Any notion that the storm predicted for today by charity group riders in Lairg wouldn’t materialize was dashed when I looked out through the glass door to the pub car park. I stared across an expanse of tarmac, that the rain had already turned into a shiny, grey mirror which reflected the dark clouds above. It wasn’t an inviting prospect – getting wet during a ride is one thing, but starting out in the rain is an order of magnitude harder. The arrival of my bike up from the cellar broke the contemplation – I dropped my bags beside it in the hallway and headed for breakfast in the vain hope that the conditions may brighten up whilst I ate.
Fortunately there was no reason to rush over breakfast – my last, and thoroughly excellent, “Full Scottish” was something I intended to savour. I was definitely going to miss the tattie (potato) scone, haggis, and Lorne sausage once I crossed the border today and returned to the land of the less expansive “Full English”. Whilst polishing off the feast, I chatted with a guest at another table. He was on long term work assignment as an engineer at a processing plant in the town – three months already, and likely to be there until March next year I think he said. He seemed curious about how safe I had found the riding so far – and surprised by the scarcity of incidents I could recall: an orange Mini on the north coast; a van and trailer near Lairg; every Fiat 500 which passed me; plus the few fake Porsches; and one fake supercar. He seemed amused at (and in general agreement) with my definition of the last two – any Porsche with 4 doors; and the R8, on account of being made by a mainstream manufacturer, and not being expensive or impractical enough to qualify as a full supercar. After the only other breakfast guest left, we speculated that perhaps he was an owner of one of these models that we had now offended – having stubbornly avoided any eye contact or opportunities to join the conversation.
Sadly, neither good food nor good company had changed the weather prospects – at least not for the better. In fact, the glassy sheen of the parking area had now become chaotically freckled as large, fresh raindrops spattered off its surface. With some reluctance, I kitted up in full wet weather gear, bade farewell to the guys at the hotel, and headed out to begin my soaking.
1032km – 21 Aug, 08:19 – Townhead Hotel, Lockerbie
It’s interesting, if perhaps predictable how few details I recall of the 25km from Lockerbie to Gretna Green. I do remember heading reluctantly into that damp, uninviting day – and beginning to pedal my away along the high street as I received my first drenching of rain and road spray. Memory has foreshortened the distance though, making it seem like I was at the border with England in just a few minutes, whereas when I study my GPS log I can see it was an hour and a half later, including a mysterious stop along the way which only came back to me after studying Google Maps. To be fair, it is a pretty random and unremarkable piece of road, although oddly I do remember the exact place I stopped, although not quite why. My guess would be to take a pee, since I can’t imagine being hungry so soon after the massive breakfast.
1060km – 21 Aug, 09:57 – Gretna Green
I also remember actually arriving at Gretna – with something of a sense of relief after the dull straight road, which had acquired no more charm in the seven years since I’d ridden it before on. A large articulated lorry thundered past me, followed closely by a couple of vans in the middle of the right and left dogleg into the town itself. The purple track on the GPS was optimistically pointing me left towards a place I had stopped on LEL in 2013. But in the heavy rain I had no motivation to try and recreate the photo stop by the border sign, so I took the direct route across the river and snapped two very wet looking shots of the border signs on the main road instead to record the moment. There was a definite twinge of sadness leaving Scotland behind, with all the delightful cycling I had enjoyed over the last few days. In reality though, I was still a very long way from home and far from finishing the adventure.
Shortly after crossing the very literally named “Metal Bridge” my route took a welcome right turn, swinging away from the soul destroying slog alongside the M6. The rain eased off too – or perhaps it just felt like it had, once away from the perpetual curtain of road spray. I’d opted to follow a cycle route into Carlisle and, although not very direct, it was rather delightful – a mix of meandering, quiet country lanes into Rockcliffe, and short stretches of path beside the salt flats of the river estuary.
Carlisle itself proved a tad challenging to navigate, starting with a narrow path that I sailed past, and even on turning around almost failed to find it was so well hidden (as can be seen on Google maps). This led me through a housing estate and some parkland and then onto a cycle path where the A7 crossed the River Eden. Once across the bridge, another somewhat confusing zig-zag was needed under and around a busy City Centre roundabout. Oddly, my memory had recast this rather dismal section somewhere back around Hamilton, and it’s only now thanks to the map I can accurately place it on my journey. I guess underpasses and the concrete jungles of urban centres never feel exactly welcoming, but combined with the grim, grey weather it felt hostile and slightly unsettling. Combined with a fresh downpour of heavy rain, there wasn’t a lot to make me want to hang around, although I did stop for a new “wet pavé” picture to amuse the guys on the WhatsApp group.
Beyond Carlisle, the route ran slightly east of south in an almost dead straight line – so much so, it occurred to me I may have been following an old Roman road. It also began the first, very gradual rise towards that second section of high ground up ahead. The rain dropped off for a while, leaving a fresh cool day with a slight breeze coming from the south. Overall it was pleasant riding, although I was beginning to feel a need for fuel and started inspecting every sign and building in the hope of a café of some kind. Across a couple of fields I could see the distinctive outline of a motorway service station on the M6 to my left. I contemplated taking a narrow gravel lane that seemed like it could be some kind of service road towards it, but just beyond I spotted a board advertising a pub with food. I’m not entirely sure the place I did end up stopping was the same pub – it was at least 5km further on, in the village of Calthwaite. But they were open, and serving lunch, and had a garden I could park my bike in (it was probably unnecessary, but I chained it up for the first time on the ride). With near perfect timing, a fresh downpour was beginning to fall as I ducked inside the rear entrance.
1095km – 21 Aug 20, 12:27 – The Globe Inn, Calthwaite
A cosy pub, a pint of lager, and plate full of pie and veg. It’s hard to imagine a more welcome antidote to such a wet morning – or one that could be harder to tear myself away from. I could easily have settled in and idled the afternoon away whilst the rain lashed down outside. It had at least stopped again briefly as I ventured back into the garden and kitted up again. The respite didn’t last long though. Soon after crossing the M6, the clouds grew dark again, and as I circled a roundabout with the A6 and began the run into Penrith the heavens opened again, delivering another thorough drenching. It was raining so heavily as I reached the town that I pulled under a petrol station canopy just to avoid some of the worst. I swapped messages with Yoli from here, and have a feeling we may have had a short call too. For the first time on the ride, I began to question my resolve – I knew that not far ahead I would be heading across the open moorland around Shap. By the standards of most countries, it’s not exactly high – but it is completely exposed, and has a reputation for fierce winds in a storm. My father had a real, and not completely irrational fear of crossing it on the M6 whilst towing a caravan. In the worst storms, high vehicles had been blown over on there in the past.
I stood staring out at the grey wall of rain from under the shelter of the canopy. For a few moments I contemplated just heading to Penrith station and getting the train home. I was really lacking the desire to head out into it again – there wasn’t much wind in the town, but I knew that was going to change the moment I started to climb up onto the moors. I managed to put the idea from my mind, but commented to Yoli that if the storm was as bad as predicted, I could well end up back in Penrith again. I really wasn’t sure I had the resolve to resist the soft option a second time if I did.
There was no letup in the rain as I wound through the city centre – which was surprisingly busy given the weather. My primary route plan from here had been the A6 but, knowing that it may be busy, I had plotted a backup. With less traffic, or kinder conditions I might have stuck with the A6, but several cars and trucks hammered past me rather too close for comfort before I’d barely left Penrith behind. It was so unpleasant, that I didn’t even wait for my planned exit from the A6, but turned left at an earlier point to pick up the national cycle route that my alternate route followed. It ended up being a detour of close on 4km to avoid less than 1km of busy road, but that section of road would have seen me slogging slowly uphill into a headwind in a solid stream of traffic.
After a kilometre or so, and a short steep rise around Brougham Park, I found the sign I was looking for – a marker showing cycle route 71 (south). Looking now, I can see that if I’d anticipated the A6 traffic better I could have just followed it more directly out of the centre of Penrith. At the time though, I was so grateful to be out of the traffic that I wasn’t bothered by my meandering track. Turning right onto the cycle route was a bit of a shock though – I was immediately hit with a strong blast of wind. Riding across it, and somewhat sheltered by the hill, I hadn’t noticed how much stronger it had become – but now, trying to ride into it, I could feel it was building into a full blown gale. And I wasn’t even close to the highest, most exposed part of the moor. I remember seeing a line of trees being blown near flat, but the photo I took didn’t really capture the full force of the storm, or the growing comedy of me trying to ride into it.
There was a brief respite at Tarn Hill, where the road took a ninety degree turn for a short stretch and I managed to pick up some speed, being both out of the direct path of the wind and sheltered by a bank of grass topped with a low stone wall. But from Clifton Moor, the route ran straight into the storm with just occasional breaks behind a tall tree or building. At Great Strickland, I parted company with route 71 as it took a long detour eastward towards Appleby-in-Westmorland. I guess I should have realised when route planning that if my direct option towards Shap were actually a better option, the cycle route would have taken it. But in the battering wind and rain, it was easier to blindly slog on along the little purple GPS track rather than waste any energy on pointless tasks like thinking. Apart from the weather, the scenery was quite lovely – a checkerboard of green pastures, some filled with sheep, and divided by light grey dry stone walls. Here and there a random scrap of forestry popped up along the road, or in the middle of the fields, each also ringed with its own little protective wall. The wind was only one factor slowing my progress at this stage, even without it the last of the ramps up onto the top of the moor were steep enough on their own to slow me to a crawl at many points.
1128km – 21 Aug 20, 16:35 – somewhere near Shap
As I tracked right, and left following the edge of a larger piece of woodland, the rising crescendo of the storm reach a level that almost defied belief. It was almost as if the mere act of me reading the word “Shap” on the sign I had passed flipped a switch, and the wind stepped up a gear to live up to the reputation of this place. At the end of the trees the land was split by a huge manmade scar in the earth, the bottom of which was filled with water, and on it’s far bank stood the rusting leftovers of the quarrying machinery. I vaguely remember seeing signs that gave names to these remote patches of moor – Hardendale, which I was leaving behind, and Oddendale just ahead. It was impossible not to feel how appropriate the latter sounded – by this stage the wind was so fierce it was becoming a challenge just to stand upright. Hunched over, pushing slowly onward into possibly the strongest wind I’ve experienced on land, it wasn’t hard to picture Odin somewhere up there, doing battle in the storm.
Oddendale turned out not to be a reference to Norse gods (or maybe it was, who knows) – but to be the name of a nearby farm. Unfortunately for me, that’s all it was. Moments before I’d got excited to see the tarmac seeming to run downhill at last. But where I was now stood there wasn’t anything nearly so promising in the way of road options: a left turn through a gate, down to what were clearly the farm buildings; and ahead the remaining strip of tar petered out to nothing more than a track. Studying the GPS, I realised I had gone beyond my turn by a few meters, but backtracking didn’t really help the situation. At the exact spot where I was meant to turn, there was no turn. Oddendale was the end of the road. There was though, a faint pair of tracks leading out across the grass and rocks. I could see the M6 in the distance, and I was technically on a gravel equipped bike. It was already pretty mad to be up here at all in this weather, so venturing off-road onto a sheep track across the open moor was really just a minor step of additional insanity.
As it wound around the top edge of the quarry, the track was what I think we would have referred to as “twee spore” back in South Africa (literally meaning “two tracks”). In this case, each a single faint gravel path with a grassy bank in between. Before long though, these dipped down to a gate beyond which was a much wider gravel service road for the vehicles to the quarry. I seem to recall on this gate, or perhaps one at the far end where the gravel joined the tar again were large, red warning signs about the dangers of being there, and probably telling me I shouldn’t have ridden (or mostly walked) where I had just been. More important to me though was what lay ahead – a proper road again, leading towards the first signs of life I had seen in a while, at what appeared to be a motorway maintenance depot (with large silos of salt and grit for winter weather). But such was the force of the wind, there were only short sections were I could actually stay on the bike long enough to ride. I got a wry smile from the occupants of a silver car parked by the service depot, and a nod from the passengers of a police vehicle entering the compound. I guess I was a little surprised that they didn’t inquire whether I was OK – or actually sane. But with no form of shelter to be had here, I plodded slowly on across the M6 bridge, and to a left turn which thankfully started to run down and off the high ground at last.
I was able to free-wheel downhill for a way, albeit very gingerly and on the brakes to avoid going faster than was controllable. At times I had to lean at a crazy angle into the wind, which was fine until either a stronger gust hit that threatened to flip me back over the other way or, worse, the wind eased briefly meaning I almost fell flat without the resistance to keep me upright. There was a brief section of shelter as the road swung back under the split carriageway of the M6 again, but beyond it ran into a tree lined valley down to the village of Orton which the wind tore through with a renewed level of eager malevolence. All across Shap I had been swapping messages with Yoli and by this stage, I’d had about as much adventure as I could manage for the day. I was well short of my intended destination of Lancaster, but the storm had beaten me – I’d run out of fight, and needed to head for shelter. We’d contemplated Kendall as an option, but it was off my route and 15km further than I wanted to ride. Fortunately, Yoli had come up trumps with a pub that had a room in the seemingly twin villages of Old Tebay & Tebay. They were just a couple of kilometres beyond Orton which, even in the wind seemed to pass quickly with a renewed energy in my legs. In what seemed like no time at all, I was spinning across the roundabout next to the M6 again (who’s path I had now been following since Gretna) and rolling up to the pub in the middle of the village.
1145km – 21 Aug 20, 18:42 – Cross Keys Inn, Tebay
With a bit of negotiation the pub agreed to let me park the bike in a side room off the main bar, handily at the foot of the stairs up to my bedroom, and also close to the self-latching door that would let me exit early the next morning before the staff arrived. The battering of the storm had left me a bit dazed and I dithered around in the room, accomplishing very little apart from a few messages home and to the WhatsApp group. Eventually I did something useful and headed back to the bar for food. It was an interesting setup – the bar and kitchen seemed to be run by two independent sets of staff, the latter today was having an Italian themed evening. A plate of steaming pasta and a large glass of red wine (or maybe it was two) were just about the ideal fuel to make me whole again. I also remember having a desert of some kind, perhaps a Tiramisu (although now I remember that, I wonder if I had something else at the café back in Fort Augustus). A few things I do remember quite clearly though whilst sat in the dining room.
Firstly, was apologizing for my shabby appearance to various other guests having dinner. Whilst perhaps not qualifying as formal evening dress, I did at least have flip flops on my feet and wasn’t bare foot, as I had been on TCR where I failed to pack any non-cycling footwear. Also, due to COVID, the tables were sufficiently far apart that they probably couldn’t sense how smelly I was either.
The second thing I remember is looking up a meteorology site to find out exactly how strong the wind had been. A part of me wondered if I had over dramatized it a bit, egged on by the reputation of where I was riding. I was a little relieved to see that I hadn’t – the strongest gusts recorded had, apparently, hit 129km/h (70mph). Even the Cape of Storms Argus (2009) had stopped short of 100km/h I think, making this comfortably the worst gale I’d ever tried to ride through. There was a definite sense of satisfaction that I hadn’t just made a mountain out of a normal everyday storm.
The third and final, very vivid, memory was a conversation with Yoli whilst I ate. She commented that looking at the map, I still seemed a very long way from home. And tomorrow would be Saturday, my eight day on the road. I did confess that back in Penrith I’d almost given in and got on a train but, now over Shap, and hopefully through the worst of the storm I felt renewed and not at all like giving up. I also managed to come up with a more reasoned and rational argument to back this up too. Despite the punishing conditions, my distance was only around 60km short of my target for the day – even at a slow touring pace, that would be around 4 hours of cycling. There were 3 more days to make up the time and, if conditions didn’t allow that, at the worst case those 4 hours would just nudge me past midnight Monday to be home. A bit of a lie-in, and I’d still be back at work on Tuesday morning as planned. To be honest, in that call I surprised myself a little at how well my spirits had rebounded – or perhaps it was actually because I’d risen to the challenge and not given in. Either way, I was in a good state of mind and looking forward to riding (mostly) downhill towards Lancaster the following morning.
Checking back as I write this, I see that Storm Ellen hit gusts up to 84.7mph (136km/h) across Shap – the highest on record so far for 2020. It seems a little crazy to imagine that was the exact day I chose be out riding across it. But I did set out looking for adventure, without specifying “how much”. So I guess it’s a question of be careful what you wish for.