It was a happy idea that decided the ‘We.R.7’ rendezvous for their New Year holiday. A cycle-tour at New Year has many apparent disadvantages, but the ‘We.R.7’ had found the advantages far in excess. They always do. Two New Years had been spent at Ffestiniog, which place, though owing its quiet beauty to its wild position, can become outlandish beyond possibility in a day’s ride. Rain and wind had twice combined their mighty forces, without success, to keep Ffestiniog beyond our reach, though our condition of arrival had both times been precarious. A freak day, or snow would leave Ffestiniog absolutely inaccessible, for except from the coast the roads all cross the mountains, and are often blocked for weeks at once in winter. Ispytty Ifan sent a heavy, third class lane to 1590 ft, hard after a day against the wind; Cwm Penmachno reaches the same height, but was harder still, and from Bala the seventeen miles road over Arenig was a ‘teaser’. Mists, gradient, and a shocking surface tells a tale at the end of a hundred winter miles. That surface since then has been changed to smooth tarmac, and nobody who remembers the nightmare at night in mist, will grudge the change.
We wanted a change, so Patterdale or Ullswater was suggested, and we agreed that Patterdale would fill the bill. Kirkstone Pass was the only way, except for a detour of thirty miles or more by way of Penrith, but Kirkstone’s 1476 ft was little to worry about – a spice would be added by the crossing. Besides, at least one pass is the qualification for the outward run. The CTC handbook gave us Mrs Blacklock’s at Glenridding, a mile beyond Patterdale: we wrote for board for seven – three nights, and the reply assured us of ‘the good time coming’. We were split up into three parties, three to make a full-day run, two to get off at noon, and Jack and I on the tandem expected ‘fetching’ our destination in a fast afternoon ride. We two were just then in the heyday of our tandem activities.
That very few envied Jack and I when we steered away at 2.30pm that bleak last day of the Old Year was plain to see. News was in the papers of great snowstorms that isolated the southern half of Britain that week, and dismal jimmies fluently prophesied ten-feet drifts in Lakeland. These things troubled us not at all – we meant to cross Kirkstone if it was the remotest possibility. On Belmont moors icy roads made us gang warily; a snowstorm raging on the summits was left behind as we descended to Abbey Village, and then, with clear roads, we raced coming darkness to Scotforth for tea.
A dark highway, a fast-moving tandem, and a good light – what is more thrilling? With a strong wind behind and the pedals circling without apparent energy (we rode the tandem ‘fixed’) we took in belt upon belt of approaching roads, and reached Kendal in four cycling hours from home, at 7.30. We had twenty mountainous miles, and high hopes of being in for supper. For six miles to the Troutbeck lane beyond Staveley the road is pimply but along the little lane the ‘collar work’ really commences. We ‘shanked’ a great deal up to the snowline. As this lane was not by any means new to me I thought I knew it, but we took a wrong turn, swept down a long snow-strewn incline, walked up another, and entered a fairyland of snowy pines. We eventually reached a fine hall surrounded by subsidiary buildings, and were put right by a chef who came out resplendent in white with a French accent and a strong aroma of whisky. So back we sped through the pines and down and up to our turning. At length came the true descent with bulky white ghosts of mountains growing round until we reached the pretty little church and bridge at Troutbeck, where starts the ascent of Kirkstone Pass.
The moon came out. If ever I enjoyed a cold frosty night it was surely this magnificent New Year’s Eve over Kirkstone Pass. The road was fairly clear of the snow that lay in drifts along each side and shone in the moonlight on the mountains. Pictures of alpine grandeur rolled away in the blue – the deep, lovely blue of perfect night in mid-winter. The silence of the world impressed us…….. we became aware that the end of another year was there, in the cold gleam of that night’s moon. We had struggled through a year of passionate outbursts…… winter had shown us its wildest…… spring had roared – slashed her way through the tender shoots of Nature ……summer was a fitful dream of little spells of sunshine and long weeks of cloud, rain, gales and floods….. autumn had died at the birth of her, winter had entered at the death of summer. But with scarcely two hours to live, 1927 wore the calm robes of queenly beauty. We had weathered a wild year gladly – with a smile, but that brilliant Old Year moon brought a tear somehow. The happiest retrospection holds a little pang that can hurt.
We were scarcely conscious of the summit until the snowy gorge of Stockgill opened out at our feet. Yes there was Kirkstone Inn, unlighted, the hour must be late. Jack had a watch. The time was 10.15. Patterdale lay six miles away down the Pass; our destination seven miles, the summit was clear of snow. Just then the lamp went out – a refill was necessary, but I waived it. There was a moon and not a policeman or indeed, a human being about. Seven miles was less than half an hour! With our customary recklessness we plunged down the moonlit gap. Ere the first bend Jack tried a rear brake from his handlebar, and stopped the back wheel immediately. I felt the back of the tandem convulse, slide sideways, then jerking the front wheel to correct the skid, ran along the snow-choked gutter. Ice ! The bend was rushing up to meet us when I steered into the snow again, for there was our only hope of checking. The rear brake was tried again and sighed with combined relief when the machine slowed a little. On the bend a drift had piled itself across the road. We cut through that drift like a launch in water, encountered a dreadful spell of ice again, and then the road became dry, shining in front like a grey ribbon; we sped down there with whirlwind velocity, reached Brothers Water, reedy in the silvery light, and in the wandering lane to Patterdale almost ran amok in a crowd of people on the road. At that Jack refused to break the law another minute, and we charged the lamp again.
So magnetised by the beauty of the night were we that we failed to recognise Glenridding, riding along blissfully unaware till Aira Force, three miles beyond, was reached. We did not regret that point: to ride back was a delight. The moon tracked a silver way across the lake…. Ullswater….. the mountains sharp-prowed above, softer in distance, met that infinite blue. We concluded our ride as 1927 had one unforgettable hour to live.
Three had arrived, Tom and the Wigan lads, which left two not accounted for. We wondered if they had yet crossed Kirkstone…. they did not arrive that night. The time-honoured custom of letting New Year in was performed according to local rites by the two dark members, Tom and Hindley Fred (hereafter H.F.), an enjoyable procedure to judge from the noise under the front door, where mistletoe was hanging. There were two girls at home, the right type for such an occasion, and, as they later proved, game for anything. There were toasts, we settled down and the girls gave us a sing-song.
At 3 am we went to bed.
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