Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Criffel: A climb back in time.

In 1935 Robert Grant successfully rode his Velocette GTP to the summit of Criffel.

Dumfries and Galloway Standard May 1935

Criffel is an isolated hill of 570m height in Dumfries and Galloway and looks out over the Solway Firth. On a clear day you can see the northern edge of the Lake District and the four surrounding counties. The loose stone cairn at the summit is known as Douglas’s Cairn and it is to here that Robert and his Velocette climbed that day in May.

Douglas's Cairn

This is quite some achievement when you consider that this was a standard Velocette GTP, with only the tyres and gearing ratio being altered for the attempt. It was also a twin-port 2-stroke with large external flywheel, which you would have thought was hardly the most suitable of machines. Don’t forget these were early days in the production of low-ash oils and whiskered spark-plugs were a common occurrence even under the best of conditions.

In 2013 another serious attempt was made to reach the summit of Criffel on a Velocette.

This has been a well-kept secret, but as five years have now past since the clandestine event it is now possible to tell the tale. 78 years had passed since Robert Grant’s climb and it was felt that it was about time to give it another go. The machine chosen for the purpose was a 1961 Velocette Viper trials bike built and ridden by Dave Lecoq in the early 60s. See previous blog post:
Velocette Viper Trials Bike
1961 Viper trials bike

In the passage of time since Robert’s climb, many things had changed to make life difficult.
No least the lack of vehicular access to the hill, the planting of many now mature conifers and the necessary fire-break ditches within the forests. All these were absent in 1935.
Still faint heart never won fair lady and on the way to the Bob McIntyre Memorial meeting in late June 2013, a decision was made to give it a go. The team consisted of two who should have known better and a Southern Uplands hill-shepherd, experienced and familiar with the area. It was decided to make the attempt from the New Abbey side of the hill, as this on paper appeared the easiest and quietest route to the top. Sadly on the chosen day the task was made considerably harder, in that 70mm of rain had fallen in the previous 24 hours. Early that morning armed with enthusiasm, ropes, spare oil & petrol, the bike was quickly unloaded in the small car-park at end of the tarmac lane.

Criffel car park at New Abbey

Quietly the Velocette and support team set off over the wooden bridge and on past the two or three houses with drives fronting the left of the track. Great care was taken to ensure no-one was alerted and when the all-clear was given, the bike was smartly pushed up the little path that ultimately leads to the hill. It continued to be pushed until well away from earshot before it was finally kicked into life. Luckily with M17/7 cams, low compression and an efficient exhaust system, it is extremely quiet. Amongst the trees it could not be heard at all.

Criffel 2013

Initially good progress was made and the helpers struggled to keep up, but the route through the forest was torturous to say the least. The Viper performed perfectly and being on ‘proper’ trials gearing of 15 gearbox and 60 rear sprockets, it never missed a beat. The last and upper section of forest was eventually attained, but sadly progress stalled, as it proved impossible to cross the final fire-break ditch.
At this point and with a heavy heart the decision was made to abort the climb. The return trip was somewhat less stressful, as it was possible to freewheel with a dead engine when in earshot of the houses. Sadly long faces were the order of the day.

So a Velocette Viper failed to reach the summit of Criffel.
Put bluntly, a 350cc 4 stroke machine purpose built for off-road trials and climbs, could not reach where a 2 stroke road-bike had done in 1935.
To be fair it would have been far easier to take the more westerly path to the top and it is highly likely that this would have been successful. However this is a far more popular route for walkers, most of whom are unlikely to share the same enthusiasm for the event.

It was not all gloom however, as the Velocette Viper did manage to reach the highest residential hotel in Scotland. This is the Hopetoun Arms at Leadhills in the Southern Uplands, which is the second highest village in Scotland.

Hopetoun Arms Leadhills

Three pints of 70/- or Belhaven Best please.