We climbed out of Cumbria and arrived in Iceland
About half way through our winter C2C tour we stopped off in Nenthead to visit Dick Phillips, an expert in Icelandic cycle touring. We were hoping to shape some more definitive plans for a summer tour of Iceland but you don’t always get what you want or expect…
We’re late, we’re late…
We’re late, we’re late for a very important date. It’s cold on the climb up the Nent valley and misty on the moortops; and we’ve an undulating days ride ahead, crossing the Pennines to reach Consett before dark. But we can’t really start that until we’ve had a meeting about Iceland. Five miles up the road in Nenthead.
I feel like a bit like we’re in Iceland already. This part of Cumbria is so quiet and wild compared to the honeypot towns of The Lakes. Well, it was quiet until the boys had a fist fight as we were leaving the grounds of the once peaceful Lovelady Shield Hotel. And now Cameron is riding at protest pace, wailing like a banshee at the injustices of sibling rivalry.
A coming of age?
This trip was supposed to be a coming of age for him, his first solo tour, and not for the first time I wonder if maybe I’ve misjudged it. Perhaps the cold and the hills are too much. His elder brother’s first tour was a simple spring-time ride around cycle trails in Holland. But second born’s don’t get it so easy. I dread to think what Hannah might face.
As I cajole Cameron on the slow crawl up towards Nenthead I wonder if as a family we’re ready to cope with Iceland. Everything I’ve read says it’s certainly not touring for the faint hearted; it’s a challenge destination. And between us, Kirstie and I have to judge whether or not we should take it on. I’m hoping our meeting with the UK’s expert on Icelandic cycle touring will lift the mist that’s been surrounding our plans. And may lift Cameron’s mood.
You’re going to see Icelandic Dick?
“You’re going to see Icelandic Dick?” says a lady in Nenthead when we stop to check the map. “It’s the last house on the hill, at the top of the climb. Leave your bikes here if you like.” She points us up a steep winding cobbled lane and wishes us luck. “If you need a cup of tea to warm up afterwards then the community shop does tea and coffee.”
We dump the bikes at the bottom of the hill and tromp up to find the last house in the village. Up and up we go and I’m sure the air feels thinner and colder. The wind whips past us on its way up to the open moorland behind and the kid’s zip their coats up even tighter. Dick’s house is the last in the village; standing on its own, white, weather-beaten, and peeled by the elements. An old car sits outside, rear seats folded down to accommodate a trusted old touring bike. Both look like they’ve done a few hard miles. It feels like we’ve climbed out of Cumbria and into Iceland.
Please come in…
Dick invites us into his office, clearing papers off a row of old wooden chairs to make space for the kids to sit down. He seems warm enough in his knitted fisherman’s jumper but the room is cold and sparsely furnished, the gas fire turned off. Every available shelf, window ledge and table is covered in books, maps, files and paperwork; this is the engine room of his Iceland touring business, one of the smallest and least advertised operators in the world of international travel. Run by a 79 year old from this front room in Nenthead.
Dick Phillips first visited Iceland in 1955 and was amongst the first cyclists to attempt and complete a crossing of the Icelandic interior by bicycle, at a time when even locals said it couldn’t be done. Since then he’s been back every year and has developed a unique business taking independently minded travellers to experience what he calls “a land of challenge.” In his 52nd season now, this rugged and resilient septagenerian is well known not just for his personal achievements, experience and intimate knowledge of Iceland but for his forthright manner and an unrelenting focus on keeping people away from the nightclubs in Rekjavik to show them the real Iceland.
Standing behind his office counter, complete with typewriter and fax machine, Dick opens out a map and tells us it’s a useless piece of paper. “I’ve just tried to persuade someone who rung up to buy it not to bother because it’s no good, but they wouldn’t be put off,” he explains, visibly irked by their apparent stupidity.
Where are you going today?” he asks us.
“Consett.” we reply in unison.
His brow furrows. “Consett?”
He looks at the motley crew seated in his office much like I imagine Icelandic locals looked at him when he announced he was biking across the interior of Iceland.
“I’m not sure you’ll get there today,” he continues. “You’ve got a big hill out of Rookhope, and one or two other substantial climbs.”
You don’t want to do that..
He seems equally unconvinced we should do Iceland by bike. “You don’t want to do the ring road. It’s 1400km all the way around, narrow and there are a lot of cars in season.”
“So where would be good to go?”
“Well I can’t tell you that. It’s all good. Actually that’s not true. I can tell you some places you shouldn’t go because they’re desert or just plain dull. Or where’s there’s nothing for 150km or more. I’m not helping you much am I?”
We came to Dick expecting to leave with ideas for an Icelandic tour itinerary. I thought he’d be able to tell us whether or not we should do a family cycle tour there this summer, but after half an hour talking around a map he really didn’t think was good for much I feel none the wiser.
This man is something special
But I am certain about one thing. That he is something special. Perhaps a little eccentric, probably not the world’s greatest salesperson, but certainly the kind of pensioner I’d like to be; a determined and passionate fellow, 79 years old, still cycling 2,500 miles a year, getting out touring and still in love with the rough stuff. I so hope I have some of the same spirit when I’m in my seventies.
We head off into the mist and rain
As we leave, the rain is starting. The wind is raw and we walk back down the hill in silence. As we pick up our bikes and start the climb up onto the moors, we ride into the mist again, towards the eastern edge of Cumbria. In this wild landscape, in this weather I imagine us in Iceland and try to summon some of Dick’s spirit. We conceived this winter C2C ride as something of a test ride for a summer in Iceland, to see how we cope with the cold and the wild. But right now I’m not sure I want to go any more. The look on Kirstie’s face tells me she feels the same. But Cameron seems different, he’s off, pedalling furiously, yellow jacket billowing in the wind, fading into the mist.
Are we ready for Iceland?
Besides being a test for us, this was always going to be a transitional journey for Cameron; his first solo ride and in challenging terrain. I wondered how he’d cope, not just physically but mentally. The night before the trip he confessed he wasn’t sure he could do it, and we weren’t entirely sure either. But he decided he wanted to try. And after an initial day of grumbling and complaining on the Whinlatter Pass, I’ve watched him grow in confidence and develop a tougher attitude towards the hills, especially on the climb up to Hartside Summit. And now he is way ahead, leading the climbs, shouting for instructions at every mist clad junction.
“Do you think he should ride his own bike in Iceland?” Kirstie asks. While it was never in the plan, his performance today has got me wondering the same.
“Are we still going to Iceland?” I ask.
“Will it be a bit like this?”
“I think we could handle it.”
“Shall we go then?”
“I don’t know.”
Eventually the mist lifts, but little else becomes clear.
Two things you need to know about every subject
At a café in Allenshead we warm up with hot tea and chocolate and I pick up an old magazine to read. Inside is an article about the Two Things (you need to know about every subject). It says the Two Things distilled from dozens of self help books are: 1) If you can tolerate a little discomfort you can achieve almost any goal; and: 2) It’s amazing the lengths we’ll go to to avoid discomfort.
The first ‘thing’ reminds me of Dick (not that he would EVER read a self help book), and the second is….. well, food for thought.
Do you think we should we take on the challenge of Iceland?
See more of our Winter Coast to Coast (C2C) Photo Journals
- Are you a purist or not bothered?
- Day 1: Setting Out: Workington to Cockermouth
- Day 2: Northern Lakes: Over Whinlatter and into Keswick
- Day 3: In the Shadow of Blencathra: Keswick to Penrith
- Day 4: Goodbye Lakes, Hello Pennines: Penrith to Hartside Summit and Alston
- Day 5: Over the Pennines: Nenthead to Allenhead and onto Consett
- Day 6: Welcome to the North East: Consett to Beamish & Sunderland
- Day 7: The end of the ride: Along the Wear in Sunderland
We did this C2C ride across England, from Workington to Sunderland, as part of our Family Adventure Capital Season. We’re exploring different ways families can adventure together in and around Cumbria, sharing ideas and inspiration to encourage families to get out, get active and adventure together.
Got some ideas for things we should try? Let us know.