Cycling and Whinging on The Cumbria Way

At the weekend I combined my two favourite occupations, cycling and whinging – I tackled The Cumbria Way Cycle Route.

It starts at Ulverston and claims to follow The Cumbria Way Walk Route, as the guidebook says, ‘loosely’. It takes in Coniston, Elterwater, Grasmere, Thirlmere, Derwent Water before heading off behind Skiddaw and down to Carlisle – 70 odd miles.

If your planning is anything like mine and you find yourself guideless in Ulverston, firstly, the Tourist Information Centre is in Coronation Hall, County Square, they sell guides. Although for the more meticulous, the guide is available throughout Cumbria; and secondly, if you are seriously unorganised, you can buy a bike from Gill Cycles just down the road.

Whinge No.1 - When is a hillock a hill?Whinge No.1 - When is a hillock a hill?
You start at the Cenotaph and immediately begin climbing through some country lanes. Just a sec, would you mind if I whinged this early? It’s to the guidebook writers: please don’t put ‘short’ with ‘steep’ unless you really mean it. I also like the unusual way ‘steady’ and ‘gruelling’ can be interchanged on a couple of the pages. Anyway, ideally, I like a nice gentle start to a cycle ride just to get my sinews used to the agonies, this wasn’t ideal.

At the top of the incorrectly described ‘hillock’ there are distant views over Morecambe Bay that are well worth admiring (no it wasn’t a rest stop, like I said I was admiring the views). Round the summit, there are even more distant views of Coniston tucked away in a valley innumerable wheel revolutions hence. It was surrounded by (and I don’t like to be dramatic…) an impenetrable barrier of unassailable peaks… I stuffed in a Geo Bar and freewheeled down the hill to Coniston.

Whinge No.2 - Other Cyclists
Now, it would seem reasonable to admire the gorgeous scenery as I freewheeled, and I would have done if it wasn’t for a fellow cyclist who was – basically - getting on my nerves. I saw him struggling up a gradient; I didn’t want to break my momentum so I overtook him with a cheery ‘Hello, lovely day…’ sort of thing. The next down slope a streamlined object came by, grimacing and pedalling furiously - it was him. The next up slope, he was wobbling and pitiable, so I overtook with a pretend-effortless uphill smirk; the next down slope, whoooosh - he came passed again. The lake and the breathtaking landscape slid by unnoticed, because of this irritating, grunting … [insert any words you see fit in here].

It took John Ruskin to bring me to my senses; Brantwood, his house, cleared my head. Whatever views you have from your living room window, be it the glistening water of Grasmere or the slag bank in Workington, you won’t beat John’s view over Coniston. After this the intermittent stranger, struggling up the hill in front, meant nothing to me. From tomorrow, I vowed to hang up my cycling shorts, and become a poet so I could buy a house like John’s.

Jealous Rage No.1 - The Brittania Pub
I stopped in Coniston for water then followed Yew Beck up to Moss Rigg Woods. It’s a climb but I felt good and there was no one else around. The woods provided my only opportunity of the day of looking like a professional mountain biker. I did this with assistance from poor bike handling and a splodge of ooze from a stray mountain rivulet. I dropped into Colwith with the left side of my face concealed with what I hoped was only mud, but it smelt odd.

I cycled into Elterwater and was confronted with, by far, the biggest test of the day.
Jealous Rage No.1 - The Brittania Pub
How I got passed the Brittania pub I will never know? People were sitting outside in the sun, in a beautiful village, drinking cool looking drinks. I took a gulp from my bottle and all I got was the diluted tasted of Moss Rigg Woods. My bike carried me through the village but unfortunately wasn’t obliging enough to continue up Redbank; I was forced to pedal and pedal hard. This was the toughest climb so far, made easier by the views but more difficult by the tourists. There were several picnickers dotted along the way and several more hikers. The spectacle of me sweating and whining could hardly be compared with the views over the Langdale Pikes and Elterwater, but just in case anyone noticed my struggle, I had to maintain some resemblance of form, well at least keep the front wheel in front of the back one and out of the heather.
Euphoria No.1 - Lovely Keswick
I took half an hour off in Grasmere then headed up Dunmail Raise. It wasn’t the steepness but the traffic along the main road that bugged me this time. Half-way up, haggard and in mid-scowl, someone sounded their horn. I hoped it was out of pity rather than someone I actually knew. Turning off behind Thirlmere was great because the road was empty and flat among cool trees and there was no need to pretend anymore. I could enjoy a good slump over the handle bars. I weaved over Thirlmere Dam, snaked through St. John’s in the Vale and lurched up the final rise to Castlerigg Stone Circle.

As you climb towards Castlerigg, to take your mind off the pain, see if you can spot Castle Rock in the valley behind you. It’s supposed to look like a vast fortress in the mountain; and may well have done had I followed my instincts and enjoyed the hospitality of the Brittania pub earlier. By the time I reached the stone circle I was in need of a Druid’s intervention. Luckily, the view of Derwent Water and Keswick did just that. I free wheeled down Manor Brow and into the safety of the town centre. Forty miles - a piece of cake.
Interlude - Taking it easyInterlude - Taking it easy
At the end of Day 1, after a grueling day in the saddle, when you’re soaking in your bath, I must insist that you do not look at your guidebook, especially the page on ‘Topographical cross-sections’. These show the heights attained in graphical format of various fragments of the route. Your next section ‘Keswick to Hesket New Market’ (in the two seconds I glanced at it before throwing it across the room) looks like a steeply sided, inverted jelly mould. Sweet dreams.

In readiness for the ascent to Skiddaw House, the start of the next day is easy. A tootle along the old railway line, down a boardwalk, past a bobbin mill, and over a series of ‘bowstring’ bridges crossing the River Greta. The bulk of Blencathra and a few enthusiastic birds, tweeting above in the arch of trees, are your only companions. Whistle and hum if you like because, yes, it is that idyllic; the euphoria is probably brought on by the unceasing flatness.

My legs felt great as I pedalled through a tunnel, acoustically perfect for whooping in.... and then the joyous cries died in my throat. At Threlkeld the climb begins.
Whinge No.3 - Artists, bridges and horses
The tarmaced ascent up to the Blencathra Centre is fine. Just before a cattle grid I had a run in with some sticky sheep droppings which adhered to my tires for a couple of hundred yards before flying off in directions beyond my control. The artist, painting Lonscale Fell over the valley to the left, who had just got the perfect blend of ultramarine and cadmium yellow, wasn’t happy with the addition of a flying blob of burnt umber. I pedalled on apologetically.

The route turned from gravelly to rocky, to craggy, to impossible. A couple of sections I had to get off and push, let down once again by my bike handling skills (okay, my legs). It was hard going up to Skiddaw House, but it was real mountain biking. On the descent I forded a river, the guide said ‘be careful’ but that didn’t scare me. I ploughed into the water, which, to be fair, didn’t feel too cold when my front tyre lost its grip and I went sideways. From my riverbed vantage point, I noticed a perfectly usable bridge to the right, I’d use that if I were you.

Whinge No.3 - Artists, bridges and horses
With the haranguing from the artist and the mishap in the river, as the path narrowed I should have been prepared for the horses.
‘Keep very still and you’ll be fine,’ the first rider said to me as she approached. ‘It’s not you it’s the bike, he hates them.’ Since the path was surrounded by thistles and the horse was almost upon me, that was little comfort – a cycle and a cyclist I imagined would look pretty similar to a frenzied hoof. The horse passed very close. It jerked and twitched and eyeballed me with menace. It sniffed and bumped me with its rib-cage, and there was a definite nibble on my (very still) ear. The following two horses were much the same. As I cycled off, glad to have survived, I heard laughter from the fun-loving equestrians and a mocking neigh. Horse humour, I love it.
Love No. 1 - Tarmac
The descent at times was steep and my skeleton had its fill of rattling, but even if you don’t care for the scenery, or the tingle of being alone with your bike on a mountain, one thing you will cultivate from your time around the back of Skiddaw is a deep, almost religious, love for the attributes of tarmac. When I hit the road on the way to Orthwaite I felt an inner calm as my internal organs squeezed themselves back into familiar positions. I glided past Overwater, but the tarmac was short-lived. The guide once again ordered me reluctantly off the road and over Uldale Common.
Euphoria No.2 - The Descent to CarlisleEuphoria No.2 - The Descent to Carlisle
Here the grass path formed a Velcro bond with my tires. This may be an exaggeration, but forgive me, my water bottle had run out and I was tired. Uldale Common didn’t last long and at some point after that I made it to Hesket Newmarket. Sarnies and drinks and a lie on the grass.

The final section from Hesket Newmarket to Carlisle is fourteen miles, but compared to your prior agonies it’s the easiest fourteen miles you will ever cycle.
There is not much I can remember about it apart from nice country lanes and nice villages and a heart-warming amount of gentle downhill. When I past Carlisle Racecourse all the pasta I’d been eating for the six weeks prior to embarkation finally kicked in, and I sprinted down Currock Road and into Botchergate. As I tore through the traffic lights and into the railway station car park, my enthusiasm was so great that when the time came to stop, I almost went over my handle bars. I was ready to do it again. The moment I dismounted the pain of Skiddaw and Redbank was forgotten, and to be honest I already missed the whinging. If it wasn’t for that artist lying in wait among the crags, with her paint mix, I’d have turned round immediately and set off back to Ulverston.

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