I had been inspired for a long time by articles such as the above in Singletrack Magazine, and my experience of walking in the North Pennines. An excursion to High Cup Nick was in order. A perfect weather forecast (no wind and clear skies) plus a Saturday of brownie points earned in the garden meant it was now, or wait for next summer. Sunday found me parked up at Cow Green Reservoir waiting for Graham to join me in an open-ended trip – maybe just to High Cup and back, but maybe further. While I waited, a couple of guys from Darlington arrived, Mark and Lee, and we had a good chat and discovered we had similar plans and agreed to generally ride together. Graham arrived, we got set up and were off.
The bridleway from just beyond the farm at Birkdale up high onto the hill above Maize Beck has been “improved” from it’s old incarnation as a boggy track across the moor with occasional flagging into a full-blown shooting track. Vandalism, but certainly makes progress much faster than in the past. Mark and Lee had headed off further up the track for a kilometer (to a dead-end), so seeing us heading down to the river they did an about turn and then overtook us. The path was a bit technical in places, but once we’d crossed the bridge to the south side of the beck, the going gradually improved, starting with a rocky ascent, and turning into a broad, grassy road towards High Cup.
In short order we arrive at the spectacle that is High Cup, and grab a few photos. Mark and Lee stop for lunch, but Graham and I have our minds set on the pub at Dufton, so carry along on the ledge above the line of cliffs, with the going being great: this is what mountain biking is all about.
After a short climb over the ridge, we embark upon “the descent” – a cracking 400 metres of height loss comprising rocky single track, grassy slopes, rubble-strewn farm tracks, and, eventually, tarmac.
We do stop at the pub for lunch at Dufton (great beer), and then commit ourselves to the climb up the tarmac to the radar station on Great Dun Fell. This is an epic. In theory it should be easy with mountain bike gears, but by the time we’re half-way up, I’m off and pushing. There’s not a breath of wind in the air, and although it’s autumn, I’m sweating like the full heat of summer. A roadie has dropped his car in the first layby and is heading up-and-back (presumably to make a Strava segment). He’s cheerful in both directions. Near the top we catch Mark and Lee (who overtook us while we were in the pub). At this point, time is pushing on, and it’s starting to get dark early, so rather than heading north across to Cross Fell and the descent to Garrigill, we make a team decision to head down the Trout Beck bridleway. This is described in various articles as “sketchy”, but it’s not as bad as advertised. True there are a few boggy sections and a few “offs”; there’s also the bit where the river appears to have changed course and the path no longer exists, so you cross the river (wet feet), bush-whack for a few hundred metres, and then cross the river again to regain the path. Towards Troutbeck Foot we encounter a D of E group. The leader is all cheeriness, and recommends we just shout to the group ahead to move aside. I do this, and one of the girls gets panicked and jumps into a drainage ditch, to her mates’ amusement. No harm done – the moss is soft. Here we have a decision to make. To stay wholly “legal” we should follow the mine track north to Garrigill, take the BOAT up the hill onto the Alston-Middleton Road, and then do lots of road miles around to Cowgreen. Time, the remoteness of the location, and pragmatism lead us to select Plan B: follow the dead-end mine road up to Metalband Hill, and push on across the access land for 1km (with river crossing) to reach the path heading south to the reservoir and cars. As the path is really a land rover track, we’re not doing any damage, so my conscience is clear! We land at the car, dirty, soggy-footed and tired. Hands are shaken and congratulations given out, then time to get in the car and head homewards. A great long proper mountain bike day out (and just shy of 40 km).