep hill, and the path begins to become much more rocky and bump. Alas, I have taken what will become a very bad wrong turn. I find myself on a footpath, Cleveland Way. At first I mark to myself that this might be OK. I carry on, but the route becomes very steep and muddy and full of steep steps up and down. I ask a couple of passing hikers how far the next road is. ‘Some miles!’ They look at my bike and laugh. ‘You’ll find it very difficult with that!’ The path is very narrow and borders at times on the very edge of the cliffs. It is a little terrifying in certain moments. One misjudgement and myself and my vehicle could trip down into the waters below.
I curse myself, think about offering up a prayer to whichever local sympathetic deity might assist me, and wear on. It is absolutely exhausting. The bike is struggling and I can barely push it up some of these steps and hills. The tide has come in, flooding Stoupe Beck Sands, a stretch of beach that might have provided a short cut, and I am finally compelled to lift everything up what feels like a large pyramid of jutting, broke-up steps. It is a moment of intense agony and despair.
But for all that, I come across extraordinary views. I have a poke around an old gun battery full of plastic debri washed up. A group of rams bar my way up one cliff path. It’s a little nerve-wracking as they could charge me off the cliff, but I use my bell to good effect and spook them away.
I finally reach Boggle Hole and realise what’s happened. The place is named after a local hobgoblin that once lurked in this unusual dip in the cliff. I’ve been tricked by this nefarious being into coming his way, endangering life and limb in the service of a cruel practical joke. Thankfully there’s a road here that leads back to the main road, and I dust myself off and eventually get back on track. The path takes me by Robin Hood’s Bay, a pretty little seaside village full of poky inns and streets where the locals once made a mint from smuggling, as common a form of income as fishing until recent centuries. I pass along and, eventually, make it to Whitby, several hours later than planned.
I take a road towards the abbey and feel relieved to be here.
At this point in the narrative things do not suddenly go back to better times, oh no. For those who enjoy schadenfreude, here’s another opportunity to get your rocks off.
As I approach the Abbey my bike chain suddenly pings off. The chain keeps getting caught at the back, lodged inside the frame but off the little gear wheels (I’m no bike expert and can’t speak the right term). I cannot dislodge it, no matter what might or scheme I try. I try for about an hour with one thing or another but in vain. I’m ready to give up, and a chilling sense of despair starts to flood through my blood. But who can help me? I am still on a country road, next to a dilapidated cottage and little else. Could I call someone? Perhaps, but they cannot help. The bike cannot move, so I can’t simply scoot it to a shop. I’m screwed.
No! Like with those abysses of the soul on the roads to Hunstanton, or Edale, there is only one thing that can pull through. Yourself, your own desperate dependence on finding some solution or secret reserve of energy to contain such anxieties and overcome adversity. I devour a large bag of sultanas and get back to work, removing one thing after another. Eventually I free the chain and find a temporary fix for this problem. Aha! Some time later, I carry on to Whitby.
The abbey looms ahead in the distance, a curious old ruin that perches out on the cliff overlooking the dense but small seaside town. It’s pretty enough, though the abundance of visiting kids kills any atmospheric scenes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula emerging out of his nocturnal bolthole and seducing the local beauties with intensely dreamy desires. The abbey itself is expensive and not worth the entrance, to my mind. The views from beyond give enough, and the exhibition about the place is pretty incoherent and a wasted opportunity to tell a story. Compared to the free ruins of Leeds’ Kirkstall, anyway. I pull the bike down a long staircase into the town, no longer bothered with the bumps after the staircases of the Cleveland Way, and enter into the town.
It’s a bustling place and packed with tourists. I nose around a small and average-looking harbour before crossing a bridge into the old town, where the streets are densely filled with holidaying families chewing chips and pointing up at old things. Gulls lurk in the distance, making preparatory swoops above peoples’ shoulders in an admirably daredevil set of manoeuvres to pilfer the potato snacks of passers-by. It doesn’t have the charisma of Scarborough but it seems like a nicer place for families to visit. I can’t say I particularly like the place though, and so I make plans to head up to the other side of the bay, towards a Victorian network of terraces and promenades near the West Cliff.
Here I come across an unkempt Whale Bone Arch, put up to commemorate the town’s hidden history of whaling. Between 1753 and 1833 there were 55 whaling ships based here, landing in over 25 000 seals and 2 761 whales. Like with the histories of coal mining, whaling is a now-forgotten form of work that once supplied this island with a huge amount of its energy and consumables. Whale skin was used for leather, cartilage for glue, but moreover blubber, or fat, was used for oil. Home and street lights often depended on the stuff until petrol started to take over. Whaling was extremely dangerous work, involving long sea journeys pursuing gargantuan creatures who would often struggle for their lives. A recent film, Leviathan, gives some impression of the coldness and cruelty of sea life on a fishing boat, but I think nothing comes closer than the novel Moby Dick. Consider Ahab’s desperate lines towards the end of the work for a sense of how obsessive, intrepid, and terrifying, such work was against ‘some invisible power’:
‘how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!’
It’s interesting to speculate on what would’ve happened if petrol had not been discovered: the likely extinction of whales I suppose, and another probable route of eventual ecological catastrophe. But without petrol we would not have the cars, engines, air flights and plastics which are no doubt exacerbating the damage we humans are doing. It seems as natural beings we cannot exist without interfering and damaging what’s around us, like any larger predator.
Nearby is a large statue of Captain James Cook, paid for by the Canadian government. The last time I saw one of these was in a small town on the western coast of Kauai, Hawaii, where Cook had once landed and discovered the populated ‘Sandwich Islands’ for Britain. It was little over three months ago and during the most blissful time of my life, marrying my wife there. Cook’s modest statue was covered in a leis and surrounded by a park and indifferent Americans and Hawaiians. Here there is a little more fuss and some tourists gawp up at the imposing figure.
It’s strange that Whitby claims him. He was born in Marton, now part of Middlesbrough, and though apprenticed at Whitby, he seemed more interested in escaping the place. He made a home later in the East End of London near Limehouse. It may seem deeply unethical to celebrate a figure who helps establish European colonialism and the destruction of so many smaller languages and cultures, but I can’t help but admire Cook.
He came from a modest background, and established himself as a superb navigator and cartographer in the Royal Navy. His highly accurate surveys of parts of Quebec earned him commissions to explore the uncharted waters of the Pacific Ocean. Such long journeys were trips into the deep unknown, with a kind of courage that one expects of space-travellers. Cook was able to find and accurately map Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, and in the process introduce the rest of the world to the unique flora and fauna of these places. Against great adversity he reached places like Antartica as well as Tahiti, and he proved to be a canny negotiator and leader in moments of extraordinary peril. He was eventually killed on Big Island, Hawaii, after an altercation and misunderstanding with local people, but he leaves behind a set of journeys that transformed the world.
Exiting Whitby to the north, I follow the road down to the small seaside village of Saltburn. I’m starting to tire. Whenever people ask where I plan to reach that day, their astonished and dismissive looks can make one feel demoralised and overwhelmed. I trudge on, but leaving Saltburn I come across the most punishingly steep hills of the trip so far. Everything’s already broken from the Cleveland Way, and I can barely pedal the bike up in the easiest gear. It feels like I am trying to pull up a large chest of drawers. The afternoon sun starts to bake my brain, and the hills towards Staithes are excruciating.
What can I do?
There is nothing or no-one that might assist me here. The road behind me is busy and I am too far from anywhere now to stop or eat. I must carry on, and find within me some inner power to push up these cliff roads.
I begin to think of my friends and family at home. I start to compose each one a small message in my head, expressing my fondness and hopes for them. Gradually, the hills become a little easier. I continue this task, thinking of the good qualities in every person I can summon to mind. The track is becoming more bearable. An immense hill presents itself at Boulby near a large potash plant. I am tempted to take the road here, as it passes a deep underground laboratory where experiments into dark matter and cosmic rays take place in an abandoned mine. I ask a passing cyclist going the other way whether it’s worth taking the road or an even steeper but quieter hill nearby. His sleek and speedy super-bike is like a Ferrari compared to my beloved old friend, more like a 1950s Routemaster bus. He advises the road, and I dare to carry on. As my sinews twist and shout, a group of words clusters in my overheated head:
The love of others gives meaning to life.
I hold onto this thought, and start to mouth it and shout it as I reach the summit of this monstrous mountain. My chain falls off at the top, but I can handle it. I hold onto those thoughts, of the idea of agape, a love for all human beings, and a little later, the hills give in to a smooth rolling plateau and, later, a nice swooping set of declining roads. I pass through Loftus, a large village-town of a kind I will continue seeing on this coast. Largely composed of a main road with terraced housing facing each other, with a few roads leading off, these communities were usually built around local mines, often going several miles under the ocean. Today there is very little. I pass groups of bored teens and the place seems rough and ready. Not much is open and clearly there’s little to do. One 15-year old swigs back a can of Stella outside an offy, and I think to myself, fair enough. I’m inclined to join him, but my travails today have set me back some hours and I have arranged a time to meet tonight’s host.
I reach Saltburn, a small Victorian seaside resort with little about it today. A pier has been restored recently but seems in disrepair again, and there’s a chippy and a few grotty hotels clustered together. It’s on hard times and is a bit ugly, though the number of families playing about on the golden sands gives an air of joviality to the area. I’m famished and queue up for chips. I’m hoping for curry sauce, so I ask if it’s vegetarian. As it turns out, all the chips are cooked in beef dripping. This will be another recurring thing around the north-east. (Another thing is the frequency of public loos, which to the male traveller on a budget, beats leaking in hedges).
I’m now by the east coastline, and I follow another road up north towards Redcar. I am now in the County of Durham, and I’m unsure what to expect. Redcar has some of the worst unemployment and mortality rates in the country. As I ride up I expect to see a destitute and dirty industrial town, and so I’m a little surprised by the somewhat nice looking seaside resort I come across. Much of the shops on the seafront are closed down, as many are in these parts, but the place seems at least a bit pretty. I pass the Zetland lifeboat, the oldest surviving lifeboat in the world, first stationed here in 1802. I wander about in a hungry daze and eventually find Mr Chip, which claims to be the oldest chip shop in the world too. It’s pretty unlikely, but the meagre portion of chips doled out certainly suggests the place fancies itself.
I look around the main high street behind the sea-front, and begin to see signs of the town’s poverty. Most of the shops are closed permanently here. Some have fake facades that look like occupied shop-fronts. There are some charity shops and poundstores, a couple of pubs barely open, but the street is a ghost town. It’s the mid-evening and virtually no one is around. The town itself has been blighted by the closure of steelworks at nearby Teesside, and ICI Wilton, a chemical works that once was the largest manufacturer in the British Empire. Through cruel and incompetent government policies and privatisation, international competition, and a series of dire takeovers, the jobs and industries provided are gone. There’s no money and few people in the town today. Something has failed here. It’s a sad demise to what once was a prosperous industrial town and popular seaside resort. I move on, taking the road west to my final destination.
I am back on a busy A-road, jostling with the freight trucks. It’s a familiar place for me these last few weeks. For the benefit of those who have not yet had the pleasure of riding in the hard shoulder, what can one see on a very busy British road in the country?
Well, there’s a surprising number of magpies always bouncing about. Rabbits flit in and out of the grassy verges nearby. There are countless potholes, and hard shoulders are usually an assault course of road debris, from shattered numberplates and light-covers to broken bits of dashboard and hubcaps. There are lamp posts with an esoteric numbering system. Count the drivers who yell just as they pass behind you to scare you witless. One can even lose count of the number of squashed pigeons, squirrels, grouses, deer, cats, mice, or foxes, also decorating the outer edge. Sometimes one will pass a trucker’s parking spot, where great mountains of plastic bottles, beer cans, tissue and sandwich wrappers spill out onto the grass, every need catered for. It’s a real treat riding through these places.
No, the journey leaving Redcar is interesting. I pass Corus and what remains of the steel-works, along an intensively industrial landscape that intrigues me. I eventually make it into Middlesbrough, a small town that spills out its suburbs into the roads. I follow a cycle route that has famously confused everyone who has passed before. Mike Carter in One Man and his Bike writes about being advised to avoid it, as it runs through a council estate and is full of broken glass. Lo, the path is covered in broken things and old refuse and incoherently ends in the South Bank estate. I have no idea where to follow, and decide to get back on the A-road which I can at least be sure leads somewhere. After a time I make it into the deserted town centre, and wait by the old town hall for Janet, the mother of one of my good friends, to arrive.
I’m staying in a family home in the west of the town that’s empty whilst my friend’s father works in the Shetlands. He picked up a trade as a steel-plater, and once upon a time in the north there was plenty of work going. Today he travels all around Europe working on odd jobs, but at least he’s kept it going. I’m very late, but Jan has kindly waited in the town for me, and I follow her car towards the western suburbs of the town. It’s the first time I’ve done this, and my body is now quite aching. Following the moving vehicle reminds me of playing a computer game, encountering a difficult end-level boss where one must frantically bash every button to beat. I manage to follow and I am glad to finally stop.
I spend some time talking to Jan about Middlesbrough, and about people’s lives here. Unemployment is a huge issue. As Jan puts it,
‘They call them scroungers but how are they supposed to get a job when there’s none there? And it’s all zero contracts, where you work 15 hours one week, 8 the next.’
She’s really worried that poverty is affecting a younger generation of people far worse than it has older. After all my experiences and stories I’ve heard, I completely agree. I listen to the BBC News, which tells great lies about employment growing nationally and in the north-east. This is belief by a huge growth in ‘self-employment’, as the unemployment are shafted off benefits and into business schemes that pay less than the minimum wage, quickly collapse, and saddle them in more debt. Jan’s left me a copy of the local Evening Gazette, a rag full of stories of sexual violence, drugs arrests, suicides and young deaths. Such extremely grim news inundates one at each turn, and destroys any hope for transforming the huge poverty that exists in British towns into a new programme of full employment in dignified, well-paid work. Everything’s fucked up – that’s the lasting impression. But it’s a false one.
After over three weeks’ cycling my knees are starting to strain and my behind is starting to chafe bad. I hadn’t expected either to occur, and I’m unsure what to do. Cyclists have all kinds of theories and odd products about how to prevent a sore bum, and in the course of the last couple of days I have discovered something which has worked for me. It’s not standing up and cycling, though this does help! I’ve brought with me some eczema cream, as like many people in the modern era, my body is more interesting in attacking itself than anything else. Diprobase has moreorless removed the worst of the pains. I’m sure any skin moisturiser or treatment could also help.
I eat a huge dinner of pizza, oven chips and frozen vegetables, do a little writing, and finally clamber upstairs in this silent house, and gently fall asleep.