Seven of us set off from Square Corner (where we are greeted by the sight of no less than 14 MTBers heading off up Black Hambleton - we wonder if we'll bump into them again) and headed back down the road towards Osmotherley, turning off road (to the right) by Solomon's Temple to take High Lane. A few yards after the gate we turn 90degrees left to go through a cattle grid/gate that leads into the woods and down to the reservoir. An early chance to get a bit of speed up, though it's almost ruined by a playful Golden Retriever who thinks retrieving mountain bikes looks like big fun!
Over the head of the dam and out onto the road on the other side. Six of us turn left, one (Tony) turns right - the climb to the top of Beacon Hill will be a climb he doesn't need, so he's giving it a miss. Probably a wise move, last time up there he almost got mated by a frisky bull.
The climb up to Beacon Hill via Swinestye Farm is uneventful, not too tough and thankfully there are no frisky bulls today. A chance for some proper speed now as we head down the Cleveland Way across Scarth Wood Moor. I love this bit of track, it's nicely flagged in places where it needs to be (though these can be treacherous when wet) and the drainage channels are not too huge. You can get a fair lick of speed up if there are no walkers about - and today there aren't!
Once at the road we do a left, then take a right after about 500 yards to head into Clain Wood. A gentle tootle through the wood brings us to a scenic viewpoint on our left, beside which is a set of widely spaced wooden steps that drops down the hillside. These were a nightmare on my hardtail, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Sparky handles them. I shoot off, Neil close behind, and it's fantastic not to feel every lumpy bump as we shoot down the steps. The descent is one long blur of speed until finally it's over and we're at the bottom. I stop to take some shots of the others coming down and realise something ain't quite right... My front quick-release has jarred itself loose and the front wheel is just sitting in the cups! Lucky there wasn't another dozen steps or it would have been another job for The Great North Air Ambulance!
Right at the bottom we follow the track between the fenceline and the edge of the woods, keeping more-or-less straight ahead until we emerge into fields of sheep. We track directly across these, encountering our first (but certainly not the last) gloop of the day as we approach Harfa Bank Farm. Swinging a left here, we continue on the track past Harfa House (what use is Harfa House? geddit?) to eventually emerge at the road. We turn right and follow this up to Raikes Farm and Scugdale Hall, where Neil decides to have a flatty. Prepared as ever, he has tubes but no pump because "he knew someone else would have one". Oh, if we all thought that way... It's quite a quick repair, about half the time it took him last time, and we find the mother of all thorns (and half a branch) embedded in his tyre.
On we go, ignoring the first bridleway that comes down at 90degrees from Barker Crags and go a bit further on to swing left onto a track that looks a bit like it says No Cycles but actually says No Vehicles - Cycles.
The No Vehicles portion of the sign has obviously been ignored big-style because the whole trail is really churned up, either by 4x4, Quad Bikes, Scrambler Bikes or all three. It's a right mess, quite sad to see really, and prompted me to start a new section of this blog "Most Damaged Trails".
And This Is The Good Bit!
We trudge up the hill, having to push almost the entire way, avoiding trenches that are almost a foot deep in places to eventually emerge on Barker's Ridge.
A brief stop here for Go Bars, sheltering behind a wall from the icy gale that's sprung up, and then we're off again, semi wind-propelled as we tackle Barker's Ridge, eventually bearing left at a three-way junction to Green Howe. This is the highest point of the ride and the slight downward gradient beyond it gets the better of us and we have to track back to a missed turn-off. Not that missing it was any great surprise, there's absolutely no trail to see on the ground. This is where the bridleway crosses the shooting track at Wether Hill. Neil and I go for it, just following the GPS track while the others track further back and try to find something more obvious. A few minutes of heather bashing eventually brings us to a more obvious bit of trail - the map here doesn't match what's on the ground at all.
This is a sweet little descent down to Head House. Narrow singletrack with the odd hidden rock and pothole to keep you on your toes.
From Head House it's a brief plummet down the track to the valley bottom then the long drag back up to the top again, bearing round to the left as we go and eventually joining the track that we just left some 30 minutes earlier. Sharp right here and we're into another section of ruined track, though this one's ruined for a purpose. They're currently digging it up and laying drainage pipes in it, which will help in the future but for now it just makes for an unpleasant quagmire of mud.
We stay with this track right up to Bilsdale Transmitter. Finally we're here, a landmark that we have seemingly been approaching for hours without it ever getting nearer.
At this point we meet the 14 MTBers who'd been going up The Mad Mile. It turns out they're from Swaledale Outdoor Club, and although one of them asks us if we're The Muddybums he doesn't go on to explain why he thinks that or what the relevance of his question is. It leaves us wondering. How did he know...?
Leaving the transmitter we head down to Low Thwaites, a steady descent though into the face of a howling gale that saps your speed and has you pedalling even though you're losing height! At Low Thwaites we turn off the main track, sharp right to take a bridleway none of us have ever done before. It falls steadily down the hillside on a track of grass that appears to have been especially mown to show where the track is.
It's not too challenging, though there is the odd unexpected drop, but it gets steeper, trickier and altogether more "interesting" as it approaches the stream in the valley bottom.
Feet get wet as we ford the stream and push our bikes back up the the other side. We mount up again, but there's consternation. A gaggle of riders has gathered around Neil's bike. all taking a close look at some kind of problem. Has "Bike Maintenance Neil" struck again? Well I don't think he could be blamed this time, no amount of lube, cleaning and preparation was going to stop his frame from cracking! Yep, yet another cracked Commencal frame.
A short road section takes us from Lane House to Locker Low Wood. At this point 3 of our group decide they've had enough fun for one day. Neil's busted bike, Sam's cramping legs and Howard's In-Laws provide sufficient excuse for them to take the easy route home, staying with the road all the way back to Square Corner. For the rest of us the delights of Locker Low Moor await. It's renowned as "a bit of a mare" when wet, and wet is how we expected to be. We were pleasantly surprised, damp but not too wet, its long but fairly gentle technical climb was quite enjoyable. I still think I'd enjoy it more as a downhill though.
Passing through Dale Head, now being heavily restored, it's an easier, less technical trail but my legs have just about had enough. Having stopped to take one last photo I find it impossible to catch the group up again, not even Tony. Yes, it was that bad.
The track eventually emerges back onto the road where it's a left turn and a gentle last half mile back to the car park. Nowhere really to go for scones around here since Chequers closed. Osmotherley is the only option but that's just way too packed. In fact just driving through it was a nightmare of constant reversing and squeezing by. So straight off home for a bath and a rest, my thighs aching as I drove back, telling me just what a tough ride this had been.
Square Corner - Scugdale - Bilsdale - Locker Low Moor:
20 miles, 2600ft of ascent, 4 hours.