The wheel thing
Britain’s racy new cycling route
It’s a safe bet that keen cyclists who raced around the Tour of Britain route in the Lake District earlier this year didn’t stop for a scrumptious pub lunch at the Blacksmiths Arms in Broughton Mills.
They probably barely noticed the leafy woods in Lorton Vale and, as for taking time to muse on the spiritual ethos of 12th-century Cartmel Priory, no chance.
For the less competitive among us, a new cycle tour offers the possibility of enjoying them all at a more leisurely pace. The super-fit can zoom around the 315km Lakes and Dales Loop in a couple of days, or in one day if they’re so minded, but my wife, Claire, and I opt for a six-day itinerary to give us time to savour the beauty and drama of Wordsworth and Bronte country. Or so we think. We haven’t counted the hills in the network of lanes and minor roads that opened in March this year.
We begin in Penrith, Cumbria, and it is surprising how quickly the din of the motorway gives way to birdsong in quiet country lanes. Within a few kilometres we are in a world of hedgerows and wildflowers, and sheep grazing in green fields that look like installation art. This is a land of peace and plenty, of old stone barns and rustic pubs, and road signs measuring distances in quarter miles. It is farming country where cars are few and far between, and we are more likely to meet a tractor than a coach.
Our first stop is Greystoke Cycle Cafe, which caters for cyclists with snacks, chain oil and bike pumps. Scoffing homemade cake in the tea garden, we gaze across a meadow at Greystoke Castle, once a border fortification against raids by wild Scots. It is better known to readers of Edgar Rice Burroughs as the home of Lord and Lady Greystoke, the parents of Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. The author’s choice of the castle is a mystery, but the fiction has not deterred the local pub, The Boot and Shoe, from selling Tarzan T-shirts.
The rumpled profile of the northern fells is rising to meet us as we ride on, but mercifully our way skirts the great shadow of Blencathra before depositing us in the hamlet of Caldbeck in time for lunch. It is absurdly pretty, with ducks in a babbling brook and an Old Smithy tea room with tables by a wooden bridge. It is like a film set for rural England. On we go, through hamlets of hobbitlike houses of stone and slate to a rendezvous with Rob Green and his van. Rob and his wife Sarah have transformed 17th-century Highside Farm near Cockermouth into a stylish B&B that serves as a training base for triathletes, and as a yoga retreat. It’s not easy to find, so Rob gives us a lift from a nearby inn, and for good measure drives us later to another country pub for dinner.
Our second day in the saddle begins well with a meander by a river through Lorton Vale, with the stern majesty of Grisedale Pike rising to one side and Loweswater Fell ahead. So far we have been skirting the fells, allowing us to admire them without having to climb. Then we hit Cold Fell. It is a long, arduous climb and the descent is no fun because it coincides with knocking-off time at the Sellafield nuclear plant and traffic treats the mountain road like a racetrack. The next part of the route doesn’t look like much fun either, as it involves a couple of kilometres on a busy main road. So we stop at the Stanley Arms in Calder Bridge, have a couple of shandies, and after due consideration call for a taxi to take us and our bicycles to our abode for the night in Eskdale. When the going gets tough, the not so tough sensibly order a taxi.
A comfortable, welcoming inn is of paramount importance to weary cyclists, and the 17th-century Woolpack Inn at Hardknott Pass in Eskdale fits the bill with pleasant rooms and good home-cooked food. Next morning, though, we are confronted by a tough ascent of more than 240m up Birker Fell, and an essential truth of cycling in the Lake District. Whizzing around it on a lightweight racing cycle is one thing, toiling up steep hills on touring bikes laden with clothing for a week is another. Harry Berger, our genial host at The Woolpack Inn, is sympathetic. “It’s a hard climb,” he says. After a pause, he adds, “I have a bike carrier on my car.” Sportive cyclists would be appalled, but we are relieved.
From the summit the land falls away in a wild panorama of hills dominated by Scafell Pike. Having avoided the effort of getting here, we admire the views and enjoy a freewheeling descent down the other side. Next day we are transported back to the Middle Ages in the magnificent interior of the Priory Church of St Mary and St Michael in the hamlet of Cartmel. With monumental
A cyclist on Hardknott Pass, in the Lake District, top; promenade at Morecambe Bay, above