Peaky Climbers

An MTB tour of Birmingham and the Black Country’s industrial waterways and the North Worcestershire Alps.

My wife woke me with a violent prod to the kidneys. “Shouldn’t you be up?”. I glanced at my phone. It was 5.37am. Bollocks. I’d slept in!

At 6.10am I rolled down my road to meet Tom and Chris. We exchanged the usual pleasantries you’d expect from a group of mountain bikers where the ride organiser had shown up late, and then set off for a summer solstice epic ride.

The concept was simple. In lockdown spirit, we’d ride an 80 kilometre loop from the front door, avoiding tarmac as much as possible. We’d snake our way over the Lickey Hills, Waseley Hills and the Clent Hills, linking up bridleways and gravel lanes (and the odd cheeky footpath – shhh!), making our way to the Black Country’s industrial canal network. The canal would take us through the 2.7 kilometre long Netherton Tunnel, along the engineering masterwork of Birmingham’s Victorian past, then drop us off nicely into the city centre, where Brewdog would be serving takeaway beers. Then just a steady 12 kilometre pootle along the canal back to the front door. Foolproof!

Less than half a kilometre away from the house, we turned onto the first trail and headed cross-country. This was to be Chris’ first foray into mountain biking. More commonly spotted doing sprint interval hill climbs on a road bike between long-distance sportifs, we persuaded him that a lengthy but technically unchallenging XC route would be a good intro to dirt. So, borrowing a friend’s 160 mm travel Canyon Strive and sporting a pair of baggies courtesy of Amazon Prime’s next day delivery, Chris enthusiastically followed Tom and I down the first trail. Conversation soon turned to what food we’d packed. Me: standard pork pie and a scotch egg; sandwich; handful of flapjacks; chocolate bars; pack of Haribo Tangfastics. Tom: sandwich for elevenses; sandwich for lunch; bag full of flapjacks. Chris: three protein bars. 

“Is that all you’ve brought?”

“All I could fit in my bag.”

“Why not bring a bigger bag?”

“Not got one. Was going to attach my saddlebag, but my seat goes up and down for some reason!”

After forging our way through some very overgrown and neglected footpaths, (roads would’ve been a lot quicker, but that would’ve defeated the object!) we began ascending the first range of the locally and somewhat ambitiously dubbed “North Worcestershire Alps”. Sitting proudly above Cineworld Rubery and the Hollywood Bowl, the Lickey Hills rises 298 metres (don’t) above the shallows of Bromsgrove and Redditch, and offers some of the best wooded mountain bike trails in south west Birmingham (don’t). Tom and I had hoped that putting the sportif man on a long travel enduro bike with 2.6 inch tyres would level the fitness playing field a little. Annoyingly, Chris still frolicked up the climbs with ease, leaving the pair of us to wonder whether we should’ve packed less food! Admittedly, Tom aboard his YT Jeffsy and I also riding a Canyon Strive, neither one of us had chosen an appropriate weapon for this long-distance war. We crested the high point of Beacon Hill, briefly stopped at its small castle moated by a ring of empty Carling cans and chip shop paper, then pointed our knobbly tyres downhill for the first time, smuggly claiming our downhill victory over Chris!

Following the North Worcestershire long-distance footpath, we ploughed onwards a short hop to Waseley Hills. At 287 metres, but with a smaller prominence, Waseley is the less significant link in the Lickey’s to Clent chain. But it still commands some good views down to the Malvern Hills, across to Clent, and not forgetting the M5. Plus it offered some wide gravel bridleways and gently undulating hills, allowing us to find a little more pace to our pedal strokes. We crossed the M5, and climbed steadily through a field of chest-high pointy green crops that had taken over the footpath (apologies to any horticulture buffs for not being clued up on the names of my seasonal greens). The sensation of not being able to see your wheels or bars, yet pedalling fairly smoothly through this tickly harvest was quite bizarre, yet strangely enjoyable! 

From the top of Romsley Hill, it was a fast downhill race along one of the few tarmacked segments of our ride. The steep narrow lane wound its way down towards Clent, and gave us a great opportunity to flick some high-speed mud from our tyres. I clocked 57 km/h before what can only be described as a ‘ninja squirrel’ dived at my front tyre before pulling a double 360° McTwist and somersaulting back into the hedgerow. I’m not sure who was more scared – me or Fluffy Chan – but I’m glad I wasn’t on my road bike when those anchors went on! 

After a section of gravel farm tracks, we began our ascent proper up the Clent massif. As Chris galloped off towards the distant summit, Tom and I sat back into our 50 tooth Eagle gears and started to discuss our elevenses. The aptly named “Four Stones” hill pokes up from the Worcestershire countryside at 309 metres above sea level, its summit adorned with 4 neolithic stone pillars dramatically keeping watch over the mysterious site. Only the megaliths are not stone age, or even medieval, but were erected in the 1700’s by workers of an eccentric landowner as something to see from his mansion. Tom and I arrived at the top of the 146 metre climb a few minutes after Chris. Both sweating profusely and incapable of talking, we quickly pulled out scotch eggs and sandwiches.

Replenished and encouraged that we’d surmounted the last real climb of the day, we again pointed our bars downhill and blasted over a beautifully steep and rooty descent. Asking Chris how he got on with the technical stuff, he replied:

“I just closed my eyes and hoped the bike would do the work!”

Sometimes the best technique!

With a short section of cross-country separating us from the start of the canal at Halesowen, we settled into a groove of ‘pedal a bit, lift bike over gate, pedal a bit, lift bike over stile, pedal a bit, lift bike over tree trunk with nails in, etc.’. We carefully crossed a small field housing three horses. No bother, I’ve ridden passed horses on the road many a time. Go slowly, pick a lane, and leave a wide berth. Tom and Chris pedalled quietly to the left of the horses and down to the gate, disturbing no pony in the process. But then the little one blocked my path, so I went right. Easy does it. Don’t mind me, I’m just a friendly mountain biker harmlessly passing you on the r… s#!t, it’s chasing me! It’s actually f^@king cantering!! Vaulting the style like a cyclocross rider, I regrouped with my friends.

“We told you to go left.”

Thanks fella’s.

One or two fields later, I had to come clean that I’m also not a huge fan of cows. I explained to Tom and Chris that it’s not the cows I’m scared of, more the trampling that could occur following the seemingly inevitable stampede! Luckily, the field lining our way was substantially large and contained relatively few Friesian’s per square metre. This time I went first and made it across unscaved, as did Tom. Chris followed behind but, again the little one got excited and started hooving at the ground, bucking its hind legs before charging at Chris! Never-the-less, it was only one cow and Chris moves quickly, so no major dairy-related drama to report, just a point proven on my part. Problem was, that cow had obviously sent word forward to the 300-strong squadron of Daisy’s in the next field. Like the 300 Spartans that withstood the Persians at the narrow gorge of Thermoplae, this cattle army patrolled a narrow field – an impassable stream to the East, thicket hedgerow to the West. We had no choice but to attempt the pass. 

Tom set off first, pedalling silently to the right-hand side of the narrow channel. The Friesians began their counter-assault, moving after Tom as he crested a corner and rolled out of view. The way through was now truly blocked. I went next. I nervously pedalled towards certain (possible) peril, trying not to make eye contact with any of these beasts. Chris followed closely behind, and as I clicked into a lower gear, the derailleur clunk startled the closest cow, sending a shockwave of defensive action through the herd. As the field began to rumble from the pounding of hooves, we spotted Tom at the bottom of the hill, sheltering in a small tunnelled path through the far hedge. Chris and I accelerated hard without looking back, and scuttled down to Tom’s bunker. We made it. Just. But the mud between us and the path ahead was thick and sloppy, and so far we’d managed to keep our shoes fairly clean! Was there another way out of this trap? It wasn’t long before the herd moved in. We decided it was now or never as the first cow penetrated our bush! We had to brave the slop…

The three of us emerged onto the Hagley Road dual carriageway at Halesowen, a little muddy but in one piece. We swiftly found our way to the start of the canal route, happy to be on the flatter, less gated and cattle guarded leg of the journey. This ride really was to be a tale of two halves – the first hilly and green from the doorstep, we now found ourselves cycling through the built up and industrial Black Heath and Rowley Regis towards Dudley. Ginormous brick walls towered over the cut (Black Country for canal), with channels engineered for lowering cargo from collieries down to the waterways below. The canals were the life-blood of Victorian Birmingham and the Black Country, and as we rolled effortlessly along the smooth towpath, I couldn’t help picture Tommy Shelby talking business with Charlie Strong and Johnny Dogs!

After a quick lunch stop at Bumble Hole Nature Reserve, we found ourselves at the entrance of the Netherton Tunnel – a 2.7 kilometre long canal tunnel constructed in 1858. It’s quite a feat of engineering, and being our first canal tunnel, we were dead excited to switch our lights on and get inside! Tom, then Chris, then I followed single file along the narrow towpath, inching our way towards the miniscule dot of light hinting of an exit 2.7 kilometre’s away. Mercifully, a hand-railing provided a mental separation between our wheels and the murky channel of water to our right. That said, we might as well have been riding through it, as the dripping from the walls had formed huge puddles along much of the towpath – at least half of the path was under water to pedal-height. By mountain biking standards, the terrain is about as tame as it gets – we were riding a straight flat line. But the complete lack of light (except for our bar lights), the claustrophobically narrow towpath, constant dripping, and sheer length of the tunnel made it all strangely exciting and certainly a highlight of the day. We resurfaced at the northern end and squinted as our eyes adjusted to daylight. Only the final leg into Birmingham now separated us from craft ale. It was now fast approaching beer-o’clock and time we upped our pace.

As we rolled into Gas Street Basin, we’re suddenly catapulted from a landscape of industry into the busy hubbub of Birmingham’s central business district. Cycling from Brindley Place, passed Broad Street’s nightclubs and down the steps of Victoria Square, the oddly quiet city centre streets due to lockdown gave a moment to reflect on the variety of riding our day had provided. We began our journey in the countryside, crossing hills and rural agriculture. Then pedalled through the industrial past of the Black Country’s waterways. And now I’m carrying my bike up an escalator in the Mailbox, the poshest shopping mall of the UK’s second city!

An easy freewheel saw us nicely outside Brewdog, where 3 takeaway cans were quickly purchased and consumed on a couple of nearby stone benches. It’s hard to beat that feeling you get at the victorious end of an adventure, even when you barely get far enough away from your own home to call it an adventure. But 10.5 hours and 80 kilometres on long-travel enduro bikes, tackling the North Worcestershire Alps, a 2,700 metre long underground tunnel, an army of cows, a bit of Peaky Blinder canal history, and a city centre pint, almost entirely off-road, is a good days mountain biking in my books. 

Now just those 12 remaining kilometers to get home!

 

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