Buttertubs or bust…

Skyreholme-Buckden-Kidstones-Aysgarth-Buttertubs-Thwaite-Kirkby Stephen-Garsdale-Hawes-Oughtershaw-Kettlewell-Skyreholme. 99.1 miles.

Click here for a map of the route.

Only four weeks to go now until we set off, so this is possibly our last chance for a two-day training trip. So, intending to make it a good test of our training so far, we have planned a ride involving four major climbs – Kidstones Pass (1437ft), the Buttertubs Pass (1767ft), Birkdale Common (1738ft) and Fleet Moss (1966ft), with a night in Kirkby Stephen.

We reckoned on the 9th February that spring had sprung. A touch optimistic maybe. Or perhaps the @~&%*!@ headwind that greets us today is unseasonal. Or maybe our slow speed is caused by the fact we are carrying the panniers, with everything we need for the overnight stay, and a copy of the Guardian. The weekend Guardian is VERY heavy.

Despite these handicaps we head off for Kettlewell and then Buckden, feeling strong and trying to ignore the head-wind blasting down the valley. It’s a relief to turn right at Buckden away from the wind, even if it is the start of the first major climb, Kidstones pass. Actually we’ve done this one several times now, and it isn’t too bad, not very steep, and there are a few waterfalls to see. Today we even manage to keep going past the pub and the tea-room, and head straight up the climb. We’re a bit early for coffee in the pub in any case, as we’ve left home in good time in order to get two of the day’s three climbs in before stopping for lunch. We stop at the top for an energy bar, and see several identically-clothed people milling about on the top, including one lying in a hollow on a mat, reading a book. When we see the dog in a day-glo jacket, we reckon this must be the fell rescue association on a training exercise, but they are too far away to ask.

The glorious compensation for the tough climb is the glide down Bishopdale. The view is magnificent, the gradient consistently downhill and the roads are quiet. Carrying the panniers gives us even more momentum than usual on downhill stretches, and we get several ‘free’ hills, where we actually coast up-hill at speed, grinning stupidly.

As we turn into Wensleydale, making Thwaite for lunch is looking promising. Of course, on turning west we’re now facing the wind again, and the steady climb up Wensleydale, through Aysgarth, Carperby and Askrigg, seems to take forever. We ran out of steam a little on the way back from an Italian lesson last week, and after a bit of research we decided it might be hydration-related. So, now conscious of the need to keep our electrolytes up (!), we’ve filled our bidons today with noxious goo, a commercial preparation consisting largely of sugar and salt, with a none-too-delicious tropical flavour. While this does the trick in nutritional terms, the flavour is cloying and unpleasant, and not at all refreshing. For this reason, and for this reason only, we will have to drink plenty of beer at lunchtime to get rid of the nasty taste. Anyway, lunch is still a climb away, and we set off from Simonstone up the Buttertubs pass. A couple of cyclists are coming down the pass, wearing their ‘summit faces’ – an expression it’s impossible not to wear as you descend past cyclists coming up the other way, knowing that you’ve done your climbing, and theirs is yet to come. It’s hopefully more sympathetic than smug!

The pass is initially steep, with one very steep section of at least 17%, where it takes all our power to get up the incline. After that, though, the gradient slackens off, and provides an opportunity to enjoy the fine view of Great Shunner Fell to the left. We’ve acquired a cycle-friendly GPS now, and Clare calls off the altitude with some enthusiasm as we reach the top. We stop at the Buttertubs for just a quick look, we’ve seen them many times before, then it’s a short steep descent to Thwaite where, with grateful buttocks (can we say that?) we dismount at the Kearton tea shop, which just happens to be licensed.

An hour later we’re re-fortified for the final climb of the day, and it’s a good job we are, as it has started to rain and the cloud is lowering over Birkdale Common. Swaledale, even in inclement weather, is one of the loveliest places in the National Park, sadly the scenery becomes rather more bleak once we climb past Keld and the turn-off to the Tan Hill Inn (the highest pub in England, but sadly not on our itinerary today). We should be able to see Nine Standards Rigg off to our right, but the weather has closed in and we’re getting pretty wet. We get up to around 1500ft fairly quickly, then we seem to be weaving along a plateau for ages, not really able to make out where the road goes in the mist, and hoping against hope that it’s not really going to be 1700ft. A moment of horror at one point, as we spot what we think is our road, winding steeply up again from a point a good 400ft below us. Losing hard-won altitude only to have to earn it again is dispiriting, but fortunately as we get closer it becomes obvious it’s just a farm track, and we stay high. At last, we reach 1700 feet and the summit at Lamps Moss. The roads are damp and slippery now, so our descent to Nateby is cautious, then we turn right to Kirkby Stephen, our destination for the night.

It has been a tough day but we both feel tremendously satisfied that we’ve managed to trundle the tandem over all those big hills.

We stay at the Jolly Farmer in Kirkby Stephen, where we stayed previously when attempting the Coast to Coast walk. A hot bath soothes the aching muscles and revives us, then we pop down to the lounge for tea and scones. The lounge is, strangely, occupied by cow-girls, amongst others. There’s some kind of party happening in the wild streets of Kirkby Stephen, and for the rest of the evening we spot cow-girls everywhere. For us, though, it’s chinese food (do cow-girls have to eat baked beans?) and then an early night, for tomorrow we face our biggest climb.

Cycling down Bishopdale

A glance out of the window in the morning tells us all we need to know, it’s raining, though thankfully the wind seems to have dropped. The guest house is full of hikers on early-season Coast to Coast treks,we generously fail to mention how boggy it is likely to be on Nine Standards Rigg, their next destination. After an excellent breakfast, and a short interval to allow for digestion, we hop back on the tandem. Or maybe we don’t quite so much hop, as gingerly ease ourselves onto the saddles. We set off for Nateby, and then head straight up the upper Eden valley, following part of the Cumbria Cycle Way. It’s an enjoyable section, despite the weather, and a steady climb to about 1200 feet before we descend to join Wensleydale.

Perhaps its residents wouldn’t agree, but Wensleydale isn’t the prettiest of the Dales. It’s so wide, it seems a little featureless, certainly lacking the charm of Wharfedale and Littondale. Cracking cheese, though, obviously, not least at the ‘Wallace and Gromit’-heavy Wensleydale Creamery, and we grab the chance for a caffe latte. We’re a little nervous today, as we’ve got to tackle Fleet Moss, a fairly notorious climb, so it’s a good opportunity for a rest and a slice of chocolate fudge cake. It’s a busy spot, and we have to squeeze past the coach parties to get back to the tandem. We set off up Sleddale, and within a mile or so we can see what we’ve been nervous about – the climb is steady and we’re going well, but we can see that it ends in a very steep 25% section just before the summit.

Oh, the ignominy. We run out of power, yards before the top of the first really steep section. Only a few more yards and we would have reached a flatter ‘shelf’, but we just can’t make it. It’s a blow to our pride, as we don’t like stopping, and the hill is so steep that we can’t get going again – the front wheel of the tandem is lifting, even when we angle across the slope of the road. We’re forced to push the tandem for twenty yards before we can get going again. We manage the second steep section without stopping, thankfully, and thereafter the gradient diminishes, although there’s a further 200 feet of climbing to the summit at over 1950 feet.

Slightly disappointed, but glad to have got it over with, we cycle down into Langstrothdale. The scenery here is wonderful, where the infant Wharfe has carved amazing patterns into the bedrock, and we pass Oughtershaw, Beckermonds and Yockenthwaite before returning to familiar roads at Hubberholme. Back in Wharfedale the weather has improved, although the roads are still very wet. We’re quite tired now, and ready for a lunch stop, so the Fox and Hounds at Starbotton is a welcome sight. Very welcome, in fact, as Jonathan quickly spots that the beer is Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, a particular favourite. It possesses qualities which seem to fortify his tired limbs (magic beer!) and we set off strongly for home on familiar lanes, away from the traffic until Grassington. We’re soon home and, postponing the bike-cleaning for another day, indulge in the familiar weekend pleasures of a well-earned hot bath and the Sunday papers.

Apart from the slight disappointment of having to stop on Fleet Moss it has been a good trip and a rigorous workout. Nothing on the Land’s End to John o’Groats route comes close to the amount of climbing we’ve done in each of these two days. We know, because we checked as soon as we arrived home!