Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Travel Tales: Ice and Fire


The hailstorm eased off, leaving a thick white layer of glacier mints that crunched into powder between the fat tyres and the cobblestones. It was Boxing day, and as l carefully eased the Honda over the slippery surface, cosy lights glimmered from the snug breakfast warmth of the Yorkshire cottages. The deep rumble of the vee twin must have been audible even through the thick stone walls, but the occupants concentrated on warm leftovers and flickering TVs, shutting out thoughts of the harsh winter outside.

Meanwhile I had found tarmac that was merely wet rather than icy, and opened up to see how the new Revere coped with 135 litres of luggage and Iain’s 12 stone on the back, with only my skinny bod in the seat as a counterbalance. There was a slight tendency to wheelies and a distinct wobble when pulling away, but as far as the engine was concerned it was all systems go up to about the ton, beyond which it absolutely refused to go Since the most I'd got out of it travelling light was 112mph, l was far from unhappy.

We were heading for the North Yorkshire moors, intending, once we got there, to Spend the few days between Christmas and the New Year crossing the country from east to west in time for the annual celebration in the Lake District. We were, of course, fully aware that the Pennine passes are usually closed at that time of year, but I have immense faith in the cross it when you come to it approach, which irritates my friends as much when it works as when it doesn’t.

The weather held off until Sutton-under-Westcliffe. a small village nestling under the western slopes of the Hambleton Hills. As we motored out towards Sutton Bank, a squall of snow obliterated our vision, forming a thick veneer of ice on our helmets. l was unable to open my visor for fear of getting snow on my glasses, so I had to be content with riding one-handed while continuously scrubbing with my left hand. It was now cold enough for the snow to settle even on the wet road, and a succession of sharp bends between high hedgerows presented me with a series of unpleasant choices.

I could pick my line, but then miss it because I couldn’t steer properly with only one hand, or I could corner positively without having the faintest idea where I was going. In practice, it worked out as corner, scrub, look, corner, but there was no turning back as I was definitely not going to try to manhandle the bike around on that narrow, slippery road, with its ponderous stream of frosted metal cages sliding down out of the hills ahead. Eventually, a driveway opened out to one side, and we turned our backs on the weather and ploughed back toward the village, tail firmly between our collective legs.

Naturally, the sun came out and it stopped raining. A short roadside discussion, but we hadn’t even reached the east coast yet, and the idea of being beaten before we started by mere acts of God was pure anathema, so snow was brushed off, loins girded and the breach re-entered. This time we made it as far as the base of Sutton Bank before I decided that not all of the frantically flashing and hooting car drivers could be delinquent hooligans and pulled over into a convenient snowdrift to take stock.

It was clearly snowing up on the bank, but the clouds parted occasionally to reveal that something else was also going on up there. Short jigsaw visions of frantically flashing brake and hazard lights added up to the realisation that cars were getting about halfway up the bank and then slowly sliding down backwards until they could get enough purchase to turn round and come back down.

It was the work of a moment to stop one of these returning motorists and discover an alternative route, so I scrawled Road Closed in the snow over a convenient road sign and pointed the Revere once again at the village, ducking as we passed a gritting lorry coming the other way.

Seconds later we were firmly jammed in a mass of cars attempting to turn around and follow it, but I can think of far more enjoyable things than following a gritter up a slippery slope on a motorcycle, so I fought free of the pack and headed south.

The new heading was a wide sweep around the southern flank of the Hambletons, and we thundered along in the weak midday sun that picked highlights from the dark cloud that had now permanently settled over Sutton Bank and its luckless motorists. We turned east under Wass Bank, and the same sunlight reflected from the golden stones of Byland Abbey and, soon after, from the lenses of our cameras.

Regretfully, we decided against the nearby pub, and packed our photographic equipment away in one of my three Givi 45 litre boxes. The Monokey system had cost me around £350, a few hours swearing and the manufacture of a 2" spacer out of pine. By reversing a couple of the brackets I had managed to knock a few inches off the width, but fully loaded it still took up a lot of road. This trip was something of a proving run for them, and so far I was impressed by the amount of junk that I had been able to pack in.

We wanted to get to Whitby before nightfall, so we looked up into the hills and considered our options. We could continue our lowland detour, which would not take us far out of our way and which would avoid the Hambletons altogether, or we could chance Wass Bank. The gradient was fairly fierce but clear of snow until the final 30 feet, where it became a steep ramp coated with a couple of inches of fresh powder. We rolled to a halt just below the snow line, and squinted into the glare. Traffic signs indicated that there was a crossroads on the brow, but the thick woods on either side obscured our view of oncoming traffic.

Apart from the sensible option of returning to Wass and taking the low route, there were again two choices — take a run up and try to stop at the junction or go straight across, praying that nothing was coming. Crazy I may be but not that crazy, so I left Iain by the roadside, took a run up and slushed gently to a stop exactly level with the Give Way sign. Numbly, I watched two Volvos scrunch past.

One of the things they didn't teach in the old Part One test was moving off from inside a 1 in 2 snow drift, and if I had been alone I would have had to stay there until the snow melted. Fortunately, Iain was wearing hiking boots and so once he had struggled up the slope himself, he was able to get enough traction to give me some sort of a push. Halfway across the junction, the back wheel attempted to overtake the front, and I put my foot down to steady the bike. Unfortunately, I was wearing flat soled boots and on the slippery surface I may as well not have bothered. With an expensive crunching sound, the Revere toppled over in the snow.

For some time it has seemed odd to me that we spend hundreds of pounds on motorcycle clothing, hundreds more on ski gear and more again on clothes for climbing, walking and watersports, when the basic purpose of all these is to keep you warm and dry in adverse conditions. Not only is there the possibility of mix and match but there is a lot that these different specialised industries can learn from one another. While I was wearing a quilted one piece plastic motorcycle suit and two piece leathers, lain was just as warm and dry (if a little less crash proof) in a ski suit covered by a windproof overall. And, more to the point in this instance, if my purpose made bike boots had had Vibram soles like those on Iain’s walking boots, I would never have dropped the bike.

Still, there it was, lying on its side in the middle of the A170. Cars pulled out over the snow wall on the white lines in order to pass but did anyone stop? Did they hell! Again, it was Iain's boots that saved the day, that and the fact that a bike bearing 45 litres panniers is physically incapable of lying flat on the road. With my slick soles I was almost totally helpless, reduced to operating the brake levers and falling over while Iain did all the heavy stuff, but mutually the Honda stood by the side of the road, quietly pointing eastward while we surveyed the damage.

The hard plastic of the right-hand pannier had cracked like an eggshell and a piece about 4" long was missing, but the box had maintained its integrity and nothing seemed to have fallen out. Iain went back to try to locate a white piece of plastic in the snow, while I stood by the equally white bike trying to pretend to motorists that it was bright red and bore absolutely no resemblance to the snow bank against which it stood.

A couple of miles down the road was the town of Helmsley, so we stopped to buy some cans, a can opener (my 15th I think, where do they all go?) and a black plastic bin liner. One of the strengths of the Monokey system is that the panniers are interchangeable with the top box, so the casualty was wrapped in the plastic and given pole position, with the hole pointing safely upwards. That same pannier had previously been designated Iain’s, and he was relieved to find that the towel that he had packed under the lid had stopped up the hole and prevented his possessions from getting out and the snow from getting in. The original top box, containing food, stove, tent and cameras, was relegated to the side, which made getting at the cameras a bit irritating until it started snowing again and we stopped worrying about it.

And snow it did. A storm came up out of the west and threw everything it had, as I fought the bike northwards towards Whitby. l was virtually scraping the pegs just to travel the dead straight road over Goathland Moor. The snow drove horizontally across the darkening landscape, my hands were going numb even protected by Meraklon inners and Sportex leather outers, and l was back to wiping the visor with my left glove, which long ago I learnt to equip with a roll of Chamois. One day, I swore, I would buy a set of heated grips.

And then, as dusk finally fell, we entered Whitby and the snow stopped. The place was deserted. We parked up in the shelter of some public toilets by a child's paddling pool and considered our next mm? This was obviously just a lull in a storm that looked set to blow all night, so for the first time that day we used the logic that raises us above the apes. To shelter from a westerly storm, we reasoned camp in the lee of an east facing cliff. Whitby stands on the east coast, separated from the sea by a vertical drop of some 100 feet or so, with a small tarmacadam footpath winding in a series of hairpins down to the beach - the path is exactly the same width as a fully laden Revere.

We parked up about a third of the way down and erected the tent a few yards away on a convenient flat. grassy shelf. Soon, some hot food and cold beer later, we drifted off to sleep. I had no qualms about camping in such a seemingly precarious place, for my somewhat battered tent had provided me with literally hundreds of comfortable nights in the most appalling conditions, and can be pitched on any flat surface large enough for two people to lay down. Dubbed the Green Coffin by my friends, it folds away to a parcel the same size as a two litre Coke bottle. All in all. a tremendous piece of engineering, and my next tent will undoubtedly have been designed by the same man.

Nobody knew where we were apart from a vague on the bike north of Coventry and we certainly hadn't planned to camp on the sea front at Whitby. It had just turned out that way. So for me to be woken up a few hours later by someone standing outside my tent calling my name was utterly ridiculous. In bewilderment l poked my head out, to meet the eyes of an embarrassed policeman looking most uncomfortable unbalanced on the edge of a cliff in a thunderstorm.

Apparently, someone out for a midnight stroll down the beach in the rain had seen the white Honda perched on the path, and had reported it to the police. A constable was sent down, took the registration, failed to notice my camouflaged tent in the darkness, rang my girlfriend in the small wee hours to tell her that they had just found my bike halfway down a cliff... after the hysterics had passed, the police admitted to her that it was in fact parked and locked rather than crumpled and smouldering. She had ordered them back to look for the tent.

The rest of the night was uneventful, and next morning we got up with the dawn (not as early as it sounds in late December), repacked the panniers and wandered up to the Abbey. The cold soon drove us back down, and a different policeman directed us towards a cafe and fried breakfast, so that it was with full bellies that we set off to explore the North Yorkshire Moors.

We had decided to take the plethora of minor roads that accompany the railway on its journey towards Middlesbrough and had chosen two routes, one that wandered out over the high moors and another that stayed safely in the valley with the trains. We planned to 90 high in good weather and stay low in bad, and there was plenty of scope for switching between the two as circumstances altered.

The morning was glorious, the roads dry and the bends evil: in short, perfect touring conditions. We admired the scenery around Egton and paused at Glaisdale where road, rail and water routes cross in a picturesque deluge of bridges. We were just about to take our high road when the rain started up, so amazingly we took the sensible option and made our way down through the mass of roads around Castleton, pausing briefly at a vandalised sign before continuing westwards.

Almost immediately, I was presented with a ford crossing, something l'd never done on a bike before Iain got off, and I tentatively selected first gear and eased gently out into the torrent. The water came over the hubs but I was delighted to find that the bike showed no tendency to float like a car, but just ploughed along the bottom and up the other side. Rather than stop on the immensely steep valley side I ran up to the top and waited for Iain, who had crossed over the footbridge The hill should have made me think, but I was extremely chuffed about the ford and the weather was clearing again.

Five minutes later we were riding blind through a cloud under a deluge of icy water. Visibility was down to a few yards and the road was littered with soggy sheep. We weren't as miserable as the sheep, for we knew that we had only to cross this small ridge of high ground before the descent into Kildale. But the ridge went on and on and on, until we fetched up against a road junction that had no right to be there.

There was a road sign but we had to get off and trace the letters with our frozen fingers and then huddle over the dull yellow glow of a headlamp that l was sure used to be a fierce burning halogen. There was nothing wrong with the electrics, just a thick coating of ice particles that no amount of rubbing would shift. That page in my OS atlas is now warped beyond recognition, but we found out where we were, neatly sandwiched between two symbols that mean viewpoint; balanced right on the highest point of the moor.

It was time, once more, to turn around. I successfully negotiated the sodden sheep and then, out of the cloud and full of new found confidence, burned down the hill toward the ford, braking at the last minute and contemptuously hitting it at about 20mph! At the other side, I stopped and thoughtfully emptied the water out of my boots.

Once off the moors we stopped at Stokesley for a pub lunch and to dry my socks out. They had good beer, good food and lots of drinkers who watched in polite amazement as we peeled off layers of damp clothing and stacked them in front of the fire. Inevitably, there was the man who used to ride a Vincent, and he reckoned that the A66 through the Pennines was now open. We lingered as long as we could, but we had to get to the pass in time for an early crossing the next morning, to give us time to detour south if the need arose We donned our gear and went back out into the rain.

Richmond, situated in the lowlands to the east of the Pennine passes, looked like a town worth spending some time in. All that remained was to find a place to sleep, and a few minutes ride soon revealed a wide grassy verge next to a quiet layby. It was the work of a moment to pitch the Coffin and to set up that other miracle of technology, my stove. For many years I held that nothing could beat the ease and convenience of a simple cooking fire and carried nothing more than a tin of matches and some Metafuel. However, nowadays I am never without my Trangia, which occupies the same space as my old billycan but which comprises pans, kettle, frying pan and stove all in one neat parcel with all the dirty surfaces stored on the inside. It runs on minute quantities of moths and lights easily under literally any conditions. There is no smoke, no mess and you don't need to find dry tinder or blunder around in the dark looking for firewood. Tea was ready in minutes.

The next morning was unbelievably cold. Dying for a pee, I pulled on a pair of Goretex Seals (socks) and stumbled out naked in the snow. Duty done, I dived back into the warm tent and swiftly dressed, breaking the crust of ice that had already formed on the Seals before regretfully putting them back into lain's boots. I don't know about his ox, but I certainly covet his footwear. There has never been anything so warm and snug as Goretex socks. Warm toes on a motorcycle? You’d better believe it.

The alloy of the tent pegs was cold enough to burn, but we couldn’t grasp them through our gloves, so we ended up taking them off and returning every few minutes to jam our frozen fingers up the exhaust pipe. The stuff all fitted back in, but as l was locking the last pannier the key snapped off in the lock. it was that cold. Luckily, the Revere toolkit contains a pair of pliers. We locked the pannier to the frame, chipped the ice off the seat and headed for Richmond, breakfast, tea and warm radiators.

An hour later, much restored, we set off on foot to explore the town. There was a lot to see, but we spent most time at the castle around which Richmond is built. The restored tower commands tremendous views and the lady who sold us our tickets used to be a biker herself and allowed us to bring the bike up from its two hour parking zone and leave it in the castle grounds. Below the castle is a wide brown river that tumbles over a small cataract of falls. I commented on its suitability for canoes and the local standing next to me admitted they lost one or two canoeists a year!

A closer look at the falls and then, deliberately not thinking about it, we blasted up towards the Pennines and the infamous A66. The pass was, in fact, open but the dales were deeply buried in snow and the traffic slowly moved nose to tail in each other's tyre tracks. We passed the hotel where, until very recently, a group of guests and motorists had been trapped for a week without food, and then thankfully dropped down the other side to the tea shops of Appleby, and the fast winding run through Windermere and Ambleside to the warm welcome and hot showers of the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel under the Langdale Pikes. The ales were settling in their barrels and the first arrivals were trickling in for the annual celebration of the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

Reinhard Reading

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