Singletrack Magazine Issue 117: Classic Ride – The Duddon Valley

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Tom Hutton strikes gold in a little-known corner of the Lake District

Words & Photography tom hutton

It’s not often an injury turns out to be a lucky break. But it’s always good to try to see positives in these things. And, as I gazed up from the climb at the peaks of Western Lakeland backed up by a totally cloudless, azure sky, I was having an easy job convincing myself that my last little mishap had been for the best. Well, at least as far as producing this Singletrack Classic Ride was concerned anyway. Had I not fallen off my bike the day before we were due to originally shoot this feature, we’d have been riding in clouds and rain. As it was, due to having had to take three weeks off the bike to heal, when we returned to the Lakes, we were treated to glorious weather.

Taking two.

So here we were, take two, back in the Lakes. And, despite the mid-week snow that had temporarily put this second try in jeopardy, it now looked like we had lucked out big time. The snow had melted, the temperatures had risen enough to melt any remaining ice, and the sun was shining. Well, out of the shady depths of the deeply cloven valleys anyway.

It’s little wonder we’re smiling as we turn the pedals and warm up our travel-weary legs on tarmac before starting the first of the day’s many brutal climbs. 

So where are we exactly? The answer is the Duddon Valley – not the most obvious of the Lake District’s much-lauded dales, but an impressive one nonetheless. The River Duddon rises in the cleavage of the Langdale Pikes, high above the top of the Wrynose Pass. The river drops west to carve itself a deep channel that the vertiginous road follows. And at the foot of the legendary Hardknott Pass it swerves south-west, drawing a watery line between the shapely bulk of Harter Fell and the huddle of summits that make up the Coniston range. It then flanks the Dunnerdale Fells on their western slopes. 

It would be these hills and mountains providing our playground for the day. A less-ridden corner of the Lakes it might be, but it’s still blessed with plenty of the sort of top-notch, rock-strewn, all-weather trails found elsewhere in the National Park. 

Digging in.

Our first climb definitely sets the tone for the day ahead – steep and technical. The effort forces us to gulp in huge lungfuls of near frozen air that burn both throat and lungs. Legs scream and joints creak as we try to negotiate a sharp rooty bend, and I soon find myself off and pushing. I’m the weakest climber of the three of us at the best of times, but with a pack full of camera gear I can see it’s going to be a tough day.

Gravity soon switches sides though and a slippery, grassy chute puts a smile back on our mud-splattered faces. Easy road work gives us a chance for some chat – it’s been a while since we’ve ridden with mate and fellow guide, Dave – and this delivers us without drama at the foot of the next climb – this one on tarmac. Steep tarmac. 

Tarmac gives way to farm track and this turns to soft grass, adding another layer of suffering to legs and lungs as the gradient kicks up once more. Dave and Steph chatter away like they’re catching up over a coffee; I tag along behind, over-heating (yup, it really is that warm), and puffing like a steam train. 

This eventually spills us out onto open moorland, with great views of the mountains to the north. It’s really starting to feel like the Lake District. 

We follow tricky grassy singletrack along the top of an old wall, and climb again to a tight rock-strewn col. Suddenly the whole picture is transformed. The soft greens of the pastures surrender to the more sinister grey of slate, and the ground opens up in front of us to reveal a steep-sided gaping vale.

The trail narrows and turns up its techie rating a few notches. It then veers left to carve a vertigo-inducing traverse around the headwall of the valley. The rock is greasy in places, and the camber offers little in the way of reassurance. But we tiptoe through it easily enough and really start to relax as it swings back to the right and hugs the edge all the way down to the road. Wow! What a start!

Another easy road section follows. And with the River Duddon gurgling away on our left and the Dunnerdale Fells belying their modest heights and towering above us to the right, it’s one of those moments where you really wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. 

We need to cross those hills though. So the respite is short-lived and we start climbing again almost immediately. A steep concrete track kicks it off, and this gives way to a steep stony ramp that then turns into a muddy, grassy trail. It’s vague in places, but we know we need to keep the big summit ahead to our right, so we follow whatever tracks we can find and eventually straddle the shoulder and drop to the road. 

More singletrack follows. And an oh-so-sweet rock step-up that tests both timing and balance. The singletrack continues south from here for some distance, but that’s not on our agenda today and instead we break north to start climbing again. Steeply at first and then easily into a narrow, rock-lined saddle beneath the rocky knoll of Brock Barrow – at 320m, this is the day’s high point. It’s also a good place to take five.

Descent of the babyheads. 

The drop to Seathwaite that follows is a real rock fest – loose in some places, slick in others and steep in a few spots too. It also goes on long enough to get calves and forearms screaming for mercy. A gate near the bottom provides welcome relief before a loose final section. 

Ridden at any other time of year, a pint in the Newfield Inn would be almost obligatory. But in midwinter we needed a ‘first light’ start to make sure we didn’t finish in the dark. So the knock-on from this is that we’re too early. We nip in for a cuppa instead.

The road out of Seathwaite follows Tarn Beck, a subsidiary of the Duddon, for a few kilometres, and if you stay with this to its end, it becomes the legendary Walna Scar Road that cuts through the Coniston Fells and drops into Coniston itself. 

But our route is to the north, so we swing left across the beck on a narrow bridge, and climb into the Duddon watershed again. Another road section provides more chat time, and this time I’ve actually got enough breath to join in. We stop briefly in the sun to consume a sarnie and take in the views. I get a chance to reveal my true geekiness when I spot some Devil’s Matchsticks lichen (Pilophorus acicularis) on the rock we’re perched on. The other two humour me as I spurt out my limited lichen repertoire. 

At Birks Bridge we cross the Duddon again and climb on fire roads that make quick work of the clamber up to the farm buildings at Grass Guards. This brings back memories of the nearest I ever got to being benighted on a mountain bike. We pause and tell Dave the story – a typical sequence of overconfidence and a few mechanicals, compounded on that particular occasion by a farmyard full of vicious-looking dogs. 

All is quiet today though as we push through, and the traverse across to the head of the Wallowbarrow Crag trail is undulating and fun, sporting a lofty deer gate that wouldn’t look out of place in the Highlands. 

Wallowbarrow wallow.

The drop down the side of Wallowbarrow is the highlight of the whole ride for me. It starts open, with a few little rock steps to get the juices flowing. It then ducks into woodland and steepens sweetly, with a succession of short, sharp steps that demand total focus. 

It bends right, then left, then right, then left. All the time at a grade that is hovering close to the edge of my comfort zone. Fine balance is needed to keep the front weighted enough for the turns, yet never too much – those tyres need to skip over the bigger rocks, not plough into them. A final right, still spicy, leads onto open ground again and the excitement is over for a bit. 

With the shortest day just a few weeks away, the sun is now getting low in the sky, and it’s also clouding over, adding to the sensation that dusk might be creeping up on us. A glance at our watches suggest otherwise but we’re not taking any chances – we’re prepared to finish in the dark if we have to, but we’d rather not. 

We get a lick on and the road miles slip by easily until another steep climb onto Millbrow. The top of this one marks the start of the penultimate trail – an easy farm track that leads across Ulpha Park. There’s just one road climb left now, but with well over 1,000m already in the bag it’s hardly likely to be an easy one. 

We all breathe a sigh of relief at the bridleway sign at the top. And the singletrack that leads away shows great promise, although it’s clearly wet in places. But this is no time for complacency and after a stream crossing it becomes vague, with a vehicle track leading right that looks way easier to follow. We resist – thankfully the right answer – and our trail gradually reinstates itself, although it’s seen a bit too much winter weather and a few too many cattle hooves to be fun – needs must at this stage. 

A gateway leads to a walled descent – this is better, though it seems to have merged with a parallel spring to produce a bumpy waterslide. Gravity makes it easy to keep rolling though and at least our bikes are getting cleaned.

Then there’s a chance to break left – we take it and things immediately improve. We duck into woodland and find ourselves on loamy singletrack – where did this little treat come from? The stress of the last few muddy and wet kilometres is suddenly forgotten as we switch back into full-on technical riding mode. It’s steep, rooty and twisty at the top, and steeper, rocky and unbelievably greasy further down – no way is anybody going to get a clean run here. But, man, is it good. 

We cross a track, swing sweetly right for a final time, then cruise between buildings to the road. Wow! What a way to end a ride. 

The perfect Singletrack Classic Ride is an elusive beast. It needs to be erm… classic, but somehow not something that’s been done a million times before. Today’s outing had really been a perfect Singletrack Classic – start making plans.

Why bother?

With so much awesome riding in the Lakes, it may seem an odd thing to do to drag yourself to a seldom-visited, awkward to get to corner of the National Park for just one ride. But riding new trails is always a treat, and even more so if they turn out to be as good as these. 

This is a big ride – epic really. On paper it doesn’t look much: the map shows it as it is, a long, narrow, oval-shaped loop that follows the east walls of the Duddon Valley on the way out and the western flanks on the return. It covers a small area and also boasts more than its fair share of tarmac. 

But maps and stats never ever show the quality of the riding – in this case it’s top-notch. The first three proper descents are as good as any in the Lakes anywhere – all three are rocky, technical, scenic and great fun. And the final one throws up all kinds of surprises – it’ll be a strong rider who manages to clean all of it. 

Then there are the places it takes you and the views. 

One final plus for this little gem is that it’s reasonably well sheltered and barely gets above the 300m mark, making it an ideal place to ride when the weather’s rubbish in the mountains. Add to that the fact that 99% of it is on year-round trails too, and you’ve got an ideal winter outing – just start early.

If you ride the Lakes regularly and have never ridden this one, add it to your list straight away.

The Knowledge

Duddon Valley and the Dunnerdale Fells

Distance: 34km

Highest Point: 320m

Total Ascent: 1,350m

Maps

OS Landranger (1:50 000) 96 Barrow-in-Furness & South Lakeland or OS Outdoor Leisure Series (1:25 000) OL6 The English Lakes South-Western Area 

Food During

The Newfield Inn comes a bit early really, though it could be easily reached by a short detour after the Wallowbarrow Crag descent. • newfieldinn.co.uk

Food After

The Blacksmiths Arms in Broughton-in-Furness is well worth a visit. Or head back to Coniston for a choice of tearooms, pubs and takeaways. 

T: 01229 716824 theblacksmithsarms.com

Accommodation

This is a quiet corner of the Lakes and there’s not much here. The nearest Youth Hostel is at Holly How, Coniston. 

T: 0845 371 9511 • yha.org.uk

Or for a good value pub with B&B, check out

The Red Lion Inn at Lowick Bridge.

T: 01229 885 366 • redlion-lowick.co.uk

Alternatively, look at Coniston where there’s loads of choice including campsites. Coniston Tourist Information Centre 

T: 015394 41533 • conistontic.org

Bike Shops

The nearest shops are Ride Bikes or VeloBikes in Ulverston. 

T: 01229 585 025 • ridebikes.co.uk

T: 01229 581 116 • velobikes.co.uk

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