The Lake District is a stunning part of the country.
Sure, Cornwall is as well with our sheer rock cliffs, golden sandy beaches and wild moorland, but when it comes to big peaks, altitude and epic outdoor adventures, the Lakes beats us hands-down. Cornwall’s biggest ‘peak’ is (ahem), ‘Brown Willy’ at 420 metres above sea level. The Lakes boasts the highest in England, Skafell Pike at 977 metres.
Our Willy is tiny.
Earlier in the year, our 2017 PMBA National Champs crew hatched a plan to return to the Lakes for a long weekend of biking and some inevitable hiking. I’ve ridden in the Lakes a few times over the years, including doing an off-road Coast to Coast four day trek which passed through the National Park on the first day and a half, but apart from the PMBA race last year, I haven’t done some proper Lakeland natural riding in a decade, so I was excited to be going back and sampling the delights. Of course, having ridden there before, I was expecting plenty of hike-a-bike…but if the descents on the other side are good, then the memory of the agony of carrying the bike up several hundred metres of vertical ascent, would soon disappear.
So the road trip out of the South West began on the Thursday with an early morning train ride for me up to Plymouth to rendezvous with the Lawrence, Nick and Sean, where I transferred my essentials into the back of Sean’s Bimma (zim zimma) and we dropped onto the A38 for the 6 hour road trip up to Ambleside, where we were staying. After a couple of stops, we arrived at our Air BnB accommodation, a 4 bedroom bungalow with a balcony overlooking Windermere. The house was a little dated inside with a touch of a traditional Irish theme going on, but the view was great and close to the town and trails to make a perfect base for the weekend.
It was about 4pm but with it being mid-summer, there were still 5 -6 hours of daylight to go and Nick had put together a short route for us to bash out and get us acquainted with the local riding. Kit on, bikes lubed and off we headed to Wansfell Pike. It may have been late afternoon, but this was in the middle of the longest and hottest summer in recent memory and the temperature was still in the high 20 degrees C. With the forecast for the weekend being wall to wall sunshine and high temps, as it had been for the last 6 weeks or so, we couldn’t have picked a better weekend for this trip!
A short steep climb practically out of the back of the house and we were introduced to the cold-hearted reality of riding up hills in the Lakes – hike a bike. An hour later and we had pushed and carried our bikes up some 400 vertical metres covering the grand total distance of…1 mile(!) but at the top, with a much needed strong breeze cooling off our sweaty selves, was a cracking view across Windermere with all the boats sailing on it. Obviously, some Instabangers were on order and once the photo-faff was over, seatposts were dropped and I followed the pre-programmed GPX track on my Garmin with the guys in tow back down the other side. The descent was a nice mixture of open grassy turns at the top dropping into loose rocky woodland towards the bottom with some techy sections thrown in for good measure. Smiles were across the board and on show as we hit the main road – if the rest of the weekend is like this, it’s gonna be a damn fine weekend.
That night, Matt (who lives the Josh Bryceland lifestyle living on a barge…without the alleged recreational drugs, and possibly less jibbing) joined us from the south and then Simon arrived from Manchester early Friday morning – the PMBA enduro crew were fully assembled. We’d be following Simon this weekend who’s ridden the Lakes several times and had some routes planned for us. Now, Simon is also known not be afraid of some lengthy hike-a-bike, so when I saw the route planned for Friday on the OS Map…and how many contours we were crossing (as well as how close a lot of those contours were spaced together), I had an inkling, it was going to be a big day out! Stuffed with as much food and water as we could carry, we rolled out from the house about 10am and headed to the base of the first climb of the day – an 800 metre ascent up to Fairfield.
The weather was already hot and the climb was long. The first couple of miles were ridable but we were soon on foot, with bikes on our backs hiking up steep vertical paths, with only a tantalising glimpse of being able to ride the occasional short section. Early in the climb we passed a group of hikers also out for a nice day but once we were on foot, stopping to take in the scenery and grab a breather every few hundred metres, they soon caught up and we swapped the lead several times on the ascent. They seemed to have the right idea – stick some proper walking shoes on and go for a trek, without a 30lb lump of metal on your back digging into your shoulders uncomfortably 🤔
With ‘Holy Diver’ by Dio soundtracking every step up the climb to get me through, eventually we reached the peak of Fairfield and there was the small matter of a short descent and then roll along the ridgeline, St Sunday Crag, to a descent at the far side down into Patterdale.
Hmmmm….THIS doesn’t look like a short descent, IT doesn’t look rideable and THAT is a hulking great big climb on the other side!
To cut a long story short, Matt and I tried what looked like a rideable alternative only to find it was steep, loose as hell and dropped a lot further than we thought so we contoured along a sheep track and eventually met the others who had hiked down the ridge. We pushed up St Sunday Cragg, chatting to walkers, impressed with either our bravery or stupidity for taking bikes up here but either way, there was no grief – just a bunch of people out enjoying the beautiful glacier-cut landscape.
Dropping down into Patterdale via a couple of tricky rock gardens and a long stone pitch staircase, we stopped at the Patterdale Hotel for some food and to refill our Camelbaks and then started the trek back. I have to be honest, at the lunch stop I gave some serious consideration to just getting on the road and taking the hour and 15 min road ride back to Ambleside. The hike a bike up and down and up again so far, with only a tiny bit of riding, which was ok but not amazing and was not motivating me for more of the same going back. As we rode back along the bridleway along Grisedale Beck, I felt a little more positive but that all flew out the window as soon as the track got rocky and pointed up. With another lengthy stretch of pushing bikes, the motivation was gone and I simply wasn’t enjoying this. The Lakes were already affecting my mind as well as my legs…cue more Holy Diver power chords to get me through. We eventually reached Grisedale Tarn, a beautiful lake, high up in the hills, and Sean and I decided we couldn’t be arsed with another 200m hike, even if the descent would be amazing. There were no guarantees of that and we were physically and mentally tired – a sure fire recipe of a silly crash that could ruin the weekend. So we shot off down Tongue Gill opting to take the Public Footpath over the bridleway, and apart from some very large water bars, it was rideable, quite flowy and fun. I say fun, but Sean managed a couple of painful crashes on the way down, the second of which, for a split second I thought I might have to get the First Aid kit out after he landed ribs-to-rock.
We sprinted back on the road to Ambleside, got showered and then met up with the others at a pub in town for a well-deserved beer….and already the frustration of today’s ‘ride’ was disappearing in a hoppy haze. Too late to cook, we headed to the chippy and the Spar shop for Fish & Chips and a can of beer and sat in the park (ah mountain bikers, you classy bastards), munching on an unhealthy amount calories as the sun dropped low behind the hills.
Day 2 better be less hike and more bike. As it turned out, due to the England World Cup quarter final being the next day, plans were switched and we’d be hitting the hike with hopefully quieter trails.
Day 2 was going to be more hike and bike. Ahhh noooo!
The plan was to hike up to the top of Wetherlam, ride down, eat, hike up The Old Man of Coniston, ride down. As the cars pulled up into the little but packed car park at the base of the summits, I looked up at The Old Man and was fairly sure, I wouldn’t be mounting that mountain in the avo. Nothing like a defeatist attitude to start a ride eh?!
The climb up to Wetherlam wasn’t too bad actually. I mean it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t too bad. We passed a tarn on the way up which we all wanted to just dive in and cool off, but we had mountain sheep to bother and they weren’t going to do that by themselves. A 600 metre climb and we were at the top, and we weren’t the only ones there with several walkers chilling out also avoiding soccer-ball. A magnificent view awaited us across to Little Langdale, so after more horizon gazing and eating, we dropped our saddles once more and began the descent down the footpath back to the cars. PLEASE be ridable…PLEASE!!!
It only bleurdy was.
An awesome flowy descent followed down Lower Hows to Hole Rake with some rocky drops and rock gardens but mostly open grassy turns that felt like a ‘Mega Avalanche’ style race would fit nicely here. In fact, the whole descent felt quite ‘alpine’ like – not that I’ve ever been lucky enough to sample that first hand but the others have and that’s what they said. Reaching the very bottom, having ridden it all, there were a lot of smiles and fist bumps going round and I was just stoked to have been able ride after all that climbing. Sick as Slick Rick.
Stopping for lunch, I called out that I would be bailing out of ‘doing the Old Man’– even if the decent was good, I’d had enough of hike-a-bike for the weekend, and, still feeling a little sore from yesterday’s tumbles, Sean equally declined.
So whilst the hardcore crew, tired and lethargic, but still up for the challenge, climbed up to ride the Old Man, Sean and I hiked part way up the same climb to Goat’s Water, a lake 200 vertical metres up the hill from the car park. The plan was to get up to the lake, strip down to the lycra undershorts and go for a freshwater swim. Which we did. We had to head a further down the lake to do so as there were a bunch of teenage girls swimming at the near end…and two men in effectively their pants, swimming close by sure as hell wouldn’t go down well. 😬 It was good though, on a hot day like this, the water was cool and after 20 mins of floating about, and a few minutes of air drying, we kitted back up and then had the 200 metre decent to drop back to the cars on. Soon after, with a sound of up-beat chat followed by a cloud of dust, the others reached the bottom of the Old Man. It sounded like a good descent, and I was little envious of missing out, but the lake swim made up for it somewhat. We arrived back in Ambleside in the early evening, and with England winning their quarter-final match of the World Cup, there were a few ‘buoyant’ individuals around in town chanting about barmaids…and believe it or not, it wasn’t about equal pay in the workplace (ah soccerball fans, you classy bastards). A turbo-shop was carried out with near military precision – well actually; “what do we need?”….”ermmmm….?”…”carbs, carbs, milk, jelly babies, beer and more carbs. Oh, and definitely toilet roll” 😐
Day 3 dawned and the order of the day was to drive down to Grizedale and ride some trails in the area. Parking up beside Coniston Water, we did so for two reasons: 1) we could finish on ‘Stage 5’ the super steep trail we all loved from the PMBA race last year and 2) we could all jump in the lake after to cool down on another bakingly hot day.
We began with a 15 minute fireroad climb and then dropped down the first wooded decent, which as I rode, I realised was a trail we raced at UKGE back in 2015 and then climbed back up and dropped down Stages 3 and 4. Last year, Stage 3 was almost unrideable in places thanks to the combination of thick mud and said thick mud on wooden boardwalks. I remember one section everyone was stopping and analysing lines, and even Katy Winton was scratching her head a little as to how to get through it quickly. This time however, it was SO dry. Those ‘tricky’ sections barely registered this time as we rattled down the roots in a collective cloud of dust and whoops!
The group split as Simon had to get back home and Sean was still hurting from the previous crashes so headed back for a lake swim. The rest of us refuelled at Grizedale Forest visitor centre where we were completely confused (and highly amused) at the Segway experience there as we watched a group being led around a slalom course, frankly looking ridiculous. Why people would come to this part of the Lakes and hire Segways when there’s so much good riding around, Ive nooo idea! Still, at least they’re outdoors I suppose!
Finding race ‘Stage 2’, a old downhill track and regular enduro race stage, we bombed down which was fun as always and as we joined the road at Satterthwaite at the bottom, the call of the pub for a swift half was too strong to bare, so Matt, Nick, Lawrence and I stopped by for a quick local ale…well, hydration is important on a hot day like this innit.
We headed back over the hill and a long fireroad spin on energy-emptied but slightly alcohol filled legs to the top of ‘Stage 5’ – the STEEP one. This trail was so much fun during the race so I couldn’t wait to be dragging my arse on the back wheel again. We rolled in and a few turns later we were being pitched steeply down, steep enough and long enough that we were practically free-falling through the trees, hoping the catch berms at the bottom of each corner weren’t dusty memories of something once more substantial. Out of the woods and I was at the back of the group, chasing down Matt who was chasing Nick and Lawrence but I could barely see the trail in front of me with the dust cloud that was being kicked up! At the bottom, the smell of brake pads was rife, but equally, was the smell of stoke, YEEEWWWW! High on life, we span up the fireroad for one quick final descent down ‘Stage 6’ and then rolled back to the cars and a waiting Sean. Towels and spare clothes grabbed, we dropped down the shores of Coniston Water, de-robed and jumped into the lake. Well, I say jumped…it was more like ‘baby’s first steps’ as we crawled into the lake on all fours; the algae covered rocks lining the lake bed were sharp and slippery as hell. Thanks to a month of temperatures in the high twenties, the water was warm and was a perfect way to cool down after a great day of riding. Eventually, we crawled back out of the lake to get dried – which Sean found hilarious, likening it to seeing evolution and the ascent of man in real time as we crawled on all fours out of the lake, slowly rising to walking upright on the beach.
What a way to finish the weekend, and what a weekend it was. The weather was perfect, we had no major mechanicals, no one got seriously hurt (although Sean was close), we saw some amazing views, rode some great trails and swam in freshwater lakes. Ideally, Day 1 would have had more riding but I’ve just about forgiven Simon now as the scenery was pretty. Damn. Epic.
I forgot how much effort is needed to earn your descents in the Lakes and I’ll be mentally more prepared for the hiking next time. Looking back, I slightly regret not pushing on for the big descents but then again, I ticked of freshwater Lakeland swimming and still had an awesome weekend.
I can’t wait to go back again.