DAY 1: You can't say 'Mong' Anymore

It began, as these things so often do, with significant cardiovascular distress.

If mulishness is anything to go by, my trailer, hitherto proving to be a perfectly amenable companion on level ground, objected really quite strongly to being Abrahamically dragged up an incline. The views from the top of the first major character tester, however, made the screaming thighs, boiling tides of sweat and tortuous lung rupturing seem almost worthwhile. This could indicate my character is somehow lacking, I suppose, but I reckon it's not my character that needs work; it's my conviction.

The Vale of Pickering spread inland like a giant picnic blanket, lining the westward valley between the North Yorkshire moors and Wolds with a fetchingly florid patchwork of colourful fields, sharply defined by dry stone walls, teeming hedgerows, murmuring becks and ancient copses of twisted trees. It promised the kind of Constablesque cycling landscape I was rapidly beginning to cherish: flat. While my disgruntled muscles made the move from indignant mob to militant trade union, I paused to take it all in. It was a perfect day, the early afternoon sun teasing shadows from the scenery and fomenting a distant haze, framing a view to make the soul take wing.

Too often Brits dismiss the abject beauty on their doorstep for foreign shores, as if they're somehow more tempting, but introduce a visitor from those lands to this and they're invariably stunned by such sights. It's not just the pretty, you understand; it's the lived in. Thousands of years of cultivation tamed the wild, then shaped it. Nowhere else in the world can one see such a perfect synergy of dramatic farmland, epic history and high wilderness, sprinkled with chocolate box villages steeped in the island's chequered past, but still cosy enough to cuddle.

Having recently returned to my home town of Scarborough from a couple of decades abroad, I saw the old place through eyes unworn by chronological familiarity. Things had changed as much as they'd remained the same. The medieval castle still glowered down from the town's towering central promontory, pugnaciously jutting into the North Sea to split the elegant twin bays. However, new roads and junctions conspired to confound me, and American expressions I thought uniquely my domain now littered local speech. People 'partied' now. They went on 'road trips', drank 'shots', and 'kicked ass'. Before I sank into despair, however, my novelty usurped, I witnessed Americans using words like 'ginger' to describe redheads, and 'queue' instead of 'line'. I hadn't noticed this before, probably because I wasn't paying attention, but thanks largely, I suspect, to a little fella named Harry Potter. So at least transatlantic traffic isn't entirely one way.

My Americanised enthusiasm occasionally jarred with the residents, who were content, as so many Brits seem, to wallow in the joy of communal dissatisfaction. Indignance over local issues dominated eavesdropped conversations, while I bathed in the dialects and marvelled at the elegant turns of phrase. My trains of thought, though, being so often engaged by some lofty background muse (such as tactical vagaries in Call of Duty 4, sandwich ingredient combinations, or Salma Hayek's tits), seemed somehow absently detached from their roundabouts of misunderstandings and disagreements. My opinions, perhaps more often offered than asked, lacked the requisite passion and tact, labelling me aloof and arrogant rather than analytically academic. Unsure how to amend this misconception, I didn't bother trying. Of the two pubs I frequented: the New Tavern in Falsgrave, and the Leeds Arms in the Old Town, I was surprised to find myself more comfortable among the working class clientele of the former than the educated, more well-heeled patrons of the latter. Which can mean one of two things: either I'm not as smart as I think I am, or the beer is two-thirds the price.

Scarborough is ringed by the modest hills of the moors to the north and west, and the wolds to the south. Modest, that is, until you pedal up one. Still, the hills further afield were only going to get longer and steeper as they morphed into mountains, so I embraced the training they provided. I started out dismounting and pushing the bike up hills as soon as my legs threatened to form a strike committee, never far into the climb, but by the end of this nine day sojourn I was pistoning up slopes like a lycra locomotive. It's amazing the difference in fitness a mere week makes.

As the sun started to set I rode through Malton, a market town known locally as a refuge for the inbred and malformed. Malton's conurbation includes the village of Norton across the narrow river Derwent, which owes its name to Derventio, the Roman settlement reputedly located here. There was certainly a Roman cavalry fort, as visible remains attest, which likely first established Malton's reputation as a horse-breeding centre.


The north side of the river tends to be more residential than Norton's industrial south bank, confirming archaeological clues that the Romans implemented this very division, which is quite the 'whoa' moment. As interesting as this is, I didn't want to tarry in the town to find out more, because that might entail having to engage one of the misshapen natives staggering around in the open, so off I pedalled up a long and laborious incline to find my first campsite.

I pitched up in a patch of woodland just off the bypass and settled down with a long-deferred read: Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express, a chronicle of his train journey from Boston, Massachusetts to the southern tip of the Americas and bombastically heralded as 'One of the most entrancing travel books written in our time' by the reviewer at the Financial Times. I snorted through the first few pages, determined to prove the reviewer wrong, but as I plowed onward Theroux grew on me and revealed a gentler, more romantic soul behind the misanthropic bluster. By the time he got to Oklahoma he'd positively fallen into poetry:

"The land was flat and barren; but the traces of snow -- pelts of it blown into ruts and depressions, like the scattered carcasses of ermine ... At the topmost portion of the sky's dome, the mournful oatmeal dissolved and slipped, leaving a curvature of aquamarine. The sun was a crimson slit, a red squint in the mass of cereal, a horizontal inch steadied above the horizon."

To alleviate the pressure of comparison I vowed to avoid describing sunsets in my own writing and warmed up a tin of Heinz tomato soup to accompany the roast beef sandwiches I'd brought from home. Minutes later, stuffed with goodness and burping gently, I drifted off to fitfully dream that Sauron's One Eye was, in fact, the sky's vagina, and let's not mention the porridge.

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