Tom Fenton treads the fine line between England and Scotland, black ice and bog, all the while attempting condiment-based puns.
Words TOM FENTON Photography ANDY HEADING
It’s still dark when a couple of hours up the A1 from a 5am start, we stop for coffee. Or rather, Andy and Richie stop for coffee. I hate the stuff. They suggest mustard as a substitute. A spoonful? On the rocks? Boiled in a mug? This goes on for quite some time. Luckily, mustard isn’t yet available at service stations on the A1, so we can’t test the theory. They then bet me that I can’t fit at least two references to mustard into this article. I promise not to lay it on too thick.
This conversation took place on the way to Northumberland – specifically, the Cheviots. We’re on our way to check out a somewhat unusual trail that runs right along the border between Scotland and England.
If you’ve not been, the Cheviots are a pretty special place. A clump of huge rolling hills plonked in the middle of nowhere, looming out of the surrounding land in a big grassy lump. Steep-sided and covered with grass and heather, they’re formed by a series of blunt spurs rising to a central ridge, interspersed with deep valleys and streams. They feel utterly deserted, especially outside summer. Once you’re up on the tops there aren’t even any trees, just open moorland. It feels like a fitting place for a border between two countries. The only things breaking the peace are a couple of seriously large army firing ranges off to the west. I guess you can’t have everything.
With the exception of a few local woods that have been home to some pretty spicy downhill racing, you’ll not find much technical riding in the area. You’ll often not even find any tracks – or tyre tracks – for that matter. In five or six trips up here I’ve seen about ten people and none of them were on bikes. What you will get are huge uphill slogs and bouncy grassy descents on which to reach eye-watering speeds. You get incredible views that stretch out in all directions and complete peace and quiet in which to enjoy them. Got your taste buds tingling? As I said, a special place.
Stupidly, we’ve picked late November to visit. It’s freezing cold and blowing a gale. I’ve lost 50 per cent of my winter gloves. Andy’s had to borrow a bike. The tearoom at Barrowburn has closed. I don’t even know how to pronounce ‘Cheviot’. Still, Richie and Andy have never been up here and are keen as mustard [That’s enough! Condiments Ed]. So off we go, straight into a massive climb.
Fussing in the tussocks.
Climbs in the Cheviots are all fairly similar – huge and grassy. If you’re lucky, you’ll be on something resembling a trail. If unlucky, it’s going to be hard work over long, tussocky and potentially soggy grass. Either way, you’re looking at a good hour or so of solid ascending. Our climb from Barrowburn to the summit ‘ridge’ takes in a bit of everything. Initially, we’re on a track, a relatively good one, and not too steep. And, at first, it’s all good fun. I attempt to push Richie into a puddle. He tries to steer me off the track. I trackstand in his way on a steep bit. He buzzes my tyre. Then the trail kicks upwards and the fun goes out of the window.
The climb goes on. And on. At first it’s merely steep, but then it turns soggy and energy sapping too. In what is to become a theme for the day, Richie powers ahead while Andy and I flail in his wake. Or at least I do. Andy manages to set off up the wrong track when Richie and I aren’t looking. Usually, we’d ‘accidentally’ let him climb a decent way up before calling him back, but today the strong wind means this happens anyway as he can’t hear us bellowing his name.
(Un)luckily, he doesn’t get too far before realising his mistake…
As we climb higher, we take a trail I’ve not ridden before. Sadly, it soon becomes apparent why as it tapers first to a sheep track and then to nothing. Richie does his usual thing and churns onwards. I grind away in his wake until I realise that I’m utterly exhausted and that Andy, who’s walking, is gaining on me. I decide enough is enough and, in silence, drag my bike upwards alongside Andy. Above us, Richie is, as ever, still going. (Dijon-vu.) A steep section looks like it’s enough to stop him, but he zigs and he zags, taking it at an angle and powering on. It’s a great bit of riding on some of the most-hard climbing I’ve seen for a while, and Andy and I condiment him on his effort.
Soon we’re back on a vague track and start turning the pedals once more. It’s not technical, but it is relentless. There’s a perverse satisfaction in switching off and giving everything you’ve got. You try your absolute hardest on a steep section, get a brief breather, and then have to mustard up the energy to go again. Your cadence drops, legs burning, as the effort goes from grimace to gurn. Looking ahead, you know you can’t make it. You’re convinced each pedal stroke is the last you can possibly manage. But then you manage another, and another, and, eventually, you’re up.
And what an up it is. Climbing done, we can really relish our situation. Richie is particularly impressed. We’re surrounded by massive and smoothly rounded hilltops, mottled yellow and brown from the grass and peat. Aside from a few black goats, there’s not a person, animal, or building in sight. And apart from the wind, not a sound. In the distance to both the north and south, the hills disappear as flat ground stretches off into Scotland and England. Much to photographer Andy’s disgust, the sun shines out of a clear blue sky onto this flat ground, while the Cheviots themselves are capped by a low grey cloud.
High penalty for failure.
As is so often the case, we don’t hang around for too long. Maybe, given the forecast and strength of the gusts lower down, we should have realised that climbing up to somewhere named ‘Windy Gyle’ was a bad idea. It’s bloody freezing. Richie, being the hardy northern sort that he is (never said ‘the’ in his life), is still in summer gloves. I, coming from the south (the Home Counties, don’t you know), am soon wearing two pairs of gloves and five layers of clothing. We decide, given the temperature and number of daylight hours, to cut the ride short and miss out the descent into Scotland. Shame though, as that always adds a bit of adventure to the ride. Instead, we turn west, along the border, where we discover that the freezing wind has turned the often-boggy Cheviot hilltops into fast and solid trails. We whizz along, dropping down short descents and powering up little rises on stretches of singletrack. It’s fast and it’s fun.
Here and there are frozen puddles and we deliberately crack across these because, well, why wouldn’t you? At least, Andy and Richie crack them – I splash through. “You fat gits, you’ve weakened the ice!” Andy points out that the ice was strong enough to support them and that it was my weight that broke through…
We’re soon at the trail I’ve been looking forward to all day. It’s a bizarre trail. A grey line of narrow flagstones picking a line across the peaty moorland, right along the border between England and Scotland. Other than the trail and the fence beside it, the area is deserted. The moor stretches away, uninterrupted, on both sides. There’s nothing, just this thin line of slabs. What is it doing here? Where did it come from? Who built it?
Who cares. It’s ace. The hard stones are fast and easy to ride. The corners range from swoopy, barely-there arcs to 90-degree things you inch carefully around. Little steps here and there need hopping, dropping off, or, for the odd little staircase, a bit of speed, faith and help from the puncture gods.
You sweep easily and quietly along this tiny line of flagstones in the middle of a bog. To either side are tussocks and soft grass, your speed completely at odds with their awkwardness. The sound of your tyres rolling over the stones seems abnormally loud among the deserted hills. Tear yourself away from the view and it’s fun, effortless and deeply satisfying.
But you’ve got to concentrate. The soft bog means that running off the side of the trail can be a high-consequence risk. The flags, hard and fast, have an unknown level of grip, so you find yourself holding back through the corners, hoping for traction. What’s more, the flags aren’t uniform, or they’ve shifted, so here and there the line is a little narrower and trickier than you’d like. Worst of all are the Phantom Flagstones. Here and there, the odd flagstone appears to be missing, leaving a pool of inky black water. Soon, you realise they’ve just sunk –they are still there, hidden but rideable. So you carry on. There is, however, one actually missing. I know this from when I ended up soaked in peat, having a complete humour failure and punting my helmet into Scotland.
Peat is not the problem.
Today, inky black puddles are not the problem. Sheet ice is the problem. Long sections of flagstone singletrack are covered in slippery death. At first I can’t believe it. Hours in the car followed by a slog up a huge hill in a gale to get to this trail and it’s unrideable. Or is it? A couple of hundred nervous metres later we discover that it’s not as bad as it looks. By holding our breath and staying smooth and slow, it’s just about possible to roll carefully over the clear ice. After a while we get a bit cocky and speed up, aiming deliberately at the grassy tufts on the sides of the trail and glancing off them to slip around gentle corners. It’s actually fun.
Then Richie falls through. He’s found the missing flagstone. Instinctively saving himself as his wheels slide from under him, he stamps his foot through the ice, tangling himself up in his bike. I go to help him, but it’s pretty hilarious so I’m not in a hurry. But, far from having his weight spread in an approved quicksand/thin ice position, Richie’s got all his weight on his hands, and as he tries to push himself up there are some worryingly loud creaks and cracks. “Quick lads, I’m going through!”
Luckily, after pulling Richie to safety, cresting a small rise and dropping out of the wind, the ice vanishes and the trail is as it should be. This is what we came to the Cheviots for. We swoop along, the riding, the scenery and the atmosphere all blending into one perfect trail.
All that’s left to do now is to get down. We descend via ‘The Street’, apparently a Roman road. The top is usually my favourite section, and it definitely is today, as it’s frozen solid into a sort of multi-line singletrack that tips gently downhill into a shallow gully. In the wet, this can be a boggy mess, but today it’s fast, swoopy and offers plenty of opportunities to find lines past people who’ve got stuck in puddles that were deeper than they thought. Andy and Richie prefer the next section, and it’s easy to see why. This tips steeply downhill, taking a vague line across a big grassy hillside – awesome in an old-school downhill sort of way. The only limit to the speed is your bottle and with natural rollers that you can attempt to double, and gentle corners that, when taken at high speed and on slippery grass require some serious commitment, it really is a lot of fun.
And that’s it. With nothing left but a gentle roll down a quiet lane beside a picturesque stream, our ride is finished. It’s been a proper old-school cross-country day out on big grassy climbs and fast, non-technical descents, with the views and solitude more than making up for any lack of technicality. As for the flagstone border-run, it’s a mix of fun riding, perfect location and slight out-of-placeness that adds up to give one of my favourite trails anywhere.