Saturday 21st March 2020 – Spring Equinox
We rolled away from the car at 6.50am, gently downhill into a fresh morning breeze. The early spring chill bit at my knuckles and numbed my ears, but I knew we’d soon be climbing a steep dirt trail, and the Met Office were forecasting sunshine, so the cold should be short-lived.
Tom and I had opted for some social distancing in the Shropshire Hills, taking in three classic mountain bike spots – Eastridge Woods, Stiperstones, and the Long Mynd. Assuming that any café’s and pubs would be closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we’d loaded our packs with as much food as we could carry, prepared for a full day adventure in the hills. In the walking community, there exists a thing called “Marilyn bagging”. Like bagging Munro’s, which involves working your way up Scottish peaks that rise above 3000 feet, Marilyn bagging is the little sister for those short of time – tick off a 500 metre hill with a prominence of 150 metres and you’re on your way to becoming a Marilyn bagger. I plotted a route where we could bag two by bike.
Turning onto the bridleway from All Stretton, we passed the last few farm buildings before doubling back along a steep and narrow track that climbed through one of the Long Mynd’s mountainous valleys. Though the drop to the right of our wheels wasn’t really high enough or sheer enough to cause any serious injury, we both tried to keep our eyes on the trail ahead, as a stumble to the right would certainly lead to some graceless tumbling down the hillside! The trail led us slowly up and over the northern section of the Long Mynd. We’d be back to explore it’s highest vista’s later in the day. For now, we were heading cross-country westwards towards Eastridge Woods.
The top of the Long Mynd is open moorland. At around 500 metres above sea level, treeless and clothed in heather, it’s a little blustery at the best of times. As we pedalled downhill from our high-point, buffeted by a strong cross-wind, my ears again went numb as I braced against the cold, wishing I’d packed a hat! Mercifully, we soon dropped off the ridge and out of the wind. The next few kilometres were pure XC, only muddier and sloppier! The pace was rarely quick, as we inched our way across the Shropshire backcountry, opening and closing gates along ancient byways.
Shortly after draining a flask of tea, we arrived at the Eastridge Woods mountain bike trails to sample it’s red route. We wouldn’t ride the entire 9 kilometres. Short as this was, we had a big day planned, and the first half would conveniently drop us back on the Shropshire Way long distance route towards Stiperstones. Following the red signs, we dropped onto the dedicated trail and pedalled hard into the first berm. To my surprise, my performance was pretty shocking! (I was slightly pleased that Tom’s was too!) My timing just wasn’t dialled and line-choice over roots was all over the place. Tom and I agreed that 20 kilometres of cross-country riding obviously puts you in a different head space. We didn’t feel tired and had plenty left in the tank, but we’d clearly forgotten how to ride anything remotely technical. A note to self if I ever sign up for an Enduro race. Still, it was nice to ride a new trail. Plus, we were finally sweating enough to take our jackets off!
From the southern point of Eastridge Woods, we started the long slog upwards towards Stiperstones – an 8 kilometre long rocky quartzite ridge rising 536 metres at its highest point. For the most part, the path was grassy and rideable, but as we moved along to the highest sections of the ridge, the track became strewn with boulders. We tried our best to navigate this uphill rock-garden on two wheels, but despite our hearts being willing, gravity and the surrounding geology had other ideas. Tom was beginning to regret running clipless pedals. We hike-a-biked the remaining boulder trail to the top, found shelter from the wind behind some rocks, and ate our packed lunch. The summit of Stiperstones would be the first time that day we’d come across other humans (apart from the odd farmer). It seems a few others had also chosen to be socially-distant in the Shropshire Hills, we’d just woken up earlier. Maintaining our 2 metre distance, we headed down the rocky path towards a super-fast grassy descent taking us back into the valley below.
By this point, our legs were beginning to feel the 5 or so hour shift they’d already put in. We had one last massive climb to the top of the Long Mynd, before dropping down the other side to where we’d left our car hours earlier. That said, we still needed to navigate a few kilometres of undulating cross-country before the real climbing would begin. The sun was still shining and we’d dropped below the wind, so our spirits were up. But our ability to pedal to the top of the 516 metre summit was in question. We dug deep and plodded upwards along a little country lane, edging closer to the start of the moorland ascent. Finally turning back onto the trail, we soon threw in the towel, accepted defeat and pushed our bikes uphill. This was steep and we were spent! Just hiking was a struggle, but we were making progress in the right direction and would soon be pointing our bars downwards for the final descent.
We sat down for a breather and a pork pie near the top. The heather looked comfortable so I lay back and closed my eyes. It felt like the floor was absorbing me as my heavy, tired torso sank into the flora and my brain temporarily rebooted. Getting up again was going to be hard.
Together, Tom and I summoned up the will to regain our feet and begin pedalling again. Approaching the summit, it was now clear that the Long Mynd and Carding Mill Valley below were experiencing a busy day. The closure of shopping centres, combined with the glorious spring weather, meant people had been flocking to accessible beauty spots in droves. Weaving passed cars and walkers, we dropped off the ridgetop road and onto our grassy descent over Minton Batch, drawing on any energy reserves to make the most of these final drops.
Rolling back through Church Stretton, the car parking at Carding Mill Valley had overflowed along the main road. This was August bank holiday crowding in the midst of an unprecedented Coronavirus outbreak. I felt instantly guilty that we hadn’t really been any saintlier. Despite our intentions to remain off grid, we were still out in public. We fell back into my car 7 hours and 20 minutes after leaving it earlier that morning – 48 kilometres pedalled (mostly) and 1,380 metres of ascent. Now we were spent!