Words TOM FENTON
Photography ANDY HEADING
Do you have a friend who carries a massive bag on every ride? A turgid behemoth that accompanies every ride, regardless of the weather, the length or destination. So full it’s a struggle to shut, and the contents are a mystery. Does it contain more spares than the local shop? Enough clothes for a week-long holiday? Sufficient food to survive the apocalypse? It looms behind them, lurching from side to side, a grotesque protuberance. How can riding with such an ugly, bulging lump possibly be any fun?
I’m firmly in the opposite camp. I don’t understand why you’d ride with any more than the bare minimum. Take a tube on a local ride? Pah, I’ll walk home. Jacket? Skin’s waterproof. I’ve even buried my door key in the garden so I didn’t have to carry it. But I will concede that there are places where it is wise to carry a few bits and bobs and where a (sensibly sized) bag can be handy.
Straight outta Tolkien.
One such place is the North Pennines. Today, we’re heading up to their very tops, to Cross Fell and High Cup Nick. Cross Fell is the highest point in the Pennines at just under 900 metres, and it’s a wild place – so wild that it’s been described as ‘England’s last wilderness’. There’s nothing up here (apart from a huge golf ball-like radar station, but who’s counting?). No trees, no buildings, no shelter, just rocks and boggy grassland. The wind gets so strong that it’s got its own name – the ‘Helm Wind’, which sounds like it’s blowing straight out of Tolkien. Wikipedia reckons that the whole area “can be an inhospitable place for much of the year” and is the “haunt of evil spirits”. Blimey.
What’s more, there are numerous trails crossing Cross Fell – all big up-and-overs, crossing the hills and then coming back again via triple-figure climbs. It’s about as committing as riding gets in England – if there is a place for a big bag, this is it.
A couple of these trails qualify for ‘must-ride’ status – the climb up past High Cup Nick and the descent off Kirkland Fell for starters. But, for whatever reason, it appears that not that many people have ridden them. Neither Andy, who’s taking photos, or John, who’s on loan from Polaris Bikewear for the day, have been up there on bikes. Lucky them.
They get a fairly typical introduction to the area. After a short spin out of Dufton, we’re straight into the 400-metre climb to High Cup Nick. Still, as climbs go, it’s a good one. The first couple of hundred metres are gained quickly, though not particularly easily, on farm tracks. It’s far from technical, but does get steep. And if you find you need a quick breather, just stop, turn around and pretend you’re admiring the view, which stretches to the Lake District. It’s a good excuse, and one I need, because Andy powers off at pace, leaving John and me trailing in his wake. Coming over a small rise, he’s put so much distance into us that he’s had time to stop, remove a layer and get back on his bike before we’ve caught up. Pretty embarrassing.
The farm track ends at two gates where the ‘proper’ riding begins. But there’s no obvious track and, despite a 50/50 chance of guessing correctly, we need a map – which, luckily, we have in our big bags. With the correct gate selected, we squelch into a soggy field. Why do farmers always put gates in the muddiest parts of fields? Recent rain means the going is soft, and probably fifty per cent sheep shit, and so we slither upwards through some rather fine limestone formations. Following John, I watch as his rear tyre spins, then grips, then spins, grips, spins and… he’s off. I don’t get much further.
Thankfully, the ground soon becomes firmer, turning from grass to a good track. The rock has changed too, to sandstone, and the climb now feels distinctly Dales-like. Then it changes again, winding through huge rock fields, forcing us to pick careful lines. Short rises are followed by short descents, all technical. Reaching a slabby section, I roll through and off a small drop. As I land there’s an ‘oooof’ from John. His wet tyre marks on the dry rock tell a story: while focusing on the drop he’s managed to hit the only obstacle on the smooth, five-foot wide trail – a tyre-width hole – and slammed both wheels into it.
Dodgy line choices aside, we’re soon high enough to catch a glimpse of the highlight of the climb. High Cup is one of the most incredible natural features in the UK. A huge, perfectly U-shaped valley carved out of the Pennine hillside, it’s utterly spectacular. From its pancake-flat base, grassy sides rise evenly upwards in a steepening ‘V’ until they reach a vertical border of rocky towers, a grey line around the rim of the valley straight enough to have been drawn with a ruler. It is, in Andy’s words, “breathtaking” and he makes me promise not to undersell the magnificence of it all.
But the view isn’t the only thing that’s breathtaking. The wind is beginning to pick up and, riding around the lip of High Cup, John and I are surprised by a sudden face-full of water. While not yet blow-you-off-your-feet strong, the wind is enough to invert the small waterfall that tumbles from the head of the valley and fling it into the faces of unsuspecting riders.
Having had an eyeful of the view and the waterfall, the usual loop is to head out across the moors to Cow Green Reservoir and Cauldron Snout (a waterfall that you do not want to get hit in the face by). A fast whizz down the road, past the source of the Tyne and an oddly placed ski lift. From there, you’re ready for must-ride trail number 2: Kirkland Fell.
Dropping off the top of Cross Fell, Kirkland Fell is a vague, almost non-existent grassy trail down open fellside, but it’s better than this description makes it sound. I’ve heard people say it’s one of their favourites and it’s certainly a cracker. But you’ve got to get up there first and there’s a massive climb in the way…
Wind-beaten and tired, John and I set off at a leisurely pace while Andy, as expected, launches himself at the climb. For some reason (OK, a slightly competitive nature), I find myself chasing, then passing him. Now what? Do I wait? I crest a rise to see another ahead. I’ll stop there. But with each corner, more of the climb appears and I’m drawn upwards. Now I’m too close to the top to stop. Or so I think. More and more climb appears. I’m simultaneously sweating from the effort and absolutely freezing from the wind. I can’t tell if I’m enjoying myself or wishing it was over.
Eventually it is, and I flop to the ground. The wind is now verging on the ridiculous. As a headwind, it’s horrific, but you can deal with it – head down, suitable gear, grind. It’s the crosswind that’s worse. I try to shelter behind Andy, all 6ft 4in of him, but soon discover that riding downwind of somebody in 50mph gusts isn’t a good plan.
Trying to hold a line against the wind, I misjudge the depth and stickiness of a puddle. It’s one of those ones that’ll hold a riderless bike dead vertical and makes you use both hands to pull it out. Unfortunately, it’s not just my bike that gets slurped into the depths and I find myself stuck fast beneath it. Andy, a man I once thought to be my friend, refuses to help me until he’s taken a photo.
We shelter behind a cairn. John necks an energy gel and I wolf down all the food I’ve got. It’s usually at this time that those with big bags start offering around their spare food. I miss them. Still, we’ve got an incredible view. Behind us, we look down from Cross Fell across a huge flat plain and into the Lake District. In front, it’s the top of the Pennines. There’s not a building, tree or track in sight. I can’t see any other people. Just empty moorland, stretching to the horizon.
It’s peaceful, sitting there with the breeze whistling around the stones. We forget how ridiculously strong the wind has become – until we stand up. I’m pushed forwards and almost trip. I don’t know what happened to John, but his ‘woah!’ sounded dramatic.
Then we begin our descent. When it’s dry, the grassy singletrack down Kirkland Fell is fast, and you fly down the fellside, dodging rocks and patches of reeds. Today, with the squelchy ground sucking at our speed and the crazy wind pushing us back up the hill, I’m worried it’s going to be Type-2 fun…
It turns out that a fun descent is fun no matter what. Sure, it’s not as fast and swoopy as it could be, but it’s still entertaining. The soggy grass threatens to drag us down into the depths, but we soon discover that adopting a weight-back, big-gear stomp gives a strangely satisfyingly way of staying afloat in the boggy patches.
As we descend, the ground gets firmer, the wind drops and we pick up speed. It’s the sort of trail you only get where there isn’t much traffic. A narrow strip of short grass among the reeds, it’s a wide sheep track, a barely visible trail seeking the easiest route through the tussocks and banks. It’s about as far removed from a fast and flowing trail-centre descent as you can get but, sweeping down behind Andy, following his lines here, taking alternate ones there, it’s just as much fun.
Here and there we cross fields of scattered rock and broken down walls. Too big and awkward to hop, these are tackled by hanging on and hoping, or via a timid slow-down-and-creep-through. Approaching one such patch I spot a series of sharp edges and, fearing for my rear wheel, make a last-minute switch to technique No.2. John, behind me, is on a new bike and has, after some fiddling, got it set up perfectly. So perfectly that he’s barrelling through at twice my speed. There’s a loud squeal from (I assume) his wet brakes as I force him to an abrupt halt. Sorry John.
It’s a set-up.
Andy does not have a well set-up bike. His forks are sagging dramatically and his rear tyre is soft. With cold fingers, he can’t unscrew the valve until John delves into his bag and produces a pair of pliers. I provide the pump. Carrying plenty of spares – another argument for big bags. Or, more accurately, for getting your friends to carry them, eh, Andy?
With Andy up and running, the track steepens and John takes off like a rocket. He careers round a wide corner (always fun on damp grass) and shoots off down a bumpy trail. Andy’s up above, taking a photo, and wants us close together but, try as I might, there’s no catching John. I’m at warp speed, but he’s pulling away and the tussocky ground is bouncing me towards disaster. I slow down from ‘terrifying’ to ‘fun’ and watch John hurtle off towards the farmland at the bottom of the fell.
It’s here that we pass a sheep rolling around on its back. I assume it’s having a play, scratching its back like a dog. John and Andy know better. Sheep don’t tend to do this and can get stuck on their backs, like tortoises. How the guys know this, or how the sheep has got itself in this position, I have no idea, but, with a push, Andy rights the silly creature and it runs off bleating.
So, we’ve rescued a sheep, had a waterfall blown into our faces and got sucked into a bog. We’ve been out in one of the last great empty spaces in England and it’s been spectacular. We’ve ridden some good trails too. Perhaps not ‘good’ in the modern trail centre/enduro-racing sense of the world, but then nobody comes up here for a quick blast, they come up here for a big day out, a mini adventure in a stunning wilderness that they’ll remember far longer than a singletrack loop in the woods. And that’s half the point, isn’t it?