In search of trail treasure, Sanny and chums tackle what is reputed to be ‘the worst trail in the Lakes’. Do they find a hidden gem or should they have heeded the warnings?
Words & Photography Sanny (unless credited)
Let me be honest with you, dear reader. I have a bit of a reputation (undeserved I might add) for seeking out trails and routes that could, if one was being unkind, be described as ‘Sanny’s walks with his bike’. While for some the very idea of a hikeabike route is a complete anathema, I will quite happily haul my bike over summits and mountain passes in my ongoing quest for trail perfection. A line on a map. A whisper that a route might just go. The faint promise of singletrack nirvana on the descent. There is something positively addictive that comes from seeking out a new route. Most of the time it pays off… mostly. But what if you have an itch that needs scratching in spite of the sage advice of those who have actually attempted a route that says ‘horror show’ and ‘avoid at all costs’. For me, Greenup Edge was that itch.
Words of warning.
Nestling in the heart of the Lakes, on paper at least, Greenup Edge holds the promise of adventure on a route that joins Borrowdale with its imposing, steep-sided valleys in the north and the gentler, rounded fells that surround Grasmere. It is route one. Directissima. Following a natural line through a glacial sculpted valley, millennia in the making, it tops out at over 600 metres before gently descending to Grasmere Common and the tourist honeypot of Grasmere, far below. It promises much, but comes with some serious health warnings. Let me share a few from the Singletrack Forum with you.
“I tried this route a year or two ago and said never again. I don’t mind if the descents are worth it but to carry up and carry down as well… could have gone for a walk instead.” d45yth. “Leave it and go somewhere else would be my advice.” trout. “I’ve hiked a bike over Greenup twice in the past. Second time was to check if it was as bad as we remembered it to be. It was.” Drew.
Even Chipps of this fair parish has described it as featuring “an awful hour or so of hikeabike”.
Are you tempted yet? Thought not. Of course, most normal folk would heed such advice, but following a summer of soaring temperatures and dusty trails, I rather fancied a crack at it. The reputed bog of doom would be drier than a rice cake – hopefully. And, given how much bikes have improved in recent years, trails once considered unrideable might have taken on a less intimidating status. Sod it, I thought. You don’t really know until you try.
“Who is more fool? The fool or the fool who follows him?”
But who to join me on this Joseph Conrad-esque journey into the heart of darkness? Step forward Tristan, Lakes local and ace snapper who has a penchant for hikeabike adventures and Roddy, a surveyor by trade who is also a pretty handy rider and who can wax lyrical about the geology of the Lakes (and survey quantities should the need arise). And then there is Donald, my long-suffering adventure companion who has not once complained on our many ‘walks with bike’ together. Oh, and he also happens to be an orthopaedic surgeon which might come in handy when Tristan and Roddy decide to throw me off a cliff for my ‘interesting’ route choices.
As with most rides, our adventure for the day started with a pleasant spin to get the legs warmed up. Nipping through the picture postcard hamlet of Stonethwaite with its inviting pub (is 10am too early for a cheeky drink?), the sun was on our backs and the wind was in our hair. Well, if I had hair. Crossing Stonethwaite Bridge, we gradually made our way along the bridleway that skirts Stonethwaite Fell (they didn’t spend a long day in the office coming up with those names I would wager). Engaging in the classic game of ‘pass the walker’ only to be passed by them ad nauseaum, the trail of exposed bedrock snaked its way along the valley floor. To our right, a classically constructed dry stone dyke and the gently running Stonethwaite Beck kept us company while up ahead the steep-sided valley that would take us to Greenup Edge reared up. Small step-ups, slabs and steeps abounded as we thrutched, hopped and gurned our way up the trail. The further we got, the less we rode and the more we pushed and carried. However, with the sun out and shining on what is reputed to be the wettest valley in England, the views in every direction were spectacular. We were being treated to one of those rare Lakeland days when the stars align and those views normally reserved for Colin Prior landscape photos were out in force. Ahead, the track contoured up Greenup Gill while the rocky outcrop of Eagle Crag stood silent watch over us. So far, so good.
Are we nearly there yet?
After much sweating for Scotland, we reached a natural break in the climb at the head of Greenup Gill. The claustrophobic feel of the climb had been replaced with a more benevolent vista. Taking time to stuff our faces, a U-shaped valley lay before us. Consulting the map and scanning the horizon, our route was obvious. As you would probably expect, it was no easy meander up shallow-sided fells for us. Oh no. We had the rocky scramble of Lining Crag to contend with. Making our way up the uneven ground, the rocky path zigged and zagged in tight switchback formation over unyielding rock gardens. As a carry up, it was a case of hopping from rock to rock while trying not to slip. Disco slippers would be an unwise option here. Looking back down, none of us fancied it as a descent. It would almost certainly be a carry down in places, albeit a short one. That said, descending back down Greenup Gill would be a hoot and quite possibly worth the price of entry.
Reaching the top, the much-anticipated ‘awful hour of hikeabike’ never really materialised. We had all of us experienced much harder and longer ones in the past. Instead of the anticipated ‘Bog of Doom™’, we found a verdant plateau of short grass and regularly spaced cairns. Although a little vague in sections, we had no problems in following the trail that would take us to the start of the descent. On a day of high visibility such as this, progress was unhindered but it is not be difficult to imagine how easy it would be to lose your bearings should the mist descend on a gloomy autumnal day. With exposed sections of crag, we took the opportunity to play on grippy bedrock. Lines were scoped and steep spines ridden. It would have been rude not to.
However, with time marching on and all of us looking forward to our lunch stop in Ambleside, we could not put off the inevitable any longer. Let the ‘Descent of Despair©’ begin. But wait, what is this? A sign for Fix the Fells indicating that trail repairs are in progress. Although still a work in progress, the stone pitched trails promised much for future trips over the pass. Even today, although far from complete, the work combined with the eroded trail made for an outstanding descent. For those who like fast and flowy, better look away now. This was technical Lakeland riding par excellence. Jumbled, loose rocks and boulders abounded making for careful line choices and scoping your exit. In places it was committing, but nowhere near the horror show we had been promised. The further we descended, the better it got. A carry up for a carry down? Most certainly not. It was all going swimmingly until the brake gremlins struck. Feathering my front brake at the top of a rocky staircase, I heard the squeal of pad on rotor followed closely by the feverish death grip as my front brake decided to throw in the towel.
Squeezing gently, it slowed me down a little but pull hard and all that happened was my brake lever touched the bars. While Donald, Tristan and Roddy made short work of the descent down to the temporary reprieve of Grasmere Common, I was in ride and hope mode. We were still above the 500-metre mark and had several kilometres of descending left to do. The sensible thing would have been to get off and walk, but I was enjoying the descent too much. Throwing caution to the wind I stayed on and kept riding, my back brake being my new best friend. I won’t pretend that it was easy or relaxing, but I got down in one piece with a big grin on my face.
Dropping down Far Easedale Gill, we were treated to more classic Lakeland scenery. Ahead, Helvellyn, Great Rigg and Rydal Fell rose up, resplendent in all their late summer finery. They were putting on a real show for us today. Cruising into another section of new path we had everything. Foot-wide singletrack skirting around the hillside through exposed sections of trail beside a waterfall where falling left would have been a bad move then rock gardens hidden under a canopy of trees, the sunlight peeking through the gaps in the branches and leaves. If you were compiling a Top Trumps list of must-have trail features, Greenup Edge and Easedale Gill were holding the winning cards. Even the sopping wet bridleway at the bottom did little to dampen our spirits.
All hail Kelvin, the saviour of rides.
“What do you reckon, lads?” I asked. “Bloody brilliant. We’d do that again,” was the reply. Consulting the map, I wanted to make sure that we hadn’t strayed off the bridleway onto some other trail. We hadn’t. We had been on the right trail all the time. So much for the advice to avoid the route… With my front brake now about as effective as a chocolate teapot, we jumped onto the busy road and time trialled our way into Ambleside. I had a plan that might just save the ride for me. Leaving the guys at the frankly excellent Rattle Ghyll café (other cafés are available, they just aren’t as good), I hightailed it around to see Kelvin in Ghyllside Cycles in the hope that he could get me up and running again. Squeezing the lever, the cause of my braking issue became apparent as the hose casing popped, leaking brake fluid onto my caliper and rotor. “There’s your problem,” said Kelvin dryly. Despite it being a busy Saturday afternoon and having a couple of bikes to build, Kelvin set about looking for parts to fix my brake. Every now and again, my phone would chirrup as the boys messaged me. “Your soup is ready”, “It’s getting cold” and “Chop, Chop.” Yeah, thanks for your continued support gents. Things were looking grim until Kelvin took a brake off a hire bike and lent me it for the remainder of the ride. This was above and beyond what I could have hoped for. A true gent who refused to take any money for helping me out until I put my card in the machine and practically forced him to take payment from me. #Legend.
“Hold on, Sanny. I’ve had an idea.”
Spinning round to meet up with the lads, Donald informed me that they had come up with a wizard plan for the return leg of the ride. They could head over Stake Pass, use my camera to take photos and write up the second part of the adventure while I rode back along the busy A591 to get back to the car. The gits. Inhaling my lunch and with the adrenaline from my brake panic behind me, that was never going to be an option. No way was I going to be forever known as Single Pass Sanny.
Leaving Ambleside, we headed along the road to Skelwith Bridge where we were able to join the dual-use cycle and walking track that would take us to Elterwater and beyond. Once a footpath, this is now a very welcome addition to the trail network in the Lakes and has the added bonus of affording the classic Lakeland view of the iconic Langdale Pikes. Detouring past the slate quarry, we were soon back on the undulating singletrack road that would take us into the heart of Langdale. While still a road, it is no hardship to ride as the smooth tarmac afforded us the opportunity to look around and take in our surroundings. To our right, Pavey Ark and the Langdale Pikes soared inexorably upward. To our left, Bow Fell, while ahead was the tourist mecca that is Scafell Pike. In the late afternoon summer sunshine, it was hard to imagine a finer place to be but on a deep winter’s day it takes on the mantle of Mordor. These are mountains that aren’t for the faint-hearted. You may be close to civilisation, but take a wrong turn and you could easily find yourself in a whole world of trouble. For me, that is part of the appeal of the Lakeland Fells. They have a terrific network of interlinked trails but always command and deserve respect, even on a day such as this.
The road now behind us, we followed the route of the Cumbria Way to where it splits at the head of the valley. Coming towards us were day trippers who had all had a long day out on the fells. While they were destined for the comfort of the Old or New Dungeon Ghyll bar for a well-earned pint and to rest their weary legs, we still had another pass to climb. It would be some time before we too could retire for the evening. Bikes shouldered, we pressed on up the engineered path that wends its way up Stake Gill. While Donald, Tristan and I soldiered on, Roddy started to feel the effects of cramp which made for regular stops. Having undergone a major operation on his spine late last year, I have to admit to marvelling at Roddy’s determination to press on. We have ridden several big mountains before but this was his first post-op adventure and he proved more than up to the task. Salt and vinegar crisps practically inhaled together with an energy bar or two and he was soon back in business.
Leaving the steep section of path behind, we were treated to what could best be described as the hummocky glacial moraine of Langdale Combe, our path wending its way between the grassy mounds as we made our final push for the summit. While Roddy and Donald waxed lyrical about the geology, six degrees of separation kicked in as it transpired that one of Roddy’s geology lecturers at university was Donald’s dad. Small world eh? Now enjoying the golden hour of light, none of us were in a particular hurry to tackle the final descent just yet. Reaching into my bag, I pulled out all manner of confections that served to eke out our rest a little longer. Marsy Crunch, Tiffin, Rocky Road, Crispy Cake and Peppermint Crunch were the order of the day, all courtesy of The Picnic Box in Ambleside where I had sneakily stopped off at while enduring brake-mageddon. This is a favoured haunt of mine. Frankly, a Lakeland ride for me has to feature at least one of their tray-bake delights to qualify as a proper ride. Hastening the onset of Type 2 Diabetes, the boys were inclined to agree.
Confession time. I had never ridden Stake Pass until that day. As a connoisseur of Lakeland trails, it had somehow managed never to be on my radar. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to expect as most route guides and accounts tell of riding it in the opposite direction to we were heading. I wondered whether I was in for disappointment. As it transpired, nothing could have been further from the truth. An engaging open moorland traverse led to a series of perfectly crafted switchbacks that dropped all the way to the valley floor far below. Imagine a ribbon of 12-inch wide groomed singletrack that zigzags down the mountain, each corner so tight that it requires an endo hop to get round. As a fan of the stupidly tight switchbacks found in Verbier, I never expected to find such familiar trails here in the UK. And yet here I was on perfectly dry trails hopping my way round each corner. I know that for some this would be their idea of trail hell, but for me it was trail perfection. So much so that I found myself going up again to re-ride my favourite sections on the pretext of breaking out the big-dog fisheye lens to try to capture the trail in all of its twisty-turn glory. It was the perfect way to end the ride. Or it would have been were it not for the sopping wet (albeit rocky) trails in the valley floor. How is it that you can have a river only yards to the side of you yet the trail you are on is still littered with long sections of puddles and running water? Answers on a postcard please. By the time we reached our starting point at the base of Honnister Pass, our shorts were wetter than an otter’s pocket. It didn’t matter though. We’d had an unexpectedly brilliant day out where the much anticipated ride of despair failed to materialise.
Chowing down on large fish suppers in Keswick, we couldn’t help but pause to reflect on our day out. If we had listened to the advice, we would never have tried the route. In retrospect, that would have been a mistake. Sometimes you have to ride a trail for yourself to discover the truth. I have no doubt that those who posted about the route will have had a miserable time and there will be those in future who experience the same lows. This time round, however, our gamble had paid off and then some. In your face, internet!