Distance 40 miles (64km)
Climbing 5593ft (1700m)
Grade Hard – lots of steep climbs plus Wrynose. Use a compact chainset or lose lots of weight!
Duration 2.5-3.5 hours
Maps OS Landranger 96 Barrow-in-Furness & South Lakeland, and 90 Penrith & Keswick
- Download the route here
This is going to be tough,” says James Hodgson for the third time in as many minutes as we pass Little Langdale Tarn. If I wasn’t worried before, I am now. High ahead of us there’s a towering mountainous amphitheatre formed by a semicircular ridge line. The highpoint to the left is the 800m high Swirl How mountain. “Behind that is the Old Man of Coniston,” says James. “Wrynose Pass is to the right. You’ll see it in a minute. It’s going to be tough.” I look across to see if he’s taking the proverbial but he’s not, and we simultaneously take a serious gulp of energy drink.
Sure enough, a few minutes later the top of the climb reveals itself. Three kilometres long with a height gain of almost 300m and an average gradient of about 10 per cent, rising to over 20 per cent for most of the second half, it’s going to be humiliating not ‘tough’.
We’ve been going gently uphill for a while, but a handful of farm buildings at Fell Foot mark the start proper. As we pass a 25 per cent warning sign, the rest of our brutal challenge is clear now: the relentlessly steep strip of tarmac ahead slices a wavy line to the head of the valley and then slashes up and across the back to disappear over the top. No hairpins, no respite, just one long, 20 per cent plus, out-of-the-saddle grind.
Through the sweat and occasional swearing, the view is spectacular, with patchy clouds casting moving shadows across the craggy fells. These mean the colour of the barren landscape is constantly changing. One minute it’s dark and foreboding, the next bright and inviting.
Ten minutes on and I’m still out of the saddle, wrestling round every rotation of the pedals with my whole body while my lower back feels like it’s going to explode. I can’t sit and pedal any faster because I’m over-geared, and I can’t pedal any slower because I’ll stop entirely and fall over. What I wouldn’t give for a compact chainset – or single-figure body fat percentage…
That’s when we see the minibus and the police van blocking the road 50 metres below it on the steep section just before the top. As we get closer, the only thing stopping the now empty minibus careering back down the road onto us is a handful of stones wedged behind the wheels. But I’m all in at this point and couldn’t care less how dangerous it is. A very excited police officer has more sensible ideas though, and stops me in
We’re told to walk past the minibus and be prepared to jump should it break free. I’m gutted at having to walk, but the ultimate slap in the face – or rather hip – is when I try to remount on the 25 per cent slope and can’t clip in before toppling unceremoniously onto my side. I knew this climb was going to humiliate me, but not like this!
Back in the saddle, we finally top out, though not before paying homage to the Three Shire Stone, a limestone monolith that marks the top of the pass and the meeting point of Lancashire, Westmorland and Cumberland. Just a few hundred feet further on, we’re treated to the view of the spectacular descent into the Duddon Valley, the road a drizzle of tarmac next to the river as far as the eye can see.
A few weeks earlier we would have seen several hundred very tired and cold riders climbing – or pushing – up the road towards us on the notorious Fred Whitton Challenge ride. Half an hour or so before that they were suffering on the equally punishing Hardknott climb in the adjoining valley – already 100 miles into their gruelling day in the saddle.
Local boy done good
Wrynose comes 25 miles into our ride and is the highlight, literally, of our day, but every mile before and after is unforgettable too. Brought up in Broughton, James knows every inch of local road, and the landscape is littered with his Strava segments. It also means the route he’s planned doesn’t use more than about half a mile of main road – the first bit of which we roll along out of Broughton-in-Furness’s main square, past the Manor Arms and its award-winning ales.
Almost immediately we leave the main road, as James points out the day’s first real challenge of Woodland Fell that rises rugged and rock-strewn above the other side of this shallow valley. We’re not there yet, though, and with the pan-flat salt marshes and sands of Duddon Estuary out of sight behind us, we start climbing up the left side of the valley along a dry-stone-wall-lined lane. We pass a near-perfectly formed railway arch sitting in the middle of a field, before diving steeply to the valley floor.
“Watch out for the hump-backed bridge,” warns James before disappearing out of sight ahead of me. What he should have said is watch out for the 90-degree turn onto said bridge, which takes me completely by surprise. A couple of seconds of frantic straight-line braking and skidding later, followed by a very deep turn in and I make it. Just.
The next couple of miles are gently rolling as we weave across the valley floor, until that usual sign of impending bike suffering, the cattle grid, marks the start of the Woodland Fell climb. This is where we get our first blast of Lakes wind, which thankfully seems to come from behind us.
On the distant slopes above Beck Side we can see dozens of huge wind turbines putting the same wind to use. More welcome and getting less rare these days is the sight of a red kite, soaring above the hillside only a few metres over our heads, its distinctive forked tail working overtime to help it hover in the stiff wind. The birds were reintroduced to the Lakes three years ago and seem to be thriving.
After a fast-rolling descent off the fell, we cross a main road before crossing the River Crake, then turning left to follow it north to the lake that feeds it – Coniston Water. The eight-mile-long lake means many things to many people, including fans of Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome, whose house we pass. It’s also where James proposed to his wife, and we ride out onto the little wooden pier where he popped the question.
The quiet, rolling ride along the wooded eastern shore is a treat. Riding here in early summer also means we see an incredible display of bluebells in the woods on both sides and rhododendrons in the gardens we pass. In fact, the biggest rhododendrons I have ever seen dominate the car park of Brantwood House, the home of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin.
Past the lake’s northern end, we skirt the top edge of Grizedale Forest and head over Hawkshead Hill. A tasty descent is followed by a posh coffee on a shady cafe terrace over the river. We’re only a few minutes’ ride east from the top of Windermere, but we’ve got bigger fish to fry today, and Wrynose beckons.
Heading west, we climb for a good mile out of town, before taking a right down a series of gratifyingly tight and sweeping curves to the River Brathay. Once over the river, we start climbing again towards Little Langdale, with the river on our left until we pass the village, where Wrynose rears its intimidating head in front of us.
Despite the undulating road that ducks and dives in front of us, the descent of Wrynose into the Duddon Valley is easier than it looks – though rain would change all that. Seven minutes and 300-odd metres of lost altitude later, we arrive at the bridge in Cockley Beck, where the road from Hardknott Pass joins us. We can see the climb to the top from here, and it doesn’t look far. Another day, perhaps…
Instead, we push on down the flat valley, carefully round a troupe of giant heavy horses to Birks Bridge. Just off the main road, this narrow stone packhorse bridge back over the Duddon, which squeezes through a 20ft high gorge below, is a lovely spot – but the reason we’ve stopped is so that James can show me where he and his mates used to dare each other to jump into the icy waters below as teenagers.
Lunch is calling, and right on cue we enjoy a fun descent to Seathwaite and the Newfield Inn. The pub is known for its fatal ‘riot’ in 1904, when a bunch of thirsty navvies working on the Tarn Reservoir dam fell out with the landlord, who then shot one of them and wounded another. The most exciting things to happen on my visit are the Cumberland sausage and pint of Oyster stout.
An hour later we are rolling again, still heading south-south-west along Wordsworth’s beloved Duddon Valley, the river widening as it closes on the coast, bolstered by streams and brooks along the way. Only at Ulpha Bridge – “I’ve jumped off this one too,” says James – do we stop losing altitude, as the meandering river forces us to climb round the edge of Dunnerdale Fells. We drop down to the level of the water once more, before a short, steep climb brings us to our final white-knuckle descent to Duddon Bridge.
One last stiff little climb and we drop back down into Broughton, looking forward to that long-promised pint in the Manor Arms. We’ve also got a date with a pie. Ian Tyson, who runs the Melville Tyson butcher shop and deli in Broughton, is another keen cyclist. So when James leaves me in his dust again on the descent, I don’t beat myself up for my comparatively trepid descending – the pastry can wait and I can enjoy this stunning riding country just a little longer.
Foxfield (request stop)
We enjoyed excellent food at Seathwaite’s Newfield Inn . Broughton-in-Furness has a large number of pubs including the Manor Arms. The Drunken Duck near Ambleside has an excellent reputation, and Chesters By The River in Skelwith Bridge is a riverside cafe.
We stayed at Broughton’s great value Manor Arms, and there are other options in Broughton-in-Furness, Coniston and Ambleside. www.golakes.co.uk
Ambleside’s Biketreks and Wheelbase in Staveley both open seven days a week. Wheelbase has free bike wash, showers and changing rooms.
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