Weekender: Britain’s top pub ride

Ride level Regular cyclist
Distance 70 mi / 113 km
Type of bicycle Any
Traffic free
Circular route
Rob Ainsley rides 70 miles (mostly) downhill from Britain’s highest pub in the Yorkshire Dales to its lowest on the north-east coast

Route name: Britain’s top pub ride. 
Start/finish: Tan Hill Inn, North Yorkshire (NY 896 066) to Marsden Grotto, Tyne & Wear (NZ 399 649). 
Maps/guides: Landranger 92; 93, briefly; 88. 
Ride length: 111km (69 miles) – or 137km (85 miles) between Kirkby Stephen and Sunderland train stations. 
Climbing: 700m (2,300ft), not including the climb from Kirkby Stephen to Tan Hill, but 1,300m (4,260ft) of descending. 
Bike type: Any. 
Ride level: Regular in 1-2 days, beginner in 2-3 days.

Ah, the pub ride! How British. Often an easy-going summer evening jaunt with friends to a country inn and back. But Britain’s ultimate pub ride is a bit different. The top pub – in altitude, anyway; it’s in Guinness – is the Tan Hill Inn.

The rugged stone tavern stands isolated, 528m (1,732 feet) up on a Yorkshire Dales moor-top, with drone-like views over the northern lowlands. I’ve cycled there many times. It’s a grand climb up from Swaledale – and a grander freewheel down to Reeth’s picnic-perfect green.

But the lowest? Debatable. I decided on Marsden Grotto, a beach-cave gastropub that’s 0m (0 feet) above sea level, just north of Sunderland. It’s so low that a lift takes you and your bike down from the clifftop to the water’s edge.

Why that one? Because it makes a highest-to-lowest, ‘ultimate pub ride’ of about 70 miles. Essentially, this follows Sustrans’s Walney-to-Wear (W2W) coast-to-coast route through rough-hewn northern hillscapes – much of it car free on rail-trails or quiet roads. (If in doubt while navigating, follow W2W signs.) It follows the prevailing westerly, and – in principle – is downhill all the way.

Tan Hill’s legendary remoteness makes it a vibrant social hub, with live music, food and accommodation. But the route is also an overview of the North East, from summits to seasides, tough farmland to gritty industry, and historic honeypots to post-industrial challenges.

And it’s weekendable without a car. Train to Kirkby Stephen, cycle to Tan Hill, stay; next day cycle to Marsden Grotto, train back from Sunderland. It's a freewheeling celebration of that British icon, the pub. Cheers!

1 Gravel Track

About 4km (2 miles) after leaving Tan Hill, look out for the rusty post on the left bearing only a sign back to Tan Hill. Turn left (north) onto the gravel track. It plunges you thrillingly down from the windswept moor-top to those green plains you saw from the pub.

2 Barnard Castle

If your eyesight’s up to it, admire the castle and the market cross. Tan Hill Inn breakfast worn off? Snack here. Follow signs for NCN165/W2W east past stately Bowes Museum, a bit of Versailles in North Yorkshire. At Whorlton, follow NCN715/W2W.

3 Bishop Auckland

Still following W2W signs, the approach to the town is on patchy bridleway. Keep faith: the uneven or muddy bits don’t last long. Cross the river via the Newton Cap viaduct and join the decent rail-trail that runs almost all the way to Durham.

4 Durham

The historic centre is like York but with hills. Maybe have lunch here. Head east following signs for NCN14 by the river, or shortcut via Gilesgate. At Sherburn, follow signs for NCN70/W2W past two picturesque lakes to Sunderland’s big metal bridge.

5 Sunderland

Go north over the bridge and turn right along the riverside following NCN1 (or shortcut via Dame Dorothy St). NCN1 runs up the coast on car-free paths, past a lighthouse, past Seaburn’s seaside, past a windmill in a housing estate, and, at last, to…

6 Marsden Grotto

A car park and functional-looking white building are actually the entrance to the pub way below. Take the lift down and wheel your bike out to the patio, right on the beach, by smugglers’ caves and monumental, seabird-infested rock stacks. Any lower down and your feet get wet. Maybe treat yourself to dinner and a drink. Sunderland station is five miles back the way you came.