Focussed North – A Gravel Adventure With The New Focus Atlas

by Dean Hersey 3

Words by Dean Hersey. Photos by Trail Creatives.

Curiosity is a strange feeling. With a Summer of riding around our local routes and a whole year’s worth of riding plans cancelled, we talked of adventures further afield. Away from what we ride week in week out. Starting on the familiar turf of home but looking far beyond our backyard trails and far enough away that, when we actually decide to call the ride off, it’s too far out to get home in time for tea. 

This type of curiosity demands just a little commitment. So when I ping the message out to the riders within our group, I ponder at the possibility of having to go solo on this one. With the normal family and work commitments ruling out half of the group and the fears of struggling fitness weeding out the rest. It left just two of us. Kevin is the adventurous rider. The one who loves just the idea of a night or two at home, route-planning and sifting through bundles of kit in boxes out in the garage almost as much as the ride itself. While Kev isn’t the fastest racing snake on the bike, that’s not what would be required on this ride. He enjoys nothing more than exploring by bike, his local trail knowledge is far greater than my own and he handily has an obsession with kit. 

Focussed North – Travels With the Focus Atlas

Watch the full video of the adventure below now if you’re the impatient type, or read the story and come back to it afterwards:

I am very aware that I have a sense of curiosity that often leads me to ponder, “what is over that summit? Where does that trail lead? I am continually looking to expand my horizons. It feeds my spirit for adventure and this curiosity is something shared by us both. This is more than just a ride, this is an adventure. In a bid to expand our ‘minds map’ in search of (gravel) pastures grittier.

So a couple of nights later, the loosest of plans is formulated between us: we were to meet at the water’s edge and head due North. Beyond our familiarity into the emptier lands beyond. Names of the final destination were banded about, but we settled on a ‘let’s just see how we go, eh?’ Follow our noses and see how far we can get, completely self sufficient. With planning kept to a minimum we decide on a day and who would carry what, so as to not double pack any large items so we can keep things simple.

Everyone will always say that they are so fortunate to reside where they do. If you look at any map and draw a circle 100 miles out from our home we are surrounded by Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a National Park and some of the most spectacular scenic coastal trails you will find anywhere in the country all begging to be explored. With the start on a familiar trail out from the harbour, we would head out along the old train line enjoyably away from the worst of the town’s traffic. We look to head out to the first AONB and warm up gently on mostly level terrain, munching through the early miles as we head North. The first 30 miles are well within my mind’s map. Beyond this point I am in the dark and Kev’s knowledge is somewhere close to double that of my own. He reminisces excitedly about how he wanted to join up these sections of trail and how he had ridden in this place in days gone by. I feel like a cocktail of intrigue and anxiety. 

Whilst we wouldn’t be scaling the biggest mountains or crossing torrents in the wilderness we would be doing our best to avoid large populations. The majority of the route would be off road taking in gravel paths, byways and bridleways. With a smattering of country lanes to splice sections of disused railway lines, ancient Roman roads and canal towpaths. The trail conditions under the rubber of our tyres should be as varied as the Autumnal weather. 

We plan to break the boundary of the M4 motorway, a manmade diversion that us Southerners jokingly say marks the start of the North. Once into ‘the North’ we tease one another that we will be well into bandit country and anything could happen to us from there on in.

Wagons Roll

We met on the water’s edge an hour before the Autumn sun got out of bed. The noise of gulls are the only company at this time of day. They chase the return of a fishing trawler and optimistically hope to snatch at its catch from that night. With a limit to how much we would be able to get done in the daylight hours we felt we were best to get the familiar leg of the route done using lights.

I arrive fashionably late and Kev gives me a look as if I cheated him out of his warm bed too early, only for me to enjoy the pleasure of the alarm snooze button a couple of times. The joint  “Morning mate” grumbles and a nervous nod to each other is as far as our greeting went. I am tired, mostly due to being completely unprepared and a last minute late night scramble to get the bvvy kit packed and strap it onto my bike. Kev has young children so he is more than well practiced at operating well before sparrow’s fart o’clock. 

With the way illuminated brightly by our lights we head out of the town skirting along the water’s edge. We are on the tarmac of the eerily quiet roads for only a couple of miles before the crunch of the first gravel path breaks the dawn’s silence. I am not sure if it is too early for conversation or if it is nervous anticipation of our adventure that keeps our lips sealed. There is hardly a word muttered for the first hour. The weather this far has been surprisingly favourable considering what the conditions have been like the past few weeks. Relentless days of heavy rain have only been broken up by blowing gales and it has left an inch thick blanket of autumnal leaf litter curtaining the lake sized puddles. Have some faith, we are starting to make some slow and steady progress. 

     

Our route sends us out along an old disused train line that was decommissioned back in the mid 60s. We go as far along the old line as the next junction where the trail abruptly turns from gravel to the road and shortly find ourselves heading out through peaceful pretty postcard villages along muted country lanes, all the time we maintain our heading, North. Then out of nowhere we are forced to a halt. On an unlikely section of smooth road Kev suffers a strange “only happens on this kind of ride” puncture on the rear of his bike. I try my hardest to disguise my glee as this break gives me the perfect opportunity to finish my flask full of fresh ground coffee I have loaded in one of my bottle cages. I know my companion is beginning to get distressed with his unexplainable gaping hole in his tyre. With sealant covering both himself and his bike, I am gifted by another long stare as the smell of my hot beverage reaches his nose, simultaneously I feel the welcome boost of caffeine in my body. I quickly tip my head back and pour the remainder down my throat in a bid to not annoy my buddy any more than I already have. After all, I really don’t want to do this ride on my own. I think it’s best to curb the banter for a little later on. It really isn’t much longer before all attempts to seal the puncture are abandoned in favour for a faithful tube and we are rolling on our way again.

All the anguish that was felt before is erased from memory, Kev lifts his head and calls out to me between his deep and heavy breathing “just look at this view ahead”. Talk about timing, the drag of our laden bikes is taking its toll on us over the repetitive short but nevertheless punchy climbs. The avenue ahead is lined exquisitely by the vibrant burnt orange colour of beech tree leaves. The delightful vista is all it takes to have us both beaming from ear to ear and our mood is lifted, the climb is forgotten and we roll onwards. 

The next few hours are just magical as we punch through the last of our mental map. Morale is high and we chat about everything and nothing. I am relaxed, not a care in the world. Not a thought is given about work or the other day to day stresses. Just forgetting anything that we might be concerned with and to focus on this feeling of the here and now. We are totally reliant upon the map and our trusted girded wheeled mules. I am overwhelmed by the feeling that this adventure is now on. 

In a rude awakening I look down at my bike only to notice that my tool canister has been jettisoned out of my lower cage. I plunge into an exasperated state of panic. Kev promptly suggests that we stop and retrace our trail to the last descent. So I gather myself together and heave the oil tanker around on the path and roll back to the bottom of the last section. What if this is lost i think to myself? What if I have a mechanical? I have to find it.

This particular part of the itinerary has a smattering of polished stones protruding from the chalky track. I had just shaken myself to the point of my eyes not being able to focus on the way ahead. It must have come out here, surely? I lent my bike against the nearest tree and slowly walked back, retracing my line. After a few minutes of searching I kick something substantial in the leaves. Back facing the right way and the offending item secured with an additional strap we are on our merry way once again.

We have spent the day mixing between every type of conceivable trail. Mudded bridleways have made up the majority of our passage to this point in a successful attempt to stay away from the major road network. We mixed the day up with a good natter about trips and adventures gone by. Sometimes stopping and using this time to take on much needed sustenance and stretch our weary bodies. Both of us do not profess to be ultra endurance athletes but the sense of adventure gives us a shared purpose and with no real end destination we had no fear of failure. We had met our plan to go out past our trail familiarity, so anything from here on out would be a bonus. 

Bunker down on the hill

With the last climb up onto the ridge being the longest of the day, the cloud cover thickens the higher we get. I suggest to Kev that we make an effort to get a substantial meal in our bodies. I have survived this far solely on trail snacks and packets of sweets to the point. With a concern that the light is beginning to fade, this is as good a place as any to make camp, bivvy down with some warm food and an early night.

This is where Kev comes into his element. In what seems like an attempt to impress, he boasts “look how quick this goes up!”. Within a couple of seconds his dry bag is open and he is plucking his tarp from within. A quick shake of our shelter for the night and I am both impressed and compelled to assist. I have barely had time to retrieve a single item from my bike and Kev, or should that be Bear Grylls is well on his way to making his bed. His stove and meal is all neatly laid out, ready to go.

I grab my sleeping bag and bivvy bag from my bike and toss it into the shelter. I begin to unpack my kit only to find I have forgotten my sleeping mat. Hardly a shock, considering I left packing to the very last minute. Kev shakes his head disapprovingly, as I am desperately trying to convince myself that I would be more than comfortable on the 12 inches of thick lush grass. I am actually too tired to care and I brush this little mishap off.  A warm drink and we each scoff down a belly full of boil in a bag ‘space food’. The light has all but gone. We stow our kit away with the foresight to a swift exit in the morning at first light. By now the chat has dwindled to a silence and as my eyes become almost as heavy as the luggage I’ve been carrying on my bike. I shuffle down into my warm cocoon, the gentle pitter patter of rain on the canvas can be heard and I find it comforting. There is little else to break the silence and I drift off instantaneously to sleep to the hypnotic sound of the rain.

A lazy start to the day

I wake with a jolt and fright. I glance at my watch in the daylight of the tent. A quick yawning stretch to the sound of Kev stirring. He sits up and unzips the shelter. “What’s it like?” I ask. “Well you can’t exactly see the horizon”. I waste no more time and get out of the warmth of my pit. We both slept so well that night, probably from yesterday’s efforts. We have missed our early departure, but a good fuel up is needed. We chow down on pork and beans filling our bellies. I offer to make us both a cuppa and Kev eases his OCD by carefully collapsing the telescopic pole and folding the tarp perfectly. 

It isn’t long before we both have our bikes reloaded. I drag my bike up onto its rubber and swing my leg over the saddle. I feel the tightness in my legs from day one. I am faffing with my gloves and by this point now Kev is already rolling away and fading into the fog. With a click of my cleat in the pedal body I am off, after him in a desperate bid not to get lost on the hill in the mid morning mist. 

We ride for a while along a battered by-way. The path is littered with holes carved out by offroad vehicles, each one full with water. I keep a wide berth and slalom around them, partially as a game to ease the monotony but also Kev has fore warned me of holes that are so deep they can completely swallow a 4×4 wheel. We are still covered in a blanket of cloud, as we roll along the ridge I struggle with my sense of direction. My mind is filled with nerves, I really don’t want to ride too far in the wrong direction and I suggest that we check the map for the junction that will take us down into the valley below. 

The next few hours are a mishmash of country lanes and bridleways encompassed by the multitude of every shade of green like a patchwork quilt of farmland. It is a nice easy late morning ride with only one notable climb. We roll past the tall metal fencing topped by curls of barbed wire segregating us from the military base. The fence is almost enchanting as it rushes past. The hundreds of neat metal diamond shapes blur out of focus as I fixate on the dull grey of the road. It only lasts a couple of miles before we encounter some chalk under our wheels once again. We trade the regimented structure of the garrison for the manicured green grass of the fairway. The golf course is quiet with not a soul in sight and so no danger of being struck by a stray ball. The peace and quiet is soon disrupted as the sound of a speeding train clatters along parallel to us. We have just passed a station but there is no want to head home just yet. We push on. 

With the weather deciding to play ball again, I insist we stop to shred some layers I have donned to resist the nip in the air that I had woken to earlier. The sun is now as high in the sky as it is likely to get in autumn and pokes its head out from the candy floss cloud cover from time to time. Crossing county lines we are meandering through the acres of fields either side.

As we approach the tranquil water of the canal the dynamic alters. We are no longer just a pair of mates bumbling along chatting amongst ourselves. It is like someone had let the world out to play in the warmth of the afternoon sun. Tourists are scattered everywhere in their droves. We are forced to ride in single file and our pace almost comes to a stop. Rolling along ducking and weaving between people, politely trying to make myself known without startling as we try to squeeze through. I never expected that we would see this many people and neither of us have a bell bolted to our bikes. I see the slowing of our progress as a welcomed change, gratefully I am able to take in the view as we make our way along the towpath. Around the next bend we are greeted by a flotilla of barges and houseboats. The smoke of burning logs fills our lungs, I am comforted by the smell as we pass folk on the bank making alterations to their floating homes. 

We leave the urban setting and the waterside path and begin an ascent of what we would later discover, is a two mile long, steep gradient out of the valley. I quickly drop my companion behind me. For the first time on this ride it has become every man for himself. I am not trying to distant my friend, instead I am rushing hard to bring this hurt to an end as I find my rhythm. Eventually I hit the flat again and I come to a cumbersome halt. I am breathing heavy, gulping the cold air in as I get off and sit on the ground whilst I wait for Kev to top out.

We continue along the arrow straight Roman road for 20 miles or so. My legs are finally done, they are permanently on the edge of cramping and it feels like I am pedalling through porridge. The second part of the quest has been considerably tougher than I had expected. I notice in the distance the buzz of fast traffic. The volume rises as we spin ever closer. We cross the motorway that marks the boundary of the southern part of the country. I pause on the bridge for a brief moment to raise a smile as I look back at my buddy to honour our achievement.

The last of the light has gone. I reach down to turn on my lights. My eyes blurring in the lights of the traffic, each is crowned by a halo. My feet are sore and my back is stiff. Yet despite all of this I have a coat hanger smile that is the full width of my face. The quiet country lanes lined with hedgerows and the grit of the gravel trails are behind us. We pass by closed shops and homes with the glow of lights. Kev pulls alongside me and we suggest we take a break, consume some well deserved calories and study the map. I leave him to it as I finish the last of my food and wash it down with the dregs of my water bottle. “Kev I am done!”. 

The last eight miles are the most silent. Zero words are uttered between us. We have a destination and I am ecstatic with our accomplishment. I fixate on the signs for the station. It cannot come soon enough now and I am expecting to fall asleep standing up as we make our way home to our beds. It is a long journey even by train and won’t get home until the early hours of the morning. Yet I cannot wait for the next time I can experience every one of these feelings all over again. We roll into the ticket office and just like that our quest is over. No fanfare, no finish line and no one to welcome us in. Just the smug satisfaction and my thirst for adventure and curiosity well and truly quenched.       

So… what’s next?          


This feature was produced in association with Focus Bikes


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