Not far from here is the B5105 Ruthin to Cerrigydrudion road. A twisting and at times challenging road which for bikers, reaches its adrenaline pumping, throttle growling zenith as it reaches the edges of Clocaenog Forest. From here a short straight casts off the 7 day Sunday drivers and cattle trucks, before a leather scraping bend delivers a mile straight where they can open up and let rip. Jim Perrin once wrote about the Manchester climbing bikers culture of the 50’s and 60’s. Those working class lads for whom the Royal Enfield, Triumph and BSA motorbike was the mode of transport by choice and of course, economic necessity in those more austere times.
Perrin mentions the Clocaenog Bends in his article which must have been in Climber magazine I guess? The teams would meet up at the bikers caff in Ruthin before donning their helmets and racing to the climbers dosses in Ogwen and The Pass. For these climbing bikers, the race to get there was far more dangerous than the actual climbing! A few years ago, a biker was decapitated travelling through the bends when he left the road at speed and hit a sign at the entrance to a farm. North Wales’s controversial chief constable at the time, Richard Brunstrom, thought it would be a good idea to use the gruesome image taken by a police photographer in a road safety lecture he delivered to journalists. Something that did not go down too well with the deceased bikers family surprisingly!
Crashing off the B5105 at speed is not however an isolated occurrence. Anecdotes abound from old northern climbers about the close shaves and involuntary flights they took when as riders or pillion passengers, a bend was misjudged. Given that the road reaches 1000’ above sea level then winter snow and ice only adds to the thrill seekers experience!
Motor biking is such an integral part of the UK climbing culture, particularly amongst northern climbers, that nearly every climber of a certain age, has a host of bike related anecdotes to relate. Bradford Lad, Dennis Gray tells a highly amusing biking tale in the first volume of his autobiography, Tight Rope. ‘The Brass Bound Buggery Box’ was a Triumph 650 with attached side car owned by fellow ‘lad’ Jack Bradley. Travelling one night on the A65 between Kendal and Ingleton, the aforementioned Buggery Box boasted a full complement of climbers including three Bradford Lads in the box itself, Bradley at the controls and Harold Drasdo riding pillion. Unfortunately, the sidecar passengers were not rehearsed in the art of leaning and threw the entire contraption out of kilter as they approached the Whoop Hall bends at 60mph. The buggery box took flight and scattered its compliment all over the A65. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt. In fact, pillion passenger Harold Drasdo jumped off before impact, ‘as if dismounting a horse’ according to Gray, and stopped almost instantly still on his feet!
Not all motor bike crashes ended like a Keystone Cops movie however. Menlove Edwards lost his brother Hewlett in the 1930’s when, returning from a weekend in Ogwen Valley, he had a head on crash with a tram when leaving the Mersey Tunnel. A pedestrian had walked in front of him from behind a parked car, causing him to swerve into the tram. He died hours later in Liverpool Royal Infirmary. An early fatality amongst a number of climbing bikers who have since ‘bought the farm’ as they say in the US.
One of UK climbing most famous bikers, was of course, the late great Don Whillans. Whillans most famous biking feat was riding back home from the Himalayas on his trusty old British bike. A feat recalled in his essay ‘Rawalpindi to Rawthenstall’ (Republished on Footless Crow in 2012). In Whillans last climb –( Available onYou Tube)- He arrives to meet Joe Brown on his growling British machine with a smouldering fag behind his visor! In Lakeland Rock, he effects a similar entrance. Meeting Chris Bonnington astride a Triumph before they set off to climb his classic Dovedale Grooves.
These days climbers just don’t seem to do the bike thing anymore. The whole culture has been transformed and you are more likely to see a climber helicopter into a crag than arrive on a motor bike. More especially a British bike. Climbing anecdotes will never be the same again!