Sunday, 16 June 2013

Mountain Biking - a new miracle cure?

We should have been doing our Scotland coast to coast on mountain bike last week but the day before we were due to drive up to Fort William, I had a funny turn which took the form of an unacceptable number of limbs going numb, accompanied by all kinds of other weird neurological shit.  Oh and someone hanging heavy weights from my wrists and ankles.  Although by the next day, things had settled down a bit (the numbness coming and going), it didn't seem a good idea to be heading out into the highlands for a week.  So we put the bikes on the back of the campervan and headed up to Kielder.  Well that was plan B but half way up the A1 the numbness came back again and we did a detour up Wensleydale to Hawes.  By the next morning, the numbness in my left arm had abated but rather than more driving, we went for a bit of a ride.

Bainbridge - Roman Road - Dodd Fell - Hawes

The route was Hawes to Bainbridge along the road, then up the length of the Roman Road, round the back of Yorburgh and Drumaldrace, then the road to Cam Head and then the track down the west side of Dodd Fell back to Hawes.

The initial road section to Bainbridge was only marginally unpleasant and was assuaged by a stop at the tea shop for a brew and shared slice of cake to fortify us for 1300' of uninterrupted climbing in a bit over 4 miles.  I settled into a comfortable pace and started to imagine Roman legionnaires marching up here two millennia past - dexter, sinister, dexter, sinister...

Looking up the Roman Road

We passed a few walkers and a couple of mountain bikers but otherwise we had the track to ourselves except for a large number of Skylarks singing way up in the blue sky overhead and the occasional Curlew.  It's a good track and would be even better to ride in the other direction.

Roman Road - half way up

The Roman Road crosses the road out from Gayle to Langstrothdale and continues, now with a metalled surface, to the southern end of Dodd Fell and the Pennine Way.  From here, you can see Ingleborough clearly and the top of Pen-y-Gent and Plover Hill.

Ingleborough from below Dodd Fell

The Track down the west side of Dodd Fell branches near Ten End, the Pennine Way taking a route over grass to Gaudy House along the right branch.  The left branch continues straight on and quickly turns very gnarly and steep, with a lot of large loose rocks.  The PW bridleway would have been easier but the 'sinister' way was character building and lower down gave a fast ride back to Hawes. 

The pastures in the valley were covered in buttercups and daisies.  The photo just doesn't convey the sight adequately.

Pastures above Hawes

17.5 miles and 1900'

I had had no numb limb problems whilst riding but soon after we got back to the campervan, the numb thing started up again.

The next day we drove to Kielder, arriving late afternoon.  Hilary wanted to go for a short ride.  I wasn't that keen but she convinced me it would be good for me, so we agreed to cycle up to the castle to check out the MTB trails which start from there.  The numbness in my left arm, seemed to vanish almost as soon as we set off on the bikes. There was a 4 mile red graded trail and I suggested we did that before tea.

Kielder - Deadwater Trail

This didn't start well and it was part way up the second section before it dawned on me we were doing this in the wrong direction.  So we turned round, went back to the start and set off again.  As a red trail, this is definitely at the darker end.  Hilary took a bad fall down a steep section and I had to extricate her from her bike.  Then not long after, she did it again, down another steep section.  She wasn't happy.  I wasn't happy.  The next day, we checked the pressure in her front forks and found it was way too low.  I'd forgotten that new forks need some running in before the seals work properly - the manual for hers said 10 hours of use.  We'd not checked the pressure since they were set up in the shop and she'd done 150 miles since then.  I pumped them up to 5 bar and that seemed to do the trick.

The rest of the Deadwood Trail was undertaken with caution but otherwise without incident.  It's good value for money.  There are a couple of sections of 'rock garden', which I didn't like (i.e. couldn't ride).  Otherwise I thought it was fun.  Unsurprisingly, Hilary was somewhat less enthusiastic about it.

We found out the next day that we'd missed the top section of the trail but it sounds like it doesn't match up to the rest of it anyway.

Once again, back in the campervan, the episodes of numbness returned.

Kielder - The Osprey Long Trail

The next day we rode the Osprey Long Trail, which is graded blue.  This lower sections are mainly logging tracks through the forest.  Higher up there is some more challenging singletrack.  It finishes along the green graded Lakeside Trail along the north shore of Kielder Water.   I don't actually remember much about it and have very few photos. 

The one striking memory is the Sylvas Capitalis - The Forest Head - which is a giant wooden head made of what look like big Jenga blocks.  Inside, there are some stairs up into the brain cavity, where you can peer out of the eyes or pretend you are one of the Numbskulls out of the Beano.

14 miles and some ascent.

We returned to the campervan but this time, the numbness didn't return.  Hmmm... maybe I'd left it in the head.

Kielder - Lonesome Pine and Bloody Bush Trails

These are red graded trails.  To ride the Bloody Bush you have to start and finish on the Lonesome Pine.

The Bloody Bush toll road was built to run between the Lewisburn Colliery in England across the border to Dinlabyre in Scotland. Commissioned and paid for by Sir John Swinburne and the line surveyed by Thomas Telford, the road was to carry an estimated 10,000 cartloads of household coal and a further 5,000 cartloads for the lime kilns of Hawick, Castleton (now Newcastleton) and Jedburgh.  Construction began in 1830 and tolls were to be collected at the Toll House in Oakenshaw (now Arkensahw).  Bloody Bush is right on the border and a stone pillar was erected there showing the charges to be levied for the use of the road.  The Reivers Cycle Route (a return for the Coast to Coast) passes Bloody Bush as does the Cross Border Trail between Kielder and Newcastleton.  Despite this, we saw nobody all day.

The trail guide I bought from The Bike Place in Kielder would benefit from some arrows to show which way round you are supposed to go.  Once again we tried to start at the end and after half an hour of faffing, returned to the Bike Shop to get the missing vital bit of information... where the hell do we find the start?  It turns out that you have to ride a few miles of the green trail - the Lakeside Way - along the south shore, as far as the Lewis Burn, to reach the first stage of Lonesome Pine. 

The Lonesome Pine begins with pleasant, open singletrack running up the side of Lewis Burn before kicking off up the valley side in the first of many steep climbs for the day.

Lewis Burn
Overall, there is a lot of climbing on this route and even the flat bits seem to rise gently.  Some respite is to be had through a short technical downhill section called Capon Hassock, newly constructed by the Kielder Trail Reavers.  This is steep, narrow and twisty and demands concentration - it's a superb bit of trail (and engineering.)

Near the top of the hill, the trail has to cross an extensive boggy section of ground and this is done over boardwalk (often referred to as 'north shore').  We were told that there is 3km of the stuff on this route.  However, to arrive at the start of it, there is a long drag of a hill followed by a steep, loose and narrow set of switch-backs or zigzags.

Arriving at the top of the switch-backs

Start of the north shore - "Stairway to heaven"

The north shore experience was somewhat surreal with boardwalk snaking off to the horizon, surrounded by cotton grass as far as the eye can see.  We are not proficient on this stuff and had some misgivings but in fact it is very wide and very easy.  One of the later sections towards Bloody Bush drops down to half the width but is mostly straight.  The trick to riding north shore is to look ahead and not down at the front wheel.

Riding the north shore above Kielder Water

The final section of trail before Bloody Bush and which runs roughly parallel to the border, is a fast flowy singletrack with some nicely bermed corners and a few opportunities to get in some small jumps.  In fact the whole stretch from the top of the switch-backs as far as Bloody Bush is a wonderful piece of engineering, largely (all?) built by volunteers. 

We lunched at the pillar and walked across the border and back a couple of times, just for the fun of it.

The pillar at Bloody Bush on the England-Scotland border, showing the toll charges.
Leaving Bloody Bush on pleasant singletrack, the route soon turns to forest track down past Willowbog (a more isolated farmhouse it would be hard to find) and a largely uninterrupted downhill of  three miles, to pick up the Lonesome Pine just after Akenshawburn.   Now comes the kicker.  To get back to Kielder on the Lonesome Pine, you have to repeat the long climb up to the north shore, including the killer switch-backs.  The alternative is to continue on the forest tracks running alongside the Akenshaw Burn and Lewis Burn and then take the Lakeside Way.  We are made of stern stuff and chose to repeat the climbs, which whilst being no less fierce, we like to think were done with more style the second time around.

Junction of Bloody Bush and Lonesome Pine trails

Back on the north shore, we turned right at the junction this time, which led across more boggy ground to the top of the forest descents.  There is quite a drop off the end of the boards and I misjudged it, resulting in a bit of dramatic landing, which at the time, in one of those "oh no, I'm going to crash", slo-mo moments, I recall travelling forwards at an increasingly shallower angle to the ground before coming to rest in a small ditch and bank of heather, my only injury being a slightly crushed testicle (I know, that's too much information.)

There is a lot of descent back to Kielder and it's mostly on excellent, fun, technical (though easier than Deadwater) , red grade singletrack.  We took a brief rest to look in the Skyspace and eat a Jelly Baby or two.  Skyspace is probably better at night.  During the day it just seems like an elaborate bus shelter (with no bus service.)  Eventually, we reached the road and feeling somewhat fatigued, rode straight to the castle tea shop for tea and cake.

Austin A35 parked in Kielder Castle

Including the initial faff about to find the start of the trail, that came to 22.5 miles and 3000' of ascent. This was a really good day's riding.

And the second day without numbness.  Woohoo. 

The next day, we drove north to Alwinton, stopping in Bellingham to stock up on food and booze and have a chat to the chap in the bike shop, where I was encouraged to buy a can of Smidge (whose efficacy I expect to report on in  a later post).  It was more than 20 years since I stayed at Clennell Hall campsite and this time we arrived to disconcertingly close semi-automatic gunfire and mortars (at least that's what mortars sound like in all the war films I've seen).  It was of course the Army based at Otterburn camp, whose area extends across miles of Northumberland's finest wild spaces and taking in a number of Roman sites, a section of Dere Street and what looks on the map to be a lot of good mountain biking tracks.  The battle for Alwinton paused for tea and resumed again later in the evening, finally reaching a conclusion around 1.30 in the morning.  I assume we'd won and the Reivers were repelled back over the border.

Pass Peth - Usway Burn - Border Ridge - Clennell Street

Thursday's ride was taken from one of the mountain bike comics and had been on my 'to do' list for a year now.  It headed west from Alwinton, along Upper Coquetdale, over the Pass Peth and up the side of Usway Burn (which a young lad eying up our bikes outside the pub, told me is pronounced 'Oozy' Burn).  Then up to Windy Gyle and east along the border ridge to Hexpethgate Head, where we turned south down Clennell Street, back to Alwinton.

Puffing our way to the top of Pass Peth, I wondered why we hadn't just followed the road to Shillmoor and the start of Usway Burn but actually the descent from the top is definitely worthwhile.  The route up the Usway Burn starts as an LRT, crossing the river by a number of Bailey bridges as far as the farm at Batailshiel Haugh, whence it becomes some testing and in places, off-camber singletrack before entering the forest and more pleasant (i.e. less demanding) riding.  My  Northumberland mountain biking guide book, which I bought in 1993, says that this valley is an ornithologists wet dream.  Ok, it didn't quite use that terminology but it did suggest we see a lot of interesting birdies  but I don't recall seeing any bird life at all.  Maybe the army had shot them all.
Track out of Shillmoor looking up Usway Burn

At Fairhaugh, we were forced to ford the burn but this was due to my failing to notice on the map that the bridleway goes round the back of the farmhouse to cross the river by a very substantial looking wooden bridge. Doh!  From here the climbing began in earnest, first through the forest covering Middle Hill before breaking out onto a hill called The Middle (confused yet?), offering panoramic vistas of the Cheviots.  It's places like this that make you question whether you shouldn't just pack in the day job and spend all your time in the hills.

Looking towards Middle Hill and border ridge

We arrived at a meeting of ways just as a couple of walkers turned up and started to look at what appeared to be a photocopy of a poor sort of map.  I got chatting to them but struggled to understand what they were saying.  They didn't seem to be local to the area and the nearest I could come to placing their accents was rural Irish.  They asked me a few times what map I was using and finally seemed satisfied when I said it was sheet 80, which someone had told them they should have before they set off.  I've no idea where they wanted to go, so I pointed them in the direction we had just come from and we never saw them again.

Lunch stop
The previous days' exertions had taken a toll on the legs and as we sat at the finger post eating our tuna in a sachet (which offers a more digestible and tastier protein fix than any 'protein bar'), we debated how much we really wanted to go to the top of Windy Gyle and it didn't take too long before we had talked ourselves into just wanting to reach the border by the easiest route.

This, as it happened was to follow Clennell Street north to Hexpethgate Head, which lies bang slap on the border.  And that is what we did.  It has a few steepish moments and it drags on a bit with the odd false summit but the going is never unpleasant.  In fact most of it is extraordinarily nice riding, with a satisfying feeling of remoteness - of just 'being out there'. 

Track past Hazely Law en route to border

The final section passes through an ocean of cotton grass bobbing around in the wind, the latter of which there was sufficient to warrant donning the new bright green Rab soft shell (sadly, no pictures yet)

Hexpethgate Head looking into Scotland - Clennell Street crosses the Pennine Way

We stepped into Scotland for the second time that week and then back in England, where we consumed more snacks - well I ate just about everything I had left in my day sack - and Hilary came up with the last couple of Jelly Babies (the situation had suddenly become serious!)

Looking towards Windy Gyle

Then it was time to head back down.  I was very tempted to turn east along the Salters Road, which takes off just below the ridge but that would have added too many extra miles to the day (as well as taking us off sheet 80 into uncharted territory) and in any case I'd been harping on about doing Clennell Street all week, so we left the Salters for another day, perhaps with Windy Gyle.  The route back towards Middle Hill is one of those big grin rides.  Returning to the lunchtime finger post, we followed the digit pointing to Clennell Street and Alwinton, which drops down steeply to the Usway Burn before an absolute arse of a climb out the other side (they pack in the contours in this part of the world) eventually levelling out at the edge of the forest. 

Bridge over Usway Burn  below Hazely Law
Top of climb out of Usway Burn

Now I had it in my mind that Clennell Street was going to follow the edge of the forest all the way back to Alwinton.  I was expecting gnarly, rooty, and in places, boggy singletrack and that is how it was to begin with.  Then we hit a large forestry operation served by a wide, gravelly logging road.  This was nothing like I remembered and after 3 miles I was starting to wish we'd followed the Salter's Road after all but then it struck out over grassy farmland with grazing sheep on an increasingly indistinct bridleway, which we seemed to lose at one point.  The GPS showed us a couple of hundred meters off route and dropping into a valley, which would have been ok if we had never needed to climb out of it again. Also there seemed to be a multitude of tracks, so we kept on taking the uphill one until we eventually came to a bridleway sign again.  This took us through a gate and onto a steep, loose farm track and we had one of those exciting descents where using the brakes isn't an option, for risk of skidding, and the only thing to do is hang your backside off the saddle and concentrate very hard.  The track joins a minor road and then we were thrown back in Alwinton and conveniently close to the pub, where we purchased some restorative glasses of shandy and bags of crisps.  19 miles and 3,300' of hard won upiness.   This was another totally fabulous ride.

As on the previous days, we had the place to ourselves, meeting two walkers on Pass Peth and two mountain bikers from the campsite coming down the Usway Burn.  I'd forgotten how much I liked the Cheviots.  Most of my previous trips to Northumberland, in the late 80s and early 90s, had been to go climbing.  I was never a big fan of the rock in this part of the country.  The Northumberland sandstone is soft, very  rounded and often not amenable to taking gear, requiring a boldness of approach I never had, whilst the Win Sill dolerite that Hadrian's Wall is built on, is north facing and although sharper, tends to be greasy.  However, the terrain is superb for mountain biking and there are some wonderful routes to be covered on long days out, even if some of them do go through the Otterburn 'war zone' (for that added frisson.)  We will be back.


We had hoped to get another ride in from Hawes on the way back home but the weather wasn't good for this.  We don't like rain - at least not when we have a choice about being in it or not.

Since returning, I've experienced a few episodes of slight numbness but nothing like last week.  So it seems that 80 miles of mountain biking has more or less fixed the problem.  I suppose I should now keep off the bike and see if the numbness returns.  It would be slightly bizarre and not entirely convenient, if the only way to prevent it was to ride every day.  I might have to move to a flatter city.

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