Road Trips

Honda NC750X

‘Adventure bikes’ are all well and good, but it is a bit of a nuisance to have to head off to Uzbekistan every time you feel in need of a short adventure. ‘Where are you going to now?’ says ‘Er Indoors. ‘I’m just popping down the Golden Road to Samarkand, my pet.’ ‘Well, your dinner is on so don’t be long, and bring back a pint of milk.’
You can strap a lightweight yurt to the carrier and point northwards to Scotland, but you have got to watch the natives, and in truth there are not that many roads to choose from once you are past the central belt: it is more a matter of very long and mostly decent roads along the glens and over the major passes. What about a bit closer to home? If you asked most people ‘where are the highest, remotest roads in England?’, they would likely say the Lake District, or Yorkshire, but they would be wrong. The North Pennines region is criss-crossed with roads that go steeply up and down the hills, all on a high plateau of land that gives you the best concentration of ‘high roads’ anywhere in Great Britain. OK, there is often not a lot of height gain compared to say Applecross in Scotland, where the Bealach na ba starts just about at sea level and tops out at around 2053 feet, but there is a greater concentration of ‘high roads’ in, between, and around, Weardale, Teesdale, and the Allen Valleys than anywhere else in England (or Wales, come to that). A few are still just surfaced with stone, and a couple are narrow, with blacktop starting to break-up, but most are decent A, B and unclassified motor roads. I have listed the roads on my website at www.hodology.com/blog/highest-roads/ and I took Newcastle Motorcycles’ Honda NC750X demonstrator* out recently for a circuit around a choice selection.
I followed a ‘banjo head’ route out from, and back to, Tyneside via Shotley Bridge, but a good starting point is the excellent Parkhead Cafe at the top of Crawleyside Bank, north of Stanhope. Have a cup of tea and a cake, and then exit the cafe. Turn right up the hill for about 500 yards, and at Edmundbyers Cross (the old stone post still stands a little way along the right fork) take the left fork towards Blanchland. I reckon that this stretch is the 29th-highest sealed road in England, at 1637 feet, and you follow it for just over 4 miles, and then turn left, signed for Hunstanworth and Townfield. Follow this loop to the tee-junction at Townfield, and then left towards Rookhope, over Cuthbert’s Hill, which I make 27th highest at 1673 feet. Down the twists to a tee-junction close by the remains of a mineral railway arch at Linzgarth, right-and-left, and up the steep hill to the tee-junction at Scarsike Head (14th highest point at 1768 feet). The left turn signed to Westgate is the road called ‘The Great Northern Drove Road’, but keep on ahead, down steeply, and up again (easy with an engine; you try it with just pedal-power) to Race Head (20th, at 1719 feet), and steeply down again to the tee-junction at New House. Do a right, around the tight left bend, and down the hill to the A689 main Weardale road, and go left.

GNDR small

Down the dale into St John’s Chapel, almost to the big church, and then right to Langdon Beck and Teesdale. This road up-and-over Langdon Fell is, I reckon, joint-highest sealed road in England (along with Killhope Cross, about 6 miles west along the A689) at 2057 feet. and at the top you can see Cow Green reservoir in the distance. Down to the B6277 road along Teesdale, and turn left at the tee-junction for about 5 miles, passing Langdon Beck (the pub there is still open and holds out the prospect of a cup of tea) and High Force waterfall, to the name-sign for Bowlees, and shortly afterwards left into Newbiggin. Bear left again and start climbing the Great Southern Drove Road (the droving traffic would, of course, have been coming southwards) towards Westgate. Up to the top at Swinhope Head (I make this number 4 in the list at 1991 feet) where you get a good view down into Weardale again, and on down to a minor crossroad just before Westgate. Beware! Straight on takes you across a ford beloved of the classic trials boys. Not being a Real Man, and not wanting to risk drowning the NC, I took a left back to the A689 at Daddry Shield, a right back to Westgate, and then a tight left by the old Coop store, and up Peat Hill (the Great Northern Drove Road). Although it is well-surfaced, this is another classic trials hill still in use today.

GSDR small
Back up to the tee-junction at Scarsike Head, right retracing steps to Linzgarth, through Rookhope (the pub there is currently closed), and before leaving the village a left fork for the top road back to Stanhope. 400 yards of the A689, and then left and up the steep hill through Crawleyside (often lined with suffering C2C cyclists), and back to Parkhead Cafe.
What of the NC750X? A year or so ago I tried the NC700X with the dual-clutch ‘automatic’ transmission, and really liked it. This one has the normal 6-speed foot-change, 50cc more and, I am told, an extra balancer shaft in the motor. As with the previous model I can say that the seat is low enough to get both feet flat down, the cockpit is comfortable, it is sure-footed and stops nicely, and in this on-off-the-throttle trip it did about 77 MPG. It is all of a piece and, at the end of the Golden Road, you could probably still feel your backside.
And it has a helmet-sized luggage locker where you would traditionally put the petrol. The petrol goes into the pillion seat, apparently. That carrying capacity is superb for easy access to a camera, and for taking home a pint of milk and an M&S cheesecake. I got a few looks in M&S, and I expect that the nice ladies out shopping thought I was either Charlie or Ewan, buying snacks to get me to Samarkand.
If you want to be an adventure biker and draw admiring looks in M&S, call Graeme on 07810 106365 or 0191 272 3335 x1.

First published 27 May 2014.

* I have to declare a family connection with Newcastle Motorcycles, but that does not influence my views here.

Too Much Monkey Business.

A long long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.’* A long long time ago (when music was proper music, and not today’s electronic jibber-jabber) my first roadworthy motorcycle was a Honda C114 ‘Honda 50 Sport’, with a slightly inclined cylinder, four speeds in the gearbox, and probably a lot less brake-horsepower than a modern moped. Memory tells me that it was a gutsy and tough little beast, taking everything a hefty and typically dim sixteen-year-old could throw at it, and coming back for more.
At about the same time the occasional Honda Monkey Bike would be spotted, with its signature small wheels and mini-ape-hanger handlebars, but I do not recall these ever being official Honda imports at the time. They would definitely not have been big sellers in Hartlepool.
Anyway, enough nostalgia. As an optimistic, forward-looking sort of chap I was fascinated to see that Honda has started bringing into the UK a modern take on the Monkey Bike called the MSX 125, with the brochure strapline, ‘good things come in little packages’. I am told that they are selling so fast that Honda is having trouble supplying the demand.

Monkey #1a
Newcastle Motorcycles** kindly let me try their demonstrator (which had just 32 miles on the clock and needed some careful more to loosen-up) and on first sight I thought ‘how will I ever bend my joints enough to fit on that?’ In truth, the cockpit is not particularly small. I am (or was before age and nagging started me shrinking) six-feet tall, but I had less difficulty sitting-on, and operating the controls, than on some other bikes ‑ a trip on my daughter’s SV650 resulted in a course of expensive osteopath visits ‑ and it is perfectly usable by any normal chap of either gender.
It starts and idles as you would expect in 2014, and pulls away briskly, no bother. Through the gears into top. Think. Figuratively scratch head. Back down to first and away again counting. Just four gears, just like in 1966. Power? 7.2 kilowatts, says Honda, which is 9.6 BHP in Christian units. First gear seems quite tall, with the rest quite closely spaced above. Being new it did not get buzzed, or made to lug. Somebody will buy this later.
Out of Tyneside on one of the routes used by the Travers Trophy Trial in the 1930s. Back then these were mostly stone roads, with gradients steep enough to be trials sections in their own right. This route went to Rowlands Gill, then Burnopfield, Dipton, Pontop Pike, Iveston, Woody Close and West Butsfield. Then, leaving the old trials route, up to Tow Law, the highest town in County Durham, down to Crook, up to Billy Row, and homewards via Cornsay, Lanchester and Anfield Plain. Believe me, there’s some steep climbing in there.
It is a brilliant little bike. Strong front brake (only so-so at the back) and wide tyres that stick tight. Tracks well, and drinks next to no petrol. I did not do a full-full test, but going on what I put in, and the 70 miles covered, if it was not doing 150mpg, I’d be surprised.
The bike is £2799 and the after-market Yoshimura RS9 exhaust (said to add 10 mph to the top speed) is £499 for the full system. Yes, I stopped breathing on being told that, but apparently some end-cans alone cost that much. Great fun, and I’ll bet that it will hold its value much better than something from China costing not a lot less.
If you are interested in trying motorcycling for primates, call Graeme on 07810 106365 or 0191 272 3335 x1.

First published 12 March 2014.

‘American Pie’, aka Don McLean’s pension fund.
** I have to declare a family connection with Newcastle Motorcycles, but that does not influence my views here.

The study of roads and traffic