As soon as I spotted the opportunity to be dropped off in Keswick with my bike on a Monday morning, my head went into overdrive to plot a route across some untried bridleways towards a train station that could return me back to civilisation. Despite it being the depths of winter, I had a craving for some old fashioned hike-a-bike adventure. Maps were spread across tables, the internet was scrutinised and train timetables were studied. By car, the route route between these popular Lakeland towns is a mere 20 miles by the A591, however my plan involved the Stake Pass bridleway, which promised to offer a pretty gruelling day out.
I’m a big fan of using trains with the bike. There’s nothing wrong with doing a loop, but there’s something about a point-to-point ride that makes it a proper journey. I’d booked a train from Windermere at 5pm, with the aim of arriving at dusk and having time to grab a chippy tea to eat at the station. To make the 3 hour return journey (and probable sleep from exhaustion) more comfortable, I’d packed lightweight clothes in a dry bag. There’s a time and place for worrying about carrying too much weight, but these kind of rides are not such occasions. On a winter mid-week day, miles from the nearest road or house I might not see another person should I run into difficulties so maps, compass, food, water, tools, extra layers and survival blanket all took the backpack up to 6KG. It’s all good for the legs though. I’d also cunningly put Stake Pass near the start of the ride, so that if it took more time/energy than planned I could tarmac it back to Windermere and skip the rest of the off-road sections I had lined up. It might all sound a bit dramatic, but I didn’t want to be another mocking incident on the local Mountain Rescue web site.
For any readers not familiar with the Lake District, it’s one of England’s most famous and popular national parks. The lakes and hills (or fells as they’re known) make it a favourite playground for cyclists, mountain bikers, hikers, fell runners and rock climbers. Fortunately it’s not all overly congested, partly because most of the tourists prefer not to leave the cafe’s and outdoor clothing shops.
Routes like Stake Pass are ancient traveller and trade routes between towns, and I had a feeling that today would make me realise exactly how soft modern conveniences like the A591 had made us. They’re also not the kind of routes that you’ll find in a mountain bike guide book. Oh no, the only way to assess the feasibility of such rides is to scour the internet for forum discussions and ride reports on blogs like these. So, for the benefit of future riders, here’s how it went: (Strava users can check it out and pinch the route file here)
Keswick to Rosthwaite
I could have taken the obvious road directly there, but I used the first half of the well documented ‘Borrowdale Bash’ route. I’d forgotten how technical some of it was though and getting off to push a couple of sections didn’t give me much confidence for the horrors ahead…
Up Langstrath to the top of Stake Pass:
I’d read that the bridleway on the East side of Langstrath Beck could be boggy, but that there was a rocky farm track that gave way to a footpath on the West side that would be drier. I’m usually a stickler for Rights Of Way, but given that the UK had only just stepped down from flood alerts, another pair of wheels/boots would be the last thing a grassy bridleway needed. Ecological justification.
The farm track was great, a few techy bits but very rideable. I could see the bridleway across the big wide valley and it looked grassy, so I imagine it would have been boggy. All goes well till you go through a gate and wonder where the track went. You’re now on the footpath and the next couple of miles will have you in a sequence of ride/push/carry, but if you’re taking this route on then you’re unlikely to get too upset about this. As you progress up the valley, look for a waterfall high up ahead on the left side of the valley – Stake Pass zig zags up the right hand side of this. It’s a strange moment when you realise this, as a) you expect to be continuing down the valley and b) it looks vertical.
Once you cross the river on the narrow wooden bridge the real climbing begins. The path’s been tastefully manicured within the last few years and is mostly fine gravel and very sharp hairpin bends. With good legs and small gears you can ride quite a lot of it though. Once you get half way up and look down you’ll see that it’s like a mini Alpine road pass, but instead of wide tarmac roads, its a gravel track half a meter wide. Annoyingly, the hairpins are too tight to ride round, which breaks your flow on the way up and would really spoil it as a descent. Eventually you hit the top and you just follow the obvious and mostly rideable track until you catch sight of the Great Langdale valley, your next destination.
Down Stake Pass to the Old Dungeon Ghyll pub:
If you thought the ascent was mad, wait till you see the descent. It plummets down quite abruptly, with rocky step-like zig zags. This was just how I remembered it from a hiking trip last year, though my claims of “Yeah, I reckon I could ride most of this” didn’t come to fruition now I had a bike with me. I know there’s riders out there that are brilliant at this kind of riding, but a healthy fear of injury meant that I pushed the first section but rode increasingly towards the bottom. As you cross the bridge, look back up and you can barely even make out the path against the imposing hills that now surround you. The track through the valley floor is brilliant – not massively technical, but certainly grand, and if you’ve not hurt yourself on Stake Pass you’ll be feeling pretty pleased with yourself, so soak it up. As a guide, it took me just over two hours from Rothsthwaite to the Old Dungeon Ghyll including a few photo stops and a quick sandwhich.
Old Dungeon Ghyll to Windermere:
From here to Windermere are a multitude of bridleway options so I’d planned as many that I hadn’t ridden before. I had to miss out the last one as the light was fading, but the last few miles of tarmac delivered me nicely to the fish and chip shop, just as planned.
I’m not sure it’s the kind of ride I’d want to do every weekend, and I appreciate that it’s hard to convey the appeal of such a ride even to most regular cyclists, but there’s just something special about taking on a remote pass that you’ve never done before. Fortunately there’s loads more in the Lakes for me to start planning!
Nearly at the top, just a few more hair pins…
The welcome sight of Great Langdale
A well earned chippy tea