Was it really May?
I was woken once or twice in the night by the sound of the wind gusting in the trees around us. They were serious gusts and I was a bit concerned when morning arrived and there was no sign of them weakening.
The plan was to cycle to Ingleton, about twenty five miles away, have brunch and then head either south east towards Clitheroe or South West towards Lancaster. Either way would put us about thirty miles from home for a short final day on the Saturday.
We stopped at Nateby to put on wet weather gear. It wasn’t raining yet but the forecast said; showers, occasionally prolonged, and the wind was so cold that we needed the extra layer for warmth. It was obvious from the start that this was going to be a tough day. After an hour of pushing against the wind we had covered a measly seven miles. It was depressing but I suggested to Gill that even at this pace we could easily cover fifty miles in the course of the day.
Entering Mallerstang Dale we could have been back in Wales as we passed Pendragon Castle but the next hamlet, Outhgill reminded us that this was very much The Yorkshire Dales. As we climbed the scenery grew bleaker, empty farm houses stood testament to the harsh lives people must have lived here in the past. That is when the rain began. After a couple of tentative showers the weather Gods got their act together and the practising was over. We came alongside the railway and eventually crossed it at the first high point of the day but there was to be no freewheeling down the other side into the headwind. By the time we reached Gardale Head we were soaked and getting colder by the minute. It was much too early to take shelter at the pub so we pressed on directly into the full force of the wind and the increasingly heavy rain.
We had planned to use cycling route 68 over the tops to Cowgill but there were road signs warning of wintery conditions at any time of year as the road climbed to 1750’ above sea level. We had a really tough decision to make. The alternative was ten miles on the busy main road down Garsdale. This would be an easier road and it would guarantee shelter and warmth in the small market town of Sedburgh but it was directly into the wind and would take us further away from Ingleton. The other choice was straight up the minor road and over the top. Only three miles but we had no idea what we might or might not find at the hamlet of Cowgill on the other side of the hill. We "ummed" and "ahhed" but we really needed to get going as we were both beginning to shiver in the biting wind. Having opted for the short high route we managed to cycle about fifty yards before being forced to get off and walk up the steep narrow ‘Coal Road’. I tried to say something encouraging to Gill but the best I could come up with was, “I promise you, this will end”. Pushing the loaded bikes up that hill against the wind was stupidly hard but at least it warmed us up and it wasn’t long before we could start cycling again. I looked in vain for any sign of a break in the weather as we were buffeted and battered but the sky was a uniform grey and the clouds hugging the lower slopes of the hills were going nowhere. It was just a matter of keeping our heads down and gritting our teeth in the knowledge that eventually we must reach the high point and drop into calmer conditions. On the tops the rain turned to hail and my face felt as if was constantly being sandblasted. So painful were the impacts that I half expected to find blood on my gloves as I wiped water and snot from my face. When the descent did eventually begin it was no relief because of the squally wind. We daren’t pick up any real speed as the road was winding and steep and with freezing hands it was hard to hold the brake levers tight enough to control the descent. Never have I been so glad to reach the comparable calm of a valley floor as I did on reaching Cowgill.
A couple of walkers, out braving the elements, assured us that the nearest place to get any food or shelter was Dent, three miles in the opposite direction to the one we wanted to go. We were past caring. We desperately needed to eat and to get out of the wet and restore some feeling to hands and feet. It’s easy to get things out of perspective when you are cold and wet and I dare say we could have turned left and continued on our chosen route to Ingleton but the prospect of warmth, food and being dry was simply too much to resist. We turned right and cycled hard for Dent and survival.
The George and Dragon in Dent is the best pub in the world and that is official. We awarded it this accolade by dint of it being open when we got there and having an open fire roaring in the grate within five minutes of our arrival. The barmaid seemed somewhat bemused by her first customers, focused as they were on having the fire lit before anything else. We rearranged the furniture around the hearth and dripped water everywhere as we traipsed from the fire to the toilets to wring out first gloves and then socks as we peeled off layer after layer and turned the pub lounge into a drying room. We started with tea and followed that with sausage baguettes followed immediately by more tea and scones with jam. Other customers came in and kept a safe distance from us at first but gradually the atmosphere changed and soon it was all camaraderie and tales of weather based bravado flowed freely. A couple of mountain bikers paddled in and we rearranged our various sodden items so that they could share the fire. We talked of backpacking, cycling and climbing and near death experiences in heavy showers. The food and drink came and went and the tales grew taller but nothing got much drier unfortunately. The conditions outside were improving and before long we had to face the fact that we would have to leave this haven of warmth and comfort. We entertained the crowd as we pulled on wet socks and gloves and demonstrated how to put on our weird looking ‘Rainlegs’; half chaps, half waterproofs. We said our goodbyes to our new found soggy friends and stepped out into a freshly laundered landscape. Seven more cyclists were preparing to take a few more gallons of water into the pub as we set off back the way we had come.
Our route now would take us back up Dentdale to Cowgill, over Gayle Moor and Blea Moor to Ribblehead and the famous twenty four arch viaduct before finally descending gently down the dale to Ingleton. (Well that’s how I pictured it in my imagination)
We would be crossing the Settle railway once more on Wold Fell but first there was the little matter of regaining the 600 feet we had descended from it earlier. We wouldn’t be directly into the wind for a while now and with the rain gone and the occasional break in the cloud we were enjoying ourselves. First hands, then feet and finally backsides dried out and after a few miles the discomfort of the morning was almost forgotten. We grunted and pushed up some steep sections as we climbed back up the valley and under the railway and then for a few blissful minutes we had the gale on our backs and we were gently nudged up the last slopes to join the B road to Ribblehead. As we waited at the T junction to turn right I commented to Gill that although we would be turning directly into the wind, which must now have been gusting fifty to sixty miles an hour, we would be generally descending so it should be an easy ten miles to Ingleton.
How wrong could I be? We dropped for about half a mile with the wind not quite in our faces and then as the gradient eased and we veered south west we just ground to a halt. Or we would have done had we not pushed hard in our lowest gears to maintain any forward momentum at all. The valley was acting like a super funnel, squeezing the mass of air into a narrowing space. It seemed as if the elements had decided they didn’t want us in Ingleton and they were mustering all their strength to push us back the way we had come. As we passed through Ribblehead we stopped to admire the viaduct and I tried to imagine what it must have been like to perform the back breaking work, day after day and often in conditions as bad or worse than today’s. Surrounded as we were by Ingleborough and Wernside, the situation was spectacular but it would have to wait for a return trip for us to appreciate it as all our concentration was needed just to stay upright on the bikes. Nearly two hours later we finally arrived at Ingleton with all our original plans in tatters. It was already late afternoon, Gill was shattered and I was more than happy to capitulate and look for a campsite. It would mean a longish day to get home tomorrow but the chances of having winds that strong for a second day were remote and we could always opt for another early start if necessary.
We had covered a miserly thirty two miles since setting off at 8.15am and it was 5pm when we arrived at the camp site. We do cycle slowly when touring but this had to be some kind of record, even for us. After showers and a quick change we strolled to the pub and sat in a kind of stupor over beer and a fabulous lamb tagine dinner. We reflected on one of the most interesting days on our bikes we had ever experienced and one that wouldn’t be forgotten for a long time.
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