Chipps offers a Lake District loop that has great views and challenging trails, but which keeps to a lower level and is rideable all year round.
Words & Photography Chipps
The gravity pull of a marked forest centre trail can be very strong. Leaving the warm confines of the café, you simply need to follow the siren call of the coloured arrows and you’ll be guaranteed a circular, predictable and repeatable ride. There’ll be no unannounced drops or sudden corners, very little in the way of multiple line choice (or any line choice for that matter), no livestock or gates, and it’s entirely possible that you’ll only have to put a foot down when you finish the ride, back where you started and in time for pudding.
Sometimes, especially when the weather isn’t all that great, that’s exactly what you need – a ride where you know precisely what you’re going to get. It’s the mountain bike equivalent of a McMeal; go anywhere in the country, pick a red route and you’ll know roughly what you’ll find.
Not all of us are after that level of predictable consistency though. In the same way that no good stories start with someone eating a salad and drinking a bitter lemon, it’s rare that a mountain bike centre is the subject of an epic riding tale. They never really seem to get properly ‘outdoors’, leave the canopy of the forest or offer up any decent views. By all means park there if you want, trail centres have great car parks and cafés used to the ways of the mountain biker. Sometimes they even have showers and heated changing rooms.
Where do we go to find this mystical ‘outdoors’ though? The lure of the coloured arrows is strong. Quite often, though, the freedom you seek is closer than you think. Just miss out a turning and carry straight on and suddenly you’re in a new part of the forest, far from the built trail (and other riders).
That chink in the trail centre armour can be hard to find though, so to give us the best chance of escaping orbit, Beate and I from Singletrack teamed up with three (three!) Lakeland mountain bike guides to show us some of the best bits of the outside world surrounding Grizedale Forest.
Rich Martin is from bike shop and training provider Cyclewise and, though based up at Whinlatter Forest most of the time, he does a lot of mountain bike guide training using the trails around Grizedale. It was with Rich that I did my own guiding training, so I knew that we’d be in knowledgeable hands. Joining him was our old friend Rob O’Dowd and Irishman Nick Watson – both also mountain bike guides who know the forest inside out. Should we need navigating out of trouble, I reckoned we’d be covered.
Being in the company of so many qualified guides did remind me of my own Level Three guide training in Grizedale a couple of summers ago. A half dozen of us eager-eyed students were riding around the forest under Rich’s watchful gaze, navigating to this bit, fixing a mechanical on that bit; the usual learning-while-doing kind of stuff, when we rounded a corner to find a shirtless, crying teenager, cradling a possible broken collarbone, with his concerned mate looking on and pushing both of their bikes.
There was no way this wasn’t a set-up. His mate’s ‘What’s the quickest way to the forest centre? Can you help my mate? He’s crashed!’, comments were met with more than a little over dramatic ‘Certainly, sonny, my name is Chipps, what’s yours? Now, sit down and let me just get a six-figure grid reference while Adrian here gets out his full Mountain First Aid Kit and mouldable Sam-splint.’
It was only while we were remarking on the realism of the scenario that Rich pointed out that the kid had indeed broken his collarbone and no, it wasn’t a setup.
While our route was relatively low level and reasonably sheltered, we were still dealing with the vagaries of the fickle Lakeland weather and the suddenness of sunset at this time of year. So, with the idea of a pre-ride coffee quashed in favour of getting on with it, we were soon on our way and leaving the trail centre behind us.
While the first climb is also the way to the North Face trail, we ignored its beckoning arrow and pressed on, each of us cursing our layering choices made back down in the car park. Either too hot or too cold. Luckily our first faffing stop came sooner than we thought as we had stumbled upon ‘RUUP’.
RUUP, apparently inspired by the Estonian word for ‘megaphone’ is one of many public sculptures that are hidden around the forest. Sculpture has been breaking out in Grizedale for 50 years and it pitches itself as the UK’s ‘first forest for sculpture’. In our case, this means some megaphone-shaped pods that allow a brief shelter from the elements, opportunity for larking around or a chance to wonder who makes this stuff up (Birgit Õigus in this case…).
Layers adjusted, we climbed until a bit of built trail gave us our chance to escape the forest. Heading up the roller coaster singletrack, the forest to the right of us would be familiar to anyone who’s raced PMBA events here, as several steep ’n’ rooty trails lead off to the side, promising glory or pain, depending on your skill level.
We, however, had an appointment with the open sky and a classic view of Coniston.
Beware the sploosh
Breaking out of the woods at last, the contrast was immediate. This is the classic Parkamoor, with a steep slope down to Coniston Water on your right. There was even an out of season steamer on the water for added picturesqueness.
A few short false summits and the fun begins. There are plenty of wide, fast, stony tracks, with enough off-camber and enough steep pulls back up to keep you honest. Eventually again, with more height won, comes the long, sustained bedrock descent. There’s nothing to stop you smashing down it in a oner and basking in the glory, but every time I’ve ridden it, it seems to demand a bit of stop-and-chat. There’s the ‘Which line did you take?’ and the ‘Did you see me nearly lose it back there?’, and as it usually comes around second breakfast time, hey, who’s in a hurry? Not with some mild temperatures and a current lack of rain.
When the rain does come, though, this route tends to hold up very well. Not high enough for snow to settle that often and generally firm enough not to kick up any surprises. What it will kick up, though, is water. And if there’s a top tip for riding in the Lakes in the winter, it’ll be to expect the sploosh. At the minimum, I’d recommend a fork fender and waterproof shorts and socks/boots, but as it’s the winter and no one’s looking, why not add a rear mudguard and a longer front one while you’re at it. You’ll be riding in a jet wash for most of the day anyway, so who needs it to be kept any more real than that, eh?
We took in some mid-corner snackage and drank in the views and the russet colours of autumn. The winds and the rain hadn’t yet ganged up to strip all of the leaves from the trees, so the colours were simply stunning all day, if you could take your eyes off the trail, that is.
The food debate involved a crisp apple versus chocolate-covered Kendal mint cake versus a jam-stuffed pitta. In these surroundings, though, they were all the right answer.
A joke waiting to happen
At the wonderfully named Nibthwaite Grange, the southernmost tip of today’s ride, we turned north and headed up the equally marvellous Bletherbarrow Lane. It brought the chance of more full-body submersion in the standing water, but the rolling, mostly down nature of the track allowed some great elbow to elbow racing while the sun tickled the far fells.
Beate managed to out-guide the guide by spotting and correctly identifying a field full of guinea fowl as we regrouped for a bit of quiet back road. Another advantage of the Lakes out of season is that traffic and other trail users are virtually non-existent. Despite riding on a dry Sunday, we probably saw a dozen cars and even fewer cyclists all day.
We had a bit of ‘road work’ ahead as you might say if you were a 60-year-old cycle tourist on a fully mud-guarded Rourke rough-stuffer. As it happens, while we rode, we were talking about Robin’s upcoming 60th celebrations. As a fit, friendly, 59.9-year-old, half-Irish, half-Indian, Catholic Brummy, Robin is a ‘man walks into a pub’ joke just waiting to happen. As it happens, he has always pre-empted any joking by unquestionably owning his crazy heritage. And he tops off that story quotient by telling tales of his own random life, first as a shoe factory safety warden and then with his years as the only Indian policeman in West Cumbria that even a Phoenix Nights comedian couldn’t pre-empt.
As if to fulfil some kind of global comedy prophecy, our cruise through Satterthwaite coincided with the first decent shower we’d had all day. With energy levels nudging the orange, we decided on an impromptu stop. And so an Englishman, an Irishman, an Indian, a half-East German/half-Englishwoman and, er, me, walked into a pub…
Aware of our dipping energy levels, all attention focused on the glass-sided hot pie display on the bar. There were five of us, so we obviously bought all seven pies on show. That was the easy decision – the only tough one was which variation on the same white, slightly fluffy, coffee we each wanted.
Suitably full of rewardingly greasy pastry, and having missed out on the rain, we set off towards our next climb. In true ‘sunshine and showers’ mode that Britain does so well, the sun came out even as it appeared to be raining on us. Watching the rest of the group, backlit behind me on the climb, was all you needed to love about autumn in the Lakes right there.
The climb wasn’t that onerous and we were headed to the Fox, one of the iconic descents of the South Lakes, so named because of the (slightly melty) sculpture of a Fox at the top of it. It’s actually a byway, so you can quite often see chain-store adventure Land Rovers going quite slowly down it, but generally it’s a blast – once you get past the small perma-lakes that take up the top section of the trail in all weathers.
The descent is wide, allowing for many wrong lines. It’s all good though and the trail steepens beautifully just as you get your confidence on the big slabs of bedrock. It’s a trail that flatters at any speed and in any weather really.The road at the bottom soon led to the shore of Esthwaite Water and the familiar sight of the Hawkshead YHA, my usual stopping point if I’m in the South Lakes for a couple of days. The reasonably quiet rolling road then dropped us into Hawkshead itself and great tea shop and foodie pub potential. Luckily we were still full of pie, though the exhaust fans of a couple of cafés did promise great things inside.
We made our way through the warren of back streets and were suddenly on our way out of town again. This is another good reason to meter out your food stops as the pull out of Hawkshead is long, entirely rideable and merciless. It’s not a place to be regretting that red onion on your tuna melt.
Finally back onto the fire road, we saw some mountain bikers about to descend the track we’d climbed. Jigging the route to finish here and have a cheeky pint in The Sun Inn would definitely work another (sunnier) day. However, we had one more hilltop to conquer as we headed back up to the Fox.
Got any gaffa?
This is where we met a group of classic motorbike enthusiasts, fixing a ’70s Honda scrambler with some duct tape. We approved of their solid bodge and headed off on our search for the final descent of the day. This was wide, fast and very splashy, but the grip was good and the terrain challenging enough that we all gabbled at each other at the bottom about how great it was, though dripping faces and gritty teeth. And, to round out the end of a perfect loop, we realised that we were right opposite the main gates of the trail centre. What a day!
While the North Lakes has the grandeur and the height, the South Lakes has a rash of great tea shops, along with easy access and a lot of lower level all-weather riding. The Lake District gets whatever the weather du jour is as it eases in from the Atlantic, with the higher tops seeing the snow, the fog and the ‘we’re in a cloud’ rain. The South Lakes doesn’t entirely escape, but with many of its passes nearer 300–400m than 600m and up, it tends to remain snow and cloud free more.
The summer months are great for those high-level, all-day and evening assaults beloved by the hikeabike (hike-a bike-a-shred-a) community. But in the winter, for those of us who like a bit of adventure without having to pack the emergency shelter (still a good idea though) the South Lakes presents many options and the riding here is a great reminder that it’s not all Helvellyn and hikeabike. There are rides here for all abilities and you don’t need a big bike to have a great day.
If you park at Grizedale, you then have the luxury of changing rooms, bike hire, loos and a café while also being able to add in bits of the trail centre if you want to keep things in the forest. The North Face trail itself is worth a go some time if you’re not keen on navigation (or views) and it offers a fun ten-mile red loop round the forest, with the addition of bolting on the black sections if you feel sassy.
This route keeps below a very modest 300m over its 35km distance, yet there are still classic Lakeland views on offer. Not least the one looking down onto Coniston Water from Parkamoor, which gives a great sense of being out in the Lakeland Fells while still being within easy bailout distance if the weather closes in.
The many bridleways here allow a lot of route choice and cloverleafing if you want to keep adding on loops. We could have headed further east to Claife Heights for some more fun, but the fading light and onset of a few more showers made our decision for us that day. If you’re making a weekend of it, then there’s so much on offer in all directions.
Needless to say, if you return in the summer, you can ride until your legs fall off, there’s so much here, waiting for you just the other side of those trail markers…
- Distance: 35km | Elevation: 850m | Time: 4 hours
- Maps: OS OL4 English Lakes
The Lake District does accommodation for all needs and pockets. There are great B&Bs, pubs and campsites all over, and all of them are used to muddy bikers. Favourites include the Grizedale Campsite, with camping and pods grizedale-camping.co.uk and the Hawkshead YHA with pods, rooms, camping and a teepee (!) yha.org.uk/hostel/yha-hawkshead.
Hawkshead is the nearest village with accommodation, but you’re also not that far from Ambleside and Windermere which are full of great places to stay.
Grizedale is reasonably remote to get to without a car, but nearby Windermere is reachable by train (and you get to take the little ferry across Windermere if you want). If you’re driving, then it’s only about 45 minutes off the M6, regardless of whether you’re heading north or south.
There’s the café at Grizedale itself, which is good for a warming soup or coffee before (or after) your ride and The Eagles Head in Satterthwaite makes for an ideal mid-ride snack. It’s closed on Wednesdays though eagleshead.co.uk.
Expect every pub you go past to offer some kind of refreshing stop for you, but once you’re on the ride, it’s best to plan on being self-sufficient for food, so pack a sandwich and save the slap-up meal as a celebration of getting out and back successfully in the cold and wet.
Like cafés, you’re spoiled for choice in this part of the Lakes, but we’d have to admit a soft spot for Biketreks in Ambleside (and nearby Ings) biketreks.co.uk.
There’s also, obviously, the Grizedale trail centre bike shop that has bike hire, spares, clothing and a bike wash.
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