If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Oop North - Trip Report

I got back late last night and have spent today sorting out all the wet kit and giving the bike a much-needed clean and lube. Here's a little something about the trip. I will be posting something separately about the kit I was using, as I put a number of things to quite a severe test. Quite a long post, so if you're not interested, bugger off.

This was the longest trip I have done on the Bonnie, and indeed the furthest I have been on a bike in the UK for a long time: a total of 728 miles in two (riding) days. The weather forecast was fairly mixed, so I kitted up for a wet ride. Good decision. It was raining steadily on Thursday morning as I set off, and it rained for the first hour as I rode up through Wales. The rain stopped for a while and the ride from Bala to Chester was in beautiful sunshine - a glorious late October day. I stopped for a bite to eat at Chester Services (quality, medium - a burger's a burger, right?) and then headed off for the motorway stretch of the journey. And the rain came again. It wasn't a downpour, but the wind was rising all the time and the beating of the raindrops on the visor was steady and insistent. I had planned a fuel stop at Penrith, so I assumed the nearest thing to a racing crouch that an upright bike with a tank bag would allow, and got on with it.

I love the North of England, and I don't get up there very often now that both my parents are gone, so I wanted to make the most of the opportunity. I had planned a route up the M6 to Penrith, and then over the North Pennines to Haydon Bridge and into Newcastle on the A69. The return journey was down the A1(M) as far as Richmond, where I wanted to call in to see an elderly relative, and then cross the Yorkshire Dales and rejoin the M6 at Lancaster. All in all, plenty of decent scenery, some challenging roads, and a big lungful of North that my body had been craving for so long.

The M6 going North to Penrith goes over Shap Fell, which reaches 320m above sea level. That doesn't sound much, but the stretch is horribly exposed to winds from the West and the long incline going up to Shap Summit is bleak and lonely. It wasn't too cold when I was there, but the winds were gusting and the rain was steady, creating spray that made visibility difficult. Because the winds were from the SW, the spray kicked up by lorries was driven from left to right for Northbound traffic like me, which meant that passing any vehicle meant a leap of faith as you plough forward into a wet, grey wall. But I was dry and reasonably warm in my kit, so I pressed on, worried only about how far it was to Penrith and whether I had enough fuel. (Too wet to stop and take photographs, though.)

I turned off the M6 at Penrith and filled the bike at a service station on the outskirts of town. It was here I made my only mistake of the day. I was wearing waterproof gloves with thin thermal liners, and I had taken them off to do the necessary. Grappling with the tank bag and filler cap meant that my hands were wet, and I didn't dry them before I put my gloves back on. Within ten miles, the insides of the gloves were damp and my hands were getting chilled, and they didn't warm up again until I was sitting in the bar of the hotel. But the run up from Penrith on the A686 over Hartside Top and on to Alston was fantastic. It's a steep climb, up to 1 in 4 in places, with hairpins and steep drops, and technically challenging for a loaded bike. Thankfully, the rain had eased by now, and I was able to enjoy the spectacular views and the twisty road. The Bonnie isn't a very powerful bike, but it charged up Hartside like a bellowing boar. Even fully loaded (two heavy panniers and a stretched-to-bursting tankbag) the handling was sweet and confident. The new tyres I put on a few weeks ago (and patted myself on the back for having done so) got a full workout and are both now scrubbed to the edge of the tread.

The promise by the hotel of 'secure motorcycle parking' turned out to be a side door leading to a corridor full of rubbish. There was no way the Bonnie was going to get in there, even if I took the panniers off, so they agreed I could park in the staff parking area. The receptionist and her boss were sweet Geordie girls and couldn't have been more helpful, even opening up the kitchen to save me carrying my gear round the outside, and helping me out so that I could bring two big panniers, one tank bag, one helmet and a satnav into the hotel in one go. I returned to fix the disc lock onto the front wheel, but forgot to bring the yellowy-green coiled wire that goes from lock to handlebar to remind you that you have a big lump of metal on your brake disc. Still, I'll remember to take it off before I leave, no problem. I was too keen to get my wet kit off and hit the bar.

The wedding next day was a grand occasion, and I saw my youngest cousin married off in fine style. The evening 'event' was a disco, and was so crashingly loud that I lasted three minutes and then repaired to the bar. There I found all my other cousins, so we spent a long evening drinking the excellent Geordie Pride and catching up on things. This was time very well spent.

In the morning, I brought one pannier down when I went for breakfast, and I thought I would attach it to the bike and then bring the bike to the front of the hotel to make the rest of the loading easier. Pannier on, oil checked, bike fired up, ... crunch.

I had, of course, forgotten all about the disc lock. Fortunately, the damage was limited to the speedometer cable, which was mashed into fragments at its bottom end. It could have been worse - I know people who have broken brake discs and cracked fork legs doing the same stunt, which would have been the end of my journey. But I had the satnav, so I could always say that I knew my speed if the police asked. The 'mph' figure is in tiny six point type, behind a screen and a shiny plastic cover, so it's hardly obvious, but hey.

The TomTom told me that I had about 9 hours to home, but it didn't know that the previous evening, in the enthusiasm borne by the Geordie Pride, I had promised to visit two relatives who lived nearby before I left the area. It was a lovely morning, cool but dry, and the coast looked pretty good for a morning at the end of October.

It was almost mid-day before I was on the A1(M) heading South. I was determined not to waste time, but then I saw signs to something I have always wanted to see - Antony Gormley's Angel Of The North. I'm not a big fan of modern art, but this is simply stunning and I love it.

I high-tailed it down the motorway and got to Richmond in North Yorkshire by 1 pm. An old friend of my father's is in a care home there. We have kept in touch over the years, but I hadn't seen her since her sister's funeral four years ago, when she was 94, and I wondered what I would find. I needn't have worried. At 98, she was very frail and needed help to move about, but mentally she was still as sharp as a tack. She had been a primary school headteacher all her life and never married, but at 95 she was still living - alone, by now - in a cottage which was last modernised in about 1920. A coal fire for heat, everything done by hand, all cooking from local ingredients or the garden, and the village bus for transport. She did well to live independently for that long, but now she is coping well with 'assisted living' and showing no signs of slowing down just yet. I spent over an hour with her and - rather against my expectations - enjoyed myself enormously.

The next part of the ride was the bit I was looking forward to most of all. I left Richmond heading West and then turned right onto the B6270 to go up through Swaledale. This has got to be one of the most beautiful of all places on God's earth. And I got lucky. The weather was dry and bright, and the sun was low in the sky. This made all the dry-stone walls stand out from the hillsides, and gave a fabulous texture to the fields and hills.

God's self-build retirement complex

Near the hamlet of Low Row I had the only 'moment' of the entire journey. On a narrow, twisty section was a double bend left-right with a bridge with a blind crest in the middle. According to Roadcraft, I should have been well to the left approaching the bridge because of the blind crest, but I was enjoying the scenery and was towards the middle of the road. A big Audi (with those funny LED lower eyelashes) came round the bend and over the crest taking most of the road, and he missed my right foot by a matter of a few inches. His fault for coming round a corner on the wrong side of the road, but mine for not being prepared for it and positioning accordingly. Concentrate, Richard!

Just after the village of Muker, I turned left and went over the Buttertubs Pass. This was another steep, hairpin-rich, 1 in 4 climb and the views were again spectacular.

The so-called Buttertubs are at the top of the pass. They are limestone potholes about 20m deep, and are unusual in that their sides are vertical, so they look like the launch tubes for some vast Yorkshire Dales Space Defence System. I paused here for a while and then took off for the last part of the scenic run.

I made my way down to Hawes and then onto the Ingleton road. This crosses Ingleborough Moor and the terrain is not as pretty as Swaledale, but the road is downhill all the way, and the names I passed - Blea Moor, Settle, Horton-in-Ribblesdale - all reminded me of my caving days. The ground beneath you here is Carboniferous Limestone, and it's so full of holes it's like a Swiss cheese. Fortunately, the roads here are good, and so I kept up a high average speed in the faiiling light.

After Ingleton, where I filled the bike again, it was a short hop to the M6 at Lancaster, another burger at a service area, and then I turned the bike's nose to the South and pressed on. By now it was almost dark, and the busy M6 between Preston and Warrington (you are going between the massive conurbations of Liverpool and Manchester, and the traffic volume and behaviour reflects this) wasn't a lot of fun. But then I left the M56 and headed into North Wales, with home firmly in my sights, and things got rather quiet.

I like riding in the dark. Driving a car on an empty road at night is quite a pleasant experience, but on a bike you can add that the dark surrounds you for 360°, and over your head too. You feel quite exposed. Add to that the fact that if animals make a noise in the shadows, you hear it, and riding after dark is quite a sensory experience. And of course, once I had left Chester, the rain started again, and didn't let up until I was home and in bed. The single headlight of the Bonnie isn't brilliant, but it was enough to keep up a steady 50 mph for most of the way. (If you think that's pifflingly slow, remember that these are narrow roads, often only one-and-a-half lanes wide, very twisty and with stone walls either side. If you get it wrong here, you get it very wrong.) The only problem comes with sharp corners, where the bike leans far over and the road you are riding onto vanishes into the gloom outside the narrow beam. The only way to keep the road in view is to slow down and lean less, which is what I did.

What I hadn't reckoned with is the lack of petrol stations in rural Wales, and the fact that they see no need, even on major routes, to stay open much after tea-time. I was banking on there being a petrol station open in Bala, as I reckoned - no trip meter, remember - that I was going to run onto reserve before long, and I have not yet tested the reserve capacity of the bike. I think it's about 20 miles, but I haven't done the strap-a-gallon-to-the-back-and-run-until-it-stops test on it yet. To my concern, the station in Bala was closed and all the lights were off, and then to my dismay the bike stuttered and started to die. I flipped to the reserve tank, and as I did so I passed a sign saying 'Dolgellau 18 miles'. Oo-er.

I reckoned this should be possible - and there was no alternative. Really. It was 7.45 pm on a Saturday night, and as far as rural Wales is concerned, that means 'closed'. I knew for a fact that there was a Little Chef with a petrol station attached just outside Dolgellau, so I slowed right down to about 40 and stayed in top gear, hoping to get every last millimetre out of the remaining fuel. I rolled through Dolgellau and up the hill towards Machynlleth, and there was the Little Chef.

And there was the fuel station, with its lights out. Oh dear.

I saw that there was still someone filling a car, so I raced the bike in next to a pump, grabbed the fuel hose from the holster and stuck it in the tank before they could change their minds. Luckily, the girl behind the desk was a helpful soul, and answered my pantomime tilted head (?) with a nod (!). Phew. Once that precious liquid was in, I relaxed. I knew I had under 100 miles to go, so a full tank would do it with ease, even if I caned it all the way. It turns out that this station - and remember, this is probably the only big fuel stop for 50 miles in any direction, on the main North-South route through mid-Wales - closes at 8 pm on a Saturday, and I had rolled up at 8.05 pm. If the girl had cashed up quicker and gone, I would have had to sleep under the bike and wait for them to open in the morning. When I filled it, I found the bike still had about a litre (or 10 miles) left. Too damn close.

The rest of the journey was uneventful, and I arrived home at 10.45 pm. I was careful not to get the insides of the gloves wet this time, and I can report that when I got home not one drop of water had got inside my waterproof layer. I am pleased with that. I'd been on the road, in one way or another, for over 13 hours, and I expected that I would be utterly knackered and ready to drop. Not so - although I was happy to park the bike and turn myself to other things such as hot tea and a bite to eat, I was only a little stiff and could easily have done the same tomorrow. The MCN Ride Logger app on my phone recorded 377 miles that day.


  1. Sounds like a cracking trip - well done, that man. Especially the wanting to do it all again tomorrow!

    Be interesting to hear more on the kit front, too: I'll look forward to that.

    (I did the same trick with a disk lock once and it cost me the whole brake caliper mounting, btw).

  2. Nice story Richard, thanks for sharing it.

    At least the Bonnie's lights are 12v; when I first started biking, the RE Bullet & Velo Clubman had 6v lights.

    The weekly 50 mile cross-country trip to see the girlfriend (now Missus) on a Saturday night was a wing & a prayer. Particularly when it was p1ssing down, and enduring the spray from the lorry in front was marginally safer (because you could follow its lights), than having feeble lights + poor visibility + tortuous country roads.

  3. Thanks, chaps. Joe, you are quite right. I was wondering to myself why riding at night, in the rain, was easier than I thought. The last time I did any serious distance on a bike after dark (i.e. not just commuting) was many years ago, before 12v and before halogen bulbs. The Bonnie is 12v and I have fitted one of those Halfords Extreme Brilliance +80% bulbs, which really do make a difference.

  4. Nice report Richard! I would have enjoyed giving you an outrider escort through Cheshire but I twigged your route a bit too late !

    I have a natty little 2l fuel reserve cannister from Hein Gericke - I'm sure that it will save my bacon one day.


  5. An escort through Cheshire would have been great - but I didn't think of it either!

    That fuel reserve sounds like a great idea. I considered filling a one litre fuel bottle I have for camping with petrol and bringing that, but decided against it. It would have felt just a little better to have it on board, though. Only ten or twelve miles, but it might have made the difference if I had been 5 minutes later to Dolgellau. Of course, a proper desert-raid style long range tank would be ideal, but it might spoil the Bonnie's pretty lines. I'll look into the HG item - thanks.


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