Riding into the firing line

A very strange thing happened to me this week in that I had a spare days leave to take and not only did I have a spare day but this day was for me – no other commitments whatsoever I could do whatever I wanted.  This never ever happens so I was determined not to waste it and thought about what I could do and also who I could manage to persuade to take a day off and get up to some sort of mini adventure.  My good mate PB took very little persuading and a plot was hatched to head up to Northumberland and spend a day riding the Cheviot Hills, probably the remotest area of England.  Sunday was spent trying to get the trusty steed into some sort of respectable order and cleaned up as best I could, a good check over and some new back brake disc pads fitted (god were they needed) and then Monday whizzed by before I was outside waiting for PB to drive up North.

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We’d booked into what turned out to be a fantastic bunk house above a great little cafe in Rothbury called Tomlinsons Cafe.  If you ever fancy riding or walking in the area then I can’t recommend it highly enough if you simply want a cheap but clean place to rest your head.  Rothbury at night looked like a really nice small market town and we settled down in a pub for a few (too many) beers.  Early rise and a look round the town confirmed our view of the night before that the town was a lovely little spot and we hunted about for some supplies for the ride.  We came across an amazing butchers with sausage rolls, quiches and pork pies hot out of the oven and some freshly made up sandwiches.  We knew where we were going there was nothing so wanted to ensure plenty of energy.  Somewhat surreally the butchers had a range of exotic meat on offer as the board below indicates.  Quite what the demand is in a small market town in Northumberland for Crocodile I’m not sure.

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Cracking breakfast back at the bunkhouse cafe and we were ready to roll.

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As we drove into the National Park we came across the sign below (with the red flag flying).  This gives you an idea of how remote this place is as large swathes of it are set aside as a military testing and training area and of course we’d picked the day when the guns were getting a good and proper testing.  As we unloaded and got our gear ready the noise of shellfire could be clearly heard reverberating around us…. carruump carrummp it was very surreal and almost otherworldly.  I’ve never heard proper shellfire before and it was a strange feeling to ride off into the hills to that accompaniment, a noise would echo round us for the whole day.

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Even though I was really looking forward to the day I must admit I had my concerns, the remoteness, the route and my lack of fitness (and skill) and off road miles recently was a key area allied to the beers the night before did not necessarily make for a receipe for an easy day.  I was also riding with someone who is strong, fit and a seriously good bike rider.  Oh well best crack on.  All these fears manifested themselves on the first off road climb of the day, a steep grassy track that led us up to the top of our first hill which once crested gave the fantastic view below of what lay before us.  After I’d stopped wheezing and suppressed the rising panic that I’d bitten off way more than I could chew I couldn’t help but feel excited about the way that lay ahead, a swooping descent to the river valley then single track and bridleway off into the far distance before looping round to the right and hopefully ending up back at the car (map and compass packed).  From the top of this hill behind me I was looking down onto another hill with one of the big red flags flying which we would come across all day as we skirted the edge of the military testing area.  It looked as though it was a massive military golf course and I could imagine someone barking out orders “now gunner, shell the 18th and we’ll be all in the clubhouse for a few sherberts before tea there’s a good man”

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As in my bike and art post there is always something that reminds me or provides inspiration and the ride seemed to take us through an area where any bit of flat ground (and there wasn’t much) had one of these beautiful dry stone wall circular sheep pens.  Anthony Goldsworthy eat your heart out.

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The ruggedness and sparseness continued, there are not many trees around and the wind can whip and howl.  Historically this area was the badlands between England and Scotland and the trails that we were riding were effectively old smugglers and bandit routes.  This was not a place to get caught out in, not today, and certainly not in the past.  You can see the feint track we are about to ride in the photo below.

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As the ride got into full swing I could feel myself recovering from the initial early jitters and begin to find a rhythm, nothing like PB of course who was bounding across the land and the hills, but good for me.  I began to relax and found elements of the flow that all of us who ride elusively search  for.  Sometimes the single track we found ourselves on had quite a drop on one side into the river running up the valley which would normally freak me out a bit but I rode along it focussed but calm and I even managed to ride across one of the open sided small bridges (unlike on this previous ride) which gave me a tremendous sense of satisfaction.  I would need to cling to these small victories as the ride progressed.  The ride up the valley passed through some soft needle floored forestry….

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criss crossing the river ….

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before climbing out onto a high plateau …. The area is littered with signs indicating where is and is not out of bounds for soldiers.  What I found particularly odd is that this seemed to apply to the odd farm house we could come across where there would be signs on the barns indicating whether or not they were out of bounds.  You have to remember that the sound of shelling is continually echoing around us throughout this ride and this sense of strangeness continued as we descended to find three soldiers with machine guns under a bridge.  PB wondered if we should take a sneaky photo but I suggested that discretion might be the better part of valour on this occasion.

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Lunchtime stop to woof down some of the butchers fare and we were ready to tackle the toughest challenge ahead, I was feeling pretty tired but hoped that a slow steady climb up the grassy track to the highest point of the ride would sustain me – wrong.  As the green ribbon snaked upwards from the valley floor (the photo below is looking back down it) no matter how long I felt I’d been climbing for there was no sight of the top and all my movements were slowing down, I was entering my own Hades.  It has been a long time since I’ve put myself into a position where I know that I will suffer and although I suspected today might be the day it is always unclear when it might strike.  On this hill it hit with a vengeance, the shelling continued around me and I found myself slipping into a dark dark place of mental and physical anguish as the wind began to surge across the exposed land.  There was no power left in my legs and no matter how hard I pushed I seemed to have become the slowest moving thing on the planet.  The Gods looked down on this modern day Sisyphus as I tried to push on to the top.

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What’s that coming over the hill…. it’s a Welshman ! I emerge a spent carcass, blowing like Ivor the Engine and after this plateau I somehow, after frequent dismounts, carrying and pushing over unrideable sections finally inch by painful inch made it to the top.  The fear now was getting down, I was so tired and my legs hurt so much that I was struggling to hold the attack position on the bike for any period as each jolt sent pain shooting up through the thighs.  I’m not a great descender at the best of times (or climber come to mention it) but realised that this was not the place to have a spill and break something.  We may have packed emergency blankets but I did not fancy lying on the side of these hills waiting to be airlifted off, so the new brake pads come in handy as I gunned off all speed to make sure I got down safely and in one piece.

The final leg necessitated a bit of map and compass use (note to self need to brush up on these) before we found ourselves at the top of the final descent into the valley and a fire road back to the car.

6 and a half hours after we set off the bikes were packed in the car and the final rations devoured.  The Cheviots are an incredible area of the country to ride in, if you go be prepared this is not somewhere you want to be on your own or without the proper equipment and supplies should things go wrong.  You will see no one and the only sounds will be your heartbeat, the rubbing of your disc brakes and the muffled carrump of the shells.  If you do go then keep a look out as I think I left a piece of me out there on them hills.  An amazing way to spend a Tuesday and it felt very strange back in the office the next morning.

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