It was late morning when A and I parked in our usual roadside place and took out our bikes. The air felt cold - a lot colder than on my previous visit, months before. At least I'd remembered my gloves. The sky was clear save for a few thin strata of high cloud and there was a light breeze. We usually tackled the round anticlockwise, setting out over Harkerside Fell, but the gamekeepers were out heather burning and a thick pall of smoke was blowing over the track we usually took. We decided to go round clockwise instead. With luck, the fire might have burnt down by the time we reached the final descent of Harkerside.
We picked our way up the ascent of Height O'Greets: this is the only part of the route where there's no good Land Rover-track to follow. The ruts and puddles I remembered from the Summer were now frozen solid and covered with ice. We found ourselves pushing our bikes quite a lot of the way. The bare top with its rocky cairn feels a lot higher than it actually is but since it was chilly and we had a long way to go, we didn't linger. The descent into Apedale is effortless: a well-kept track runs straight down the hillside to the valley-bottom. However, I wanted to avoid an emergency landing on frozen ground if I could. I proceeded with care.
We usually find ourselves descending the track through Apedale at speed. Ascent is obviously slower and gives one more time to take in one's surroundings. Apedale has an uncanny feel to it. Old tracks lead off to the left and right, only to fade away or disappear into the folds of the landscape. It's hard to tell what is ancient and what is more recent among the superimposed layers of human activity: there is a jumble of mounds, tracks and spoil heaps all in the process of fading back into the ground.
As I said, I'm feeling pretty fit but I have to say the final, steep ascent from the valley bottom to Apedale head was a bit of a slog. It began to feel like we were taking or bikes out for a walk. Near the top, it leveled out. We crossed the watershed and the skyline of Wensleydale was replaced by that of the bleaker, wilder Swaledale. We stopped for a few minutes and sat on the side of a small spoil heap, eating and drinking. The breeze had dropped and I was reminded of the times I'd spent there the previous Summer. It's definitely one of my favourite places in the Dales. Despite the signs of human activity. it has an almost tangible sense of remoteness about it. Perhaps those signs actually add to the effect: the mine workings were abandoned so long ago they add a sense of human activity being distant in both time and space. This is an illusion in a way: I've written before of how closely the moors are managed - the bleakness of the surroundings is maintained by the patient, systematic work of the heather-burners we had encountered earlier.
The hardest part of the route was over. From here, good, straight tracks with sweeping descents along the flanks of High Carl and Gibbon Hill lead to the summit area of Harkerside Fell. I always remember the stretches of descent when I go this way but in fact there must be a net ascent involved! Perhaps the ascents are short and sharp. By the time we found ourselves descending Harkerside Fell, the breeze had returned. It had, thankfully, changed direction. The heather could still be seen blazing on the skyline but the wind no longer blew it into our path.