South Lake District Easy Route – pdf
Distance: 12.5 miles
Altitude Gain: 1583ft
Time: 2-3 hours
South Lake District Medium Route – pdf
Distance: 14.4 miles
Altitude Gain: 2105ft
Time: 3-4 hours
South Lake District Very Hard Route – pdf
Distance: 26.3 miles
Altitude Gain: 5484ft
Time: 4-7 hours (no really)
A word of caution: Don’t be fooled by the low mileage count on this ride, this is a very tough route in often very remote country. What would be a trivial fall in your local woods could have lifethreatening consequences on Nan Bield. Allow seven hours for the full route. Be aware that there are no refuelling or water stops once past Kentmere and that the only chance of bailing out is to return to Kentmere via the shortest route then take the road back to Staveley. Mobile phone reception is patchy at best throughout the entire ride. Save the route for a summer day and you’ll be rewarded with some of the best views on some of the quietest yet most testing trails you could ever wish for.
The Lake District is one of the all-time classic mountain bike destinations within the UK and it had been a
while since I’d ridden there. So when the office debate of Route Guide location came up again I was keen to
suggest an alternative to the more usual Lakeland fayre on offer around Ambleside and Keswick.
I’d planned an epic day out known with deceptive simplicity (and a certain lack of imagination) as The Three Passes, a figure-ofeight loop centred on the farming hamlet of Kentmere but more importantly starting and finishing at Wilf ’s Café in Staveley. Driving up there through a torrential downpour we weren’t looking forward to the ride ahead but we arrived in Staveley to be greeted by blue skies and only faint wisps of cloud gently embracing the upper reaches of the fells surrounding the village. Mark, our ride companion for the day, was already there and it wasn’t long before we were heading out through the village and up towards the first pass of the day. The road winding quietly upwards leaving the river behind, before gradually becoming less road and more track. Garburn Pass is a well-known Lakeland Classic and a deserved ride in its own right – today it was just a taster of things to come. We span along the sanitised track past Dubbs Reservoir and came out onto the junction above Limefitt Caravan Park, which heralds the start of the climb proper. The sunlight played over the surrounding fells, clouds chasing each other over the sky and we started the climb in warm sun, shadows tumbling across the open hillsides. By the time we reached the summit it was more cloud than sun and things weren’t looking good. A boiling maelstrom of cloud was heading menacingly up the valley towards us and we started down towards Kentmere with all speed. It was on the descent that we had our first mechanical of the day, Mark’s ‘enthusiastic’ downhilling style earning him a pinch flat. Right on cue the heavens opened and we were enveloped in a monochrome grey wilderness. “It always rains when I get a puncture” claimed Mark cheerfully as he zipped up his waterproof. Oh great. We splashed down the remainder of the descent and sought shelter in a B&B
hoping for a brew. However there was no one home so we sat in the deserted cottage and dried out, relying on our own food and looking out at the inside of a cloud. Yet within 20 minutes the blue sky had reasserted itself, the temperature picked up and we were riding in short sleeves again very soon after, wet clothing steaming as it dried in the sun.
Up and over the fell, the trail a glistening silver river in the sudden sunlight and then we were down the fast rocky plummet to Sadgill, bikes drifting on the final loose hairpins. One glance up the valley revealed the tortuous climb of Gatescarth, our second pass of the day. Rich and I had the excuse of carrying the camera gear, Mark powered off ahead having just told us that he was in training for the spectacularly masochistic Helvellyn Triathlon and was feeling ‘quite
fit’. Bastard. The trail snaked ever upwards, occasionally offering brief respite as it flattened out slightly before bringing heart rates to redline again as it kicked up past a series of waterfalls. We were into proper big country, all-mountain riding now. The remote sheep-dotted moorland was a far cry from the little villages and farms at the start of the ride; a rare opportunity in this busy National Park to escape the tourist hordes that walk the fells around the honeypot areas of
Ambleside and Windermere. Both were only eight miles away as the crow flies but they may as well have been in a different time zone. None of us cleaned the climb, even Mark, and we were forced to resort to frequent photo opportunities to rest and the occasional bit of pushing to gain height.
The 600m summit of Gatescarth made as good a rest stop as any and the views opened up behind us down Long Sleddale valley and in front of us over Haweswater Reservoir. The drop down to the car park at Haweswater lost all our hard-won height in a rapid plunge down the fall line, a rocky descent with a few surprise twists and drop offs to catch out the unwary and we arrived at the bottom, disc brakes steaming as the water splashed up off the trail and the stream
crossings. There was no respite though, no easy road cruise to allow the arm-pump to fade. It was immediately onto the third pass of Nan Bield and, in one of those ‘save-the-best-til-last’ it’s by far the toughest of the lot. The initial singletrack climb up to the tarn of Small Water was mostly rideable; from then on it was into serious hike-a-bike
territory as the trail turned into a near vertical scramble in places. With legs and lungs already tired from the rocky pummelling of the last 17 miles this was pure heart-rending torture and it took nearly 40 minutes of hard fought scrambling to make the shelter at the summit. The consolation for this self-inflicted punishment was the incredible view opening up around us as the climb progressed and the knowledge that before us lay one of the best, yet least-ridden, descents in the Lake District.
The track from Nan Bield Pass down to Kentmere makes up for all the carrying and pushing that’s gone before; four miles of sinuous rocky singletrack contrasting against the green, sheep-manicured slopes. The trail drops in a steep series of switchbacks at first then flattens out as it contours gently down the valley to pass above Kentmere Reservoir. The rocky terrain disappeared, replaced by a grass-on-peat surface that threw in boggy rutted drop offs. It then crossed a shallow river and civilisation became apparent again as we passed through a farmyard and emerged onto the road at the centre of our figure-of-eight loop. A quick bit of road-work saw us retracing our outward route as we headed back down into Kentmere with only the final pull up and over the fell side above the farm to go. We passed through a flock of sheep being shepherded down from the hills, managed to avoid the attentions of the two Border Collies and followed the contours as they led us upwards and along to the gate above the river. A left turn here and it was onto fast man-made track, all downhill to Staveley. Mark hurtled through the first stream crossing at warp factor five and was rewarded for his efforts by a second pinch flat. Mindful of the café’s closing time I helped him fix it while Rich debated with himself exactly how many slices of cake and of what variety he was going to order once we finished.
We pressed onwards, spray flying as we plunged through the second river crossing and hammered down the grassy incline towards Sawmill Cottage, the imminent bacon sandwich refuel giving life to tired limbs. Out onto the tarmac and we went into roadie mode, heads down as we charged the final two miles into Staveley arriving just in time for last orders at Wilf ’s. Fortunately after last orders at Wilf ’s there was still plenty of time for last orders at the Hawkshead Brewery next-door.
The Eagle & Child Inn, Staveley
www.eaglechildinn.co.uk 01539 821320
Plenty of accommodation from YHA to B&B and hotels in nearby Kendal and Ambleside www.cumbria-the-lake-district.co.uk
Wheelbase in Staveley www.wheelbase.co.uk 0870 6003435
The shop also has a free bike wash and free showers, toilets and changing facilities.
Evans Cycles in Kendal www.evanscycles.com 01539 740087
Bike Treks in Ambleside www.biketreks.net 01539 431245
(Voted Best Bike Shop in the UK by Singletrack Readers…)
Eating & drinking:
Wilf ’s Café in Staveley www.wilfs-café.co.uk
10am-5.30pm in summer
The Eagle & Child Inn, Staveley www.eaglechildinn.co.uk
Hawkshead Brewery (next door to Wilf ’s)