Wednesday, September 2, 2020

White Peak Loop in a Day

Sometimes it's fun to relive the past and today was one of those days. We've done the White Peak Loop twice before about ten years ago. Of course we've done individual sections of it many times since then – the Monsal trail tunnels, the Tissington trail to Parsley Hay for coffee, Miller's Dale Station to Eat Out to Help Out. But we haven't done the whole loop in a oner for over a decade, and even then it was over 2 days. Today we aimed to do it non-stop. Whilst not quite in the league of Lynn Hill's freeing of The Nose on El Cap in a Day, it would be an amusing milestone of our own, and one that can only be legitimately disparaged once you've done it.

Today was the day because it was forecast to be an oasis of dry weather in a desert of otherwise wet and windy washout. To give ourselves the best chance of not backing out we laid out our cycling clothes, set alarms for 6am and went to bed early. When we got up we even ate carbs.

The forecast was right – although the air was cool the sky was clear and it was obviously going to be a lovely sunny day. Buoyed with the enthusiasm of adventure ahead we ate tonnes of porridge and set off swiftly into the crisp morning air, excited to be getting ahead of the curve and avoiding the traffic. However, we were soon disabused of the misguided notion that 7.30am constitutes 'early' by the time we got to Ashwood dale, a whole mile away, as the lorries thundered past and we tossed in their turbulence. To be fair they do seem to be more considerate of cyclists these days and gave us a wide berth but they still travel fast and leave a lot of commotion in their wake. I always end up cycling faster than I'd like when I start a ride down here and I was slightly out of breath as we pulled off left into the Wye Dale car park and the start of the 12 mile traffic free Monsal Trail. Gill, who I noticed was sticking uncommonly close to my back wheel, looked very composed. She admitted to having had to brake slightly to avoid running into the back of me. “I know why they call it 'being towed along' now,” she called over her shoulder gleefully as she surged ahead through the car park and onto the bumpy track towards Blackwell Mill.

There's something oddly rewarding about having a place all to yourself when it's usually teeming with people. It's like you're the one doing it right when everyone else is doing it wrong. The trail was deserted and the early morning sunshine was starting to burn off the chill in the air and everything felt fresh and exciting. We barrelled along joking and laughing and feeling very pleased with ourselves. It was going to be a good day.

The miles passed quickly with no one to dodge and before we knew it we were dropping off the end of the trail onto Coombes Road about a half a mile beyond Bakewell station. This is where you need to know where you're going as there are no signs indicating the way ahead. Indeed there is no indication that the Monsal Trail is part of the White Peak Loop at all. This is a shame as the next section, around Haddon Hall, whilst being far from ideal is perfectly accessible to anyone on two wheels. The grand plan for the loop proper is to go through the tunnels on the Haddon Hall estate but that is just one of several sections that have proved a touch too tricky at the moment. For now there's a perfectly decent bridleway up and around which also affords fantastic views back over your shoulder towards Bakewell. For me this is what I love about living in the Peak District – it's not on any postcard or anybodies bucket list, it's just one of dozens of splendid views of wide skies, undulating fields and hillsides peppered with little villages that serve to enrich the lives of all who seek them out.

The rough track climbs for a mile or so before a sketchy descent on a gravelly, rocky descent down into Rowsley on the A6. I wouldn't want to do this on my brand new carbon framed racing bike but anything cheap and cheerful should be fine, as long as your tyres are pumped up sufficiently to avoid snakebite punctures. As much as I hate those condescending road signs instructing Cyclists to dismount at the slightest opportunity, it may well be necessary here to avoid either losing control or having a flat. I thoroughly enjoyed it on my full suspension MTB but Gill was more cautious on her touring bike.

At the bottom of this gravel chute we intended to have a second breakfast at Caudwell's Mill cafe but we were far too early, it only being 9am, so we pressed on towards Matlock. The work that has been done on this section is nothing short of amazing. Running parallel to the chaos of the A6 the path traverses above the Derwent initially across very boggy terrain on a raised platform of wooden boards followed by a splendid cycle path alongside the heritage railway line. It's a wonderful demonstration of what can be achieved when the political will is there to provide proper cycling infrastructure – most people we encountered were commuters, not leisure cyclists like us, using their bikes as transport to avoid the nasty business of driving on the A6 and instead enjoy the peace and delight of gentle exercise in a calming environment.

All too soon the cycle path ended and we continued on the shared use pavement to the roundabout on the outskirts of Matlock. Here, local knowledge allowed us to ignore Komoot (the mobile phone based navigation software we use when planning cycle touring adventures) and drop down onto the narrow but delightfully tree lined path above the river that takes you right into the heart of Matlock. More calm pedalling in the dappled sunlight above the muddy river Derwent again ended abruptly with the sudden reemergence into the bustling urban world from the tranquil depths below. To soften the blow and readjust to the madding crowd we sought respite in a local coffee shop that had tables on the pavement. Eat out to help out and all that.

The town was busy, mainly with traffic but also with masked people enjoying the sunshine and studiously avoiding each other. A couple of roadies carefully parked their gaudy carbon crotch rockets within view and transferred the load from their meaty quads onto their bulging glutes. I felt sorry for the chairs.

Ten years previously we'd crossed Matlock by cycling through the park and on some paths towards the A6 and the major roadside attraction of High Tor, the spectacular limestone cliff that towers above Matlock Bath. Not wanting to either cycle on footpaths nor the A6 we opted to take the far more strenuous route that Komoot had planned for us. It went up one short road that was too steep to cycle because my front wheel kept lifting off the floor. A short push led to a much less steep but much longer road climb up to the housing estate behind High Tor with amazing views of the valley below and hillsides in the distance, which more than made up for the effort it took to get there. The descent back to the valley below was rapid and soon we picked up the Cromford canal which was again as peaceful as the neighbouring A6 is rowdy. We crossed the canal at High Peak Junction, which signals the halfway point of our journey and we turned through 270 degrees in the horizontal plane and what felt like 45 degrees in the vertical as the High Peak Trail starts here and ascends to the heavens in a no-nonsense Yorkshire-esque 'let's get it over with in one go' sort of way. The first long, long climb up towards the High Peak Plateau is pretty brutal. At Sheep Pasture House it flattens off and affords magnificent views of the quarries dotting the hillsides around Matlock. There's a brief lull in hostilities as the trails passes through Black Rocks, a grippy outpost of gritstone friction amidst the surrounding limestone norm, before the trails rears up again on the short but still steep climb to Middleton Top. There's a cafe and cycle hire business here but we didn't bother them, instead continuing on until Harborough Rocks where we stopped to admire the crag and eat a snack bar. The High Peak Trail here crosses some of the remotest parts of the plateau and catches all the wind that's going, so it was head down and grind it out as it was sunny but breezy. Gill was in the right place, just behind and to the right as the wind was coming in over my left shoulder. The railway here must have made a marvellous sight in the days before cars were as ubiquitous as sheep.

For now it was steady as she goes, slightly uphill and into the cross/headwind which raised a sweat and concentrated the effort. With no further talking points but plenty of gates and the Newhaven road crossing we were surprised to arrive at Parsley Hey cafe and bike hire centre just after 12 noon. I must have entered a time warp because I couldn't quite believe it was still so early in the day, we seemed to have come so far in such a short space of time. And such different surroundings – only an hour and a half earlier we'd been drinking flat white and eating pain au chocolate outside a busy cafe on the White Peak Loop in Derbyshire and here we were, drinking tea and eating Chocolate flapjack outside a busy cafe on the White Peak Loop in, er, OK, it physically it wasn't that different, but I felt we'd changed. I'd taken my jacket off.

Leaving the fleshpots of Parsley Hey behind we slouched towards Buxton in a strange mixed mood, part relief to be so close to home but part disappointment that the going seemed to be getting harder. We were obviously tired after 5 hours of almost continuous cycling, the wind wasn't helping and the trail got rougher and steeper as it dog-legged leftwards towards Earl Sterndale. There are four disused railway trails that traverse the Peak District - the White Peak Loop links two of them, the Monsal and High Peak trails - but there are also the Tissington Trail and the Manifold Trail further west. They are obviously a completely brilliant resource for cyclists keen to get away from the constant traffic in the world's second busiest National Park, but you aren't half glad to get off them after a while. There's something to be said for a bit of low resistance tarmac and most of the back roads in this neck of the woods are pretty light with traffic. We ignored the dubious delights of the Quiet Woman in Earl Sterndale and headed up the road which eventually passes High Peak Raceway en route to Axe Edge and true, bleak moorland. Before that though the WPL strikes out rightwards across fields and between quarries on a nicely laid track before plunging alarmingly down in switchbacks to the old railway line again. DCC have again done a really good job with this section. It contours around Harpur Hill quarry on this level overlooking Buxton, home seemingly minutes away. But wait; not so fast; hold your horses.

Although the nicely laid track drops steeply down to The Parks pub and then onto Buxton via town roads, the original route doesn't take this cop out. Oh no, that would be far too easy (in this direction anyway). As if to say 'this is what you could have won' the White Peak Loop cheekily reveals Buxton briefly before snatching it away again as it semi-circulates south and westwards to emerge almost at the other side of town. To do so it skirts around the hillside at this elevated altitude for several miles, crossing first a rough, muddy track, almost too tricky to ride, towards Harpur Hill industrial estate. The end of this track has been partially blocked, although awkward it's still possible to get bikes through and onto the road. You cross, go through the gate and then a long the muddy rough singletrack behind the industrial estate. It soon opens up onto the huge embankment on Health and Safety Laboratory land and the longest straightest stretch of tarmac this side of the A515.

Being a weekday the gate at the Ladmanlow end of this track was unlocked (for HSL staff to cycle to work), so we passed through rather than over. But we did pass on the idea of cycling down through the woods behind Rock Bay where the trail was originally proposed (exiting onto Holmfield). Instead we just cruised slowly through the residential streets of Burbage, across Temple Fields and home. The White Peak Loop is still 50 miles of fun even if it's not completely realised. It'll be grand when it is though, and well worth the wait.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Six o’clock in the morning. The morning!

Wednesday 4 July 2018 6:21a.m.
Why was up I so early? The short answer is that I’m mad!
The previous day, I had ridden the five miles down to Matlock station for the 06:21 to Derby but the bloody thing was cancelled - thank you, East Midlands Trains. So today I had another go, and this time, no problem – thank you, East Midlands Trains. 
I'm trying to cover as much of the National Cycle Network as possible. Now that I’ve done everything close to home, the only way I can do this is by using public transport to get to my starting point. And by setting out earlier and earlier and returning later and later. 
On the day in question the train pulled into Peterborough soon after 9am. I wheeled the bike off, followed the commuters out of the station and headed east on NCR63. Leaving the town centre I found myself following the River Nene on a purpose-built traffic-free path. It was a beautiful sunny day; the going was flat and there was no wind to speak of – all was right with the world. I pedalled through quiet residential streets in Whittlesey, then on a stony path alongside the railway, after which minor roads crossing the railway line several times led to March. On the way, I saw signs offering alternative routes across fields to the left, but I declined these; the route I stuck to was termed by the signage: “wet weather route”. Even though the day was anything but wet, I wasn’t tempted by the ‘dry’ alternatives, as I had loaded today’s ride, at least as far as Holbeach, onto my Garmin Edge. This route was based on the Sustrans online mapping and, although this must never be the last word in the particular alignment of a NCN route, it’s always a first approximation.
NCR63 doesn’t pass through the centre of March (either that or March has no centre) but instead turns northwards and wends its way through the residential part of the town, followed by a pleasant wooded section which is a permissive path owned by Whitemoor Prison. Next, some very quiet minor roads across the Fens brought me to Wisbech, where the annual Rose Fair was in full swing. I took my first break in the gardens of the parish church, bought something to eat and drank some water - but only because I didn’t spot a beer tent and I was a bit pushed for time.
Crowland church and abbey
 National Route 1 is a long-distance cycle route from Dover to the Shetlands, or will be when it’s finished, it currently still has several gaps. The signage up till now had been almost perfect but leaving Wisbech on NCN1 I encountered the first sign of trouble. We Sustrans volunteers (‘Rangers’) do a lot of the signing of the National Cycle Network. The NCN numbers are quite small compared to other road signs but distinctive and once you know what to look for you’ll spot them everywhere – they’re a white number in a red square with a white border set in a blue background. These patches are either self-adhesive and stuck to lamp-posts, road signs etc in town, or rigid plastic and nailed to wooden posts in rural areas.
After I crossed the River Nene at the north end of town, I missed a Ranger patch guiding riders through a narrow passageway, and I stuck to the main road instead. This wasn’t much of a problem – I soon corrected myself – but it was the beginning of some rather indifferent signage along miles of unremarkable but quiet roads zig-zagging all the way to Holbeach.
I left the Network in Holbeach as there is currently no numbered cycle route to Spalding. I gritted my teeth, took my life in my hands (if that’s not mixing too many metaphors) and plunged onto the A151 along with all the lorries and cars of the Fens that seemed to be going the same way as me. It’s not the most pleasant of roads and comparable, I would say, to the A6 in Derbyshire.
Spalding is an agreeable little market town, which sadly I didn’t have time to explore. I arrived from the north, rode alongside the River Welland and stopped for a drink and to take stock of where I was and where I wanted to go next. I was looking for some Route 12 signs which, according to the Sustrans online mapping, should have started at the northern end of London Rd. Yet nothing. Nada! Nix! How does Sustrans get away with this? I am keeping a log of routes I’ve come across which are supposed to be signed but aren’t...
Crowland Trinity Bridge and a NCR12 patch on a lamp-post
Although I’d failed to download the day’s full route to my Garmin Edge (an oversight), I had some idea where the route was supposed to go, so I continued to follow the Welland all the way to Crowland, on minor, quiet roads over totally flat terrain. The countryside had a wild aspect, with tall grasses and rare trees. Towards the end, I was riding on top of the flood defence embankment above the river, which looked beautiful in the bright sunshine. At Crowland, I had a brief look at the famous ruined abbey and also, in the middle of the village, the equally famous medieval three-way Trinity Bridge.
I knew if I was quick I could catch the train at Peterborough which would get me home by 7:30pm, so I tried to hurry up. This was easier said than done though, as the 5-mile traffic-free path from Crowland to Peakirk was rough and stony. After the madness of the A151 it was good to be away from vehicles but the going was still quite arduous. From Peakirk I just hoped that the route would be straightforward and I wouldn’t make any mistakes. In fact, the cycle network around Peterborough - a mixture of dedicated greenways and quiet roads - is mostly very good. I hurried along, occasionally taking a chance on which direction at junctions, fortunately choosing correctly each time. I got to the station with two minutes to spare and caught my train.
The total distance for the day was 132 km, at an average of nearly 19 kph, which for me is pretty fast. I’d give this ride 8/10 for the superb weather, the many dedicated cycle paths and the impressive and varied countryside.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Ramblings of a Born Again Cyclist

Hello, I’m Clyde and I live in Matlock. I’m a supporter of Peak Cycle Links and I work for Sustrans as a volunteer ‘Ranger’. As a ‘Born Again Cyclist’ returning to the saddle at the tender age of 49, I quickly found that my love of travel by this means of transport had not been diminished by more than 30 years of motorcycling and car-driving. This is easily the best way to enjoy your surroundings: in a day you cover more distance and you see more than you do walking, while the lower speeds than those of motoring enable you to stop and explore whenever and wherever you want. It’s good for you, it doesn’t wreck the planet and it costs next to nothing. And it’s just bloody good fun. 

I’ve never been a fast rider. I went youth hostelling in 1963, just after I’d done my 'O' levels, with a couple of mates from Croydon to Cornwall and back – 600 miles over 10 days – and they always had to stop to wait for me every so often. But, given the whole day, I never had a problem with the distances: since the age of 60 I’ve done over 100 miles in a day six times. I’m now 70 and since 2009 I have gone touring every year with a group of lads from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, to various areas of the British Isles, France and Holland – and I’m still the one at the back. This is never a problem and, anyway, most of my riding I do alone; I’m quite fond of my own company.

My wife Sylvie and I have a place in France and we spend several weeks of the year on the other side of the Channel. Of course I keep a bike there, so I cover quite a lot of distance cycling in France. My bikes in Matlock and in France are both hybrids: basically mountain bikes with road tyres and mudguards. Wherever possible I like to ride on traffic-free greenways or multi-user paths but unfortunately these represent a fraction of the available space for cyclists. Since retirement, nearly 11 years ago (blimey, can it really be that long?) I set myself a couple of targets: one was to cover at least 100 km a week, either in several short journeys or in one long one. So 5200 km a year – that’s not unreasonable. The other is to cover as much of the National Cycle Network while I still can. It’s currently 14000 miles and still growing – I’m not sure I can keep up with it.

In a series of articles I will be describing some of my more memorable rides in the UK and abroad. I hope to inspire and enthuse others to get on their bikes and head for the hills. And, wherever possible, to ride on designated cycle routes. I’m not expecting that these will be in any particular order and I’ll start with some of my most recent rides. 

So watch this space – and happy riding.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Europe After Rain. And hail. And wind. But mainly snow.

Eighteen months ago Gill and I set off from sunny Buxton to cycle to supposedly sunny Cadiz. Bearing in mind that we get a bit giddy when we have to take a layer off in Whaley Bridge, it's fair to say that we were quite excited. Except that when we actually threw a leg over the crossbar and turned the pedals for the first of the 12,345,678 revolutions (approximately) we had to stop at the end of our road to put our rain jackets on. Derbyshire was not being kind to us in late September 2016.

We needn't have worried though, as our plan worked perfectly. The plan being to follow the sun down through France and Spain as the autumn progressed into winter, then maybe even migrate back north via the Portuguese coast as winter turned to spring, across northern Spain as our money ran out then... well, we didn't want to ruin the trip with too much detail so we thought we'd just wing it from there.
Seven miles out of Buxton we got on the White Peak Loop and headed south - now that's an idea PCL, why don't we extend it all the way to the Mediterranean? Madrid? OK, maybe just Matlock.
By Tissington it was pissington down. I met an old man coming out of the toilets who made the mistake of enquiring where we were heading with all that clobber (I was towing a trailer as well as porting two rear panniers, a tent on the back rack and a big bulky sleeping bag on the front rack, plus handlebar bag. Gill was grinning and bearing a grudge.
I looked off into the middle distance, adopted a world-weary expression and, with a knowingly irritating high rising terminal, question/replied: "Cadiz?"
I so wish he'd replied: "Well you're going the wrong way you twat." and pointed me towards Reykjavik. But he was too polite and just zipped up his pants without even looking, which made me wince but he seemed to know what he was doing.

I lied to that old man. We never got to Cadiz. We made it as far as Mallorca for Christmas, when the rest of the family flew out to join us. But whilst we were all grumping about the hotel dodging the four solid days of rain (the most by far we'd seen in our entire 2000 mile journey since leaving England) Gill got word (well, email) that she'd secured her cycle training work contract and had to be back in the saddle (but the metaphorical one) in the new year.

And so that was that - our intended 5 month epic was abridged to only 3 months. It had been such a wonderfully liberating experience though that we vowed to do it again as soon as our respective employers would allow us the time. Mine were almost unseemly in their haste to see me gone again. Irreplaceable Gill didn't know what she would do until I reminded her that the graveyard was full of irreplaceable men. We agreed that that probably applied to women too and so she got a replacement in.

Being summer we plan to head north and have booked the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam. We intend to go as far as we can before having to come back - what could go wrong? Tune in again to find out.

Everything was clean and tidy at this point and the big sleeping bag hadn't found its way out of Gill's panniers and onto my front rack. But give it five minutes and I'd be clarted in grey sludge from the wet Tissington Trail and various items would cross an invisible boundary, as if by osmosis, from one bike to another.

White Peak Loop in a Day

Sometimes it's fun to relive the past and today was one of those days. We've done the White Peak Loop twice before about ten years a...