Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Inner Explorer

Over the winter I've been getting out when I can, often just on the road, putting in a few miles here and there to keep myself fit. Today, though, I went for a long ride over the fell overlooking Redmire in Wensleydale. My route took me along Cobscar Rake. I'm exploring tracks in the area with a view to linking the fell there with Apedale and Harkerside, creating a longer off-road circuit than the one I know. There's probably a booklet or a website somewhere that will tell me everything I need to know. However, I want to discover the route for myself and preserve a sense of adventure. Thinking about this when out riding today I immediately thought -as I often do- of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books. The children in these stories explore their surroundings, give places names of their own and draw maps. The fact that adults have already mapped and named places in the Lake District is of no importance to them. Exploration, however we adults justify it, and whatever else it might be, is play. Even when an environment has been extensively used by humans (as these fells have been), what matters to the explorer in me is that whatever I'm exploring is unknown to me. (I would like to know the origin of some of the hill and place-names round here, though: in addition to Apedale there is a Zebra Hill and a Gibbon Hill).
My route took me past the pool by the ruins of Cobscar Mill. It's always good, I think, to come across a pool on the fells. It looked quite deep and there were ducks swimming on it. I wondered if it would be good for a swim - it was a sunny day and one could almost imagine it to be a warm one too. I was a little concerned, though, that it was close to ruins associated with lead mining and might be polluted.
I headed off West to where the track meets a road. I turned up it and climbed to the cattle grid by Greets Moss. This is the watershed: from here you can see down into both Swaledale and Wensleydale. You also get a good view of some of the tracks and tops of Apedale. These would have to wait for another day. I had a little time on my hands but not enough to explore them. I headed back down to the Mill, this time taking the track along Chaytor Rake to Preston Moor. I found I was making good time, so I set off to explore Candle House Rigg. I suppose the stone hut on the hill to be the Candle House of the name. A track I didn't know stretched away from the hut towards the horizon. I was intrigued to know if it linked up with the tracks in Grinton, on the far, Swaledale side of the hill. I resolved to return another day to find out.
A few minutes later I found myself splashing through the ford at Petticoat Rake. Soaked but happy I turned onto the tarmac of Whipperdale Bank. A few moments later, a cycling club out for a ride, all clad in black lycra, swept me up and carried me along down the swooping, steep hills towards Leyburn. It was what I would imagine it would be like suddenly to find yourself flying in the middle of a murmuration of starlings.

Friday, 2 September 2016

On the Road

Tarmac! After all the steep hills and rough tracks I've been riding on of late, I find myself on the road. I brave Leyburn, with its tractors and tourists. It somehow manages to seethe with activity sleepily.
It is said that a one-way system was once introduced here. In a display of cheerful anarchy, locals simply ignored the signs until the authorities, at a loss to know what else to do, removed them. A small victory had been won and life continued as if nothing had happened. Rejoice at your peril, though. Cycling through Leyburn you watch your back.

I leave the small town behind and freewheel the length of a road that slants down the hillside towards the river Ure. Below me, in no particular order, a cemetery, a dentist, a pottery and a rugby pitch. Above me, on the horizon, empty park benches where you can sit, if you want, and enjoy the view. I turn right and begin the long slog up to Preston Under Scar. I'm turning back on myself, cycling in a circle, going nowhere. I'm only doing it today to see what I can see and keep fit. Pushing round a biggish gear, I cycle past Gillfield Wood and glimpse, between the trees, sunlight falling on a clearing. It is the sort of place that makes you want to stop and take a look. Today I keep going.

I come to a crossroads. If I go straight on, the road turns into an unmetaled track that leads onto the moor. I'm tempted to go that way: there are good routes there that would, in the end, lead me back to the road but I resist the temptation. Today, I want a good, sustained ride with no temptations to stop and laze in the heather. I turn right, sticking to the road. Next time, I tell myself.

The road I take, a broad A-road, runs for miles over the tops, often close to 1,000 feet up. If you cycle run or walk along it in summer you'll be greeted with a succession of curlews and peewits, circling their nests and warning you off with their calls. Now, though, they've raised their young and left. I cycle in something like silence.

This road is a border. To my left, the moorland rises, gently at first, to the top of the hill. To my right, fields slope down to the village. It's easy to think of the former as wild and the latter as managed and it certainly looks that way. Look at aerial photos of the moors, though, and you'll see a very different picture, one of a regular, man-made patchwork quilt. Sections of the heather are systematically burned and allowed to regrow in order to maintain a good habitat for the grouse. Less visibly, the grouse's predators are systematically eliminated. There's a lot of talk currently about the plight of the hen harrier which is being driven to near extinction by land management practices. Less exotic, but still problematic in my view, go walking on moorland and you'll come across small animals squidged in metal traps and crows which have been lured into lobster-pot like cages where they await their fate. The moorland to my left is no less managed than the farmland on my right. It crosses my mind that virtually every square yard of the land around me has been adapted by humans to the raising of animals to be killed - either for pleasure or for the shops and supermarkets. The land does have other uses: the military regularly train hereabouts on the moor. The countryside is a violent place.

At least no-one finds a use for the grass verges. These are left alone by and large. Odd, that cycling on the main roads in these parts should bring you closer to more land left to its own devices than you see on a lot of the off-road routes. This is perhaps why I feel more drawn to the shape of the landscape than to the texture we impose on it. It takes a massive effort to quarry a hill out of shape. The lead miners of Swaledale (just over the hill from here) tried but all they usually managed to do was to expose the rocky skeleton under the grass and heather.

I come to the high point on the road. A red flag flies here from a roadside flagpole to warn you that the army are out training on the moor. It's flying as I cycle past. It's all downhill from here.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Rogan's Seat

Rogan's Seat  in Swaledale is one of my favourite 2,000-foot hills. It gets a bad press, mainly because a Land Rover track has been built all the way to the top. Trudging up a hard-core track is not the most exciting way to walk up a hill.

However, the view from the top is a great one and it can be approached from two of the most interesting gills in the Yorkshire Dales. Swinner Gill to the West has perhaps the most interesting scrambles to be found in the Dales while Gunnerside Gill has some of the most interesting industrial archaeology.

The Land Rover track starts just outside Gunnerside village. Some may consider it to be a boring walk but get on a bike and it turns into a quite different proposition. It's about five miles to the top and, of course, it's a pretty sustained uphill slog. The return journey, of course, is something else.

The road out of the village is unfenced and runs through a field. I'm weaving through a herd of cows. They seemed to think I'm nothing to worry about. I'm on the lookout for a bull and eye them anxiously. The road is steep. It feels good to get so much climbing over so quickly.

I reach the start of the track: it turns sharply off to the right. The surface is rougher and I change gear as it steepens. The track more or less contours the slope below Jingle Pot Edge, along the west side of the green V that is Gunnerside Gill, rising slowly in waves, never too steep but gradually gaining height. At  Botcher Gill I stop to eat a museli bar and drink. From here the track turns left, ascending across the moor to the broad col that separates Rogan's Seat from Black Hill.  The first section is steep and short. I get off and push the bike up the steepest parts, encouraging myself on with thoughts of the return journey. The slope eases and I start cycling again. I pass a sheep farmer shearing his sheep, his Land Rover pulled up in the heather.

As I gain height over the hills around, the atmosphere changes. I begin to find myself looking down on the smaller hills. Gradually they fade into the mass of the landscape and I'm left with only the sky and the big hills for company. I reach the top of the col. The track I'm on continues down through Swinner Gill to Keld. I take a right turn for the summit.

A crosswind keeps forcing me across the track. I stay on the left side, using the camber to help me stay on course. I stop for another breather and survey the hills from left to right. Great Whernside, Buckden Pike, the broad back of Yockenthwaite Fell. Fountains and Darnbrook. In the distnce, Pendle Hill. Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside peep out from behind Lovely Seat and Great Shunner Fell. The long line of Mallerstang Edge.

The summit is marked with a small cairn a few yards to the West of the track. I manhandle the bike across the rough, boggy ground to get there. I don't like to leave it on the track. I'm feeling sentimental about the machine at this point and wonder if this is how Bronze Age people felt about the artifacts they took with them to their graves. I hang around, still admiring the view, but not for long. I make my way back to the track. The big kid in me knows that the best is yet to come! I aim the Kraken down the track and set off. I concentrate on staying on, enjoying myself and trying not to overcook the bends.

The view on the way down is, if anything, better than the view on the way up. As I turn left at the col, the exposed, stony hillside of Bunton Hush dominates the view ahead like a low, full moon.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Kraken Wakes!

A combination of events and ideas led me to the name for this blog. First, the friend with whom I hoped to spend the Summer going off biking round the Yorkshire Dales unfortunately broke his ankle so I am, for now, a solitary cyclist. Secondly, I read and reread all the Sherlock Holmes stories years ago, including The Solitary Cyclist, so the title naturally appealed. Thirdly, I'm a regular reader of The Solitary Walker blog and what he does on two legs I intend to do on two wheels.

My legs are over half a century old and have taken a lot of punishment over the years, taking me up and down hills as fast as they possibly can. Recently they’ve started to complain a bit. I get out running for a few weeks then find I’ve developed a twinge. I then have to take it easy for a couple of weeks. I go out running again, just a little at first, build it up gradually then… Another twinge.

The trouble is,  not only do I need to keep fit but also I really enjoy running – especially off-road. I’ve been out fell running on and off for thirty-odd years. I’m no good at it, if being good means doing well in fell races. Although I’m a bit of a loner where running is concerned, I have entered them occasionally and always come near the back of the field. I wasn’t faster when I was younger and I don’t seem to have slowed down  that much with age. Moreover, focusing on training never improved my times by very much. However, there’s nothing quite like the exhilaration of arriving at the top of a hill under your own steam. At times it’s hard work but there are times, too, when running over a summit or along a ridge is like walking on air. I enjoy hill-walking but when I’m out walking, if I’m enjoying the walk, I’m invariably planning a return visit, with my fell shoes.

With all this in mind, I decided to  be kind to my joints and get a mountain bike. I ended up buying a Carrera Kraken. I’m having a great deal of fun with it both on the road and on the hills. Swaledale isn’t far from here. It’s famous for its Land Rover tracks, good paths and long ridges. My first expeditions into its hills have been cautious – I’ve ventured no further than eight miles so far. They’ve certainly lived up to expectations, though on one occasion I learned the hard way that cycling up steep, rough tracks into a strong headwind is nigh-on impossible (and certainly no fun).

I thought it would be good to film these exploits but, I quickly discovered there’s no need: there’s plenty of Youtube videos of mountain bike rides out there already. There’s probably a whole shed-load of hard drives somewhere devoted to storing them. This film was filmed a few years ago by mountain bikers in Swaledale, not far from the area I’ve been exploring. It certainly captures the fun that’s there to be had. Thank you, Lee and Niel (whoever you are!):