Sunday, 17 August 2014

Bike and Hike

Well, Saturday was a first for me, I rode to the summit of my first Lakeland Fell! Actually I managed four.

With just twelve fells in Wainwright's list to do I noticed that those in the Northern Fells section had bridleways or vehicle tracks passing close to their summits but getting to the actual summits would be a little bit cheeky. Plan on!

An early start meant that I was the first car at Latrigg car park which was ideal as I didn't want to be annoying walkers by biking past them. I'd only ever been to this car park when running this leg of the Bob Graham so it was a bit odd to be starting off from here. One thing - it was bloomin' freezing! After the warm weather of the past month or two you really felt it. It was also blowing a hoolie, on with a long sleeved thermal. I wasn't sure where the path up Latrigg went - there were several wide trimmed areas through the grass but then I noticed a gravel path that had been put in for disabled access to the viewing point. Looked good to me. Five minutes later I'm on the rather non-descript summit, a quick look at the view (which is very nice) and then blast back across the grass to the car park.

There's a bridleway up Skiddaw, it's just rather steep on it's way up Jenkin Hill. I managed all of 100 metres before I reckoned it was just as easy to push. About halfway up there's a footpath that cuts off right, most people won't notice this as it's only faint, and heads up to the col to the west of Lonscale Fell. More pushing up this before I can finally ride again for the last few hundred metres to the summit. With the cloud down there's little to see so it's payback time!

Back down to the col is wide and grassy so little problem, the footpath is slightly harder as it traverses a slope so occasionally has slipped away leaving an off-camber surface, then it's on to the main track. Basically this is as fast as skill, nerves and the number of walkers allows. It's not particularly technical, well it isn't technical at all, the only real difficulty is not focussing on the loose rocks. Today there's very few walkers but a strong side wind that constantly threatens to push my front wheel to the left. Even with my cautious descending it's just four minutes to the bottom of the hill (from the summit of Lonscale Fell it was eleven minutes).  Part one done.

The next two fells were Carrock Fell and High Pike which lay in the north eastern part of the group so a drive round past Mungrisedale was needed. A quick bite to eat and then I was away. A bit of road work first since I'd parked at the wrong sharp bend in the road but not a problem. Then turn left and head up on a bridleway following an old mining track. This was right in to the wind so was quite hard work.

Even harder work was the climb up to the col: the first bit was just a steep push but the remainder should have been rideable but for the wind. After a hundred metres or so I resorted to pushing. Despite the recent rains the summit ridge was still quite firm so I made good time until I got to about two hundred metres from the summit of Carrock Fell when it became too rocky and much easier to continue on foot.

Carrock Fell is unusual in the Lake District as it's the only one composed of Gabbro and is the only one with an ancient hill fort on its summit. Today though I could hardly stand up in the wind so it was back to the bike and press on.

Now it was much harder riding as I was heading straight in to the wind. At one point as I headed towards the track contouring High Pike I was blown to a standstill, a bit of pushing required for a hundred metres or so. Riding up the path to the summit I was having to aim the bike windwards and lean in to the wind so that I had a chance of staying on the path. Once again the summit was wild and no place to hang around. There were two paths ahead, I figured the right hand one was the one I needed and so it proved.

Lovely and grassy, just worn in enough to give bite to my tyres, I had to stop once out of the wind to clean my glasses as the rain and steam meant I couldn't really see where I was going. Then it was downward to the contouring track. I knew that I had to leave this at some point to pick up the upper part of the track I'd used on the outward leg. For once it was quite obvious and after dropping over some of the old spoil heaps I was on the track.

Nowhere technical it was just a blast with the occasional slowing down for a tight corner or a section of loose stones. Without realising it I was soon on the outward leg as I began to recognise features I'd passed before. For a track that I'd thought was only slightly uphill on the outward leg it seemed rather steeper and I was going at a decent speed. Just ten minutes after leaving the summit of High Pike I was at the road (that included the stop to clear my glasses), average speed of around 22mph!

All in all an interesting experience. It's hard work getting up on to the tops when you've 12Kg of bike to push/carry but once you are up there then provided it's firm underfoot it's great going and of course the descents are just a hoot especially since you aren't putting any strain on your knees. It's just a shame that out of two and a half hours on the go there was just 20 minutes of descent.

So, another book completed. Just two books to do now with eight fells remaining, six in the Central Fells and two in the Southern.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Local Investigation

We've lived in our current house for nearly thirteen years yet there are still things just a couple of kilometres away that we've never investigated.

I'd been looking on a map at the route of a recently opened section of the Pennine Bridleway which goes quite close to us when I saw a couple of bridleways that I hadn't noticed before. It looked like they'd make a short loop, both started from the same point on one road but I've been past that point many times both in a car and on a bike and never realised there were bridleways there. So, last night, having biked back from work and with lovely skies I reckoned we should have an investigation.

There was a bit of road to get there from the house but soon we were turning down what to all intents and purposes looked like a track to a farm, no signs or any indication that there was a right of way. We decided to do the loop clockwise so headed left through a field. The track was a typical farm track of two ruts so you had to choose one or the other. Both had lots of nettles and thistles!

Eventually we got to a gate and the fun began. A really fast, well surfaced track and singletrack followed the wall downhill. It did however feel quite rough but I put that down to the speed we were going. Another gate and now the track is walled on both sides and it soon joins a larger track. Turn right and down to another gate. At this point I notice that my front fork is locked out - I'd forgotten to reset it after the road section so no wonder the track had felt rough!

Rough then smooth tarmac led down in to the neighbouring village and it was then a matter of finding the track back uphill. It turned out to be a long steady climb, it wouldn't make a good descent so we'd chosen the right direction. The bridleway leading back to our starting point didn't look that good (will have to investigate later) so we carried on the one we were currently on. This led to a house, just before this there was a gate leading on to the moor and a continuation track.

With all the dry weather this track was really pleasant and soon we had rejoined the road at the top of the hill. We could hear other cyclists and as we crested a brow we could see them heading off on what is technically a footpath, though I have seen tyre tracks on there before. We decided to follow as it would avoid a long road detour.

The group had stopped at the summit, they were effectively doing the same loop as we were but had started from the neighbouring village. Cath happened to know one of them. After a few minutes chat and spotting deer (as you do) it was time for the descent. I've run up this way and it can be boggy but now it was dry and firm and we could zoom along. All too soon we were back at the road. Ahead was a footpath that has been upgraded to bridleway so along that and up one final hill then it was back down the road to home.

So quite a good little loop to find on our doorstep. I think it will stand up to wet weather use, maybe not the boggy section on the way back up, and it is not overly technical so will do for night rides in winter. Result!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Red Kite Central

Many centuries ago the Red Kite was a common sight in both town and country, an opportunistic scavenger rather than predator due to its light build though it can take small prey. Despite this it was classed as vermin with a price on its head and numbers fell. With sporting estates on the rise in the 18th and 19th centuries they were the subject of further persecution and by the end of the 19th century the bird was extinct in England and Scotland. Wales has probably always been the main centre of their distribution: the Welsh for Kite is "barcud" and it's a common part of the names of natural features in the same way that there are over fifty Raven Crags in the Lake District.

By the 1930s there only an estimated 20 birds left in mid Wales. In a rather bizarre twist landowners and gamekeepers realising that the bird was about to become extinct began to protect it. By the 1970s numbers had slowly risen and a genetic survey of all the known birds suggested that they were all descended from a single breeding female, a very lucky escape. In an effort to increase bloodline, numbers and spread birds were introduced from the continent so that today there are several populations around the country though mid Wales is still the heartland of its distribution.

The kite is a pretty large bird, there aren't many UK birds that are larger, a grown adult has about the same wingspan of a heron, about 1.8m, so they are quite impressive to view close up. Rhaeadr is home to the Red Kite Centre where food is put out daily for them, let's just say that if you visit and don't see a kite then you really aren't looking as they are as common as crows in the skies.

All this is by way of introducing a long weekend mountain biking in mid Wales! Despite having lived in North Wales for nine years, I'd only ever passed through on my way to Cardiff. I'd not done anything in the area: no biking, no climbing not even any walking though I've a very vague memory of visiting the Elan Valley dams as a kid on a family holiday.

Friday didn't start out too well, we had torrential rain for most of the way down and this didn't really give up until mid-afternoon. Taking advantage of this we nipped out on one of the shorter rides in the Wales MTB guidebook, the Claerwen Valley loop. For the supposed grade (easy) this was pretty tough and there were several sections where we needed to walk and hike a bike. Hopefully this wasn't a sign of things to come.

Riding towards the Claerwen dam. A few "wet" sections ahead.

Pulling up through the bracken on the first climb out of Rhaeadr.

Saturday morning dawned with yet more rain though it was forecast to clear up during the day. By about 1100 we couldn't put it off any longer so headed down in to the town of Rhaeadr to do a loop on the hills between there and the Elan Valley. By the time we'd got a mile out of town it was boiling so off with the waterproofs and in to the first climb of the day. Again this was graded blue but required a bit of walking over rock steps. After a river crossing (interesting) and a road climb there was more uphill, made interesting by the local habit of removing sign posts.

Once on the top of the hill there was a really pleasant track heading over towards the Elan reservoirs before a cut back towards an ascent graded black in the book and described as "ten minutes of pushing". Oh Dear. Three minutes of riding and about 30 seconds of pushing later and it's done. Hmm, I haven't got that much better in the space of three kilometres. The next descent was a cracker, good track interspersed with rocky steps, unfortunately over all too quickly.

Beginning the descent down Y Gurn.

What followed was twenty minutes of hike-a-bike, yep - another blue graded ascent. After a (ahem) slight detour we found the main descent of the day down to the Elan Valley. Graded black it wasn't that bad apart from a couple of short sections maybe twenty metres in total.

Descending to the Elan Valley.
A short section on the road then we followed the Elan Valley trail to gain the upper reservoir from where a long red graded climb led back on to the moor tops. Nowhere difficult, it was just a matter of keeping the pedals turning. An easy, lovely descent, a bit of road then a long ridge led back to Rhaeadr.

One of the classic pieces of single track is the Doethie Valley. One problem: it really is the middle of nowhere. Even from close by it takes over an hour to drive to the start of the ride at Llyn Brianne. There's a lot of fire road to start but then things start with a vengeance with the climb up from Soar y Mynedd. Several signs indicating that the "road"(it's an unclassified country road) is closed along with locked gates aren't encouraging.

Descending to Soar y Mynydd

There was no way I was good enough to climb the track on the bike so it's push time. Eventually the angle eases and it's back on the bike and the descent on the other side shows why it's shut with 2 metre deep gullies running for hundreds of metres. Then it's a left turn and the track down the Afon Doethie begins.

Starting down the Afon Doethie amongst the bracken

Due to us riding this later in the year the bracken was in full growth and in many points it was more akin to skiing in deep powder although a strange green snow and you just had to trust that the track was still there beneath your wheels. Some people (strange people) moan that there's boggy bits and horror of horrors, gates that mean the ride isn't that good but this is a track that happens to be rideable by bike rather than designed with bikes in mind.

At one point we lose the track completely, there's no indication in the bracken as to it's whereabouts and we eventually stumble back on line. About halfway down the valley, Cath takes a potentially nasty tumble, managing to fall at one of the few points where the enclosing bracken wouldn't cushion your fall. Proceeding at an easier pace the riding still requires attention as there's an ever present drop to the stream to the right.
There's a lot of this!
There's a short rocky section which we walk as a fall here would have interesting consequences but it's the only really difficult part of the ride. Slowly the ride becomes gentler then we are in to fields and then a farmyard. All that's left is a long steady pull back up to the reservoir. 

One of the best singletracks in the UK? I'm not sure about that but I'd like to ride it earlier in the year when the bracken isn't so high.

For our last day we headed east for a ride on our way home. To the north of New Radnor is a small group of steep sided hills - the Radnor Forest. Now mainly clear of woodland they are splendidly isolated and there's great views from the tops.

The route started with one of the steepest roads I've ever ridden, it must have been 25% for nearly a kilometre, it was a struggle to keep moving whilst keeping the front wheel on the deck. Even when the tarmac ended the grass track was still steep. You've guessed - the guidebook gave it blue!

Great views from the summit plateau.

After another steep climb that I was sure I was going to have to walk but managed not to there was a bit of forestry fire road then it was out on to the plateau. The guidebook's boggy section was nearly dry thanks to the previous dry weather then it's a great descent before another steep ascent. This was all rideable and led back on to the plateau towards the curiously named Three Riggles. 

Contouring round the Three Riggles

This was another singletrack contouring round a steep valley but considerably easier than the Afon Doethie. All that was left was the final descent which was a blast down an old cart track with the fence bounding a firing range on our left.

Starting the final descent.
So, all in all a nice little break. Some good riding and some great riding. There's a few rides  still to do and I'd like to do the Afon Doethie again without the bracken.