The VanVan is utterly bananas to ride. I don’t know quite who or what it was made for, but haring across the hills and between the old mill towns on either side of the Pennines at a steady 50mph is probably about right. By the time I reached Huddersfield I was in love with this impossibly-light, responsive, lively bike. It didn’t have power – It’s 0-60 time is “It’ll do 0-60… No, that’s it, it will do 0-60 eventually” but it had character. It’s so short and narrow that it filters through gaps that even my beloved GZ would have found challenging.
Rising up through the winding paths into the Peaks, heading for Glossop In The High Peak over the famous-for-good-reasons Snake Pass, I was completely blown over by the scenery; Heather moors wilder than anything I’d seen south of the border, the high mass of Kinder Scout, the violent twists of the high road which still, somehow, HGVs thought they could traverse. It was beautiful. I passed through Glossop, which looks like something out of a steampunk novella, all high temples to industry, two beautiful viaducts joined in a Y over the road, the water running in a mill-race alongside the road. It felt like a self-contained, cold, lonely world even though logically I know it can’t be far outside of Manchester.
After Glossop the air got colder still, the terrain more wild and ragged – The road ran alongside the water in the bottom of a valley, leading to a tight bridge over a reservoir near Crowden. After this, exhaustion seemed to hit. On a bigger, more comfortable bike, and in better weather, it would have been a beautiful run. On the VanVan in the cold, with the dark descending and the rain whipping across in the howling wind, it was cruel and unusual punishment. By the time I reached the last road down to Hartington, passing the quarries where the trucks seemed to howl past every couple of seconds, I was so tired that I was counting every junction.
At this point, an HGV from the quarry decided to “help” by tailgating me.
You may know when you’re on a bike of the dual “splish-splish” sound, of the front and then back wheel going through puddles. I was getting “Splish-splish-splishROAR”because the HGV was literally so close that it was about the distance from my tail as my front wheel was from my back. Larger vehicles do this to bikes in the hope of making us speed up, not realising that a bike as small as the VanVan, at 60mph, is giving it basically all that it can. On the uphills, stretching the speed limit a little, I pulled ground away from it, and then on the downhills it caught back up, desperate to scare me, to prove his driver was manlier, or more aggressive, or more skilful.
We were in the rain. In the dark. On an unfamiliar road. The stopping distance of an HGV is lacking at the best of times. I saw my turn-off, and, this HGV being so close, I couldn’t slow down to take it. Instead, I took a left into a layby a hundred yards down the road, after gaining as much ground as I could. The driver honked his horn as he went past, clearly feeling like a big tough guy.
I wish I had the courage to harry someone on a 125cc bike. It must take real guts when you’re only driving a forty tonne quarry truck.
I turned around on the now empty road, and made my way down the last stretch into Hartington.
Hartington Hall is beautiful. I don’t know if I can accurately convey it, but imagine if you will; You’re cold, you’re sore, you’re angry at HGV drivers, you’re wet through and have been riding for nearly four hours. You have a dislocated shoulder and can’t feel your hands, or anything below your knees. You see a hall, a beautiful stately home with sweeping lawns atop a hill. You realise that is, in fact, your destination. You park your bike and half-dismount, half-fall-off, and crawl up to the great heavy oak door, and unlatch it, falling in in a mess, your skin grey all over, shaking and exhausted.
Two helpful bikers – Your friends, whom you’ve only met once before – help you down into a chaise. Your boots come off. Your helmet and gloves are stowed for you, as one of them goes to collect your pack and bring the bike up to the collective parking. Your eyes focus a bit. There are candles in every alcove, a roaring log fire in the huge medieval inglenook, low tables and settees and thick rugs on the floor so you can walk around barefoot. You’re warm. You’re comfortable. Someone has got your morphine out of your pack, so in a minute or two you won’t be in pain either. Dinner is ready for you, and it’s good. A set of keys are pressed into your hand – That’s for your bunk, which is just upstairs and you can go and sleep in it right now if you want. A pint of really rather nourishing porter is placed in front of you, as soon as you’re warm enough to drink it without spilling.
Hartington Hall is magic.
Once I’d warmed up and proof-of-like had been posted to the forum (Though some still maintain that the photo is just one of my compatriots holding up my dead body) we had a fantastic evening. Conversation flowed like we’d known each other forever.
Around midnight, we were joined by someone who I’ll call Middleclass Man. Middleclass Man seemed pleasant enough. He came from the bar and asked, pleasantly, if we minded having him join us for a last drink before bed. We assented, shuffled up the settee, and made room for him. Unfortunately, this was Middleclass Man, so no room was enough room. Our conversation, which had been about everything under the sun, mostly wildlife and crafting things and our previous adventures, was about Bikers. What did Bikers think about Easy Rider? Were One Percenters really a big thing? Did we really have to pay our respects to them? He had an MX5 once, you know, he’d always wanted a bike.. What kind of Bike should he get? He thought he’d suit something classic and sporty and Italian but… What do you all Ride?Ooh crashes, have you been in crashes? What do you think of that? Oh wow, your leg is such a mess? Can I touch it? Can I feel that bit? Can YOU feel that bit? Wow wow wow so braaave. How do you cope, knowing this can just happen to any of you? Money won’t make you happy, surely, this is what you need to make you happy (I quickly shut him up on that at least, pointing out that it’s nice to be able to not worry about where your next meal is coming from when you’re also looking at a hefty bill for new carbs) and did we all know, he wasn’t ashamed, he smoked a joint now and then and he thought it would cure all the world’s ills…
He told us all that what we really needed was a heads-up-display in our visors for when we were lost. I produced my trusty record cards with the directions on, another of us explained sat-nav-to-earpiece, a third just checked out of the conversation. He was insistent. Could not understand that a half-second of overlay would result in being totally disoriented, or that somehow the bikers may know better about riding than he did.
All the while, he kept getting up to go to the bar to get more drinks for himself. The bar, which had been closed for several hours. I was amazed and horrified by the sense of sheer entitlement that would lend someone to take over someone else’s conversation and then steal from the inn that we were all staying in. He seemed to think he was Very Naughty. I assume that by next morning, his story to his travelling companions would have been that he was up late drinking with the Hell’s Angels.
Honestly though, he was fun. Perverse fun, but fun.
I got back to my dorm (ten to a room) at around 2am, to find a fight already in progress. All I heard of it was “It’s you that’s being a bitch! Stop tutting at me!” “But it’s hard to sleep with you flashing a light around!” and then one person storming off to sleep downstairs, after stage-whispering to me that it was impossible to sleep up here with so many bitches.
I waited half a second, then said “Right, since we’re all awake, can I have a light on to find my bunk?”
This of course started another round of vociferous argument which strangely fell into deadly hushed silence when I dropped my two metre chain lock off the top bunk onto the floor, creating a noise that said in no uncertain terms “THE BIKER is sleepy now. Go to sleep.”
I slept actually pretty blissfully after that.