The Pilgrimage - Part 1

Four days trail riding and camping. East coast to west coast UK, using as many green lanes as possible. That’s it...

 

The cost-to-coast idea first bubbled up at an editorial meeting at the beginning of 2015. Linked to the plan to snag the Honda CRF250L as a long-termer and really test its mettle as a genuine dual-purpose trail bike, we were looking for a definitive challenge to set the little bike (and ourselves).

We needed something spectacular, yet time-efficient. Challenging, yet do-able. And we wanted to do it on British soil. We also didn’t want to follow the traditional coast-to-coast crossing of the country at its narrowest point. This was going to be a proper challenge: East Kent to West Wales. Game on…

An introduction to local TRF guru John Vannuffel proved pivotal. He himself had only recently ridden Sussex to Devon using principally green lanes, so he liked the idea of a different route. By chance our meeting was taking place in the cafe at Freestyle Husqvarna in East Sussex and overhearing the conversation, owner Colin Port kicked-in with his immediate support.

 

 

 

Route planning - in fact anything to do with navigation - was John’s department. I have but two OS maps to my name, which will get me as far as Dover (I live in Broadstairs, Kent, 20 miles away). The route planning was then shared between John and two fellow TRF field marshals, Richard Simpson (for the west country routes) and Christian James (who offered a huge variety of options through Wales - and who would in fact accompany us through his lands, like an Indian guide). Top geezers, all.

No question, plotting what would be more than a 600-mile route was a gargantuan task, but by splitting the job between the three local specialists and by way of shared electronic navigational programmes the TRF team had made relatively light work of what would have been months and months of painstaking research for an individual - all power to the TRF!

I noted Christian’s favoured route through Wales included the seminal Strata Florida trail… which is not just a ‘check’ in the annual Welsh Two Day Enduro, but also a wonderful ride, and an historic one too. Which got me thinking - the abbey located at the end of the Strata Florida trail (now a ruin, with just an archway left) used to be a destination for pilgrims back in the Dark Ages, drawn as they were by the belief that the Abbey housed no lesser an artifact than the Holy Grail itself. (A mighty hoax of course, but clearly a persuasive - and dare I say, lucrative - one). 

So the very tracks used annually for tearing along by enduro riders, did hundreds of years ago tear at the feet of the faithful. And just like the monks of old on the path to a hoped exaltation… so many an enduro rider has raced along those same tracks praying for safe (and timely) arrival at the checkpoint. Pilgrims and enduro riders inexplicably linked via a near millennium-long timeline… a theme was emerging. The abbey celebrates 850 years this very year, and all that history linked very neatly (if rather tenuously) to our own sport and added to our sense of a pilgrimage. 

Pilgrims’ Progress

Our pilgrimage, or maybe our act of homage, was of course more about the journey than the destination. A celebration (we hoped), of the humble green lane and all that’s great about it. These uniquely British ancient roads, fortunately protected (to some extent) by our equally ancient and archaic system of law, are almost unheard of anywhere else.

The footings of the green lanes run deep into British history. Centuries deep in some cases. With origins as diverse as being part of the network of Roman roads that were built to help conquer these isles… through to more humble beginnings such as paths by which drovers guided livestock to market. For centuries they have been means of communication, of travel, of transport throughout the country. Only now less-used (for the most part by recreational users), in fact just how little some of these old green lanes are used we would soon find out.

And with so much doom and gloom about the recent savaging of the green lane network by way of the spiteful NERC Act and subsequent down-grading (to paths) for so many historic tracks, it seemed a good time to celebrate what we do have at our disposal. And to prove that what we have is, still, actually quite a lot.

 

To Start…

The planning was for a long time very light… light on detail and light on commitment. And while a date in early June had been mooted very early on, naturally the final decision, the countdown, didn’t start until less than a week from the off. The ride had attracted fanciers and the merry band at one point had swelled to five, but reality, time and commitments, meant just John Vannuffel and myself made the start. You’ll read elsewhere in this magazine [probably next month - ed] about the mad rush to get the TBM Honda CRF ready in the final days before the off.

It’ll speak of the tense hours waiting for couriers (ahh, the wonders of mail order), then feverish hours stretching into the night fitting the kit. John meantime had been equally busy. He’d elected to ride his KTM 690R and this meant quite a few renewals to make sure it was fit for the ride. New tyres, new brakes, it even meant a new MoT. Busy evenings for both of us.

Like all big journeys the start actually comes as a relief. A release from the nagging anticipation and the stresses of preparation. You’ve arrived at the moment when you can do no more, nothing else can be fitted, adjusted or substituted; you simply have to go with what you’ve got.

That moment arrived at 7am on a Tuesday morning in June, only to be revisited ten minutes later after having to return home for - of all things - my wallet. A shame as the family had given me such a rousing send-off, and my reappearance amidst subsequent activities of breakfast and washing-up was nothing more than an inconvenience. Like one encore too many.

Another ten minutes later I was delayed again. The first minutes of big-ride reverie came to a splashing halt with the intrusion of a torrent of rain. Prompting that familiar roadside roundelay of waterproof donning. It was a two-hour ride - made slightly damp and uncomfortable by the weather - just to reach the agreed start point on the Kent coast.

Our start was on a slipway at Pett Level, near Rye - the slipway is actually a road and chosen deliberately so our journey could start on the very shoreline, touching the sea. We fussed about, taking the usual photos to mark the occasion while mid-morning dog walkers offered barely cursory interest. And then we were off. Impressively John had found his first byway not even half a mile from our start point so we were straight in with the action, even if the lane uncannily resembled an unmade garage driveway: all broken concrete and bricks.

The morning was set to see us ride along the glorious South Downs before heading north for a lunchtime drop-in at Freestyle Motorcycles. John had his route - as all the routes would be - pre-uploaded on his GPS. It sat on the KTM’s cross-bar next to a TomTom sat-nav with which John would cross-reference everything. The KTM certainly had something of a control room up-front and over the next four days the sight of John stopped with his neck craned downwards as he tried to decipher the directions, would be a common one, revisited a thousand times. During which interludes I would of course kick my heels like some bored teenager in the backseat of his dad’s car.

Fleet Foxes

Green lanes of course come in all shapes and sizes and much like foxes there are urban varieties as well as rural ones. So occasionally we’d slip unexpectedly behind a parade of shops, ride the edges of an industrial park or disappear into the trees beside a flood defence channel. Between the byways we rode only the smallest of roads, which were typically more challenging given a loose-earth crown or for offering up unexpected oncoming traffic - be it a car, horse or excitable dog.

The transit across the Pevensey Levels was an early standout as we rode tracks between drainage channels, brushing through reeds and tall grass and every now and again splashing into deep puddles. The seaside towns of Hastings and St Leonards were only five minutes behind us, but as the buildings turned from Victorian and Edwardian terraces to scattered farmhouses a good century or two older, and as the old Pevensey church that dates back to the 13th century loomed into view, it felt like we were riding into another time.

The marshes are ancient and of course this was the very bay where William of Normandy (aka the Bill the Conquerer) landed his ships ready to reset the noses of British aristos (1066 and all that). And having all this to ourselves, well… it made for magical riding.

Of course we arrived a little late at Freestyle but there was no lack of appetite for a bacon, egg and mushroom roll with a latte chaser at their in-house cafe. Then a few minutes were given over to a bit of spannering in fitting hand guards to the Honda (prep work is never, completed on time). And then it was onwards again, into what was probably the longest afternoon ever recorded since Scott headed off to find the local boozer.

We stopped at a fascinating churchyard shortly before Lewes. It was part of the village of Hamsey. Quite a pretty wee place which was once much larger, but having been decimated by the Black Death in the 14th century, it’s now just a church and a couple of cottages. I couldn’t help thinking of the ‘Bring Out Your Dead’ scene in Monty Python And The Holy Grail. ‘I’m not quite dead…’

And far from being a one-off, history like this comes thick and fast down these country lanes. If we’d stopped at every point of interest we came across, we’d still be riding. So, onwards then and onto a lane which was blocked not by one, but no less than three fallen trees. Huge trees too. John slid his KTM under the first but it was one hell of a job and a quick calculation suggested such stoppages would delay our progress by a good few hours. We slid the KTM back and set off looking for another route…

After Lewes we reached the South Downs National Park proper and it was amazing. The morning drizzle had gone and we enjoyed brighter spells with blue sky interspersed with ‘Simpsons’ clouds. And by way of small lanes and byways we inched our way westward - the lush green, rolling chalk downs looking picture perfect on a sunny summer’s day. We took one lane up toward a beacon and it turned a bit Scottish Six Day Trial on us. I found the road gearing on the Honda left the poor CRF struggling to straddle the gap between first and second, but a little patience and technique saw the Honda through with barely a dab.

 

 

Turnpike by Trailbike

We rode on chasing a sun that was clearly getting closer to the horizon than we were. We crossed more downs and then John stopped at a small river. ‘It’s not a river,’ he said, ‘it’s a turnpike’. I could tell that by the family of ducks swimming down it.

John took the time to give me a brief history lesson on roads and watercourses… explaining that in the height of summer this particular road dries up totally. But wasn’t it already June, I queried? He declined to answer but suggested I get my camera ready as he plunged in and guided his KTM downstream like a black-n-orange pleasure launch.

He disappeared out of sight round a bend, and silence ensued. I waited a while, heard nothing, so packed the camera and took the plunge myself. And by heck it was deep. As ever I had my boots stapled to the footpegs, but the water was still higher than my boots and I could feel the wetness seeping in. More scarily the water was damn close to the bottom of the fuel tank and while I was searching frantically for shallower reaches I was also trying to recall just where the 250L’s airbox intake was. Yes it’s on the very top, right under the seat, and fortunately rearward facing. When I made it to the end of the 400m passage John was there emptying his boots of water. And ducklings…

After this point the whole passage of time started to blur. I’d not packed a hydration pack - instead carrying a full-size camera rucksack on my back - so was starting to get dangerously low on fluids. Stopping wasn’t much of an option with the first night destination - Stonehenge - still many hours ride away. And so we rode on…

As we passed from Sussex into Hampshire I noticed the green lanes changing slightly. Often widening, with multiple rut choices. Then we entered a wood and in the gloom I saw John lose the KTM into a mire.

It was dark under the tree canopy and John was calling for urgent assistance - the KTM was going under! I had to lay the CRF down, the soil being too soft for the stand and I fleetingly saw the clock on the Honda: 8pm.

The KTM wasn’t light, I’ll say that much. And in the end the only way it could be removed from the mire was on its side. Then once rescued to the edge of the lane it was only by lifting the front wheel vertically above the rear, then rotating the upended bike, that we could get it clear. Did I say it wasn’t light? I could positively feel muscle groups in my back that had never been used before, going ‘Ping’ as we heaved and pulled. And so another go-around.

Then some light relief as we rode across what was probably the first section of the Salisbury Plain, a broad runway between vast fields in the dying embers of the day. Only the rest weren’t going to be so simple. The lanes became overgrown, our wheels dropped into slippery tight little slots, while dew-laden long grass soaked us up to our waists; as hedges and trees veiled the way, clawing at arms and faces as we pushed on through.

John, I noticed, had a good headlight on his 690R, ‘it’s a halogen’ he told me, and being a proper trailbike my CRF had a damn good light too. But both were only good for about three-feet in such clogging foliage. We pushed on and I took a brief look at the speedo to see it registering 3mph. ‘This might take some time,’ I thought to myself. I needed to spare a thought for John, too. For he and the KTM were effectively breaking the trail here and if the flora was beating me up, it must have been twice as bad for him.

The Henge

And so we pushed on. At 10pm I took a photo of the CRF’s clock - ‘hey we rode late!’ But actually that was still early, as it turned out. Somewhere in the murk of the night we crossed a ford. I know that because at the last moment I saw a sign to that effect. ‘Ford’ it said, then all-of-a-sudden I felt the CRF’s tyres slip alarmingly on algae-covered cobbles, then came a splash and a frantic rev on my part, before - by some miracle, we emerged sideways out the other side. There was some sense of bewilderment (by me), because in the dark I had barely seen the water, so I was a touch shocked, but John was oblivious, studying his GPS for the next byway.

By 11pm I was starting to entertain a night of rough camping but John was still pushing on - headlight bobbing - heading towards our pre-arranged campsite. It was shortly before midnight we finally emerged from the last green lane to find Amesbury in all it’s closed-for-the-night splendour and laid siege to a (closing) kebab shop. Just four miles then to our stop, the campsite near Stonehenge.

Of course that didn’t go well. Apparently campsites don’t like their guests arriving after midnight, especially not on noisy motorcycles. And that goes double when those motorcyclists mistakenly ride around in a paddock full of sheep looking for the way in.

‘What the hell do you think you are doing?’ came the voice from the dark. Ever hopeful I replied, ‘Ah, we have reservations. Two tents in the name of Vannuffel’. The campsite owner didn’t look amused. ‘We close at 9pm, come back tomorrow’ he said, adding ‘and tell your mate to stop riding around… he’s worrying the sheep.’

For his part Mr Vannuffel was still riding in circles - maybe he was trying to find a good pitch, or perhaps he had just fallen asleep at the bars and forgotten to shut the throttle. Fortunately he turns out to be not just an expert navigator but also a master negotiator and within ten minutes he’d pacified the campsite owner and we’d begrudgingly been allowed to pitch in what looked to be the site’s picnic area.

It was nearing 1am now, my feet were soaked, my gloves and scarf too. And everything I touched was wet. Using head torches we put up our tents, tried ever so quietly to inflate our sleeping mats before finally turning in, crawling into sleeping bags (I took my socks in too, hoping they’d dry by my body heat).

I quietly noted Mr Vannuffel had a definite look of the survival specialist such was his natty tipi tent and extensive range of foldable micro-amenities. But it was late, this was of passing interest, better explored in the morning. It was 17 hours after we’d set off from Kent; 19 hours since I’d first swung a leg over the CRF that morning. Some 250 miles done (not including the 70 to the start at Pett Level). Day one of four was finally over. And feeling overly-tired, sleep didn’t come easy. What would the next three days bring…?

The RUST Coast-to-Coast Byway Challenge

What is it?

Jon Bentman (Honda CRF250L) and TRF man John Vannuffel (KTM 690R) ride from Pett Level on the South Coast to Aberdovey on the Welsh Coast using as many green lanes as they can.

When and how long?

They did it the first week in June. It took them four days and they covered 625 miles in total.

Why did they do it?

Firstly to prove that there’s still plenty of green lanes to enjoy all over the UK. And secondly to show you can have a real off-road adventure right here in the UK, on any size bike - be it 250 or 690.

And this is the story?

Yes… told over this part and the next. Maybe even another if JB doesn't rein in on the word count...

John Vannuffel’s stuff-el

John Vannuffel is a busy officer of the TRF, working on appeals against TROs and such in the South of England. He compiles formidable written submissions for these, but for this project he’s put the navigational planning into a few succinct words:

‘Working out a route wasn't too difficult - which was just as well seeing as the plans changed in the week before we set off! I mapped much of the first day’s route from my own knowledge of the region. Richard Simpson, the TRF's public relations officer, provided details of a route from Shurdington to the Fosse Way (day two). Then Marianne Walford from Trail Ride Wales put me in touch with Christian James for working out the routes in Wales.

‘Sussex to Stonehenge is then a run that I've done before. Wiltshire is blessed with decent access so working out a route to the Fosse Way was straightforward, as was working out an alternative to crossing the live ranges!

‘The river crossing JB mentions was in Sussex (Fordwater Lane), and was a first for me and a personal triumph. I'd spent almost two years trying to get West Sussex Council to clear an illegal obstruction to the road. Fortunately they had done it the week before we rode it.

‘I did get some suggestions from TRF colleagues as to good lanes to include in various counties. One could spend literally weeks riding to Wales sampling the best lanes and lots had to be left out in order to get to Gloucester in two days! With the changes to plans I ended up finalising the route the day before we set off. The route from Ross-on-Wye to Brecon (day three) was plotted by Christian and I received that on the Monday.

‘The navigation kit consisted of a Road Angel sat-nav showing memory map (Ordnance Survey), a TomTom Rider, and a full set of Ordnance Survey maps on my phone as back up.

‘Campsites were checked in advance for availability.’ 

 

PART TWO

https://www.rustsports.com/life/the-pilgrimage-part-2_1413.html

 

A Few Numbers

Day One

Pett Level to Stonehenge: 250 miles

Honda CRF fuel consumption: 83mpg

Number of walkers seen on byways: 0

Number of other trail riders seen on byways: 0

 

BE SURE TO CHECK OUT PART 2

https://www.rustsports.com/life/the-pilgrimage-part-2_1413.html

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