Pedals and pints: Redwillow to Thornbridge
Words and photographs: Alex Robertson
Wednesday 18 July 2018
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Being invited to cycle between two breweries was a fantastic opportunity to combine two of my main passions. I don’t use the word ‘hobby’, because I don’t think the way I approach either cycling or beer can be considered ‘hobbying’.
As a strong proponent of the idea that the correct number of bikes to own is N+1 (N being the current number of bikes you have), I get antsy if I’ve not spun my legs in more than 24 hours. This cycling obsession matches very well with my love of beer. Being isotonic, beer is perfectly suited for drinking after exercise (Ferment does not endorse consumption of craft beer on health grounds – Ed).
Cycling and beer are natural bedfellows for a vast number of reasons but, most pertinently for this story, both create space in our crowded lives for exploration and discovery. I delight in the vastness of flavour profiles and styles available to explore while drinking new beers. A beer is a conversation piece, a way to connect with friends, and a way you can discover something new without leaving your sofa.
Similarly, a bicycle is among the best ways to explore a new area, an easy way to take your time absorbing the sights in a new city, and gives you the opportunity to discover a different route to work. You get the idea.
I arrive in Macclesfield on an already super warm bank holiday Monday around midday, significantly un-fresh from a wedding over the weekend, and a five-hour drive down from Scotland. Nonetheless, the promise of something cold and hoppy fills my limbs, Popeye-like, with the vigour I need.
My route takes out of Macclesfield from the Redwillow Tap Room (more later) to climb up the famous Cat and Fiddle road, via the Cat and Fiddle pub, into the Peak District National Park. It then heads south east to swing south of Buxton via many country roads and valleys, then back up to Bakewell and Thornbridge Brewery.
I’d decided to do a ‘there and back’ route on the same roads, so I get to cycle all the uphill sections as downhills as well. The route is almost entirely on some sort of a gradient. The steepest being a fun 16% climb.
Straight out of Macclesfield, I start climbing on the Old Buxton Road, and I realise just how hot it is. The tree shadows cast on the road every few dozen meters gave me some respite from the strong sun and a slight headwind manages to keep me cool while grinding up the steep country roads towards the pass into the Peak District.
My bike computer tells me it’s about 34 degrees at certain points of this 2.5km section. It also tells me that this section of the route has a ‘strava segment’ (a timed, GPS-marked segment used for comparing your performance on your rides with others) called “Andy McNab’s Moist Meat Handbag”, which is frankly incredible.
At the top of a narrow country lane I join the official ‘Cat and Fiddle’ pass. This is one of only two roads that lead out of Macclesfield to the east, and it carries a lot of traffic from Cheshire to the Peak District. Immediately, the scenery opens up and there is no more tree cover, but thankfully a little more wind to keep me cool as I wind up the road.
It was at this point that something very odd started to happen to my bike. Every now and then, my wheels would jam, or my brakes would seize, or my gears would skip.
Upon pulling over, and with the help of a friendly local rider, I found the issue. Some sun-melted tar had stuck to my tyre, which was picking up small pieces of shingle from the newly (badly) resurfaced road, jamming them into my frame, my brakes my gears! I use some of my precious water to wash the tyre clean and cycle further into the middle of the road, where the surface isn’t so bad.
While we work, the helpful local rider told me a bit about living in the Peak District. He also informed me, firstly, that this was the most dangerous road in Britain – mostly due to motorcyclists enjoying taking the sweeping corners and gradients at speed – and secondly, that the pub at the top was permanently closed. Thanks editor… danger and no pub.
The climb is challenging, but not ridiculously steep, and certainly should be considered a “must do” if you enjoy a bit of a hill climb.
My route then turns off the main road and into some brilliant cycling countryside. The scenery grows more and more impressive, with towering cliffs and hills springing out of the national park’s rolling green fields. The road gets a bit gravelly from time to time, but overall is brilliant riding; twisting through little valleys and down back-country farm tracks, past campsites and working farms. I even saw an old farmer in a flat cap fixing a dry-stone wall. That’s peak Peak District right there!
Finally I wind my way out of the hills, to the outskirts of Bakewell where I met Matt from Thornbridge Brewery in its shop for a quick chat. Matt is very friendly and, alongside a much needed top up of water, I was given a taste of Thornbridge’s fantastic Passionfruit and Blueberry Tart, a perfect post-cycling beer, bursting with sour refreshing fruit. Thornbridge is well-established with its core range, but it’s great to see the team is still passionate about creating new and exciting beers.
The Thornbridge Brewery Shop caters for tours throughout the week and holds social events the last Wednesday and Saturday of every month, which sound like they’d be worth a visit.
Matt talks me through the history of the brewery and the deep connection between the beer, the fantastic location at the heart of the Peak District and the events the brewery is involved in. These include the Eroica Britannia Ride and Festival: a family friendly cycling event with 30, 60 and 100 mile route options. These routes are all available on its website and certainly worth checking out if you’re planning on making a visit to the area.
Many of the brewery staff are passionate about cycling and Matt recommends another festival, Peakender, in August each year. It’s a beer and food festival that could match perfectly with some seriously hilly riding.
Onward, to Redwillow
I turn around and start back up the road, aiming to get back to the Redwillow bar in Macclesfield to meet with brewer and owner Toby. I am already starting to fantasize about a cold beer after the teaser taster of Tart at Thornbridge.
Climbing back out from Bakewell, the temperature spikes with a slight tailwind cancelling out any breeze I could feel. Classic ‘cafe legs’ (see box-out) combines with the steepest hill of the day, Sheldon Hill, and this searing temperature quickly makes me feel like I’m actually starting to cook. This ride is in danger of veering into ‘type 2’ fun.
Thankfully, at the 25km to go mark, I fid a dairy-owned ice cream shop, Tagg Lane Dairy, and down a much needed can of juice and a fantastic lemon ice-cream. In another cycling induced social interaction, I chat to an 80-odd year-old man about a locally made, highly geared, hill climbing steel tandem he’d seen in the alps some 30 years previously, and was chastised for having such a “fancy bike”.
The rest of the return route is a hard but rewarding set of ups and downs through valley and hillsides, ending at the top of the Cat and Fiddle again. I was not disappointed with the decent, as this was by far one of the best I’ve done in a long time. Long curving corners with slight dips and climbs allow for a wonderfully smooth cruise, and I was feeling strong enough to push hard on some of the slight uphill sections. It was one of those occasional moments on a bike where you feel like you could keep cycling forever.
As I enter Macclesfield, I’m hot, sweaty and pretty cooked, but it had been an absolutely cracking day out on the bike, with a little bit of everything and surprisingly little traffic.
Rounding off the day perfectly, I’m greeted at Redwillow Macclesfield by Toby and Caroline, the owners, who very quickly make me very welcome with a schooner of their own Faithless 84 - Gooseberry Sour.
Sours for me are a spectacular beer after cycling, especially in the sun. Tart, refreshing and, with this particular kettle sour, there was a tiny bretty kick which set it off perfectly. There followed a delicious exploration of a few of the many excellent beers Redwillow had to offer, including a wonderfully caffeinated Imperial Vietnamese Coffee Milk Porter called Restless.
Toby and Caroline talk me through how they’d started the brewery after many years of Toby commuting back and forth from Macclesfield to London, working in a completely non brewing-related field. The decision to start the brewery was made both to follow a passion, and to increase family time.
Over pizza and beer we chat about kids, cycling, starting businesses, keg vs cask, recruitment in the brewing industry, and everything in between. It is the perfect way to end a fantastic day of riding and exploring, and for me, a great example of the way that cycling and beer enable you to meet interesting people wherever you go.
As I wander back to my worryingly cheap hotel, wondering where I might find some aftersun, I resolve to come back to the peak district soon and do a little more discovery by bike. The cycling available may be slightly more on the hilly side, but with so many roads and so many interesting breweries, bars and towns to visit, it’s pretty much paradise.
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