Kirkstone, Ullswater and a journey into the unknown

How many of you think that you know most of the roads within cycling distance of home? My guess is that most of you would reply in the affirmative. Before today I would certainly have been in that camp, but by the end of the day I was having to revise my opinions.

After recent trips out into Lancashire and Yorkshire it seemed a logical step to head into the Lakes. New ideas were lacking so we set off on what looked like an ‘old faithful’ type of route. You know the sort of thing, a predictable journey through undoubtedly scenic countryside which would hold few surprises , either good or bad. When you live where I do that doesn’t make for a dull ride though.

Kirkstone Pass

Three of us left Kendal and headed through Staveley to Troutbeck, and the start of the Kirkstone Pass. Although it is the highest of the Lakeland passes at 1489ft it is far from being  the hardest. Most of the other climbs are steep and littered with 25% sections, while Kirkstone has delusions of grandeur and tries to ape its continental cousins  with more gradual gradients enlivened by the odd steeper pitch.

The sun was out and the skies were blue, but the air still held the chill of early spring. We reached the Kirkstone Inn at the top of the pass in about 20 minutes. The number of cyclists cogregated at the top attested to the popularity of the climb and the perfection of the weather.

Ian reaching the top of Kirkstone Pass with The Struggle in the background.

Richard and I were having a discussion at the top when we realised that Ian had disappeared. It’s a fast descent towards Brotherswater and he was completely out of sight. The race was on! We hammered down round bends of perfect tarmac interspersed with bike traps consisting of potholes and damaged road surface. There was no sign of Ian.

Along Ullswater

In the distance we could see some of the cyclists who had left the top just before us. Then it dawned on us! Ian was on the back of the group getting a perfect tow. Some distance down the road we caught them, and then headed along the lake shore towards Pooley Bridge. The views were magnificent, but there was more traffic than we were used to as befitted the start of the Easter holidays.


We soon reached Pooley Bridge and no-one had to have their arm twisted to stop for a coffee and a tea cake.

Out of the Lakes

Leaving Pooley Bridge we headed out through Celeron  towards Askham and out  of the Lake District. Across the valley were the  ruins of Lowther Castle the old seat of the Earls of Lonsdale. The castle was demolished because the Earl of the time had fallen on hard times and could no longer afford the upkeep. From this distance the castle looked intact and very imposing.

From Askham we followed the road through wooded countryside to Bampton and to the small settlement of houses which lie near the Haweswater Dam.

If we had followed the signs to Haweswater we would have found a very different landscape. The broad leafed trees give way to a wilder barer landscape from which people were banished by Manchester’s demand for water and the rising waters of the  artificial lake. I suspect that the drowned village of Mardale would have had much the same atmosphere as the broad leafed woodland and small settlements through which we had been riding.

Leaving Mardale Church for the last time

Haweswater has its own beauty but I can’t help but feel that much was lost when the forces of ‘progress’ had their ruthless way.

Shortly we took to a concrete road owned by the water board. The surface is a little rough but the joints between the concrete sections have widened over the years and vigilance is required in order to avoid damaging tyres and rims.

As we headed south we passed the end of Swindale. Shortly after the completion of the Haweswater Dam this was earmarked as another site for a reservoir. In the end it was saved and remains a quiet unspoiled valley. This whole area has retained its charm despite the closeness of the M6 motorway and its now quieter predecessor the A6.

In the past I have always headed towards the A6 south of Shap and then back to Kendal over the long drags of Shap summit. This is a fine ride but always comes as something of an anticlimax after the outstanding scenery that has preceded it. I had never really thought of any other routes and a cursory look at the map has never yielded any obvious alternatives. It was at this stage that Ian suggested just such a route.

Into the unknown

We crossed the A6 , then alongside, between, then under the M6. For a brief while we confronted the 21st century before taking a minor road to Scout Green.  The motorway was soon an insignificant feature in the landscape as we headed South. A right turn was taken towards Bretherdale and we climbed a steep hillside road in a landscape that was an amalgam of the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. Shap and Tebay have always seemed like bleak places but this area had real charm. We crested the ridge and found ourselves on an extremely steep descent towards Bretherdale. This stretch of road has already been earmarked for a return visit, this time in reverse. A hill like this just has to be climbed! Ian said that a few years ago most of the cottages were derelict but most have now been renovated in fine style. Second homes are often quite justifiably controversial, but when the choice is between dereliction and rebirth as in this case, then I can’t see any harm being done. Indeed the effect here is surely positive.

A common theme in this account has been the fragility of this area. Mardale and its village disappeared beneath  a reservoir. Swindale nearly met the same fate. Bretherdale was nearly changed forever when  the building of a windfarm was proposed for one of the adjoining ridges. This  application was eventually turned down. Looking at a map, one might have the impression that the M6 motorway would have a major negative effect on the beauty of the landscape, but its effect was much less damaging than one might expect.

We headed up the other side of the valley then across an open hillside with views across the Tebay Gorge and a motorway dwarfed by the size of the surrounding landscape. Our road eventually disgorged us on the Tebay to Kendal road where we battled our way up the steep slopes of Grayrigg Hause and rolled our way back to Kendal.

From the A6 to Grayrigg Hause I had been on totally new ground, and had been amazed by the quality of the landscape.

By the time we reached home we had ridden 67 miles and climbed over 7000′. After Kirkstone we had been over few significant climbs but the shorter climbs had added up.

Lessons Learned

An important lesson was learned today. It is so easy to take familiar routes without really looking at alternatives. It really is worth taking the extra trouble to look at a map with fresh eyes. Alternatively take someone with you like Ian who knows all the hidden roads in the area.


About lakescyclist

I'm a cyclist and a lover of landscapes. I've walked, climbed and tried most ways to explore the varied upland landscapes of Britain, and latterly the continent.
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One Response to Kirkstone, Ullswater and a journey into the unknown

  1. paulmor says:

    This is a great blog and one I intend to read much more of. Keep it up!

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