Celebrating cycling heritage on 20th anniversary of C2C cycle route

How County Durham cyclist David Gray pioneered the C2C bike route used by 15,000 cyclists a year

David Gray with the Bianchi C2C bike
David Gray with the Bianchi C2C bike

Next week sees the 20th anniversary of the arrival of a band of Danes on the banks of the Tyne.

The dozen cyclists, led by Eric Larrssen of the Fliefugel Club, landed at North Shields from Esbjerg.

They were taken by minibus to Whitehaven in Cumbria where they became the first official users of the Sea to Sea cycle route as they cycled back east with stops at Keswick, Penrith and Edmundbyers.

The new route had been conceived by John Grimshaw, then chief executive of sustainable transport body Sustrans as the cycling equivalent of the Alf Wainwright Coast to Coast walk.

It seemed like a logical way of linking up the recently built railway path network of West Cumbria with the Consett to Sunderland railway path and sculpture trail using the minor roads across the Pennines, an area promoted by the tourism boards as “England’s Last Wilderness”.

At the time David Gray was the first Sustrans employee in the North East, based at Stanley in County Durham.

He was given the job of co-ordinating the new 140-mile route between Whitehaven and Sunderland.

The C2C is now used by 15,000 cyclists a year, who contribute £5m annually to the local economies on the way.

Survey works had begun the previous year and a steering group of 14 different representatives from all of the local councils, tourism boards, Forestry Commission and Countryside Commission was formed.

“Meetings were held in the icy cold Alston Town Hall so deliberations and arguments were short and decisions rapidly made,” says David.

“As momentum grew, authorities began to take the project seriously, a basic map was commissioned, an interim route line was agreed and a launch date fixed.”

There was a long debate about the name for the route. The Countryside Commission had requested that the name Coast to Coast was not used for fear of cyclists mistakenly trying to use the route of the famous walk.

The steering committee decision chose the “Roof of England Cycle Route”.

David says: “This did not last long as local arts co-ordinator Steve Chettle while doodling on a writing pad had his eureka moment and exclaimed C2C!

“This was meant to represent Sea to Sea, as in Irish to North.

“The C2C was the first, properly planned, way marked cycle route and it set a benchmark for other North East routes,” says David,

It was followed by the Coast and Castles from the Tyne to Edinburgh, the Reivers route from North Shields to Kielder and Cumbria, the Hadrian’s Way ride, and W to W - Walney in Cumbria to the Wear.

“I wish I had a pound for everyone who has ridden the C2C,” says David.

“But looking back, it is very gratifying to see the C2C established. It helps the North Pennines economy, sustaining pubs and accommodation providers.

“For many people it has been their introduction to cycling, which has often then become part of their everyday lives.”

Twenty years ago, when the Danes reached Keswick, a council civic reception was held in their honour and John Grimshaw and David Gray took pictures of each other in front of the first official Sustrans sign on a public highway at the foot of the notorious Old Coach Road section near Threlkeld.

Until then David had marked the route guerrilla-style using white spray paint stencils on the road.

As the route developed, off-road options were added, highway improvements were made with safer crossings, underpasses and shared pavements, and some of the original routes were dropped entirely.

Originally Alston had been avoided because of the procession of powdered cement bulk lorries en route from the Eastgate works heading west, yet it was an important staging post and had a variety of food and accommodation.

So when the cement works closed the route was redrawn to go through the market town.

Soon demand for B&B and food became a priority. The Miners Arms at Nenthead, a former lead mining village, took the bold step of building a bunkhouse at the back of the pub and soon reaped the dividends.

A card stamping system was set up by Sustrans to encourage cyclists to call in on local shops and business to get a stamp where they then usually spent money.

One diversification was the Allenheads Post Office, which sold jiffy bags to cyclists to enable them to mail home their dirty laundry.

In time, and in particular after foot and mouth in 2001, many farmers opened bunk barns, tea rooms, and cafes.

All of this led to the project winning the global category of the British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Environmental award, and the Global Smithsonian Award at the American Society of Travel Agents Annual Convention held in Los Angeles.

Italian bike maker Bianchi also produced a C2C brand machine.

David says: “The route has been done in a day by some, two to three days by most, on a unicycle, and on a Brompton folding bike.

“Not content with Sunderland being the original finish point, Newcastle and North Tyneside got in on the act too and created their own finish at Tynemouth.”

David, who lives in Consett in County Durham, now runs his own business, Chain Events, which takes people on cycle rides, and organises biking events and back-up.

This year John and David have teamed up to devise a Scottish C2C between Annan and Edinburgh – Solway to Forth.

“The parallels are uncanny – a start in a port harbour, leading to a steady climb along hedge-lined country lanes, a bigger ascent over a watershed by the source of a famous river and then a gradual descent to another seaport and a finish beside a great Victorian iconic bridge,” says David.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary, David is running a mass ride on July 12-13 and also trips on the new Scottish version too. To book, go to www.chain-events.co.uk and follow link to British Cycling website.

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