Easy riders in the Lake District

by Jon.Sparks

The Lake District doesn’t just have some of the best scenery in the world; it also has some of the best lanes and tracks for easy cycling

 

There’s nowhere quite like the English Lake District. It’s reliably reported that more books have been written about it than any other similar-sized area of countryside anywhere on Earth; I’ve even added to the pile myself. In the process I, along with countless others, including many of the greats, have tried to put into words just what it is that makes the Lakes so very special.

I think it’s the scale of the place, neither too big nor too small, and the mix of soft and hard, wild and tame, grandeur and intimacy. The Lake District wears many faces, and that’s what keeps so many of us coming back time after time after time. Naturally, the District can be appreciated in many ways, and one of the best is by bicycle.

Of course, it’s pretty hilly country, and some of those hills are seriously steep. The attractions to the hardcore mountain-biker or mile-eating roadie may be obvious, but what about the rest of us? Well, this is the Lakes, after all, and there’s always a gentler side along with the rough stuff. Quiet lanes and easy tracks are all over the place. You just have to know where to look.

Equally, you have to know where not to go. Wordsworth famously likened the lakes to the spokes of a wheel, radiating from a high central hub. The consequence is that crossing from one valley (we call them dales) to another usually means tackling a steep pass – if there’s a road at all. Most crucially, there’s only one direct road link between the southern and northern Lakes; inevitably this road, the A591 from Ambleside to Keswick, is busy with fast-moving traffic. It’s not a comfortable cycling route. For an easy life, stay within one dale.

Yet both Ambleside and Keswick are good cycling centres, and both have great (and I do mean great) bike shops, which can hardly be a coincidence. The terrain around Keswick tends to be more inviting to the hardier mountain-biker. However, a great ride, suitable for all the family, follows part of the old railway line from Keswick to Threlkeld, through fine oakwoods where red squirrels are often seen. There’s a grand pub in Threlkeld and then you can return the same way or follow minor roads (with a steady climb) to Castlerigg Stone Circle, which may not be as grandiose as Stonehenge but beats it hands down as far as location goes.

Still, for gentler cycling, the southern Lakes have more to offer. Between the lakes of Coniston and Windermere – two great spokes of the wheel – there are no great peaks, just rumpled little hills and moors. You can’t entirely avoid steep slopes, but they never go on quite so long. There’s a maze of quiet lanes here; stay off the main roads and you can hardly go wrong (that’s the Lake District for you). Still, if you’re looking for specific recommendations, try these.

West of Windermere
There’s a traffic-free track along the west shore of Windermere, between the Ferry and Wray Castle. It’s a bit bumpy here and there but mostly easy and there are some great picnic spots. Windermere’s launches and steamers are the best way to get there.

Bouth and Oxen Park
Further south, some of the best lanes of all run wriggling courses around the village of Bouth. The hills are never huge but they’re just as steep and just as Lakes-ish as the bigger peaks that burst into view on the crests. Find the lane up to Ickenthwaite (low gears needed!) and you can break out onto some fantastic moorland tracks.

Grizedale Forest
If you want to avoid roads altogether, Grizedale Forest has waymarked routes on the forest tracks. Far from being permanently confined by confers, there are plenty of open stretches with great views, those to the west over the Coniston fells being especially stirring. Watch out for wildlife too: we once met a family of foxes on one of these trails. Grizedale also has the North Face Trail, a purpose-built mountain bike route. You’d need a genuine mountain bike and a dash of confidence for this, but because it’s built in sections, linked by the ordinary forest roads, you can give it a go without too much commitment; pick up a trail map and try the second section, dubbed The Great Escape, for starters.

Around Staveley
The village of Staveley has a massive bike store, with hire bikes and, just next door, a fabulous cafe. It also has something that neither Ambleside nor Keswick has: a railway station. And there are routes to suit everyone: head north on lanes and tracks into the lovely valley of Kentmere, south to Crook and Underbarrow, east around Burneside, or west towards Windermere (there’s a cycle track alongside the A591, but less direct routes are more fun).

The Winster Valley
Just out of earshot of bustling Bowness and Windermere, the mazy lanes of the Winster valley can feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Cruise past Birkett Tarn on traffic-free tarmac and swoop down through the woods of Birks Brow – but beware the deep ford at the bottom, which has snared many an unwary motorist. We have a bridge; they don’t. Arrows pepper the map, indicating steep hills aplenty, but it’s a small price to pay.

 

Recommendations

Bike shops
All the following have bikes for hire and can provide route maps and advice: Grizedale Mountain Bikes; Keswick Bikes; Ghyllside Cycles; Biketreks; Wheelbase.

Where to stay
A great B&B on the edge of Grizedale Forest is Sawrey Ground. In addition, most of the pubs listed below also have rooms.

Where to eat and drink
The following are all recommended: Horse and Farrier, Threlkeld; Lakeland Pedlar, Keswick (a superb vegetarian cafe with bike shop upstairs; linked to Keswick Bikes); The White Hart Inn, Bouth; Eagle’s Head, Satterthwaite (Grizedale Forest); Brown Horse Inn, Winster; Wilf's Café, Staveley (possibly the best cyclist’s cafe in the world); and Lucy’s on a Plate, Ambleside.

Places of interest
Good places to stop off en route include:
Castlerigg Stone Circle: always open, free (Keswick ride)
Aquarium of the Lakes, Lakeside, Newby Bridge (near Bouth or Winster rides)
Hill Top (Beatrix Potter’s house), Near Sawrey (near Windermere or Grizedale rides)