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 ...

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Winter bivy

Every year various groups of riders from the Bearbones forums head out the weekend before Christmas for a bivy. It consists of cafe, a bit of a ride, pub, a bit more of a ride, bivy, some riding, a cafe stop finishing with more riding back to a cafe. Generally the groups are organised according to location so Wales, Scotland, North of England, etc. though occasionally there's some cross border raiding.

After a bit of humming and harring with no-one wanting to stick their head above the (icy) parapet, Chew took control and set about organising a ride in the Dales. A slight problem in that it had to be the weekend before all the others. Oh, well. After a bit of checking with the proposed route along with some changes to account for certain sections not being a bridleway and actually going through farm yards so therefore not being a good idea, the plan was formalised.

There was the usual: "I'll be there", "Err, no I won't" shenanigans which resulted in a grand total of seven of us turning up at the cafe in Kettlewell. There were two - Dave and Rob - whom I'd not met before. After some grub we managed to tear ourselves away from the warmth of the cafe fire and head up the Dale.

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We'd not gone far when there's a mechanical. It turned out to be Chris' (Zippy) freehub that occasionally wouldn't work as intended. He thought it was due to the oil in the hub being stiffer due to the cold as the bike had been stored in sub-zero temps for a while and that with some use it might warm up. Then again it was significantly below zero so he'd have to be putting some serious work into it to heat it up.

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Without further ado we headed further up the Dale with the road becoming increasingly white and icy as we gained height. Halfway up Langstrothdale we chose to take the path on the opposite side of the river, well, because. I'd never been along this before so it was interesting. Especially interesting was negotiating the sheets of ice where streams crossed the path and had spilled out and the thankfully short sections of limestone pavement. A couple of Km later and we are back on the road but by now it's even dicier than the path with a dusting of snow covering any ice. Fortunately all stayed upright.

Then it was through the woods. It's a long, long time since I'd been through these. By the time we got to the other side the clag was down thus kiboshing Chew's idea of a big reveal of Ribblehead viaduct. As a result we decided to cut the corner and head along the Pennine Bridleway up on to Cam Fell. What presumably was a shooting party similarly stymied by the mirk were heading the other way in their 4x4s: "You're off your tits you lot!" seemed to be their consensus. They might have been right.

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The Track round Dodd Fell is wet at the best of times so today it was going to be an ice-fest. Fortunately it wasn't too bad with just one section that needed dismounting to get round a rather ominous frozen puddle. At Ten End we cut east on the bridleway. Again frozen in places necessitating walking there were usually boggy sections where the temperature actually helped, in fact it was the first time I've been able to ride the final field without dabbing. By the time we got to the road it was nearly dark.

The first section of road was really slippery and it was a bit of a relief to get onto salted roads. After a restocking at the Spar in Hawes it was decided that we'd just head along the road to the pub. At least this was fairly flat and clear so you could keep a good pace.

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The pub was lovely and warm - it took a bit of effort from Chew not to fall asleep by the fire! The food was very good as well. Having imbibed and eaten it was time to head out and get to the bothy. This was uphill! A lot of uphill. Again the freezing temperatures had frozen whatever surface water was on the track so one or two short bits needed to be walked. Upward, ever upward until the track levelled off only to reveal more uphill. This eventually relented and before long we arrived at the bothy.

It's really quite well appointed. We get a fire going and the temperature inside becomes bearable. After a lot of banter, whisky and more banter we decide to turn in for the night.

Morning replaces last night's clear skies with more mirk. There's no point rushing as the cafe in Leyburn doesn't open 'til ten. A fast descent is no way to start a ride on a cold morning but at least it was followed by a stiff climb to warm things up. Not so good were the regular sheets of ice across the track. Cath came a cropper on one of these, you go down hard and fast on ice and she was a little more circumspect after this. After sussing out another potential bivvy spot for next year and more ice we transitioned to limestone country. There was the small matter of an icy road in-between mind.
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After a few Km of limestone gravel tracks and tarmac we dropped into Leyburn to find the intended cafe was shut. Fortunately there was one open across the square. Phew! The cafe was rather good and had decent sized portions, certainly I struggled to finish my breakfast.

An hour later several plumper cyclists headed out into the cold again. At least we were now heading in the same direction as the wind. Some fast road work got us to the valley floor then some slower riding got us to the same height on the other side of the valley. A steady section of riding ensued around the edge of the dale before a nice fast descent to West Burton. All that was between us and Wharfedale was the small matter of the climb onto Stake Moss from Thoralby.

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The only other time I've been up this way was on the YD200 when with a very lightly loaded bike with light wheels I'd resorted to pushing the concreted lower section. Today I'd got the plus wheels and was fully laden with winter bivy kit and clothing. So I rode it all! No idea how I did it really. At least higher up what in summer was soft pasture that dragged at your tyres was now crisp and pleasant to ride.

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The top of Stake Moss was wide and wild - Dave said it reminded him of shots of the Tour Divide: empty spaces and big threatening skies. Steady going across the top until the descent to Kidstones. This was surprisingly icy and I walked the steeper bits though Chris rode them all. Once at the road it was a choice between the bridleway down to Buckden or the road. We all elected for the road. Then again 3Km of fast downhill is pretty chilling so I was glad of having to pedal hard along the road back to Kettlewell.

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Most wanted to head off ASAP but Chris (who'd actually come up from Essex) Cath and I headed to the cafe for cake and a cup of coffee.

A good weekend.