Stephen and I have a little joke… It dates back to long before this blog (was there even history before blogs?) to a time when mobile phones were black and white and you could only store 50 text messages before having to delete some…. Good times. Well, back in the day, Stephen and his long suffering parents invited me along with them on a camping holiday…
We were both 15 (and it felt so right, sleeping all day, staying up all night – points if you know the song that quote is from) and obviously at this point in life, our girlfriends were the most important thing. Being separated from them was highly traumatic so to get our fix of “no YOU hang up first…” we had to stay in constant mobile contact. This meant finding a place on the remote campsite that actually had signal. We therefore used our mobiles as dowsing rods to find the best spot to pitch the tent. Unsurprisingly this lead us to the very top of a hill, way away from the parents. (This has nothing to do with the joke, but I feel sets the storys scene nicely)
While encamped on this hill at night we chatted and played cards and talked about girls until eventually someone did hang up and we lay down to sleep. One moment we were mumbling to each other, wind rustling the canvas, the next moment it was tipping it down with rain so hard and loud it was like gravel pouring on a wriggly tin roof. I must have dozed off and been woken up by the noise, and considering Stephen had just been talking to me, I chose to share this with him, with a whisper and a prod…
“……. Hey Stephen”
At which point 2 things happened:
- My brain instantly turned off and I fell immediately into an unrousable slumber.
- Stephen woke from a deep, and presumably peaceful, sleep to the sound of heavy immutable rainfall which prevented him drifting off again for some hours….
This has become a running joke between us and every now and again we will text each other that it’s raining. And with no further explanation, we will both snigger and get confused looks from our partners. I fear that now, after the Dragon Rally of 2020, we may have a new camping joke.
It all started very pleasantly with a Morrisons breakfast in Sheffield. We had to get up earlyish, because I had forgotten my tickets to a ticketed event. This meant a fully loaded ride back to Oakamoor, from where we had come yesterday, to collect some small scraps of paper. Conwy MCC doesn’t do technology so the paper was vital for our entrance to the Rally.
Collected and ready to go again, Aimi changed her mind for the 6th time in as many hours and decided not to come along on account of the impending storm Ciara. Reportedly she would produce 100 mph winds and cause devastation wherever she went…. The storm, not Aimi………………………………………
We pressed on with our journey, enjoying the calm and cold, but nicely dry weather. It was actually a really good ride into wales. I have done this trip many times with the climbers, but I promptly got lost and ended up following Stephen and his satnav. By the time we got to “control” I was fully jealous of his heated hand grips and bar muffs. I do have heated grips, but only one of them works, and only on the lowest setting. It’s not a priority right now, and realistically, I don’t ride in very cold weather any more like I used to.
Control was at Swallow Falls hotel, just outside of Betws Y Coed in North Wales. Here you had to visit a caravan with its back window open to get your ticket stamped and collect directions to the campsite. It adds a sense of occasion and mystery to the rally which I really like. You have to come along as best prepared as you can and then take directions to some unknown, random field at the top of a hill somewhere. There is no post code or coordinates, its old school paper and written instructions. Written, annoyingly, in full English prose, which is hellish to read when travelling by motorbike. Bullet points would be better but it adds to the experience.
As best prepared as we could be, we had brought 2 tents. Stephens bigger and more comfortable tent and my smaller and more “stable in high winds” tent. The thought being that if it was going to bucket it down with rain, we would have loads of space to cook, play cards and talk about girls in his tent to wait out the weather. Well we got his tent out and barely got all the poles in, before the wind made it impossible to pitch. We therefore resorted to my tent in the hope it would fair better.
For a while it did. We got our stuff all sorted, changed into our full waterproof hiking gear and trudged up the muddy hill we had just skied the bikes down, to the main beer marquee. Here we collected our goodie bags. It’s the best bit of the rally and shows the effort that goes in. There is a slate coaster printed with that years Rally logo and a metal and enamel pin badge of the same. We also got a large sticker that will be going on my panniers, when I’ve de-caked them from mud, a bottle of whiskey and 2 chocolate bars.
On the walk up the hill, I had shot a live video on Facebook of the situation and was shocked to see that a friend from long ago was at the rally too! Dave and his son slid into the marquee to say Hi. It was an awesome surprise and great to catch up with him! I try to get over to HolyHead and Anglesey every now and again, but I think the last time we had seen eachother was when I tore my knee up for the second time (that WAS when I started this blog and the start of history)
It was getting packed now, and dusk was drawing in. We had taken a long windy and windy route (work that out) to get there so we didn’t have much time to wander around and see what people had turned up on. One guy we did stop and talk to had bastardised a Beetle rear end and a motorbike front end into an awesome purple trike. Other people had turned up on C90’s, old BSA’s and MZ’s and all sorts of period and historic bikes. It was hard enough dealing with the weather and mud on a relatively capable and powerful modern machine, no need to make life harder for yourself. There was also the usual collection of BMW GS’s that were far too shiny and far too heavy to move offroad. Surprisingly there was also a good assortment of supersports bikes and customs. It is always refreshing to see bikes being used and not just stored away to collect dust.
I had chosen to camp us next to a large cow shed in the corner of a field. I figured the structure plus the sturdy welsh hedge row would give us some protection from the worst of the wind for the night. Some more experienced bikers had already set up sleeping bags and roll mats and in one case a full size double lilo in the shed, completely abandoning the pretext of using their tents. They had also set up a fire here so we did the same and set about cooking dinner. Dave and James, his son, joined us with their camp chairs and soon we were warm, fed and passing around hip flasks of Rum and Whiskey while marvelling at the ridiculous-ness of the weather.
No longer was it just windy (or windy), it was howling a full on gale now. This, coupled with the severely heavy rain lashing the side of the cow shed gave us grim expectations of the night ahead. We were dry-ish and warm-ish and quite comfortable sitting around our fire listening to the music dodging its way through the gloom. I kept having to go out into the mire and re-fasten the tent in place with pegs and tightening guy lines. It was not looking hopeful…
When we finally dared to look inside the tent, we had to reassess the situation immediately. There was a full 3 inch deep puddle of water in the tent already and it was only 8pm. We decided the best course of action was to set up camp in the cow shed like the wise old men before us. We put everything we could in waterproof bags and left them all in the tent to weigh it down. And took just our sleeping kit back to the shed and made ourselves comfortable in the only space big enough in which to lay down.
There was a reason this space had been left and maybe in the light of day we would have noticed it too. But the spot we picked / were left with, was a shallow depression around which all the adjoining land was higher. I had started to suspect there may be a problem when water started working its way into the bottom of the shed and pooling, growing closer to our beds every minute. I packed earth and rocks up to make a sort of dam, but by morning it had all failed….
“You’re sleeping in a puddle”
This time there was no way we were going back to sleep. It’s amazing how fast you can go from survival mode sleep to fully up and active when you wake up in the extra brown water of cows poo juice trickling into your sleeping bag. Stephen didn’t have it quite so bad, having a decent bivvy bag, but it’s still not pleasant.
We took stock of the tent – Fucked
And our gear – Sopping wet
And the terrain to get out – Muddy as a beavers beaver
Bikes and people going up and down the hill were just going to churn what remained of the grass into even more of a bog. So while there was some hope of traction (HA!) we decided to get on and get out as quick as we could. I took extra pleasure in squashing brown soup out of my sleeping bag as it went into its sack as we packed up all our kit. Once packed as best we could, we tackled getting the bikes out.
They were a bit stuck behind other bikes, but I’ve lived and biked in London long enough to be able to weave myself through even the tightest gaps that areshole car drivers leave us so this wasn’t an issue. What was an issue was riding up the hill. I decided to go first and applied Jeremy Clarksons school of problem solving; POWWEERRRRRRRRRRRRR!!! It worked remarkably well and I must have gotten at least 50% of the way up the hill before I was just spinning my tyre and sending fountains of mud across the field. From here there was nothing for it but to yank and push the bike up to the rubber mats padding the field entrance.
Stephen and I could have done it on our own but were kindly helped by a marshal. Our Versys 650’s were heavy but manageable. I didnt know how any of the larger bikes like GS’s were going to cope. After watching the epic series, Long Way Round, I knew that a 1200cc bike was just too big for doing anything remotely offroad or unpaved. This morning it proved to be the case as one by one, they had to be pulled and pushed up the hill by at least 4 people each. Smaller bikes either skipped up the hill or only needed one brave rider.
We entered the beer tent at the top and found a sea of sleeping bags arranged like a patchwork quilt across the whole floor. More than one tent had been unusable and everyone had the same idea to bed down in the main tent. Our water supply had been found bobbing in the poo juice so I went and found a partially drunk bottle of water that had been left to one side and downed it whole. After a few drinks the night before, dragging all our gear and then our bikes up the hill, I had a small headache. But we had done it. We had survived the night. Slept in a cow shed. Woken up in a bog and live to tell the tale. Now we just had to make it home….
Everyone was padding out of the
campsite field bog slowly, being careful not to drop their bikes in the mud for fear of being unable to pick them up again. But once we were on the road, our trials did not stop there. As soon as we got onto the A55 (the fast road across the top of Wales) we couldn’t go any quicker than about 30 because of the VAST quantity of diesel spread all over the road! It must have been a catastrophic engine failure or a crash so we carried on padding along expecting to find a stricken car or lorry but there was nothing! Just miles and miles of diesely roads that were as slippery as a lubed up penguin on a waterslide. Coupled with the gusty winds, it was all be could do to keep the bikes shiny side up.
Negotiating a roundabout, that was just a huge rainbow of oil, we filled up the bikes and hid in the services. After scrubbing as much mud and poo off our hands as we could, we sat in Greggs and warmed up with a bacon roll and a coffee, contemplating the ride home. We would have to make it eventually so got back on the bikes and started trudging along again. Mercifully, the diesel stopped after a while and we picked up some pace, but we were only going for another 20 mins before the rain and the gusts got so bad we had to stop again. We were both being blown almost fully across the road lanes and it was just silly. It takes so much concentration to brace yourself against the constant onslaught of wind and rain. After another hot drink we just had to keep going.
Putting back on our gear I marvelled at the jacket I was wearing. Its a 12 year old Hein Gericke touring jacket made with Gore Tex waterproofing. When I bought it, I paid over 2 weeks wages for this one item of clothing and was so scared I’d made a bad choice. I wish I knew back then, that I would still have it 12 years later and it would STILL be completely waterproof. Even after 63,000 miles of use in all weathers and only washing and reproofing twice per year (and sometimes not even that) it has faithfully kept me warm and dry. I cannot express how impressed I am with their gear, it’s a crying shame that the UK shops all closed down. I’m sure it is because they made TOO GOOD gear and, like me, no one has had to buy another jacket for decades! If you find a Gore Tex Hein Gericke jacket, hold on to it, you’ll never find a better brand of motorbike gear in my opinion.
We blasted along the A55, dealing with the gusts as best we could until I split off down the M6 and Stephen headed over the peaks back to Sheffield. We weren’t getting any pleasure riding in this weather together so headed straight home. The bike thrummed under me as the miles passed and before long I was back.
Next year I’m fitting knobblies to the bike and buying a bodybag to sleep in. I think that is the only way to get a dry nights sleep in Wales in February – who thought this was a good idea again?!