Lakes and Dales Loop – 2 days bikepacking around the Lake District

Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo…

It was 5am, and I was curled in a ball at the bottom of my tent as the first cuckoo of the year called like a natural alarm clock.

We’d pitched the tents on top of a small hill nestled in a quiet corner of the western Lake District. In retrospect, it was much more sloped than it looked at 8pm after riding 200km when you don’t really care where you are pitching a tent.

Yellowish light was glowing around my down-filled cocoon as the first light seeped through the walls of the tent. I attempted to drag myself back to the top of the tent, fighting the pull of gravity, the slipperiness of my sleeping bag against the roll mat, and my tired legs.

After 45 minutes of staring into space and listening to the world waking up, I unzipped the tent and squeezed myself through the door. Hamstrings pinged and my back creaked as I brought myself into a standing position.

Immediately, that didn’t matter anymore: Grey dawn light creeped through a sleepy valley, Crummock Water dark and moody. In the distance, the great domed head of Great Gable stood out against a Turner painting sky.

Lewis emerged after a short while and we knocked together a brew and ate some breakfast, watching as the beam of sunlight continued to grow behind Grasmoor.

Soon, it was warming our backs and drying the dew from our tents and my bike. Holding a cup of coffee, Lewis said: “I need to do this more often.”

In planning my epic Pedal for Wildness adventure in support of the John Muir Trust, I had pencilled a practice weekend away to test my bike setup and, crucially, see how my legs felt with two big days (at least) back-to-back.

During my training rides, I often passed a little blue cycle network sign that read ‘L&D Loop’. It took me a little while to look into it but, when I did, I knew it was exactly what I needed to do ahead of my trip.

Circumnavigating the Lake District (and some), the 300km route links together a large number of old, quiet farm roads (read: steep, narrow, twisting and rough), climbing (according to Komoot at least) around 4400m of ascent.

At first, I was considering doing three 100km days but, realising this would mean only six or seven hours of riding at a time of year with 14 hours of daylight, I cut that down to two.

I had been thinking of camping at the 100-mile mark but was convinced to push on to Loweswater after my mate Lewis insisted Scale Hill would make an excellent camp and that he’d join me there.

Ballocks. That means a 200km first day. Well, I guess it’s better to know how I get on with that now than wait until 8 May!

Despite a host of bike mechanical problems in the weeks leading up to it, the conditions for the ride could not have been more spectacular: No rain, a slight breeze and warm-but-not-scorching temperatures would make for an all-round pleasant experience (though, maybe not a realistic test ahead of an eight-day trip through Scotland!).

Saturday morning was a grey and still day. I had budgeted for around 12 hours of riding, estimating an average speed of around 19kph and accounting for a couple of stops. Thus, I didn’t need to rush out the door, with sunset not being until just after 8pm (and, even then, it was still light until around 10pm).

I packed as though I was heading off on my big trip, only leaving out a couple of extra bike maintenance pieces like chain links and chain lube. I didn’t weight it before heading off, but the bike probably weighed around 16kg.

And so, after a customary amount of faffing, I set of 20 minutes late on my little adventure, heading south to join the official route just outside of Sedgwick.

Naturally, the night before I had watched a new bikepacking film from GCN+, featuring a set of interviews from the likes of Mark Beaumont and Jenny Graham. Mark said something that really chimed with me: You start to see the road like a rollercoaster. It’s about being a smooth and efficient cyclist.

Having earned myself the enviable title of Ross Bonkagain during my university cycling days, I figured I’d take a leaf out of his book for this one. Though, on previous trips like this, I hadn’t really had issues with bonking, as if my body knew that today wasn’t for playing games like that on me!

The route immediately started surprising me. I almost missed a few of the waymarkers as they pointed up lanes I had barely noticed before. As I left the South Lakes behind, I trundled up a gravelly lane at the foot of Farleton Fell, crossing over a gorgeous bridge smattered with purple and blue flowers.

I looked east after Hutton Roof and saw the Yorkshire Dales bulging on the horizon, yellow in the emerging sunshine. It wasn’t long before I was at the foot of them, climbing steeeeeeply out of Kirkby Lonsdale and into the stunning valley of Barbondale.

Part of my Pedal for Wildness is exploring the best and less-good wild places of Scotland (and the very north of England). Barbondale is a dramatic valley, with sweeping slopes either side of the road in a classic V shape. Yet, I could see in the crags remnants of a forgotten woodland, as small trees and flora clung on in areas inaccessible for grazing mouths.

As I dropped into Dentdale, I thought how the ‘shifting baseline’ syndrome we often talk about is so true. To the untrained eye, the trees in the crags and the solitary ones standing old and cracked on the hillside look very out of place and almost accidental. The connection isn’t made that the reason they stand alone is that saplings are quickly cobbled by livestock and deer, leaving the land bare.

Despite that, curlews are often found in grazed areas and open moorland, and I saw three swirling around making their iconic trilling call.

Dent to Sedbergh is an exhausting affair. Instead of the quick road, the route follows the oft-submerged tracks along the river, which takes twice as long. After several gravel roads and a few gates, I emerged into Sedbergh and met my friend Rich and his partner Steph, who would join me for a while.

We followed the M6 northwards, now in classic farming country with rollercoaster roads and confused/lost-looking drivers. Rich told me of his wild vision of encasing this stretch of the M6 in a tunnel and rewilding the top of it to create a wildlife corridor from the Howgills to “the other Borrowdale”.

It may sound mad, but it’s thinking like that which scares people, and we need more ideas like those to tackle the biodiversity and climate crises.

It wasn’t until we were just outside Orton that I checked my watch for my distance: 70km down! This was great! We stopped in Orton for a cuppa and grabbed a sandwich from the Post Office. I really need to bring more savoury stuff with me on these rides…

Freshly fuelled, we rolled out of Orton and out towards Tarn Moor and Little Ashby Fell. Here was the sign we were now heading to the Pennines – a great big plateau rose in front of us, with a single-track road winding its way up to the top.

Once at the summit (around 320m) we could see the Pennines ahead and looked back to the Howgills to the south through a shimmering haze of heat. Rich and Steph turned that way, heading back to Sedbergh as I continued towards Appleby-in-Westmorland.

The roads changed from small and winding to wide and rolling, with fast descents and long straights. It meant the stretch to Penrith went by quickly and I ticked by 100km without much fuss (bar trying to send a voice message to my girlfriend just as a big hill appeared and I couldn’t change gear!).

It’s easy to get confused in Penrith; this is the ‘official’ start of the route, but there were no obvious signs guiding me out of the town. Eventually, I found it, and ended up on a ridiculously rough track out of town and back into the countryside.

I knew I had to go around the back of the Skiddaw massif but boy! It looked miiiiiiles away! Weirdly, as I found out as the ride went on, nothing is really as far as it seems and, before I knew it, I was at Mungrisdale.

While the car park at Mungrisdale was busy, the back of Skiddaw was quiet…except for the sky. Above me, around 10 paragliders peppered the sky with bright coloured parachutes, drifting above a winding road and a group of wild ponies. There were a few vans at the side of the road, occupants sat with their feet hanging out the doors, watching the paragliders and enjoying the afternoon sunshine.

Since Sedbergh, I’d been a little behind schedule but I was now ahead of it, trundling through Caldbeck and onto the amazing Roman road over Aughertree Fell.

By now, it was the furthest I had ridden on a bike. I was past 100 miles (160km) and feeling a little woozy on my way past Over Water, more from the constant sun than anything fuel related.

As I passed Binsey, though, I heard one of my favourite sounds: The unmistakable call of lapwings. I love lapwings. Their call is almost unearthly, sounding more like a Pokémon than a bird. They were making their courtship dance, swooping and diving in the fields. It was a wonderful sight.

I made it to Cockermouth after over 10 hours of cycling. I was dying for some proper food so made a detour to the Sainsbury’s for a pot of pasta – a pot of pasta that didn’t even come with a fork, so I resorted to downing it like a smoothie.

Disaster struck soon after. As I ate a cinnamon swirl, the centre part – the best part – dropped to the ground as I stood next to the bin. Though I am an advocate of the 10-second rule, I feel the area around a dustbin is a 10-nanosecond rule.

It was time for the final ride down into Loweswater on another road that, on the map, looked straightforward, but in reality took ages to get down.

It was just after 7pm when I arrived, so sooner than expected and delighted at having done my first 200km+ ride. I waited for a short while for Lewis to appear. Once he did, I put on my down jacket and began pushing the bike uphill, carrying it over roots and onto the open fell.

We sat up for a while, me devouring the flapjack and crisps Lewis’s mum had provided, drank a couple beers and settled down to sleep under a clear sky and a shining white moon.

Never tell yourself it’s ‘just a short ride home’. Albeit day two was half the length of day one, I hadn’t taken full stock of just how lumpy and winding the roads would be. After much dawdling before leaving camp, I left Lewis to continue on to Ennerdale Bridge and follow the coast south.

I felt great – energetic, even. The 200km of the previous day were present but not enough to cause me too much bother. The climbs were steady to start, with a big ramp out from Ennerdale Bridge to Calder Bridge.

It had turned into another gloriously sunny day but with an easterly wind blowing in my face to make things cooler and (lucky me) more challenging! In my head I was waiting to go over Ulpha Fell but, as I turned the corner out of Eskdale Green, I saw a sign that read ‘Birker Fell’.

‘Huh?’ I thought. I looked at my watch. ‘There isn’t a climb on the route profile’.

There was; it was just so steep that my condensed route profile couldn’t show it. ‘It’s fine’, I said. ‘Just get over this bit. It doesn’t seem to be long’.

Oh, how wrong I was! The first 400m steep section is just a little warm-up before the 4km-long slog to the high point of 260m above sea level. As I ascended, the landscape opened on my left to reveal a vast emptiness until the fanged summits of Sca Fell and its neighbours met the sky.

Mercifully, a large banner appeared ahead: The Crosby Snack Shed and Cake Cupboard… 1/2 mile ahead. The banner was adorned with images if cakes and sandwiches. My goodness did I pedal for that 1/2 mile!

Full of a bacon roll and coffee, I made the leisurely descent into the Duddon Valley. Soon, my heart sank again as I saw a road snaking up the other side of the valley, knowing it was highly likely that was where I was going.

Sure enough, the brute that is the Kiln Bank Cross road (averaging 9.7%) was on my path. I confess to getting off to push!

I started to lose track of the miles. I knew I was getting somewhat close to Newby Bridge, but I just never seemed to get there. The roads snaked up and down and round and over and through gates and on rough roads and it never seemed to end.

It became almost hypnotic. My legs felt fine, but the sun and the undulating ground was starting to make me seasick. I just kept chomping on food, knowing that was my best way out of here.

After what felt like eternity, I was back on roads I knew, riding through Spark Bridge and finally into Newby Bridge. From there, I just had a couple short climbs until I was at the coast. Then I would have ice-cream. Yes, ice-cream!!!

I sat on the ground next to the ice-cream hatch in Grange-over-Sands, happily devouring a salted caramel cone and watching the tourists glancing at this odd-looking cyclist on the ground. As the saying goes: If you don’t need to stand, sit; if you don’t need to sit, lie down; if you don’t need to lie down, go to sleep.

I followed the sand flats for a time before turning inland and following flat roads to Levens. The climb out of Levens is always nasty, particularly with a laden bike and leadened legs.

It wasn’t long, though, before I was back on the short road back into Kendal from Natland, turning into my street with 330km and over 5000m ascent in my legs.

If you’re a beginner bikepacker looking for a first foray into this funny world, the Lakes and Dales Loop is a phenomenal route. I’d recommend at least 32mm tyres, though, as a number of the sections are rough. While it’s all on tarmac, Lake District tarmac is loosely defined. Literally.

The route was an excellent warm-up ahead of my Pedal for Wildness in two weeks. If you’d like to support me, you can find my JustGiving page here and can read more about it here and here.

Now, just to rest, eat and stay upright before 8 May!

Strava traces for day one and day two.

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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