In The Isle of Man Part 1

In The Isle of Man001 September had reached its wetter and colder half when I found myself toying with the idea of a long weekend before Winter proper set in and brought the end of camping.  The worst of weekends is that they are never long enough, even when extended from Friday until Tuesday.  In that year of grace, 1930, many erstwhile two-day trips had been stretched into double that time, and my pocket as well as my employer had suffered in consequence.  The material result was an alarming slump in financial status and industrial confidence, but neither of those caused me half so much concern as would the frustration of one weekend.  Such is my material debasement.  Mentally I felt as though the intellectuals were near me, and were it not for my sheer neglect of study and things classical, I sometimes thought I might aspire to some lowly pinnacle of knowledge.

How all this would end I knew not, and cared less.  When youth leaves my side I shall be speedily relegated to that industrial scrap-heap which is the abiding fear of nearly all working-class men of middle age, unless I pull myself up, and descend to that state of highly respectable humbug which is assiduously practised by most people.  I think I prefer to drift on as I am, and, as one eminent political irresponsible has said: “damn the consequences”.

I like to think that I have a fairly strong streak of the nomad in me.  If you are inclined to ask why I like to think so, I shall answer that I like to think of it, and that is enough for me.  Maybe I shall finish life as a nomad; I’d far rather do that than pass my days behind a bare wall of respect and convention, working a tortuous eight and a half hours a day, visiting equally tortuous friends and relatives o’nights, and wasting precious Sundays swallowing the haberdashery of professional religionists, and chanting silly recantations to a very problematical God.  The fools – spending so much time and energy in pursuit of an improbable future state, while the only world they are sure of, is waiting for them to enjoy it, to make it worth living in.

The idea of a weekend in the Isle of Man grew upon me.  Weekend excursions at cheap fares are issued by the steamship company, and I resolved to take advantage on the last weekend they were available, the second in September.  Thus I left home at 9pm on the Friday evening, to catch the midnight boat from Fleetwood.  The ride by night was eventless and pleasant, for the night was placid, moonlit, and devoid of traffic, and I boarded the new, one-class boat ‘Lady of Man’ with half an hour to spare.

On the ‘Lady of Man’ berths are free, taking the form of long couches in tiers of two at various points on the ship.  I chose an upper berth in the warmest part of the ship, composing myself to sleep.  The impossibility of this became apparent when an invasion took place, possibly from a railway train, and all the tables in the room became occupied.  The reason for this large, impatient company became obvious when, as the ship got under way, a bar opened directly opposite me, and soon Babel reigned.  Although I was sleepy and sleepless most of the way, the great interest I drew from studying the people who drank the night hours away kept me from boredom.  Even drink palls, for when the engines ceased, and the bar closed, there was a bleary-eyed silence all around.

The boat arrived at 5am and I was soon making my way to Douglas promenade.  The prom was hardly astir, darkly lit, and cold.  It was not my first visit, though there is a vast difference between visiting Douglas for a holiday and visiting the Isle of Man with cycle and camping kit.  I had resolved first to follow the coast until I reached Douglas again, and I soon began to put it into effect by climbing Onchan Head, not by the road, but by a footpath from Derby Castle by the Port Jack Camp to Port Jack, a fine little bay with a good bathing place.  While I had lunch there, dawn broke, and the sea became gradually suffused with light.  A fine bit of coast scenery, and the path among rock and bramble – difficult to drag the bike along – showing the bay to the best advantage.  My wanderings took me to a deep ravine on the coast, blocked up by a high concrete wall, on the top of which a path was made and protected by railings.  A series of iron ladders led down into the depths of the gorge which gave off a strong scent of brine.  I had half decided to descend to the bed of it and investigate the reason for this great prison, when a man with a uniform came up, bad me ‘good morning’, and with a sack over his shoulder, went down.  Reaching the bottom, he entered a small cave at the side, and shortly after came back with his sack empty.  He had been feeding something, it was clear, though what it was I knew not.  I afterwards found out that this deep gorge was used as a bear pit, and was glad I had not personally investigated.  A bear, confined like that one, is not an amenable animal.

I reached a road again, and by the coast enjoyed really fine rock scenery to Groudle Glen, at the mouth of which I picked out a rough lane which soared up behind the cliffs.  I was tired then, from a day’s work and a sleepless night, and obtained ready consent to camp for a few hours in a field by a cottage.  So I pitched before 8am and slept soundly until half past one in the afternoon.  The weather had broken: a heavy mist, full of rain, drove in from the sea, and I packed up in a storm.  The lane passed the ruins of St Lonans church, then a branch swung out by Clay Head, though the rain took the views away.  At Garwick Bay I struck the main road to Laxey, where a steep lane led me down to Old Laxey, with its quaint harbour at the river mouth, and closely packed houses.  The wind and the rain played fury there, but it was great to stand at the seaward wall and look over Laxey Bay at the half-obscured cliffs of Clay Head.  I crossed the bridge, climbed steeply, and joined the highway by the electric tramway, where both climb together by the side of Sliean Ouyr, 1483 ft, and again give lovely seaward views.  I came to Dhoon Glen hotel, paid my threepence, and inside the cape, walked down the Glen.

In June, July and August, I can imagine Dhoon Glen to be a show-place almost always crowded with holiday makers on a trip from Douglas.  There are many seats placed on vantage points, where, throughout the summer days people will sit and rest, eating chocolates, sandwiches, smoking cigarettes, and throwing paper about.  The kind of people who usually spend their holiday at Douglas contain a great proportion of those whose regard for natural beauty is set at a low standard, and they go to Dhoon Glen and such places only because it is a welcome break in the journey by electric tramway to Ramsey.  If the summer happens to be dry or just ordinary, the Glen will be pretty.  But when I walked slowly along the well-kept path down to the sea, the rain had swollen the stream, and the leaves were falling.  Isle of Man gets an early Autumn.  Dhoon Glen was lovely, and the waterfall that races and plunges in channels, in leaps, and in broken ropes of white, was as magnificent as most of the North Wales show-falls at their best.  That such a small island can muster such a flow of water in a few miles speaks well for the quality of Manx rain.  Where the Glen comes down to the sea is like a gorge, and the coastline there surprised me by its grandeur.  In a few hours the sea had become storm-tossed.

Soon after retracing my steps, the highway offered me two alternatives, of which I chose the seaward, and came to Glen Mona, which winds for over four miles to the sea, and contains a waterfall.  I did not traverse the whole length of the glen, owing to the very wet and long nature of the footpath (a ten-mile walk would have been involved), but assiduously followed a narrow, evil-surfaced lane along the top of the glen, with, at whiles, glimpses of wooded ravine and grey sea, and a backward aspect of mist-soaked moorlands.  My effort to hug the coast was spoiled when the lane took a full sweep back to the main road, near Christ Church.  I crossed Glen Corony, and found another lane no better, that descended to the beautiful little hamlet called Cornah, built of stone with luxuriant gardens house-high.  There I paid a visit on foot to Ballaglass Falls, a wide cascade of three parts, not great or big, but of good effect.  The wet weather was making each fall a spectacular display.

At Cornah, I was not more than 18 miles from Douglas, but such was the nature of the varied attempts to see the coast and the best the glens could offer, that the time was now 5pm.  I had left Douglas 12 hours before.  While I ate tea by the wayside above the hamlet, the rain ceased, and I was able to put my cape away.  Still faithfully seeking the sea by the aid of my ‘half-inch map’, I joined a rocky road by the farm of Ballafayle to Ballygarry, a bleak little hamlet, and so reached Maughhold.  Maughhold is quaint, possessing a sundial and Saxon cross of antiquity.  But greater is the headland reached by a short path – 300 ft cliffs down to the sea, and a rugged coastline, headlands and promontories at the foot of which the spindrift whirled and the breakers rolled white-capped.  In truth I had fallen in love with Manxland !

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Two miles beyond Maughold, the earth suddenly fell away before me.  Ramsey was below, on the edge of level pastures, and a golden strip of sand edged the great sweep of the bay.  From Tableland Point I descended into the second town of the Island, and stayed there just long enough to lay my stock in for the night.  I never saw the promenade, but passed through along a road as flat as the last ones had been hilly.  As I rode nearest the coast, the sun came out, and I could see the sea glittering on my right.  When the road took a twist away from the coast, I turned along the first lane, and then became involved in a network of treacly marsh-lanes that finally ended at a gate.  Not two hundred yards away I could see a road and people passing to and fro, but such an area of the bog lay between that I turned back and made my way through laborious mud to the small compact village of Bride.  A heap of stones called a road took me along a dreary, windy level to the sea and the single farm grandly termed Port Cranstal.  The lighthouse on Point of Ayre was only a mile or so away, but there was no attraction in the ride, so I turned back to Bride and took the Jurby road along Glentruan, which is not a glen at all, but only a name.  The Jurby road is quite level and of excellent surface; moreover the scenery is rural with that strange air about it that makes it not English.

 

Scottish Holidays Part 4

Scottish Highlands     Part   4

We awoke to twilight fog, though my watch betrayed morning well advanced.  Geldie Burn chattered past; the northerly wind brought the endless drizzle, and only bog and spears of coarse moorland grass lay to the near limit of our vision.  Over a humble breakfast of stewed raspberries and custard we studied our Ordnance Survey and found we had over-run the path we wanted.  Ahead lay Geldie Lodge; a short walk over the footbridge revealed it dimly snuggled in a fold of the hills, deserted.  A little cairn of stones some yards back gave us the clue, and after that the path barely existed; tiny cairns were spaced, each within sight of the next, and between them reeking stretches of bog.  We thought ourselves the only beings there till a herd of deer suddenly came out of the mist not twenty yards away.

Their leader, with a quick toss of antlers, roared a warning, and in a flash we were alone again.  We missed the cairns, groped about bewildered over crumpled hillocks intersected by innumerable streamlets, finally picking up our route again by the River Feshie flowing in our direction.  The impetuous torrent of the swollen Eldart barred our path, thigh deep, and desperately difficult to ford with the laden bicycles.

From that point the scenery took on a new aspect.  The valley deepened, narrowed, the river turbulently entered a gorge, and rowan trees clung to crannies in the rock.  We came to the brackish foot of a fine waterfall, though the stream provided another tardy crossing.  Indeed, the noise of water came from every side; cataracts flinging themselves out of the mist, the Feshie water plunging along the bed of the ravine, and every streamlet brawling along impulsively.  A slanting curtain of heavy rain sweeping up the glen was the last; behind it sunlight filtered through the vapours, and the mist rose to higher places, to wreathe bulging crags, to hang like steam in the rock-choked corries.  Beauty and grandeur crowded together.  Beneath scarred cliffs tall red spruce trees were dwarfed, and the green carpet of turf sprang easily underfoot.  An added touch of the wild came to us as a great big bird with hooked bill and massive beat of huge wings rose suddenly and sped into the wastes above.  We are sure it was a golden eagle; we like to think it was.  Sometimes where long-forgotten storms had wrought havoc amid the trees, the path was hard to traverse.  In one place a hundred yards of rock had collapsed across the path, and we had a rough time getting across.  In Glenfeshie forest we saw men with guns, and we knew then the reason for the hasty departure of the herd of deer on Cnapan Beag.

Loch Tulla

Amongst the pines near Feshie Lodge we explored a derelict chapel, an unpretentious place, but on the crumbled plaster above the fireplace was the figure of a deer, the remnant of a painting by Landseer.  Glenfeshie forest, a shaded parkland of fir and spruce, with wonderful turf, was a pleasant place for lingering.  A footbridge close by the large garden-embowered Feshie Lodge, saved a contemplated struggle through the swollen river, and a firm, real, road was reached close by the Lodge gates.  There was a fork-road towards Kingussie – ‘the mountain road to Ruthven’, with a couple of deep fords which no longer troubled us, and a backward view which must inspire in clearer weather.  We saw the mists once more creeping down from the Cairngorm heights to fasten Glen Feshie and the grim bogs of Geldie in premature twilight.  Ahead the richly wooded Spey valley curved towards the brown Monadhliath barrier.

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We tumbled down past the old barracks of Ruthven, relics of General Wade’s day, and on a good road came to Kingussie.

Our stores were quite depleted, and two shillings are little enough to build up further supplies.  Luxuries had to be ruthlessly cut……… I went smokeless.  Jo haggled over the price of plums – we still had custard powders, and with bread and milk, and paraffin for the stove, were assured of one good meal.  That was as far as we worried.  With one penny left we swaggered out of Kingussie, after a talk with a Wigan clubmate en-route for Perth and home.

From the next village of Newtonmore, still beside the Spey, we had a lovely run past the old battlefield of Invernahavan, past deep woods and winding about high rocks to Laggan Bridge, where branches the old Wade road, tracing the higher reaches of Spey on its ruined way over Corrieyairack Pass.  One day we mean to cross the wild, bulky hills of Monadhliath.  Into Strathmashie our road led us as evening came, and we found a perfect camping place at a waterfall where the Mashie water crosses the road.  There we dined well on our simple fare, and spent the idyllic hour of dusk at the edge of the fall, careless of the whole world.

The next morning we were up early and soon awheel again, as, to put it mildly, our breakfast was not sufficiently complicated to dally over the cooking or linger at the eating.  We soon reached Loch Laggan – and the first of the road gangs.  The men worked with muslin over their heads to keep at bay the attacks of McMidge, which came in clouds to pester the life of, and put to flight anyone who dared to stop for a moment.  The state of the road was shocking; in the process of neglect prior to being reconstructed, which work was in progress in places, but nowhere far enough advanced to make travel easier.  So we crawled along the great length of Glen Spean, eyes glued to the awful surface, blinded and choked by dust from passing vehicles, with ever and anon the noise of road gangs in our ears.  At Spean Bridge Jo urged me to go on ahead, for the possibility of early closing day (Wednesday) at Fort William had dawned on us, and the idea of waiting penniless on the doorstep of a locked post office until the morning did not appeal.  She would follow, she said, and practice en-route the subtler and more appealing notes of the songs we were to sing, should the remittance not materialise.  On the earlier part of the morning’s ride we had achieved some measure of harmony, which might – or might not – induce the wily Scot to part with a copper or two, if only to see the last of us.  The extra bits – the ‘down and out’ appearance, the shuffle along the gutter, would come with experience no doubt!

In a race against time I crashed over the remaining few miles into the town of our hopes, entered the Post Office with bated breath on the stroke of twelve, tore open feverishly the waiting letter, from which tumbled twenty-five shillings.  We were saved again!  The business of the Employment Exchange was concluded, and when Jo came down the street the sight of me with a cigarette at once assured her.  There and then we bought a great supply of food, with a few delicacies to celebrate, went beside the sparkling waters of Loch Linnhe, and had such an orgy that it dissipated our new stocks.

The level road alongside Loch Linnhe had the gloss of new surfacing, heavenly to ride after Glen Spean, while across the water the many headed hills of Ardgour and Sunart were superb in the clear air.  Our troubles however, were not over.  My front tyre, badly weathered in a summer of wandering, swelled enormously, until at Onich, just beyond Corran Ferry, I could go no further.  A garage man gave me a large piece of old tyre which I stuffed inside, and thereafter rode with a constant bump at every circuit of the wheel.  We crossed the Ballachulish Ferry, a wonderful spot near the foot of Loch Leven, with the salt tang of the sea in our nostrils, and in our eyes the panorama of the Lochaber giants heading the loch, the wild Glencoe peaks ahead of us, and the sunlit hills of Ardgour across the water.

Glencoe, too, was in the throes of reconstruction, again nowhere advanced to give us much comfort.  There would be a short bit of broad, finished asphalt, then a plunge back to the steep old road, now a hundred times worse from the heavy traffic engaged on the building of the new road.  We realised, too, that again we were foodless, and many rough miles from the next village, but down came a van which we stopped and obtained ample supplies.  Eggs were obtained from the wife of a road worker, and she refused to take the pay.  As we mounted higher, great clouds sailed above the precipitous flanks of the pass, and the sun, shining at intervals, played search-light fingers into the hollow.  A wild, desolate place, Glencoe!

At dusk we reached the summit of the pass and sought thereabouts for a camping place, but not a green, firm patch could be found in all that waste of rock and bog; even the wild head of Glen Etive, which we traversed for some distance, had nothing to show.  Casting about, we eventually found an exposed patch on the Loch Rannoch trackway quite close to Kingshouse Inn.

The magnificence of our site was more apparent the next morning when the rising sun reddened the bulging cliffs of Buchaille Etive Mor, and before the heaving Moor of Rannoch around us was properly clear of the dawn, all the craggy peaks were bathed in brilliant warm light.

The new road-to-be across Rannoch Moor had not yet been commenced, and the old road, gone all to pieces under the burden of traffic far beyond its capacity, was a hopeless rut or a mass of stones over which we jolted the whole day, over Black Mount and Ba’ Bridge to Loch Tulla, the few trees about the Loch intensifying the wastes of Rannoch which rolled east in bog and water as far as our horizon.  There were five peaks across the Loch as high as Snowdon; behind us, west of Black Mount the group dominated by Stob Ghabhar and Clach Leathad rose higher still in the blue sky, dividing our attention between fore and aft and the rutty road.  At Bridge of Orchy the civilising influence of a railway line sobered the road a little, which took us into sedate Strath Fillan, by Tyndrum to Crianlarich.  Hitherto the places had been hardly more than names on the map, but Crianlarich had a hotel, a church, houses, a railway station, and more than these things to us, a good road down green Glen Falloch back to Loch Lomondside.  We were weary of the perpetual gyrations and skids of the old tracks, a little anxious for our tyres, particularly my front one, which was bulging again in an alarming manner.  In the afternoon we fared better – slightly – on Loch Lomondside, the entrancing, unspoiled beauty of the upper parts, a fine farewell to the Highlands.

Scottish Holidays010

Just below the foot of the loch, at the beginning of Clydeside’s environs is a place called Alexandria, where my tyre finally gave up the ghost, and a convenient cycle shop fitted me up with a Dunlop ‘Champion’ for three shillings and sixpence.  Our exchequer was again beginning to rest lightly in my pocket.

For the third time in a little over two weeks I was at Erskine Ferry again, and once again I tried to find the ‘recommended’ route to Carlisle (avoiding Glasgow), this time with more success, and dusk found us near Strathavon, at a farm where we were readily given a pitch for our tents.

The southerly wind, which had given us such a doughty tussle on our way out veered north during the night, and we had the dubious pleasure of facing it once more across the rumpled central plain, by Lesmahagow, to the pleasanter Clyde country, and the original road to Crawford and over Beattock, sometimes in a wild flurry of rain.  At our first campsite together at Ecclefechan we had left one or two superfluous articles, and we called to recover them.  The woman of the house was very pleasant.  Would we like a drink of tea?  We agreed but did not expect the relatively sumptuous feast which was brought to us.  With our feet under a table for the first time for a week, we decided that the good lady deserved a fair return for her efforts, and I went to foot the bill a little anxiously.  The three shillings she charged was very reasonable………  but how slender was the remaining burthen!

That Saturday evening we prowled round Carlisle market, seeking out the lowest possible prices for our supplies, and as we slowly left the City behind, boring into a golden, windy sunset, the bulk of our food-bag was bread, and a little oatmeal.  There was a pound of plums for stewing too.  Plums were remarkably cheap that season.  The usual, inevitable custard we would have to forego.  Aslant of one of the interminable hills towards Penrith lies the village of High Hesket, where we obtained a camping site, and where, from sheer lack of money, we had to thank the farmer profusely next morning, and beat a hasty retreat before any thought of payment entered his mind.  In fact, High Hesket hill was topped in grand style, almost before our last word had reached him!

This last day was boisterous, with sharp storms, and, it seemed, ever so slowly, we lifted ourselves over the altitudes of Shap Fell into our home pastures.  For the final meal near Lancaster we enjoyed bread and jam without even butter, and our journey was completed with the same two half-pennies as on that rough ride between Kingussie and Fort William.

At the height of a great industrial depression I had completed a round trip of about 1150 miles, half of them with Jo.  Between us, our total funds had not been more than three pounds ten shillings, yet the ubiquitous bicycle had taken us through the heart of the Scottish Highlands, into a wilderness where yet the snow lingered on the mountain tops, a country far removed from the stagnant, crowded life of the great industrial regions of Britain.

We had for the first time in my life, been introduced to that land of Bens and Glens which in the future was to give us to give us our happiest days together.  In those years then unborn we were to look back to that week when the borderline of complete penury never marred our complete happiness, where our unity and freedom were treasures of which we had ample store.

[ Footnote]   As the reader will appreciate, the last paragraph was added years after this tour.   Charlie and Jo spent many holidays in Scotland, and, with the colour transparencies which he was one of the first to start taking immediately after the war, sustained his magic lantern shows through many a winter clubroom night. To this day they rest in my house loft, unseen for thirty years, thousands of them.  Scotland’s magic, in the high and lonely places, never faded for Charlie and his wife, and we must be grateful to him that he was minded to set it all down for posterity.  Charlie died in 1968, Jo some seven or eight years later.

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Scottish Highlands Part 3

Part  3     At the Edge of the Cairngorms

 We were camped just outside Ecclefechan, in August 1931.  Under Mrs McCall’s hospitable roof we had lingered out the last remnant of daylight.  A cyclist from near Lanark had beguiled us long with deeply interesting talk of his own romantic Lowlands.  In darkness we had found a campsite in a field at the edge of the village.

During breakfast we consulted our pockets and pooled our resources.  I had come away from Mrs McCall’s with just a shilling; now Jo turned out twenty-seven shillings and fourpence, which did not seem such unbounded wealth, especially if the prospective remittance at Fort William did not materialise.  Jo had also brought a pound each of butter and bacon and a few dainties – the only ones we appeared likely to get.  To add to our embarrassment, we were charged two shillings for the site.  We departed far more angry at the over-charge than we were concerned at our poverty.  Lightly enough we faced the strong wind which promised us a difficult passage all day.

Trouble was lagging at our heels, and eleven miles from Beattock caught us up.  With a great sigh my rear tyre sank to the rim.  A great hole the size of my fist spelled ruination to it.  At a road-side counsel we gleaned the information that a garage lay two miles ahead, so off I went on Jo’s bicycle with the exchequer sitting already too lightly in my hip pocket.  I was out of luck; the sterile Scots Sabbath was on the place.  Returning to Jo, who sat patiently waiting beside the ruin, we debated afresh.  There was a sporting chance at Beattock, if only we could limp the distance.  Jo discovered a large piece of canvas in her kit, and this we stitched on the old cover, mended the puncture and slowly proceeded.  The bulge was painfully apparent ere we had gone far.  At length we reached a tiny cycle shop with the very tyre we required in the window, but the people refused to serve us.  It was the Sabbath; the Sabbath must not be broken.  No matter how desperate the straits, how urgent the need, your true Scot will not disturb his delicate sense of religion, nor endanger his soul by thought or deed.  At Beattock a garage-man had less compunction.  Ten minutes later we were jovially pushing forward up the windy glen of the Elvan Water, a new tyre below me, and in pocket only eighteen shillings and ninepence separating us from a tinker’s existence.

A slow dour fight over the water-shed and through Abingdon led us into Clydesdale, and as evening approached, Lanark, my campsite of last night, was regained.  Soon after Lanark, Jo fell lame with knee trouble, a legacy of two day’s struggle against long odds.  A valiant attempt to keep up the pace petered out, stabbing knives seemed to tear at one knee, and it soon became clear that she could travel little farther and that little, slowly.  To add to this we ran into a black part of Lanark industrialism, coal, iron and brickworks.  It was irritating country inasmuch as we were often led into believing we had made open country by a growing spaciousness of fields and estates, when the climbing of a ridge would reveal a skyline of pits and chimneys.  The people themselves were no more than half savage, shouting suggestive remarks and laughing offensively at Jo’s shorts.  A girl may walk through the Wigan coal-field clad in the scantiest summer clothes, but there is no embarrassment caused, but here the men hailed us, the women screamed abuse, and the children set up catcalls.  The limit was reached when they began to throw sticks and stones.  Meanwhile Jo’s knee became almost unbearable.  At a point near Newmains, where a single colliery stands amid green fields, we found a farm where the people were very kindly, allowing us a pitch where-ever we wished, and afterwards engaging us in converse for a long time.

Monday morning was nothing to enthuse about.  We awoke to rain, a raging wind dead east, and as cold as any February day.  The rain stopped later, but black galleons of cloud raced in succession across the bare width of sky, promising nothing but the likelihood of bad weather.  There was not the shadow of a mountain nor the green livery of a wood to relieve the low horizon – drenched ricks of hay, a thin, wind-beaten hedge – that was all.  Jo’s knee was stiff and an early recurrence of the pain was feared.  The scenery alternated between colliery and green fields, and once, on the edge of a big town – Airdrie – we crossed the harsh highway between Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Riding carefully, walking the long hills that began to appear, the stiffness gradually wore out of Jo’s knee, and in ten miles she was riding in fair comfort.  The threat of rain passed off, and with it the brutality out of the wind, leaving a naggy headwind with a glorious broken sky.  Our hearts were lifted at a view of the broad Vale of Forth with Stirling crowded below, and behind the graceful Ochil hills.  Far away to the west the Highlands stood, those fine Trossachs peaks, Ben Ledi, Ben Vorlich, Ben Venue, barely scraped by the layered clouds – a thrilling gateway to the wild Beyond.

We reached St. Ninians and had to go to Bannockburn, to the stone where the Bruce raised the standard of a united Scotland, there sending the English Henry flying back.  There is a high flagstaff with a standard unchallenged, a little hut at one side where picture postcards are sold, and a man tells the tale of that gruesome affair – for a consideration.  We saw him eye us over, and so, five hundred and seventeen years later, came a second English flight!

I like old, historic places like Stirling, because they make me dream on the uneasy past, and I become thankful that I live in modern times when the chances of torture and sudden death lie only along the highway.  In Jo and I there are no illusions about the ‘good old days’.  Heroics are fine – on paper, read in a snug armchair; we are all for the present when one’s opinions are only silently suppressed, one’s politics, blood red though they be, are ignored, and religion need not interfere with one’s love of wholesome worldly pleasures.  The most a man may lose with his tongue is his job, and that needn’t cause bitter tears to flow.  Stirling was the distributing centre for raiding parties as well as the bone of contention ‘twixt Highland and Lowland.  The gibbets never lacked their gruesome, swinging loads; the sanitary arrangements were left to themselves in the streets; the common folk were under the heel of a feudal system that enslaved them mind and body to the whim of the Laird.  Stirling was building itself up in blood and misery for the days when curious tourists could pry around and pay credulous coin to hear history moulded to suit their delicate senses.

Jo went shopping.  The peculiar feminine delight of alternating from shop to shop, pausing in uncertain contemplation of half a dozen variations of one desirable delicacy is beyond my accounting.  I should have rushed into the first shop and concluded the business in a couple of minutes.  I am told that all this philandering about is for motives of economy, but when I recalled the purchase of four twopenny  postcards for tenpence halfpenny I was told I did not understand.  I don’t.

Bridge of Allan was dull.  With a mind full of Banks of Allan Water and Miller’s Lovely Daughter, with whom I had sorrowed for many a long year, my dream was found to be shattered.  Most fond illusions break thus.

This is the land of battlefields.  There was Bannockburn, and Stirling Brig, where Wallace defeated the English in 1297, and a little way along the Perth road we passed close by Sheriffmuir where the Earl of Mar met Argyle in the rising of 1715.  There was a battle, a sort of comic opera engagement, in which both sides got badly scarred.  Some wit has improved the occasion with rhyme:

‘Some say that we wan,

Some say that they wan,

Some say that non wan at a’ man,

But one thing is sure,

At Sheriffmuir

A battle there was that was fought man’

At Gleneagles, nearer to Perth, international battles of golf are fought nowadays.  The going was hard to Perth, a nagging wind and rolling road, with ever glimpses of the blue Highlands westwards.  At the summit of a final ridge we overlooked the winding kinks of the River Tay, Perth below, and the tidal sands eastward towards Dundee.

We saw little of the clean, nicely built town.  A small shop supplied our stores; a supper bar lined us for a further few miles, which was the Blairgowrie road, first by the broad Tay on whose surface floated gaily a high proportion of Perth’s younger populace.  The sun was setting; behind the mountains the colours were sprayed from deep red through infinite shadings to gold, and into the pale blue of a clear sky.  The mountains were in indigo contour.  The wind had fallen.

Jo’s knee began to crook again, and so, eight miles out of Perth a turfy hollow by a stream screened from the chilly night winds of these northern latitudes attracted our attention.  There we pitched.  There was a wholesome smell above the primus stoves at supper time.  Stewed plums and custard; coffee and rolls.  Conversation.

The Lairig Ghru was now a practical impossibility, for even now we should have been camping in the jaws of the pass, at least forty-five miles further on, with the highest road in Britain between.  Obviously something else would have to be planned, shorter, less arduous.  In any case Jo’s knee would not stand the tremendous strain of hours of struggling across the debris and scree of that high remote pass, which splits the heart of the great Cairngorms.  We turned in, deciding to let the morrow take care of itself.

We had decided to re-model our mode and, by getting away early, camp earlier in the evening, enjoying a more leisured sunset hour.  At 6am we startled the sleepy cattle by the stream, and loud in brief ablutions, hurried towards breakfast.

Very shortly we came to Bridge of Isla where the road runs beneath a great hedge of beech trees, a hundred feet high, a third of a mile long, and planted in 1745, a memorable planting in such a time of uprooting.  Approaching Blairgowrie we were struck by the number of encampments, tinker, bastard gypsy, and individual tents and caravans.  Raspberries are cultivated extensively here, and we saw many at work among the rows of succulent berries.  At a stream men stood bare-legged, scrubbing barrels out.  The neat little town of Blairgowrie gave us entrance to the glen of Ardle Water.  The sun shone, a gentle zephyr replaced the high wind, and all the promise was of a golden day.  Jo’s quick eyes spotted wild raspberries growing along the hedges much as our English blackberries do.  For an hour we worked along a hundred yards of hedge, in our enthusiasm crossing a derelict fence, to berries that never grew wild.  With only five shillings left, we packed our panniers with the nucleus of a good meal.  Pink jelly oozed through the bags, our hands were stained for days, and when, a little higher up the glen Jo complained of tummy ache, I learned why we had collected so many berries for one meal.

The scenery became grander as the road climbed higher, with a wooded ravine below and glimpses of rapid waters.  At Bridge of Cally in six miles the Ardle stream bent westwards with the Pitlochry road, and we entered Glen Shee, a barren depression along which the river chattered on its stony course.  By the hamlet of Persie we had riverside lunch, nineteen miles behind us, thanks to our three pounds of raspberries steadily dripping themselves away.  With the typical uncertainty of the Highland climate there came a gust of wind, grey mists blew over the peaks and crept down the glen, gradually obliterating the landscape.  A touring cyclist, dawdling along, joined us in a hurried dive into capes, and with us struggled along the tilted road.  The rain passed, but the mist held fast, hiding the high peaks about us.  Our new companion, a Londoner with three weeks ahead of him, a last fling ere he got married, he confided, caused heartaches to my partner who was silent for some time in rapt visualisation of what we could do with such a holiday.  With unseen mountains edging closer, we passed the Spittal of Glenshee at 1,118ft, climbed higher and harder into a cold northerly wind, mile upon mile until, in a final upward convulsion round the Devils Elbow we reached the summit of Cairnwell pass.  This is the highest main road in Britain, 2,200ft.  For twenty miles we had been climbing, for twenty miles the scene had been changing from the green beauty of the glens to the grey mists swirling over brown and black wilds.

On Cairnwell summit the northerly wind screamed in our faces and on it came sleet, cold as a winter gale.  The vaporous abyss of Glen Clunie yawned below, yet in spite of the fierce down-grade we pedalled hard to hold our own.  For a few brief moments the mists broke, and far ahead, through the ragged frame, we caught a glimpse of great mountains and the white streak of a snow-filled Cairngorm corrie.  The vision of moments, the treasured memory of years!

The teeth chattered with genuine cold all the way down the wide desolation of Glen Clunie.  There is an old Wade bridge by the new road, spanning a river in spate; lower down Clunie Castle stood in a thin belt of trees like a tall man half naked.  The rain ceased, the wind died away, the road became dry, and we entered Braemar in the Dee valley, ‘Royal Deeside’ some say.

Scottish Holidays007           Braemar is the kind of place that breeds snobbery; amongst very expensive things in very select shops are a few very cheap things like the magnificent viewcards at a penny each.  After the purchase of our humble necessities we dashed our ship of economy upon that stall, until only a wreck was left to us.  There was a magnificent limousine outside a hotel.  Presently there emerged from the place a vast bundle of furs which moved with infinite poise infinitely slowly to the waiting car. A very servile chauffeur arranged a luxurious pile of cushions and humbly placed my lady amidst them.

This opulent parasite must have become aware of our contemptuous grin for we were given a haughty stare calculated to freeze us.  The stare went wrong; we had to laugh at her.  Jo suggested we kidnap her and force her to cross the Cairngorms afoot with us, sharing for food the remains of the raspberries which still shed their lifeblood steadily.  She would have reached the Great Glen a better woman for it.

The Lairig Ghru was out of the question of course, and except for turning back, only one practical course remained if we would make for Fort William – a long trek through the moors of Geldie Burn and Glen Feshie to Kingussie.  We calculated the distance to be about thirty-three miles of which only twelve or so are rideable, leaving a central distance of twenty-one miles to walk, scramble, get over as best we could.  Too much of a conjecture for our London friend who said goodbye and fled down the Dee valley in search of the luxuries of life.  We had our kit, the time was 5pm, and we had laid in stores for the night – iron rations for two nights if need be.  There were two shillings left.  A hundred miles away, at Fort William, was the possibility of a remittance.  Failing that, well, we would have nearly four hundred miles to go……  And both of us were quite unconcerned.

To the Linn of Dee our road ran through thin belts of pine amongst which the timid deer flitted nervously; across the river the mists brushed the pine-tops of Glen Quoich.  In spate, the Linn of Dee was almost terrifying, boiling under the bridge and flinging its white foam into a sheer sided chasm.  Thereafter the bridle road emerged into the wide moorland basin where the Tilt and the Geldie Burn join the peaty Dee.  White bridge crosses the Dee in a setting of austere wildness, magnetic to the mountain lover.  At this point the narrow defile of Glen Dee comes down from the heart of Cairngorm – the Lairig Ghru itself stretched into the twilight mists.  Jo was affected; I was saddened.  A thought cherished for years, three attempts, and twice so near – she found it very hard to leave – for how many years?

In the gathering darkness the road was not worth riding.  We passed a ruined clachan, grimly set above the chattering Geldie.  The track was interminable, running level in a monotonous wilderness.  Grey tongues of mist curled; nights shadows hung overhead, hesitating to fall; and the light mountain rain fell steadily.  We sought a camping place but bog, rock, and gullies where peaty water spouted was all we could find.

Desperately weary, we reached a footbridge over the stony burn, and there, at 1,650ft we found enough hummocky grass to pitch our tents.  At midnight there was still grey light, but in half an hour, when we turned in, black night had closed and even the noisy stream half a yard away was invisible

Scottish Highlands Part 2

But the next morning I was literally chased away by clouds of ferocious midges.  I became a fugitive as surely as were I a fleeing Jacobite of the unruly ’45.  The weather too, had changed with the shifting of the wind from east to south-west, bringing a mist to the mountains and a stifling dampness to the glens.

The road down the western side of Loch Fyne was in a shocking condition.  Repairs were in hand – the beginnings of a movement for better roads that has since become widespread.  Beauty, however, was not lacking, nor romance either, where Dundarave, the ‘Castle of the Two Oars’, on its rocky point, made a picturesque feudal relic of the departed MacNeills, and again where the road made a crook round Loch Shira, and the damp mists rolled up Shira Glen, a home of the dubious MacGregor, Rob Roy – on the rare occasions when he was at home.  And picturesque Inveraray, tiny capital of huge Argyll, where once the Campbells dispensed a kind of irregular justice, vacillating betwixt the English George and the Scottish Jamie or Charlie.  The justice of the Campbell Court was least in doubt when a Campbell happened to be right.  Now that those rough clan days are no more than an oft-told tale, Inveraray has rebuilt itself, taken on a quaint odour mingling with the powerful odour of its staple industry, the fishing, and yet keeps the consciousness of its own lovely surrounds as a bait for the siller [sic] of the tourist.

Below Inveraray, in the brackish growth of the Lochside, six or seven cannons pointed useless muzzles toward the sea.  Rusted, with fangs of them happily drawn, they were still a grim reminder of the panic days beginning 1714.  I can’t recall how many miles I rode down to Lochgilphead, mostly by the shore, once inland over a lovely little glen, and once round an elbow of the inlet called Lochgair.  Again, I lunched on a grassy mound by Otter Ferry, with a superb view seaward down the widening waters.  Another great sweep round Loch Gilp brought me to Lochgilphead where I ought to have bought supplies, but didn’t, and went on, with not a crust, along the Oban road, beside the Crinan Canal which makes the great arm of Kintyre into an island.  In six miles I turned off to the hamlet of Kilmichael where my road at once became grass-grown and climbed steadily into a mountain region cradling little Loch Leathan.  The hills were half out of their mists, and the sun shone at intervals, so that there was beguiling beauty there, heightened by wandering Highland cattle.  There was a startling likeness to the framed prints of Highland scenes common on our English walls.

The track dwindled, became a mere path by a cascading burn, with a loch called Ederline gleaming through trees, and just as I was wondering if my map-reading had gone awry, and to what wild adventure I was rushing, I came to a road – and Loch Awe.

When I think to describe the twenty-four miles I covered by the shore of Loch Awe, my head becomes bewildered and nothing clear comes from it, but such a succession of pictures as to take me back to a delightful mental ramble all along that loveable stretch of white road.  I hesitate at the writing, as I hesitated so many times at Fincharn Castle, Innis Channel, a dozen surprises, until my inattention to the very bad road led to a tyre burst.  In the mending of it I discovered a very real hunger, with empty saddlebag and never a shop in miles.  I climbed a long hill behind a man who wore the kilt of his clan and carried a scythe on his shoulder.  On the summit the head of Loch Awe lay below, a fine assembly of peaks, close on a dozen over 3,000ft, dominated by Ben Cruachan, whose head was buried in a single white cloud.  I forgot the hunger tumbling down to Cladich fork-road, where better sense prevailed only after a mental struggle.  The forward road would have led me into the heart of Cruachan, but I must needs turn southwards towards a rendezvous with Jo.  I climbed hard, feeling the warning knocks of hunger all the way.  The descent that followed wound down a moorland pass with the young river Aray growing in sound, down into Glen Aray and bewitching woodlands which reached magnificence in the grounds of Inveraray Castle. Never had I seen fir and pine of such girth, such spreading stateliness.

It was past eight – seven hours since my last meal – when I reached Inverarary again, and all the shops were closed.  There are side doors to every shop, however, so I went nothing short in the packing.  But I was past my tea, unable to eat, though not feeling too strong.  Back round the head of Loch Fyne, by Dundarave at sunset to Cairndow, this time continuing along the lochside, steadily climbing, steadily loosing the power in my legs.  At the summit I was nigh completely whacked, with nine hours and sixty-five Highland miles behind my lunch at Otter Ferry.

Night was upon me.  The darkening silver of Loch Fyne placidly fading into distance below; the shadowy outline of the Loch Awe giants barely visible.

I turned into a rift in the hills and descended fiercely at a careless speed, heedless of the awful surface, heedless of anything.  Hell’s Glen.

Hell’s Glen is a savage place of rock and crag and a wild desolation about it.  I pitched my tent hurriedly by a roaring burn that came in a leap from a tottering corrie.  A ledge of rocky earth tilted steeply was my bed.  During supper a little wind grew into half a gale that fitfully whined and howled up the glen, shaking the little tent like a leaf.  What a place!  Beneath a gash in the cliffs; a rushing stream below, desolation without a tree or habitation; the howling wind buffeting and mingling with the chatter of water.  A place that might grip the imagination and let that imagination people it with other-worldly things.  But I was tired and went to sleep.

A very strong westerly wind brushed the mists across the cliffs of Hell’s Glen.  The tortuous road bumped me down its defile, awe-inspiring in the daylight, utterly deserted, to its confluence with the steep glen that runs down to Lochgoilhead.  Here the road made a double hairpin through a wood scene of great beauty.  The road up Glen Goil was no better in surface, a walk uphill for the most of an hour, if one includes the many stops to look back towards the woods and uprearing crags.  Then I was suddenly back at the ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ stone, with a hundred mile circuit behind that was hard to leave.

By Loch Long I lunched while the Cobbler peak was pushing its splintered head through the mist.  There was sunshine all the way down the lakeside; a summit view down the narrow fiord before I branched to Garelochhead.  The ‘promenade road’, seven miles along Garelochside to Helensburgh was not striking, except in the large numbers of steamers anchored, silent and deserted in this backwater of the Clyde – out of a job like me.  Now the other bank of the Clyde by Dumbarton to Erskine Ferry again.

There is a ‘recommended’ route to Carlisle avoiding Glasgow, by way of Paisley, Clarkston, East Kilbride and Strathaven, a string of small places, and in following the route I went wrong, coming to my senses in a village on a plateau called Eaglesham, so I provisioned for the night and plunged into a network of lanes which got me to Strathaven at dusk, a ‘down-in-the-dale’ sort of place liberally plastered with signs ‘Carlisle 79’, which reminded me that England was only seventy miles away, and the Highlands definitely behind.  Anyway, with only four shillings to my credit I could not have stayed on much longer.  Tomorrow’s rendezvous with Jo was only fifty miles away, so I should have camped at the first opportunity had not a local cyclist whirled me away with ready talk on his lips and braggatio in his tone.  Amused, a little interested, I rode with him through half a dozen grimy Lanark coalfield villages, on another blind crazy way, while darkness came with neither in possession of a lamp.  I rebelled at last in the glen of the infant Clyde, just below Lanark town, where lay nothing but fruit farms and occasional collieries, said good-night, and was given a campsite at the nearest farm.

These estates are very big, and their main products are peas, beans, black-berries and raspberries, cultivated in the open, whilst in huge glass-houses tomatoes are grown on the grand scale.  The farmer employs three or four permanent men, and in the picking season augments his labour with youths and girls recruited at low wage-rates from the slums of Glasgow and its satellites.  At this farm were about twelve boys and eight girls, each sex housed in separate army huts, spacious enough but very dirty.  A ragged crew, treated, it seemed, not as human beings, but as some inferior type of animal; this treatment being reflected in the foul language freely used by the females.  The boys came to talk to me, and I was interested in their outlook and work, but felt very uncomfortable as they persisted in a tone of humiliation and ‘respect’.  This to an unemployed foundry-man!

Another change took place in the weather that night.  Much rain fell, while the wind veered, blowing hard from the north-east.  My comfortable breakfast was jarred by the thought of Jo, who even then must have been fighting the wind for hours, on a hilly road, 128 miles long.  What rare pluck, what enthusiasm, to start in the small hours and face the wind and rain, the better to get a start with me!  Few men would do it, let alone a woman.

With a large, complimentary bag of tomatoes, I turned into Lanark.  The wind was behind; the fine, sweeping highway under the shadow of Tinto was a ribbon of ease.  A lashing storm of rain was my first since last Saturday.  Beattock Summit was child’s play, and soon after noon I found myself within a few miles of Beattock.  A lane up the hillside called Greenall Stairs crossed a fine section of limestone scenery  to the Devil’s Beef Tub on the Edinburgh road.  This deep fissure or pit is a single example of the Yorkshire Buttertubs.  There the wind blew fierce and cold, but put a fine effect of cloud and sun sweeping over the moorland peaks towards St Mary’s Loch.  I trysted for Jo at the very same spot in Moffat where I had checked and fed our Albert Mather the day he broke the Liverpool-Edinburgh record all but five years before.

Jo was an hour overdue; I rode out to meet her, but met instead her sister and beau loaded on a motor-cycle camping trip.  Jo was a long, long way behind, struggling against the wind.  I swept the 18 miles south to Ecclefechan, waited there until 7pm then went to Mrs McCall’s.  Anyone in northern cycling circles will know Mrs McCall.  In her cottage is a vast table groaning with fare.  Her variety of Scotch cakes and pasties is endless, and the price is absurdly low.  A favourite rendezvous for Glasgow lads, but just a bit too far from Aberdeen without a meal en-route!  It is said that the roads from Aberdeen to Ecclefechan are strewn with cyclists fallen by the wayside.

Thither came Jo, at last, utterly tired.

 

 

Scottish Highlands Part 1

Post:  This is Charlie’s personal account of 17 days in the Highlands.  In those days one’s annual holiday only extended to one week, which was all his beloved, Jo, was entitled to have.  As Charlie was unemployed and on the Dole, he had a week to try out Scotland on his own, returning to Ecclefechan to meet up with her in the evening of his second Saturday, before returning to the Highlands.  Charlie and his readers (you and I) benefited from the discretion of the Trade Union official in Bolton who took Charlie aside – earlier in the year – and explained that with a ‘Vacant Card’ he could travel the country and sign on at the local unemployment exchanges once a week on the basis that he was looking for work!  And it worked !

And a little known fact, never before revealed by me, earlier in that year of 1931 Charlie undertook a three day tour of Lincolnshire on his brother’s motorcycle.  I think Charlie must have been encouraged or nagged to pass a motor bike test (if indeed he needed a licence in those days) because his father had a small motorbike. He certainly had a motorbike licence when I knew him because I persuaded Charlie to buy a three wheel Reliant van, (which could be driven on a motorbike licence provided the reversing gear was blanked off) when he was in his late fifties and commuting to Trafford Park and back every day to work was becoming a chore too far.  Why he went to Lincolnshire we will never know, possibly job seeking.              Part  1      Days in the Highlands

 

 

Scottish Holidays001 In the many weathers year of 1931 my whole position was more than usually precarious.  I was on the register as “totally unemployed”, and along with most of my fellows I made some efforts to find work.  That is, until I became convinced that seeking a job at that period was a waste of time.  By that time a belated Spring had made her appearance full of the bright blush of her apologies.  With my camping kit and a little ingenious arranging I turned the whole summer into a series of delightful, prolonged weekends, which made unemployment a poem of freedom and pleasure.  I had no false sense of “shame”, and little worry; I was physically and mentally fit, ready for any job that might be offered, and here was a chance to get something out of life.  Never was time wasted.

But I became ambitious to extend my activities.  The snag was my inevitable appearance twice weekly at the Labour Exchange.  My trade union secretary paved the way.  For the purpose of “seeking work” in other districts a ‘Vacant Card’, to be stamped at the Exchanges on my route, was forthcoming, and as a prelude, I spent a week in the North-East.  This was followed by twelve days in the Home Counties, then, as Jo’s holidays approached we fell to discussing ways and means of carrying my ‘search for work’ into Scotland.  The upshot was that I arranged to start a week earlier and meet secretly across the border, on the first day of Jo’s holiday.

Leaning over bridges is a pleasant sport of mine on hot days.  Great measures of ease, and contemplation that leads to all sorts of thought fall to one’s mind in this way.  The Devils Bridge at Kirkby Lonsdale accommodated me in one of its alcoves.  Sunday tea-time; Jo had turned homeward after we had spent a sultry weekend at Kingsdale, and I had become slave to my own fancy for a week.  Time passed, gallons of swift water rushed beneath the grey arches, other alcoves emptied, filled, emptied again.  Figments from my wandering mind swirled into vision, were borne swiftly away on the surface, were replaced at once.  Time flies in this way.  Besides, I was living cheaply.  I was saving money.  This was quite in accordance, for in my pocket lightly rested all the money I had in the world……… one pound six shillings and fourpence.

I tore myself away from my niche regretfully, for I was leaving behind a sound source of economy.

On that splendid evening I made my way over Shap summit and on the branch road to Orton found a green patch and a clear spring, the first essentials of a camp-site.  There I had wandered by chance; chance would have to lead me to other places!

A broiling sun beat down the whole of the next day.  Sometime during the afternoon I spent a period scrubbing tar off hopeless hands and cursing the Dumfries County Council industriously.  Why must tar be sprayed only during hot weather – why must I have a puncture at the crucial moment!

From Dumfries a lovely road climbs through rich country into the hills, historic ground of the ‘Killing Times’.  Almost every local churchyard has its Covenanters graves, usually with some harrowing description or crude rhyme chiselled on the stones.  Allowing for the rough methods of that period, these iron-bound Puritans got little worse than they deserved.  Their accounts of their hounding from place to place make thrilling reading, no less harsh were the troops of “Geordie” than they had been, ruling from kirk and castle, with bible and sword, the bible, as always, providing the best of excuses for the wielding of the sword.  One wonders that human beings can be so hard in such a land of beauty, as that glen from Dunscore to Moniaive, the bubbling Cairn-water always at hand.  The hint of ‘grey Galloway’ crept in beyond Moniaive when the road tilted and lost its tarry gloss for the rough tan of a moorland pass.  The summit thrilled me – my first near view of the Galloway Highlands.  Swelling moorlands with rocky peaks, and a shapely range of mountains holding the horizon.

A mile further on I pitched camp by a stream, and anon there came a shepherd to talk to me in the rich Lowland accent.  “Ye are in the parish of Dal-ry”, said he, “County of Kirkcoobrie, and yonder, behind the fine peaks, I was born and bred.  Right under the brow of Merrick”.

“The fine peaks” of Kells were purple just then, before the flushing sky of sunset.  He and I seemed quite alone in Galloway.  No sound or movement disturbed the colour, only the chatter of the stream there.  My informant loved his hills.  They were personal, and Merrick, his sire, was also his Lord.  “Are they not the beautiful ones?” he asked, and I had to agree.  I was offered eggs, milk, paraffin, anything, and the good man was concerned that company I had none.  “Ye are all on your own-alone” he often repeated, and with a final shake of the head, gave me a “guid-nicht”.  For a short time I stood on the bridge with a cigarette, contemplating the fading wonder of twilight over the Kells, then, with my shorts for a pillow, I curled up in the sleeping bag.

Scottish Holidays002

 

 

Kirkcudbright gave me a shocking road surface and wonderful scenery to Carsphairn.  A lonely road by moor and stream, with sometimes a deep gorge, always with tantalising views.  After Carsphairn I glimpsed Loch Doon, a long mirror of water with a magnificent bulk of mountains behind, the crowning heights of the Western Lowlands, Merrick.  The valley of the Doon Water may once have surpassed; now it is ruined by the Ayrshire Coalfields, and a hard, tiresome road climbs ridge after ridge to Ayr and the coast.

Robbie Burns is vehemently claimed by Ayr.  I renounce all claims.  After the “Tam-o’ Shanter” Inn and the Auld Brig I lost interest.  It is a holiday resort.  The coast road northward, along the Firth of Clyde profoundly disappointed me.  For some distance it was not along the sea-edge, but through dune-country and at the edge of sprawling industrialism.  About Irvine were many huge camps in dirty fields, untidy scatterings and crowdings of a variety of tents from the big marquee carrying the stains of strenuous summers to the sack-cloth makeshifts of wandering tramps.  Amongst them sported girls with flimsy attire of colours hostile to the environs, young chaps in flannels and shirts probably a virgin shade before the camp, now of a shade commiserate with the ground; hordes of youngsters to whom the camp was the fine excuse for a long summer unwashed, and more sedate groups of elders sunning themselves.

At Ardrossan Docks the Arran steamer was in, and only my slender pocket, now hardly worth a pound sterling, deterred me from boarding her.  Thence the seashore, with faint tracings of the mountains of Arran high above the hazy horizon.  A swim, and tea half-dressed among the dunes.

I met the cyclist at the drinking fountain in Largs.  His bike was loaded with camping kit; his face had the tan of long days awheel.  In conversation we discovered a kindred spirit.  Now he was homeward bound to Greenock only for the purpose of ‘signing on’.  Three months ago the slump caught him up, since when he had contrived to live exclusively on the road, returning only to sign the register.  Up to now the weather had constantly played him false; now that a heatwave had come along he had heard that a foreman in his shipyard was on the lookout for him.  He was bitter.  He would slip away unseen on the morrow, the Highlands were grander than the Clyde shipyards; time enough for work when Scotland’s short summer broke down.  He had the skill of trapping rabbits, tickling trout, and preparing food where many would starve.  We parted on good terms.

The sun went down as I rode along the Clyde coast, and the mist lifted off the sea, revealing the peaks of Arran, fantastic summits rearing three thousand feet above the water.  From Inverkip I climbed up a steep lane till the Firth was stretched below with jumbled mountains on three sides and wedged among them the narrow entrances to long sea lochs.  There was lowland Cumbrae laid in the sky-white water, Bute behind, the magnificent ranges of mountainous Arran to the westward, and far behind, delicately etched, the lower hills of Kintyre.  In a search for a campsite I climbed the glen of the Kip to where two bridges cross the gorge, one ancient and parapet-less, designated “Roman”.  This provided me with enough space for my tent on its very edge, hard, solid ground too.

Scottish Holidays003

‘Business’ compelled me to visit Greenock next morning [Collect his Dole money]. I will gloss over the ride along Clydeside to Erskine Ferry, along dockland with a nightmare of railway lines, potholes, narrow places where the copious traffic stream is blocked, then suddenly released to rush madly around.  Perhaps the Rock of Dumbarton commanding the northern side of this great river, a Scottish Gibraltar of other days, relieves a dull scene.

I had tea by Loch Lomond.  The scene captivated me.  For the first time I was in the Highlands, and, expecting little from Loch Lomondside, I was delighted.  Especially with the magnetic jumble of peaks towards the head.  The whole evening was crowded with beauty.  I just strayed along, half bewitched, down to Arrochar at the head of Loch Long, along with wild Glen Croe, where the fantastic rocks of the ‘Cobbler’ overhang, and the quiet road winds round little promontories of rock, and the stream makes green pools and small, rushing linns.  At the end, the road is jerked up to the ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ stone, erected by General Wade’s troops.  By building roads through the Highlands the English Government, in the surest way, broke the power of the Clans, removing for ever the danger of recurrence of the rebellions which almost set on fire the first half of the eighteenth century.  A wild swoop down Glen Kinglas took me to Cairndow on Loch Fyne, and four miles round the head of it, on a lovely pitch where the air had the tang of the sea in it, I set my camp.

The great warrior Clan McMidge sorely troubled me.  All travellers to Scotland speak in awe and fear of them, and I share it.  On Loch Fyne they were a pest, thriving on the Essence of Lavender I had paid a shilling for, in the hope that it would keep them off.

After supper I strolled far down the Loch, and the peaceful beauty of it beguiled me.  The tide was out; there was still a streak of day lingering far down the waters.  Surely nowhere can one find greater camping places than those freely scattered along the sea-lochs of the Western Highlands!

Scottish Holidays004

 

 

Three Welsh Nocturnals Part Three

Here is the ride of April 24-25, 1926.

During the last run, Tom and I had tried to get the Seveners to support a proposed all-nighter, said ride to be somewhere about Betws-y-coed, but a strange apathy seized them, and vague references to certain unavoidable appointments were made.  Notwithstanding this, we were determined on the ride, which we said would be a ‘strainer’ for Meriden, three weeks hence.  Our meeting place was Mrs Littler’s, Frodsham at 7pm for supper.  The intervening 26 miles were covered in the leisured style demanded for such occasions, the two of us reaching Frodsham at the appointed time.  Joe was there, too, not to join us, but gaze upon the alleged beauty of one Maid Marion, to whom he hopes to press his suit.  Joe’s flirtations are many and always terminate suspiciously abruptly.

It had gone 8pm when Tom and I left Joe making eyes and sped along the darkening Chester road.  Efforts to obtain bitter chocolate, an excellent stimulus, failed everywhere, so that we had to make a dash to the City of Legions before closing time.  We managed it.  Then, not really knowing where we were going, we crossed the Dee bridge and turned our wheels towards Holywell.  Saltney and its dismal flats were put behind, and in growing moonlight we passed through quiet Hawarden and by moonlit meadows and parklands steadily forged our way to Northop, and at length fled down to Holywell.  After that we struck a barren stretch, up and down with a long line of telegraph poles always in front, but even the worst has an end, and that was reached when a glaring disc announced that we were about to descend a ‘Shell Famous Hill’.  We stopped for a snack before descending, for a cold-looking mist overhung the lowlands.  A cyclist went blinding past, fled out of night, then we heard a curious crack, and a minute later he came back to us with a broken chain.  He had no brake; how on earth he managed to stop I don’t know, but by his bombastic talk we soon formed opinions of him – as a cyclist at any rate.  As he only lived a few hundred yards away we didn’t need to help him.

From the foot of the ‘Shell’ hill we had a short run through agricultural country to the tiny city of St Asaph.  With hardly a pause we were out and in the country again.  At half past midnight, half light and warm, and I was wide awake, a surprise to me for I anticipated a bad night – I had been working all morning.  Soon the country became level, again, almost monotonous, and we reached the site of a great camp.  Eight years ago the countryside here was teeming with khaki-clad figures; there on the left was a town, a wooden town that housed them.  I had the privilege of visiting this huge camp ten years ago, though, as I was only 12 years of age, the only things I can remember clearly are rows and rows, endless rows of identical wooden huts, wooden post offices, wooden libraries, wooden canteens, even wooden roadways, a continual mud bath (I had to clean my shoes in those days) and the constantly recurring khaki of the inhabitants.  Before the end of the long rough fields and tottering remains of the timber houses was reached, the slender spire of Bodelwyddan marble church emerged from the half-light of the evening, and as we drew nearer to it, the great contrast it provided to the depopulated ramshackles there on the left that 8 years ago housed men, struck me forcibly.

In the neat little churchyard, looking out towards the remnants of the camp are rows of little wooden crosses, the burial places of Dominion soldiers who fell victim to the influenza epidemic which, in 1917 swept through the camp like a plague and carried off so many men.  How many more, trained at the camp, went out, and now lie on foreign soil ?  The war to end war, the hope of those who fought – and died……. what would they think now ?  Now on the very eve of the greatest struggle in industrial history, when their comrades are about to fight again – for the right to live in decency.  Despite all the pious resolutions, despite all the promises, despite all the hopes, we are heading for another great catastrophe.  And the verse:

 

“If ye break faith with us who died,

We shall not sleep, tho’ poppies grow

In Flanders fields…..”

is proving to be nothing more than one more hollow sham.  What would the dead army of Britain say to their comrades who fought and lived – to fight to live ?  “Fight on !”  Such thoughts are bound to come to the man who thinks, when he passes such a symbol of ugly war as Kinmel Camp, and comes upon the pure white symbol of peace, as represented by the Marble Church of Bodelwyddan, at a time when the rest of the world sleeps.

A perfect road, though level and dismal enough carried us over the marshlands of Morfa Rhuddlan to Abergele, where we had decided to try the road to Llanrwst, which neither of us knew.  Tom went in front while I adjusted my lamp, and before I followed I was treated to a series of double-bass snores, extremely loud and trumpety, issuing from one of the upper windows in the quiet street.  I’ll never forget Abergele at 1.15am if only for that !  After a level run in park-like country, the road got on its hind legs, and we had to shank it for a mile or so, into an upland plain, which we crossed on a switchback road and found ourselves running down into a valley flanked by hills not very high, but continuous enough to give us the idea that the only outlet would be ‘over the top’.  We felt the old glamour returning of cycling on unknown roads in unknown country, the glamour that so marks the first tour and is never quite regained.  We wondered what lay round the next bend – over the hill, where this lane or that lane led to; in our pockets was the complete answer embodied in a map, but just then we wanted no map; we would find out for ourselves and keep ourselves on the tip-toe of expectation.  Down the side of a wooded hill we sped, in and out, round and round, through a veritable pass until we found ourselves beside the stony Elwy, where a stone-built village lies across a stone bridge.  I hear that Llanfair Talhaiarn is an interesting little place, but 2am in the morning is no time to scrounge in and out of a narrow-streeted village, is it ?  The road was good and level, winding below the hillside, so, having been imbibed all night with a very energetic feeling, we ‘slipped it’, coming at length to Llangernyw, which village was kind enough to supply us with water on tap and stone steps to recline on whilst we ate our ration.

To judge by the row we made one way and another its perhaps all to the good that we went when we did.  Then, as we were peacefully blinding along, the very devil loomed up from a field on the right, a big black body with waving arms and clawlike hands stretched out in silhouette as if to grab us.  Our hearts leapt in terror.  A second timorous glance revealed a dead tree – our flickering eyes supplied the rest !  A gradual climb now came which got us down more than once, but surely enough the country on each side was opening out, until we reached the summit from whence we got a peculiarly fine view of ranges of misty peaks across the deep gap into which we started to descend, and which resolved itself into the Conway Valley.

As we pounced downhill the misty peaks dropped behind the lower heights on the western side of the valley which, in the dim light, made a glorious picture.  Rather recklessly we plunged into Llanrwst, promptly getting mixed up and playing ring-o’-roses round what does for the village hall.  After a glance at Inigo Jones’ bridge, we blinded along the Llanrwst side of the river to Betws-y-coed where, at the Waterloo Bridge, a powerful electric light robed the woods, the river Conway, and a pretty little cascade in golden glamour.  Childs play was made of the drag up to the Swallow Falls, where, by the hotel, we discovered another tap over a tub of clear water, whilst behind the wall was a bath should we want it.  We didn’t !  Here also was a natural lamp-bracket, just in the right place, a towel rock (natural) and a natural mirror (water).  We had soap and a towel with us and the proverbial half-comb with most of the railings missing, so, in plain lingo, we were ‘quids in’.  We had a jolly good tub, then, fit to enter a palace, we shinned over the turnstile and went down to take the customary peep at Swallow Falls.

Riding again, we soon came in sight of Moel Siabod, in my eyes like an old friend greeting us once more.  Some call this a dull mountain on the Capel Curig side, but I love Moel Siabod, and would hail it as I would our old friends Snowdon, Trifan, Arenig and Cader Idris.  As a matter of fact all these grey old mountains of the Wonderland of Wales are old friends to me.  Very soon, we stood at the familiar fork-roads at Capel Curig; the time was 4.30am.

Should we make for Beddgelert or Bangor, was the problem, but we favoured Beddgelert, as providing the better homeward route.  So we passed the twin Llyn Mymbyr which gave a perfect reflection of the mountain sides, and headed up the wild Gwryd Valley, with the first streaks of dawn crossing the eastern sky and the dusky outline of Snowdon away in front.  Pen-y-Gwryd was an impressive spot when we got there at 5am.  Above us towered the graceful form of Eryre, partly snow-clad, above a semi-circle of great, silent cliffs; above the long, broken screes; above the chaos of earth and rock that supports it.  A tousled, sleepy head peered down at us from a hotel window, and Tom, just to let him know we had seen him, shouted a cheery good morning, to which came a sleepy answer and the head withdrew.  Simultaneously I started to munch an iron ration in the shape of a crust as we started towards Beddgelert.  Iron ration is the right phrase for it, for I had a great tussle with that crust.

They say a crust is a good thing to eat whilst cycling, and I heard of chaps who put up long rides on a crust, but all I can say is that they don’t know what a good feed is !  A taste of real Wales again fell to us on that long descent to Beddgelert.  The soft light of early morning between dawn and sunrise put a wonderful freshness into the greenery of Gwynant and toned the great cliffs and boulder slopes of Snowdon down to something above mere grandeur.  Ever and anon we would stop that we might take in the views more fully, pay fuller homage to the Queen Peak and this loveliest of Welsh valleys.  Llyn Gwynant formed a most perfect mirror, reproducing topsy-turvy, in minute detail, every overhanging rock, every branch and leaf, every blade of grass – in colour.  The scenery was a continually moving panorama of mountain views and woodland and water scenes, holding us spellbound at every turn, making us gasp in sheer delight at being there at such an hour.  Everything was familiar to us, for we oft had passed along this Valley of Waters, but everything was new…. old but new.  Llyn-y-Dinas was another great mirror, lapping the roadway, and doubling the lakesides perfectly.

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We entered glorious little Beddgelert, stopping there on the bridge for a moment before pushing on into the Pass of Aberglaslyn – and Pont Aberglaslyn.  Aberglaslyn at 6am, just before the sun tinged the mountain tops with his golden light, just when the life of the woods was stirring and singing the joys of the new day accompanied by the musical chatter of the river.  That was Aberglaslyn at its best.  I fancy the first effects of our hard-riding was becoming felt just then, for Tom swore he saw a man hewing trees down by the dozen with amazing energy – and when I was shown, I saw the same thing.  Of course, it was a fantasy aided by vapour rising from the ground.  I saw the trees shaking and the cliffs bobbing up and down, and wondered at it all in a dull uncomprehending way until Tom, in a distant voice, said that we had best get along.  Then as I started to ride, my sleepiness dropped off like a cloak.  Riding along the edge of the Glaslyn marsh, we beheld many natural glories, and from the War Memorial at Garreg the most magnificent view of Snowdonia I have ever seen was laid before us.  The great peaks, from sea level, looked higher than ever, and the great ridges culminating in the central peak were touched with silvery bars of snow, whilst on the right of us stood the splendid peaks of Cricht, and rugged Moelwyn Mawr, just below which the route we had decided to take, lay.

Once again the superb attraction of Ffestiniog proved too strong for us.  On that steep, narrow pass from Garreg to Tan-y-Bwlch, I started to feel the ride again, and ere the tiny hamlet of Rhyd was reached I yearned for a mattress and a pillows.  Superb mountain views rewarded us, and from Rhyd, where a gap occurs in the hills on the right, we saw the coastline from Penrhyndeudraeth southward with the profile of Harlech and its sheer rock standing out.  Again luck was with us, for we found a little waterfall and a bucket.  Another wash, and another temporary relief from sleepiness.  Passing through stony, tiny Bwlch-y-Maen, (which means Pass of the Stone), we got a beautiful view down into the Vale of Ffestiniog, then descended to Llyn Mair.  If anyone asked which was the most gorgeously pretty lake, irrespective of size in Wales, I think I should answer Llyn Mair.  I cannot recall a more charming picture than that which Llyn Mair presented that morning with its amazingly clear reflections.  The descent through woods to Tan-y-Bwlch was as in a fairy-land; Spring was at her best, and in the Vale of Maentwrog the freshness of everything green struck me – that is, everything except myself.  On the climb to Ffestiniog I went to pieces, and fairly shouted with relief when Tom punctured.  I dragged myself into Ffestiniog to order breakfast, but had to knock Mrs Jones up; Tom arrived just as I sank into the armchair.  It was 8am and a rapid calculation showed that since 5pm last night we had placed 130 miles of road behind us.

I made a poor show at breakfast, and even when Jennie, pretty and sly as ever, came down, I paid little heed – so I must have been in a bad way !  In a sleepy way I became aware that my leg was being pulled, but I was past caring about it; I’ll get my own back next time.  After I had managed to drag my bones into the parlour, Jennie gave us a selection or two on the organ, and what with one thing and another it got 11am before we made a move to go.  There was well over a hundred miles to go, and a strong headwind to face, so we had something before us.  We started after the usual lingering farewell at the usual brave pace uphill and got off round the corner – as usual.  The long climb, half walking, knocked the sleepiness away from me, and I began to sit up and take notice.  It was a beautiful morning, clear and breezy, and the dear old line of peaks stood clear and sharp above the winding Vale of Meantwrog which stretched out green below us to the coast.  Rhaiadr Cwms steady road greeted us as we neared Pont-ar-afon-Garn, and to renew acquaintances we peered over the stone wall at the cliffs and the ‘Cataract in the Hollow’.

From Pont-ar-afon-Garn the going was easier, but we struck the ‘newly repaired’ portion, and for four miles spent a lively time alternating between sharp stones and deep ruts.  Especially after we had topped the breezy summit and seen the bulky form of Arenig grow larger in front and the Ffestiniog mountains drop behind the summit ridge, we experienced the vilest stretch of road in Wales – and that is saying a lot.  From Rhyd-y-Fen we left the worst behind finding it positively smooth going over the rocky outcrop in comparison.   From Capel Celyn we romped down to Fron Goch and Bala from where the Corwen road bore us on its glossy hide uphill to Bethel.  I ‘conked’ again on that grind uphill, and the eleven miles to Corwen were more like a hundred and eleven.  Near here, on the Holyhead road, Tom went on to Llangollen to order lunch while I had a rest and a snack, improving afterwards.  The Dee valley is very beautiful, but when the road is one long string of motorists, it loses much of its attraction, so I hailed Llangollen, and, incidentally ‘Bronant’ with delight at 3pm.  During lunch and the usual ‘chatting up’ after, I was nodding, and would surely have gone to sleep if I had been left to my own devices.  As it was it got to 4.30pm before we got away.

It was very hard against the wind, but by pacing each other we got along fairly well; moreover I felt myself gradually improving.  The setts of Wrexham are enough, however, to rouse anybody.  We parted at Chester, Tom taking the Northwich road and I the Warrington road.  Now I was in better form, having gained the proverbial second wind and did good time to Frodsham where I stopped for tea at 7.45pm.  I could not help but reflect on the things that had passed since we were here 24 hours ago and the huge circle we had undertaken.  At 8.30 I was back on the road, in my old form, still against the wind, and on familiar roads reached home at 10.30pm.

In September 1922, I had a three day tour of 230 miles, and the following Easter, a four day tour of 290 miles.  On this all-night ride of 29 hours (which includes at least seven hours in cafes at Ffestiniog, Llangollen and Frodsham), we covered about 245 miles, 155 of which were in Wales.  But more than mere mileage was the inference one can draw from this ride.  No doubt I was in a bad condition, owing to the lack of sleep, but that could be minimised by better preparation or a morning free.  It has opened the door to greater things.  We have proved the possibility of reaching Snowdonia and returning in a night and a day, we have visited Beddgelert and Ffestiniog, hitherto undreamed of – so why not farther ?  Why not the peak of Snowdon itself, why not the circuit of Snowdon, why not the fascinating regions of Dyfy and Dyssinni, nay, even the Aberystwyth country is not beyond our reach !

So has gone down three of our Welsh nocturnals; the rest I will describe in some further article, for a continuous description of the similar kind of ride is apt to get monotonous, especially from a pen like mine !                                                      December 1926

Three Welsh Nocturnals Part Two

Our next all-nighter was a different kind, a ‘night after the day’ ride, and our experience was directly opposite to the midsummer ride above stated.  It was in the September holiday of 1925, and here it is:

It was one of those occasions when everything seemed to go awry.  In the first place, Joe, his friend Bert and I decided to meet at 6.30am, and visit that obscure but magnificent waterfall, Pistyll Rhaiadr, returning home through the night.  Strangely enough, all of us overslept, and when we did meet, it was 9am instead of 6.30 !  It had rained all the night, so in consequence the lane route we had chosen was in a messy condition, whilst we were in poor form, and heckled by a headwind.  We had barely covered the first 24 miles when I was left brakeless through the cable of the front calliper snapping; the rear one had broken on Sunday.  I had ‘fixed’ on, however.  We traversed the ‘same old road’ to Beeston, a road that demands a eulogy to itself, but progress, slow as it was, was often brought to a standstill by Joe’s almost fanatical attachment to blackberry bushes; that voluptuous attachment, two days earlier, having earned for him the title of ‘Blackberry Joe’, and immortalised him in certain stanza’s and poems by the Bard of the We are Seven cycling club.

After lunch at Beeston, it was perhaps natural that our form should improve, owing to the downward tendency of the road, so that in good time we found ourselves at Bangor Iscoed, but an upward tendency following convinced us that our return to form was only temporary, and the wind blew as hard as ever.  Ruabon was followed by the hideous road through Cefn, the rather pretty ‘bit’ over the Dee at Newbridge, and the dismal Holyhead road to Chirk.  Then with a sharp descent, one finds oneself on the bed of the Vale of Ceiriog.  So, for six miles we wormed our way beneath autumn-clad hills, beside the rapid-flowing Ceiriog to Glyn, where we decided to adjourn for tea.  We found a place where the fare was just our heart’s desire, and where the people were a direct contravention of the bigoted English idea of Welsh folks.  Pistyll Rhaiadar lay 16 miles away, over country that was unfit for night riding, and on roads that made riding brakeless suicidal, so we threw the idea overboard, tackling the fierce 3 miles of Allt-y-Bady instead.

By the time we reached the summit, Joe and Bert had given All-y-Bady a selection of euphonious titles, and incidentally had re-christened me at the same time.  But we lingered long over the view down towards Llanarmon for it was one of those nights when the hush of twilight casts a glamour over the hills and valleys, and robes the distance with its mystical purple curtain.  On the Llangollen side the same superb beauty was evident, the beauty of summer twilight over an inimitable Welsh valley.

Already Llangollen was lamplit when we reached the town, so pausing only for oil, we made our way into the mountains again.  We were now in form, and started singing appropriate songs to the glory of night, speedily making our way by the heathery hillsides past the Abbey of the Valley of the Cross.  At the Britannia Inn we lit up, then our road lay beneath a heavy carpet of leaves, beautiful even in the dark.  A pit-a-pat on the leafy roof, then a sudden pattering told us rain, so we put on our capes, leaving the shelter and emerging on the open moors.  Fickle climate !  The rain came down in torrents; the gradient got too much for us on the horseshoe.  Right down in the valley were the lights of Pentre Dwr, twinkling points of light betrayed the hillside farms here and there, and someone on the opposite slope was wandering about with a storm lantern.  So black was the night that we could barely distinguish the difference between mountain and sky.  At the Oernant corner, we mounted and flew up the opposite side to the summit, 1,351 feet above the sea.  Away down the deep cwm the lights of Llangollen twinkled, and before us – around us, blackness pricked here and there by a solitary glimmer.

The rain ceased as suddenly as it came, and free from capes, we crept slowly down Bwlch Rhiwfelin, guided by the feeble rays from our oil lamps.  From the open moors, holding back only by pedal pressure, we dropped where the wind sighed through a belt of trees, where water tinkled musically, where a blacker shadow would rise by our side until an upward pull, then down and up again and the dark bulk of the Crown at Llandegla, at the back of which glimmered from the window, a fire.  At the front the glimmering panes of a lamp-lit room guided us to the Inn.  Would they make us a pot of tea ?  We knocked and after a while a voice came from behind the door.  “Who’s there?”  Joe gave our request, then a pause ensued, and the voice replied: “I’m sorry, they’ve all gone to bed and the fires out”.  Oh, worn, ancient tale – had we not seen the flicker ?  “All right, sorry to trouble”, we answered.  Perhaps they were afraid of robbers, it is a common fear in these lonely places, for it is unlike mine host of Ypento to refuse cyclists.

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We did not blame them however, for it is a queer request at 10pm.  We got a drink at a cottage up the road, then started on the rough and tumble Treuddyn road.  Rain again, a road that was fearfully mutilated, a falling gradient, and the encumbrance of capes, feeble oil lamps and intense darkness; it sounds undesirable enough, but to we three mudlarks it was thoroughly enjoyable.  At Treuddyn away went the capes.  In the deep wooded glen before Pen-y-Ffordd we ate our supper, and for drink had unlimited supplies of clear, cold water, using bell-domes as drinking cups.  What more can one wish for ?  I had boiled a couple of eggs at the start, and now we had to use a jack knife and stone to open them !  After that the rain soused us again and Joe had a puncture – a messy job on a dark wet night.  We reached Chester at 1am with a starry sky above, seeing the city as a dead forgotten place, quaint and glamorous.

Warrington road, and the miles sliding back as we blinded for all we were worth.  At Helsby the rain re-asserted itself and swept down with grim determination to wash us off the map.  Surely the solitary policeman in Frodsham thought us mad to hear us singing and laughing and joking as our shoes became filled and the water found its way ‘in’ via the back of our necks !  Perhaps he smiled and tapping his head, said “Cyclists!”  When Warrington was reached a change came over us.  The novelty was wearing off, for we were on familiar roads; Bert was yawning; Joe was no longer noisy and I felt a bit jaded.  Another 18 miles during which match-stalks were in big demand as eye-props, and Joe and I had a startling experience each, and home was reached, tired out, but happy in the memory of 148 miles that, despite things being ‘all against’, were well worth-while.

If anyone two years ago had said that Snowdonia and Aberglaslyn was accessible in a night ride, we should have disbelieved – derided him.  To us, that rare district was only within reach on a tour, and to many, it still is a long journey of two days away.  Yet in April this year, Tom and I thrust deep into the heart of it, and really amazed ourselves at the ease which we did it, convincing ourselves that there is practically no limit to the scope of the hard-riding cyclist on a modern mount.

Three Welsh Nocturnals Part One

Some Welsh Nocturnals001 Unlike many pastimes, it is not only possible to cycle in the dark hours, but indeed, the night time forms a popular and attractive phase to the energies of the true devotee of the wheel.  It is admitted there are drawbacks to all-night riding, but there are also advantages, overwhelming advantages, and then, after all, what is the use of a game that possesses no drawbacks ?  The difficulties encountered are made to be overcome, and so, in overcoming them, we find a fierce joy.  So here I set about trying to tell of my own experience of all-night riding, and the disadvantages and advantages, and the lesson of one on the aspect of the next.  I call them Welsh nocturnals, for it is in Wales that our all-nighters have been most successful.  As a matter of fact, apart from two early ones in Cheshire, and two on the road to Meriden, my other earlier all-nighters have been merely fiasco’s as compared with the later ones.

It will be recognised that a successful nocturnal is a study in itself, and each ride serves to show just what is lacking, whilst the conditions, varying from those of the day, demand some special consideration.  The big question, of course, is the right food to carry, a point that, varying according to the special tastes of the individual, would be best settled in detail by the individual, though a general rule might be followed with success.  For my part, I take plenty of fruit, fruit containing juice being preferred on account of the difficulty of obtaining drink – warm drink, I mean.  The golden rule is to eat little and often, but not to stop by the wayside for a long spell to feed, or the cold night soon chills you, and sleepiness that is hard to shake off, often creeps over you.  I do not ‘blind’, but take things evenly all along, and – here is a tip that stands good on other occasions, walk the hills that pull, especially for the first 60 miles or so.  Clothing is another matter, though I have ridden through the night with the lightest of summer touring clothes and not felt unduly cold.  I think that for summertime, a silken or woolly scarf and a pair of gloves are ample – with the addition of a cap if one is inclined to feel a chill from the head.  Personally, I would not be found dead with a cap on.  It is a matter of course that the bike and lamp should be in a fit condition.  There is one very important thing about night-riding which I soon discovered.  In country like Cheshire and the Midlands and – in fact any type of fairly even country, an all-nighter is apt to pall, so I would strongly advise cyclists to choose a mountain land; the Lakes, the Yorkshire or Derbyshire hill-country, or Wales, are the best.  The more mountainous, the better.

In following the above code, and being in a fit condition, I attribute the following mileages and rides – nocturnals of course, during 1926 alone.

April 24-25    The Vale of Gwynant                   245 miles

May 29         Llanberis and back                      110 miles

June 26-27   Pistyll Rhaiadr and Milltir Cerig     180 miles

July 8-9        From Somerset to North Wales    238 miles

Sept 24-25    Ffestiniog                                    210 miles

It is of these, and an outstanding ride or two at other times that I am writing…..  just to show the disadvantages and advantages.

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It was Midsummer Day, June 21 1924.  Tom and I had arranged an all-night ride ‘somewhere in Wales’, meet on the Chester Road at a point 2 miles wide of Warrington.  All day it rained heavily, and the general outlook at teatime convinced me that we were ‘for it’, but miraculously it cleared up just as I was starting, and before I reached the town of Many Smells (Warrington) this Midsummer Night was all that its name implies, and a hot sun caused me to cast off superfluous clothing.

Tom was waiting at the rendezvous, and soon we were pottering along Chester Road.  The oft-maligned Warrington-Chester road was really gorgeous that evening, with the gardens all aflame and the villages peaceful and quaint.  Helsby Point was a mass of colour, and on the road beyond, the rich pasturage and great shady trees painted rural Cheshire to perfection.  Before 9pm we were having supper in a quiet farm-house, 34 miles from home, and by 10pm we had passed the City of Legions, and were rolling along the long Dee flats to Hawarden.  It was all but dark when we passed by ‘Harden’ Castle to the village, where we stopped to look at the quaint old village lock-up, now long passed out of service, but retained as a curio.  A byroad rushed us down to the Dee at Queensferry, then the estuary road to Connah’s Quay and beyond, with the road filled with the usual Saturday night crowds.  Night had come; our lamps were lit; all along the right hand side were the sandy reaches of the Dee, and between the banks the water gleamed in thin long streaks.  The sky was light – a transparent light, the wisps of black cloud forming islets in a sea of vastness illimitable.  And it was nearly midnight !  Another industrial town hove in view; coast-wards a black ruin in silhouette proclaimed this as Flint, then once more the road and the hush of night.  It was a long, level road this estuary road, with the gigantic monoliths of Industry ever and anon looming ahead, it was a road that no tourist would wish to traverse in daylight – but in darkness a road that held some romance, some glamour.

Once a red glare shot out skywards, and the hissing of steam and clanging of metal betrayed the proximity of the god, Iron.  We sat astride a wall, looking across a maze of railway lines at two great blast furnaces, from one of which ran a stream of liquid fire.  I work in a foundry, I handle this molten metal, but think nothing of it, yet when I watched that fascinating liquid run down the spout and in a white-hot fall, drop into the bogey in a halo of sparks, and watched the men toiling, filling this capacious monster that the liquid might be kept running, hurrying here and there regardless of the flying pellets each white hot that fell like hail about, the romance of these Workers in Iron was borne upon me.  From the ceaseless, seemingly meaningless clanging and grating, hurrying, sweating, toiling, which was illuminated by the blinding liquid iron comes the production of half the industry of Britain.    Would that it were better arranged for those stalwart Workers in Iron !  In fascination we watched the burning stream cease, an engine couple the bogey up, and bear it away, a great cup of light, until distance robbed us of further sight.

From Ffynnongroew we drew inland and the scenery assumed a more pastural character.  At Gronant we got lost, and after wandering along an obviously new, unfinished road, came to Prestatyn where we solicited the aid of a lonely policeman, and were put right again.  A narrow hilly road took us through Meliden to Rhuddlan, where on the bridge over the Clwyd we stopped to look at the ivy-clad round towers of the historical castle just above the river bank.  The moon came from behind the humpy guardians of the Vale of Clwyd, but bright though it was, it was robbed of half its glory by the lightness of the night.  It is a long drag for four miles over that perfectly level waste, Morfa Rhuddlan, with nothing to stimulate interest except the historical books that tell us here was fought, in the year 796, between the Saxon invaders and the Cymric people a great ‘battle’  The Saxons drove the Welshmen into the sea, and over 10,000 of them perished.  This gave rise to that plaintive national air, ‘Morfa Rhuddlan’.  Abergele ended the marsh for us, and the quietness too for that matter, for a belated charabanc party was just unloading.  From Abergele, the left hand side is overshadowed by the great, medieval-looking walls of Gwrych Castle.  The style of the massive gateways is 13th century, but the building is quite modern.

We had lunch under the shadow of one such gateway just beyond Llandulas, with a view of the sea, white and blue, a perfect replica of the sky.  Far away beyond our horizon we saw the periodical lights of distant buoys, sending their danger signals out to approaching vessels.  A ‘man’ was stood by the water, and ‘he’ seemed to behave in an uncanny fashion, stooping, jumping, running backwards and forwards, yet never leaving the same spot !  We both saw ‘him’.  After rubbing the sleepiness out of our eyes, we found ‘he’ was a stump driven into the ground !  That is one of the hallucinations the cyclist who rides all night is liable to.

Daylight was coming, slowly, and almost without our knowledge, though we turned our lights out, after they had burned for 3 and a half hours.  An uphill ride took us to Penmaenrhos, where Tom led me through a gateway, from where we had an amazingly beautiful view of Colwyn Bay and Little Orme.  There was that transparent sky and equally transparent sea, an arc of golden sands at the end of which rose the low cliffs of Little Orme.  Even the town behind and Old Colwyn below looked beautiful in the soft light – just at dawn.  We fled down on a tram-lined road into Colwyn Bay, endured the rough jolting, and came to Rhos-on-Sea and the junction of the Conway- Colwyn-Llandudno roads.  Four years before, I was in camp with the Church Lads Brigade on that field where now stood a fully peopled modern housing scheme.  I remembered a party of us exploring a cave in yonder woods at the unearthly hour of 2.30am on the ‘first night’ four years and five days ago exactly.  For the sake of a four year old memory, Tom and I went to look for that cave – and we found it.  A little later we came in sight of Penmaenmawr Mountain, with Conway mountain in front, then the sandy river Conway.  From the cross-roads we took the Llanrwst road, pausing to eye that noble ruin, Conway Castle, which lay just across the river, behind the suspension bridge.  Conway Castle is always an imposing picture, but see it at early morning when the mists are rising from the river to see it at its best.  The ride that followed down the Conway Valley is one of those precious memories that I still look to with the keenest of pleasure.

Across the valley, the mountain sides rose almost from the water, in great slopes full of colour, with a village clinging almost insecurely here and there, for all the world like the Alpine village pictures we see.  Above, the gleaming grey precipice of Drum caught the first rays of the sun, and behind that the ridges of Carnedd-y-Filiast struck a perfect contour in a faultless sky.  All the miles down to Llanrwst gave us such views of the mountains, whilst in the valley itself we rode by the river and by a woodland bank.  Near Llanrwst we looked across to the ravines running up to Llyn Crafnant and Llyn Eigiau, lying behind Trefriw and Dolgarrog, and leading to a hollow, behind which was a fine rock peak coloured red; the infinite variety of colour in that view must be seen before it can be realised.  How wonderful and quiet that wooded ravine directly above Porthllwyd seemed, how safely was Llyn Eigiau imprisoned – for another year….. then, well, everyone knows of the Eigiau Dam burst and the story of the destruction of Porthllwyd and its people in 1925.

Llanrwst is just like so many tiny Welsh towns, built compact and anyhow, yet clean and a bit quaint.  We crossed the high-spanned bridge that Inigo Jones built in 1636, passed the rock on which Gwydir Castle, a 16th century residential mansion containing many art treasures, and joined the road that takes the west bank of the river.  On our left, the river gleamed through the trees, on the right was the steep bank called Coed-yr-Allt-Goch, which means the ‘Red Height in the Wood’, ablaze with wild flowers.  The sun was weaving a leafy pattern on the road when we came to Pont-y-Pair at Betws-y-coed, stopping a moment, as is our wont to watch the ever-hurrying Llugwy, hurrying to meet the Conway.  The last time Tom and I leaned over that creeper-clad old parapet, was on the night of our first meeting at Easter, 1923.  How often since have we watched the river from that point !  The surroundings of Betws-y-coed grow more charming with each successive visit, and on that morning, soon after sunrise, they were magnificent.  Lunch beside a pretty cascade behind the Waterloo Bridge at 5.20am, afterwards essaying the ascent of Dinas Hill on the Holyhead road.  On the right the Ffestiniog road threaded its way like a grey ribbon through the fair Lledr valley, at the head of which, standing proud and clear was the gleaming precipice of Moel Siabod.  A slight sleepiness was warded off by a soapless wash with handkerchiefs for towels.  Higher up we caught the first view of Snowdon, sharp and clear, and after leaving the woods behind and embarking on the wild moorlands beyond Pentrefoelas, a turn about revealed the whole mass of mountains called Snowdonia, Llechog, Llywedd, Wyddfa and Crib Goch as clear as though they were within our grasp.  Then to Cerrigydruidion on a hard featureless road, with reaction setting in and the expected listlessness which often comes at that time after night riding.  Between Cerrig and Corwen the road is mostly of a downward tendency, but we were far to gone to notice it.  A cuckoo seemed to mock us with its ‘Cuck..ooo…silly…fools…cuck..oo….sleepy..fools…cuck..oo’.  At least that is what it sounded like !  At last we sat down and ate some fruit and I had a smoke – and the way we woke up after that was amazing.  We sprinted to Corwen with alacrity, pausing just a moment on the Dee Bridge.  In Corwen we found a place for a pot of tea, the landlady of which regarded us as vagabonds and our expedition as nothing short of criminal.

So it was in a jocular mood beneath the tropical hat of a June sun that we pottered down the ‘Glen of the Sacred Dee’ to Carrog, with many a wonderful view to Llangollen.  Industrialism presided on the road to Wrexham, but beyond, at Pulford, we entered the grounds of Eaton Hall, and pottered through the woodland glade to Bruera, whence intricate bylanes to Saighton, Egg Bridge, and Kelsall, brought us onto the infested Chester road.  After lunch at a little farmhouse near Tarvin, we sped with the flowing tide of traffic to Northwich, Altrincham and Sale, where we parted.  At 7.30 pm I reached home.  So went down our first all-night ride into the land of the Leek, a ride of 212 miles and a ride never to be forgotten.

 

In Derbyshire Dales Part Two

Sunday: February 8, 1925.

Monsal Dale:  The road (in Miller’s Dale) ended at Litton Mill, the beginning of wonderful Cressbrook Dale.  From a notice board we learned that pedestrians only could continue at a toll of six pence.  Now if there is anything that maddens me, it is the commercialisation of natural beauty.  There is far too much of it.  As soon as anything such as a glen, waterfall, or natural curiosity becomes known, a padlock is put near it, and a man forthwith haunts the spot with a roll of tickets.  It is not the price, that is negligible, but the principle of it.  If that particular ‘sight’ had been made accessible, I would not grumble, but when, like Cornbrook Dale, it has just been looked up, it is a bit too bad.  We decided not to pay, and joined a narrow road leading of the dales instead.  Once could almost lean on the wind when we left the shelter of the valley.  A splendid view of Miller’s Dale and Cressbrook Dale were ample repayment for the barrier.  Soon we joined a road that immediately dropped us at the end of Raven’s Dale, another pretty little scar.  Then the village of Cressbrook and a small section of Cressbrook Dale to Monsal Dale.

We left the road again, embarking on a squelchy field, and crossing the Wye by a stout footbridge, we passed under the railway and so entered the Dale.  Simultaneously heavy rains came down, but we continued without capes.  The path was wet and muddy but quite good, and ran on the fringe of the wooded right escarpment, often making little detours to the flooded river, which broke into many fierce little falls or noisy rapids, the steep slopes on both sides being well wooded and overlooked by fantastically shaped masses of rain-washed limestone.  One could picture familiar shapes in these pinnacles and slabs.  Here a resemblance to some church steeple or spire, there the profile of some animal, and high above were the walls and towers of some legendary town of Arthurian days.  The rain was quite forgotten during that all too short tramp through this little earthly paradise.  At length, a ‘teas’ hut hove into sight; a strange familiarity seemed to hang over, then we struck a main road which we recognised as the Buxton-Bakewell road, at the foot of Taddington Dale.

The ‘Ravine of the Wye’ is comprised of six dales, namely, Ashwood Dale, Wye Dale, Chee Dale, Miller’s Dale, Cressbrook Dale and Monsal Dale, through which runs the Derbyshire Wye on its way to the Derwent at Rowsley, two miles beyond Bakewell, and into it run many other dales from each side, all of them interesting, and some of them very beautiful.  On the left are Cunning Dale, Woo Dale, Great Rocks Dale, Monk’s Dale, Tideswell Dale, Littonfrith Dale and Raven’s Dale, the right being fed from Cow Dale, Kingsterndale, Deep Dale, Buck Dale, Horseshoe Dale and Taddington Dale, another Deep Dale and Kirkdale, excluding many nameless little chasms such as Lovers Leap.  Then there are the dales joining the Hope Valley, such as Otter Dale, Bradwell Dale (already mentioned), tiny Pin Dale, a fine example of limestone formation, Cave Dale, in which is situated Peak Cavern, and the Winnats Pass, the best of them all.

Derbyshire Dales002

 

The following is an extract for June 7, 1925.

Here, (from Castleton) we had two routes to choose from, for this is a cul-de-sac (the Hope Valley) the outlet being either by a long climb round the hairpins of Mam Tor or the steep ascent of the Winnats.  We chose the Winnats in preference, for if it does not yield the same view of the valley or give a glimpse of the scaly sides of the ‘shivering mountain’, it is grander and more awe-inspiring – and a jolly sight steeper and rougher too.  We generally, intentionally or otherwise, pick the harder and rougher way.  The Winnats is the old coach road; being once an adventure for the traveller, for on days when a gale is blowing, the formation of the pass turns the wind down the gorge with amazing velocity, and has been known to cause death by suffocation.  Then again, it was a popular haunt of highwaymen, the story being told of a bridal pair being murdered here on their way to their honeymoon.  And when one stands at the summit and looks upon that tortuous descent and upon those great walls of limestone on each side, one can quite believe what terror it caused in the ‘bad old days’.

Again on October 4, 1926.

We left the main road and made for the Winnats, past the entrance to Speedwell Cavern, but we did not see the pass until we were in it, so thick was the mist becoming.  As we climbed higher up the gorge, the pass became awesome.  Seeing only the base, and the rising, tottering crags, we could easily imagine ourselves somewhere in the dark clefts of the Caucasus or the fearsome chasms of the Himalayas, an imagination that grew upon us as we scrambled hotly through the mist.

Derbyshire Dales003

 

Middleton Dale, opening to the Derwent about midway between the Hope Valley and Monsal Head, is another excellent gorge, though halfway down it is marred by quarries.  At the foot of the dale lies the village of Stoney Middleton, and on the left hand side of the road the houses are built right beneath the cliffs which overhang the roofs.  One bulging mass of rock is called ‘Lover’s Leap’ to which an interesting but suspiciously common legend is attributed – with variations.  The limestone in Middleton Dale is known to be a solid thickness of 5,000 feet, except for the possible caverns, which have not been discovered.  Just where the quarries spoil the effect of the dale, one of the sweetest little dales in Derbyshire opens out.  It is Eyam Dale, and through it runs the road to Eyam, a beautiful little village with a terrible history; the Plague village it is called – of which more anon.  Though only half a mile long, Eyam Dale is possessed of the richest beauty.  The left hand side (on the way into Eyam) is deeply wooded, with the limestone bastions either gleaming grey through the trees or covered with ivy and creeper, whilst on the right the cliffs rise in fantastic masses with, just near Eyam, some picturesque cottage stuck here and there beneath the bulges on ledges above the road.  In Spring the ground is carpeted with flowers and far into the Autumn the gardens display a rich variety of colour.  Autumn Glory in Eyam Dale in November is a scene never forgotten.

Derbyshire rivers and Derbyshire Dales are in the foremost class for beauty, one river and dale ranks above them all, however that sweet ‘Valley of Rasselas’, Dovedale, and its river.  What did Cotton say ! :-

“Oh, my beloved nymph !  fair Dove

Princess of rivers……… “

And Cotton was right – it is a princess of rivers.  Yet I have only once been to Dovedale; my excuse must be the big mileage in hard, often uninteresting country that is necessary, the very early start which must be made to give one time to see the Dale, and our experience of the dismal ups and downs against a headwind of the Buxton-Ashbourne road, and a ‘big’ dinner, an exorbitant charge, and the after effects of the dinner on that “‘ard ‘igh road” from Milldale to Leek.  But for a’that, as Burns has it, Dovedale is worth it.  Here is the entry in my diary.

Sunday, May 3, 1925.

Returning to Thorpe, we turned left by the ‘Dog and Partridge’, dipping suddenly downhill past the entrance to the ‘Peveril of the Peak’ hotel, and across the river Dove to Thorpe Cloud, a village below a bold hill which bears the same name and guards the entrance to Dovedale.  Up again, and a rough, steep pitch brought us back to the river and the entrance the Dale.  A little farther on the road ended suddenly where a crowd of motors were drawn up and the hillside was thickly peopled.  The track into the gorge lay across the river, and at first we feared we should have to retrace our steps for half a mile, but Tom discovered some stepping stones, so hoisting the bikes on our shoulders we crossed quite easily – to the obvious surprise of the crowd.  There, the real glories of this ‘Valley of Rasselas’ started, and there lay the most wonderful three and a half miles in the world (it is said).

                    From Thorpe Cloud to Dove Holes the scenery is as though carried out by a giant artist from a fairy design.  Everything is on so magnificent a scale, yet so exquisitely beautiful in all its detail.  Trees, bushes, undergrowth, elfin dells and goblin rocks are everywhere; the path along which we tugged our bikes was at first along fairly open ground though rocky and uneven, but across the river the hills were a mass of foliage of every conceivable shade of green, for now Spring is at her best.  On the Derbyshire side the limestone had weathered into rugged cliffs and fantastic pinnacles, and a little further on we crossed Sharplow Dale.  Near here we started to spend money like water, paying one penny to visit the Reynard Caves, ‘Hill’ and ‘Kitchen’.  Scrambling up a rocky slope to the high, bare cliffs and, above, the natural arch in a great rib of rock that marks the opening to the two caves.  These caves are not deep, but inside them prehistoric and other remains have been discovered, and the name was given because they were the retreat of Reynard the fox.  From the top of this rocky curtain we obtained a fine view of the dale.

On returning to our machines we were persuaded into buying some picture postcards, and were shown one – a real photo, on which the shadow of Reynard darkened the cave entrance.  This phenomenon occurs only at very rare intervals and is caused by the sun’s rays falling across the cave mouth from a certain position.  Owing to the (supposed) rarity of the picture, the old lady in charge of the stall wouldn’t sell, although I fancy that had we cared to pay the price, it would have been ours; probably more would be forthcoming for some other gullible tourist.  Tissington Spires, an array of needle-like pinnacles could be seen from below the caves, and across the water, half-hidden by trees, we could see the limestone spires of Dovedale church.  This, of course, is not a church, but just a name given, such as abound in Dovedale, to the masses of limestone, and which have a fanciful resemblance to the buildings so named.

A little farther, we came to the Straits, where the river narrows between the tree-clad banks, and where we could only just scramble along the path.  On the far side of the Straits we passed a little wood to where the cliff comes down to the water, and where the ‘Lion’s Head’, a rock which has weathered to a remarkably close resemblance to the head of a lion, juts out.  Here we were at Pickering Tors, a great round bastion of limestone with five distinct points, the Lions rock being on the right, and a huge Tor with a cave at its base being on the left.  There also we saw Ilam rock standing up like a needle out of a deep pool in the Dove.  There was no doubt that the scenery was hypnotizing us.  We could have scrambled and climbed along this wondrous dale for hours, but the time was getting late (3.30pm) and there was more dale work yet and then over 60 miles of hard country to cover, so resolutely turning our faces ahead, we tramped, scrambled, and carried the bikes onwards.  Passing the big hill with its serrated and weather-worn outlines called ‘The Nabs’, we came to those two natural arched recesses in the rocky hillsides called the ‘Dove Holes’.  The larger arch has a span of over 50 feet, and rises to a height of 30 feet, but the other is not so majestic.  From here the dale became barren, and a very rough passage for half a mile took us to Milldale, a quiet little hamlet at the end of the dale so named, and where the Alstonfield road led us away from the limestone and Spring beauty of Dovedale onto the high green-brown moors.

Of the other dales in the district I know nothing, except that they are worth a visit, and a weekend is demanded to traverse Lathkill Dale, Beresford Dale, Milldale and the Manifold Valley.  Many more dales, too, I am almost ignorant of , as Darley Dale and the whole Matlock district, including Matlock Dale and Matlock Bath.  The valley of the Derwent to Rowsley I am acquainted with, the Hope Valley, and the North Derbyshire and Cheshire border ‘cloughs’, as Ladyclough, William Clough, Woodland Dale, Ashop Dale, Barmoor Clough, of the Kinder Scout, Wildboarclough (really a Cheshire valley) and beautiful Goyt Dale which is as much Cheshire, I know very well.

From the Derbyshire I have seen I gather that I have many rich treats and pleasant surprises in store when I start out to explore still more of that beautiful county.  And this story of the Derbyshire Dales does not end there, for folk-lore and legends, the wonderful story of the limestone and water, the netherworld of Derbyshire, its moors and its paths yet remain to form another theme somewhere in these pages.

November 27, 1926

 

In Derbyshire Dales 1926

Derbyshire Dales001Post:        Charlie compiled a miscellany of tales detailing several excursions into Derbyshire, together they are too long, so here is the first offering.

I was bound like a child, by some magical story,

Forgetting the South and Ionian Vales,

And thought that dear England had temples of Glory,

Where any might worship in Derbyshire Dales.

One of the happy hunting grounds for we Lancashire cyclists, is that section of the North Midlands that is deeply indented with cliff-bound, narrow ravines known as the Derbyshire Dales.  Here nature has bestowed her gifts of greenery lavishly, and time has made its impression in the limestone rock by weathering it into the most fantastic shapes or creating great bulging precipice, beneath which run the crystal waters of the Derbyshire streams.  Many times have we turned our wheels into the these glorious dales, sometimes following their courses by road, and sometimes by path, in all the seasons of the year, and never have we failed to find something new, something different on each occasion.

My first visit to the Derbyshire Dales was made nearly four years ago (1923), when Tom and I left Manchester at an early hour and found ourselves in Buxton before 11am.  From that fashionable spa, the Bakewell road took us into Ashwood Dale, woefully ruined by the appropriation of the dale for sewage and gas purposes.  Here and there one sees, in little, undefiled spots, what Ashwood Dale was before Buxton laid its ruthless hands upon it, and in one place, the much visited Lover’s Leap runs into it.  This is a sheer-sided gorge, down which a little stream finds a course, and seen as we once saw it, when melting snows sent the stream into the gorge in a fine little fall, and filled the bed of the ravine with surging water, is to see it at its best.  Two miles from Buxton, Wye Dale takes the place of Ashwood Dale, and one sees the limestone cliffs go higher, and the river Wye loosened from its paved bed to take a more natural course.  Here again its proximity to a town and its limestone formation have been its undoing, for in the most part, it has been hopelessly despoiled by quarrying on a large scale.

The Bakewell road climbs out of the dales at the end of Wye Dale, returning into this ‘Ravine’ of the Wye in Taddington Dale.  From the road summit, above Wye Dale, Tom and I were able to take a bird’s eye view down to the gorge below, but the view is spoiled by quarrying.  Right across, a sweeping valley has been turned into one huge quarrying concern, making Great Rocks Dale into an eyesore rather than a scene of natural grandeur.  Still, I suppose it is necessary that certain beauty spots shall be given up to the hand of ‘civilisation’, and it is a matter to be thankful over that the best have been left intact.  So to get back to our ride.  A byway led us downhill between the crags of limestone into Miller’s Dale.  This is perhaps the most popular of the Dales with the exception of Dovedale, on account of its accessibility.  The river opens out into a kind of lake, upon which is always an assortment of ducks, usually ravenously hungry.  On the hillside lies the village of Miller’s Dale, and then farther down, the dale takes on a more characteristic appearance, and shows some magnificent cliffs.  From Miller’s Dale, we took the tiny, barren Tideswell Dale, to Tideswell, a rather quaint little town possessing a fine old church that is often termed the ‘Cathedral of the Peak’.

Thence our way lay across a tract of grassy moorland into the dusty, broken Bradwell Dale, in which is located Bagshawe Cavern, the most wonderful stalactitic cavern yet discovered in Derbyshire.  Bradwell Dale gives access to the Hope Valley, not a dale in the Derbyshire sense of the word, but an open valley, very much like the Welsh Vale of Clwyd or the Tanat Valley.  From Hope, our way lay along a winding, narrow lane by the railway and the river Noe into the Vale of Edale.  Edale is magnificent; it is more Welsh than Derbyshire – perhaps more Lakeland than Welsh, as it is deep-seated amid the moorlands, and ends in a cul-de-sac.  From Edale village the road climbs up to Rushup Edge in many a sharp upward lurch and many a hairpin bend, and from the summit one sees the dale below in all its beauty.  The best time for Edale is late Autumn, when the moors around are ablaze with bracken, and the valley is tinted with russet and green admirably blended.  The end of Edale was the end of the Derbyshire Dales for us that day, but the beginning of numerous visits into that region, each one proving more ambitious than the rest.

So now I propose to give a few extracts from my diary, and as befits, I will start with the Ravine of the Wye, when we followed the footpath from the end of Wye Dale to Miller’s Dale, in that wonderful glen, Chee Dale.  It was our second visit to Chee Dale, but the first successful one, as on the first occasion, heavy floods made it impassable.

Sunday: October 4, 1925.

Just as the road tilts upwards to leave the Ravine (of the Wye) and climb Topley Pike, we abandoned it, passing through a gateway and traversing a cart track which was strewn plentifully with flinty stones and led to a small lime works, from where we reached the row of cottages at the commencement of Chee Dale.  It was raining heavily, and the atmosphere was stuffy and misty, whilst the paths were heaving in mud.  The limestone cliffs were taller and sheerer here than hitherto, and the path deteriorated to a mere track.  A youngster informed us that the Stepping Stones would probably be submerged but that did not deter us.  One or two stiles and a rough crossing of broken rock and flinty outcrop brought us to where we had been finally checked last time.

The river was lower and we perceived that though it ran flush with the bulging cliffs, stones had been placed at regular – or rather irregular intervals to enable one to get round, so we shouldered the bikes and stepped out to them.  We found that we weren’t traversing a bed of roses however, for these stepping stones either came to a point, or rocked, or were partially submerged, each stone possessing its own peculiarity calculated to inconvenience the ‘stepper’.  Besides this, they were too near the side, and the overhanging rock caused us to bend down here, or lean outwards there, the while we poised artistically with the bikes on our shoulders on some wobbling stone.  Half-way along was a little beach on which we rested and sheltered.  Oh, but the scenery was magnificent, the great rock bastions, the swirling river, and the delicate shades that autumn had given to the woods.  White and grey were the cliffs, green and clear was the water, which leapt in many little cascades, turning to creamy white; brown and gold and green in an infinite variety of shades decked the trees, and grass and undergrowth, nettle and bramble put a finishing touch to the pageantry of colour.

We managed to get across the stepping stones alright, though as a matter of course we got our feet rather waterlogged, a regular Sunday happening that is liable to obtain even during a heatwave !  In comparison with the route that followed, the stepping stones faded into insignificance.  The general surface was composed of clay set on a camber steep enough to make us slip continually into a morass, in which grew dense masses of nettles.  Then here and there was a little crag of limestone to be surmounted, and only Chee Dale clay is slippier than Chee Dale limestone.  The best way to get along – and by far the easiest – was by carrying the bike all the time.  A huge bastion of sheer rock towered over the river, Chee Tor, whilst a backward glance revealed the bulging cliffs overhanging the Stepping Stones.  Then the dale narrowed, and the Wye flowed swiftly into a deep, silent pool hemmed by an impassable precipice, over the edge of which leaned stately trees.  Longfellow might have had this in mind when he wrote:

“Reflected in the tide the grey rocks stand

And trembling shadows throw;

And the fair trees lean over side by side,

And see themselves below”.

A long narrow plank, half-rotted, crossed the river, and as we trod warily across we could feel it bend and creak before our weight, then on the other side the path climbed to the top of the cliffs, so near the edge that a slip on the clay or rock would ensure an impromptu dive into the pool.  Then it descended to the river again beyond the channel, and a stouter plank bore us back across the river, where we came up against the toughest problem we had ever faced.  We had to scale a 10 foot crag, across the top of which had fallen a great tree, with two fork branches entirely blocking the way.  On the right the crag dropped sheer to the river, and to the left the roots of the tree were like a wall, whilst on the other side a steep slope of clay ended over the cliff.

We tried different methods without success, until we hit on the plan of holding the bike as high as possible from a little ledge, and Tom, leaning over the tree, managed to hoist it to the other side.  As soon as he left the tree with it, he started to slide down the clay slope despite vigorous efforts to keep a foothold.  Things got desperate; meanwhile I tried to get round the roots to help, arriving on the scene just as he was nearing the edge.  Relieved of the bike, he soon gained a firm foothold.  So much for one, but obviously that plan would not do again, so with a change of tactics, I got astride the tree trunk, Tom lifted the bike over his head, I leaned over and grasped it, pulling it over to the other side, then Tom regained the treacherous clay and ‘dug himself in’ by his heels, carefully drawing the bike across.  Then I found that I could not get off the tree, and had to work my way backwards to where I could get a hold.  It had taken us over half an hour to get our bikes over a tree trunk !   Our clothing was full of clay; it showed in big, yellow-brown patches all over my black alpaca jacket, and our sodden shoes were thick with it, but the wonderful scenery around made up for the discomfort; if not, why the very fun of dragging a bike over the obstacles made us satisfied.  After that we had a long walk by the river, through mud and over crags in the beautiful woods, carrying the bikes nearly all the time.  Skirting a sinister-looking morass, we passed the end of another dale, and then, progress being more or less easy, we came to Miller’s Dale.  The two and a half miles of Chee Dale had taken over three hours, and we recorded it as the hardest scramble with bikes we had ever had – and one of the loveliest.