I was a little anxious when I left home at about 7.30am to ride the few miles to Chester station. There was a crisp frost carpeting the ground that demanded a jacket, gloves, beanie and neck warmer. It was to be a weekend of firsts for me. The first being taking my bike on a train – despite the fact that the two available bike spaces were first come, first served, it was a process that was fairly painless in the end. A helpful platform attendant pointed out the bike carriage to me and, since Chester was the first station on the line, the train was already waiting on the platform ten minutes before departure – plenty of time to heave the loaded bike on board and secure it into place. When I got off at Altrincham there was a little kerfuffle as I struggled to find my way out of the station without having to take the stairs. It turned out the lift down from the footbridge was out of order so I had no other option. As I was already feeling on edge, taking a loaded touring bike that I could barely lift down a very steep flight of stairs was not ideal but it thankfully went without incident.
Most of my nerves I think, were owed to this being my first time out of the house and socialising with new people since before the pandemic hit. I’d been telling myself I’d wanted to go bike touring ever since getting my Kona Sutra part way through 2020 but just hadn’t gotten around to it. I’d just about pulled together all the kit I needed when Grass Up The Middle announced their upcoming bivvy weekender. After making bike camping one of my 2022 goals, this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to try an overnighter and I figured that having a firm date in the diary made it less likely that I’d try to put it off for another weekend.
The chill of the early morning evaporated as I rode down the canal towards Sale. The weather was heating up and, with not a cloud in the sky, I had to strip off most of my extra layers before arriving at Riverbank Coffee. After saying our hellos, downing a drink and a cake (the bakewell slice was banging) we were off on our adventure.
The first leg, east along the Trans Pennine Trail, started out fairly gnarly by my standards. The path, being on the bank of the River Mersey, had been hit pretty badly during a recent run of winter storms. Parts of the trail were completely washed out, revealing an under layer consisting solely of broken house bricks that gave for a challenging start to proceedings for someone riding a loaded bike off-road for the first time. This was shortly followed by deep sand that the bike immediately sank into, the front wheel snaking around and trying its best to get out from under me. Thankfully, after we’d finished threading our bikes through the branches of a fallen oak tree that was blocking our path, the trail improved and I was able to relax into the ride.
In another first, this was my first ever group ride and it quickly became apparent that I was the least confident rider and, along with the heaviest laden bike, I was going to be the slowest member of the group but that didn’t cause any problems — well, not for me anyway, my fellow riders were kind enough to wait when needed. On one occasion I managed to crash my pannier into a tree whilst descending a hill through a wooded part of the trail and had to turn back to retrieve it after it had fallen off. About five minutes later I repeated the mistake when I misjudged the width of my bike whilst riding between two rocks. Doh! Haha
At Stockport we left the trail to head south and after a short section on the road to Marple we joined the Middlewood Way, a disused railway line surfaced with fine gravel that made for very pleasant riding. We were chugging along at quite a pace and, being ahead of schedule by the time we reached Bollington, we decided to stop to eat our butties and enjoy a cold beverage in the beer garden of The Vale Inn.
Suitably refreshed we made the short ride down to Macclesfield where we left the trail and started the steep climb up towards Macclesfield forest. We had a dinner reservation in the local pub at Langley, for which we were about 2 hours early! By the time we were fed and watered the heat of the day had well and truly faded and everyone layered up again as night fell.
Well rested and with full stomachs we donned the bike lights and trundled off on the slow and steep climb towards Macclesfield forest. For some reason, the road seemed to be carpeted with frogs – some mating, some not – and at times it was quite tricky to avoid running over them. Imagine finally getting your leg over and then some oaf comes and rides over you on a giant wheeled contraption? Probably not how they wanted their day to end and so we moved slowly and carefully amongst them.
The fire road up through the forest to our camping spot was exceptionally steep. A couple of the guys managed to ride pretty much the whole way up. I’ve no idea how they did it, most of us were off and pushing on the steepest parts, and pushing was hard enough. I was relieved when we found a clearing in the trees and decided to make camp for the night. After a quick change into a dry t-shirt and a mug of hot tea, I shuffled into my bivvy bag and enjoyed a few minutes staring up at the stars, pondering what a beautiful day we’d had and listening to the owls before swiftly drifting off into the land of nod. What better way to spend a sunny spring day.
Words by Matt Martin
Pictures – Matt Martin & Steve Makin