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I know we've already had one account of this, and there's no way I can match that one, but hey work is slow and I'm bored, got to keep myself entertained somehow!
So here's a story of heading South to Yorkshire...
PS It's too long for one post, so I've split it into instalments...
On the HU Edinburgh Community’s trip to Applecross I found my niche. For the first time ever riding in a group, my N-reg GPZ wasn’t the oldest bike there. It didn’t feel like the poor relation in a sleek coterie of buff sportsbikes. Admittedly, it’s not best suited to touring either. But it does the job more than adequately, and in my anthropomorphic way I like to think that it’s happier wandering around with me, in spite of bumps and scratches, than it was in its previous cosseted garage life. So, mechanical issues notwithstanding, there was never much doubt we’d be heading for the unknown wilds of Tan Hill…
I’ve agreed to travel down with Alex, even though that means waiting till he’s finished work and riding in the dark. So I have ample time to pack, make the necessary fluid and tyre checks, and watch the trees blow around ever more violently. After moving to Scotland, I learned very quickly that rain and cold can be dealt with. The real enemy is wind. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes,” said Billy Connolly. Which may be true, but I wish he’d elaborated a bit more about what garments he had in mind to keep you upright and in full control of your direction in a gale.
About mid-morning I hear a crashing noise. And an alarm going off. My alarm. The local kids have a habit of kicking the disk lock to set off its alarm, but something tells me that mid-morning on a weekday there’s a reasonable chance they’ll be in school – annoying though they might be at times, they’re not as rebellious as they like to pretend. Quick peek out of the window. The bike is lying on its side, cover billowing, apparently…underneath the front of my neighbour’s car. I know the neighbour is in, as he doesn’t seem to have mastered the art of civilised conversation, and frequently converses with his mate in the building opposite by simply opening the window and hollering. I grab some shoes, and a jacket, all the while waiting for the knock on the door and, depending on his mood, either a tirade of abuse or an offer of help. Given he’s often drunk by this time of day, neither would be hugely welcome.
I manage to make it outside undetected, and pull back the cover. Turns out that the only part of the bike to hit the car was the screen, which bent as it came into contact with the bumper, snapping part of the fairing but leaving the neighbour’s car unscathed. Whilst undeniably relieved that I don’t have to deal with damage to someone else’s property, I can’t help thinking it would have been nice to find the bike fine and the bumper smashed – the only reason he’s parked so close is because he’s engaged in a parking war with our other neighbour (who owns a van, a minibus, a Jeep, a caravan, a small trailer, a boat and a bike. I can see why this could annoy, but surely sheer strength of numbers means he’s won by default?).
Although not hugely heavy, the GPZ still takes a fair effort for me to lift. Following the fall, it’s lying seat side to the car, with about enough gap between the two for me to perch there on tiptoes. I’m going to have to drag it out. Bugger. Luckily, part of the cover is still trapped underneath, and should provide some protection. Slight tug. The bike moves just enough for me to squeeze in and crouch down between it and the car. After a few attempts, I finally heave it upright again. (I’m not going to go into details on this, as when I mentioned the incident in the pub that night it led to lengthy discussions involving mats. I’m always grateful for advice, but have come to the conclusion that explaining one method’s merits over another with mats is not going to either enlighten or convince me either way.)
Time to inspect the damage. The screen itself is OK, just slightly scratched. The right indicator has popped out, but it does that quite often. Easy fix. There’s a random bit of metal on the ground. Looks important. There’s often a lot of crap on the ground outside our flats, but gut instinct tells me this one is mine. Ah. Off the bottom of the footpeg. Not actually sure what it does, so we’ll ignore that one. Everything else looks in order except… Yep. The hours of work fiddling with the throttle/heated grip combo so that the one didn’t interfere with the other has all been undone. The bar end has been pushed in towards the grip, and it catches on the rubber. Oh well, guess now I’ve got something to keep me busy till I leave!
The problem with keeping your bike outside and having to do anything to it is that you realise very quickly just how cold it is. Everything cosmetic is abandoned, as is anything that would require me to remove my gloves. The bar end is simply moved back out with a washer made of gaffer tape. Tyres, oil, done.
Back to hanging around. I have this thing about nerves and waiting. I don’t know what causes it, and it has nothing to do with any perceived risk relating to the activity in question. If I’m meeting someone for coffee at 3 and have nothing to do after 1, I’ll get the bus early in case it breaks down. If I’m getting a plane, the very fact that I didn’t have to rush means it will crash. And if I’m heading off on the bike, in gale force winds, in the dark and the cold, to an unknown location in the middle of Yorkshire, to camp, then God only knows. My stomach ties itself in knots. I can’t even load the bike up, cos it’s afternoon now so the kids are back, and there’s no way they’ll leave the panniers alone. So I pace, and move things around, and write myself directions – which don’t actually follow the most direct route to Tan Hill, as I’m utterly convinced I’ll miss the white road off the A66.
Finally, the time comes to load up and ride down to Cameron Toll to meet Alex. Suddenly the nerves are gone. The bike didn’t sustain any critical but undetected damage from the fall, and the wind isn’t too bad (possibly because, while my street is a wind tunnel, the main road down is fairly sheltered. But we’ll ignore that.).
Pull into Cameron Toll (early, of course) and fill up. There’s another biker there, with something small and battered.
“Are you any good with these things?” she asks, waving an air hose around. “I think it’s just let all the air out of my tyre!”
I’m not, but try and help nonetheless. It seems the connector on the hose is actually too big for the bike’s valves. She knows this, but apparently there’s a knack, only she doesn’t seem to have it any more. In the absence of usefulness on my part, we chat for a bit. I tell her where we’re going.
“You’re going to Yorkshire? Tonight? In this? To camp?”
“Someone else picked the weekend.” I’m slightly on the defensive, partly because this isn’t actually the maddest thing I’ve ever done (swimming off the West coast of Brittany in November springs to mind for that one), and partly because, if I’m honest, trying to pump up your bike’s tyres with a pump you know is liable to deflate them instead strikes me as rather more daft, in the grand scheme of things.
Then Alex turns up.
“How would you feel about a bit of off-roading?”
“I’ve got a satellite image, and the road we want does this, but there’s a farm track that cuts the corner, it’s much more direct.”
He has a point. And I have, after all, ridden the GPZ through inch-deep gravel in a rut over a tiny humpback bridge to get to a campsite before now. The only difference here would be choosing to do that, when there is a perfectly viable, tarmac alternative.
“Err… Why don’t we see when we get there? I’m not sure how easily we’ll be able to find a dirt track in the dark in a gale.”
“OK! Did you get fuel? How far is it?”
“Yeah, it’s about 150 miles, with a full tank I’ll easily do it in one.”
“Hmm, I’ve used about 50 from my tank, should be enough left as long as we don’t get lost.” Pause. “I’ll get some fuel.”
And off we head into the night. I’m in front, as although Alex more-or-less knows the way, his main beam is “not selectable”. It’s definitely breezy. After all the effort it took me to get them working, I’m blessing the heated grips. Riding in this wind is taking quite a lot of concentration, as the road heads between hills, so in the dark you can never tell where the next buffet is likely to come from. It’s mostly strong but steady, so left-hand bends are fine, right-handers a little interesting, and I’m getting quite a crick in the neck. Each little village, usually an annoyance, tonight provides blessed relief.
Then we get to Jedburgh. Not long before the town, I notice a sign “Low vehicles follow diversion via Hawick”. Riding in the wind, the dark and the cold doesn’t leave much brain power for anything else. The thought process went along the lines of “How low is a low vehicle? Do I count? I don’t know. Where is Hawick in relation to here? Might be worth it if it’s going to be a major issue. Oh well too late now,” as we zoom past the sign.
Slow down for Jedburgh, stop at traffic lights for roadworks. Mmm, stretching legs, that’s nice. Ooh look another sign. “Replacement bridge. Cyclists and motorcyclists avoid centre track.” Hmm. Probably a good thing we stopped, I would have missed the sign and gone for the middle of that bridge otherwise. But then there is a reason for that: the middle is a sort of flat but grippy surface, in this light looking almost like sandpaper. The tracks either side of it, however, are made up of metal ridges. Quite high metal ridges. Even a quick glance tells me there’s unlikely to be a good relationship between the spacing of these ridges and the width of my tyres.
The lights change. Here we go… I see very quickly why I shouldn’t use the middle: the bridge goes up, level, down, kind of like 2 big hinges, and the middle bit is just a very large gap at the joins. Gulp. I essentially have to balance along a metal ridge that’s about a centimetre wide and an inch high (I grew up abroad, I’m allowed to mix my units). If I slip off, I have to make sure I don’t veer too much either way, otherwise I have a hole on one side and a barrier on the other. The distance between the two is probably less than the width of my shoulders, and definitely less than the width of my panniers, which aren’t far off the barrier to start with. Up, flat, concentrate, wobble! Shit! Don’t stop! Look ahead! Down and off without thinking, and on we go.
After that it’s mainly about gritting teeth and getting on with it. The A68 is normally a nice fun road, with a mix of bendy bits and long straight bits. But it also includes a pass over the border into England, high enough and exposed enough to warrant snow poles, and the long straights are surrounded by fields. It’s hard work, though surprisingly neither of us has any “oh shit that was close” moments – the wind is still mostly constant, so we can compensate for it, and even when it does gust it’s never enough to blow us out of our lane. But still, my neck hurts, my back aches, and I think when I wake up tomorrow I may be stuck in a sort of sideways question-mark shape. Gusts are almost a relief – at least you get to bend the other way! I wonder, as always, why when it’s dark you only ever meet oncoming traffic on tight bends. Part way down I get slightly confused as we merge with the A69, so Alex nips in front. Having his rear light to follow makes things easier, but I notice an immediate drop in my concentration levels, and have to make an effort to ride for myself instead of just following.
We finally stop in Barnard’s Castle. Alex needs a cash machine, and we both need to work out the last little bit of the route. I suddenly realise my blood has no sugar left in it, so eat some chocolate. Did anyone else play that party game, a variation on musical chairs, where when it’s your turn you have to run to the middle of the circle, put on a hat, a scarf, and gloves, and eat as much chocolate as you can with a knife and fork before the music starts again? It’s a lot harder when you have to first get the chocolate out of your tankbag, open the packet, and then eat it while still wearing your helmet.
By combining my map, Alex’s map, and his satellite picture, we work out that in theory the road we want is the first one off the A66. I’m back in front for lighting purposes, and promise to look out for Alex’s farm track (yeah right). I dodge a plastic bag, circle Yorkshire’s attempt to cross the Parthenon with a roundabout, and we set off on the last little bit. Which turns out to be the worst by far. It’s now raining, cold, and windier than ever. I daren’t go above 45 miles an hour. On the dual carriageway it’s even worse. I’m tucked down as low as I can get on the tank, trying to keep half an eye on what I think is Alex’s headlight behind me – he’s definitely suffering more than I am on his tall, top-heavy Tenere. Every time I think I see a road off it turns out to be a car park. There’s a truck overtaking me, and all I can think is “I’m vulnerable to the wind, you’re vulnerable to the wind, I really don’t want you anywhere near me!”
Finally, a little sign points left: Tan Hill. Hallelujah! I pull off, and hover a bit to make sure Alex has seen me. A few hundred yards on the road splits, and there’s a sign to the right for a couple of villages. I hesitate. Tan Hill isn’t signposted any more, but I know it’s in the middle of nowhere, and that sign points somewhere, so it must be the other way. Long swing round, then past a little road to the right. That would have been the short cut. Ah well.
Now I know we’re heading for the highest pub in England. I know it’s not that far. I know there’s nothing else around. So why the *&^%$ can’t I see even a light? Every time I think I see something, it turns out to be my headlights reflecting on a sign. Or a rabbit’s eyes. Oddly it seems to be slightly more sheltered here than it was for the last stretch, even before Barnard’s Castle, and the riding is fun again. I’m sure the scenery is impressive in daylight, but only having a small area of road to concentrate on clears the mind, and I’m finally losing the headache caused by having my helmet pushed against my forehead for four hours. It also feels like a proper adventure, single-track road stretching off ahead, dodging rabbits that really want me to make them into stew, bouncing over cattle grids. Most of the roads we see aren’t on my map, so there’s no option but to just follow signs and intuition, with the excitement of having no idea what you’ll find when you get there.
At last! A light that hasn’t disappeared! And a building! This is clearly it, so we head round the side, and there they are, a whole horde of bikes of all shapes and sizes. And there’s the campsite. It looks sort of…full. And not entirely level. Oh and there’s people, and sheep, and somewhere there must be a door, and some warmth, and some . I finally find the entrance, and it is blissfully warm inside. I stumble through to the back, dazed.
“You made it! You must be mad! You must have a drink. What do you want to drink?” Doug has been here for about 7 hours, and is slightly worse for wear, but I’m not about to question the offer! “Real . Something nice.”
There’s a rumour of a bed in a bunkhouse, at which point I think sod the tent, find some sofa space, peel off my hundred and one layers, and settle down. After a few hours, some pints, and a mat-based physics lesson on bike lifting, it transpires that there isn’t a bed. There is a sofa, here in the bar, but I like my own space, and I know they do breakfast here so I’ll only get woken up when they want to make it, which is bound to be in far fewer hours than I’d like. I’ll have a look outside, and if there’s somewhere I think I can pitch the tent, I’ll do it.
Ah-ha! There’s a space there, on that slope, if I squash in between those two tents. Realising I’m serious about this, the amused watchers become willing helpers, with light, and tent pegs, and a chorus of comments about madness (probably quite justified). The pitching process takes no time at all, especially considering it’s 2 am, dark, blowing a gale, and I’m not exactly sober. I love my tent. Halfway through the night I wake up, realising I’ve left most of my layers in the locked pub, and my sleeping bag liner in Edinburgh. The tent is blowing so much I put my earplugs in to block out the noise. I curl up against the cold, and slide gracefully down the sloping floor of my tent to fall asleep, blissfully happy, in a little bundle of sleeping bag and thermarest.
In the morning the tent is still there, having survived 80mph winds overnight. The sun is shining and there’s a fantastic view. The happiness is still with me, and I only have a small hangover…
Nice one Laura, hope the ride home was easier - it was really great to see you and Alex arrive safe and everyone was impressed with your ride down its good to see it in writing, with you and birdy filling the pages here it keeps a old crock amused on these cold winter nights. Hope that you can make the next meet in February.
of nearly being blown off! I was the same nervous all afternoon at work, I doubt I got anything useful done. Good write up and great to have another perspective of the same journey, it's the tough ones that are memorable.
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