A few months ago I was driving home from work one Friday night and the pass, an unclassified lane between two small villages lying near the upper ends of their respective vallies, was signposted from the motorway exit. There was some bike race or something going on that weekend if I recall correctly and the photograph of the competitors merging with the crowd filling what seemed like every inch of the roadside and much of the actual road as they raced up that little steep bit before the cattle grid just by the muddy lay-by where you can stop and look back over the dale and on a very still day hear the purposeful breathing of riders struggling up the road that heads over the fells in the opposite direction a couple of kilometres line of sight across the river meandering gently across the flat valley floor became perhaps the defining shot of the very very many taken over those two days that the race was in Yorkshire. There isn’t much sign that anything ever even happened now; bunting has been taken down, commemorative parcours-marking road signs have found their way to souvenir-hunters and internet auction sites and road surface graffiti has been pressure-washed or tarmaced from the historical record. The only man-made features remaining on the southern climb up the pass now are the new snow poles, standing incongruously vertical with their blingy shiny new paint in mounds of still damp earth where lie buried the memories of that weekend in July.
Today things were a bit quieter in fact I didn’t pass another person on a bike in a ride of several hours. It was quite windy today it must be said and riding into a stiffish breeze can be discouraging but getting up over that cattle grid, its elevated position in the pantheon of bike racing iconography surely secure and its listing as a historic monument cetainly only a matter of doing the paperwork, and catching the full force of a gale travelling in more or less the same direction as you are is more than consolation for the grind in getting there. I think other than sailors bike riders must go on about the wind more than anyone else. The strategy, tactics and etiquette of riding when the air is anything other than millpond still must fill thousands of pages of books and gazillions of whatever the units of verbiosity for the internet are. Sometimes, after an hour or two battling a headwind the direction in which leaves, rain or snow is blowing, which way livestock is facing and which side of the field they are huddled against the wall, the destination of clouds sailing above you, the massed grassblades bowing down below you begins to make you feel like you can almost see the air currents, as migratory birds can see the earth’s magnetic field, and somewhere unseen a windtunnel operator fella with a white coat and GCSEs is leaning on a big lever turning up the turbine speed and feeding coloured smoke into the airflow whilst laughing manaically. Rainy days and Mondays do always get me down because whatever you do to try and make it better it’s still raining and it’s still Monday but windy ones, where the simple act of turning a corner transforms your whole day, I can deal with.
Saturday was spent indoors Breakfast Club
fashion debating which of us most correlated with which classic saturday detention movie cast members but Sunday was for being outdoors and the hill is as outdoors as anywhere and is also, despite or perhaps because of being one of the most exposed places you can ride a bike for some miles due to its position at the northern edge of Yorkshire’s bit of the Pennines, looking out across the gap in the hills through which passes the main east-west motor highway between my corner of England’s North East and our daffodil bothering cousins over in Cumbria, a road itself sometimes closed to some or even all vehicles on particularly windy days, a kind of default ride if stormy weather is forecast. I could justify this by the fact that there is nothing particularly steep or bendy which might cause a problem to anyone trying to get up or down the hill should the weather take a turn for the worse, or rationalise that the inn at the top provides the chance of last resort refuge should gale, storm or blizzard grow tiresome but being honest it is because being somewhere high and exposed as a big depression scours the hilltops with strong winds is exhilarating and a neccessary counterweight to an existance which so often puts a roof between me and sky. Summer is great: warm, carefree, and the riding is easy but everything comes to an end and every year she does die so beautifully. It is still early in the year of course, a few leaves remain on the trees although not many after today, and temperatures are mild but last night I dreamed of snow.
The Fleak, via Summer Lodge, scene of the famous 2006 Crackpot GPS incident
well, famous if you lived in Swaledale in 2006 and have a fascination as to why people would trust a computer over the evidence of their own eyes, on one of those glorious autumn saturdays that are such a gift to those of us struggling with the prospect of all those dark nights to come consigning weekday bike riding to being a nocturnal activity.
In the handful of weeks between around about the autumn equinox or maybe the August bank holiday or perhaps sometime in between and some time before the day when the return of GMT shunts what daylight remains to these islands over winter to well before most of its citizens finish their working day is a short period when darkness falls at a time that is it is available to some of us at least, sometimes, to watch it happen without skipping work early or staying up a bit too late for a school night. It is as satisfying to be out as the day turns to night as it is to be around for the reverse process. A kind of calm descends on the fells; livestock seems less skittish, hobbit-footed grouse venture from the heather to pad around the grazed-short road verges, the soft rustle of breeze through bronze leaved branches or a stoney-bedded beck tumbling down an unseen gully come to the foreground of the senses, the echo pings of bats hoovering up bugs bounce unheard around the sky, and then there are owls; the to-wit-to-woo from the woods of the tawny variety, the silhouhette of the short-eared version gliding gracefully across the rough grassland it timeshares with the miltary training school or the one that hangs around barns, rare as it is becoming, underwings white and a yard across catching the light leaking from a bike headlight like the ghosts they were once thought to be. Soon all this will happen unseen, during the week at least, and evening bike rides, starting out in the dark as they will be, as dependent on will power and motivation as on time or weather or being able to find my left hand glove, although having a certain strange appeal will be by comparison joyless utilitarian affairs but these glorious few weeks, nearly over now, of seeing the day to the end are to be made the most of while they last.
To Saltburn, where some go to throw their ball in the sea for their dog to fetch it, some to throw their dog in the sea for their kids to fetch it and some to throw themselves in the sea for the surfer dude lifeguard guy to fetch them, for a multi-tasking Saturday of walking and eating ice cream both at the same time. I think warm autumn days like today, when a few of them occur in short succession, become what is known as an indian summer but given that the guitar playing lift operator at the top of the cliff was practicing I believe in Father Christmas
in his little victorian kiosk whatever the weather may be doing to encourage folks to think back a month or two it is clear which direction some of us are thinking now…
A Wednesday night spent chasing the tail lights of the day over Whipperdale Bank and Grinton Moor.