Monday, 20 November 2017

Return to Apedale

Yesterday, for the first time in a long while, I got the chance to go out on a wild bike ride. I'd not been sat doing nothing so I felt fit and the idea of doing the familiar (to me) nine mile round of Swaledale and Apedale didn't seem that daunting.

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.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Apedale Head

I wondered if I was being foolhardy setting off so late. It was five to eight in the evening when I set off on the circuit. I've done it many times: starting on the hillside outside Grinton you head up Harkerside Fell. A good Land Rover track goes on from there up Swaledale, contouring high above the river Swale. A left turn takes you to Apedale Head and the descent of Apedale. From the valley bottom a steady climb takes you over the cairned summit of Height O'Greets and back to the start. The total distance is about eight and a half miles.

The track to Harkerside zig-zags round the valley before heading up a broad ridge to the top of the fell. It's a great descent but for now I'm climbing up it. If these two had been making this short film the other evening they would have passed me coming up:

As you reach the edge of the plateau you pass an earthwork. It's not a complete fort but I've always assumed it was made by the same people who built the Iron Age hill fort, Maiden Castle,  on the Northern flank of the fell. Lead miners, too, have left their mark on the hill. It's tempting to stop at this point to wander around, to take in the view and imagine oneself into the past but I'm very much aware that the sun is not far from the horizon and I've still a long way to go. The top of the hill is dotted with lead miners' pits. The human influence on the landscape is more obvious from the air: aerial photos show it in places to be dotted with man-made craters. The most ubiquitous sign of human influence, though, is the absence of things: any forests that may have grown here have been felled a long time ago, to make room for grazing perhaps, to make charcoal, to build the stockade that might have topped the nearby earthworks or just to cook and keep warm. The heather is kept short by regular burning. It's easy to forget that this apparent wilderness is a closely managed environment.

Especially on an evening like this. The sun is inching still closer to the horizon. The breeze I noticed when I set off has dropped and the air feels warm. The sky is cloudless save for a few hazy horizontal wisps in the far distance. From the top of Harkerside, the track winds down steeply. It's loose and can be tricky but soon levels out. It passes a wooden hut used by shooting parties. I've never actually seen anyone there: there's a room with chairs and tables, like a small village hall without a village. From here it's an easy ride to Apedale Head. I stop on the way. The evening is just too magical not to. I sit back in the heather, and try to take it all in. I'm not trying to break any records after all. Daily life can be such a round of things that need to be done that even when the things are rewarding and not onerous it's still easy to forget what this freedom feels like and unconsciously impose demands upon oneself that mimic the constraints of everyday working life. I'm talking about the sort of freedom that is perhaps impossible most of the time, the sort the dispenses with demands and purposes. I set out from A. I will have to return there sometime, preferably before sunset (although I have a torch and a strategy should I be caught out). However, there is no reason from me to go to B in  preference to C or deadline to drive me on (except my own convenience). If I want to stop, look and breathe freely, I can. It's a great feeling. On a hill, like this, one can feel like Ratty messing about in his rowing boat.

I get back on the bike and push on. I'm determined to take it easy now, not pushing too hard up the hills and freewheeling down them. I want to live in the present. I come to a t-junction. I turn left for Apedale Head. This stretch feels particularly remote. I guess it's a trick of the topography and the fact that much of it has been scoured down to rock and gravel by the lead miners. It might sound fanciful but it always reminds me of the approach to the summit of Ben Nevis.

I stop again when I reach the Head, the watershed between Swaledale on one side and Apedale and, beyond it, Wensleydale on the other. The sun is about to set and I phone a friend. We chat about the last time we cycled this very route. As we talk, a curlew circles round and round protecting its nest. I set off again in the gloaming. The track slopes down gently at first but soon plunges downhill. I proceed carefully until the gradient eases again: in the bottom of the valley the route is almost flat but slopes just enough to make it possible to move fast easily.

Height O'Greets, though little more than an undulation on a ridge, has something of the feel of a real mountain summit about it. A stone cairn stands on a loose, rocky mound. By the time I arrive there it's pretty clear I'll get back to my starting point in daylight. I pick my way downhill  back down into Swaledale along the tricky, eroded paths that crisscross the moor here. Their often smooth grassy slopes conceal dodgy little drops.

It's rained all day here today. It's not at all like the recent evening I've just described. On days like today I revert to the exercise bike.  I turn on the music and get my head down. My current favourite is Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog. No-one I know here has ever heard of him although he has played with Tom Waits and John Zorn, to name but two. Perhaps it's because his projects are so different: you're never sure exactly what sort of music his latest outfit is going to come up with. I like that. This certainly gets me turning the pedals...

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!):