A few weeks ago, back in March, before the clocks changed, and the weather turned more warm and spring-like, my good friend Rachael and I set out on a little adventure together.
It was a ride we’d planned back in November, whilst sat in a little coffee shop somewhere in the sprawling city of Kathmandhu, Nepal. Fresh (actually that’s a lie, we were exhausted!) from 10 days racing the Yak Attack, a marathon stage race through the Himalayas, we were high on adrenaline and keen to plan something that would serve as a motivation for us to keep riding through the cold dark winter months in the UK. We’d also realised, somewhere along a dusty track amidst towering snow-capped mountains, that despite having lived our whole lives in the UK, there are still so many beautiful places to discover and trails to explore there, practically on our doorstep. We didn’t need to travel half way round the World to satisfy our adventure craving, we could fulfil it in a different way, on a trip closer to home.
And so a plan was concocted…
We’d ride from Coast to Coast, off-road, across the northern UK. Passing through the Lake District National Park, the Howgill Fells, the Yorkshire Dales, and the North York Moors, we’d be taking in some wild and beautiful parts of the country, on classic trails, some of which we’d ridden before, many we hadn’t.
The optimum time for riding the Coast to Coast is undoubtedly summer, when the trails are dry and fast, the chance of good weather is high, and there are long hours of daylight. But we are suckers for punishment (and both too busy with work to be able to do this mid-summer) so decided on a weekend in March. It would make it more challenging for sure, and to add to the challenge we gave ourselves four days instead of the usual six….after all, we’d just ridden across the Himalayas….how hard could it be?!
Well, it turns out that 350km and 8000m climbing, on saturated boggy trails, battling gale force winds, torrential rain and sleet, and severe windchill for 4 days, is quite hard….
Thankfully we’d had the good idea to stay in youth hostels en route to enable us to carry minimal kit, also meaning that each night we had somewhere to dry our kit and warm our freezing cold bodies.
As you can probably imagine, it was quite the adventure! Looking back, there are many amazing memories of the good times, tough times, random conversations and funny moments, breathtaking scenery and fantastic (as well as a few terrible!) trails. We finished in Robin Hoods Bay happy but exhausted, with muddy bikes and kit, smiles of pride (and relief), and a hunger for the largest portions of fish and chips we could find.
But rather than describe the whole thing, I’m going to write about what I can safely say for both of us, was the standout memory of the trip. A day neither of us will probably ever forget!
It was day 2, and we were riding from Ambleside to Kirkby Stephen, out of the South Eastern corner of the Lake District, across the Howgill Fells, and towards the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. Our legs were tired from a 10 hour day the previous day, and somehow the weather was even worse today. Unrelenting torrential rain accompanied us from the moment we set off, saturating waterproof clothing and soaking us to the skin. I don’t think I’ve ever been more glad to have been wearing merino layers, knowing that even though wet, I would hopefully still be warm.
First up was the climb over Garburn pass into Longsleddale, a testing climb even in good conditions with fresh legs, definitely a push today. A technical descent on a loose boulder track followed. The wind was bitterly cold and with our clothes already saturated, it was a battle to be able to move fast enough to stay warm. Wearing everything we were carrying, we made our way across tracks and back lanes to the foot of the Howgill Fells. Our objective was The Calf, a huge steep-sided grassy lump of a hill. The forecast looked horrendous. Gale force winds and minus 15 degree windchill, sleet and possible snow. But looking at the map showed our climb would be relatively sheltered until the last 100 vertical meters, and once we dropped into the valley we were descending, we’d be out of the wind again. Weighing up all the elements, we decided it was safe enough (just) to go ahead with our planned route. We’d signed up for an adventure after all!
The climb rears up immediately, burning lungs and legs as you start to climb, possibly where the name ‘The Calf’ comes from, I pondered on the way up?! Wet, slippery grass meant repeated slips, and the feeling that for every step up, you were sliding back two. The weather was abysmal, and deteriorated as we got higher. I couldn’t decide whether I liked the way the low cloud meant we couldn’t see how far was still to go, or whether I would just have liked to see something to know we were making progress. It didn’t feel like we were! As we neared the summit, gale force winds began to batter us, making mobility almost impossible at times. It was instantly freezing, as our already saturated clothes were chilled by the wind. All we could do was take a step, brace ourselves using our bikes as props for a few seconds, gather up some courage, and repeat, trying not to get blown over by the wind. We only had around 15 minutes of this, before we reached the top and dropped down out of the wind, but it felt like much longer. I have rarely been in conditions so grim with my bike.
My FINDRA Caddon top, Betty neck warmer and wooly hat were certainly put to the most extreme test I can imagine that day, I was glad to be kept just warm enough by them. Poor Rach had 7 layers of clothes on but was still absolutely frozen!
The conditions were so utterly horrendous, that I actually found myself laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. (If I hadn’t, I probably would have cried!) Here we were, on the top of a wild hillside, in weather that makes most sane people shelter indoors by a warm fire with a hot cup of tea and the TV on….and we’d chosen to be here!
And that was when it struck me, that despite the grimness of the weather, and the toughness of the climb, it was utterly exhilarating, and i was actually enjoying it!
It felt crazy, insane even, to be up here on a day like this, but I felt completely alive. I felt lucky to be there, feeling the full force of nature’s elements in a way that few people often do. I kept reminding myself that not everyone has the choice to experience moments like that, and there will one day be a day when I won’t be able to do things like this too, but today was not that day, and all of a sudden, it felt wild and crazy and brilliant!
In retrospect, that moment on the top was the highlight of the trip for me and one I’ll always remember. It’s memories like this I want to keep for those days when I’m old and can’t live in this way anymore.
The descent that followed into Bowderdale is one of the longest singletrack rides in the UK. A fantastic sliver of narrow trail that skirts one side of, then drops into, a remote wild, deep sided valley. Even though it was like riding in a river, the natural assistance you got from the tailwind made it feel at times like you were riding an ebike!! I loved it. I was wearing all the clothes I had with me, soaked to the skin, but I didn’t really feel cold.
Rach on the other hand, was having a very different experience. She was cold, tired and hungry, and didn’t seem to have had the moment of elation I’d felt up on the top. Our moods were almost polar opposites, and there wasn’t anything I could say to cheer her up. She’s a tough cookie though, and I knew she’d keep going, we just needed to get down and to the end of the day as quickly as possible. Force-feeding her sugar in the form of a rice-Krispy marshmallow square seemed to help marginally…
When we finally made it to Kirkby Stephen and the B and B we’d booked for the night, we were greeted by Carol the owner, who brought us homebaked scones with jam and clotted cream, endless cups of tea, all whilst helping us find places to dry all our kit. It was wonderful, just what we needed. It’s amazing how once a period of suffering is over, and you’re warm, clean and dry, the body and mind has an amazing way of quickly forgetting how tough and miserable the conditions it has been subjected to were! Within an hour, Rach was smiling again, and we were both laughing at the thought of what we’d experienced, knowing that in no way would words or pictures be accurately able to convey just what we’d been through.
Even now, just a few weeks since we finished our trip, it’s hard to imagine it can really have been that grim. Trails are dry, lambs are bleating happily in the fields, and there have been times this week where I’ve been riding in the evenings in just a short sleeved tee and shorts! Part of me thinks ” if only we’d had weather like this for the four days of our trip!” …but actually, I love the fact that the weather was so horrible and we did it anyway! It’s definitely made it a trip I’ll always remember!!!