Sleeping in a tent is an experience. Once you’ve seen past the uncomfortable bed and the initial fight with the sleeping bag and the fact that you may, on occasion, have woken up with a really cold head it’s certainly an experience. You’ll also learn things that you may not appreciate when you’re in your lovely, sturdy, brick or stone permanently fixed to the ground house. Travelling folk, those of the tent and caravan, tend to work with what the day brings – up early with the sun and in bed when it gets dark. This is why you find yourself up and awake at times that, if you were at home on a workday, you’d be reaching for the alarm’s snooze button. There’s another thing though, more important than the sunrise or the early morning dew.
Nature is noisy.
Birds singing is, in equal measures, beautiful to listen to and really, really bloody annoying but, for us, the experince didn’t end there. We were camping on a working farm. Well, a field adjacent to a working farm. We were told when we arrived that there were cows in for calving and that it might get a little bit noisy. As such we pitched our tent about as far from the farm buildings as we could get. Now, I’m a big fan of the James Herriot books – I devoured them as a child and have read them many, many times. I’ve watched All Creatures Great and Small. Neither of those experiences can prepare you for the sounds of a cow pushing smaller cows out of its lady parts. By the time we were getting ready to leave the noises were so loud and so strained that we’d both automatically shout “push” in the direction of the farm building.
But today, the first full day of camping was all about Dalby Forest. When I mentioned that I was going camping, my boss suggested that we head off to Dalby Forest and look at hiring a bike each and going for a ride through the forest. It sounded like a genuinely good idea and, having researched the costs and wotnot online, we headed out for the forest with only a minor detour into Pickering to visit the tourist information centre on the hunt for a postcard to send home. It turns out that the tourist information people in Pickering are incredibly willing to help you. They’ll ask if you’re just browsing. If you’re slow to answer or your reply of “yes, just browsing, thank you” is not firm enough they will pounce. They will ask you questions about what you’re doing in Pickering, or what you’d like to do in the area. They’ll even, and this is my favourite part, read the leaflets to you while handily indicating the part they’re reading with their pen. It’s not an unpleasant experience, it was excellent service, it was just a little unnecessary. But, having said that, I made it out with a Sealife Centre leaflet that I was able to read all by myself.
So, our quick trip to Pickering allowed us to get the lay of the land and, more importantly, some water and other sustenance for the day’s adventures. With our bag packed and a spring in our step we headed off to Dalby Forest, Yorkshire’s Great Forest. That’s no understatement. It is a great forest. It’s huge. It’s full of trees and cycle hire and walks and even a Go Ape where you can hang from wires and slide down things. It’s also one of these places that you have to pay to get into. It’s a seven pound entrance fee if you’re in a car and, while that seems quite high, it’s a well maintained and picturesque place and, best of all, when you pay your money you’ll be giving it to one of the greatest men of all time. It’s always exciting when you see famous people out and about – I’ve seen Ghandi on the bus, you may remember – but this blew everything before it out of the water. As we pulled up to the cabin to pay our way in we caught a glimpse of the attendant and let out a little gasp – the first of many gasps that day – as we saw the round belly and white beard and realised that we now knew what Father Christmas did when he wasn’t at the North Pole. I suppose when you only work one day a year you need something to fill your time but you’d never expect that the bringer of Yuletide Joy would be collecting the entrance fee for Yorkshire’s Great Forest.
Once Santa had our money we were allowed into the forest proper and before long were pulling up next to the vistor’s centre and our reason for coming, the bike hire. It’s been about twelve years since either of us were last on a bike but there’s that phrase isn’t there “it’s like riding a bike” which seems to imply that once you know how to ride a bike you’ll be absolutely fine if you’re ever given a two-wheeled mode of transport again. As we jumped onto the saddles of our professional looking mountain bikes we started to think that it really was like riding a bike. Our glances at each other said “ha ha, we are on the bikes. Nothing can stop us now.” We weren’t moving at this stage. We were completely stationary. Outside the rental place. Waiting for the bike person to tell us which way to go for our route. Showing us the map, we were shown a route of approximately seven miles, taking about two hours to complete. “It starts off a little steeply, but it’s well worth it. You can push your bikes up there if you want, but the ride down is well worth it.”
It’s important at this point to make it clear that when we went into the shop we were not in disguise. We didn’t send in two people who weren’t us. We actually went in the shop. We spoke with the man, requested two bikes and a route suitable for people who were a) not very fit b) hadn’t ridden a bike in ages and just wanted to get back into it.
That doesn’t explain, then, how we came to be guided onto the blue route. A steep, windy uphill section which, at some point, levels out onto a forest track. The blue route we later find out, having stopped to die by the roadside, is an intermediate route. Nothing about either of us screams intermediate. Nothing. We tried riding the bike in the courtyard area a bit before we set off and “its like riding a bike” is, apparently, another way of saying “shaking like a shitting dog”. We were wobbly as hell, veering off to the side, shaking like leaves and generally not screaming out “intermediate.” But there we were, on the intermediate trail, pushing our bikes up the hill because we’d been promised it was worth it. We’d occasionally get on the bikes and try to ride a little but our natural tendency to shake and veer widely, coupled with the sharpness of the brakes, threatened to throw us to our doom with ever turn of the pedals. What we’d done, essentially, is paid £25 each for the pleasure of pushing a bike alongside us. Once we reached the top of the hill and were on a forest track it got a lot better – we were able to ride and had room to veer off a little here and there, without the prospect of ending up tumbling down an incredibly steep hill.
It was a two hour bike trail. By this point we’d be gone about 40 minutes and had done almost none of it. We were knackered, sweating and somewhere close to death (I may exaggerate slightly, but it was quite draining – especially as it was boiling hot as well). It was about now that the chain on my bike broke. Of natural causes, I hasten to add. I didn’t attack it with anything to cause it to snap. It just broke. Maybe it was God intervening in our plight, looking down on us and saying “no, my children”. Or, more likely, the chain had been snagged on something during the push uphill and was weakened. Or maybe I just don’t know my own strength. Whatever the reason, our ride was over.
So we turned round, and pushed our £25 walking companions back down the hill we’d just spent an eternity walking up. All the way to the bike hire place, we pushed out faithful friends. On the way back I had a quick look at the map. That’s when I learnt that the blue route was intermediate and quite clearly out of our depth. There was a lovely green route following the route of the river. We should have been doing that. We’d probably have been ok on that. There was less chance of death on the green route. No steep hills to accidentally plunge off. That route didn’t have any TTFs. The blue route did. I didn’t even know what a TTF was. It turns out it’s a tactical terrain feature. In laymans terms it’s a bit of the track that makes you swear when you get up to it – or something that would make your groinal area impact with the bike in a way that’s less than desirable. It’s not something that two unprofessional cyclists should be attempting, that’s for sure.
When we got back to the shop the bike hire people offered us more bikes.
We politely refused.