A Lake District Grand Tour.
Pedalling through Lakeland:
The Challenge, The History, The Wildlife, The Scones
I had my plan.
“Richard,” I said to my son, “how do you fancy cycling from Brockhole to Bowness as a sort of a Lake District tour?
Brockhole was the Lake District National Park’s Visitor Centre, while Bowness-on-Windermere was probably the busiest tourist spot in Lakeland. From one to the other was about three miles.
I was going to take a detour, of course. I just hadn’t mentioned that yet.
Our journey would be via every lake in the Lake District and over every mountain pass: Ullswater and the Kirkstone Pass; Derwentwater and Honister Pass; Wastwater and Hardknott Pass – and a good few more.
We would visit the towns of Lakeland – Ambleside, Windermere and Keswick, plus the ‘gateways’ to the Lake District – Kendal, Penrith and Cockermouth.
There would be Grasmere for poets; Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top and Arthur Ransome’s Wild Cat Island for the young in us; Langdale and Wasdale for climbers; Hardknott Roman Fort and Cartmel Priory for historians; pubs, tea shops and Cumberland Sausage for, well, me.
We would cycle to the farthest North, South, East and West points in the National Park, well beyond the tourist trail.
We would hunt for red deer and red squirrels, golden eagles and wild ponies, ospreys and ravens, and there was an excellent chance we’d miss every single one of them. (Nature has a bit of a way of eluding me – unless you count Cumberland Sausage and Coniston Bluebird Bitter as Nature. I can usually find them.)
It would be a cycling challenge, a chance to learn about Lakeland, and an excuse to visit one of the most beautiful places in the world.
“Brockhole to Bowness? Is that it? That’s about quarter of an hour on a bike.”
“Well, maybe a little more. I thought we’d go the long way round.”
“OK. When do you have nine days free?”
My plan was to cycle very roughly anti-clockwise. With the lakes laid out on a map like the spokes of a wheel, there would be some riding out to the periphery and then in again. That was the only way we could ride past every lake, and cycle over every mountain pass that had a road on it.
I planned to break myself in relatively easily in the south. Gentler hills, I hoped. And we would go in search of the sea at Grange-over-Sands.
Then we would head east. Past Kendal and up the eastern border of the National Park via Shap to Haweswater and Penrith. Back via the Kirkstone Pass into Ambleside, and then north towards the Skiddaw fells and Caldbeck.
Next, round the north-western lakes via Cockermouth and Keswick, including Derwentwater and Buttermere, and then down the harsher western rim to Ennerdale Water and Wastwater. I had lived in Cockermouth for approaching thirty years, so this was the area I knew best. I had to admit that there were many parts of the Lake District that I knew only fleetingly, if at all.
We would complete the circuit via the sea at Ravenglass and the far south west, and then head back north for the final challenge: Hardknott Pass and Wrynose Pass, before a ferry ride carried us over Lake Windermere to Bowness.
I guessed it would be 350 to 400 miles, depending on how often I got us lost.
The ride would be quite a challenge for me.
I had done two long bike rides before. I had cycled the length of Scotland and the length of England, and those rides had included parts of the Cairngorms and the Pennines. But not one of the hills on those rides featured in a book that Richard has: ‘100 Greatest Cycling Climbs’.
This ride would have six of them.
The climbs might not be too much for Richard. He was twenty years old, for heaven’s sake, and had spent the previous summer cycling in France, riding over the cols of the Pyrenees and the Alps used in the Tour de France.
At fifty three, I was not young in body (though I would cheerfully admit to needing some growing up in the head), and I was only moderately fit. It was going to be a major challenge to see if I could cycle up some of those passes. Richard might just have to wait at the top for me.
Kirkstone Pass would be the first climb featured in ‘100 Greatest Cycling Climbs’. It scored 7 out of 10 but, after a few days of rolling hills, maybe I would be ready for that. Round on the west side of the Lakes, I would have a big day: Honister Pass (9/10) and Newlands Pass (8/10) on the same day. Crikey.
Whinlatter Pass would be a mere 5/10.
But the really hard bit would be on the final day: Hardknott Pass at 10/10, and then Wrynose Pass marked as 10/10 for east to west, though, admittedly, I would be going west to east. Even so, that seemed like a challenge. By my ninth day of cycling through the Lake District, would I be able to cycle up “the king of climbs and arguably the hardest road in the land” with “brutal switchbacks” and hills that have you “straining every sinew”?
To be honest, it seemed a bit unlikely.
I had been over them with Richard the year before. He had carried weights (yes, real dumbbells) in his panniers, when he was training for his France ride, but there had been no way I could get over them on two wheels.
I had pushed.
So as well as The Journey – the Grand Tour of the Lake District, with its nature, its history and its beauty – there was The Challenge: could I, at the end of that journey, cycle over the hardest two Lake District passes in a single day?
Well, we’d find out.