Last summer solstice, after the perfect* day of cycling some of the best climbs in the North of England, Lucy and I unfurled our roll mats by a remote stream in the North Yorkshire Dales. It seemed like the perfect campspot – a flat grassy area beside the river and the midsummer sun setting in perfect alignment with the V of the valley. What’s more we were close to fresh water for washing and cooking, and we were out of sight from the road, having cycled up a gravel access track for a kilometre or so. After relaxing in the last rays of the sun with books, we finally surrendered to the night and climbed into sleeping bags and bivvy bags. But once the sun had set, the gentle breeze disappeared and was rudely replaced with midges. Not an issue we thought, as we relocated slightly to an outcrop in the river bank that still had a slight breeze.
*On second thoughts it was not a perfect day - we had arrived in Hawes and headed straight to the chippy for some deeply-anticipated deep-fried Wensleydale before attempting Buttertubs, only to find it was shut.
A short while later that breeze had also died a quick death and the midges had no issues relocating too, finding our exposed faces (foolishly we had not packed midge nets). Eventually the pesky few midges had turned into swarms reminiscent of the Western Isles and any hopes of sleep were well and truly thwarted. Admitting defeat, we clumsily clambered out of our bags eight hours sooner than planned, shaking limbs and swatting skin. Packing up seemed harder than the climb up Buttertubs - running up and down the river barefoot stuffing sleeping bag into stuffsack. Or as I succinctly put it in my diary, “we packed up in a dynamic fashion”. Concentrating on attaching bikepacking bags to bikes amidst an invertebrate onslaught is up there with sleep deprivation for things I fear the most.
Once packed up we peddled back to the road and kept on going, along the road which climbed higher up onto the moor. In one hand I was clasping a pot full of oats and fruit soaking in water - our breakfast which I had smugly prepared in advance. I was no longer smug as the climb ramped up and I struggled on in the dark with one hand on the bars, sloshing oaty water. Eventually the road topped out onto the open moor where a keen breeze washed away all our worries. Another gravel access track and a bit of hike-a-bike across the heath and we settled on a delightfully exposed mattress of heath. We woke the following morning to a drizzle and swiftly descended off the cold moor, now cursing the wind.
The second night couldn’t have been more different from the first. Having arrived at Michael and Celia’s, the parents of a school friend, we were promptly treated to fresh scones and sparkling elderflower in the walled garden of their farmhouse. Being June their wild-flower meadow was in full bloom, in stark contrast to the bare moorland around which is kept meticulously devoid of much biodiversity for the benefit of grouse (or rather for the benefit of shooting grouse). I can’t help but assess upland habitats when I travel now, a curse of the day job, but also an added appreciation. The mountains are usually where I am drawn to, and the vegetation composition and structure forms an important part of my experience in them. I will probably dwell more on this in yet-to-be-written blog-posts, but for now back to our indulgent evening in Northumberland. Much as I love an invigorating wash in a cold stream, the hot shower was well received, as was the Ottolenghi spread put on by Michael for dinner. (Side note: My present Ottolenghi obsession can be traced back to Michael, who first introduced me to his culinary delights about a decade ago when staying over at Robbie’s (“Anyone for a Billy burger?”).) It is always a joy to share their company over good food and enjoy a catch-up, and this evening was no exception. Breakfast was another highlight, with sourdough, jams marmalade, granola and goats yoghurt all made by Michael and Celia. The sun of the day before had given way to grey skies, wind and persistent drizzle. Sitting in the warm drinking cup after cup of Pu’er tea was a good way of delaying (and denying) the inevitable soggy start of the days riding back home.
I guess I should write a little about the cycling itself, since it was such a prominent part of the trip. In fact cycling is arguably the defining activity on a cycle-tour. I’m always blown away by how utterly excellent the climbs in the North of England are. Some of the best from this trip included Fleetmoss, Buttertubs, Tan Hill, Chapel Fell, Cowsgill and Hartside, as well as local favourites Gummers How and Hawkshead Hill thrown in for good measure. Although less spectacular than the climbs, the country lanes are also worth writing home about (or writing on this blog, sorry Mum and Dad no postcard this time.) Riding beneath the hulk of Pen-Y-Ghent, gliding up Dentdale past meadows, and rolling through quaint villages of the Eden Valley were equally memorable. The villages often had one of my favourite things – food stalls with honesty boxes. I always try and have some spare space on the bike so that I can pick up some local produce on the fly. Jam, brownies, and even a bag of ripe tomatoes in this case were stashed away for later. Not only is it all free, but if the honesty box is unlocked you can actually be paid to take delicious food! Knocking on the door of a cottage behind one such stall to ask for change, I came face-to-face with a lady in a dressing gown looking very flustered at being seen in such a state, as if she was not expecting to encounter someone behind the door. She proceeded to tell us her life story, culminating in a blow-by-blow account of the long weekend she had just worked as a caterer, which justified why she was in a dressing gown on a Monday afternoon. As someone who reveres the ability to sleep in past noon, I needed no justification and just wanted my brownie. Eventually I got it, but it turned out to be dry and disappointing. If there is a lack of change in the honesty box, it is probably for a good reason I mused.
But back to the cycling, our last day took us over some misty Northumberland roads to Alston - the rain never lasted for long. Our route took us up Hartside, down the expansive Eden valley, over Great Asby common, and through the Lune gorge, showcasing some of the great cycling that East Cumbria has to offer just a stone’s throw from the Lakes. Not only are these roads quieter but the skies are louder, full of birds like curlew and lapwing, birdsong often missing in the Lakes sadly. Once back in the National Park, the clouds had all but cleared, and the sun came out for the remainder of the day. Being the longest day of the year I added a detour onto the route home from Kendal to make the most of the sun. Cruising along the East shore of Coniston and back home to Ambleside past softly swishing meadows, I was very content. Writing this in the middle of winter, I cannot wait for the return of long evenings and warm weather, shorts and tan lines and arriving home at 11pm exhausted and overjoyed.
The routes can be found on Strava: