I must have some residual optimism, because when I contacted Greg at Adventure Spec for a mid-December ride in the far north of England it didn't occur to me that it would be bitterly cold. Is that optimism or plain stupidity?
Word and photos: Gary Inman
As the date of the ride neared the small group that was going started sharing messages of weather warnings. It was going to be cold. Sub-zero.
Jason (you know Jason, he's had more bikes featured in Sideburn than anyone else) and I decided we'd travel in the same van together, the 3.5 hours north. But we live 50 miles apart, so I said I'd ride halfway. Jason had offered to pick me up, but I wanted to prove to myself I hadn't got soft...
Leaving home at 6pm, after work, it was already 0˚C. And this was the first time I'd ridden the Yamaha WRF450 on the road in dark. I soon realised the headlight is totally useless, the worst I've had on a bike in 36 (36?!) years of riding. It was scary. It felt dangerous to ride on unlit rural Lincolnshire roads. And freezing. Luckily it was only a 40-minute ride. That's me at the service station. Fingers burning with cold. Body warm, extremities cold.
Jason and I stayed in a Travelodge chain motel the night before the ride, and had time for pint next door before closing. This weather report was on the TV in the corner. It didn't look good. We were in the -3 region. That's 26˚F. Countries all over the world get much colder weather, but it's so damp here I'm sure it feel colder. Honest. British cold gets into every joint.
The plan was a two-day ride on trails and little roads. There would be seven of us.
Ryan Roadkill - Husqvarna 350
Anthony DTRA Brown - KTM 350
Matthew W - KTM 500
James - Husqvarna 300 two-stroke
Jason - KTM 250
Greg from Adventure Spec - KTM 450
Me - Yamaha WRF250
Then there were six. A few miles before this photo, and about 10 miles into the day, Greg decided to turn back for home. He had been ill all week with flu-like symptoms, and thought he could ride, but wasn't up to it. I was surprised he even tried.
We rode on, to the first challenge of the day, and the biggest hurdle of the week. This climb is nicknamed H. It's steep. The ice was so thick it was tricky to even walk up. Three riders cleared it, three were on the top deck of the struggle bus. I was one of them after losing momentum when Jason jack-knifed in front of me. I've never see a motorcycle jack knife before.
Ice and rocks. Matthew is moving a rock for traction. I'd left the gate open at the bottom, so Anthony got on his own bike, rode to the bottom, closed the gate and rode straight back up with putting a foot down, to prove a point.
We kept breaking the ice on big puddles from the very first mile of the trail. The knobblies coped surprisingly well, as long as we were on the flat. Going down hill I was fine, even on sheet ice, but a couple struggled.
As we kept climbing we reached the snow on the Pennines.
We were spoiled with incredible views both days. The trails took us higher than most roads in the region, though the Hartshead Pass is pretty high for a UK pass - and we rode that the next day. But because we didn't have to worry about traffic it was easier to take the view in, or stop and take a look and we seemed to notice a lot more.
We saw two other bikes in the two days.
We stopped for fuel, coffee and food at the Spar fuel station in Alston. We found this Victorian adventurer named James.
Ryan and Matthew both mentioned that Alston was the inspiration for cult, unhinged British comedy, The League of Gentlemen.
We rode till about 3.30, with light running out. It's dark by just after 4pm this far north in December. We stayed in bunkhouses behind the White Horse pub, Threlkeld and were in the pub before 5. The bunks are dead cheap and popular with hikers and cross-country cyclists, this being on the popular coast-to-coast route. Jason and I stayed in the Scales Farm B&B next door. Highly recommended.
This is Matthew, warming something and at the end of his first bottle of wine.
We drunk the bar dry (of Baileys). Outlaws!
Frosty morning as we prepared to ride back east, on different lanes.
Ryan and Jason. Do you get the impression riders on this trip trusted Kriega for their moto luggage needs?
There were a couple of deep fords to cross. In summer we'd ride through them, but in this weather, when there was an option of a footbridge, we took it. No matter how narrow it was.
The problem was the cold or the wet, but fords are, obviously, always situated in a dip in the road and the entrance and exit to the ford was frozen solid with black ice, caused by four-wheelers and tractors splashing through, as Anthony found out later.
How many bikers does it take to rescue a sheep? A couple from a 30-strong herd were spooked when we rode up a lane, and jumped into the brambles. They were so entangled James had to cut them out, while others held them still.
That's as high as the sun got all day, but at least we had sun. Did I mention how beautiful the scenery was, especially with a heavy frost?
Can you imagine the seething mistrust the folk of Croglin Low Hall have for those inbreds of Kirkoswald?
We were relying on TET - Trans-European Trail - routes supplied by Greg Adventure Spec. They are huge supporters of this massive network of off-road trails. Find out more at Adventure Spec TET.
There were some water crossings we couldn't avoid. This is when my Sealskinz socks earned their keep. They are brilliant.
Some bikes were very low on petrol when we found this little village fuel station, like something out of the 1950s.
No price freeze. Cost of fuel was very 2022 though.
Ryan in the SM5 Solar Flare helmet he designed for Alpinestars. It's available in three colour ways. See it here.
We rode through this enormous neolithic stone circle, known as Long Meg and Her Daughters. It was legal, we weren't just tearing up a heritage site, a tarmac road bisects it.
The site dates from 1500BC and comprises 35 stones in a 350ft diameter. After Stonehenge, it's regarded as the most important stone circle in Britain. While the British were were propping big rocks up, the Egyptian Pyramids of Giza were already 1000 years old. Yep...
Poet William Wordsworth write this about Long Meg:
A weight of Awe not easy to be borne
Fell suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that family forlorn;
Speak Thou, whose massy strength and stature scorn
The power of years – pre-eminent, and placed
Apart, to overlook the circle vast.
Speak Giant-mother! tell it to the Morn,
While she dispels the cumbrous shades of night;
Let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud,
At whose behest uprose on British ground
That Sisterhood in hieroglyphic round
Forth-shadowing, some have deemed the infinite
The inviolable God that tames the proud.
We weren't done with history. This is Jason in front of a section of Hadrian's Wall, completed around 128 AD. The wall was built by the Roman's and formed the northern boundary of their empire. It's 73 miles long, from sea to sea, across the narrowest point of mainland Britain, and had 14 forts along it. It still blows my mind that they knew this was the narrowest point (note to self: find out more about ancient cartography).
The wall was built to separate the Romans from the 'barbarians', the Caledonian Picts and a local tribe called the Brigantes. Confusingly, the wall predates the English and Scots, by 300 years. The peoples who would become the Scots were still in Hibernia (Ireland) and 'English' were living in modern Germany.
Read more at englandsnortheast.co.uk
This is my 2017 Yamaha WR250F, that I bought from Anthony DTRA Brown. I had a Huskie 500 before, and it was too powerful for my skill level. This bike can do just about everything, and it's very user-friendly. Perhaps not as sexy as a Huskie or KTM, but it's very well made.
Blasting through Wark Forest, Northumberland, probably the best section of the whole two-day ride: fast, swooping and totally deserted. After this we had to fight the bogs of Simonburn before a few miles of ice-covered roads that I was sure I was going to break my collarbone on. I didn't.
I'm so glad we made the time to have a couple of days away with mates. What a great ride.
Read the post about the Riding Kit I trusted for this trip.