WHILE most of us are easing our way gently out of lockdown, Toby Simpson is going to great lengths to celebrate freedom.

On June 1, the intrepid 25-year-old will set off from his family home in Darlington to cycle 4,500 kilometres in 40 days to raise thousands of pounds for two charities close to his heart.

And there’ll be no time for taking it easy along the way – because he’s set a target of making it back to the North-East for his Granny and Grandad’s diamond wedding on July 10.

“I might be cutting it fine, but I’m determined to make it back in time,” he says.

Toby has very good reasons for wanting to complete the epic journey that will take him around the country and through the UK’s 15 national parks:

The first motivation is that a gene mutation, called BRCA2, runs through his extended family, causing premature cancer deaths. Carriers can be ten times more prone to cancers that are more likely to develop at a younger age, grow more aggressively, and reoccur.

Preventative surgery can be incredibly invasive and debilitating, so a UK charity, called The Eve Appeal, launched the BRCA Protect Research Clinic at University College London in 2015, aimed at developing new interventions that will lead to improvements in predicting risk and preventing cancer.

Toby will be raising money for that very good cause – taking to his bike to break the cycle of cancer.

His efforts will also be in aid of a new charity, called The Walk and Talk Trust, which was launched in The Northern Echo a week ago, aimed at boosting physical and mental health through the power of walking…and talking.

The charity’s first major initiative is called The Big Smile, a series of 50 fully-guided walks, adding up to 1,000k, through the magnificent countryside of the north. The aim is to reconnect people after lockdown, and to raise money to give free walking boots to thousands of children and disadvantaged adults, inspiring a new generation of walkers.

There is family connection to that cause too because Toby’s dad, Geoff, is driving the health initiative as the new charity’s chief executive.

“They are both brilliant charities, so I’m hoping to raise as much as possible,” says Toby.

His initial target was to raise £1 for every kilometre – adding up to £4,500 – but he’s already exceeded the £3,500 mark within a week.

Having been born in Northallerton, Toby spent his early years living on the edge of the North York Moors, near Stokesley, and was bitten by the cycling bug after witnessing the Tour De France go past his school in 2014.

After studying at Imperial College, in London, he now works in the capital for leading management consultancy, Bain and Co, and bought a bike with his first pay cheque.

Cycling has been part of his life ever since. He has previously ridden to Paris, then covered 600k from London to Land’s End, in October, and clocked up 1,200k in nine days just before Easter. Last Friday, he completed the 113-mile Fred Whitton Challenge around the Lake District as part of his training.

Any one of those would be impressive for most of us, but the real challenge starts in June when he leaves Darlington and sets off on a route encompassing Northumberland; the Cairngorms; John O’Groats;  Loch Lomond and The Trossachs; the Lake District; Yorkshire Dales; Peak District; Snowdonia; Pembrokeshire Coast; Brecon Beacons; Exmoor; Land’s End; Dartmoor; New Forest; South Downs; Norfolk Broads; and North York Moors.

Friends will be dropping in for various legs and he’s bought a tent, so he’s hoping the weather’s kind.

“Originally, the idea was to do a bike ride to Asia, but the pandemic meant that wasn’t feasible, so I decided to do something challenging within this country,” he explains.

In fact, the route around all the national parks is equal to the length of riding to Asia, and three times as long as going from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

In a rash moment, Toby pledged to grow a moustache until the end of the ride if he hit the £1,000 mark, so he’s stuck with getting hairier the further he goes.

And every kilometre he cycles, he’ll be thinking of the charities he’s helping – as well as the importance of getting back in time for his grandparents’ diamond anniversary. Peter Gale, a well-known Guisborough dentist for many years, and his wife, Janet, are sure to be checking their grandson’s progress in the run up to their big day.

“I’ll be there – even if I have to turn up at the party on my bike and in my sweaty cycling gear!” smiles Toby.

I’VE lost count of the number of Mayor’s Balls I’ve attended in Darlington over the years – but never quite like the one on Saturday night.

It was a privilege to host this year’s virtual event for the Mayor of Darlington, Chris McEwan, who’s played a blinder in refusing to allow the lockdown stop his fundraising activities.

Previous highlights have included a virtual Christmas carol concert, and virtual Burns Night Supper, and Saturday’s online extravaganza brought his year to a glittering climax.

Food was delivered to guests’ homes courtesy of The Hole In The Wall pub, and it was accompanied by brilliant music, stand-up comedy, and a quiz.

The proceeds are yet to be totted up but Chris had already managed to raise £25,000 for his charities: The Lullaby Trust, Dementia Friendly Communities, and grass roots schemes in aid of youth unemployment and mental health.

At the outset, Chris, pictured far left, might have considered himself to have been unlucky that the fates conspired for his Mayoral year to coincide with a pandemic, but it has served to make it one of the most memorable.

WITH the flak flying from the bombs being dropped on Boris Johnson’s Government by Dominic Cummings, it's a matter of time before the former key adviser announces his lucrative book deal.

Make no mistake, he stands to make a mint, and I can see particular potential in staging a Specsavers-sponsored book-signing in Barnard Castle.

Thought have also turned to an appropriate title and I’ve plumped for “ShortCummings”, based on the dictionary definition: “A failure to meet a certain standard, typical of a person’s character.”