Nan Bield Pass
Lake District local James Vincent shows us just why this is epic day out is considered a true classic ride.
Words & Photography James Vincent
- Noun: A path, road, or railway that forms very sharp bends from one direction to almost the opposite direction as it goes up and down steep slopes.
- Verb: Switchbacked; switchbacking; switchbacks | To follow a zigzag course especially for ascent or descent. A trail that switchbacks.
Ride a mountain bike long enough and you’ll encounter switchbacks of some variety. Be that on a remote alpine pass climbing to an exposed col, in the depths of a trail centre efficiently gaining height in a relatively compact space, or when venturing off-piste in the woods where a trail builder doesn’t want to lose precious height too quickly. Regardless of where you find them, switchbacks are born out of necessity. On dedicated bike trails, they’re necessary for fun – the straight line might be quickest, but it isn’t always the funnest. Meanwhile, out in the wild switchbacks serve the more basic purpose of getting travellers from point A to point B via an otherwise impassible peak or saddle.
The big question is, at what point does a corner become a switchback, and does it need to come as part of a pair, or can you have a singular switchback? Is there an international standard for recognising a switchback, or is it an altogether looser affair determined by feel rather than precise angles?
I suspect it’s the latter, and by this point you’re probably wondering why the hell I’m even banging on about them in the first place? Well, dear reader, I’m glad you asked. The reason, quite simply, is that at a rough count I reckon there are 65 bona fide switchbacks on this here classic ride, with at least 10 more that are borderline and warrant further investigation.
Staveley. Switchback count: 0
Today’s tour of south Lakeland’s finest switchbacks sets off from the legendary Staveley Mill Yard, just north of Kendal. I meet Pete, Max, Steve and Ewen in the car park and the rather warm early morning sun beats down on us, doing its best to remove any sense of urgency for the day’s proceedings. I’m expecting to be back mid-afternoon so there really is no rush; I take coffee orders and amble about getting ready. Having said that, we feel no real need to do any extra off-road miles on our way to Garburn, so once underway we opt to spin out on the road through Ings to save time. Thanks to roadworks in Windermere, there is a considerable amount of traffic passing us on the usually quiet road to Troutbeck, but the majority of drivers are courteous and give us plenty of room. Turning off the main road towards Dubbs Reservoir, we’re afforded our first proper view of the fells stretching out in front of us and what a sight it is. With Lake Windermere to our left, the full gamut of the central Lakes is on display for us – the Langdales, Red Screes, Stoney Cove Pike and more, with nary a cloud in the sky to spoil things. A short loose section forces us to focus a little more on the ground beneath our tyres, but it’s over soon enough and the climb flattens out a little and makes the final stretch towards the summit almost enjoyable.
Garburn Pass. Switchbacks: 3.
The very top of Garburn Pass lulls you into a false sense of security – a relatively broad, flat plateau does very little to hint at what’s in store, and the first few metres of descent give few clues either. It’s essentially just your archetypal Lake District fayre of a wide, rocky trail sunken into the ground. It’s only when you get a few turns in that you start to notice the rocks look chunkier than normal, and before you know it all hell breaks loose. The gradient steepens, and multiple line choices present themselves among baby head boulders that need little encouragement to break free. Pick a line and you’re stuck with it, only to realise your error immediately and falsely believe the one over there looks much, much nicer.
The switchbacks appear midway down the pass as a matched pair, perfectly placed to catch you out after a short straight so you hit them at maximum velocity. Which is precisely the thing you need for control in this section, as the baby head rocks from earlier have given way to what are essentially marbles. The switchbacks are not especially steep, but grip is non-existent and I drift haphazardly round. More skilled riders tackle these with aplomb and make them look effortlessly easy, but it’s all I can do to stay upright. In spite of the best efforts of various trail repair organisations, the lower section of Garburn Pass remains stubborn in its fight against sanitisation, and remains a chunky, bouldery riot.
The lush green banks outside St Cuthbert’s Church in the achingly pretty Kentmere valley is an appropriate place to refuel and dissect the ride so far, so we do. After a leisurely snack in the glorious sunshine we are briefly tempted by the road back to Staveley, but the beer hall isn’t open yet so we press on to Sadgill.
Sadgill. Switchbacks: 5.
A short road section claws back the worst of the height lost on Garburn while the off-road section to Longsleddale is a touch more gentle, although today my legs are full of Garburn and I’m slowly dropping back. Any suffering is short-lived though, and the farm track heads downhill soon enough. The trail encourages you to pop off the plentiful little features and undulations, bouncing from one rut to the next, until just as you’re getting into the swing of things, a blind, off-camber, cobbled left-handed switchback leaps up out of nowhere to take you down. This is followed by another four switchbacks in close succession, although there is evidence that plenty of riders ignore the corners and cut a straight line down the middle. Please don’t.
The descent spits us out at the River Sprint and, taking a cue from its name, the others session, throwing some shapes over the bridge for the camera. Me? My legs are still feeling rather heavy so I take the opportunity to rest and focus on taking photos. Nothing to do with my distinct lack of jumping ability, oh no…
Gatescarth. Switchbacks: 8 up, 28 down.
Ahh, Gatescarth. What an absolute pig of a climb. It stretches out into the distance, and sits there, waiting for hapless cyclists to start their assault. Vertical cliffs rise above it and pile on the atmosphere, dwarfing you into insignificance. I have previous form with Gatescarth. Many years ago, on one of my first BIG rides in the Lakes, Team Fanylion (long story, don’t ask) set off from Ambleside and did a very similar ride to this. I say similar, but in our youthful exuberance we started from Ambleside and threw in a trip over Jenkins Crag before joining today’s route. By the time we got to Gatescarth I was toast and was reduced to walking most of it, watching my fitter friends pedal off into the distance. It has thus remained one of those mythical beasts pedalable only by an elite faction, until only a few weeks ago when I managed to ride it all (albeit with a couple of rest stops)! I was stoked. I’d done it. Gatescarth was defeated.
Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was Garburn, but sadly, there was not to be a repeat of this heroic feat today, and I was off and walking early on. We paused at a seemingly abandoned Land Rover Defender halfway up and I was already dreaming, hoping and praying for the sweet relief of an ice cream van at Haweswater.
The climb drags on, rising viciously to a near vertical couple of switchbacks, and if you pedal past these then you’re doing very well indeed. A bridge offers a brief haven to take on more food, a refill of water bottles, and today, incredibly, a fresh application of suncream. Urging ourselves onwards, we pedal a few metres along the flat and then see yet more switchbacks climbing yet another fell, like a particularly cruel and vindictive joke. Even though I knew they were coming, they still knocked the wind from my sails. Like the rest of Gatescarth, on the right day these are rideable, but don’t be too disheartened if you’re forced to get off and push.
As we discovered earlier, flat, drifty corners are not my speciality, and seeing as these make up the bulk of the top section of the descent to Haweswater, it should come as no surprise that I’ve not ridden this way for a long time. In fact, I’ve actively avoided it, seeking out other, more direct routes to Nan Bield, even contemplating the long, wet slog through Mosedale to the east. Imagine my surprise then, that when we reach the gate at the bottom of Gatescarth I’m grinning from ear to ear and positively buzzing in spite of my tiredness. Sure, the top few corners aren’t the greatest in the world, but from there down the track is just flat out good fun, with multiple line choices and features to launch off. The overall feeling is not that dissimilar to the way some riders avoid Dollywaggon when descending Helvellyn and miss out on the delight that is Grisedale Beck, but I digress…
Arriving at Mardale Head, my buzz disappears with the realisation that there’s no ice cream van. It also hammers home the reality that this is a Big Day Out and should be planned for accordingly. Yes, there are bailout options, but by the time you hit Haweswater there’s only one left, and that’s to keep on going up.
Nan Bield. Switchbacks: 23 up, 13 down
In spite of what some of you may say, and something that belies the route profile and location, there are only a couple of short sections of enforced hikeabike on this ride. Unsurprisingly, these are both on the ascent to Nan Bield itself, so after a short spin away from the car park at Mardale Head, it’s time to shoulder the bikes at the first awkward stream crossing.
The climb is pleasant enough, and before you know it, Small Water appears over a small crest, flanked on three sides by tumbling rocks and the remainder of the climb. Another welcome rest stop; on a hot summer’s day like today, I opt for a swim. Well, I say swim, but after walking almost to the middle of the tarn and discovering the water was still only up to my knees, I gave up on that idea and awkwardly dumped myself into the tarn. They don’t call it Small Water for nothing.
We pass the rest of the climb discussing the merits of riding the trail back down to Haweswater. I say most of it goes and that it’s a rewarding technical challenge. Pete admits that he’s never done it, and vows to rectify the situation. If you’re in need of inspiration, check out the excellent Mojo Trail Diaries video that features Danny MacAskill and Rowan Sorrell making short work of it.
Reaching the saddle of Nan Bield is significant. It marks the end of the last major climb of the day, and you can see home, which is a fantastic boost to one’s morale at this late stage in the proceedings. And it is late – any plans for a mid-afternoon finish went out the window a long time ago.
Smiles for miles
The views from the saddle are particularly spectacular (not that they’ve been lacking the rest of the day), with Harter Fell rising to your left (as you look south), and Mardale Ill Bell and the Kentmere Horseshoe to your right. Dramatic crags fall away from the ridge, and a keen eye can pick out a few abandoned mines above Kentmere Reservoir.
In the far distance ahead of you is the coast, in front of that sits Kendal, and in front of that yet again are 13 of the most legendary switchback turns in the North of England, nay the whole country. Love ’em or hate ’em, let’s face it, they’re the reason you’re here.
The best way to tackle them is, unsurprisingly, full on. Caution does nothing but make the lumpy bits lumpier, and there’s nothing really to catch you out, so hold off on the brakes and let the walls of the natural berms steer you round.
Soon after these glorious turns is possibly the trickiest single section on the entire ride. A few pitched steps have been heavily undercut, leading to a nasty drop on the original main line. Several alternative tracks through the grass are starting to show, but a bit of sessioning and healthy encouragement reveals an easily repeatable route through the rock.
Then follows a long, technical and highly satisfying piece of singletrack along the valley floor that can be incredibly hard work if you’re tired, but summon up the last reserves of energy for this and you’ll reap the reward. By the time you reach the ruts towards the bottom you’ll be soaked through – even in the height of summer, you’ve still got all of Kentmere draining onto the trail.
The final challenge is a sharp left-hander with multiple line choices, leading to much hilarity as Ewen ignores all social distancing etiquette and spectacularly cuts in front of Max. Maybe it’s the tiredness creeping in or maybe it’s just the realisation that we’ve had an amazing day on great trails with good friends, but we can’t stop giggling on the final dash to the road.
By now, everyone’s legs are gone and our focus has shifted to the beer that’s waiting for us at the brewery, so while there are a couple of bridleway options to take you back to Staveley, you’re a stronger rider than all of us if you opt for them.
Several hours later than planned and utterly broken, we roll into Staveley Mill Yard and see the Hawkshead Brewery shining like the beacon for weary travellers that it is.
You want views? Check. You want big mountains? Check. You want prime singletrack that’s up there with the best in the world, lakes to swim in (ahem) en route, and a great brewery/beer hall to finish at? Check, check and check again.
Normally, you’d have to head to the far-flung northern or western Lakes to get the elevation and exposure found on this ride, but the three passes of Garburn, Gatescarth and Nan Bield are probably the most accessible of the Lake District passes. Or at least they are if you’re coming from the south like 90% of the population, and they offer a true Lake District wilderness experience. As such, it’s most definitely worth packing for A Big Day In The Hills, especially if you’re planning on tackling the whole route as shown here. Refreshment options are limited and we had to resort to refilling water bottles in mountain streams towards the end, so consider yourselves warned.
The lowest of the three passes, Garburn, reaches a scant 447m, yet is exposed to the elements for most of its climb and descent. It’s an easy path to follow, but you don’t want to be caught out there unexpectedly during inclement weather. Likewise, by the time you’ve made the call to head for Gatescarth and Nan Bield, your escape routes are extremely limited, and the furthest point of the ride at Mardale Head can feel very remote outside of the summer months.
Fortunately, there are numerous bailout options and route choices should you wish to cherry-pick an a la carte route to suit your particular skill set, the prevailing weather conditions, or the time available – just ensure you make those decisions early on, or are suitably prepared.
While this route officially (if there is such a thing) starts in Staveley, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from starting your ride from Mardale Head (Haweswater) which adds a certain level of convenience if travelling down from Penrith and beyond. However, doing things this way means that refreshment options are severely more limited, compared to starting your ride from the south, as I’m guessing you’re not going to want to plough into the beer menu at the Hawkshead Brewery on your lunch break.
- Distance 41km
- Max elevation 634m
- Elevation 1,488m
- Time 6– 8 hours
- Maps OS Explorer OL5 and OL7
The Lake District has a wealth of accommodation to suit all budgets and tastes.
Staveley is just 14 miles (15 mins) from junction 36 of the M6 and is on the Oxenholme to Windermere line, so catching the train is an option too – just make sure you book your cycles on in advance.
If travelling by car, there is plenty of parking in Staveley Mill Yard, although a parking scheme is apparently being introduced in the next few months.
Alternatively, if you’re approaching the Lakes from the north, you might want to park at Mardale Head, but then you miss out on refreshments at the end of the ride.
With Wheelbase in Staveley Mill Yard itself or Biketreks at Ings, you really are spoilt for choice with two of the finest bike shops in the country at your disposal.
Staveley Mill Yard is awash with eateries (and a brewery), so yet again you are spoilt for choice. The legendary Wilf’s Café serves food all day, with a cooked breakfast that’s as good as it gets. Sadly, More Bakery has been reconfigured to offer takeaway only for the time being, thanks to Covid-19 rules and regulations. In spite of this, their baked goods and sandwiches remain as good as ever and are worth the visit – the Eccles Cakes in particular are exceptional and a great stashable trail food.
For post-ride refreshments, the Hawkshead Brewery serves a great range of beers brewed on site as well as guest ales from other breweries.
Just outside the Mill Yard is Staveley Chippy, and a little further down the road is The Eagle and Child pub.
The market town of Kendal is a few miles to the south, or to the north you have Windermere – both with plenty of choices for food and drink.
On the route itself, once you pass the services at Ings, there’s nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. In spite of the popularity of the fells and relative ease of access, there are no refreshments unless you’re willing to take a punt on there being an ice cream van at Haweswater.
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