It’s not an obvious combination I’ll grant you: Richard Milhouse Nixon and The Woodcraft Folk – but they both came through for me in my bid to cycle (at least part) of a classic trans Pennine road in traffic free conditions.
The A57 Snake Pass, a fabulously twisty and scenic, if totally inadequate, trunk road linking Sheffield and Manchester has been closed to vehicles for a number of weeks due to three landslips along its route. This has prompted a bit of a cycling jamboree. Local pedal pushers have taken advantage of this situation to enjoy a ride which is normally a nightmare. Close, too close traffic normally hurtles round sharp bends whilst trying to judge overtaking manoeuvres in the small gaps in the oncoming stream of vehicles trying to do the same – but in the other direction. Cyclists do ride the route (I suspect mostly on early summer mornings) but I wouldn’t – out of fear and the need to avoid the associated stress.
So I wanted a bit of this traffic free experience, but was mortified to discover when body, soul and machine were ready for the adventure, that the road was now closed to cyclists too – purportedly due to the risk posed by the landslips. This made little sense to me – it was clear from pictures that the landslips were perfectly navigable on a push bike – and, ironically, how could this be more hazardous than cycling a structurally sound road filled with its usual craziness of traffic?
I wasn’t sure what to do. Loath as I was to pass up such a rare opportunity, I wasn’t keen on the likely confrontations with people whose job it would be to stop me. Then I thought of my friend Tim who had thought nothing of driving the same road when closed in winter artic conditions in his van, admittedly a rather rufty tufty 4-wheel driver – he would have found a way ….
I considered cheating by using bridleways and other tracks to join the road further up the valley beyond the staffed barriers – but that seemed like rather hard work even using a gravel bike – and unnecessarily time consuming when what I wanted to do was ride the road!
This is where Tricky Dicky stepped into the breach as I remembered his famous comment ‘If you can’t lie then you are not going to get anywhere!’ Now I accept that Mr Nixon was probably not thinking of the A57 when he said this – but he was right – I wasn’t going to get anywhere up the pass unless I lied – and it would have to be a credible lie too – one that avoided censure or awkwardness.
As I freewheeled towards the signs and cones that closed the road off on the Sheffield side, a high vizzer emerged from a nearby truck and shaking his head in a sad manner that suggested he regretted what he had to do, held up his hand.
‘Sorry, the road is closed …. even to cyclists,’ his hand moved to indicate the big sign that spelt this out.
‘But it’s open for access isn’t it? I’m not going far.’
He gave me a good long look before asking, ‘Where are you going?’
‘Just up to Lockerbrook.’
‘The farm?’ his voice betrayed just a hint of scepticism.
‘Oh no!’ I laughed, ‘on a bike?’
He smiled, which was all the encouragement I needed.
‘The Woodcraft Centre, up the track off the main road. I’m meeting someone there to discuss booking it for a youth activity weekend.’
There followed a brief outline by me of the aims and nature of this left leaning youth organisation whilst at the same time worrying about how much my nose must be growing. When I realised that I was beginning to ramble I stopped …. and waited.
He took another good look at me – then smiled! nodded! and waved me through!
As I pedalled away grinning I heard him call ‘Enjoy your ride!’
Once round the corner and out of officialdom’s sight I relaxed and set a steady pace up the almost continuous but perfectly manageable incline (the really steep bits were further up, near the top and I had no intention of going that far). What a treat! To be able to zig zag around all over the road whilst taking in the water, earth and air – all bathed in a warm sunshine that had turned up just for the occasion. Trees, lattice bare against a blue sky and lightly washed-out hillsides competed with noisy gushing streams for attention. Familiar bends of trepidation (remembered from numerous car journeys) became delightful curves into yet more vistas and sounds, whilst all the time there was that delicious feeling of ‘getting away with it.’ A couple of cyclists passed me going in the opposite direction. As usual few words were exchanged in the few seconds of close proximity but I felt there was a shared elation in the grins and jaunty waves exchanged. I wanted to ask them what their plan had been to circumvent the barrier on the Manchester side and how they had executed it.
I passed the turning to Lockerbrook with barely a glance, confident that I could blag my way through any challenge by acting a bit lost and a few spokes short ……. The first landslip was, to be honest, a disappointment – a few thin cracks in the tarmac but the second was the real thing with half the road lying in a broken-up jumble of rubble ten feet or so downhill from the remaining metalled surface. Some thoughtful contractors had put barriers along the precipice to allow safe, single line passage.
I stopped to take some pics and looking further up the valley could see in the distance a collection of flashing amber lights – presumably at the third landslip, around which there was clearly a lot of activity – and probably a lot of people who would demand some explanation from me. Then the sun went in and the wind keened. It was easy to make a decision.
Cycling back down the valley was almost as physical as coming up as I was now battling a strong south easter that made it clear that I would have to work for my naughtiness. The emptiness of the road still felt astonishing and the freedom that it gave quite intoxicating. Two vehicles passed me on my way back down, a Land Rover pulling a trailer of sheep and a forestry wagon. Neither occupant took any notice of me.
When I arrived back at the barrier of signs and cones the high vizzer was standing in the middle of the road and beyond him was a small group of cyclists who had clearly been thwarted and were now working out an alternative route. I prepared myself for some awkwardness but needn’t have worried.
‘You all done up there?’
I was tempted to say that there were still matters to be sorted out and that I would need to go back in the next couple of days but had a premonition that continuing to channel Richard Nixon was probably not a good idea, after all it hadn’t ended well for him had it?