Tuesday, March 31, 2020

March Bivi 2020 - on solitude

The Preamble

I have to admit, I thought this BAM might not happen.  There's been a lot of short rides on a new bike - the first one where I took it up to the pump track near home, just to make sure I actually rode it - once.  There was the ride where the cheap bit of plastic "chain protector" came loose and kept making the chain come off.  Then bags started to get added, tape to protect the frame, building the new dynamo wheel, adding the dropper post.

It was all building up to last weekend - meant to be the start to a beautiful holiday.  We would finish work on Friday and race to the highlands armed with a loaded mountain bike for me and a road bike for TSK to do whatever took his fancy.

I was looking forwards to reccying the new lines on the HT route and was poised to report back to organisers and friends, then the Government took over.  For future reference: This is the week Covid-19 took the UK into lockdown.  For now reference: this is the last time I will mention it this Blog.

2 Sundays ago we raced.  On Monday and Tuesday, in line with ambitious training, I managed to continue riding to work and on Wednesday I was forced to drive in so I could collect my desk, screen, chair and mouse/keyboard and set up my home office.  The holiday morphed into tentative, then a staycation.

TSK had always wanted to visit Ludd's church and so we thought that we'd sneak in whilst no-one was looking.  We took a packed lunch and unwittingly joined 1/6 of the UK in the white peak, the rest being in the Dark Peak, Lakes, Highlands or Yorkshire Dales.  I felt bad enough about travelling that far so on Sunday I went in search of solitude and a little bit of daylight.  I was successful except for a brief period around Derwent reservoir.  I empathise with folk wanting to enjoy the countryside but when it occurred to me that one in 10 of those big groups of people I saw could be from the hotspot of Westminster, I took a different tune and was glad I rode by quickly in search of further isolation on Cut Gate.

Success.  If we're never allowed outside again then I will dine out on that apple, eaten in a sheep ditch, for years to come.  I loped indoors late in the evening - my first (and possibly last) pass over Cut Gate this year left me prepared for Monday exactly how I like it - slightly exhausted.  We concluded that if we were stuck at home then we might as well offer to work.

I cycled though Tuesday's team meeting on my Turbo, getting 50km in.  I felt positive, maybe I would get a sneaky BAM in on my new bike - get the dynamo finished, figure out the baggage, pop out, use up some of the time work owes me - a quickie before lockdown and then the news came in on Tuesday.

Everyone knows by now how much of a goody twoshoes I am.  I dreamed of sneaking out to "that" bench for a night - the one in the valley I've had my eye on for ages.  But deep down I knew that in any kind of legally enforced lockdown I'd spend the night wide awake somehow paranoid I'd be arrested by the nature police.  I even lay awake in bed on Wednesday night, imagining which way I'd ride through the allotments to avoid capture.

The week seemed to drag on forever and I worked waaay more hours than I ever would have at work.  Things got busy and instead of  turning away for the daily commutes I had set myself, I worked longer and harder than ever before as BAM floated on the breeze outside my velux window in the loft office.

On Friday I had myself a glass of wine straight after work. It was bad.  HT was cancelled, BAM seemed off the cards and I'd lost all mojo.  I sat outside looking down the valley, hankering after what could have been in the glorious evening sunset and decided to check what was happening on the BAM notice board.

At first I expect a tough-luck approach.  If you didn't get out already then more fool you.  I'd already turned down Mr Landlside for a March BAM on the basis that I was feeling a bit off with hot flushes and a tickly cough which transpired to be high settings on the central heating, early menopause symptoms and hayfever.

I also expected some people would be out doing it anyway or using mates' gardens - none of which were on my radar for reasons previously described.

Sense finally prevailed and I realised Stu wouldn't be so irresponsible as to break with caution in the pursuit of a cloth badge and as I write this I hear the hipocrisy in the face of the legality of wild camping in this country but mental health and public health are, sadly, still very different things.

Tempting as it was to head off onto the moors on foot (emergency exception number 1) I opted instead for my Own Back Garden (emergency exception number 2), suddenly very happy to have one, as well as a plush new bench, fortunately purchased in last year's garden centre sales.

My rules

I decided to remain as close as possible to usual BAM experience - leave on Saturday on a fully loaded bike, camp in my own garden, get up and go for another ride on Sunday with all the gear back on the bike.  Only 2 changes:
  • I wasn't leaving a brand new bike outside overnight in a city garden - lock-down or no lock-down
  • TSK said I wasn't allowed to poo in the Compost bin - or anywhere else in the garden for that matter.
I would let myself in the house once to lock the bike in the kitchen and use the bathroom.

The First Ride

I spent most of Saturday still dicking about with wheels and wiring the dynamo.  As the day went on, my soldering got worse and the electrical tape got thicker.

As soon as I started to load the bags, the heavens opened and the cat bust in through the catflap a little soggy.  I'm glad I didn't open the blinds to take a look outside because, in retrospect, the noise was so loud because it was hailstoning.

Of course, I had bivi plans so, gone were the chily but clear sparkling spring mornings.  The forecast was for 1 degreeC, cloudy , windy, potential for precipitation.  I packed the largest sleeping bag I thought I could get on the bike, the Ugly Tarp, mat, bivi bag (warm one), the Thermatex blanket, big gloves, coat, thermals and for funsies, my stove to brew up in the garden.  I was wearing fleece bib leggings and my waterproof, wool top and thick socks so by the time I left the house I was glad to get into the cold air.  It was 10pm.

As soon as I set off I knew things were wrong.  I couldn't steer and nearly ploughed into the bin.  A little disapointing on a bike that had previously been so agile.

I'd strapped my big ortleib drybag to my bars in a harness and inadvertently looped the harness strap around by dropper post cable. I rectified it in the cold air and set off for the allotments to warm up again on the hill.  Things still weren't great but I put it down to the harness rubbing on the frame, cursed myself for getting distracted earlier in the day and not taking the time to add some frame protectors.  I resolved to make it a short ride and do something about it in the morning.

With dodgy steering I wobbled and hauled the bike over the usual terrain.  The only car I saw as I rode through the allotment at 10.30pm was a police car which made me smile about my plans to play keystone cops through the tomato plants and gardening paraphenalia of Western Sheffield.  I could imagine the conversation,

Policeman: "Where are you heading to then?"
Me: "Home"
Policeman: "What, with that lot?"
Me: "Yes"
Policeman: "Where's home"
Pointing behind me: "That way, just getting my exercise in first".

He didn't stop.  I grinned at the sense of freedom.  Being back on a loaded bike, the confidence that I could stop anywhere, the knowledge that I wouldn't.

I opted for the acquisition of height over whooping empty downhills and tested my new lighter bike fully loaded up my local Hike-a-bike training ground.  We've been doing it every morning unloaded so far but even with bags on it was an easier lift, more surefooted and an easier set down than with EmVee.

I crawled silently past the last houses in town and the first flecks of hail chilled me out as I rattled down the byway to Blackbrook farm where I had to carefully remove a caterpillar that seemed to be thinking of crysalising a bridge between the gate and its post.

At Long Lane I turned my back on the extended bridleway in favour of saving my bike frame, fixing my bags and getting some sleep in tonight.  I also relished the idea of clearing the Rivelin Valley path in the dark without a dog walker in sight.  It was 11pm after all.

The valley passed in between the highs of a clear run without walkers and the lows of: hitting a slab jump all wrong and slapping myself in the arse with my seatpost bag and; getting a narrow section of oversize "cobble"stones wrong and falling off into a holly bush.  I did manage to clear all the other obstacles and keep my feet dry, whilst others - unfamilliar in the darkness - were not on my route and deftly

I stayed on the path all the way to the road crossing, passing the childrens' playground - normally closed at night and now eerily locked up with bulky chains and padlocks during the day.  Amusing given that the fence is low enough that I could step over it without me standing on my tiptoes.

At the turning for home, I wasn't ready to go in yet.  This eerie sense of armageddon, this aura of solitude, I was hooked, I'm addicted and at the moment it's impossible to find during the hours of daylight.  I don't begrudge people their access to the countryside, I begrudge my loss of solitude.

In the apocalypse movies when the star is exceited to find other survivors, I'm the one at the back saying, "Woah there, can we trust them".  I'm the bearded old man dressed in sacks with a staff in one hand and an AK-47 over their shoulder.

I carried on down the bridleway, across the stepping stones and out near Hillsborough fire station and crossed to head up the footpath opposide.  It's a push all the way up until I can get on and ride home.

Urban Push

The cobbles on the steeps make me look down and I realise my steering is compromised due to my electric cables which are under tension when I turn right.  My front light has been dimming and my phone hasn't charged so I fear the damage is already done but at least its a few quid in cables and not a hole in a £1300 frame.

The Bivi

When I got home, my bike announced our presence.  Having just been dragged through the river, brakes squealed past the living room window where the light was still on.

I quietly hoped that TSK wouldn't come out to say hello.  I wanted to concentrate on setting up my bivi before it rains again and I didn't want to be tempted by the thought of a warm, cosy bed.  Was that bad?  Was that nasty?  This was my wilderness break though, my chance to be alone, just being, I guess it was OK.

No one came outside except Mark next door, putting out the bin. He's seen me play this game before in daylight and as ex-army, probably, deep down, "gets it" so left me in peace.

I didn't need a headtorch.  One neighbour has an outside light, the other's kitchen light is on and the guy behind us has an outdoor light that burns with the light of a thousand suns.  Fortunately it's in the direction of the breeze so I pitched my tarp to add some shade from the light as well as the breeze, with the dog rose and spruce pine adding extra cover.

Sleeping bag, mat and bivi were set up for rain proofing and I decided to risk making a brew of herbal tea to enjoy the night air.  I got the water from the garden tap to add to the spirit of adventure and delay the inevitable incursion into the house and the jaws of temptation.

My hands were getting cold so I crouched down by the stove and warmed hands and gloves, realising just in time that two fingers were on fire before it reached my skin.  So you know, Sealskin gloves extinguish pretty well.

With everything set out for the morning, I took the bike indoors for the night and popped upstairs for a wee. I have no qualms about weeing in the garden except for kitchen-light neighbours still awake next door and I did not want to be captured sans-trou whilst Mark smoked his last Malbroorough of the night in the back doorway.

Otherwise, time was past 1am and the house was quiet indoors.  I saved my teeth cleaning for outisde then to add to the true bivi experience, completely forgot unless Landslide reminds me by doing his (I call it tooth shaming).

Indoors in full fleece leggings and waterproof trousers (for warmth) I resented the heat in the bathroom but did appreciate it giving me a few minutes to leave the shoulder straps of my bibs around my waist for any night time trips to the garden without removing all my layers. 

Hungry from my after-dinner ride, I necked the packet of crisps I'd been carrying around all week and finally remembered to drink my brew - still warm in the ti mug.

In dashing back across the garden to my cocoon I realised two things - my down booties were wet from a few steps across the grass and; we have some very hard bits of porcelain which have randomly surfaced in the garden.  I stuffed my feet in the sleeping bag hoping two layers of dry down would make up for one soggy one.

First adjustment of the night was to take my mat out of the bivi bag and give my feet some space to lie right and fluff out the sleeping bag.  I poured all my spare clothes out of my pillow and packed away my waterproof coat.

Mark crashed about at 1:40am with the recycling and finally I was settled in darkness.

It was no good, I still shivered. The devil whispered in my ear, "Look mate, there's too much going on in the world. You don't need this stress right now.  What are you trying to prove? The race is cancelled. You don't need to put yourself through this. There's a warm bed inside. You can try again later in the week."

Still, I didn't move. I waited. Something magical might happen, or at least, this would make me a stronger person.

I would have quite liked to see some garden wildlife and my brain really wanted to stay awake for it.  At the same time I was dreading it setting off "the light of 1000 suns" and also didn't fancy a fox trying to steal my crisp packet or getting caught in the cross-howling of a cat fight.

I did, however, fancy the company of one of my own cats for body heat if nothing else.  Unfortuantely they eyed me suspiciously from afar and the only presence felt was "Thursday" from number 95, jingling past in the night as my bivi was pitched right on top of the "catpath" that runs through our garden.

It was no good - I was still cold.  I took off the down booties to check for wet and added extra socks underneath. In doing so, I found my wool top and added that and went for another outdoor wee which always helps.

As I piddled under the twinkling stars and streetlights and watched the clouds flurry past high overhead, I wondered what the hell I had been thinking about the Highland Trail.  I'll never do that, I'm too soft.  I can't even manage a night in my own fucking back garden FFS, what a woos.  At these times, it's hard to remember the transformation that happens between March and May and the freaky weirdness of the weather in Scotland that has seen the HT 550 run in temperatures ranging from +30 to -7 degrees.

I walked back to my bivi - the Ugly Tarp fringed with a lace of hailstones - not just being soft then, it was genuinely frickin cold.  I hunkered in and waited for the wool and feathers to work their magic.  Starting out right could have got me 2 hours more sleep.

Finally at around 3:40 I went to sleep in the pleasant knowledge that I wouldn't need to rush off anywhere in the morning.  I was woken up by Mark letting the cat out.

The Morning After

My feet were still frozen. In fact it felt like I'd lost all feeling in the left one and the right, though in better shape, was aching from stepping on porcelain last night.  In my morning slumber, I had frostbite and a broken foot but I wasn't going to give up my cocoon that easily.  I rotated the joints and flexed and extended my feet to encourage blood flow inbetween dozing off again. It didn't work and I gently worried whilst doing nothing about it. I could have gently warmed my feet in warm water inside but that would break my rules.

Eventually at 8:30 I got up and went to the house to get coffee and porridge water.  The porcelain I'd stepped on last night was broken into 3 pieces.  The bench was comfortable given the ammount of times I will use it over these next few months it's an investment I am particularly hapy with.  Coffee was drunk and porridge eaten outside.

The Second Ride

Without foot circulation and a complete and utter ennui of the same trails I set off on the downhill to ride a gentle road climb to start the day off and warm my feet up gradually.  I'd liberated the handlebars and taken a skinnier bag out of the house to ease damage / restriction on the bike and I freed my electrical cables.  I passed the Rivelin pub, its sign groaning mournfully in the wind and realised how rare it is to get a tailwind along this road.  It would have been a perfect weekend for a ride to Wales and a train home.

At the bridleway where I usually stop for a faff, I got my second wild wee of the weekend and finally removed the extra wool and waterproof layers, rejoicing that circulation had finally returned to my feet.

I could have carried on to Strines but responsible thoughts about social distancing and practical thoughts about food shopping and sleep recovery stopped me.  Instead I took a picture of some horses and dropped down to Wyming Brook to distantly socialise.

I was getting peckish.  As I passed a bench I exhausted my mental inventory of food but the memory of a bottle of Jura in my rucsac had me grabbing the brakes and flopping into the sunkissed bracken with a smile.  At 10am I snuggled under a pine tree witha view of the reservoirs whilst sunshine occasionally flitted through the hail stones.

Instead of bouncing through reservoir-dogs walkers I carried on upto the Lodge Moor road where I stopped to analyse the phone charging results of wiggling a few cables.  I took another pic of some horses and got buzzed at 6 inches separation by a silent roadie that made me jump out of my skin.

At Lodge Moor I awaited patiently whilst 2 children wearing roller skates got off the stony dirt path - not sure who was taking more care of not ending up in A&E.  Was I hallucinating?  I don't think so.

A long inventory of people were out and about in groups and solos.  The sun was out, the temperatures up and it was time for me to go indoors again.

I mused on my future with the HT 550.  In the past, the Fisherfield forest had been my ShangriLa, the place I'd always wanted to go and held high as a bastion of remoteness and tranquility and then Karl told me, "I've never felt alone in Fisherfield".  When I finally went I was not disapointed but I realised he was right because it is full of people - as famous as it is as a Wilderness, it's become a victim of its own Wilderness success.

So while I will still look forwards to it, I'll look forwards too to the path after the Great Glen, the hill climb up to the hydro-bothy, the Northern Loop.  Places I can be alone, at least I can at my end of the race.  They may not even be places, but times - late at night or early in the morning.

I arrived back at the kitchen, exhausted from lack of sleep rather than physical exhaustion and just a little drunk.  It was 11am.

"You were up late last night", I say to TSK.  He had headphones on when I got home, screaming brakes past the window where he was sat.  "When I went to check the garden from the spare room you were huddled over, cooking something.  I thought I'd leave you alone and let you do your thing".

He's a fucking genius that boy.

Some women crave a man who dotes on them like a puppy.
Me: give me a man who loves me like a cat.