This article first appeared in Grit.cx in September 2014
2 days in the Lakes
It was only as I got my bike down from the roofrack and repacked my rucksack (again) that the magnitude of what I had planned dawned on me. The first phase of the ride was a route well known to me. From the car park at Clappersgate, down and over Claife Heights to Near Sawrey then around the bottom of Esthwaite Water and up the bridleway to Moor Top in Grizedale Forest . This was all done in glorious sunshine and a modest tailwind. It was nearly all rideable save for some rocky climbs that crop up occasionally and are too technical for me when riding a cross bike . From Moor Top, I followed a series of fire roads to a cracking bridleway descent through tall conifers down to Lawson Park and past Brantwood to Coniston. The weather was beautiful and sunny. Given the time of year, and that the sun came after the inevitable Lakeland rain, the colours of the landscape looked as if they had been given the Instagram treatment, with vivid greens and browns glowing against the grey of the slate on the Old Man. Going through Coniston, it was gone 2pm, and I had munched on a few cereal bars and a banana but was still peckish so stopped for a sandwich and to top up my water bottle.
I was grateful for the food and rest as I set off towards Torver into a strong headwind. The steep road climb up Hummer Lane was hard work especially when rolling on heavy landcruisers, carrying a rucksack and riding into the increasing headwind. The summit coincides with the entry into the forest at Broughton . It is worth pausing at this point as its around now that the character of the ride (and the Lakes) changes , from the carefully manicured, bustly ,well populated Lake District to the quiet, isolated, mountainous Lake District. I much prefer being on the latter side. The drop down to Seathwaite along a well trodden mountain bike route is mostly rideable. I’ve done it before and know that there is a choice of two bridleways after the drop to Stephenson Ground. Either gradually up a rideable bridleway to the foot of Goat Crag and down a rocky path to the Pub or up to the Walna Scar bridleway via the disused Quarries before dropping down to the Pub. Alarmed at the prospect of some unnecessary climbing (and a frightening descent), I decide to take the straighter of the two routes. There is one section of bridleway that is too rocky to be rideable on a cross bike (unless you’re Danny Macaskill) but other than that it is an exhilarating drop to the Pub. Did I mention the Pub ? I had in mind that I would enjoy my first pint in the Wasdale Head Inn, so it was a struggle to settle for a coke in the Newfield Inn. It was also after half past three and I still had two valleys left to traverse, so I pressed on.
From this point on it was a journey into the unknown for me. I’d looked at the green dashed line that connected Seathwaite with Eskdale for a few years, but had no idea how rideable it would be. The answer is; not very. Once I’d located the bridleway and crossed the stepping stones over the fast flowing River Duddon, the path went steeply up through crags set in a dense canopy of trees. It was a substantial carry, with not much, if any riding until the bridleway came out of the forest. It was here that the shape of the terrain bore little resemblance to what was facing me on the map. The forestry commission were in the process of redefining the size of the forest , largely by tearing most of it up. There was a sign for the bridleway, pointing to a smelly bog. I elected to follow the new ‘road’ created by the forestry commission machinery in the hope it would curve ‘round and meet the bridleway higher up. To cut a long story short, it didn’t. I ended up in the middle of a deforested forest, alternately falling into the boggy ditches that were forming between the newly felled trees, and cutting my legs to ribbons on the stray tree branches. After Too Fucking Long, I stumbled upon the bridleway by taking a bearing towards an easterly crag. My hope that a cracking descent would be a just reward for the hellish carry / climb were immediately dashed. A brief shallow descent followed which was just about rideable in my advanced state of having had enough-ness. The next bit was probably manageable if you were wearing full body armour on one of those mountain bikes that looks like a trials bike without an engine. A chuffing carry down on top of a chuffing carry up. Brilliant. Searching for positives to take from the previous two hours of uncomfortable hell, I found none. The bridleway came out at the 30% gradient sign at the bottom of the road up to Hardknott Pass. As I was riding the Fred Whitton on the following Sunday. (it was Monday), this really was the last thing I wanted to see in my demoralised state.
Actually the climb over into Eskdale proved to be the low point of the day. I needed to do it to see if it could be done. It can be done if you view your bike as an accessory to be carried around like a shoulder bag. If I do this ride again (I’ll get to that later), I would probably just carry on up the Seathwaite road to Cockley Beck and cycle over Hardknott Pass into Eskdale. If you know that road, you will know that it’s not an easy option and therefore will have some idea how hard the alternative is.
I love the Esk valley. I came here as a teenager on a school camp and spent a week climbing Scafell, Great Gable and most of the other peaks around the area. Not much has changed in the valley over the last thirty years, and cycling down the valley road, with the sun getting lower in front of me, I felt pretty good . I hadn’t made the swift progress I had hoped for, but on the plus side I knew from experience that the route over to Wasdale was fairly rideable, and it was my last climb of the day.
Turning right at Boot and past civilisation up to the wall that marks the boundary between pasture and fell, I stopped to pause for breath and eat some food. It was gone six o’clock and I was keen to press on – I could see the head forming on the first pint of beer in the Wasdale Head Inn.The climb up to Burnmoor tarn was largely doable. Its open fell and has a tendency to hold water so I was lucky not be bogged down. It’s an erie journey between the two valleys and the path is known locally as the Old Corpse Road – I was told that was because the dead were taken by cart from Wasdale to the church in Eskdale for a Christian burial. A derelict house stands by the tarn, which completes the gothic horror nature of the land. I’d not done the descent by cross bike before, and found it to be steepish, technical but surprisingly doable all the way down the to the National Trust campsite. Good to end the day on a high. I raced along the road to the National Trust B & B at Burnthwaite Farm. It was nearly 8pm by this point so I showered and raced to the Wasdale Head Inn to get some dinner and enjoy a few pints. I’ve never had a problem with being on my own, and as I sat reading in the pub, nursing a second pint I couldn’t think of a place I would rather be at that moment in time. Unfortunately these days, a long day’s riding coupled with a few pints meant that the moment was interrupted by the sound of my snoring. Gathering up what dignity I had left, I rode back to the B & B and crashed out on the bed with the window open and the faraway sound of Lingmell Beck providing the soundtrack to my unremembered dreams.
I woke early and looked out of my window to see dark cloud lying over Sty Head . Hmm, a different picture to yesterday. After a great breakfast spent poring over the maps , I set off up towards Black Sail Pass. Cycling the bottom section was possible until the bridleway pitched up towards Gatherstone Head. Then it’s a carry to the top. If I’m searching for positives, whilst the rain became increasingly persistent, the views were incredible in every direction. Also, it’s a good steep carry up the steps, so its great training for the three peaks ‘cross race !
I was disappointed that the descent off Black Sail of memory was much less rideable that the reality. Even the grassy drop to the Youth Hostel was slick with water and too slippy to get much saddle time in. Over the Scarth Gap Pass and onto Buttermere was a carry up, cycle along, carry down. There were tyre marks over the saddle which looked like they were made by big chunky downhill tyres and I’ve since seen that the descent has a few Strava segments so it’s obviously rideable on a suitable MTB, but it’s an on/off affair on a cross bike. Even with disc brakes, the technical nature of the ride would mean slow progress. I was on canti’s, in the wet so I’m afraid I didn’t have much confidence until the bridleway levelled off a bit towards the bottom.
A short section of flat bridleway led to the road at the bottom of Honister Pass. The ascent from the West is the easier of the two roads to the café at the top, but the last steep section had me rasping for breath. By this time the rain was so heavy that the road ran milky grey with the water coming off the slate mine workings. I stopped for a coffee and a flapjack in the café – and to dry out as I was soaked through. After an indecently long time waiting for the rain to stop (fat chance), I forced myself outside and onto the road down towards Seatoller. The bridleway was joined just above the cattle grid, beginning the part of the ride that mountain bikers know as one of the best bits of ‘the Borrowdale Bash’. Mostly a lovely flowing bit of singletrack down to Grange, there are two bits that were two boulder garden’y to be rideable, but by now the groove on my right shoulder was used to the feeling of top tube.
I confess to being a bit demoralised by this stage. There was no end in sight to the rain, which by now had been joined by some not insubstantial wind. Not a combination a cyclist looks forward to at the best of times. I hid in a café in Grange, lingering too long over my chips, where I came to the blindingly obvious conclusion that a) it was not going to stop raining and b) the quickest way back to the car was over the bridleway I had chosen as part of the route.
Along the main road to Keswick and then left up the road climb to Watendlath. Initially steep, the road levels off then becomes lumpy up to the village. There is a right turn onto a very technical bridleway back down to Borrowdale, but turning left up the bridleway out of the village was a new one to me. I had hoped that after a carry up the initial steep climb, the path would be rideable. With hindsight, I can reflect now that if the conditions were dry, the bridleway over the fell past Blea Tarn could be more rideable. As it was, it proved to be a nightmare. Cloud was low, but visibility was ok. The rain was inexorable and horizontal. The bridleway was very difficult to see (obviously not well trodden) and the ground was sodden. Riding was impossible. Carrying was difficult given the wind. Although I have great respect for the area, I don’t often think of the Lake District as one of nature’s dangerous places, but it was on this section that I sensed that ‘ peril ‘ was not too far away. I felt very alone and exposed. After what seemed like hours, but was probably less than 45 minutes, I was looking down on the small forest above Wythburn.
Before reaching the wood, I came down a wet grassy bank. It was too slippy to run and too steep to ride, so I slid down the bank on my heels with the bike beside me, using the brakes to slow me down. Great fun. The steep path through the trees, opened out and the gradient became less severe, leading to a pleasant blast down through a deserted forest. The wind had abated by this stage and the rain also seemed to have eased off a little too, although this was probably because I had almost dropped to sea level. Arriving at a clearing, most of Thirlmere lay below me. I heard the muted sound of rotor blades which had me looking round for a yellow rescue helicopter. I didn’t see one, but instead saw the black outline of an Army Apache attack helicopter below me, traveling low to the water, down the lake in the direction of Grasmere.
I came down the last of the path to the road near Wythburn. It was gone 5 pm and it didn’t take long to weigh up my options. There was a whole other section that I had mapped out – over into Patterdale common below Dollywaggon Pike, down to Glen Rhydding and then up to High Street and down to Troutbeck before taking the bridleway down to the back of Ambleside. It was clear that wasn’t going to happen today. I had to get home in any event, but I’m not sure I had the heart for more climbing and carrying. With some relief, I followed the main road over Dunmail Raise and past Grasmere, turning right onto the minor road below Loughrigg Fell and bypassing Ambleside. I arrived at the car, quickly changed into dry clothes and ate the last of my food. I whacked the car’s heating up to maximum and headed for home.
So what did I make of it ? I’ve deliberately waited for a few weeks to write this as I wanted some time to reflect. I’ll not pretend that there was more carrying than I had originally thought. Also the amount of descent that could be ridden was inevitably less on a cross bike with canti’s than with discs and a lot less than it would have been on a mountain bike with suspension. Having said that, it would have been a massive pain to cart any kind of mountain bike over those climbs. I suppose the best way of looking at it is as a cross adventure, and in that sense it was worth doing. I wasn’t moving especially quickly as I stopped frequently to eat, take photo’s and just to look at the view. I think if you were prepared to make early starts each morning and upped the pace a touch, you could do the whole thing , including the extra 35 mile/ 5000ft Patterdale/ High Street extension in two days with one overnight stop. There will also be some reading this wondering how fast an uninterrupted circumnavigation of the full 110 mile / 15000 ft ride would take. A sort of ‘Cross Bob Graham Round, but I’ll leave that for others….
Now I’ve done the route on my own, I’ll arrange a trip with my friends. On the upside, I won’t make any navigational mistakes. On the downside, I know that I’ll be getting plenty of grief along the way and especially on the climbs. It’s probably worth organising the trip as a three peaks cyclocross training ride as it’s difficult to replicate the sheer amount of carrying up inexorably steep gradients that the race entails. But if you’re going to carry a cross bike up steep hills, I can’t think of a more beautiful place to do it than the Lake District.
Day 1. 39 miles. 5,732ft climbing
Day 2. 31.7 miles. 5,030 ft climbing.#
I used my no name open mould carbon cross bike with cantilever brakes (TRP CR950’s) with Swiss Stop pads.
Wheels were Hope Pro2 Hubs 32 spoke laced to DT Swiss R585 rims
Shwalbe Landcruiser 300c tyres.
Transmission :- Shimano 5700 105 shifters, Ultegra 6700 Compact chainset a long cage rear mech, 32-12 rear cassette.
Shimano XT SPD’s
3t doric ltd carbon seatpost, 3t arx ltd carbon stem, 3t ergonova pro aluminium handlebars.
Prologo Nago pas saddle
I carried my kit in an OMM Classic Marathon 25 litre rucksack (including whistle)
Full sized orange emergency bivvy bag
First aid kit
Multitool with chain splitter
3 spare inner tubes (none needed)
4 OS Maps OL4,5,6,&7 / Silva Compass
Spare clothes/ waterproof jacket and overtrousers.
Water bottle (I hate bladders)