Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Northumbrian

The Christmas to New Year period is an awkward time to take time off in the UK, the weather is rarely kind, but many including my wife have to take the non public holiday days as holiday so there's some pressure to make the most of it.

Last year we headed up to The Highlands and did a two day trip on our fat bikes around Loch Rannoch and Ben Alder which was rather damp with both rain and snow melt leading to very high burn levels. This year we wanted something a bit closer.

Philip Addyman had put together a route in and around Kielder Forest and along with Stuart Cowperthwaite had ridden it earlier this year. It looked a prime candidate with most of the route being on forestry tracks and just one tricky section along the English-Scottish border to Windy Gyle before dropping to Alwinton and heading back through the Otterburn firing ranges.

For once the weather looked fine so we packed the car and headed up to the start point in the small forestry workers hamlet of Stonehaugh. It was a bit later than planned before we'd got everything set up on the bikes and we headed into the woods.

Easy going on wide tracks.
A start time of 1430 meant that our target for the night, Spithope bothy, was always going to be reached in the dark. Slight problem: neither of us had been there before so hoped it was easy to find.

The sun was low in the sky from very early on in the ride

By the time we were looking down on Redesdale the light was fading.

While the riding was technically easy you couldn't really relax as the puddles in the track were all frozen and there were longer streaks of ice so you had to be on your guard all the time. We put on lights as we descended into Byrness and into more heavily wooded areas and the light faded to night. After a short section along the main road we cut up into the Spithope valley. After a false turn along a track we figured out where the bothy should be and headed further up the valley. There were footprints in the snow and at about the point where we'd figured the bothy should be they disappeared. Lights on full and we spotted the building on the other side of the valley. Fortunately there were steps and a bridge to get there.

I opened the door to find six already inside. Things might be a squeeze! There's bunks for six so two would have to kip on the floor. After food and drink and much banter - "Do you want more turkey?" we put the table and chairs outside to make room and kipped down for the night.

Leaving Spithope bothy in the morning

With morning light everyone rose and after breakfast and packing it was time to reverse the path to the main track. This led ever upward to a sharp bend when the line on the GPS headed off into what might best be described as "rough". Snow covered thigh high vegetation hid the line of whatever path was on the ground. There were also hidden becks and drainage ditches, the bikes picked up water and snow and required regular cleaning to avoid the wheels becoming stuck.

The hike-a-bike out of The Hart's Toe

Finally we emerged onto open ground and a (hopefully) final cleaning of the bikes and it was time to pick up some speed. Except conditions dictated otherwise. I'd hoped that the ground was frozen and wind had shifted any snow. It was just the opposite! There'd been little wind and the deep snow had insulated the ground so there was still bog underneath. Progress was slow.

Cleaning mud, ice and snow off the bikes.

Hard going along the border between England and Scotland

Eventually we reached a signpost: Pennine way along the ridge and alternative Pennine Way down the valley. We'd taken two hours for the last two kilometres, we'd no time to do the next ten Kilometres to Windy Gyle. We headed down the valley. Some bits we could ride but even heading downhill was hard work and needed pedalling. Once past the Roman fortification works at Chew Green we hit the road. This wasn't much easier, irregular patches of sheet ice meant things took much longer than we'd have liked.

The sheep had paddled down the snow so we could ride sections.
An artistic farmer at work!

Eventually we got to Alwinton. Philip and Stu had lucked out here as both the pub here and in the next village of Harbottle weren't doing food. Today they were and we were hungry! Sometimes an hour not moving forward can be an hour well spent and we tucked in.

The sun was still shining when we left. A bit more road then a turn right and we headed upwards once again through Harbottle Woods. Forestry work meant a diversion but it only meant that we debouched onto the road on the firing ranges a little higher than would have been the case.

In the shadows of giants

Leaving Harbottle forest and entering the firing ranges.

The ranges are wide open spaces.

The roads were frustrating. Vehicles had compacted snow and there were yet more random sheets of ice. This meant slow progress, downhill was often slower than the uphills. We reached the final junction and could head back down into Redesdale just as the light began to fade. At this point we were just 2Km from the bothy we'd stopped at the night before.

Wide open spaces on the Otterburn firing ranges.

Icy roads slowed progress

All day the temperatures had been below freezing but now it was getting seriously cold. At least we had the forest drive to look forward to, a long climb to Blakehope Nick warmed us up though I'd been in my lowest gear for much of the climb. The descent to Kielder cooled us down again. By the time we got to The Anglers Arms in Kielder it was -7C and with us feeling tired it cut to the quick.

Our target was KershopeHead bothy a further 25Km ahead but I didn't think we'd get there so asked at the pub if they'd any accommodation. Unfortunately they were full but the owner did offer an unheated caravan. A search showed one B&B in the village and they had a room! It would have to do. We headed over after having had something to eat. Warmth and a bed. bliss!

The morning brought a change in the weather. No longer clear skies but leaden clouds heavy with snow which had already deposited 5cm and was adding to it with every passing hour. A second decision - we'd follow the Lakeside Trail back to the dam and then return via our outward route. At least we knew it rather than the circuitous line we would have taken on the actual route.

Heavy snowfall on the Lakeside Trail around Kielder

The Lakeside Trail was hard work in the deep snow. The 20Km to the dam took over two hours for a nearly flat trail. The one oddity was a car on the trail, quite how it had got there was a bit of a mystery but there were several blokes in the process of trying to get it out. We'd now just the simple matter of climbing back over the hills to Stonehaugh.

As the snow fall stopped it led to pretty views.

A bit different from two days earlier.

Progress was slow, we tried to find the thinnest snow cover under the trees but even so we were working hard. The selfie below was taken at the top of the biggest climb. Temperatures were rising and the snow was getting a little thinner. Occasionally there'd be vehicle tracks so the best line was in these as the snow was nice and compact.

More snow build up on the bikes.

Selfie at the top of the big climb up from Kielder Dam.

Eventually, just over 48hrs after leaving we rolled back in to the car park.

Back at the car.
So we didn't manage to complete the route but we had a good if hard time out. The route's quite varied and despite much of it being in forest it's actually quite open as the areas to at least one side of the tracks have been felled. I can't comment on the border ridge section (we've done Clennel Street down to Alwinton many years ago and that's straightforward). You also need to ensure that the firing ranges are shut before attempting the route.

It's definitely worth having a go at the route though mid-winter might not be the best time of year! That said, a good frost without much snow and I think it would be a goer. Looking on a map it appears that you aren't too far from "civilisation" but when you are on it it does feel pretty remote especially on the firing ranges.

A good use of a good weather window.

Here's the Strava bit ...

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