Friday, 23 March 2012

Cycling and Zen, with asides

The weather is a little strange at the moment. Chilly nights are bringing a mist that lingers through the day. Sometimes it is burnt off before too long and the day becomes positively summery but at other times, like today, it slowly thins into a bright haze that makes everything more than a couple of hundred metres away increasingly vague and dreamlike. Today the brightness seemed so strong I thought the haze would completely disappear, but it never quite did, and as the afternoon temperature began to fall the mist began to reimpose its cotton-wool grip.

It was a pleasant enough afternoon, though, warm with barely a breath of wind. I headed out for a bit, aiming to try to climb from London Road in the city centre all the way up to Burbage, a steady constant climb for 9 km up through the suburbs of Sharrow and Ecclesall (which most of my childhood was split between), then into the countryside. This part of the Peak District is rough and quite inhospitable looking, uneven ground covered with the ubiquitous heather that stretches from the road as far as you can see in either direction, even on days that aren't closed in by haze, rising to rough rocky ridges of millstone grit, the dark course local sandstone that gives the Dark Peak its name, covering the limestone that delineates the White Peak to the South and West. The escarpments rise like frozen, jagged waves, the black peat fallen away to expose them like flesh from the bones of the Earth.

The climb isn't all that steep, but it long and relentless. I remember riding this route with my father, from where we lived at Ecclesall. For most of the time you can see what appears to be the crest of a hill a little way in front of you but then as you reach it you realise it is nothing but a short dip or flattening of the road – or even just an easing of the gradiant – that hid the climb beyond from sight. The first time we came out this way, quickly out past the big houses at Ringinglow, then settling into the long haul up. After a few of these 'peaks' I asked my dad how many more hills to go, only to be told “just a couple more, Paul”. A few hills later I got the same answer, and then again after that. At the time I thought my dad was deliberately underplaying the distance and the climb, the time-honoured “almost there, don't give up now” tactic. Since then, riding the route myself (especially when it's been a while), I've realised he genuinely thought it was was “just a couple more” hills. The climb becomes the thing, the rhythm of legs and pedals and breath, and each minor summit is not a waymark on the trail to the top but simply part of the journey. As I've found with rock climbing, too, and some find with running, the focus of mind and body sometimes brings you, if you're lucky, to a kind of Zen moment, a lack of consciousness where all that exists is now, the thing you are doing without thought of the goal, the summit, the finish line.

When you do crest the top, you know it. The road eases over the plateau in a stately curve, bisecting the heather and moss on either side. To the right Rud Hill and Stanage Pole and High Neb, barely visible, rear from both the rolling highlands and the mist. The bike clatters over a cattle grid, although 'sheep grid' is more to the point. Despite the rich, black peat formed from millennia of heather these moors, like so many others, have never been economical to farm. The peat is thick and sticky, 'clarty', and riddled with stones – both the big outcrops that have been carved into sculpture by wind and rain, and the countless boulders and pebbles and lumps of every size in between that have worn off and sit in the soil ready to defeat any plough with the temerity to try tilling land. An even greater obstacle would be the weather. We're up around 400 metres, nowhere near the 636 metres of Kinder Scout to the West, but quite high enough to make the weather at these latitudes unpredictably harsh. I've been caught in hail- and snowstorms out here in June and July before now, and rain, especially in the spring and autumn, and turn huge tracts into deadly black bogs. Not that there aren't a few of those anyway, even in the driest of weathers; there are many paths across the moors, and it is foolish to wander off them. So the only agriculture that the high moors lend themselves to is the cultivation of sheep, and hardy breeds such as Herdwicks and Hebrideans (or cross-bred 'mules') wander singly or in small groups that don't seem to warrant being called herds, grazing the tough clumps of grass and sheltering in hollows and ambling across the road as though they own the place, which is fair enough really.

But this lack of agricultural utility means that the Dark Peak is perhaps as unspoilt a landscape as you'll find in England; there are occasional spoil heaps from mines going back hundreds of years but, being mostly for limestone and lead, they tend to be in the lower parts and, anyway, are mostly so overgrown that they are now part of the natural landscape as much as any rockfall. The sheep keep the vegetation, such as it is, in check, but trees have never in human history stood on these heights. The trees haven't had time to get established here since the glaciers last left these islands, more than ten thousand years ago.

I drop through the dip, across the old stone bridge that carries the road over Burbage Brook. To my left the stream wends its uneven way down the valley, Higger Tor and the iron age fort of Carl Wark to one side and the scarp of Burbage Rocks on the other, a scarp popular with climbers that is part of the same formation as Stanage Edge, now out of sight to the North. A short climb takes me over Higger Tor (tor being a Celtic word for hill, found now mostly in North Derbyshire, Devon and Cornwall, though sometimes in Wales and Scotland as well), I am almost at the very highest point for a while, with the Hope Valley ahead of me. Just beyond a split in the road there is a footpath that drops down sharply before rejoining the tarmac, so I heave my bike over the stile. The track is only about a kilometre long, but is steep and bumpy enough to get my heart racing more than the climb did. I didn't take to a mountain bike at a young enough age to be entirely tranquil at such descents and I am far more comfortable once continuing the drop on the road, although as this is also steep and relatively straight I get up to around 65 kph on my way into Hathersage, only having to slow down when I approach cars ahead of me driving much more slowly and sensibly than I am.

As well as being a beautiful village in its own right (and being home to the Scotsman's Pack Inn, a pub that has seen many a fine meal and pint after a hike out from Sheffield), I often ride further afield from here; Westward, the Hope Valley leads to Castleton (the ultimate destination, so often, of those long ago trips with my dad), site of Peverel Castle and the tours of several old, disused mineworkings, my favourite being the boat trip along the flooded Speedwell Cavern. To the South, the valley curves down through the villages of Grindleford, Stoney Middleton, Calver and Hassop and to the excellent Monsal Trail, a former rail line which has been turned into a walking and bike route almost all the way out to Buxton, through some breathtaking White Peak landscape. But not today. I haven't brought a packed lunch.

I turn up Sheffield Road, then the steeper road that will take me back to Burbage. Although this climb is only 4 km, the incline makes it a good grade 15 climb, to add to the long grade 22 on the way out (Category 3 and 2 respectively, by the scale used for racing, but I like the finer distinction of the grade). I drop back down Ringinglow Road, but turn off before I get to the suburbs. Fulwood Lane bends and dips amongst farmland and woods before dropping down to where the trail called Wyming Brook Drive plummets down alongside the stream for which it is named, then past the reservoir and I am in Rivelin Valley and heading for home. Perhaps this weekend I'll head out the same way and continue to the Monsal Trail, or Matlock, or Chatsworth House, or who knows where. I must remember to make some sandwiches.