LAKE DISTRICT: ROCKY ROAD, PART ONE
O, Mortal Man, that rides a bike,
What is it makes thy breath to spike?
Thou silly fool sitting on your arse,
'tis the beauty of a Lakeland Pass
Stephen Dyster rode into the land of Wordsworth, Coleridge and company, remembering how joyful high level cycling can be in the russet colours of autumn.
“I think that that bit, the first ramp up from Seatoller is the hardest. Worse than anything on Hardknott, even if it isn’t officially as steep,” said a fellow cyclist on the Windermere ferry. “Can I ask a personal question? Did you push at all?”
“Yes, I did,” I replied, “Just a bit at the top of the first section. It is a bit of a slog after that, but not bad at all.”
“Not surprised with your panniers,” said the cyclist, “I struggle on this.” He was riding a full-carbon flying machine.
This sort of conversation is usual when cyclists meet in the Lake District. Opinions vary on the hardest pass, the finest valley, the most attractive lake and the best cafe - amongst much else. One thing is certain; given dry October weather, a few hours of sunshine and a bit of patience and gumption, there is little chance of not finding a stiff climb, fantastic scenery and a good cafe. You can’t go wrong - interestingly, in the three days I spent there a full-range of bicycle tootled by; road-racing machines, weighty traditional tourers, mountain bikes, power-assisted bikes; only a loaded folder was missing. And everyone was relishing what many consider to be England’s finest scenery.
I’d set off from Windermere Railway station - fabulous deal from the Potteries to The Lakes; single fare £8.50 - bought a month in advance. With a return fare of £11.00 and two nights’ accommodation in Youth Hostels for £17.00 (YHA and CTC - sorry Cycling UK - membership discounts applied) this promised to be a cheap trip. Self-catering would keep the cost below £45. Sadly, having not cycled in the Lakes for a while, the need to eat huge amounts had escaped my memory, so I missed my scrimping target, but salved that scar by making a more significant contribution to the local economy than initially intended - mainly cafes and pubs and sweet shops.
Picking up the road through Troutbeck put me onto Richard Barrett’s suggested route from Ambleside to err…. Troutbeck (there are two of these, the first near Windermere, the second on A66). Richard Barrett is the author of the Cicerone guide “Cycling in the Lake District” which had partly drawn me back to the Lakes.
Troutbeck - the Windermere one - is a fascinating hillside village of sturdy cottages - one in the care of the National Trust - barns with massive cornerstones and the unusually named Mortal Man Hotel. Once on a coaching route (and good luck to the horses) the village is famous for its drinking troughs bearing the names of saints. Presumably, the coachmen would have preferred a stop at the Mortal Man and a draught of Sally Birkett’s Ale.
The Kirkstone Pass is a three way affair. The road from Windermere is met at the top by the famously aptly-named “Struggle” coming up from Ambleside, before speeding down to Ullswater. The Struggle is much steeper in several places than the main road, joined shortly after leaving Torutbeck. Dire warnings of gradients warn cyclists of what is to come, but it is immensely popular with those who like a challenge or - as is really the case in regions like this - just want to go anywhere.
By contrast to The Struggle, the main road up the Kirkstone Pass is a slog, but one with changing views as it crosses from the Troutbeck valley to that of the Stock Ghyll just before the summit; for most of the ascent it is the shapely summit of Ill Bell that holds the eye, losing attention when the wild moorland valley head around Threshthwaite Mouth, once ascended by a Roman Road, blocks the way ahead. Turning over a wide boggy ridge, the views down The Struggle are admirable - especially when one considers that the rider is nearly atop the pass.
A short distance before the plummet towards Ullswater begins, stands the Kirkstone Inn. England’s fourth highest public house - or maybe, as the Cat and Fiddle, on the Macclesfield to Buxton Road, is closed at the time of writing - the third. It is a wonderfully sturdy building, standing against all weather, declaring a warm welcome; the chilly north-easterly breeze, the long drag? Well whatever it was, temptation was too much and bang went the scrimping.
Coffee and a score of pedal strokes later, the descent commenced. I’d never found the old Supergalaxy a concern on fast descents - partly because I am quite a cautious descender, maybe. However, a conversation, at the Cycle Show, with a mechanic from Ghyllside Cycles (Ambleside) had revealed that he gets a lot of Galaxy and Supergalaxy riders coming in to the shop - conveniently near the bottom of The Struggle - seeking his advice. “There’s never anything wrong with the bike, I think the front end just can’t cope.” Maybe it was my more cautious approach or steeper gradients down to Ambleside.
Brother’s Water flashed by, the peaks disappeared and the orange-brown hues of the lower slopes filled the view. Oh, for a touch of sunshine! It promised all day, but did not arrive until the next morning.
Patterdale and Glanridding were particularly badly hit by the December 2015 floods. The scars still show, though the scenery remains beautiful and the villages are very much open for business. Ullswater was a grey slab of water, with flecks of white as the wind stirred the surface. Little traffic passed, though there were plenty of tourists. However, turning onto the road to Dockray and Troutbeck (the A66 one), is to turn away from the beaten tourist track. Great Mell Fell and its little sibling are attractively unspectacular and there is no Water, Mere or Lake.
I like Matterdale, so peaceful. I could ride along it for many more miles than it possesses. There is the Royal Hotel at Dockray, for refreshment. Bang went the budget for a second time. If cyclists discussing gradients is one inevitability of Lake District riding, it seems to me a law that the closer one is to a tourist hot-spot that less cake one gets for one’s pound sterling. Such is the force of the market, no doubt. Dockray, however, is not on most tourist’s trail. The vast lump of chocolatey, candy and bisucuit-filled rocky road that accompanied a second coffee was excellent value.
I’d like to think that it was the energy provided by this delicacy that propelled me rapidly up Matterdale and along the switchback road towards Scales - on the A66. In fact, the wind had turned more to the east, providing, eventually, the first tail-wind of the day. The bulk of Blencathra, saddleback ridge in the clouds, filled the vista ahead, with Skiddaw hazy on the horizon,
I hooked up with a guy who was cycling home from Penrith. We talked about the usual gradients, new and old bikes, and the route ahead. “The railway path into Keswick is still closed. Bridges and landslips from the floods. Which way are you going?”
“I’d planned to go by Castlerigg Stone Circle,” I said.
“You don’t want to do that; there’s a better way.”
I assured him that I did want to go that way as I wanted to see the stone circle on its hilltop, with views of higher hills all around. In the end, I combined his recommendation with my desire to take in the sights, and picked up the old railway path just on the outskirts of Keswick.
Keswick was bustling with tourists. I was pleased I’d booked my bed at the hostel, which was also pretty full. Standing by the river, it had suffered damage during the floods. A jackhammer bashed away, bikes had to be carried up a flight of metal steps, through reception to be lodged in the reading room and self-catering facilities were limited. The budget was blown on fish and chips in the market square.
The day had been a salutary reminder of how challenging a few long climbs can be with regard to the amount of fuel needed to bolster energy reserves. It also reminded me that, maybe, autumn is the perfect time to be in the Lake District; little traffic - even on the main roads - and colours to marvel at. And all that for just a little consuming of cake and a good deal of energy. Contentment; and the prospect of even better the next day …. with Honister first up.
(to be continued)
For general tourist information, www.golakes.co.uk
For Richard Barrett's guide, http://www.cicerone.co.uk/product/detail.cfm/book/778/title/cycling-in-the-lake-district#.WATbFzKZPJw
PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2016