One KTM 450 and one CRF 250 L. A little bit of late winter snow, the perfect excuse to head out mid week. It's not like a bit of the white stuff is going to be a problem for either of these very capable trail bikes... is it? Northumbria TRF member John Speight headed out into the northern hills for the first time. All was going well until the last hill...

It started a bit like this…

“Hi John I’m planning heading to Alston if you fancy it… I'm always slow when I have a camera so steady away… there should be some good snow.”

It was an offer too good to miss. Back track a few years and the only dirt riding I'd done was by mistake on an overcooked bend, more about cooking later!

Having successfully introduced my adventure mad wife Jayne to motorbikes twenty something years ago, and trail riding for a special birthday, we had spent the last few years exploring the trails of Cambodia Spain and Italy yet had never ventured further than our local moors up here in Durham / Northumberland.

We had visited our local TRF club over the past few months and got to know a few friendly faces. The opportunity to explore further afield with Greg the chairman on trails in my own back yard was to good to miss.

I was up early Tuesday morning. The bike, a Honda 250 CRF L, which has proved reliable in Spain and Italy was well prepped, our recent trips to the club meets had included talks on first aid, tool rolls, puncture repair, towing, I was as prepared as the RAC.

With a full tank of fuel and a litre in hand, we met up 9 on the dot. The day started well on tracks straight from Greg’s home and up toward Slaley via some short easy trails to warm up. Arriving at the forest of Slaley I was asked to be the cameraman, “Can you ride one handed? Just ride alongside and film me…” or words to that affect. It was a bit Rabbit in headlights! My previous job sometimes entailed me passing or collecting various items (generally sweets from my high powered sports bike from passenger windows of cars at silly speeds) but that meant nothing. On the first pass I dropped the baton, or rather the GoPro. I can confirm they are very robust. Take 2 worked better.

Slaley was wet and muddy , I got splashed a lot I think it was payback for dropping the GoPro, or maybe visual enhancement for the film, slipping and sliding down familiar trails through ever deepening pools of standing water and taking a quick respite to chat with a local dog walker we headed out of the forest toward Juniper, a river crossing after a muddy down hill track and the furthest point and ventured previously with another TRF member.

Wet...

...and cold

I had crossed the river before in the summer, it had been quite inviting in the heat of the day, this was a bit different, the black water flowed a lot faster and looked a lot deeper. The bridge a matter of meters away looked inviting but would have been a weakness neither of us were prepared to admit.

The river was high but passable, Greg’s KTM was manhandled over first with little drama, keeping the air box high to prevent drowning the bike. The Honda seemed heavier, every push and the front end sank rather than climb over the rocks. It took a while but thankfully we made it.

A quick wring out of the socks and we were off. A few faster road sections and a steady climb in height as we pointed further north added a change in temperature as did the layers of snow we were now encountering. Some good open trails above Haydon Bridge and Haltwistle brought us to higher fells on the edge of Alston. Here the trail showed heavy signs of use by all means of transport and was deeply rutted, filled with deep snow and freezing water. A good spot for a photo shoot before dropping down to Alston for a quick refuel.

We were both freezing, especially with our wet boots so it was straight into Alston House hotel and in front of the fire for hot food. Thankfully we were the only ones there and they didn’t mind the wet muddy riders drying their socks in the dining room! We even managed to melt Greg’s Forma Boots.

With full bellies we set off again to what was described as Greg’s favourite lane, Tynehead. This in turn would lead to the highest trail in England Coldberry End. It was explained that if I was to fall whilst riding the trail, fall left (travelling up hill) as falling right would have slightly more serious conclusion as the trail hugs the side of a steep bank. Riding towards the lane via Nenthead the evidence of snow increased and the narrow single lane road was so hard packed with snow and ice that I slipped and slid until the inevitable happened. Thankfully I wasn't hurt and my bike survived, I wondered if my riding companion had fallen but there were no admissions.

Negotiating the road and riding through the village of Garrigill the road gradually became narrower and began to break up until it was an obvious track. Passing remote farm land we arrived at Tynehead via an access gate, right next to an unoccupied holiday cottage which would prove too remote for most. Another quick guide to negotiating the trail was given, fall left, there are two ruts, take the left one it's quite rocky and remember fall left! 

I rode through the gate and straight away fell off. Picking the bike up it was hard to choose a line, the snow was maybe a little deeper than expected. Off again I chose to sit and paddle as the snow covered hillside wasn't giving any clues to the whereabouts of the best line, the drop to the right was a clue though. As there weren't any helpful tyre tracks to follow it quickly became apparent the little Honda was having a hard time of it, or was it me?

A quick recovery from an off balance fall and it was decided that Greg on his Ktm 450 would plough a trail to aid me getting through the snow, the more powerful Enduro specific bike and a bit of talent dug out a track for me to follow. Pounding fifty something year old legs and a spinning clutch were taking its toll, I fell for the second or third time… “Give it plenty of throttle, in a higher gear, let the clutch out and don't stop.” All good advice, “I am!”I said but the wheel wasn't for turning!

The little Honda had endured a beating and its clutch was taking a sabbatical. A little rest at a derelict shepherds hut proved just enough to give the Honda one last breath of momentum to climb a little of the final half mile before again failing on the slight hill onto the road.

We pushed and pulled my bike onto the road and headed back down to collect Greg’s KTM which had one last challenge up it’s sleeve, a broken starter button. Kick start only from now on. I did feel the pain watching Greg kick the beast into life. It’s a tall bike, and I don’t think Greg will mind me saying he’s not very tall!

 

Relieved to be back on the road!
 
Once at the road we quickly realised Coldberry End was a lane to far on this trip the snow was deeper and the CRF was showing no signs of recovery, it's clutch cooked and fried into submission. It was decided our adventure had ended for the day. Luckily the road to the town of Teasdale was mainly downhill, ambling along at speeds of 5 to 15 mph with a few pushes from behind by Greg’s melted Forma boot, we descended to the lights of High Force pub and phone reception. I summoned the assistance of Jayne and the trailer to get me home via the Teasdale chippy.

A great day, a mini adventure that highlighted lots of strengths and weaknesses of both the Honda and me. It was a heavy day with lots thrown at us, a real learning experience which I for one thoroughly enjoyed.

Oh and the clutch, it’s been uprated and upgraded, the blued and cooked plates and oil being swopped for Britains finest with heavy duty springs to boot, the extra bonus being a day in the garage servicing the bikes, teaching Jayne the workings of a clutch and enjoying seeing her swop out hers. Cheers Greg for a memorable day.

Cooked clutch... new clutch

Perfect Sunday afternoon

Would you like to experience these trails? This October sees Northumbria TRF host their annual Hadrian Adventure Weekend. Find out more and get booked here.

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